Saturday, December 19, 2009


The British Psychological Society reports on doodling as a strong aid to attention.  In this case, listening to a boring and detailed phone message about party arrangements.  The doodling helped with both the expected goal and a surprise quiz on unexpected aspects of the message. 

When Lynn listens to an audio or even when she watched tv, she likes to do something else with her hands, eyes and attention in addition to the target.  It helps her concentrate.  The linked article above explains the main researcher's theory that a little sidetask such as doodling or knitting or solitaire uses some additional brain that might have led attention astray into something else if it were not kept occupied. 

I have tried to keep the rules on where attention is to be directed in my class fluid and under the control of the student.  Old approaches of so-called "high discipline" where the student was required to sit bolt upright with hands clasped in front of the body were supposed to assure that the student was not distracted and was focused on the subject at hand, usually the teacher's voice.  Today, we know that such attempts at trapping and forcing the attention to be and to stay in one place are misguided.

Some extroverts do much better at learning if they can comment to a nearby friend while some sort of presentation is going on.   Similarly, if a student in class is texting or speaking to a friend, doing so MIGHT increase that student's concentration and grasp of the knowledge.  Chewing gum, moving about, stretching might all assist some learners at learning.

The arrangement where the teacher spoke and the students listened might have been optimal when there were no printed textbooks, no cellphones, no internet.  However, conditions are quite different now.  We are more aware that virtually nothing in the presentation by the teacher is all that important.  The teacher tries to force importance by threatening a tough test on the material but such a test will not require complete and absolute duplication of the presentation.  Therefore, the teacher or other test maker will pick and choose elements from the presentation and ask the student to repeat them or apply them or extend them or criticize them.  The selection of elements to be tested in an error prone process in the sense that what the teacher deems testable may never be needed at any time in the student's future life.

A good way to get a handle on the vagueness of the whole process is to make a quiz about a teacher's presentation and ask another teacher of the same subject to pass the quiz.  What often happens is that the other teacher is appalled at the irrelevancy of the questions and refuses to take the test, an option not open to the good and polite students trying to avoid "failing", whatever that is.

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