3 Ways to De-Clutter Students’ Brains

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photo credit: Walraven via photopin cc
photo credit: Walraven via photopin cc

Adolescents don’t think the same way that adults do. Earth shattering? Probably not. However, according to Iroise Dumontheil, of University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, the difference may be more about clutter than it is about experience. In an article in The Guardian, outlining the research, Dumontheil and her partners say,

It is not always easy for adolescents to pay attention in class without letting their minds wander, or to ignore distractions from their younger sibling when trying to solve a math problem. What our research has shown is that there is simply too much going on in the brains of adolescents.

Dumontheil and her associates suggest that this clutter comes from differences in brain development. While the research seems to be more about neurology than it is about education strategy, teachers should consider the possibility that we may be contributing to the clutter that is distracting students from learning.

Even if we admit to being part of this problem, the larger issue is understanding what the clutter is and knowing how to remove it. So, how can teachers help students remain focused in class and make decisions that influence learning?

3 Tips to Help De-Clutter Students’ Brains
  1. Engage without distraction. A somewhat chaotic classroom can make for a fun, engaging learning environment, but if the chaos is not controlled, distraction can ensue. While creating a workshop environment, where students collaborate, remove any materials that aren’t being used for the activity or project. If mobile devices aren’t part of the
    photo credit: jeremytarling via photopin cc
    via: jeremytarling via photopin cc

    work, be sure they are put away. If they are in play, help students narrow their focus to the task at hand; it’s easy for adolescents to fall victim to the lure of games and social media, unrelated to the work. If the project involves groups of four, coach students to work only within their group, until interaction with others is necessary. Remind students constantly to focus on completing the task.

  2. Analyze sensory input. Teachers love to transform austere classrooms into eye-popping wonderlands, filled with inspirational posters, colorful paintings, flowers and more. While the intentions here are certainly admirable, the result isn’t always best for students, with already-cluttered brains. So, before you scurry into your classroom weeks ahead of opening day and spend 20 hours decorating, think about how this added sensory input might affect your students. Instead of listening to your mini lesson on fractions, a student may be thinking about how those geraniums remind her of her grandmother’s garden and the lemonade she drank last summer, while swaying gently on the porch swing. Not that you can’t ever have a plant in your room; you may want to build rapport with your students and grow to understand their clutter, though, before growing your classroom garden. You can easily gather this data with a 360 Spreadsheet.
  3. Be unpredictable. Thumbs up to 6th-grade teacher @danklumper for this tip. At first glance, being unpredictable might seem more likely to distract students, when in reality the opposite is true. If students are used to the same daily routine, boredom is likely to distract them; whereas, looking forward to the unknown will help them focus on what is to come. Rotate your activities daily. Change the amount of time you spend on various routines. Interrupt set times with jokes (kids love this). Keep them on the edge of their seats, eager to see what’s next. There’s no room for clutter, when students’ brains are filled with anticipation and engagement.

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Mark Barnes is the Founder of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series, The uNseries, and other books from some of education's most reputable teachers and leaders. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Connect with @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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