Category Archives: attention

What are the Implications for Teachers and Parents? How do you get to Carnegie Hall part four

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”    

(Vygotsky 1934/1986)

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...

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

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.

Emma’s Brain: how do you get to Carnegie Hall, part two

Preceding article:  How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?   Part One

I am a teacher by trade; my interest in the brain stems from trying to understand how we learn. I have tried to make my understanding of a complex and not thoroughly understood topic, clear and simple. All the mistakes are mine, but I am grateful to those who took the time to check it over and answer my questions while I was writing it. Readers who wish to pursue this subject should check out the books in my bibliography below.


Contrary to common ideas as expressed in this ...

This map of the brain suggests that specific and static areas are responsible for specific functions. In fact it is more complicated, less static and less specific than that. Image via Wikipedia

What is happening inside Emma’s brain and body?  She was born with a good genetic mix.  We can make that assumption because not only does she have smart, healthy parents but she is also a bright healthy baby who has hit all the milestones, except for size (she is on the small side), on time.  As far as anyone can tell she has the tools she needs to learn and grow successfully.

A brief word about genetics and the brain:  the current understanding is that the brain is too complex and the genetic code too limited to allow the brain to be directly blueprinted by genes.  What is probably in the genetic blueprint is the timing of brain growth and which area is responsible for what. The rest is experience pruning and encouraging growth of synapses. (Schwartz 2002)

This is a fairly simplistic explanation of memory and learning.  I should also note that there is considerable disagreement among the experts as to which does what where, when and sometimes how.  With that caveat, you can see the difficulties a mere amateur faces.

Gross Motor Learning

Most of the learning I have been describing is called gross motor as Emma is largely using her big muscles.  She learns through constant repetition of movement until both muscle and brain remember the movement.  Both are needed to move her leg as undirected muscle, no matter how strong, is useless and skilled direction to the muscle without a trained muscle is, at the very least, frustrating.  Each movement Emma makes is retained in the neocortex in an area that deals with gross motor movements and as she practices, it becomes more firmly embedded in her memory until she can do it without thinking about it.  It is probable that the area storing this memory is not as specifically located as maps of the brain might lead us to believe.  In fact, at this age the area may change day to day.

Explicit Memory

I am looking at two kinds of long-term memory here. (LeDoux 2002) One is the kind of memory we have of events.  If we remember an event such as a birthday party, we remember through a number of sensory images such as smells, pictures, tastes, sounds and touches, and we remember them in the areas that originally received them.  We patch them together (or blend them, depending on

English: hippocampus. Images are from Anatomog...

Hippocampus Image via Wikipedia

the most recently accepted theory) through the hippocampus (among other areas of the brain) to create a memory of the birthday party. Neuroscientists call these kinds of event memories explicit or declarative memories.  Others call it “knowing that” as in you know that red wine was spilt over your favourite cream shirt and the stain has never come out.  Because we assemble declarative memories, they are seldom as accurate as we think or identical to those of other witnesses.

Implicit Memory

Most of Emma’s memories of learning to get her knee up on the level where she wants to climb are called implicit or non-declarative memories. (Walsh 2010) It might be easier to understand if you think of it as “knowing how” as in knowing how to ride a bicycle (which one apparently never forgets). These tend to be muscle memories, skill memories or memories which Emma will eventually recall and employ without consciously doing it.  She probably isn’t conscious of most of her later efforts to get her knee up on a step any more than you remember specific incidents of lifting weights or steps in going for a walk.  You will still strengthen your arms or your heart.  She may remember specific attempts: the feel of the step under her knee and hands, the sound of her mother’s voice and the smell of detergent on her clothing. Those will be declarative memories.

Mapping and Practice:  they’re brain changers

Emma’s constant practice does not just build muscle.  It also changes her brain.

Motor cortex

Motor Cortex Image via Wikipedia

Somewhere in the motor cortex, synapses have been alerted that this kid is into climbing and needs the brain involved more in the legs. The brain grows in the area of moving a leg onto a step because Emma is paying attention to what she is doing.  It isn’t just that she exercises her muscles in a novel fashion but that she also gives it her attention as she learns how to do it. The growth Emma causes in the brain is called mapping.  It takes very little attentive repetition to effect the mapping.

The Great Importance of Attention in Learning

Mapping is a little bit like the difference between driving (or cycling) somewhere yourself or sitting in a cab that is taking you there.  If you are the driving force, you are more likely to remember.  If you are sitting in a cab, looking out the window, you will find it harder to remember the route.  The same is true as Emma gives attention to the skill of getting that leg up on a step and then pushing with her knee and her arms.  She is the driver and she is not likely to forget this new skill.

That’s worth repeating: attentive exercise, in this case of the legs, will strengthen the legs and the area in the motor cortex that is involved with this movement of the legs.  The difference is, and it is a big difference, the change in the brain requires Emma’s attention to what she is doing. (Schwartz 2002) This is only one small example of how Emma’s will and interaction with her environment shapes her brain. Even more interesting is that the brain will continue to be plastic enough to be shaped by her will throughout her life, although probably never as effectively as now:

The motor cortex …is hardly a static layout.  From day to day and even moment to moment, the motor cortex map changes, reflecting the kind of movements it controls.  Complex movements result in outputs from the motor cortex that strengthen some synapses and weaken others, producing enduring changes in synaptic strength that result in those things we call motor skills.  Learning to ride a bicycle is possible, in likelihood, not merely because of something called muscle memory but also because of motor-cortex memory.(Schwartz 2002)

The Equal Importance of Practice in Learning

The non-declarative memories won’t do more mapping in the brain but will reinforce the mapping Emma has already laid down in her brain through her earlier attention to getting her knee on a step.  She needs to do a lot of practice to get this skill into her implicit memory.  Emma didn’t just climb the big steps outside.  Her apartment is on the third floor and ever since she learned to climb steps, she has climbed the two stories to her home.  A parent patiently walks behind ready to catch her if necessary but mainly chatting with Emma about what she is doing, what her trip to the park was like and what they will do when they get home.  All that climbing has created strong arms, legs and strong implicit memory about climbing.  None of this is special to Emma; every child maps new skills in the brain and reinforces the skill with practice.

English: diagram based on Squire and Zola (199...

Image via Wikipedia Click to see details of chart and sources.

Not all of this learning is just about gross motor movement and therefore intrinsic memory.  Her parents deliberately teach Emma how to climb down safely.  Teachers call it explicit teaching. The headfirst dive her mother caught her doing off the couch is not safe and so not acceptable. Emma is not allowed to

ever get down from a height without turning around and lowering her legs first. This practice will eventually end up in her muscle memory and in implicit memory.  She will not think about how to get down safely; she will just do it. I suspect it gives her confidence as she learns because she knows her escape route.

Were her parents thinking this way?  Probably not.  More likely, they were thinking about making sure Emma knows how to be safe even when they aren’t watching.  It is just as well, as who wants to think child–rearing from first principles?

When Emma is ready to move on, she builds on the implicit memory of putting her knee on the big outdoor step, by using her hands to pull herself up on that knee. She doesn’t learn to climb onto the baby gym and balance there immediately after standing.  She learns to put a knee on a step, pull herself on the step and so on to each stage in the process.  Usually when she starts a new stage, the previous stage has been mastered to the extent that it requires little or no thought, (i.e. it is in implicit memory) but the new stage will require her attention.

Some Questions

Emma’s ascent of the baby gym brings up the question of how much planning was involved. It’s hard to believe that she hadn’t thought about getting up there.  The question is how long had she been thinking about it?  Had she been thinking about it on and off for a couple of days, perhaps every time she saw it?  Had she thought of it just that day or just before the attempt?  Did she think about how she was going to get on it, or did she just attack it the way she attacks a big step or the couch?  Did she get one knee and two hands firmly on the gym, balance, and then realise that getting the next knee up was going to be a bit tricky?  These are questions worth answering.  Have they have been answered? How could they be answered?

Whenever or however Emma planned her ascent, there must have been a point when Emma had to start thinking as well as doing. From the expression on her face, you can see the concentration that does not come from doing something learned and mastered.  This is something new.  Her concentration is fierce as she balances and brings the second knee to rest on the gym.  When she is climbing steps, she will look around to see who is watching or taking a picture but this particular feat has all her attention and there is none left over for an audience.  This feat will probably be in her explicit memory as it is the first time and she is very pleased with herself.

Many thanks to Dr. J. P. Thivierge and Dr. Vanessa Taler, both of the School of Psychology, University of Ottawa for suggesting books, clarifying concepts and reading these four posts for errors in neurology.



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.