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Optimal Emotional State

All learning is state dependent: the physiological, emotional, postural, and psychological state learners are in will mediate content. And these states are related to the chemical “flavor of the moment” in the brain. Chemicals can be too high, resulting in hyper or stressed states; chemi- cals can be too low, yielding drowsiness. The learner’s state can be influ- enced in the classroom with simple interventions. (Jensen, 2000, p. 125)

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“Emotion drives attention and attention drives learning” (Sylwester, 1995). Teachers need to recognize and do something when students’ emotional states are either too low or too high to enable them to focus. They need to develop a repertoire of ways to induce emotional state changes or bring them into bal- ance when the need arises. To induce calm, for example, Jensen suggests calling up predictable, ritual activities such as routine openings, closings, and greet- ings. When the need is to energize or motivate, teachers might introduce nov- elty or unexpected change. The former (inducing calm) points to elements of classroom climate (Chapter 16), especially ways to create a sense of community and belonging. This also makes the case for strategic use of a principle of learn- ing called “Similarity of Environment” (Chapter 12). “Vividness,” another one of the principles of learning, highlights inducing surprise to energize. It under- scores why doing something out of the ordinary to surprise or startle students can serve as an effective, in-the-moment, attention move.

“Emotion drives attention, and attention drives learning.”

(Sylwester, 1995)



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Benefits of Laughter

Laughter has been shown to boost the body’s production of neurotrans- mitters critical for alertness and memory. Some studies have shown that having fun and pleasant experiences improve the functioning of the body’s immune system for three days. (Fry, 1997, as cited in Jensen, 2000, p. 125)

Teachers, like everyone else, need to enjoy the work they do. They need to be able to laugh with students and see the humor in the everyday life of a class- room. We attended a presentation by a motivational speaker several years ago who put it this way: “If by 10 o’clock every morning, we haven’t had ourselves a good belly laugh something is very wrong. It means we must be taking ourselves too seriously because working with a room full of children is very funny busi- ness!” Teachers need to give themselves permission to be silly or outrageous at times and draw the students into their light mood. This can be done through the use of props, costumes, dramatization, or telling funny stories. There needs to be a balance in designing learning experiences that are both enjoyable and chal- lenging (see the “Feeling Tone” principle of learning in Chapter 12).

Balancing Challenge

Optimal learning occurs when there is a balance between the level of challenge and existing knowledge or skills. If the challenge is greater than the skills, it can create anxiety; if the skills are greater than the challenge, boredom is likely. This suggests that getting students into optimal learning states requires assessing the potential gap between the readiness level of the student and the challenge pres- ent in the learning experience. This sometimes calls for pre-assessment activi- ties, analysis of the data, and differentiating the learning experience accordingly (see Chapters 20 and 21 for more on each of these).

Using Physical Movement

When the brain is fully engaged it is more efficient and effective. Vigor- ous physical activity is believed to increase blood flow to the brain. Cross lateral movement that works both sides of the body evenly and involves coordinated motion of both eyes, both ears, both hands, and both feet activates both hemispheres and all four lobes of the brain. As a result, cognitive functioning is heightened and ease of learning increases. (Hannaford, 2005, p. 92)

Using physical movement can have dramatic effects on learning. Intermittent physical movement throughout a learning experience is powerful for maintain- ing the highest levels of attention. Jensen (2000) suggests starting a class period

Optimal learning occurs when there is a balance between the level of challenge and existing knowledge or skills.



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Teachers, who notice that attention is fading, need to ask themselves how long it has been since students last moved.

with two minutes of stretching to increase the overall alertness students bring to the learning experience. If learning experiences call for students to be seden- tary for periods of time, the teacher needs to plan with movement in mind. The movement doesn’t have to be a break from the focus of the lesson. If students have a reason to move periodically (for example, get together with a learning partner seated in some other part of the room for two or three minutes of stand- up processing time, a team relay race where students go to the board one team member at a time to build a proof to a problem, or groups working together to build a human sculpture representing the structure of an atom), chances are they will remain more alert and focused for longer periods of time. The move- ment breaks don’t have to be long; they just have to be timely, occurring at least every 20 to 40 minutes. Teachers who notice that attention is fading need to ask themselves how long it has been since students last moved.

Building in Learning Downtime

Humans are natural meaning-seeking organisms, but excessive input can conflict with that process. . . . You can either have your learner’s attention or they can be making meaning, but never both at the same time. The brain needs time to “go inside” and link the present with the past and future. Without this, learning drops dramatically. We absorb so much information unconsciously that downtime is absolutely neces- sary to process it all. The brain has an automatic mechanism for shift- ing (internal and external) and for shutting down input when it needs to. (Jensen, 2000, p. 123)

When students are taking in information from any external source—for exam- ple, by listening, reading, seeing, or doing—pauses must be built in systemati- cally to give the learner time to absorb and organize, reflect and process the in- formation, make connections, and construct personal meaning. If teachers don’t consciously attend to this, the learner will do it anyway out of necessity and will appear to have stopped paying attention. In Chapter 11, “Clarity,” we discuss guidelines for how often and how long the pauses for processing should occur.


Skillful teachers lay the groundwork for focusing student attention by system- atically incorporating the “Attention” principles and guidelines into the every- day fabric of classroom life. There are a wide range of in-the-moment moves that a teacher might use to capture, maintain, and recapture or refocus stu- dent attention. Teachers tend to need these most when a learning experience is whole-group oriented and teacher directed.



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Within this general class of “Attention” moves, there are five categories: (1) desisting, (2) alerting, (3) enlisting, (4) acknowledging, and (5) winning. These moves can be thought of as having affective characteristics (negative to positive) and power-sharing dynamics (authority to attraction). The skillful teacher’s repertoire for getting and keeping students on task should include at least a few moves from each of these categories. This is critical to being able to match the choice of move to what the situation warrants.

Keep in mind as we describe each of these that this list is meant to be an objec- tive list of moves teachers make that get students’ attention. In other words, we are describing every type of move we have seen or heard a teacher do that was for this purpose, but without judging the appropriateness, effectiveness, or relative merit of any individual move on the list. In order to determine the ap- propriateness of each of these moves, each teacher h

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