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MMM Articles #5
BrighterBrain® Bulletin May '09
Make it a habit to connect recent brain research with practical classroom strategies.
PART ONE: Research
How to Get Students Much Better Motivated By Using Temporary Visual Changes of States
We've all had the experience of using some type of attention-getter to keep kids on track. Neuroscientists are trying to figure out what works, too. Except that their attempts at it are much more rigorous than anything you and I could ever do in our classrooms. Plus, don't you just love the "language" they use:
"We investigated how the brain integrates motivational and attentional signals by using a neuroimaging paradigm that provided separate estimates for transient cue- and target-related signals, in addition to sustained block-related responses."
In other words, "We scanned the brain during state changes." The cool thing is that scientists are really starting to get more into the applied side of how our brain works -- especially in the classroom. Sometimes, neuroscience blows our minds with new stuff. But more often, it gives us the "why" so we can make better-informed choices. This study is an example of what I mean.
We all know that kids who are engaged are more likely to learn more and perform better. But many teachers are passive about the process. They allow students to manage their own states (or not). Typically, their behavior and learning goes downhill. Why? There's actually a curious reason for that...
Biologically, our most critical survival attributes are the following: paying attention to relevant information, risk assessment, balancing risk and reward in our novelty/safety choices, and mate selection. Well, we'll explore mate selection another day. Let's focus on paying attention for a moment, so...FOCUS!
That's my point. Teachers often ask (or often TELL) students to "pay" attention. But there's a price to paying attention: that's why we use the word "pay." The price is we are giving up relevant biological information (novelty, social ties, humor, safety data, food sources, or mate selection) just to stare at a textbook or listen to a teacher. That's a tough trade-off!
Here's what the latest study confirmed. State-change based motivation improves behavioral performance in a demanding attention task by enhancing evoked responses across a distributed set of anatomical sites, many of which have already been previously implicated in attentional processing. In short, if a student already has attentional skills, state changes can keep them "in the game." If they lack the skills, stronger approaches are needed. Increased motivation enhances attention, thus maximizing reward. Reward will lead to calibration, or fine-tuning, of attention, with further reward. And that's good!
Padmala S, Pessoa L. Affective learning enhances visual detection and responses in primary visual cortex. J Neurosci. 2008 Jun 11;28(24):6202-10
Lim SL, Padmala S, Pessoa L. Affective learning modulates spatial competition during low-load attentional conditions. Neuropsychologia. 2008 Apr;46(5):1267-78
Pessoa L, Rossi A, Japee S, Desimone R, Ungerleider LG.Attentional control during the transient updating of cue information. Brain Res. 2009 Jan 9;1247:149-58
PART TWO: Applications
As you might guess, there are some states that are easy to get in to (you win the lottery = ecstasy, you get your health back = joy, you see your kids = joy) but the kind of states that teachers want in the classroom are not "free." That means you can't get them for nothing (no training or effort over time.)
"Paying" attention is a learned skill. You learn to pay attention through skill building. It can happen through a hobby. When I was a kid, I read a lot, used a building model set with metal parts (Erector set), and built model airplanes (was it the glue???). Each was incredibly detailed and required long term attention. The payoff for me was that I "taught" my own brain to pay attention on tasks that were not intrinsically engaging (like a fast-moving video game.)
For your own kids to be skillful in paying attention, ask yourself, "Where and how will they get those skills built?" If you can't answer that question, start with a plan. School activities that can build attention skills include: high interest reading material, Legos, martial arts, playing an instrument, coaching in the writing process, brain fitness video games, and visual arts. There are other options, but those are a good start.
The take home message here is simple: Stop telling kids to pay attention. Start teaching them HOW to pay attention. It will make all the difference! Brain-based education says, "Be purposeful about it." Now, go have fun!