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Construction of individual meaning improves when students pay attention (and paying attention can shape the brain)

What we know:

We know that our community college classrooms are diverse. As an English composition teacher, I work with students who are in their first semester of college (and sometimes, they are the first people in their family to attend college). Not only are they often unfamiliar with the academic environment, but also they bring with them a variety of learning challenges that interfere with their ability to pay attention the classroom including short attention spans, anxiety about performance, and impulsivity.

We know that our students who pay attention learn more. We also know that complex projects that engage students help facilitate learning (and help them pay attention), but creating these tasks is easier said than done. And what about "tricks" good teachers use to grab and hold student attention during a class period? In this section, we will explore why complex tasks tend to engage students, why "paying attention" facilitates learning, and more about how we can capture and maintain student attention in the classroom. In addition, we will discuss how experience/learning create physiological changes in the brain -- in other words, the more we learn, the more we can learn. And the more we pay attention, the more we can pay attention. In fact, some researchers believe the very act of "mindfulness" (paying attention) can shape the brain.

The support for what we know:

First, let's take a look at how the brain deals with complexity. The brain is composed of at least two types of cells, glial cells and nerve cells (neurons). Glial cells basically hold neurons together and act as filters that protect neurons from harmful substances (Sousa, 2001, p. 20). Neurons have thousands of branches called dendrites. Dendrites reach out from neurons and get electrical impulses from other neurons, transmitting them through a fiber called the axon. The myelin sheath surrounds each axon, insulates it from other cells, and helps increase the speed of impulse transmission. Neurons don't have direct contact with each other. There's a "gap" between the dendrite and axon called a synapse. Instead, chemicals (neurotransmitters) stored in sacs called synaptic vesicles are released and either excite or inhibit the neighboring neuron. Researchers have identified over 100 neurotransmitters so far, including acetylcholine, epinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. The key point here is that, as David Sousa (2001) explains, it, "Learning occurs by changing the synapses so that the influence of one neuron on another also changes" (p. 22). According to Sousa, "Recent studies of neurons in people of different occupations (e.g., professional musicians) shows that the more complex the skills demanded of the occupation, the more dendrites were found on the neurons. This increase in dendrites allows for more connections between neurons resulting in more sites in which to store learnings" (p. 22). With about 100 billion neurons in the human brain (and scientists now believe that even the adult brain can generate new neurons), and with each neuron capable of having close to ten thousand dendrite branches, the synaptic connections possible in one brain are almost unfathomable.

A "pruning" of neurons begins in utero. In fact, about half of the neurons formed in the fetal brain die before birth, with the number of neurons being about 100 billion at birth. Pruning is not a bad thing; think of the pruning of neurons as being like a block of marble being chipped away to reveal a sculpture. Or, perhaps a better way to explain pruning is that neural connections are made and then, if not used, pruned away so that the "useful" connections can be strengthened. If every connection survived, the brain would not function efficiently. As Jeffrey M. Schwartz (2002), a research professor of psychiatry at UCLA puts it, the process of neural network growth and pruning is the "survival of the busiest" (Schwartz & Begley).

At the same time the pruning is happening, we are growing dendrites which increases surface area available for synapses, the connections between cells. From birth to age ten, these synaptic connections blossom, but after about age ten, the number of connections begins to decline. Harry Chugani and Michael Phelps, at the UCLA School of Medicine, used PET scans to measure the brains of children of various ages. They suggest that a child's peak learning years occur when the brain is experiencing the increased level of synapses formation. These are the critical periods, or "windows of opportunity." For example, the "window" for learning a foreign language begins to close after age ten. Adults can still learn to speak a foreign language, but not as easily as a child. Other windows close more tightly. The window for vision closes by age three, meaning that if an infant is born blind, and his sight is not restored by age 3, brain cells that interpret vision will atrophy or be diverted to other tasks (Wolf & Brandt, 1998).

Researchers also point out, though, that new findings may cause us to revisit and reshape our understanding of these critical periods, or windows of opportunity. While the brain may be most malleable in the early years of life, there's evidence that major physical/chemical changes, for example, are still happening in the prefrontal cortex of the adolescent brain, helping explain the behavior of teens. (Click here read a PBS interview with Charles Nelson, the director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the University of Minnesota, on the PBS site "Inside the Teenage Brain.) The implication for our students is that, although some window's of opportunity may be closed, or partially closed, there are other "windows" for learning still open.

Marian Diamond is well-known for her work exploring the idea of neural plasticity, which means that the brain can change structure and function in response to experiences, including growing more dendrites (connections between brain cells) at any age. As Wolf and Brandt (1998) explain, "Learning is a process of active construction by the learner, and an enriched environment gives students the opportunity to relate what they are learning to what they already know." In addition, the brain is social and collaborative. An enriched environment gives unique learners more opportunities to construct meaning (Wolf & Brandt). (Note how the elements of our theoretical model weave together -- a learning-centered environment helps students construct individual meaning.) Neurons are alive and altered by their experiences and environment (Sousa, 2001, p. 40). While learning may not increase the number of brain cells we have, it does increase our ability to form complex neural networks.

In addition, neural networks/paths that fire repeatedly can fire more easily. Let me tell you a little story about my neighborhood. When I first moved into my house, I met two of my neighbors, Mrs. Merkle and Mrs. Nelson. Mrs. Merkle's house is north of mine, and Mrs. Nelson's house is south of mine. I soon discovered that the two women had been friends for over 25 years. When their husbands were living, the two couples shared many adventures including vacationing together. Mrs. Merkle and Mrs. Nelson also visited each other every day, and to get back and forth to each other's houses, they walked through the woods behind my house. There's a ditch between my house and Mrs. Nelson's house; no problem, they balanced a 1'x12" across the ditch for a bridge. Both women are retired now, and living in Florida, and they've sold their houses. However, the well-worn path in the woods behind my house, although it's now grown-over, is still visible and will be for many years. I'm certain that Mrs. Merkle and Mrs. Nelson could find their way over that path easily, even now.

This story illustrates what happens in our brains when experience causes neural networks to fire. Paths that repeatedly fire then fire more easily. Repetition is good. Repetition of a stimulus forms a memory. A perception/recognition quickly passes if the second neuron is not stimulated again. Also, because memories are not stored intact (Sousa, 2001, p. 81), the more neural connections we make, the more paths created, the more easily understanding and meaning can be attached to new learning (and the more easily the learner can make connections to past learning/memories). Extending the analogy above, creating a network of paths through the woods behind the house would have been helpful for Mrs. Nelson and Mrs. Merkle if they had to deal with new experiences. For example, we often have small floods in the woods (my house is at the bottom of a steep hill). In the case of a flood, if there were many well-known paths already in place, Mrs. Merkle and Mrs. Nelson could easily and quickly select the best path to navigate between the houses despite the unpredictable nature of the streams of flood water coming down the side of the hill. How does this relate to learning? The more "paths" the learner creates, the better. The more we learn, the more we can learn. And, again, the more often paths fire, the more easily they can fire. Engaging in complex learning tasks helps shape the brain because complex learning tasks build new and strengthen existing neural networks.

Current research also suggests that "mindfulness" (the act of paying attention) can also help shape the brain. Recent imaging studies (click here to read about brain imaging technology) show that there isn't a central "paying attention" area of the brain. Instead, as Schwartz (2002) explains, various systems exist that seem to be tied to specific functions "including those in the prefrontal cortex (involved in task-related memory and plannign), parietal cortex (bodily and environmental awareness), and anterior cingulate (motivation)" (Schwartz & Begley). In the 1990s, Maurizio Corbetta (Washington University) and other researchers showed, using imaging equipment, that when a learner pays attention to something, the part of the brain processing the information becomes more active. This seems obvious (the idea that paying attention helps the brain process information), but has major implications for educators. If willfull attention facilitates learning (and makes future learning easier), shouldn't we do everything in our power to help students develop their ability to pay attention/focus on complex tasks? The important point here is that, as Schwartz puts it, "Attention, then, is not some fuzzy, ethereal concept. It acts back on the physical structure and activity of the brain" (Schwartz & Begley, p. 333). Of course, we are making a huge leap from what brain science is illuminating about the processes in the brain to what we should do in the classroom, but as we suggest in our introduction, at the very least we should think about what the science is telling us so that we can help direct research and narrow the gap between science findings and classroom application.

Schwartz writes about this connection between neuroplasticity and "mindfullness", stating that the brain is where Descartes's material and mental realms meet:

Neuronal circuits also change when something as inchoate as mental effort becomes engaged -- when, in short, we choose to attend with mindfulness. The power of attention not only allows us to choose what mental direction we will take. It also allows us, by actively focusing attention on one rivulet in the stream of consciousness, to change -- in scientifically demonstrable ways -- the systematic functioning of our own neural circuitry. (p. 367)

Schwartz sees the the interaction between the mind (meaning, in this instance, willfullness) and brain as the "next frontier for neuroplasticity, harnessing the transforming power of the mind to reshape the brain" (p. 224).


How does this relate to teaching in the community college classroom?

If we accept the idea that paying attention improves learning, the next step is to figure out how to help students develop the ability to pay attention. Of course, here is where our model overlaps once again. Click here to read more about how to create a classroom environment (both physical and psychological) that facilitates student learning. Some of what is discussed here is elaborated in the "Creating a Learning-centered Environment" section of our model.

Part of the creation of a "Learning-centered Environment" includes, of course, the behavior of the instructor (including classroom management), and, once again, the presentation of material / development of complex learning experiences. As we know, teaching styles (as well as learning styles and MI strengths/weaknesses) vary widely. We all know professors who are brilliant lecturers, or excel at collaborative learning processes, or focus on socratic dialogue in the classroom, or on developing experiential learning projects, performance tasks, or use combinations of methodologies. We tend to teach in the way we "learned best" and it's a struggle to break out of that mold to vary our instructional approaches. However, doing so is one way to address not only the unique learner (click here to read more about "Valuing the Unique Learner") but also to help our students develop the ability to pay attention. We sometimes fault our students for having short attention spans and blame everything from cultural illiteracy to Sesame Street. As we've stated before, we might not be able to do anything about what our students bring with them to the classroom (such as a lifetime of watching television rather than reading). However, we can use what we know about how the brain learns to alter our classroom approaches with the specific goal in mind of helping students develop their ability to pay attention. The more they learn to pay attention, the more they can pay attention.

This is where you can, as an experienced teacher, dig into your bag of practices you've developed over the years and examine them. Why do they work? How can you use this information to develop new approaches and fine tune existing approaches? For example, you might be well-versed in using video clips to capture student attention related to a social issue. The next step would be to analyze your use of clips to see if you can select a particular clip that will do "double duty" or even "triple duty." Connect the clip to the social issue, think about how the clip might make use of tapping into student emotions, think about how the clip helps students make connections to past and previous learning, and think about how you can tie everything else you do in class that day to the video clip (given that the clip has grabbed student attention). In other words, showing a clip related to your content topic is great, but analyze the use of the clip's emotional content, use of music, imagery, movement, and everything else about the clip, thinking about how you can use this to get students to pay attention during the rest of the class/unit/semester. Think about helping students make connections between the clip and their personal experiences. (Be careful - although we know that making these connections is essential, connecting to personal experience in a group discussion and trying to keep the discussion on track can be like trying to steer a powerboat through a riptide with the steering cables broken. Here's a tip: have students make these connections on their own, perhaps in personal writing or other forms of personal reflection.) Selecting just the right clip also provides you with a "touchstone" that you and the students can use throughout the unit/semester. The instructor can use the touchstone to "snap" student attention back when it strays. For example, when discussing compare and contrast in my English composition class, one "touchstone" I can use is a clip I've shown at the beginning of the semester from The Saint of Fort Washington, a film our instructors have found useful in English courses, ESOL courses, and sociology courses. Because the students fall in love with the two main characters in the film, Jerry and Matthew, explaining compare and contrast by discussing how we might compare and contrast these two characters "snaps" student attention back to our class discussion.

We've all experienced watching our students lose focus and interest in the classroom. It's a sinking feeling that can make an instructor feel quite desperate. What can we do to get the class back on track? Eric Jensen describes a brain-based methodology for managing the classroom environment that he calls "managing states." (Again, we elaborate on this in the Creating a Learning-Centered Environment section, but a brief discussion here is appropriate because the idea/methodology relates directly to helping students pay attention.) Annette, Khaki, and I attended Jensen's six day "Brain Compatible Learning Workshop" in 2001, and each of us came away with technques we found particularly useful in our classrooms. Thinking about Jensen's "managing states" has helped me modify my classroom practice as it relates to helping students "pay attention."

Jensen's states are "mind/body/motion micromoments" that last for seconds (rather than moods which can last for hours). Jensen suggests that the teacher's awareness of these states in the classroom and ability to help change the states can help facilitate learning by helping students pay attention or refocus their attention on learning tasks. While there are literally thousands of states, Jensen says the most common states found in the classroom are anticipation/curiosity, the self-convincer, fear/anxiety, boredom/apathy, frustration, and confusion. Of course, at times, students are in all different states, and "snapping" them to attention (bringing them together into the same state) can help everyone in the class refocus attention on the learning task. This brings to mind the Caine's use of the "orchestra" metaphor. We must orchestrate complex learning experiences including, as Jensen says, "purposeful, productive changes of state." The following are methods we can use to changes student states in the communty college classroom (bringing students exhibiting various states to the same state):

Of course, you can probably think of classroom management techniques you use already to help manage states! A technque I use is called the "Why We Care" factor. Throughout the class, I make an effort to revisit "Why We Care" whenever I notice the class "drifting" or losing interest. In addition, I ask students to figure out and give their thoughts on "Why We Care" throughout a classrom experience. Student "Why We Care" responses might range from a humorous "it's going to be on the test?" to more thoughtful connection-making as students try to figure out how to use whatever we are doing in other classes or in the workplace. (Not only does the "Why We Care" ritual get the students all on the same page, but also it helps them make connections.)

As we've discussed in this section and in Creating a Learning-Centered Environment, humor is also important when it comes to helping students develop the ability to pay attention in the classroom (and, therefore, improve their learning. The Caine's also introduce the idea of "novelty" being important. Remember our earlier discussion of locale memory? As the Caines explain, "Map formation is motivated by novelty, curiosity, and expectation. We expect the world to be a particular way because of the preliminary map that we form and the memories we recall of similar environments or events. For example, we mght expect a person who is not from our native country to speak some other language, and we expect traffic to stay on the appropriate side of the road. We guide our behavior by those expectations and keep checking for accuracy. The corollary is that anything interesting or different is immediately attended to until it is incorporated into the map or identified as unimportant. The dominant motivation is therefore intrinsic. We are seeking to make sense of what is happening in our world" (p. 46, Making Connections). Relating this to paying attention in the classroom, we know that the use of novelty can be an invaluable tool we can use to help develop student interest and enthusiasm.

An example of the use of novelty is our "Learning Tower of Straws" activity. (Click here to read about the "Learning Tower of Straws" activity.) The activity objectives include learning to work together as a team and learning how to develop and write a process paragraph. Student attention is grabbed first, though, by the novelty inherent in the activity (teams build towers using shaving cream and straws).

Shaving cream and straw activity.

The flip side of novelty is similarity. Interestingly, similarity can interfere with the construction of meaning and retention/learning. For example, teaching two motor skills that are very similar at the same time may cause memory interference so that the student learns neither skill well. When we are first learning a skill (for example, learning to cast a fishing line), we are using working memory (frontal lobe) and the motor cortex controls muscle movement. As we practice the skill, a larger and larger area of the motor cortex gets involved neurons join a growing network. The memory of the skill, though, isn't processed until about six hours after we stop practicing with the fishing pole. If we practice a very similar skill during that six hours, the practice of the second skill will interfere with the mastery of the second skill, and we will learn neither skill well. Guess what? The same thing can happen when learning cognitive concepts (Sousa, 2001).

For example, each year, I work with my freshman composition students to remind them (surely they've heard this before) about the correct use of the following words:

there, their, and they're
its and it's

Sometimes I think their mistakes are just careless mistakes, but after thinking about how similarity can interfere with retention, I have new plans for this year! For example, instead of going over "there, their, and they're" together, I will discuss each word in a different class session rather than discussing them together, during the same session. Think about the implications of this one idea (similarity) on our teaching approaches. It seems "natural" to introduce similar concepts at the same time, but it may not be the best approach!

Finally, it's important to recognize that learning is a life-long process and to point this out to our students. In fact, we can model this important concept by creating complex tasks for our students such that we are learning along with them. Team teaching, thematic teaching, project-based learning, experiential learning all put this idea to use. In addition, sharing with our students that we are learning about learning by attending conferences and taking classes is beneficial. Explaining why we do what we do in the classroom (and that it is connected to solid research) will intrigue students and also reassure students who might initially be uncomfortable with projects such as building shaving cream and straw towers in a writing class.

What do we mean by "construction of Individual Meaning?

Construction of individual meaning is improved when students make connections.

Construction of individual meaning improves when students pay attention (and paying attention can shape the brain). (You are here.)

Construction of individual meaning improves when students think about how they learn (metacognition).

Construction of individual meaning is improved when instructors create appropriate assessment (including self-assessment) for complex tasks.  

Construction of individual meaning improves when students develop their creativity.

Construction of individual meaning improves when students develop their ability to identify patterns.

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