Last week, I was walking through the halls of our school and saw many classes in session. I observed one teacher enthusiastically lecturing using a power-point presentation. I could see the phones out by the students in the last row of the classroom. The screens displayed a game, several text messages, and a video.
Entire books and seminars are now advising us on how to foster a new culture of politeness in the classroom. Undoubtedly, a good dose of Miss Manners would be helpful in correcting our academic incivility. But issues of classroom decorum mask a deeper question: How do we teach our students to pay attention? How can they focus on the teacher, on their fellow students, on the issue at hand and, most important, on the content lurking in the instruction that is being provided?
Among recent philosophers, Simone Weil (1909-1943) placed attentiveness at the center of pedagogical concern. According to Weil, attention represents the supreme act and virtue of the mind. Even when we fail to find the correct solution, an hour of attentive study of a mathematical problem reveals to the mind the vicissitudes of the quest for the answer. Attentiveness is not limited to intellectual pursuits. Authentic friendship is built on careful attention to the words, silences and needs of the other person. “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
In retrospect, our greatest educational debt is often to the teachers who doggedly taught us to pay attention. A teacher showed us how to read a poem. This reading involved actually listening to, savoring, wondering about and pulling apart the verse. One college teacher taught us how to see a painting. We learned how to notice colors, contrasts and composition of which we had no previous knowledge. Another instructor showed us how to listen to a piece of symphonic music. We suddenly heard the mandolin and guitar gamboling into the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. There are stretches of boredom in these acts of attention, especially in the early stages. But the labor ultimately yields a joy of which our students are probably unaware.
It is hardly a secret that the key battle in any class is whether our students will pay attention to us or dull this attention in favor of something else: text messages, the music that is playing in their ears. In order for attentive learning to take place this clutter must disappear. Some of our students require more support than others to be attentive to our instruction. Inattentive students face a difficult learning life due to lack of concentration and the inability to self-regulate their behaviors.
It is important for teachers to understand the inattentive students and how to manage the behaviors in a general way, but it is even more important for us to know our students as individuals. Having a relationship with the student can make it easier to communicate with and control the student’s behavior during instruction and learning. A respectful and consistent positive relationship with an inattentive student can assist us in understanding the student’s behavior. We must employ strategies that are tailored to the needs of each individual student.
With good rapport between teachers and students practical strategies will be effective. Calm, verbal strategies facilitates students’ attention to task. These strategies include voice control (low to loud volume, firmness, tone and pace), short phrases, repeated instructions, and the use of the student’s name. The right words and tone can defuse a situation and ensure that the teacher-student relationship remains intact and free of disruptive confrontations. Non-verbal teaching strategies, such as pointing out the important information for the student can draw the student’s attention more easily and manage distracted behavior. The degree to which teachers use hand gestures in coordination with speech during instruction can impact performance among students. Developing a behavior management system that is appropriate and adapted to suit individual student’s needs is also necessary in order to create a positive learning environment. Behavior strategies that are the most successful are a combination of reward systems and constant monitoring. The behavior management system shouldn’t be a one size fits all, but rather strategies should be adjusted to the needs of the child. If teachers have an awareness of their students’ strengths, weaknesses and needs they are better equipped to develop teaching and learning strategies and, subsequently, behavior management strategies that are appropriate and effective.
Teachers need to reflect on their expectations regarding student attention in their classrooms. As we plan our teaching approaches, it is reasonable to expect brief lapses in student attention. In addition to incorporating active learning incorporate visual and verbal strategies to reinforce the most important information. Varying your teaching methods and maintaining an engaged teaching style over a 90 minute class session will help keep your students engaged and learning.