Educators educating Educators

Feb 18

January 2018 Neural Networks

“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori schools and a pioneer in early childhood education. Today, her theories are still implemented in Montessori schools all over the globe.

Children are often criticized for “not paying attention” by their parents and teachers, and surprisingly, the criticism is unjustified. It is a neuromyth that the brain is not paying attention, in fact, the brain is always paying attention to something. What is really meant when we falsely accuse our children of “not paying attention” is that the child or student is not paying attention to what we want them to pay attention to. The information might seem relevant and important to us, but isn’t to them.

Viewed another way, when teachers say “pay attention,” does it mean for students to take in more information? No, it means for them to take in less information, but more specific information which the teacher considers relevant using their selective attention. Viewed in this manner, attention is how the brain allocates its resources.

The following short You Tube video will demonstrate that attention is selective by giving an example of selective attention and what happens when we are told “to pay attention.”

As revealed in the video, we are highly selective in what we focus on. In fact, scientists tell us that we do not pay attention to the vast bulk of information that is available to us. The vast bulk of information, as apprehended by our senses, simply has no effect on our conscious mind, because of this remarkable capacity for selective attention. With our minds, we can focus on minute details and shut out other inputs.

In her book Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice, Patricia Wolfe explains that he brain is constantly scanning the environment for stimuli, excluding trivial information and focusing on relevant data. Before information can reach the relational, patterning, or memory storage areas of the brain, it must pass through the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS, located in the brainstem, automatically and unconsciously filters all incoming stimuli and decides which data a person attends to or ignores. It effectively filters the thousands of stimuli constantly bombarding the sensory receptors, allowing one to focus on relevant stimuli. It excludes background information and “tunes out” distractions or trivial information, such as awareness of your clothes on your body or the feeling of your back against a chair. In reality, your “unconscious” brain is taking over the initial decision-making process for you.

In addition, the RAS also controls awareness levels by changing the level of excitement one experiences to meet the changing environmental conditions. If stimulation is decreased, a person becomes calm and might become drowsy or even go to sleep. When a person awakes, the RAS increases the level of excitement in the cortex and the person becomes aware, or conscious (Binney & Janson, 1990). It is the RAS that allows you to fall asleep on a plane but awake suddenly when the plane begins to shudder.

What factors influence the brain during this initial filtering of information? How does the RAS determine what is relevant and what is not and what to pay attention to?

Patricia Wolfe examines three factors that influence whether a stimulus is kept or dropped during the RAS filtering process.

One key component in the filtering process is whether the incoming stimulus is different from what we are used to seeing-whether it is novel. Novelty is an innate attention-getter. To survive, our ancestors living on the savannahs or in caves had to be aware of any novel or unique stimulus present in the environment. We’re not much different. Our brains today are still programmed to pay attention to the unusual.

However, a characteristic of novelty that makes it difficult to employ on a daily basis is the brain’s tendency toward habituation. If a sight or sound is new and unusual, we initially pay attention. But if the same sight or sound occurs over and over again, the brain becomes so accustomed to the stimulus that it ignores it. This is known as habitation.

Intensity is another factor that affects attention. Generally, the louder a sound or brighter the light, the more likely each is to draw attention. When two stimuli are competing for attention, the one that is more intense will attract attention first. Advertisers take advantage of this phenomenon by increasing the volume of TV commercials to obtain our attention.

The third factor influencing attention is movement. In general, our attention is directed toward stimuli that move. The flashing of neon lights as well as the flashing lights of a police car produce the illusion of movement.

Although novelty, intensity and movement are factors that influence the brain to pay attention, over time their effect will fade because of habituation. However, there are two additional factors that influence attention and that educators have control over and are not subject to the limitations of habituation: meaning and emotion. This month we will examine how and why meaning influences learning while next month the importance of emotion will be examined.

Pattern recognition is a phenomenon describing how the brain attempts to match incoming sensory stimuli with information that is already stored in circuits or networks of neurons. That is, the neural networks “check out” sensory stimuli as soon as they enter the brain to see if they form a familiar pattern. If they do, a match occurs, and the brain determines that the new information is familiar. In this case, we could say that the new information makes sense or has meaning.

If there is no match, the brain will attend to the new information for a short amount of time because it is novel, but after a short amount of time the brain cannot make sense out of the incoming stimuli, and it will not process them further.

Look at the illustration below. Initially you might not be able to see anything recognizable, but with a little diligence, you will eventually see the image of a Dalmatian.

Hint: the Dalmatian is a bit to the right of center. Its head is pointing down and it is sniffing the ground or drinking from a puddle. Once you have seen the dog, it will be almost impossible not to see it.


Let’s examine what just happened in your brain. Even though you cannot see the entire dog, your brain used the information that was there to allow you to recognize it. How did this happen? You were able to “see” it because you activated a previously established circuit of neurons in which that information is stored. You would never be able to detect this dog among the spots if you had never seen one or a picture of one, and it was not already stored in your brain. You cannot reconstruct a neural circuit or network if it was never activated in the first place.

We can now begin to understand the term “meaning” and the important role it plays in attention. If our brains can find no previously activated networks into which new information fits, they are much less likely to attend to it. Our species has not survived by attending to and storing meaningfulness information.

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist and most famously known for his constructivist theory of knowing, looked at how children develop intellectually throughout the course of childhood. His constructivist theory, which has contributed greatly to the field of education, assumes that all knowledge is constructed from the learner’s previous knowledge, regardless of how one is taught.

Piaget posits that people actively construct their knowledge of the world based on the interactions between their ideas and their experiences. Accordingly, children do take an active role in the learning process, acting much like little scientists as they perform experiments, make observations, and learn about the world. As children interact with the world around them, they continually add new knowledge, build upon existing knowledge, and adapt previously held ideas to accommodate new information. From a neuroscientist’s viewpoint, as children are discovering new knowledge, their brains are forming new neural pathways or adding onto previously established pathways.

To further enhance this point, inspect the picture below and name the person circled.

Reagan Baby

No idea? The reason is because your brain has not been exposed to this picture before and has not established any prior neural networks. He is the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan.


Let try another baby picture of a past president of the United States.

President Clinton

Again, probably no existing neural networks that can be activated, therefore no meaning.  This is a baby picture of President Clinton.

Consider students in the classroom confronted with information that doesn’t match anything previously stored. Their brains look for an appropriate network to help them make sense or meaning of the information. If nothing can be found, the information is discarded as meaningless. Is it possible that much of what we teach in schools fits this description? Then why should we be surprised that our students’ brains refuse to attend.

In addition, sustained attention on something that can’t be figured out or that makes no sense is not only boring, it’s almost impossible. However, many times this is what we expect our students to do.

When designing lessons, educators should always remember that accessing prior knowledge is how children make sense of the world. By designing the learning environment to aid learners to take in new information that fits it into existing neural networks by using meaning, enhances learning and memory. In short, educators must strive to enhance students’ memory by making information more accessible by making it more memorable.

Here’s to effective teaching.


“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.