It’s Friday morning and you’re standing in front of your class, ready to begin your lesson. A quick glance around the room tells you who is tuned in and who isn’t. In the attentive lot, backs are straight, chins are up, and fingers are interlocked on the desk in front of them. In the other camp, they’re huddled around a smartphone and giggling. The content is far from educational.
Without trying to sound like a broken record, you urge them to pay attention as the class begins. It’s not like they hadn’t been told before. It’s the fifth straight day you’ve told them, but while your lesson holds their attention for a little while, it’s only a matter of time before the usual suspects are again tuning out.
This scenario is all to common in classrooms around Australia, and indeed every other country in the world. But while there might not be a one-size-fits-all cure solution, neuroscience is showing some promising results when it comes to how educators can help young people stay focused in the classroom.
Pearson's Head of Pearson Clinical Assessment APAC, Mimma Mason, has worked in education and cognitive science with clinicians, educators, coaches and workplace health professionals to raise awareness of brain health.
Below, Mason draws from her extensive experience in this important field to share some evidence-based ways in which teachers can help students overcome distractions and concentrate in the classroom.
TE: What has your work in cognitive science taught you about how it can be used for impact in the classroom?
One of the things that makes us human is that ability to hold on to an idea, keep it in mind and do something with it, it's called working memory. It's a limited capacity for all of us and very much affected by how heavy the memory load of a task is and our ability to hold onto it.
Successful learning involves good teaching, that is presenting new tasks or new information in manageable chunks designed to reduce the load and retain knowledge. It also involves individual capacity and being in an environment that promotes learning. When you feel anxious or stressed your working memory is limited and you are less likely to hold onto information. All new information goes through an emotion filter before it hits the thinking part of your brain. Your emotional brain reacts so much sooner than your thinking brain.
That is why progress in learning keeps coming back to wellbeing - not only structuring the learning task but the learning environment where students feel safe, engaged, rewarded, accepted and a sense of belonging. Teachers have known this intuitively forever but when you understand this principle and use it to design your lesson plans and guide your relationships in the classroom, it increases engagement and learning effectiveness.
Explicitly teaching these social -emotional learning factors to teachers and students alike has the capacity to increase academic outcomes.
TE: Student engagement and academic outcomes go hand-in-hand, but studies show young people are increasingly distracted by social media. Is there a digital discipline strategy you feel works particularly well and which teachers could use to help keep their students focused?
There is no way to exclude social media from their world, so allow students the opportunity to study it and understand its impact. Schools need to teach the use of social media in context, just as we teach use of different language levels in different contexts. Students need to practice critical thinking skills and look at differences in ways of communication through various lenses to understand their impact.
TE: The worsening mental health crisis is perhaps the greatest challenge for today’s schools and school leaders. Amongst all the programs, initiatives and funding towards this problem, is there a particularly powerful approach you consider to be a game-changer in addressing this crisis? If so, what is it and what can leaders learn from it?
The simplest and most effective tactic is to raise awareness of mental health issues. A problem detected early is easier to solve. There are a variety of screening tools, check -in tools that are characterised by the fact they are easy to implement and detect issues early. Often all it takes is one question - much like the RUOK day initiative, to identify a concern. A practical example of this pulse check is schools asking kids when they walk in every day to choose a sad or happy or angry or tired badge to tell the rest of the class how they feel. If we can ask students once a week to tell us if they are OK and signal if they are particularly sad or particularly grateful for something, it can not only act early to manage their wellbeing, but we are practising a new vocabulary around mental health. Making it easy to say how you feel and express your emotions openly will assist with reducing the stigmatism long-term.