Inspired Learning

In a high school English class the day’s topic was how to use commas, and the teacher was trying his best to hold his students’ attention. One student, Jessie, responded this way: she slipped her hand into her bag and discretely pulled out a catalog for a clothing store. In a sense, it was as though she had left one store in a mall for another. Students these days bring something like a consumer mentality to school; if they don’t find class intriguing or exciting, they tune out.

Today’s students are a tough audience. Increasingly, they seem to require added help getting engaged in learning, in part because they have become constant consumers of entertainment and sensation, always searching for new thrills. They carry music and games with them wherever they go, electronic aids to excite and please the brain. They look to the world around them to enchant and engross them. So when they walk into a classroom, there can be an inevitable let-down, if only by comparison to frenzy of the iPod or Gameboy they’ve just put away.

A massive study of American high schools typified the typical classroom as having a “flat, neutral emotional ambience,” one where “boredom is a disease of epidemic proportion .” And when teenagers were asked to name the things they hate about school, Number One on the list is “My classes are so boring.”

A study that had students report how they felt at random moments throughout their day found that if they happened to be in class, they reported feeling sad, irritable, or bored, having difficulty concentrating, and strongly wishing they were doing something else – in short, they were not nearly so happy or attentive as during most other activities of their day. More to the point, the study concluded that even though they are sitting through school classes these students “are probably absorbing only a fraction of the information being presented.”

As another observer with a worldwide perspective put it, “Global teens have a very low threshold for boredom,” adding, “Do not bore this generation or it will abandon you .” While that bit of advice was aimed at marketers, educators would do will to heed those words. Students are used to making choices about how they allocate their attention, and the alternatives to what’s going on in class are many and seductive. The impediment to learning, then, has less to do with a student’s inability to learn than with his wishing to.

This does not mean, of course, that classroom time must be filled with the pedagogic equivalent of video games; the point is not merely to convert education into yet another form of entertainment. But educators would do well to adopt more skilful ways to capture students’ attention. At their best, such moments of learning are inspired, with students glued to the lesson, entranced. (I’ve detailed this “sweet spot” for learning and performance in Chapter 19 of Social Intelligence.)

Sam Intrator, an educator, spend a year observing classroom sessions. Whenever he felt the stirrings of such an electric moment, soon afterward he would signal the teacher to pass out index cards to the students, on which they would describe what they were thinking and feeling. If more than half the students reported a state of total involvement in what was being taught, he would rate the moment “inspired.” Out of the 128 classes he witnessed, he captured 22 such episodes of inspired learning, a rate of about 18 percent (and no doubt higher if the count included such moments for individual students, not just for the majority in a class).

As he describes in his book How Teaching Can Inspire Real Learning in the Classroom, from in-depth follow-up interviews with students, Intrator was able to pinpoint the active ingredients that made a given classroom session so engrossing — a potent combination of full attention, sustained focus and emotional intensity. This list matches crucial ingredients of the neural state people experience at times they perform or learn at their best. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls this the state for “optimal cognitive efficiency” – and ideally, it would be the state students are in most of the time in class.

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