By Alice Thomas and Glenda Thorne
Q: Is attention related to motivation?
In our work with teachers, we frequently ask, “In your experience, what are the most common impediments to student achievement in your classrooms?” Almost without fail, at the top or near the top of the list is the big “M” word: MOTIVATION. Asked to elaborate, teachers continue with statements such as:
“The students just don’t care.
“I can’t get them interested in the lesson.”
“They look at me like they already know this isn’t going to be relevant to them.”
“They look at me like they know it’s hopeless for them to learn it, so why try?”
“They just aren’t motivated.”
So what does this have to do with attention? It is easy for most of us to pay attention to things that are really interesting or exciting to us. But it is difficult for most of us to pay attention to things that are not. (Remember sitting in church last week and “wandering off” during the sermon? Or listening half way to your friend’s recounting of a golf game hole-by-hole and stroke-by-stroke?)
The trick in school is for the teacher to construct lessons that allure and engage – motivate the learner. Often this can be done by relating what is to be learned to real life. Relate Romeo and Juliet, for example, to the realities in our communities of prejudice and unfounded hatred, or gang wars. Or relate today’s discrimination to The Diary of Anne Frank or the Holocaust or Bosnia or the Civil War in America, and hold class discussions of discrimination that students have personally experienced or witnessed.
And at home? If your elementary school child is interested in rocks, gather as many books and videos about rocks as you can to encourage his/her engagement in learning, and encourage him/her to begin a rock collection. If your teenage daughter is interested in clothes and make-up, encourage her to read fashion magazines to peak her interest in pleasure reading. Encourage her to compare today’s fashion with the fashion popular during her grandmother’s times. If your child has a research paper or project on a topic that is of absolutely no interest to him, encourage him to talk with his teacher to see if another topic might be negotiated. If we encourage our children to pursue areas in which they are interested, and if we encourage our children to search assigned topics for connections to things that interest them, the chances are that their interest will keep their attention focused.
Q: How can a teacher help ensure optimal attention?
A: Variety in instructional strategies is helpful for gaining the optimal attention of all students. In this respect, children are no different than adults who need to perform a variety of activities throughout the day in order to remain aroused, alert and attentive. When adults have performed one task for too long, they become bored and restless. The same is true for school children/adolescents. Some, however, become bored and restless and tune out more easily than others. For these students, variety in instructional strategy is most crucial.