Art for Attention
The brain's information intake filter admits only about 1 percent of the sensory input available each second. That means that because all learning enters the brain as sensory input, teachers need to be sure their lesson material "makes the cut."
This involuntary filter in the low brainstem, called the reticular activating system (RAS), gives priority to novel sensory information. First priority goes to novel sensory information interpreted as potentially threatening—thus the need to have a strong classroom community; interventions to reduce states of sustained high stress; and the trust of your students that you will do all you can to intervene when actions by classmates threaten their property, physical, and emotional safety.
Once threat is not perceived, using novelty is the most successful way to open their brains' intake filters to receive the information you need them to admit into their conscious awareness. Starting a lesson with the novelty and pleasure of curious or compelling photographs, drawings, music, or video clips of scenes of dramatic performances increases attentive focus, especially when they promote curiosity. You further activate the brain's instinctual need to know the result of any predictions it makes when you add opportunities for students to interpret or predict the relationship of sensory novelties to the content of the lesson. Curiosity promotes attention (admission of the sensory input) and prediction sustains sustained attentive focus. The arts are particularly conducive to alternatives in prediction as to interpretation and production (innovation).
There are some standards or units of instruction that you know students don't love and for which interpretation of art can promote advance curiosity and interest that influences the brain's attentive intake. Why not prime their interest, and increase the likelihood that their intake filter will select the sensory input of the lesson, by using the research from the billion dollar advertising industry. Advertise a coming unit with curiosity-provoking art, such as by cutting up a poster of a painting or sculpture that relates to a coming unit and, every day or so, adding pieces to it so that the poster gradually takes form and curious students predict what topic might be coming up. Each day as children enter the classroom and adjust or firm up their predictions of what the art represents relative to a topic, their RAS is primed to "select" the sensory input of that lesson when it is revealed.
If you promote curiosity and prediction through art interpretation, students spend more time evaluating the art. When the day comes for the unit to begin, their curiosity and daily journal or verbal predictions have tuned their brains into the perfect zone for attentive focus. They may not be interested in the subject matter itself, but their brains literally need to find out if their predictions are correct. Now the students' brains want to know what you have to teach!
This is the third in a four-part series on creativity and the critical importance of the arts in providing students with a well-rounded education that meets the needs of the whole child. Read the first and second posts in the series.
Judy Willis is an ASCD author and expert on learning-centered brain research and classroom strategies derived from this research. Connect with Willis on ASCD EDge and on her website, RADTeach.com, and follow her on Twitter.