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Keeping Pace with Today's Quick Brains
© Dr Kathie Nunley

One 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?

There are 4 main categories of things that trigger or focus the attention of the RAS in the human brain:

  • physical need
  • self-made choice
  • novelty
  • your name.

Neil 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.

What 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.

At 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.

The 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 is novelty.

The 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.

Novel 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.

The 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.

Not 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.

Video 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.

As 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.

Student-centered 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.

To 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.

About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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