Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

April 16 Powerball Lottery


Maria Montessori, “If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.”

As all educators know in this age of students in constant contact with world, it is extremely challenging to engage students and then maintain their attention. Based on neuroscientific research, find out how incorporating two simple teaching techniques can overcome this everyday classroom challenge.

Novelty and Comparison: The Answer to Winning the Powerball Lottery in the Classroom

The January 2016 Powerball Lottery jackpot reached a record total of $1.5 billion with the winner having the option of taking $983.5 million in cash all at once. Your chances of hitting the jackpot and taking home the entire Powerball winnings were extremely small -- one in 175 million, according to the Multi-State Lottery Association. In the end, there were three winning tickets, each taking home $528 million.

Didn’t win the January 2016 Powerball drawing? Then you have lots of company, including an unlikely group of professionals not normally associated with Powerball lotteries, namely classroom teachers as they attempt daily to capture and maintain the attention of students.

Although the brain is an amazing organ, it is not equipped to process the billions of bits of information that bombards it every second. Filters in your brain protect it from becoming overloaded and these filters control the information flow.

Similarly, Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist, author, and a speaker at national and international professional educator conferences, estimates that out of the millions of bits of information the brain is exposed to, only approximately 2,000 bits per second enter the brain through the filters.

Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, writes that the brain takes in 12 million pieces of information per minute and we are only conscious of 40 bits.

Wilson UVA

The first filter that data passes through when entering the brain is the reticular activating system (RAS). Located at the lower back of the brain in the brain stem, the RAS receives input from sensory nerves endings in your eyes, ears, mouth, face, skin, muscles, and internal organs. These sensory messages must pass through the RAS to gain entry to the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the thinking area of the brain, and often referred to as the executive center of the brain.

The PFC is composed of highly developed nerve communication networks that process information through what are called executive functions, including judgment, analysis, organization, problem solving, planning, and creativity.


Given that learning requires attention, you now have a feeling of the challenges a classroom teacher faces everyday and why education is such a demanding profession. Faced with the odds of winning the Powerball, how is a teacher expected to explain Algebra while competing against such gigantic odds?

The answer to this question lies in the importance and significance of novelty and comparison to the brain from an evolutionary aspect – for our survival. The human brain’s primary function is not to memorize French verbs or understand the periodic table of elements, but to promote the survival of the species by keeping it alive and preserving the species through reproduction.

One of the primary ways the brain accomplishes this task is that it has evolved to seek out and immediately pay attention to novelty, and by keenly observing similarities and differences (comparative thinking) in environmental patterns.

For example, suppose an ancestor decided to take a leisurely walk through the savanna to the river for the group’s daily supply of water. But before reaching the river, he or she notices something novel and unusual in the brush. By paying attention to this novelty and disruption in a pattern, the brain insures the survival of the species.

A walk


For Survival


How can one apply this to the classroom and help teachers engage students? It has often been said that when students are not paying attention to the lesson it doesn’t mean they are not focusing in general. In fact, they are paying attention to a sensory input, just not the sensory input of the lesson.

How does a teacher insure information passes through the RAS filter to the PFC? Just as the brain uses and relies on novelty and comparison for our survival, so to must teachers infuse novelty and comparison into their everyday pedagogy.

The brain pays immediate attention when experiencing a novel event since novelty stimulates the instant release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain that brings on a sensation of joy and delight and is directly linked to the reward center of the brain.

A modern day example of a novel event is getting an unexpected text causing the dopamine cells in the brain fire up.

"To engage students, you have to engage their brains," according to John Almarode, an assistant professor in the College of Education at James Madison University. He writes that students thrive in a rich classroom environment when every 8 to 10 minutes the teacher mixes up the activities. After introducing an idea, have students turn and talk with their neighbor about the concept. Or, better yet, have them walk 20 steps, freeze, and then chat in a group of three. Play some music to energize the room and fill the silence that might otherwise keep students from opening up.

Almarode explains, “This not only makes school more fun, it's rooted in science. The brain loves novelty and when new strategies are used to convey information, it is more receptive to learning.”

“Part of our success as a species can be attributed to the brain’s persistent interest in novelty, that is, changes occurring in the environment”, writes David Sousa. Sousa, an international educational consultant and author of more than a dozen books, suggests ways that educators and parents can translate current brain research into strategies to improve learning. He submits that the brain is constantly scanning its environment for stimuli and when an unexpected stimulus arises—such as a loud noise from an empty room—a rush of adrenaline closes down all unnecessary activity and focuses the brain’s attention so it can spring into action.

Conversely, an environment that contains mainly predictable or repeated stimuli (like some classrooms?) lowers the brain’s interest in the outside world and tempts it to turn within for novel sensations.

Sousa stresses that using novelty does not mean that the teacher needs to be a stand-up comic or the classroom a three-ring circus. It simply means using a varied teaching approach that involves more student activity. Sousa’s suggestions for incorporating novelty in your lessons includes the use of humor, movement, multi-sensory instruction, quiz games, and music.

Just as survival depends on recognizing the changes in our ancestor’s expected environment, people are also responsive to remembering information by identifying similarities and differences. Judy Willis reports that, “researchers have found that identifying similarities and differences is the most effective way of committing information to memory.”

In his book Compare & Contrast, Harvey F. Silver, opines that comparative thinking is one of our first and most natural forms of thought. He writes that, “When we are infants, one of the first differences we must identify is that between mother and other. Without the ability to make comparisons—to set one object or idea against another and take note of similarities and differences—much of what we call learning would quite literally be impossible.”

The underpinning of Silver’s book is based on studies of comparative thinking and what makes it so special by renowned educators Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock (2001). By compiling the available research on effective instruction, the educators found that strategies that engage students in comparative thinking had the greatest effect on student achievement, leading to an average percentile gain of 45 points. Marzano's research in The Art and Science of Teaching (2007) reconfirmed that asking students to identify similarities and differences through comparative analysis leads to eye-opening gains in student achievement.

In Compare & Contrast, Silver writes that comparative thinking helps teachers achieve five distinct instructional goals: strengthening students' memories, developing higher-order thinking skills, increasing student comprehension, enhancing students' writing in content areas, and developing students' habits of mind.

As all educators know in this age of students in constant contact with the world, it is extremely challenging to engage students and then maintain their attention but through my personal experience as an educator, I can attest to the efficiency and effectiveness of novelty and comparison thinking as teaching techniques.


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.