By Marco March
How do you grab students’ attention and hold it when there are so many distractions in the classroom? Normally these distractions are a culmination of boredom and agitation generated by the students themselves, so by making your content a little more interesting, student response will be more positive.
Of course there are ways around this. If you are teaching a particularly mundane topic, you might seek the assistance of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or another technique that they teach on the intensive Finnish PGCE course. But this should really be left as a last resort as it requires unnecessary effort when you could simply refurbish your own technique to make it a little bit brighter.
One way to pique interest is, as I like to call it, the ‘cliff-hanger’ approach — not because it involves soap opera drama studies, but certainly for the same reason why people are so addicted to them. Humans are predisposed to hunt for ‘the ending’. We crave conclusions, and if we don’t get given them, we look for them (even when there are none).
Consider every song that ever got stuck in your head. Annoying, right? For me, it is Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ because it just makes me want to whistle. That one I actually quite enjoy because it doesn’t make me want to rip my hair out. But what about the songs that convince you that the pain you feel when your hair follicles are being torn from your skull is sufficient to overcome the pain of having that unbearable melody stuck in your head? They are stuck there because you have heard a particular part of it, perhaps many times, but you either can’t remember the ending or haven’t heard it before. So that part of the song gets looped in the cerebral system known as the ‘phonological loop’ until you resolve the issue by listening to the song in full, ultimately bringing the torture to an end.
The same happens with other auditory and visual information (which gets looped in the visuospatial sketchpad). If you read the beginning of a story, you are more likely to fixate on the part that you know until you have a reasonable conclusion to tie it all together. This fixation varies in people depending on their capacity to problem solve but can be used in a broad sense to get students interested in a topic. This is because it is difficult for students to ignore all of the information given by a teacher. Even with less interested students and even with the most boring teacher, some of the target content will sink in. Students invest themselves in a topic (to at least some extent) and as such, they look for a conclusion in order for them to move on to other things. So… don’t give them one. Make them sweat over the who, what, and why of the content, and somewhere in that arduous process, they will come up with some imaginative — perhaps even thought-provoking — ideas. All you need to do is plant the questions.
However, nobody likes drilling something that is of no interest to them. For students to rehearse and dwell on the facts that they have been given, the content needs to be presented in such a way that, when it is recorded, it is associated with a positive memory. If not, they will likely not be keen to rehearse it. A little laughter or even just a smile goes a long way, but the problem is that not all students are going to find everything you do amusing all the time. It usually requires an enormous amount of effort to create and maintain an open atmosphere with laughter and creative thought, one conducive to learning new information. But it doesn’t have to. You’ve probably noticed that the best teachers, at least in the eyes of the pupils, are the ones who can relate best to their learners. And the way to do that is simple — adapt your teaching style to suit the students’ learning style.
There are three general categories for learning styles: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. It is likely (unless you are teaching music, art or carpentry) that a classroom will possess students who are inclined to use one of these mediums for processing information more than the others. It is the teacher’s duty to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of students individually and act according to their educational needs. If you can include these three means of information processing, sight, sound and experience all in one lesson, then you will have appealed to all of the learning styles — and thusly, all of the students.
There is a very easy way to do this. Get the students to do the work for you. Using their imagination to picture, hear or feel, depending on their preference, will stimulate their favourite faculty and inspire (hopefully good) ideas and potential solutions. If you are teaching problems in physics, for example, ask students to picture the problem in their head to appeal to the visually driven ones; get students to imagine how the problem sounds in language or sound effects such as using onomatopoeic expressions like the ‘Big Bang’ to appeal to the auditory learners; get the kinaesthetic people involved by telling them to experience or imagine how they feel the problem affects them and the things around them such as demonstrating gravitational pull with heavy and light objects. Going one step further, you could try to incorporate a sense of smell into your teaching with a field trip (such as to a farm). The only thing you need do is come up with contextual cues and let the students do the rest.
The classic ‘sage on the stage’ method of teaching is great for this type of imaginative learning because the students are inspired to create their own theory using the guidance that the teacher gives. But if you are not careful with this approach, their minds may wander off. The best way to avoid this is to check comprehension in a way that is not going to threaten the open atmosphere created through the use of accommodative teaching methods.
As is the case for many students, the bulk of the learning occurs outside of the classroom when they are free to consider the various interesting congruencies and possible hypotheses that could become of the information learned in a lesson. It is therefore up to teachers to plant the question in a manner that is best understood by their audience, feed their curiosity with information presented in a similarly engaging manner, and let them flourish in their own time.
Montagu Butler, J. (1977). Curiosity and Comprehension. English Teaching Forum, 50(2), pp.40-43.