Don’t ask me why, but I started thinking about the fun old Schoolhouse Rock songs, that I still remember 50 years after I first heard them. The catchy tune of Conjunction Junction came to mind. (If you have never heard it and have no idea what I am talking about you can listen to it here: Conjunction Junction.) I realized that this is so very important in teaching today. Not necessarily for the English concept of conjunctions but for the teaching aspect of transitions, fun and active learning, and for making connections.
Research has shown that the attention span is dropping. In 2000 the average attention span was about 12 seconds. In 2015 the average attention span has dropped to only 8.25 seconds. Ironically, scientists have proven that a goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds. Basically we, as teachers, must keep the attention of our students to be successful in having them understand the concepts we are teaching.
So how do we as teachers get past the very short attention spans of our students? We all know this is not an easy thing to overcome. Once you have lost the attention of the students, it can be difficult to get them back on task. The best way to keep the student’s attention is to have smooth effective transitions during a class period. Also, students must be actively learning and have the learning applicable to them, to stay connected and on task.
Establish Routines and Transitions
The days of teachers being in the front of the class, giving students information, are not effective any longer, due to the lack of attention. Teachers must get students into routines and have good smooth transitions from one learning activity into the next learning activity. They must have ample opportunities for the students to be actively engaged in the learning. Teachers must make the connections on how the material being taught is relevant and relates to the students. If you start with students having downtime at the start of class, it will be much more difficult to get them actively learning and being productive later in the class. We have all heard the term “Bell to Bell instruction”. That does not mean the teacher is teaching the entire time. It does mean the teacher has a plan and is directing the learning during the period.
One of the best ways to have active learning taking place at the start of class is to have a “Bell Ringer” or “Warm-up” ready to go for the students to be working on, at the start of class. You must get students in the routine of knowing that they are expected to start working on the problem or activity at the start of class. This does not necessarily mean a class silently working, individually, on the problem or activity. It can be work or discussions done with students around them or throughout the class depending on the teacher’s comfort level of students moving around the classroom. Bell ringers and warm-ups can be used in so many different ways. You can vary how you use them and exactly what you are trying to accomplish with them on a regular basis.
Bell ringers-and warm-ups can be used to review previously taught concepts. They can be used to preview, introduce, or connect concepts you will be presenting that day. They can be used to reteach concepts that the students struggled with on quizzes and tests. They can be used for students to be creative or explore fun and interesting ideas related to your subject, but not directly taught in your standards. Having a problem or activity ready for the students to work on at the start of class is a perfect way to get your class started, on task, and working.
The teacher does not have to be the person giving the direct instructions to accomplish these types of problems or activities. Students must be taught and learn so they are expected to start working on these problems or activities at the start of the class period. These types of problems or activities should take no more than 5 – 10 minutes of class time. They need to be a variety of fun, interesting or pointed problems and activities where the students are thinking and working on your subject. This will get them ready for the first transition into the next phase of the class period.
After the students have completed the bell ringer or warm-up, they need to understand that they will be transitioning into the next phase of the class period. It can be either review of previous work, like going over the assignment students were asked to complete outside of class, the previous day’s lesson, or introduction of the new lesson you will be starting that day. It can be a discussion of what the students have learned and retain from the problems and activities you had them do in the previous day’s class or work on independently outside of class. It will totally depend on how you have set up you class and how you like to have your class flow throughout the period.
The key here is the students must be actively involved in whatever is taking place. This can be the students presenting what they learned in previous lessons or on the assignment you gave them. It could be the teacher asking directed questions to check for understand or to have students explain what they have learned, discovered, or noticed about what was being taught.
It could be the teacher asking questions to further the student’s knowledge of the material being discussed or to make connections to what is being taught. Students must be taking part in what is happening in class. It should NOT be students passively sitting there listening to the teachers read answers and checking their work. Students must be doing something to keep their attention and have them actively engaged in the lesson.
Learn by Doing
We all learn by doing! We do not learn by passively sitting and listening to someone else tell us facts and information we must learn and remember or for us to check to see if we performed the correct steps or processes. This is where teachers need to be asking far more questions than giving out facts and information. Teachers must ask questions like “Which problem would you have me check to verify your answer?” or “Which problem and the easiest or most difficult for you to complete?” or “Which problem are you most confident you worked correctly?” or “How is the material we are discussing relevant to the students. The key is students must be actively thinking and involved in what you are doing in class.
Teachers have, sad to say, developed many bad habits which are very counterproductive to students learning. Many times, class starts, and the teacher must take care of the daily routines of taking attendance, checking in with students who were absent or have missed and need to make up work, quizzes, or tests, and all the other myriad of teacher duties that must be accomplished at the start of class. Students end up sitting in class talking to the other students around them or getting on their phones and you have lost their attention. Once this has happened, it can be very difficult to get the students refocused and ready to learn.
Teachers also have fallen into the habit of being the person in charge of all the learning that takes place in the class. Teachers MUST make sure the students get into routines where the students know exactly what is expected of them and that they are responsible for participating in their learning. Please note that even if the students are in regular routines, this does not always mean that everything will go smoothly, and students will be on task and focused. It does mean there is a much greater chance of that happening and if students are off task, it is usually easier to get them back on task and refocused.
Depending on whether you have transitions from the bell ringer or warm-up into a review or instruction, you will need to transition into the next phase of your class. Students must be aware and clued into the transition that will be taking place for the next phase of the period. It needs to be a smooth and quick transition. Students must know what is expected of them and that you will hold them accountable for doing what is expected. When the transition is made teachers must make connection for the students to complete the transition. If this transition is into the new instruction for the day, teachers should either make the connection to how previous work is related or how what is being presented will be useful or applicable for the student.
This is especially true for math! For math, teachers assume that students are ready to learn the math being presented. We all know that this is no necessarily true. We are back to the attention span issue. If there is no connection or there is no relevance seen by the student, for what is being taught, you have lost the student’s attention and you will start to see either disruptive behaviors or disconnect from the students. Their focus will be put on something other than what is being taught.
Connections and relevance must be made for the students to continue to be actively involved and continue learning. Good examples of this would be topics like the Distributive Property of Multiplication of Binomials. Students see problems like 4(5x-7) or (2x-5)(3x+4) and see absolutely no connection to anything they are ever going to do or use in their lives. They see a bunch of numbers and letters that do not relate to anything they do or care about. Instead of starting with the typical abstract concept of these topics, start with a concrete example of how these concepts could be used by and relate to the students. For the Distributive Property, start with something like 8 x 43.
Show the students that this is just the Distributive Property, 8(40+3). Show them that they can use the Distributive Property to work problem quickly and easily in their heads. Show them that by working 8 x 40 which is 320 and 8 x 3 which is 24 and by adding 320 + 24 together and getting 344 they have worked the problem without a calculator with simple single digit multiplication.
For Multiplication of Binomials problems, start with 32 x 45. You can do that show students, they can work problems like this quickly and easily in their heads by working this problem as (30+2)(40+5). They can use the expanded Distributive Property or F.O.I.L. and complete the work as 30 x 40 which is 1200, 30 x 5 which is 150, 2 x 40 which is 80, and 2 x 5 which is 10. By adding 1200 + 150 + 80 + 10 to get 1440 they have completed the multiplication without writing down the traditional algorithm they are used to using for this type of problem. They may have to jot a few numbers down, but it is still easier than the traditional algorithm they use for this type of problem.
Overall, the days of teaching like what was portrayed by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are gone forever! (If you have no idea of what I am talking about with this reference, you can watch that clip here: Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) Teachers must be acutely aware of making quick, smooth, and meaning transitions to keep the student’s attention. They must keep the students actively involved by asking far more questions than giving out facts or information.
Finally, teachers must make the instruction meaningful and relevant to the students. If these three things are done you will see a highly effective teacher, with high achieving students who are learning the subject being taught. Please note everything will not be perfect or a panacea of the ultimate classroom, but there will be far fewer problems and less disruptions seen in the classroom by the students. All we can do as teachers is to give ourselves and our students the best chance for success. Transitions, Active Learning, and Connections are to accomplish what we are all trying to do. We all want a positive and productive classroom where learning is taking place and the students are achieving high levels of success.