Attention is arguably the most important ingredient in learning. In order to map a skill, a concept or a new way of doing things, a child must work with it attentively the first few times. Attention happens when we are engaged in a struggle to do or understand; Emma’s fierce concentration as she climbs on to the baby gym demonstrates her attention.
To retain what the child has learned, she needs to practice it next. It is not sufficient to understand or do; the newly learnt word, concept or skill must be worked regularly so it goes from the explicit memory into implicit memory.
Children initiate much of their learning. Parents and teachers who are aware of that and ready to support it will also support the child’s enthusiasm for learning. Children delight in novelty so will often respond to being taught new things if they are ready to learn them. They will also learn things that their parents and teachers insist on, assuming the new skill is within their abilities and taught carefully.
“…the only ‘good learning’ is that which is in advance of development”
When Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, stated that learning really takes place in advance of development he meant the area where a child can learn if supported by a more knowledgeable peer or teacher. He called this the Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD. Climbing up is Emma’s achievement; climbing down safely was in Emma’s ZPD. The support (in this case provided by her parents) is also known as scaffolding. There are lots of academics running around defining it and publishers selling books to hapless teachers about it. I prefer to think of scaffolding as spotting with appropriate instruction as needed.
Scaffolding: Not just for construction workers anymore (Photo credit: kevin dooley)
Do you remember gym class when you were doing tricks on a trampoline, trying to do a handstand or vault over a horse? There was always someone there to spot you, with a hand ready to put under your back to stop you from falling awkwardly and doing serious damage. The trampoline required several spotters holding both hands palm outwards in case they had to push the jumper back.
This, to me, is probably the best example of scaffolding; the athlete is not protected from scrapes and bruises but is protected from a broken neck so she can take the risks necessary increase her skill. She may fail many times, and that’s fine, because if it is a matter of technique, the instructor will come by to correct her. If it is just a matter of training the muscles, her classmates will call out the occasional word of encouragement as they spot her and await their turn.
This is what a more knowledgeable person can do for a child in her ZPD. It does require teaching a child to deal with failure. I see that word on the page and I realise how stomach clenching it is. Failure. For most, the connotations are unpleasant: failing a grade, a business failing, a person who is a failure. We need to put that stigma aside and think of a child learning to walk. How often does he end up on his well-padded bottom after a few steps? He has failed to walk, but do we think of it as failure? No, because we believe that within the year he will be walking and running. Plumping down to a startled sit is just part of the process.
learning to ride a bike - _MG_2933 (Photo credit: sean dreilinger)
If we allow failure, we develop children who persist. They will regard mistakes as part of the learning process. These children will ask for help, figure out what went wrong and then move forward. They will be comfortable with struggling on occasion with new ideas. Eventually they will become that current cliché, but truly important ideal, an independent learner.
If a student is not learning in their ZPD, they are not moving ahead. They may be moving sideways, collecting more information, but they are not learning new skills, new concepts or new patterns. They may be reinforcing their learning so it moves into implicit memory. Students need to spend time consolidating new learning and building on it. Teachers need to be conscious of which kind of learning is going on.
In practical terms, when you teach multiplication or three-digit division to students, you are not done when they grasp the concept and the time allotted for the unit is over. Your goal is to get them to the point where they can do the work automatically without stopping to think about how to do it. This requires practice, drills, homework, games or whatever it takes to keep them practicing until the skill is in implicit memory. Some will argue it is more important for children to understand mathematical theory than memorise arithmetic and they would be right. They do not say, however, that the children should not be able to do the arithmetic, and that requires practice.
How would this apply to history? Teaching the war of 1759, I would use overheads to show how the French lost the battle of Louisbourg in 1758 and how Wolfe successfully repeated the tactics a year later in the Battle of the Fields of Abraham at Quebec. Then I would ask the students to hand-draw both battlefields, the surrounding geography, the troop movements and gun emplacements. Why? The physical act of drawing and labelling practices and reviews the material. I would not allow students to trace diagrams, because tracing would not focus student attention on the locations of fortifications, cliffs, homes and cannon.
As the students work over their diagrams, questions will come up. The ensuing discussion is another form of reinforcement. I might show an excerpt from a Hornblower movie (Napoleonic wars – 40 years later but similar issues) to show the importance of shore guns in keeping harbours safe – or isolated, depending on whose guns they were. I might play music from the era when the students grow weary. The students might choose to compete in the accuracy and neatness of their diagrams.
Depending on earlier training, drawing and labelling accurate diagrams might be the ZPD for most students. Drawing troop movements and understanding what that would look like in real life or vice versa is very likely to be within their ZPD. As a combined history and phys ed class, it would be a great opportunity to take students into the schoolyard to deploy their troops and see the translation of plans to real life.
Freehand drawing seems a very old fashioned way of learning and yet it is an excellent way to use visual and kinaesthetic intelligences to learn in a discipline which is far too often taught only through reading, writing and lecturing. (Gardner 1983)
If attention is the most important ingredient in learning what does it say our classrooms and study areas should be like? Think about what distracts you and then ask yourself if you could work in your classroom or wherever your child does homework.
A quiet hum of activity is acceptable, but unnecessary movement, music, raised voices and interruptions through phone calls and announcements are disruptive. When I couldn’t persuade our office to leave messages or send emails, I took the classroom phone off the hook when the students needed to pay careful attention.
Should classrooms be papered with bright visuals demanding the attention of the children as our administrators encourage? It certainly looks charming, but is it conducive to children paying attention well enough to learn? Instead, should classroom walls be painted in soothing colours only occasionally punctuated with a helpful poster? Should there be plenty of study carrels or nooks where students can wrestle with ideas? Should the group work area be strategically placed so the gentle murmur of discussion doesn’t disturb the other scholars? Should a primary goal be to teach children consideration of each other’s learning environments? Should we teach our children how to pay attention?
In some homes all the kids do homework at the dining room table. For some children that works, especially if a parent is available to keep everyone on task. It doesn’t work for all. Figure out what works and put that in place. Many students complain homework takes too long. When I asked questions, I realised many were texting, chatting on line, receiving phone calls on their cells, listening to music and being interrupted by younger siblings and sometimes parents – all while they were ostensibly doing homework. None of this was conducive to any but the most mindless and useless of homework. As I don’t assign that kind of homework, I was not surprised they were taking so long to get it done.
What about students with learning disabilities? We sometimes think that accommodations mean letting them learn less. Would they do better if we first worked to improve their ability to pay attention? They could start with one minute and keep adding as they succeeded. We could also work to improve their areas of weakness. If the brain changes naturally in response to attentive learning followed by practice, what couldn’t we do for our students who learn differently?
To sum up, a student begins to learn when he is paying attention. The initial learning is mapping in the brain. That mapping is not sufficient; practice is needed to ensure the mapping remains. It is like walking through a field; it takes a lot of walking over the same line before there is a trail that will last a month, more to last a year and so on.
How to do mapping and reinforcement is another story, but it is a normal part of a teacher’s repertoire. Reconsider the organisation of your classroom and the structure of the day, but the actual techniques are at most teachers’ fingertips. It may be necessary to stand back while your students wrestle with their understanding of a concept but you will be rewarded with triumphant smiles as they eventually master it. While your administrator talks brain-based education, you will actually walk it.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind.
LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self; how our brains become who we are. London, England, Penguin Group.
Schwartz, J. M., Begley, Sharon (2002). The Mind & the Brain: Neuropasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York, HarperCollins
Vygotsky, L. (1934/1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge Massachusetts, London England., MIT Press.
Walsh, S. J. (2010). Recognition Memory: Brain-Behaviour Relations from 0 to 3. Human Behaviour, Learning and the Developing Brain: Typical Development. D. F. Coch, Kurt W.; Dawson, Geraldine.