Thursday, June 25, 2009

Wish I had a cool graphic... to explain Brain Rule #4: Attention

Looking back at the last two "Brain Rules" Summary posts and thinking... urgh, too much text. But then, I am trying to explain a book... to folks who won't have time to read it... but will they have time to read this? I don't know, but onward we plunge into Brain Rule #4. It's one of my favorites: We don’t pay attention to boring things. Thank you, Dr. Medina.

OK, so at first glance that seems really, really uninteresting. Of course we don't pay attention to boring things. That's why we call them boring!

But this whole chapter is about attention - that oh-so-elusive capactiy that teachers are constantly trying to get from their students. How does attention work? Is it really just a matter of mental discipline vs. bad habits? Or are there principles that teachers (and everyone else) can use to capture and hold the attention of others? Let's take a look at what Dr. Medina has to say.

First, one thing that seems sure from brain research is that the more attention the brain pays to a particular stimulus, the more elaborately it will be encoded, and the better it will be retained. Obviously, we have to get our students’ attention if we want them to learn anything.

Second we have a curious and slightly alarming fact for presenters and professors who stick to old-school lecture format: at 10 minutes into a presentation or lecture, most people begin to lose attention. It’s not our fault. Our brains just refuse to pay attention to the same stimulus for longer than that at one stretch. One guy lecturing = one stimulus. After 10 minutes, no matter how fascinating the subject matter, the brain labels the stimulus as boring, and we just can't pay attention to it any longer.

So a single, uninterrupted stimulus (like a lecture) is deemed boring by the brain. What else determines what we can pay attention to? Culture and life experience play a big role in here. Adults who grew up in totally different cultures and with different life experiences may simply not notice things (especially small details) that we think are important – like punctuation marks, for example. Of course, this is true on the flip side as well. If we were asked to function in a hunter-gather society, would we be able to track animals in the forest or quickly identify edible plants? Probably not. Even if we were taught what to look for, we’d have a hard time at first because the details that are relevant aren’t salient to us. It's going to take a lot of practice before those previously unimportant details can become the focus of our attention.

How does attention work? First, the brain must become aroused to a stimulus as something of interest or importance. It is then brought to our conscious awareness where we can pay attention to it. This happens in three stages:
  • Detection: the brain is in a constant state of surveillance for stimuli. When something important is detected, an alert is sent that activates the next stage.
  • Orientation: the brain and body orient towards the stimulus so we can focus our senses on picking up more information about it.
  • Reaction: as information comes in, the Executive Network processes it and decides what to do about it. The Executive Network controls reactive behavior.

Attention has been widely studied. What else do we really know about it? Four big ideas:

1. Emotions are the basis of attention. During an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine (a neurotransmitter than aids memory), flagging the experience as one worth remembering. Emotionally intense times in our lives are seared into our memories. We can't forget them even if we want to, because the brain has encoded the information so deeply and richly. But if your content is not perceived as emotionally relevant, it’s unlikely to grab your students’ attention.

2. We remember meaning before details. Emotional arousal focuses attention on the “gist” of an experience (its relevance to us) at the expense of the details (precisely what happened). But memory of details can be enhanced through association – attaching them to the gist. Human knowledge is organized around core concepts or “big ideas” that guide thinking and give the brain a place to store related facts and details. If you don’t get the big ideas, you’ll never remember the details. So teachers need to focus on making sure everyone understands the "big ideas" in their subject area. If they do, the details will fall into place.

3. When it comes to conscious attention, the brain cannot multitask. It can only shift attention quickly from one thing to another – not pay conscious attention to multiple stimuli at once. Multitasking is a myth perpetuated by the fact that our attention shifts happen very quickly (tenths of a second) and seamlessly. We don’t really notice (pay attention to!) our brain’s gear shifting, so we convince ourselves we aren’t doing it. But in fact, we are biologically incapable of processing multiple attention-rich inputs simultaneously. A good working memory may allow a person to pay attention to several inputs one at a time in rapid sequence, but that's it. And we pay a price for trying to multi-task with a one-track mind. Attention shifting increases error rates and the amount of time required to complete a task – as much as 50% more time and mistakes. So keeping distraction low in the classroom does really make a difference.

4. The brain needs a break. We need time to put new information together, connect it to what we already know, and make sense of it. The most common mistake made by teachers is relating too much information without enough time devoted to processing that information. After a while, the brain will simply stop paying attention to any new information that’s coming in so that it can process the previous information. We shouldn’t overstuff our students with new information. They need time to “digest.”

So, one last thing: How can we get over the problem that we lose our students’ attention after 10 minutes? Use emotion. Do something emotionally relevant (yet still related to your content, such as a funny anecdote that illustrates an idea) at the 10-minute interval and you will recapture their interest. Short, emotionally relevant “asides” that don’t contain details that the students need to remember also allow the brain some of the processing time it needs.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Brain Rule #3: Wiring

In this next installment of my discussion of Dr. John Medina's fabulous book Brain Rules, we'll take a look at how and why every brain is unique. Dr. Medina's rule is "Every brain is wired differently."

You can imagine the brain as a huge intercontinental road map, with millions (billions?) of pathways for transmitting information. There are tiny back roads where hardly anyone ever goes, city streets and two-lane highways, and massive interstate freeways. The larger routes don't just accommodate more traffic, they also have a higher speed limit - allowing messages to travel more rapidly along them. Information routes in the brain become larger and faster the more they are used, so the skills and knowledge that you use regularly have the fastest and strongest connections in the brain.

The interesting thing is that no two brain maps are the same. Although the major highways are in more or less the same places from person to person, the smaller routes differ, and the smallest ones can be totally unique to each person. Everyone's brain map is distinctly their own.

Whenever a person learns something new, he or she forges a new pathway in the brain. Neurons split and make a new connection. The brain changes; it rewires itself. The new pathway is negligible at first - like a few footprints in the grass - but if it is used repeatedly, it will become larger, deeper, and faster. In this aspect, the brain acts like a muscle: the more activity you do, the larger and more complex it can become. So repetition is as central to learning as it is to weight lifting. Learners need to repeat, repeat, repeat in order to lay down strong pathways in the brain.

This process of forging new pathways and then strengthening them is what teaching and learning are all about. When we teach our learners something new, and then help them master it through meaningful repetition, we are helping them rewrite the road map of their brains.

Because every brain is wired in a unique pattern, each learner's needs are also unique. Everyone learns at a different pace and has different associations and networks in the brain to build on, and thus will master complex material to a different depth in a given period of time. Even if every learner starts out in roughly the same place at the beginning of a lesson (which is itself unlikely), they will not end up in the same place by the end of the lesson. There is no such thing as a homogeneous classroom.

So what does this tell us? For one thing, class sizes really do matter. Since each learner is unique, one of the teacher's most important responsibilities is keeping track of where each learner is at. This is much easier to do when there are fewer people to keep track of! In order to perform well at this job, a teacher must be highly adept with Theory of Mind skills (which we learned about in the last chapter). That's because a teacher relies on the subtle mental and emotional signals being broadcast by the learners to "get a feel" for who understands what, who's frustrated, who's confused, who's made a good analogy, who's got a mistaken understanding, who's off-task, who's bored, who's excited, etc. In a crowded classroom, too many signals get lost, and the teacher runs the risk of losing students - the proverbial problem of people "falling through the cracks". In a classroom with fewer learners, the teacher can more easily pick up on signals from everyone and make sure she is keeping everyone on track.

One other thing this tells us is that differentiated or customized instruction is not only beneficial but may in fact be necessary if we are to achieve high quality outcomes for learners. One way this might be done is through software programs that can diagnose the gaps in a particular learner's knowledge and then guide the learner to improve in those areas. This has been done with reading skills software and has proven very effective. Students in a class all get the same lesson from the reading teacher, but then also have a chance to work independently on computers. The computers have adaptive software that assesses their reading skills and then targets their areas of weakness. The difficulty of course, is in developing high quality, engaging, educational adaptive software. It's not that it can't be done - it just that it's going to cost money and time: two things educators never seem to have enough of.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Brain Rule #2: Survival

In this next installment of my discussion of Dr. John Medina's fabulous book Brain Rules, we'll take a look at how we survived by using our brains. Dr. Medina's rule is "The human brain evolved too." You might think of this chapter in the book as a lesson in "Survival of the Brainiest".

This chapter has a ton of good information about the brain, how it is structured, and how it works. I personally find it fascinating, but I know it's not for everyone. And it's probably less relevant to teachers than some of the other content, so I'll focus on just two aspects of this chapter that really have something to say about teaching and learning.

First, the best theories of human evolution and survival indicate that human beings evolved in a challenging world of environmental change, and the reason that we prospered (where other species went extinct) was that we adapted to deal with variation (change) rather than adapting to a single, stable environment. The adaptation that allowed us to deal with the unpredictability of the world was the development of two separate brain systems: one that stores a fund of knowledge (a sort of database of everything we know about the world), and the other a capacity for improvising off that knowledge the way a jazz musician improvises off a musical score. The first system allows us to know when we have made a mistake, and the second allows us to learn from that mistake and try something different.

In classrooms, we need to deal with both systems if we are to tap into our learners' best abilities. It's not enough to transfer some information from teacher to student; the students need to apply that information in a creative or novel way. They need to solve problems that are relevant and interesting to them by making use of the new information. It's in this application stage that the new information is really integrated into the learners' fund of prior knowledge. It's not enough to just do the creative application and problem solving work, either - learners need their teachers to provide the information to build up their database.

In order for teachers to communicate information to learners, they need to be experts in another uniquely human adaptation: the Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind allows us to understand - to intuit - the emotions and inner lives of others. Dr. Medina uses this example:

Read these two sentences:
The husband died. Then the wife died.
How much do you know about these two people?

Now read these two sentences:
The husband died. Then the wife died of grief.

Everything that you can now intuit about these two people, their relationship, and their emotional lives comes from your skill in Theory of Mind. We use Theory of Mind constantly to navigate our complex human relationships. It comes so naturally and is so pervasive in our thinking that it affects everything we do, including teaching and learning. Everything we learn and everything we know is colored by how we feel about it and how we think others feel about it.

As every wise teacher knows, teaching and learning are rooted in relationships. Learners need to feel safe and feel connected to (understood by) their teacher. Without the feeling of safety, learners don't take the intellectual risks that allow them to improvise off new information (and thus truly understand it). Teachers need to be able to gauge and react appropriately to the emotional state and emotional needs of the learners: they need to be experts in Theory of Mind.

You'll see more of why Theory of Mind is so important for teachers in the next chapter. For now, I'll summarize by saying that the human brain evolved to be an efficient learning machine, because learning new things kept us alive in an unpredictable and dangerous world. Our mental software gives us several powerful tools for learning, but our ability to use them is dependent on human relationships and emotional connections.