Pace with Today's Quick Brains
Kathie F. Nunley
of the key parts of the brain which focuses attention is the
Reticular Activating System (RAS). Located in a very low region
of the brain, the RAS has the job of filtering all incoming
stimuli and making the decision as to whether we attend or ignore
something. How does this play in today's classroom?
are 4 main categories of things that trigger or focus the attention
of the RAS in the human brain:
Postman writes in his book, "Amusing ourselves to Death" that
the attention span of humans was considerably longer years ago.
The specific example he uses in his book is that of the Lincoln-Douglas
debates in the 1800's which were literally read from paper and
lasted for hours. Postman notes that amazingly, the people stayed,
listened and paid attention. Today, I doubt we could expect
to read any statement for 8 - 10 hours and have an audience
of people stay in the room, let alone stay focused.
has happened to the mind. Specifically,that portion of the mind
which focuses attention? Let me begin by having you think for
a moment about attention. First, notice how your mind does not
multitask - it has only one focus of attention at a time. You
can think about last Christmas vacation. Now think about next
week's schedule. To think of next week's schedule you must cease
thinking about last Christmas vacation. We can wander through
various thoughts as our stream of consciousness flows.
the heart of all this is the part of the brain which has the
role of attention decision maker. What part of our mind actually
"decides" what the topic of thought will be? What causes the
topic to change and when? Biologically speaking the area we
are referring to is the reticular activating system - the RAS
located in the hind brain - a very primitive area of the brain.
job of the RAS is to filter and screen all incoming stimuli
and "decide" which stimuli should merit the attention of the
conscious. There is a hierarchy to the issues of importance.
In order, you will attend to: physical need, novelty and self
made choices. The one that plays the biggest role in the changing
dynamic of the teacher - student instructional struggle is novelty.
mind seems to gravitate toward novelty. Not only does a novel
experience seem to capture our attention, it appears to be an
essential need of the mind. Watch a young child as his attention
is literally pulled around his world in search of novelty, which
for a young child, surrounds him. His search involves the assimilation
of new material and an attempt to make sense of all new experiences.
means unknown. And what is unknown demands to be known to the
human brain. Once a new experience is known and understood,
then we look to find another unknown to master. This is what
makes the young child so exciting to watch. They seem to flow
through the world looking at the novel new experiences, manipulate
them in order to understand them, then set them aside as the
attention is now drawn to another unknown novelty.
pace of novel experiences has changed. At one time a young child
could master or learn his surroundings and they remained relatively
unchanged. A toy or two, a dozen people, a home sparsely decorated.
Even the world outside the home had relatively limited novelty
to offer after the first few years of ones' life. This allowed
the RAS and attention to be drawn to other things, primarily
self-made choices and more complex types of thinking and learning
of abstract concepts. Self-made choice is another strong motivator
for attention, if novelty isn't overriding it.
so today. Today's mind, young or old is continuously bombarded
with new and novel experiences. Rather than novel opportunities
every few days or weeks, we now have novelty presented in microseconds.
and television have trained our minds to perceive and interpret
quickly and be ready to accept the next presentation. Even outside
of television and video, the presentation of commercial product
is at an unprecedented pace. Color catalogues, the internet,
toy circulars, new car advertisements, mega-super stores are
providing a bombardment of information, wants and wishes.
teachers, how can we be expected to keep pace, let alone compete
with this amazing pace. For a classroom using teacher-centered
instruction, the task is nearly impossible. One person alone
in the front of the room cannot begin to meet the needs of today's
ever demanding RAS. The attention span is trained to process
in microseconds what teachers present in a one hour lecture.
classrooms, although not miracle cures, can provide an easier
environment for the insatiable RAS. In an open learning environment,
students are free to set their own pace, learn as they wish,
when they wish, and move on when a concept is mastered.
appease the RAS of students, teachers need to step aside as
the leader in the classroom. Layered Curriculum and other student-centered
teaching methods let students set their own pace, let them say
when it is time to move on or hold back. Our society has spent
50 years training today's young brains to interpret at record
speed - surely we shouldn't let today's classroom slow it down.
F. Nunley is an educational psychologist, author, researcher
and speaker living in southern New Hampshire. Developer of the
Layered Curriculum® method of instruction, Dr. Nunley has
authored several books and articles on teaching in mixed-ability
classrooms and other problems facing today's teachers. Full
references and additional teaching and parental tips are available
at: http://Help4Teachers.com Email her:
Kathie (at) brains.org
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