California Educator

February/March 2024

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T H E B R A I N E V O L V E D to promote survival. Every second, millions of bits of sensory information from the receptors of the eyes, ears, internal organs, skin and muscles make their way to the brain's attention entry gate, but only about 1% of it enters consciousness. The system that determines what gets in (i.e., what the brain attends to) is the retic- ular activating system (RAS). This primitive network of cells in the lower brain stem, through which all sensory input must pass to reach any higher regions of the brain, is essentially the same in your cat, your dog, your child and you. In the wild, an organism is well-served by an attention system that gives priority to things that are unexpected, changing and different from the usual. This is the key to the RAS attention gate: Any perceived source of danger is prioritized. However, in the absence of threat, attention is directed to any changes in an animal's or human's environment. Understanding the attention-getting system of the brain informs teachers about specific techniques they can employ to capture students' attention as new topics are introduced. Capturing attention in the classroom Although survival in the wild isn't much of a priority for most humans today, the RAS is still programmed to attend to perceived threats and change. If students feel physically and psycholog- ically unsafe in a school or a classroom, they 're less likely to focus their attention on the lesson. As noted earlier, in the absence of perceived threat, our brains are particularly receptive to what's new, curi- ous or unexpected. In school, the students' brains are always attending… just not always on the topics we're teaching! When students aren't attentive to a lesson or a textbook, the RAS isn't giving priority entry to the teacher 's voice or words on the page, but to other more interesting or distracting sights, feelings and thoughts. Teachers can use insights from neuroscience to help ensure that learners stay engaged By Judy Willis and Jay McTighe "The intent of using the techniques described is to hook student attention, but [not] simply to gain immediate attention for the moment. The longer- term goal is to hold that attention over time." Ways to Capture Students' Attention 6 47 F E B R U A R Y / M A R C H 2 0 24 Teaching & Learning

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