Brains, shoes, & learning


Are you aware of your shoes right now? I’m assuming you are wearing shoes, if not, substitute underwear, if that’s not applicable, well, you have odd tastes.

Are you aware of your shoes? The brain filters out the vast majority of all the sense stimuli that come in. Otherwise we’d be overwhelmed with data. So, most likely, your shoes and how they feel are not part of what makes it past that attention filter.

That’s something I learned this morning. Or, maybe not learned, but was reminded of. We have evolved to pay the most attention to things that involve us and that are changing. It does not help our evolutionary fitness if we pay equal attention to every stimulus from the feel of the dirt beneath our feet to the snarl of a tiger hiding in the next bush. The dirt is constant and pretty much un-changing. It’s not important to us, so we tune it out. But most bushes don’t conceal tigers, so when something seems different or out of place it gets our attention.

This is an automatic process, not something we are really able to control. Try to remember how your toes feel right after you clip your toenails. There’s a bit of skin that used to be sheltered by the nail which is now exposed. It’s an odd feeling, until your lizard-brain says, “nope, unchanging, no big deal” and decides to tune it out.

Boredom occurs when we are trying to focus attention on unchanging stimuli. (As proven by this morning’s talk by an administrator…) Meditation is the deliberate acknowledgement and discarding of all stimuli, or perhaps treating all stimuli equally.

Educational content must break through that initial attention filter in order to be retained. That’s only the first step, but it’s vital. A bored student retains little. I learned by note-taking, which at least forced me to process the information a little. But oh, how many of my old college notebooks have a line of writing that trails off smaller and smaller, curving down as I dozed off.

One of the challenges I have as an educator is to try to get students engaged with the material. The traditional chalkboard or PowerPoint lecture can’t do that very well. That’s why I like worksheets and group assignments. It is a way to keep students alert, because social interaction is important to us primates. Way harder to zone out when talking to three or four peers as compared to one-way listening in a lecture.

Reminder to self: blog about lectures as dictation sometime.

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