According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, the ability to focus is imperative to mastering cognitively demanding tasks. Certainly, absorbing challenging academic content requires deep work. Trying to do so in an environment that provides a multitude of distractions such as a classroom can be a daunting undertaking. The first step a teacher can take to optimizing the classroom environment involves communicating clear and fair behavior guidelines before content instruction begins. Once the teacher establishes and reinforces desired classroom decorum, students can pay attention, and the essential work of instruction can begin.
A recent article in Edutopia by Dr. Desautels, a professor of education, highlights the importance of attention, because students need to be calm and focused in order to absorb new material. Breaking content into smaller segments is an effective means to absorb content. When instructing students on time management at home, I suggest that they spend no more than 45 minutes on any particular task without taking a short three to five minute break. Physical movement like stretching or going to the kitchen for a drink of water can help avoid fatigue. It can also avoid overstimulating the brain, which can lead to a loss of attention.
Dr. Desautels suggests providing brief “brain breaks” in a classroom. “We can use brain breaks and focused-attention practices to positively impact our emotional states and learning. They refocus our neural circuitry with either stimulating or quieting practices that generate increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, where problem solving and emotional regulation occur.” This short break can actually help process the information.
Incorporating brain breaks in a classroom need not detract from the lesson. Creative teachers can include physical movement that is directly related to their content. For example, students in an English class can act out new vocabulary words with a classmate. Math students can trace imaginary axis lines for a graph or slope they’re working on. Students can also contribute their ideas for brain breaks as well, further providing a more relaxed atmosphere in which to learn. Have fun!