Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

Nov 16 Attention:Spotlight-Floodlight

In this month’s November 2016 Ed Tip I would like to explore the topic of attention.

In order to make an overall point, I would like to start with two activities.

First, watch the video below and follow the directions in the video.

Second, a few questions about a penny which a 40-years individual old has handled approximately 40,000 times.

Don’t take out a penny to seek answers, I’ll provide the answers at the end of the article.

Which way does Lincoln’s profile face? Are there words inscribed on the penny? If so, what are the words? Does the word “God” appear on the penny? What is on the backside of the penny?

Why do 50% of the people viewing the video miss the Gorilla at first take? In spite of handling a penny countless times, why do many pause before answering? Obviously the answer is a lack of attention.

The dictionary definition of attention is “notice taken of someone or something; the regarding of someone or something as interesting or important.”

“You can think about your brain’s attention span like a spotlight that can go wide and diffused, or tight and focused,” said David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah. Our attention span is guided by our intentions. We chose, in most situations, whether to focus the spotlight or when in the floodlight mode, to be relaxed. Psychologists refer to the “spotlight” attention mode as selective attention.

When a teacher asks students “to pay attention,” does it mean for them to take in more information? No, it means for them to take in less information. The instruction “pay attention” asks students to transform their attention from a broad “floodlight” to a more sharply focused “spotlight.”

Prior to the request for students “to pay attention,” the students’ attention is in the “floodlight” mode and might be focusing on after-school activities, what’s on the lunch menu, how many minutes are left in class, or a plethora of other activities.

The floodlight mode is similar when too many programs are running on a computer causing it to slow down. The brain can only process so much information in a given moment. Instructing students what to pay attention to is similar to shutting down running programs on a computer, and enables the mind to function more like a spotlight than a floodlight.

But when asked, “to pay attention,” the brain immediately allocates all of its attention resources to the task, shuts down non-essential running programs, and enters the spotlight attention mode.

Attention is one way the brain allocates its resources and by doing so exerts a heavy cognitive load on the brain. Similar to attention, the tasks of activation and inhibition of ideas and thoughts also place heavy cognitive demands on the brain and each consume similar amounts of brain resources.

In fact, inhibition of ideas and thoughts takes as much energy as the activation of them.

To illustrate the point of heavy cognitive load, take the Stroop test below to test inhibition and activation.


Stroop test


What did this exercise make you feel? Did you make any mistakes? Did you feel the effort to inhibit reading and to say the color? The inhibition of reading and the activation of saying the color of the word greatly increase the cognitive load on the mind.

Now you know what students feel when they are thinking and learning something new – a heavy cognitive load. Since thinking is hard work, it becomes necessary to shut down competing programs producing a spotlight, rather than a floodlight system, ensuring efficient and effective student learning.

Henry Ford embodied this idea when he said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few people engage in it.”

Daniel T. Willingham in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? Because the Mind is Not Designed for Thinking, provides insights into why thinking is hard work.

To argue his point that thinking is slow, strenuous, and uncertain, Willingham compares and contrasts thinking with the function of vision, movement, and memory systems.

Beginning with the slowness of thinking, Willingham compares it to the speed of vision. For example, Willingham points out that one “can instantaneously change focus from reading to looking out a window and at a glance instantly takes in a complex scene.” However, the thinking system does not instantly calculate the answer to an Algebra problem and needs to exert a large amount of time and effort to solve a problem.

Regarding the effort involved in thinking, Willingham observes that “thinking takes concentration but you don’t have to try to see or move. The mind excels at bipedal gait and balancing the moving body over undulating terrain.” One can perform other tasks while seeing and moving, but one can’t think about something else while reading Plato or Shakespeare or memorizing French verbs.

Writing about the uncertainty of thinking, he observes out that our visual system “seldom makes mistakes, and when it does, one usually thinks you are seeing something similar to what is actually out there-you’re close. However, our thinking system might get close to a solution of a problem or possibly far from correct. In fact, your thinking system may not produce an answer at all.”

“To ask someone to invest effort is never a simple request. Thinking involves too many uncertainties and unknowns,” Willingham believes. “However,” he writes, “that not thinking is a sign of laziness since thinking requires a lot of effort. Human beings are survival experts who are naturally resistant to squandering resources whenever effort is involved and carefully allocate energy.”

“When we can get away with it, we don’t think. Thinking is the less reliable and accurate, involves the most effort, and is the slowest of the four systems. Most people think they have a terrible memory, and it’s true your memory is not as reliable as your visual or movement systems-but your memory system is much more reliable than your thinking system, and provides answers quickly and with little effort,” Willingham concludes.

Given all of the problems relating to thinking, and its critical significance in the learning process, how does a teacher readily turn off students’ “floodlights” and turn on their “spotlights?”

For the answer to this question, let’s turn our attention to John Almarode, Assistant Professor at James Madison University and author of the book Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12. One of Almarode’s basic premises is that “if you are going to engage students, you have to start by engaging their brains.” And how does one engage students?

Almarode’s believes that the one of the simplest and most proficient methods to engage students is to make the material being presented behavioral relevance given he writes that “Our brain wants immediate behavioral relevance.”

In support of this statement, he cites the neuroscientific research centering on acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, that is one of the most important brain chemicals involved in learning (cortical imprinting) and essential for memory formation.

Acetylcholine is produced in the nucleus basalis, a region in the middle of the brain. “The nucleus basalis becomes very active when something is judged to be behaviorally relevant. When the nucleus basalis is activated, this collection of neurons triggers the release of an abundance of acetylcholine. Therefore, when something is deemed to be behaviorally relevant, a neurophysiological chain of events is set into motion that actually increases the formation of memories associated with the behaviorally relevant event,” Almarode submits. In short, the spotlight attention system helps the brain focus on events that are behaviorally relevant causing acetylcholine to be produced.

Lincoln penny

In the penny example, since it was not behaviorally relevant, the profile of Lincoln was never fully learned in spite of handling pennies thousands of times over the years. However, once the “spotlight” system was activated the details of the penny became obvious and it quickly committed to memory.

The reason many people initially miss the gorilla as they view the video is because the floodlight attention system is activated. But afterwards, when asked if they saw the gorilla in the video, it quickly became behaviorally relevant and the spotlight system is activated.

Both examples reinforce Almarode’s basic premise of “if you are going to engage students, you have to start by engaging their brains.” The Gorilla video and the Lincoln penny example underscore the importance of behavioral relevance resulting in brain engagement and the use of the spotlight attention system leading to the neurochemical reaction involving acetylcholine that ensures learning (cortical imprinting).

I would like to wish all of my readers in the United States a very peaceful Thanksgiving, celebrated with close friends and family in an atmosphere that reminds us of all the things for which we are grateful.


“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.