It's All About the Brain

So what are we to do about zombie learners? Are they a lost cause or can we reach them?

Movies and television tell us that there is no hope. Shoot those walkers! I don’t think that would be an appropriate teaching strategy. But that is what happens in many classes when we drone on for 50 minutes or more. They either get it or they don’t.

Just as “real” zombies are killed by a shot to the head, zombie learners are best dealt with by a different kind of shot to the head. We need to arm ourselves by examining how the student brain works to process information.

About two years ago, I first encountered Brain Rules – 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. This book describes twelve rules for optimizing how the brain learns. Here are the rules.

  1. Exercise boosts brain power.
  2. The human brain evolved, too.
  3. Every brain is wired differently.
  4. We don’t pay attention to boring things.
  5. Repeat to remember.
  6. Remember to repeat.
  7. Sleep well, think well.
  8. Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
  9. Stimulate more of the senses.
  10. Vision trumps all other senses.
  11. Male and female brains are different.
  12. We are powerful and natural explorers.

These rules may seem obvious. However, you need to interpret them correctly. On the surface, Rule #4 may might make you think that you need to practice your Jay Leno skills to keep your students attention. And certainly some of us can entertain students consistently for at least 50 minutes. But what about the lowly mathematician?

Not only are we blessed with a very intimidating subject matter, the students in our classes do not really want to learn the material. They are not interested nor do they think it will ever be useful. In a typical mathematics classroom, students frequently check out for periods of time ranging from 15 seconds to 5 minutes. I can see them looking at their phone under the desk or glancing over their shoulder at the clock for a time check.

I envy psychology teachers who have a subject matter that most students can relate to. Listening to my students talk about their lives, I think they live abnormal psychology day in and day out. And reality TV contributes even more…it is the abnormal among us who make it onto reality TV. When did students go from aspiring to be doctors and engineers to aspiring to be famous on a reality show?

Many years ago, I tried incorporating humor and popular culture into my classroom. It certainly helped keep their attention and the research cited in Brain Rules shows me why. But in my mind I wanted the humorous 5 or 10 minutes I used in each class back. Could I figure out a way to keep their attention and incorporate it into the class content? How long is it before students lose attention in class? What are the “tells” I can use to determine when they are beginning to “check out”? Could I utilize some of the social traits of this generation of students to keep their attention?

In my next post, I will elaborate on my classroom strategies. I will explain how I fine tuned my attention grabbing strategies to teach deliberately and to dezombify my students.