of the key parts of the brain which focuses attention
is the Reticular Activating System (RAS). Located
in a very low region of the brain, the RAS has the
job of filtering all incoming stimuli and making the
decision as to whether we attend or ignore something.
How does this play in today's classroom?
are 4 main categories of things that trigger or focus
the attention of the RAS in the human brain:
Postman writes in his book, "Amusing ourselves to
Death" that the attention span of humans was considerably
longer years ago. The specific example he uses in
his book is that of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in
the 1800's which were literally read from paper and
lasted for hours. Postman notes that amazingly, the
people stayed, listened and paid attention. Today,
I doubt we could expect to read any statement for
8 - 10 hours and have an audience of people stay in
the room, let alone stay focused.
has happened to the mind. Specifically,that portion
of the mind which focuses attention? Let me begin
by having you think for a moment about attention.
First, notice how your mind does not multitask - it
has only one focus of attention at a time. You can
think about last Christmas vacation. Now think about
next week's schedule. To think of next week's schedule
you must cease thinking about last Christmas vacation.
We can wander through various thoughts as our stream
of consciousness flows.
the heart of all this is the part of the brain which
has the role of attention decision maker. What part
of our mind actually "decides" what the topic of thought
will be? What causes the topic to change and when?
Biologically speaking the area we are referring to
is the reticular activating system - the RAS located
in the hind brain - a very primitive area of the brain.
job of the RAS is to filter and screen all incoming
stimuli and "decide" which stimuli should merit the
attention of the conscious. There is a hierarchy to
the issues of importance. In order, you will attend
to: physical need, novelty and self made choices.
The one that plays the biggest role in the changing
dynamic of the teacher - student instructional struggle
mind seems to gravitate toward novelty. Not only does
a novel experience seem to capture our attention,
it appears to be an essential need of the mind. Watch
a young child as his attention is literally pulled
around his world in search of novelty, which for a
young child, surrounds him. His search involves the
assimilation of new material and an attempt to make
sense of all new experiences.
means unknown. And what is unknown demands to be known
to the human brain. Once a new experience is known
and understood, then we look to find another unknown
to master. This is what makes the young child so exciting
to watch. They seem to flow through the world looking
at the novel new experiences, manipulate them in order
to understand them, then set them aside as the attention
is now drawn to another unknown novelty.
pace of novel experiences has changed. At one time
a young child could master or learn his surroundings
and they remained relatively unchanged. A toy or two,
a dozen people, a home sparsely decorated. Even the
world outside the home had relatively limited novelty
to offer after the first few years of ones' life.
This allowed the RAS and attention to be drawn to
other things, primarily self-made choices and more
complex types of thinking and learning of abstract
concepts. Self-made choice is another strong motivator
for attention, if novelty isn't overriding it.
so today. Today's mind, young or old is continuously
bombarded with new and novel experiences. Rather than
novel opportunities every few days or weeks, we now
have novelty presented in microseconds.
and television have trained our minds to perceive
and interpret quickly and be ready to accept the next
presentation. Even outside of television and video,
the presentation of commercial product is at an unprecedented
pace. Color catalogues, the internet, toy circulars,
new car advertisements, mega-super stores are providing
a bombardment of information, wants and wishes.
teachers, how can we be expected to keep pace, let
alone compete with this amazing pace. For a classroom
using teacher-centered instruction, the task is nearly
impossible. One person alone in the front of the room
cannot begin to meet the needs of today's ever demanding
RAS. The attention span is trained to process in microseconds
what teachers present in a one hour lecture.
classrooms, although not miracle cures, can provide
an easier environment for the insatiable RAS. In an
open learning environment, students are free to set
their own pace, learn as they wish, when they wish,
and move on when a concept is mastered.
appease the RAS of students, teachers need to step
aside as the leader in the classroom. Layered Curriculum
and other student-centered teaching methods let students
set their own pace, let them say when it is time to
move on or hold back. Our society has spent 50 years
training today's young brains to interpret at record
speed - surely we shouldn't let today's classroom
slow it down.