Friday, June 11, 2010

Brain Rule #4 : We don't pay attention to boring things

I'm in the middle of listening to the audio book Brain Rules by John Medina. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist focused on the genes involved in human brain development. His book discussed what he calls the "brain rules" that need to be followed in order to have a better brain, to be a better teacher and a better boss. His book is based on peer-reviewed neuroscience, mostly from the Journal of Applied Neuroscience. It's very accessible and is as entertaining as it is informative.

Rule #4 is: We don't pay attention to boring things. At the end of the chapter about this rule, he gave his formula for getting the brain's attention and keeping it during a standard lecture. Because of this formula, he was named the Hirsch Marion (sp?) Teacher of the Year. I thought it was worth sharing.

The basic principle behind his formula is that, based on proven research, the brain cannot pay attention to something "boring" for more than 10 minutes. Most students tune out of a lecture after that space of time. With that in mind, Medina divides his lectures into discrete 10 minute segments (so a typical college lecture would have 5 segments).

Each segment covers one concept. The concept has to be large, general, and significant. It must be easily explained in 1 minute. The other 9 minutes are used to provide a detailed description of that concept, complete with lots of examples. You need to make sure you explicitly explain how the detail connects to the general concept.

At the end of the 10 minutes, you need to "buy" yourself another 10 by using what he calls a "hook" or an ECS (emotionally competent stimuli). The hook should trigger an emotion of some sort: fear, laughter, happiness, nostalgia, incredulity, etc. Narratives can be especially apropos.

The hook must also be relevant and it needs transition in between the two modules. It can either relate to the previous concept that you just finished explaining or introduce the next concept that you will discuss. You can't just throw in something random or else the audience will begin to distrust your motives (e.g. that you're just trying to entertain them, not inform them) or feel patronized.

He says that he has found it to be wonderfully successful in his own lectures. After a while, he can skip the 4th and 5th hook because the students are still engaged and retain the information much better.

He also mentions that you should explain the lecture plan at the beginning of the class and regularly point out where you are in that plan throughout the lecture. That way the brain doesn't have to "multi-task" (which isn't effective) and try to figure out all the concepts relate to each other while you are speaking.

It's an interesting idea. I think I might try to incorporate the 10 minute principle in my upcoming classes. I would also add that giving the class time to discuss a concept with each other can help to give the brain a rest too.

If you want to know more about the science behind his formula (e.g. why it works), feel free to check out the Brain Rules book. I'm a little more than halfway through and I'd say it's been very worthwhile so far.