Want children to pay attention? Stimulate their curiosity

How to get information "admitted" through the brain's attention system.

Go to the profile of Judy Willis
Nov 22, 2016
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Plato's advice against force-feeding in education

A few thousand years ago, in 360 B.C., Plato advised against force-feeding facts to students.

"Elements of instruction...should be presented to the mind in childhood; not, however, under any notion of forcing education. A freeman ought not to be a slave in the acquisition of knowledge of any kind. Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."

We now have science of learning research to support these recommendations to avoid forced instruction and provide children with the best environment and experiences for joyful learning. We have come to literally see how stress and curiosity edits which sensory information is given entry to our neural networks and where the input ends up.

Social, emotional, hormonal, and nutritional influences are overtaking the attribution of intelligence to primarily genetic factors. Neuroplasticity research reveals that intelligence can be changed and guides us to educational and parenting strategies promote positive changes.

In this post, combining my background as a neurologist and classroom teacher, I'll share my strategies to help parents and teachers get information "admitted" through the brain's attention system.

RAS: the gatekeeper of attention in the brain

Getting into the brain is like getting into an exclusive nightclub where only the glamorous few are selected. Once inside, another gatekeeper, stress, determines what makes the cut to enter the upper VIP lounge in the prefrontal cortex—that valuable 13% of cerebral architecture where our highest cognition and emotional reflection takes place.

The brain evolved to promote the survival of the animal and the species. That means giving priority to potential threat. Every second, of the millions of bits of sensory information from the eyes, ears, internal organs, skin, muscles, taste and smell receptors that are at the entry gate, only a few thousand make the cut. The system that determines what gets in—what the brain attends to—is the Reticular Activating System, or RAS. This primitive network of cells in the lower brainstem, through which all sensory input must pass to reach any higher regions of the brain, is essentially the same in your dog, cat, child, and you.

The RAS favours intake of sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations that are most critical to survival of the animal and species. Priority goes to changes in an animal or human's environment, particularly to change appraised as threatening. When threat is perceived, the RAS automatically selects related sensory input and directs it to the lower brain where the involuntary response is not to think, but to react—fight, flight, or freeze.

The RAS is a virtual editor that grants attention and admission to a small fraction of all the sights, sounds, and tactile sensations available at any moment. This survival-directed filter is critical for animals in the wild, but as it has not changed significantly as man evolved, and the implications for the classroom or with children in the home are significant.

When under threat, the brain prioritises survival

When children's brains perceive threat (e.g. punishment or embarrassment in front of classmates for not doing homework, fear that they will be picked last for a team game, or anxiety that they will make an obvious error because they are not fluent in English) the RAS lets in only what is perceived as relevant to the threat. Unless the perception of threat is reduced, the brain persists in doing its primary job—protecting the human or animal from harm. The neural activity on scans during fear, sadness, anger or other stressful emotions is evident in the lower brain. In this stressed state "attention" is not under our control and the brain activity on scans drops way down in the prefrontal cortex. That higher, reflective, cognitive region of the brain does not receive the sensory input determined irrelevant to survival. The day's lesson does fall on deaf ears.

When students are criticised for not paying attention to the lesson it doesn't mean they are inattentive. Their RAS is paying attention to (letting in) sensory input, just not the sensory input their teachers think is important.

One of the great gifts of neuroimaging research is information about which sensory input gets through the RAS when threat is not perceived. When not under high stress alert, the RAS is particularly receptive to novelty and change that arouse curiosity. That is the key to the gate—the brain seeks input about the new, the unexpected, the colourful, musical, moving, aromatic sensations that are available when perceived or imagined threat is not blocking the way. When students are curious about something, they seek an explanation. This motivates them to persevere in seeking the information they now want to learn—what they need to be taught.

Curiosity in the classroom – what teachers can do

Knowing about the RAS means we can promote classroom communities where students feel safe, where they can count on the adults in charge to enforce the rules that protect their bodies, property and feelings from classmates whom they perceive as threats. Our increasing knowledge of what gains access through the RAS, once threat is reduced, offers clues to strategies that promote attentive focus to lessons in school and at home.

You can build novelty into teaching new information. Changes in voice, appearance, marking key points in color, variation in font size, hats, movement, lessons outdoors, music, curious photos, unexpected objects get the RAS attentive to admit the accompanying sensory input of lessons that relates to the curious sensory input!

Advertising a coming unit with curiosity-provoking posters or adding clues or puzzle pieces each day invests curiosity as children predict what lesson might be coming and the RAS is primed to "select" the sensory input of that lesson when it is revealed. Playing a song when students enter the room can also promote curiosity and hence focus, if they know that there will be a link between some words in the song and something in the lesson. If a teacher, or parent helping with homework, walks backwards before a lesson about negative numbers, the RAS is primed by curiosity to follow along when a number line is unrolled on the floor to start instruction about negative numbers. Even a suspenseful pause in your speech before saying something particularly important builds anticipation as the students wonder what you will say or do next.

To further alert the RAS, increase curiosity, and the subsequent memory of the information (learning) that explains the curious phenomenon, have children make predictions. The predictions can be written down, shared with a partner, or held up on individual white boards at any point during a lesson. Don't break the participation or curiosity confirming or denying a prediction. Instead, maintain the interest by responding with a nod of acknowledgment or a "thank you" so the other students will continue to predict. The brain learns based on a system of predictions and feedback as neuroplasticity strengthens neural networks used to make correct predictions and it corrects memory networks used to make incorrect predictions—this is why timely corrective feedback is important so those faulty circuits can be replaced with accurate information.

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A version of this article has appeared on Pyschology Today.

Go to the profile of Judy Willis

Judy Willis

M.D. Physician, M.Ed. Master of Education, Neuroeducator, University of California, Santa Barbara

Dr. Judy Willis combined her 15 years as a board-certified practicing neurologist with ten subsequent years as a classroom teacher to become a leading authority in the neuroscience of learning. Dr. Willis has written seven books and more than 50 articles for professional journals applying neuroscience research to successful teaching strategies. She is on the adjunct faculty of the University of California Graduate School of Education, Santa Barbara. Dr. Willis travels nationally and internationally giving presentations, workshops, and consulting while continuing to write books and staff expert blogs for NBC News Education Nation, Edutopia, Psychology Today, and The Guardian. In 2011 she was selected by Edutopia as a “Big Thinker on Education.”

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