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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Deal with Teenage Learning Fatigue

A book provides insight into coping with the developing -- and often baffling -- adolescent brain.
By Raleigh T. Philp

This article is an excerpt from Raleigh T. Philp's book 'Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach in Reaching Middle and High School Students.

Credit: Corwin Press

The single most important thing a teacher must do is manage the learning state of his or her students. Twenty minutes is probably the maximum time that most people can stay in a positive learning state without a change of stimulus. Most students may even be aware that they have moved down the spectrum from a positive learning state to a feeling of the brain being out to lunch!

An effective teacher is aware of the looks on the faces of students, the squirming, and general disinterest. These teachers are always scanning the class for signs of learning fatigue and know what to do to ameliorate the problem.

For middle school, the rule could easily be reduced to the 15-Minute Rule. Teachers cannot expect middle school students to stay in a favorable learning state for more than 15 minutes without intervention. A maximum of 20 minutes for high school students and probably most adult learners, including those in graduate school, is appropriate.

We could learn from observing how lower-elementary teachers handle learning fatigue. Since students in the early grades generally have a limited attention span and suffer from learning fatigue in a more demonstrative way than older students, elementary school teachers are constantly forced to manage the learning state more acutely than teachers of middle school and high school. Visiting a good teacher of second graders, for instance, would provide an opportunity to see a master of state management, since most second graders are able to stay continuously in a positive learning state for only a short time.

Visit college classes, particularly graduate education courses, and you will frequently observe a professor lecturing on and on and on. The concept overriding almost all other objectives is to cover the material. The most expedient way to do this, of course, is to teach didactic lessons. Creative teaching strategies are talked about but, because of limited class time and a great deal of material to cover, are seldom demonstrated fully.

Students at this level know how to play the game and are habituated to the didactic lesson. The eyes make contact, the pencil is poised, the laptop is humming, but after about 20 minutes without a learning-state change, even the brains of these high achievers are on autopilot, with very little learning taking place.

As we see a higher percentage of courses taught online, the challenge to demonstrate the management of learning states becomes even greater. These classes now become the models for teacher preparation.

The most effective teachers know intuitively how to read their students and have almost a built-in clock that reminds them that middle school and high school students need to have their learning states managed about every 20 minutes. Naturally gifted teachers and speakers change the learning states smoothly and without even their own awareness at times.

As you experience an outstanding presentation from a gifted speaker, make mental notes to see how often the speaker changes the learning state. It may be a change of voice, a joke, a gesture, a storytelling, or a relocation of the speaker -- anything that allows the participants to change their state!

In classrooms where teachers are effective learning-state managers, students know what to expect and often look forward to getting out of their seats periodically and interacting with others, ultimately refreshing their learning states. Some teachers say that once they get the students settled into their seats, they want to retain that structure for the remainder of the class period if possible.

The problem isn't as critical when students are involved with cooperative learning, project learning, or other activities that require students to move around and be involved in hands-on learning and discussions with other students. The bottom line is that students need to have their learning states changed frequently.

Read an interview with Raleigh Philp.

Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am glad that you have highlighted the problem that todays kids seem to be having. They are so complacent about what they have that they are insensitive to the real problems of the world around them. The true meaning of work is not known by them. One wonders if they will ever realize that without the fire in the belly nothing happens.

Justin Brooks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Being a high school educator, I feel that this article hits the nail on the head. In today's world, children have access to anything at the click of a button, and as teachers we need to recognize this. If students are not interested in something, or sometimes even if they are, they won't last very long. So through my years of teaching I have come to realize that I need to change up my lessons all the time. We move from lecture, to individual actives, to readings, to group activities and so on all in the course of one 55 minute class period. I have found that this is the only way to keep the majority of kids on task and interested in what I am teaching. I am glad that more "regular" people are becoming aware of this rather than just us educators.

Griffin Banks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an educator of middle school students, a teacher definitely has to be a good manager of time distribution and a student's attention span. This is not learned immediately but through trial and error and experience. I think that middle students are being pictured as not being able to focus longer than twenty minutes, but it all depends on how the material is being presented that determines the attention of the students

Jann Spallina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree wholeheartedly with anonymous about too many excuses for failure! I taught in a private school, where parents paid tuition; there was so much parental support for behavioral and educational issues. When I moved to public school systems, suddenly every issue with a student was my fault. Students and parents don't value education today and feel it's their right to get a good grade regardless of learning and mastery of skills. Parents are more concerned about "self esteem" and providing every new gadget that comes on the market. That's their way of parenting, rather than setting limits and expectations for the child.
The best a teacher can do is continue to learn new strategies for engaging students and set an example as a life-long learner. There are still many of us out there that spend our time and money trying to be the best we can be to improve our students chances of being successful.

BP's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you very much. As a middle school teacher, I experience the 'over-coddled' child on a daily basis. Poor grades, missing assignments and lack of paying attention is never the students fault. The fault is blamed on the teacher. Parents need to compensate for the lack of quality time that is spent with their child and this is done in a very materialistic form - buying them everything their little hearts desire and letting them do whatever they want, go with whomever they want and talk back because, after all, the child is in control. Classrooms today lack respect, lack the inner driver to do well, and many times, the lack of the students wanting to think on their own.

Please bear in mind, this is not ALL students. But, unfortunately the number is growing and it is having a negative effect on the rest of the students who want to do well and achieve. Parents need to let the teachers and the schools do their jobs and realize that there is a reason that we have teachers and a reason why we have students in all of our classrooms. Kudos to the parents who entrust their children to the teachers and hold their children accountable for their actions. 'Shame on you' to the parents who think their child is always right.

X SuZi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a high school teacher faced with 110 minutes of instruction, I can see that moving between various activities designed to suport the overall message of the lesson might be productive for teens; however, this creates a handicap for students when it comes to required testing, because testing sessions are usually double that time, at least. For example, my district has , I think, 18 external tests for high school sophomores--these are tests outside the classroom lesson. Our first test, called a Benchmark, will be given next week--the second week of classes. It is a ninety minute test. There is also a Bnechmark in December and in the spring. Unfortunately, may students cannot pay attention for that long, they score poorly, and are punished--if one sees remediation as punishment, as do many teens.
In addition to Benchmark, our district has created a series of tests that begin at the beginning of the year and are administered every few weeks until the state and national No Child Left Behind test in late winter. This series of tests are called Frequent Calendar Assessments, and are usurp class lessons--in that the teacher is supposed to teach to the test schedule, and teach what is being tested next. The tests are not organized in any sensible way, they are organized by which sections of the state test showed lowest scores from the previous year--or that's what teachers are told.
In addition to those tests, there are two semester exams--one in December, and a two part end of year exam in spring. Plus, there are four instituted times for essays on demand with writing prompts designed external to the classroom. This last type of test--the essay exam, most closely emulates the essay exam for a college composition course, and the essay exam for teacher certification in this state.
All of these tests have a designated time. The Frequent Calendar is an hour. The NCLB test is four hours divided into forty minute sessions. The tests take up a whole class period, no matter what they are--except the NCLB test which calls for a different schedule during those days and a suspension of regular classes.
Teens who cannot concentrate for these periods of time do not score well on these tests. Their diploma is held hostage until they do score well. There's a nebulous system of assessing teachers by the test scores of their students, but some teachers teach the advanced classes, and teachers do not hand-pick their class roles: we teach who we are assigned to teach.
Yeah, so it's great for someone to get their continuing education credits with a new modification of the wheel on classroom lesson planning, but it's unrealistic when applied to the overwhelming external pressure applied on teachers and teens.

Dr. John Norris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In response to Anonymous: While I generally agree with the notion of holding kids accountable for their actions and requiring them to take responsibility along with freedom of choice, the kids of today are facing a different world than the world of Anonymous and myself, also a grandparent and a 40 years plus educator. Let's consider some facts:
- The world of today is considerably more crowded than the world of 50 years ago. In 1960, we had a world population of about 3 billion; in 1974 we reached 4 billion; in 1987 we reached 5 billion; in 1999 we reached 6 billion and sometime in 2010, we will eclipse 7 billion, over double what it was in 1960. Granted, much of this growth is in the lesser developed countries, but we are seeing growth here in the U.S., particularly in our urban areas. The resulting crowding is putting pressure on everyone in terms of traffic, services, availability of work, access to quality education, etc.
- The world of today is technology rich in ways that Anonymous and I could not have even dreamed. Consider the computer and the sweeping revolution it has brought to all aspects of our lives; the advent of the cellular phone that dominates and dictates communication; the insertion of television into all of our lives through high quality viewing and listening pleasure (realizing that some including myself would question the term high quality for many of the broadcasts - but it is prevalent and entertaining and high quality for many of the broadcasts); and this move towards technological advances will continue at ever increasing rates (Google "Shift Happens" if you have not seen it).
- The world of today is media rich with instantaneous news of good and bad as it is happening. We are more aware of the dangers that lurk in our society and threaten our kids. In the mid-20th century, in most parts of the country, kids could play outdoors from dawn to way past dusk without a lot of supervision. Today, a responsible parent cannot afford to let their children range that far afield. We know that there were monsters then as there are today, but we were not as aware of the dangers and it seemed to be a safer time.

The point of all of this is to say that the world of today is vastly different than the world of yesteryear and we need to seek new ways of dealing with the issues that are relevant to the lives of todays kids. This does not mean that we don't hold them responsible for their actions, but it does mean that we approach the teaching of these kids in ways that are relevant to today, not yesteryear.

Anonymous II

Linda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"I see the child psychologists try to explain away the miscreant behavior of some teens"

Despite the lack of corporal punishment, I don't see that kids and teen behavior has changed much since I was in junior and senior high school over thirty years ago. As a teen I hated public junior high. It was too much of a zoo. I was fortunate enough to go to a private high school on scholarship, where I saw a positive change in attitude. My classmates actually wanted to learn. I chalked it up at the time to parental influence, as in "the parents are paying so much money for this school, they are expecting their kids to learn". I have recently reconnected with some of my former classmates, and in hindsight a realize that they were just interesting people and like myself they were self-motivated to learn. Since we had to test to get in it was a pre-selected group.

"Most parents, either too selfish to do a really good job at parenting or too busy trying to provide a secure, coddled, "good" life for their kids don't care. Too many expensive sneakers, game boxes and other "necessary" items of a child's existence are part of the problem."

The change I have noticed is the increasing lack of parental involvement. We as a society don't value children or family. Both parents work, sometimes more than one job. Commute times are long. We are sent messages that work and a fun lifestyle are more important. Ever notice how many people have children on TV or in the movies. We substitute material goods for emotional contact. Parents don't need to beat their children, just spend time with them.

"Mozart was just four when he started concertizing"
Mozart was a home-schooled prodigy.

"Joan of Arc was merely 13 when she led an army to recapture France"
Also not a good analogy. She was a self-motivated prodigy, who didn't follow the rules (occurring to the ecclesiastical court) and burned at the stake for being a heretic.

Heidi Reina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are so many techniques to keep kids' brain in gear, focused and learning. One of my favorite websites, Teachley's Amazing Talking Brain, encapsulates many of these classroom techniques with short tips and advice. I've referred to Donna Sawyer's site frequently to ensure I'm incorporating as many of these practices as I can during the lesson.

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