Use Relevance and Emotion to Intensify Attention and Learning

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There are a lot of "moving parts" involved in creating lessons and units that maximize the chances your students will learn the important content and skills you teach. But there are a few teaching practices that act as attention and encoding "intensifiers," and as such, you should always make a concert effort to build these intensifiers into your lessons. Two of the very best are relevance and emotion .

The Relevance / Motivation Connection

Why should you focus some of your precious planning time on building relevancy into your lessons? Let me tell you about a little experiment I’;ve done frequently as an educational consultant visiting schools. Walk into your average classroom, sit down next to a student, lean over, and ask her, "Why are you studying this particular material?" and you will probably get a blank look and an answer along the lines of: "Because that’;s what the teacher said we’;re going to study." Press the point by asking, "But why? What are you going to do with this information?" and you’;re likely to get a mere shrag of the shoulders and an "I do not know" in response. It’;s sobering and disheartening.

My guess is that, if you went around asking students everywhere questions such as these, 95% of the time or higher, you would get the kind of answers I’;ve described here. School-age students spend about eight hours at school a day for up to two decades of their lives, and most of the time they have no idea why! This should disturb any educator very much, but no one seems to be talking about it much. It looks like at least some teachers and their students have made a pact: "I will not tell you why you’;re here if you do not ask me."

This is a sad state of affairs for several reasons. First of all, one of the most common complaints I hear from teachers is that their students "are not motivated" (these statements are usually preceded by a phrase such as "these kids today …" and sometimes escalate into full-scale rants). Yet, despite the most powerful motivator of all is relevant, interesting curriculum that the students actually want to learn, and the choice to provide this is squarely in the teachers’; hands (or at least in the hands of the curriculum committee). You want motivated students? Provide them with interesting, relevant content and make sure they know why it’;s relevant to them.

Relevance – More Than Just Motivating

Another reason that relevance is so critical is that it is one of the major factors impacting academic achievement. To explain why this is so, I’;ll refer to an important distinction that David Sousa talks about in his excellent book, How the Brain Learns (3rd ed.). In this book, he shows a chart that is generated by the interplay between two questions: "Is sense present?" and "Is meaning present?"

Another way of asking if sense is present is to ask (this is from the student’;s perspective), "Can I understand it?" In other words, is the teaching clear, have I been given enough practice time, is the complexity of the information at a level where I can grasp the ideas? If the answer is "yes" to these questions, obviously that’;s a good thing.

Another way of asking if meaning is present is to ask, "Is it important to me?" Other ways of saying this would include, "Is it interesting to me?" "Can I use this right away?" Egypt "Is this something I want to find out more about?" In other words, is it relevant to me? Again, if students can answer "yes" to these questions, that’;s definitely good.

Now, obviously, if both meaning and sense are present (that is, if the information is both important to me and understandable), then this is the ideal situation for learning, and academic achievement will be high. If, on the other hand, neither meaning nor sense is present (I do not care about it, and I do not understand it anyway), then obviously I will learn very little.

But the other two possibilities are the ones that are really interesting to me. First, what about situations where the students want to learn the material-they are motivated because they see the material as being relevant-but they do not understand it fully or it’;s difficult for whatever reason (the material is not developmentally appropriate and is being taught at the wrong place in the curriculum, for example, or maybe the teaching is just not as clear as it needs to be). In other words, meaning is present, but sense is not.

In such a situation, students’; achievement will top out at moderate but will not reach the desired level of highest achievement when sense is lacking. The reason for this is obvious. I’;m going to fall short of high achievement.

Now, let’;s look at the opposite situation. In this case, sense is present, meaning that the information is at the correct difficulty level for the learners and the teacher is doing a good job of teaching the material clearly. Students can understand it. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the students do not see the material as being important to them-they do not see the relevance . Students’; achievement will once again top out at moderate.

Why is this? Well, it has to do with the brain’;s attentional systems. The brain is hardwired to constantly monitor the environment and shift attention to anything deemed relevant (especially for survival). In a classroom situation where students do not see the material as relevant, their brains are just dying for something more interesting or important to shift attention to. And every few minutes or so they find it-whether it’;s talking to that cute girl or guy at the next table, or looking at something outside the window, or just doodling. Almost anything will be more engaging to the brain than semantic information that it does not deem relevant.

So what happens? Students’; attention fades in and out. They focus on the material for a few minutes, then they shift attention to something else, then return their attention to the material for another few minutes. The result is that students’; learning has gaps in it, and again they are going to top out at moderate learning, even when the teacher is doing a fantastic job of teaching for sense! The brain simply can not learn something it did not focus its attention on in the first place.

The Importance of Framing Relevance

So, the first step in providing students with a strong "why" for learning is to "frame" relevance. That is, we need to make sure that we carefully explain to or (better) show students why the material in every lesson we teach has meaning for them. If we do not do so, students will make sense of the material and revolve it around in working memory long enough to be tested on it (cram), but if they do not see any meaning to the material, it is very doubtful that they will retain much of it in long-term memory.

So, the question is, do you always take the time to build into your lessons a "relevance frame"? Do your students see how the information or skill you’;re about to teach should be important or interesting to them?

In How The Brain Learners , Sousa writes, "Teachers spend about 90 percent of their planning time devising lessons so that students will understand the learning objective (ie, make sense of it.) But to convince a learner’;s brain to persist with that objective, teachers need to be more mindful of helping students establish meaning "(p. 50).

Do not be like the teachers Sousa describes here. Do not spend 90 percent of your planning time trying to figure out how to teach the material so that it makes sense. Certainly, you need to make sure students can understand what you teach. But balance your planning time out a bit and spend a little more time on trying to make sure your students see the relevancy of what you’;re planning to teach. If they see the relevance, they will attend better and extremely learn more.

Using "Emotional Hooks"

The second "attention and encoding intensifier" I want to talk about today is emotion .

Often, relevance and emotion go hand in hand. When we see the relevancy of something we are being taught, we become more interested in it, and we start to get a little excited. And, it turns out, that raised level of excitation actually helps us learn the material more easily. Recent studies have demonstrated that a raised level of adrenaline in the system, as we get when we are emotionally involved in learning, actually helps the brain form new long-term memories. In addition, raised levels of dopamine in the brain, as we get when we feel good about our learning, also help to secure that learning in long-term memory.

The brain structure responsible for creating long-term memories is called the hippocampus (as with many brain structures, there are actually two hippocampi, buried deep in the medial temporal lobes on each side of the brain), and the extra "shot" of adrenaline that occurs when we are emotionally involved seems to act as a chemical "Post-It note" to the brain, saying, "This is interesting, you need to remember this!"

Great teachers-even if they do not know anything about the hippocampus-have figured out from experience the importance of using an "emotional hook" to get students’; attention and to show them the relevance of the material. The teaching of history is a good example. Talk to any History teacher, and they will tell you that Challenge Number One for them is always to get students to see the relevance of events that took place far in the past (and to our students, even the 1990′;s is far in the past! ).

So how do great History teachers get students to see the relevance of a past event? One of the best ways is by simulating that event and putting their students in the situation of the historical personages in some way. This kind of role playing helps students make an emotional connection to the historical personages which actions they are imitating, and this raised level of emotion also helps them better learn the material.

If the teacher then follows up the simulation by having students reflect on the situation that they just experienced and make connections to situations in the world today, or even better, to situations in their own day-to-day lives, not only will their emotions have have been raised, but they will see the relevance of the lesson – a relevance / emotion double whammy!

When Relevance Does not Exist

Now, I’;m sure you all agree with what I’;ve said above about the importance of relevance and emotion for learning. But, I’;m also aware that you probably have a few questions. The biggest question that always comes up when I discuss relevance and emotion with teachers goes something like this: "Yeah, I understand that relevance is important, but not everything in the curriculum is going to be relevant to the students. you’;re teaching something that the students need to learn, but there’;s really no immediate relevance to their lives that you can frame? "

It’;s a great question, and you’;re exactly right. Some material in the curriculum (long division, modern poetry, plate tectonics) is simply less relevant to students than other material. What do you do in such cases?

Here’;s my answer: whenever relevancy is hard or even impossible to frame, shift your focus to emotion. You’;re probably thinking, "If they do not see any relevance to the material, why would they get emotional about learning it?" Another good question. And the answer is, "They probably will not get emotional about the material." But the way you teach that material could generate emotion.

Take long division as an example. No matter how important you think long division is for your students to learn, you are not going to be able to convince them of that. So, how about adding some emotion to your teaching of long division by adding some (non-threatening) competition? You could put students in teams, provide a set of problems, and have them race to see who gets all of the problems correct first. Add some fun, peppy music in the background as they race.

Or, how about (after you’;ve moved from the initial teaching of the steps of long division into the practice phase) taking your students on a field trip (where to have your students transfer and apply them) new division skills to some real world problems in a real world setting? The social nature of the field trip, plus simply getting out of the normal school environment helps to add emotion to the learning. And the real world application of division may even help your students to see the relevance of division in their lives. But, whether they see any relevance or not, using a more emotion-generating approach in your lessons will help your students learn the material.

So, there you have it. Two powerful ways to intensify the learning of anything you teach: relevance and emotion. Take some time to sit down with your curriculum and look for places where the relevance can be framed a little better. Look for ways to add emotion to your teaching, whether by playing up the emotion inherent in the subject matter you’;re teaching, or (if no inherent relevance or emotion exists), by adding emotion to the way you teach the material. If you can improve your curriculum in these two areas, you will see a big pay-off in better attention, higher levels of engagement with the material, and extremely, higher achievement.