The human brain has an amazing capacity to wield a potent cognitive strategy: selective attention. When we consciously focus our attention on something, we bring the power of the prefrontal cortex to this endeavor. By honing our ability to focus attention at will, we can more effectively screen out two types of distractions:
- Input through our sensory organs
- Our emotional responses
Distractions via sensory input may be the easier of the two to block, according to Daniel Goleman in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. As educators, we may tend to notice the impact of sights, sounds, and touch points that draw students' focus away from lessons and learning activities. But while all of the sensory stimulations in the environment are readily obvious, emotions can be even "louder" when it comes to diverting attention in unwanted directions and making it hard to focus on learning.
Which Neural Network Do We Activate?
To help students learn to maintain focused attention, we can guide them to wire their brains for staying the course even during times of emotional upheaval, remaining level-headed, and riding the emotional waves of life. As with other skills, this cognitive strategy comes with conscious recognition and deliberate practice.
Brain research summarized in a briefing paper from the Dana Foundation indicates that attention activates not one but several neural networks, including an alerting network that signals the brain about incoming sensory stimuli and an orienting network that directs the brain to take notice of the source of the stimuli. A third network, referred to as executive attention, enables us to choose which of the stimuli competing for our attention we will focus our thinking on. In effect, executive attention functions as a control tower for guiding the brain's higher-level cognitive processes to land on specific tasks and information.
Applying this research, scientists suggest a different way of thinking about and addressing attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The "deficit" in its label suggests inaccurately that students diagnosed with ADHD have a shortage of attention, when in fact the problem may be that they have difficulty in allocating their attention on learning in the classroom.
This shift in emphasis about where problems with attention may lie, when combined with recent neuroscientific findings, suggests that explicit instruction on regulating students' attention may provide them with a valuable cognitive strategy to support self-directed learning. The focus of this instruction is on guiding students to understand that they can consciously direct and maintain their attention on learning tasks and that, with regular thoughtful practice, they can improve their ability to attend to learning.
1. Shine the spotlight on attention.
Introduce the subject of attention by asking students to share examples of being so focused on an activity that they've blocked out distractions around them, such as getting lost in a good book or movie, practicing the piano, or perfecting their jump shot in basketball. In the same way, they can purposefully focus their attention on learning, and shift their attention from one learning task to another throughout the school day. The prefrontal cortex is in charge of focusing attention, and students can train their brains to better control their attention. Brainstorm ways that regulating attention can improve learning, such as:
- Paying attention to a lesson instead of being distracted by noise in the hallway or something happening in the schoolyard outside the window
- Switching from learning one subject to the next or from one class to another
- Putting aside a lunchtime disagreement with a friend to focus on class in the afternoon
- Completing a homework assignment before turning on TV or a video game
- "Turning off" worries about doing well on a test in order to stay focused and remember everything studied
- Identifying what's most important right now and paying attention only to that most important thing
2. Emphasize that focusing attention is a skill that can be learned and improved.
Like any other skill, students can develop their attention for learning through regular practice and training. Give them good reasons for training their attention -- people who can take charge of their attention are better at remembering things and figuring out what new information means and how they can use it. They are better at metacognition and higher-order thinking processes. For practical tools to increase student attention and other thinking skills, check out these suggestions.
3. Pace your teaching with students' attention.
While attention spans vary between individuals, we've found that a useful rule of thumb is to focus on presenting new information in roughly eight-minute "chunks." Students under age eight may benefit from even shorter chunks of lessons and learning activities. In our book BrainSMART: 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning, we suggest the acronym CRAVE as a way to remember five other strategies for keeping students' attention focused on learning:
- Build curiosity for learning with "teasers" that get students interested in a lesson.
- Look for ways to make lessons relevant to students' lives.
- Ask questions to engage students in learning and inquiry.
- Remember that variety is the spice of attention -- a mix of learning activities helps keep students engaged.
- Evoke emotions. Just as emotions can be distracting, they can also be used to enhance attention by making a lesson or learning activity more interesting.
Advertisers use these same strategies to grab consumers' attention, so you might find inspiration for ways to adapt them to your lessons in a TV ad or on the side of a city bus! Keep this in mind as you guide students to improve their selective attention: The first step toward learning is paying attention.
Wilson, D. L., & Conyers, M. A. (2011). BrainSMART: 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning. Orlando, FL: BrainSMART.