John Jensen: Picture the Brain Learning

by John Jensen, PhD

As a school consultant tasked with drawing individual students from their classroom for a specific purpose, I soon recognized when this was unwelcome. Glancing inside the door, I could see that all were concentrating, heads angled toward their desks, bobbing up and down rhythmically. If the activity was presentation, all eyes would be directed toward the teacher. Clearly in evidence was focus.

Walking in and saying to the teacher "I'd like to pull out Jeremy for a few minutes" could break everyone's concentration and deprive Jeremy of the current high-value time. Particularly for teachers who fiercely guarded these delicious periods of concentration, scheduling pull-outs carefully (or not doing them at all with that teacher) was required.

The value of such concentrated activity was the focus of a recent Carnegie Mellon University study advanced by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson ("Brain, Interrupted," New York Times, May 3, 2013).

Studies to date have found that multi-tasking causes all the tasks to suffer in effectiveness due apparently to the cost of the effort at switching focus. To take the research a step further, the Carnegie Mellon study examined first the effect on mental tasks of interruption compared to non-interruption. Interruption made the brain 20% dumber.

Other variables were introduced. Research subjects were told to expect an interruption (which later occurred), and then were told to expect one but that did not occur. In the former, being able to expect the interruption improved mental efficiency from a 20% deficit to a 14% deficit. The results of expecting an interruption but it not occurring, however, were startling. Mental efficiency improved 43%, exceeding even the control group.

From these findings, researchers concluded that an expectation of interruption and an intent to counteract it enabled participants to learn how to adapt to the distraction and sustain their concentration. We draw from these findings that 1) concentration is important for mental tasks and 2) people can learn how to stay focused.

To appreciate the significance of this for classroom instruction, we can add a couple other factors. To begin with, teachers know that distracted students are not learning, while focused students usually are, but what's the difference instructionally between these two conditions? Is it simply a matter of teacher discipline, pressing students to "pay attention?"

The difference lies deeper. In order to concentrate, students' attention must be removed from the teacher and shift instead to a mental field they themselves sustain. Concentration and distraction each describe a relationship to a mental field, one attached to it and the other not. Students don't just concentrate. They concentrate on something.

In distraction, the mind wanders off from a consistent focus, typically with attention directed outward to stimuli of sound, word, activity, or physical environment that bear little relationship to academic content. The distracted state is not a total loss, however, because alertness to changing outer conditions fills a role in our physical and emotional survival. Students allow themselves to be distracted by peers because it meets a perceived need.

In focus or concentration, however, the mind draws back from the outer stimuli to attend to internal stimuli it chooses consciously to invest in, internal stimuli it at least temporarily values more than the external stimuli. The presence of the teacher moves to the background, distractions from peers are fended off into a manageable periphery, and the mental field already carried within looms larger.

For the stimuli to be already accessible in the mind, they must have been placed there earlier—hence, dependent on memory and prioritization. The contents of the mind exist only because the individual has previously determined them to be important enough to save and return to for later processing. We might apply the word "education" to this added processing of sensory data, but it also incorporates the development of all the competences necessary for living.

The mental field is pivotal to education, however, because all consistent learning holds together as a field. To the extent that students perceive a given course they take as a random aggregation of data bits bound together only because they appear on the same test, and lack any intrinsic internal relationships, students can't think about the information, passing their mind smoothly from one facet to another–feature to quality, event to concept, past to present, global to micro, system to detail.

A way to appreciate this point is to ask yourself "What am I good at?" In place of an academic discipline, you might name "personal relationships" as your field of mastery. But about whatever you choose, ask yourself then, "Can I think about this field with no further input right now?" Your answer is "Of course," and you set about to demonstrate. Your mind picks any corner of the field, and zooms in on it. You draw up any experiences, actions, expectations, or questions, and dwell upon them. This very flexibility and breadth of movement within the field distinguishes your mind from the mind of someone less skilled. Your mastery means you can accomplish any task you wish within the field of attention you hold.

Now imagine that every school subject reached such a level of familiarity. Students could enter it (choosing to concentrate and determined to resist distraction as we noted above), and then develop whatever tasks naturally at hand there. In academics, this would draw from prior input (retention) of an array of factual material, but then the development of it in the direction the course suggested—more nuanced judgments, better problem-solving, mastery of sequences and relationships, and so on. All this would depend first on entry into the field and then development of the material that lay within.

The familiar activity that enables that development to occur is essentially explaining. Conducted for oneself it leads to increased understanding, and toward another it amounts to making sense. Four implications are suggested for a teacher:

1. Teachers need to deliver essential input by one means or another.

2. Teachers need to create the conditions for students to learn concentration.

3. Students need to sustain concentration on the mental field so that its intrinsic order binds it into a field of understanding.

4. Students need to explain the field to each other so they learn to make sense of what they retain.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request: [email protected]

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at [email protected]
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