Teachers: Why You Should Stop Telling Kids to Pay Attention

Why You Should Stop Telling Kids to Pay Attention and What You Should Do Instead

I am embarrassed to say that I am as guilty as a convicted felon.

As a former middle school teacher, I often used the phrase, “Pay attention!” Now you hear me telling you to never, ever say that.

Why? It seems innocent enough.

Well, first of all, it’s terrible teaching. It’s NOT at all “brain-based teaching.” In fact, it’s one more example of why many kids learn to dislike school more, every year they go. First graders are so pumped up, but by the time some kids make it to their last year in school, they’ve learned that school is not for them. If we do not count the high school certificates and equivalencies, only 70% of our nation’s kids graduate overall. The rates for Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans are under 50% in most areas of the US.

If we do not count the high school certificates and equivalencies, only 70% of our nation’s kids graduate overall. The rates for Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans are under 50% in most areas of the US.

If you think you know brain-based teaching, there’s a lot to learn! But, now that I’ve “taken away” from you one of the most commonly used attention-getters (“Pay attention!’), what should you do instead?

I’m glad you asked… I just happen to have the answer…

The Research

You’re driving over to a friend’s house. But it’s the first time and you’re looking for street signs. You slow down to a crawl, turn down the music, stop talking, and stare at every sign. Why is that? Neither the music nor talking affects your vision. Or, do they?

YES! They all demand resources.

When kids pay attention, they focus better, learn and remember more.

First, paying attention protects the quality of working memory (Jie Huang, J. and Sekuler, R. (2010) and Zanto, T. and Gazzaley, A. (2009) This is critical because working memory is the DRIVER of cognition. WHAT? Here’s an example: try to remember yourself solving a problem at the same time you are asked to meet new people. Working memory and attention are co-factors in the learning process. And, both are teachable.

Second, the ability to pay attention is regulated by many factors. For example, there are sex differences in sustained attention, and they are task specific (Dittmar et al. 1993). Your frontal lobes are highly susceptible to stress (Galinsky et al. 1993), emotions (Dolcos, F. and McCarthy, G.), training and caffeine (Smith, et al. 2003). But the key thing is that attentional skills are not random. We can “train” our own brain through mindfulness practice, playing musical instruments, martial arts, reading, meditation and writing.

Finally, when we “pay” attention voluntarily, our brain is more likely to encode and remember the information (Kilgard, M., & Merzenich, M., 1998). Our goals direct our brain to activate acetylcholine (the neurotransmitter for formation of memory) via pathways such as the nucleus basalis. So, why stop telling kids to pay attention?

Kids ALREADY PAY ATTENTION!

First, there are two types of “attention.”

One is the type that we get from our DNA. It is based on helping each of us survive, so it rapidly detects salient change in the environment. That means your attentional system will immediately respond to any contrast or difference in what is currently happening. We orient to movement (like an object thrown at us!), strong emotions (if the prevailing ones are calm), sounds (if the prevailing ones are quiet), risk (if the prevailing conditions are safe) or reward (if the conditions allow). The first type of attention, the “hard-wired” one, is free. You get it with your birth certificate. We all begin life impulsive and susceptible to the relentless barrage of life’s distractions.

The other type of attention is NOT hard-wired. It’s the result of a learned process.

This type of attentional focus allows a musician to play an instrument in a noisy room and still hit all the right notes. It allows a kid to study or take a test in a busy area and “block out” all the other potentially salient information. It allows an artist to paint or draw in a busy classroom or an outdoors mall. The other type of “paying attention” is different. It costs us time and effort to learn it, so I call it “earned.”

At some point, most of us (excluding kids with executive functioning problems) “learn” to pay attention to a particular task. To do that, we must continually re-orient our visual and auditory resources to a chosen goal-directed behavior. We do that using our frontal lobes. It’s a combination of “orienting to the goal” (paying attention) and simultaneously “suppressing salient information” (blocking out potential distracters).

Imagine a kid in an upper elementary or middle school classroom. He is supposed to be “paying attention” to a worksheet in front of himself. But when he looks to the windows that line the far wall of the classroom, he sees kids in the hallway. He strains to see WHO the kids are and wonders WHY they are not in class like he is. The kid hears a teacher say, “Hey! Pay attention.” His eyes move back to his desk and the assignment. Suddenly a nearby student makes a common (for adolescents) bodily sound. Immediately, his eyes dart to the side to catch the likely perpetrator. Again, the teacher says, “Hey! Pay attention.” Reluctantly, his eyes move back to the assignment. Then he remembers a brief encounter earlier with a girl across the room and hopes to make eye contact with her. Maybe he’ll get lucky and she will be looking at him. He peers towards her, hoping that maybe she is looking, too. Unfortunately, his teacher strikes again, “Hey! Pay attention.” Annoyed and feeling controlled by the Darth Vader with a teaching certificate, his eyes return to his worksheet.

By the way, this kid WAS paying attention. He was paying attention to the MOST SALIENT information in his environment. Remember, we are all hard-wired to pay attention!

Maybe what you really want is, ”How do I get kids to pay attention to what I WANT THEM to focus on?”

I don’t blame you. We’ve all been there.

To do that, you have only two choices:

1) get kids involved in those activities that will train their brain to orient to a chosen goal AND simultaneously suppress salient information

OR, 2) use the existing brain’s tendencies to capitalize on your goals.

The first choice is simple, but not easy. The processes that build attentional skills include learning to play an instrument, high interest reading material, and well coached sports. (I reveal the “Super-Teacher’s Top 10” list in our workshop “Tools for Maximum Engagement.”)

But, problems in sustaining attention to criteria – in discriminating between what’s important or not important – are linked in studies to lesions in the right lateral frontal region. To overcome this, it takes greater efforts with some kids than others.

The second choice is…

PART TWO: Applications

Let’s “flesh out” what we learned from the studies above and get practical.

First, extended attentional “demand” hurts attention span. School goes on for hours a day! The brain needs relaxing times to counter the stress of constant focus. Scientists found that people who played video games OVER two hours every day were more likely to be short-tempered, experience problems concentrating and have trouble getting along with friends. So, break up focused attentional demands into SMALL CHUNKS.

Second, another study showed that one way to increase vigilance success is to simply provide cues that a critical signal is coming. In fact, when subjects consistently received reliable cues prior to an important signal, vigilance and performance remained consistently high. So, give students advance CUES that something important is coming.

Third, use behaviorally relevant prompts. We call these “REDIRECTS.” Instead of saying, “Pay attention,” prompt students to something THEY care about as a focusing tool: 1) Use other students to get the attention of their peers. How? Teach class rituals that everyone knows such as a clapping call-response, or 2) the teacher could blow a train whistle and the students are cued to say, in response, “All aboard!” Then the teacher can begin teaching again.

I have a whole list of great, simple attentional strategies that engage kids. However, I am saving them for when I see you in person this summer at one of my workshops. If you can, attend my 2-day “Tools for Maximum Engagement” to get the insider scoop on making class fun again.

Let’s cut to the chase: everything you do in your classroom is likely to have SOME effect on the brain. Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.” Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen!

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education

CITATIONS:
Bishop S, Duncan J, Brett M, Lawrence AD. (2004) Prefrontal cortical function and anxiety: controlling attention to threat-related stimuli. Nat Neurosci. Feb;7(2):184-8.

Dittmar ML, Warm JS, Dember WN and Ricks DF.(1993) Sex differences in vigilance performance and perceived workload. J Gen Psychol. Jul;120(3):309-22.

Galinsky TL, Rosa RR, Warm JS and Dember WN.(1993) Psychophysical determinants of stress in sustained attention. Hum Factors. Dec;35(4):603-14.

Huang, J. and Sekuler, R. (2010) Attention Protects the Fidelity of Visual Memory: Behavioral and Electrophysiological Evidence.The Journal of Neuroscience, October 6, 30(40):13461–13471.
Kilgard, M.P. & Merzenich, M.M. (1998). Cortical map reorganization enabled by nucleus basalis activity. Science, 279, 1714-1718.

Smith A, Brice C, Nash J, Rich N and Nutt DJ.(2003) Caffeine and central noradrenaline: effects on mood, cognitive performance, eye movements and cardiovascular function. J Psychopharmacol. Sep;17(3):283-92.

Zanto, T. and Gazzaley, A. (2009) Neural Suppression of Irrelevant Information Underlies Optimal Working Memory Performance. J. Neurosci. 29: 3059-3066

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Teaching workshop - maximum engagement of classroom

Time is running out! January events with Jensen Learning are coming up fast!

Do you really think you know what brain-based teaching is all about? Not one teacher in 1,000 really knows. Today’s article should remind you that we all have much to learn. It’s time to give your brain a real high-powered upgrade. The January sessions are coming up fast and it’s time to re-charge your brain. But this particular year, the courses are filling up extra fast, because there are more people chasing fewer seats. That means you’ve got to hustle to get in. The event, “Teaching with the Brain in Mind” event sold out last year and the feedback was very positive… click here to view the January and Summer events

7 Comments

  1. Victoria Craig

    Good info but you might want to check the spelling on one of your words used:

    Below is an excerpt from article that I think the word you wanted to use was “six” and not “sex” differences. LOL.

    Second, the ability to pay attention is regulated by many factors. For example, there are sex differences in sustained attention, and they are task specific (Dittmar et al. 1993). Your frontal lobes are highly susceptible to stress (Galinsky et al. 1993), emotions (Dolcos, F. and McCarthy, G.), training and caffeine (Smith, et al. 2003). But the key thing is that attentional skills are not random. We can “train” our own brain through mindfulness practice, playing musical instruments, martial arts, reading, meditation and writing

    • Eric Jensen

      Hi Victoria,

      Thanks for the eagle eye… sex was meant to be the word. Male and female attention spans are quite different, as i am sure you’ll agree.

      Take care
      Editor.

  2. Ron Hochmuth

    We hope to send our entire staff of 75 to your presentation in Ogdensburg NY on March 21st. How can I best prepare my staff by having them do some pre-reading of any of your work? Look forward to meting you.

    Ron Hochmuth, Principal
    Alexandria CSD

  3. Jessica

    I live in Jamaica and have included brain-based teaching in my study. It would be great if your team could pay a visit to my country and organize workshops within Jamaica or in the United States. Hope to hear from you. Thanks.

  4. Jana Plemons

    I loved the article. I am a success coach from Texas and cant make the conference. I get depressed when I walk into classrooms and students are not engaged (heads down on desk, looking out the window, playing in their desk, etc). I know that the brain can only pay attention to the person’s age plus two more years. I understand that you have to direct teach in chunks and then change “states”. I am looking for ideas to give the teachers at my campus for student engagements. What do you suggest?

  5. Eric J

    Hi

    The article gives you suggestions.

    Use shorter chunks, use redirects and play off the brain’s natural drives for curiosity, suspense and anticipation. All of those garner better attention than just ranting at kids.

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