This article offers some of the ideas presented at my workshop, “Brain Research Comes to Sunday School,” at the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators conference in February. The good attendance at this workshop is an indication that Christian educators want to learn about brain research and ways it might help them be better teachers. In Our Spiritual Brain, Barbara Bruce wrote that religious educators need to know how the brain functions and how to translate that information into better, more usable lessons to help students continue their journey of faith.
Getting attention was the first topic of the workshop. As Patricia Wolfe wrote in Brain Matters, “If students are not paying attention, they are not engaged, and hence they are not learning.” She said that educators need to be aware of the processes the brain uses during the initial sifting and sorting stage, when it is scanning through the many sensory messages it is receiving to decide which to pay attention to.
Research suggests that people are more likely to pay attention to things that move, that are novel, and that involve emotions. When the brain is deciding what to focus on, the first consideration is survival, which may explain why attention is directed toward stimuli that move. In our distant evolutionary past, if something moved, it could have meant either danger or an opportunity for food. Since movement attracts attention, teachers should use every opportunity to move, to change pace, to alternate sitting and standing, to roam around the room, or to stand beside a student — the more movement, the more likely the attention.
Novelty is another factor the activating system considers as it sifts through information to determine on which stimuli to focus; it asks whether the incoming stimulus is different from what it is used to seeing, whether or not it is novel. When anything is perceived as unusual, the brain releases the chemical norepinephrine that “wakes it up.” Teachers can use this idea of novelty to help get students’ attention by startling them with something different. For example, for the problem of Scripture passages becoming too familiar, it adds novelty to read from a different translation or to read the passage in dialogue form. In How to Teach So Students Remember, Marilee Sprenger suggests that teachers can begin with a bizarre fact that relates to their content, i.e. “Did you know … “ Or, wear something different or related to the lesson, like a coat of many colors. Use real things — loaves & fishes — have a Seder with appropriate foods, change the room, hang something from the ceiling.
There is, however, one caveat about using novelty to get attention and that is that no matter how novel it was the first time, it becomes “old hat” after a while. The brain becomes accustomed to the stimulus and begins to ignore it; the stimulus is no longer novel.
Our brains are constantly being bombarded with input and we can’t pay attention to everything. As the amygdala in the brain screens sensory information to determine what is worthy of the attention, it focuses first on information that has strong emotional content (Wolfe p. 88). Teachers can include emotion in the following ways: Play music related to your content. Begin with a story. Stories provoke interest more than facts and figures. Start the class by asking students to make a choice. Use a quote and ask them to indicate how strongly they agree or disagree with it. Or, put posters at opposite sides of the room and as they enter, have students stand by the poster they favor.
Emotions are contagious, so be enthusiastic yourself; model your love of what you are teaching and how important your faith is to your life. Researchers have discovered the existence of “Mirror Neurons” or brain cells that activate when we watch a person do something — exactly the same response as when we do it ourselves! These neurons explain the importance of the teacher not looking bored or lifeless.
Have students make a human continuum and stand in line from one extreme to the other. The emotional involvement of having to decide where they should stand helps assure their attention.
Show passion in your teaching. It is your passion that will sell students on the “why” of Sunday School. Your passion tells your students what Jesus means to you and how important your faith is to your life. Never forget that you are a model of faith to your students. As Eric Jensen writes in Enriching the Brain, “Passion in teaching is critically important. You can have all the knowledge and use all the strategies in the world, but without the passion, you’ll get few student ‘takers.’ Passion is the electricity, the energy, and driving fire behind learning” (p. 210).
When teachers have trouble getting students’ attention, brain research suggests that they become more intentional in their use of movement, novelty, and emotion in their classes.
Keeping Students’ Attention
Three of the factors that influence whether students will sustain their attention throughout a lesson are meaning, relevance, and emotion. The brain may attend to meaningless information for a short time because it is novel; but if it can make no sense out of an incoming stimulus, it will probably not process it further.
One reason a topic might have no meaning to a student it that it is too difficult for the students to understand, especially if it is too abstract. A common problem arises when Confirmation class teachers use their notes and texts from seminary courses to teach young adolescents. There is likely to be a mismatch between the cognitive demands of the concepts and the cognitive development of most of these students. To get some idea of students’ cognitive development, consider these questions:
Is the student comfortable with algebra?
Is he or she able to consider “What if … “ questions such as, “What if Mary hadn’t agreed to become the mother of Jesus?” Is the student able to think about what other people might be thinking?
If students answer “No” to these questions, their cognitive development may be at the concrete level. If this is the case, the teacher needs to develop activities to make the lessons more concrete, activities not found in many confirmation curriculums, but are found in Professing Our Faith, published by our denomination. There is a danger that if students don’t find the learning meaningful, they may develop negative attitudes about the subject, get the feeling that “Nobody can understand this stuff!” and never again want to expose themselves to theology or Bible study.
Another reason a topic may not be meaningful is if the students don’t have enough background to understand what is being studied. Without this background, it may as well be in another language. If I accidentally enrolled in an upper level college physics class, I would be lost because I didn’t even have Physics 101. When students don’t have the background, then it has to be provided. Taking time to explain the customs, geography, family life, political situations, etc. found in biblical stories helps make them more meaningful and thus helps students to keep paying attention.
In order to demonstrate to teachers how a history textbook looks to students who don’t have the necessary background, a teacher at the University of Pittsburgh took a paragraph from a middle school U.S. History text and substituted one nonsense word for the British and another for the colonists. It was impossible to make sense of the paragraph! Without the background about the British and the colonists needed to understand the passage, this is exactly the perception students would have.
A third way of helping learners keep focused is to show clearly how the lesson is relevant to their lives. Teachers must not assume that students will make the connections between what they are learning and how it might apply in everyday life. Students need opportunities to make the link through discussion, mapping, journaling, current events, family history, stories, metaphors, or anything that shows that what they are learning relates to their world. It also helps when teachers and students share relevant personal stories.
To understand how important relevance is to keeping attention, think of this situation. At the coffee hour after church, you are talking to a person when you suddenly hear your name, or the name of a friend, or a program that you’re very much involved in, coming from two people having a conversation a little away from you. You try to keep up your end of the conversation you are in, but you also try to hear the other conversation. Why? It is relevant to your life.
The impact of relevance was shown in a study where researchers had people wear earphones that produced all kinds of distractions while they answered questions on a test. The researchers found that the subjects could ignore most things, but if their name was used they became completely distracted and couldn’t answer questions correctly. The idea that it is almost impossible not to listen to your own name suggests that teachers might keep students’ attention by using their names — their school, their sports teams, etc. (In Pittsburgh, students would perk up if the teacher said that Goliath was bigger than Ben Roethlisberger, the Steeler quarterback.)
Just as emotions were involved in getting attention, they are also involved in keeping attention. Jensen suggests that celebrations are a good way to keep students’ attention: things like applause, cheers, high-fives, etc. help students feel good about their work. He also encourages using humor because people are more willing to keep working and learning something as long as they’re having a good time.
When teaching a story, it helps sustain attention to focus on how the people might have felt, not just what happened. People relate to feelings more than to information, perhaps because feelings make the story more personal. For example, in these stories, there are emotions such as:
Joseph’s brothers — jealousy
Esau when Jacob stole his blessing — anger
Moses’ mother when she put him in the basket in the river — worry
The Israelites in exile — sadness
David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant — joy
The teacher might ask, “How do you think Miriam must have felt when her mother asked her to stand by and watch her baby brother floating in the Nile?”
Consider how these suggestions from brain research can be used to help keep students’ attention as they watch videos. To make it more meaningful it helps to give students something to look for in the video, something that makes the connection with the lesson — look for the answer to a question, or to fill in the blanks. To make it more relevant to students’ lives, the teacher might ask, “Did this ever happen to you?” or “Have you seen this at your school?” or “Did this video make you want to do something or stop doing something?” To add emotion, the teacher might ask, “How do you think (the character) felt when …? “ Students are more likely to stay focused and learn from a video or DVD if they are more involved, not merely passive observers.
Christian educators want to give God their best; they want to plant the seeds and nurture the growth of a faith that will sustain their students through all their lives. Perhaps knowing and using ideas suggested by brain research will help them to achieve these goals.
Bruce, Barbara, Our Spiritual Brain, Abingdon, 2002.
Jensen, Eric, Teaching With the Brain in Mind, 2nd Edition, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). 2005.
Jensen, Eric, Enriching the Brain, Jossey-Bass, 2006.
Sprenger, Marilee, How To Teach So Students Remember, ASCD, 2005.
Wolf, Patricia, Brain Matters, ASCD, 2001.
Margaret Campbell Trautman is a retired school administrator and Certified Christian Educator who volunteers as staff person for Christian Education at Shenango Presbytery, and as adult education coordinator at her home church, New Wilmington Church, New Wilmington, Pa.