2014 Annual isacs conference Thursday, November 2014 Judy Willis, M. D., M. Ed

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2014 Annual ISACS Conference

Thursday, November 6. 2014
Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.



Capturing & Sustaining a Student’s Attention
Two Big Ideas of the Neuroscience of Learning:

★ The brain functions to promote survival of the animal and the species.

★ To do so, the human brain has evolved to seek patterns and pleasure.

The Brain’s Structures -- Viewed from Left


R + A + D

Reach + Attitude + Develop

Reticular Activating System + Amygdala + Dopamine


A = Cultivate a positive ATTITUDE and reduce stress (AMYGDALA)




The first step in understanding how the brain learns is to explore the three main concepts of R.A.D. learning and teaching. Each letter in the acronym R.A.D. stands for both a physical feature of the brain and a corresponding word that represents how that brain feature is connected to learning and teaching.

Getting and Keeping Students’ Attention
Reach students by making sure that the information they need to learn passes through the brain’s sensory filter – the Reticular Activating System (RAS)
The Reticular Activating System (RAS), which is in the lower part of the posterior brain, filters all incoming stimuli and makes the “decision” as to what people attend to or ignore. Information constantly comes into the brain from the body’s sensory receptors. At any given moment we are experiencing sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile input. It is impossible for us to be consciously aware of all of this sensory information. Therefore the brain has a filter (the RAS) that selects the sensory information to which we consciously attend.
How does the RAS select which information passes through the filter to gain access to the conscious brain? What are the criteria?
The RAS first prioritizes novel stimuli. If there is a change in the environment, the related sensory input will likely pass through the RAS. For example, if a fox looks out of his den in the morning and sees an unfamiliar fox walk by, that information will be attended to above other sensory input (e.g. the taste of his food, the sound of birds, the sensation of the breeze on his fur).

Threat receives the highest priority. If the RAS senses that the change in the environment is a source of threat, the related sensory input will pass through the RAS at the expense of other stimuli. For example, if the fox hears the howl of a wolf (a dangerous enemy) the related sensory input (the wolf’s howling) will likely take precedence over all other stimuli, including the sight of the unfamiliar fox. Therefore, information (sensory stimuli) will most likely be selected by the RAS if there is no threat in the environment and the stimuli is novel.
How can educators influence what the RAS selects?

  • Reduce perceived threat (discussed in the “Attitude” (amygdala) presentation T-18 How Emotion Impacts the Brain’s Successful Learning).

  • Novelty and Curiosity: Present information in a novel or curiosity-provoking way so that the RAS selects the educator’s input over all other competing stimuli. Often students are criticized for not paying attention. However, a student’s RAS is constantly attending to information (e.g. the sound of their neighbor whispering, the texture of their too-tight pants, the ache of their growling stomach, etc.), which may not be the information to which the teacher expects them to attend.

Strategies that provoke curiosity & prediction to promote attention and sustain focus:

  • Music can be played as students enter the class.

    • Fractions: whole, half and quarter notes in music

    • Literature: Literary devises such as foreshadowing, exclamation points, or bold print, could relate forms of musical emphasis such as prominent percussion sections or dramatic crescendos.

    • History: Lift Every Voice, Sing Star Spangled Banner etc.

  • Speaking in a different voice (cadence, volume) can catch students by surprise.

  • Moving in a different way can be unexpected. For example, a teacher can walk backwards before a lecture. This could relate to topics such as: flashbacks in literature, “backward” analysis or hindsight about events leading up to discoveries, historical events, or negative numbers.

  • Suspenseful Pause: A significant pause before saying something important builds anticipation as the students wonder what you will say or do next.

  • Alterations in the classroom, such as a new display on a bulletin board, promote curiosity.

How can the principles of advertising support educators in capturing students’ curiosity?
Advertisers hope to gain the attention, curiosity, and interest of their audience. For example, the “coming attractions” at a movie theatre are meant to leave the viewer wanting more. The trailers are usually edited in a way that is dramatic and attention grabbing. The trailer provides some indication of what the film is about, but leaves out the majority of the details. This technique creates suspense. The viewer, now enticed, wants to see the full-length movie to see how everything resolves.
Educators can advertise upcoming lessons in a similar way. The goal is to provoke curiosity of what’s to come. This can be done using a variety of both high and low-tech techniques.

  • Posting photographs related to an upcoming lesson in the days leading up to the lesson

  • Creating a PowerPoint or Prezi of images related to an upcoming lesson

    • Prezi.com is a free online presentation tool that allows you to place information into a format that creates movement for students. The presentation moves from one piece of information to the next, different than a typical PowerPoint. Individual Modes of information can be connected to each other so that students not only see movement, but they see connection as well.

  • Creating a video advertisement using Animoto.com or Masher.com

    • An “Animoto” is a short video that you can make for free online. Once you select images, text, and music, the website edits your selections into an eye-catching advertisement. If you sign up as an “educator”, you can use additional special features of the website, and have your students make “Animotos” too. In addition to creating Animotos to launch a lesson, students can make Animotos for homework to summarize what they have learned in a given lesson. Animotos can also be used during the class period for differentiation. If a student has demonstrated mastery of a concept based on a formative assessment, that student can work on an Animoto that represents what she learned.

  • Digital Tools for Students: has dozens of digital tools and images that can be used to provoke curiosity about a lesson or unit: http://studentdigitaltools.wordpress.com/

How can key points be emphasized throughout a lesson? 
The above suggestions are often used at the outset of a lesson to alert students’ attention to the fact that something new and important is being introduced. Throughout a lesson however the teacher is usually presenting information that represents varying degrees of importance. For example, in describing human anatomy a teacher might want students to understand the parts of the digestive system. Some anatomical structures are more important for understanding how the digestive system works than others. How can the teacher alert students to the most important information?

  • Color: The teacher uses a set of colored markers when writing notes on the board. Green could represent that a piece of information is important, yellow could represent even more importance, and red could represent the most important “take home message”. The students will also use colored pens or pencils to write their notes. This system also helps students when reviewing information later.

  • Hat: During an oral presentation, when notes are not being used, a teacher could wear a hat and turn the bill of the hat in different directions to indicate levels of importance.

Sustaining Attention and Engagement

Prediction: After curiosity has been provoked, students will sustain attention if they are asked to predict what the curiosity stimulating sight, sound, object, statement, picture, question, etc. has to do with the lesson.
It is important that all students make predictions. To make their predictions powerful students needs to “bet” on their predictions.

Options include:

  • Writing the prediction on an individual white board or “magic pad” or using an electronic student response clicker.

  • App for student responses: www.nearpod.com has an app that provides a digital response system for students. It allows students to respond to polls or quizzes, whole class poll data display, and reports on student performance.

Dopamine-Reward System: Why prediction is so powerful
Dopamine is usually thought of as a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that transmit signals between neurons (nerve cells). Neurotransmitters allow for information to travel from neuron to neuron throughout the brain.
Power of Dopamine

Dopamine, when released in amounts that exceed what is needed for carrying signals across synapses, travels throughout the brain. The extra dopamine now acts as a neurochemical with more widespread impact. Increased dopamine is associated with (it both increases and is increased by) pleasurable experiences and the anticipation of pleasurable experiences. Its release also increases focus, memory, and executive function.

When dopamine levels go up, the following behaviors are more prominent:





Persistence and perseverance

The following activities increase dopamine levels:

Positive interactions with peers

Enjoying music

Being read to, or told a story or anecdote

Acting kindly

Expressing gratitude





Feeling the intrinsic satisfaction of accurate predictions and challenges achieved

Attention Summary
Until executive functions, such as long-term, goal-motivated behavior and distraction inhibition mature, attention is largely involuntary
Novelty (pattern change) correlates with attention.
Perceived threat gets highest attention priority and must be reduced before attention alerts to other positive pattern changes you provide
Prediction (possibility of reward-pleasure) sustains attention, effort and memory.
Dopamine is the powerful neurotransmitter that holds the key to the intrinsic gratification response that fuels sustained attention and effort.
Experiences that promote the dopamine boosts sustain interest and perseverance
Instruction planned with inquiry and discovery can stand alone to captivate and sustain attentive learning
Things to consider when planning a lesson geared toward reaching and sustaining student attention and engagement:

  • Will your information get through the students’ RAS filters (low stress - high curiosity/interest)?

  • In planning your instruction consider: Does the RAS input signal danger?

  • What will arouse curiosity?

  • How will all students predict the links between the cause of their curiosity and the topics of the lesson? How will they “bet” on their predictions?

© 2012 Judy Willis

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