Balancing Attention Span with Time to Learn

Version 2It is well known that our youngest students, those ages 3 to 5 or 6, have shorter attention spans than older children. One way of handling this is planning many relatively short activities, so that the children go from one activity to the next before their attention is over taxed. With well practiced transitions, this can be an effective strategy. The problem with this is that it is likely that while flagging attention recommends a new activity, the concept the children were learning in that activity has probably not had time to sink in. If the children proceed from one activity to the next and each activity is used to teach a different concept, then the net result of the entire lesson is that little learning has taken place, and the children have possibly left your class with their heads spinning. This can easily happen if the teacher is activity driven; that is, having students do a series of activities without an objective or long-range goal beyond completing the activity.

Where many short activities are called for, at least two or three consecutive ones should be used to teach the same concept. Here is an example from my PK 4 class that I taught this morning. The objective of a string of activities was to teach paired eighth notes aurally. First, I taught them to clap once after each instance of me playing two eighth notes on a drum. In other words, I played du-de, and then they clapped du on the next beat. The result was the well-known “We Will Rock You” beat, though these 4-year olds didn’t recognize it as such. Once practiced, we continued that beat while I chanted the lyrics to a song about various ways turkeys like to move. From there, I transitioned to playing and singing the song on the piano while they continued to clap as before on the refrain, but now they moved in the ways described in the song, which included moving the beak (mouth), feathers (wings), and drumstick (legs). Because children would almost always prefer to move faster rather than slower, they quite naturally flapped, danced, and moved their jaws at an eighth note beat.

The third activity in the string was singing “Aken Drum.” Aken Drum is described in the song as having body parts made of various foods. This is a very familiar song for this class. We clapped the rhythm of each food mentioned, and they were able to find the difference between “ap-ple” which was two quarter notes, and “cel-er-y,” which was two eighth notes and the beginning of another pair of eighth notes (his body was made of cel-er-y of cel-er-y of cel-er-y). This was followed by group and solo singing of a favorite song of theirs, Pierrot (In the evening moonlight stands Pierrot tonight, pleading for a pencil so that he can write). Du-de du-de du du du-de du-de du. More pairs of eighth notes, now associated with the activities that have come just before. The stated goal of this activity is to show me a singing voice, but the eighth notes are still there, even if they go unmentioned.

None of these activities is original or brilliant on my part–I’m sure you’ve done some or classroomall of them in your music classes. But I want to draw attention to how all three activities included pairs of eighth notes and included performing them in different ways, including singing, dancing, clapping, and chanting. The children remained engaged because they were not being asked to stay on the same activity for longer than they could pay attention, but their learning remained focused and consistent from one activity to the next so that by the time they had completed all three activities, learning about pairs of eighth notes had sunk in. Children need more time than we often give them to assimilate what we’ve taught them, and they need the opportunity to do what we want them to do in the mode most effective for their learning, i.e. kinesthetic, visual, oral, etc.

The goal of any teaching is for students to transfer learning to new situations. The ability to use what has been learned in new situations is proof that the child understands what we’ve taught. Later in the lesson, the class danced to recorded music. I do this during each of their classes. Today, they danced to Dvorak’s “Humoreque.” The first section is based on a dotted eighth and sixteenth note rhythm, but the second section is loaded with pairs of eighth notes. The students moved freely and a little unsurely during the first section, but with noticeably more confidence and familiarity when they heard the second section, the one with the pairs of eighth notes.

The key to short activities is for there to be an objective that can be met in a short amount of time. This doesn’t mean that the objective is superficial or limited to low-level thinking, but rather that the children can experience success at meeting a standards-based objective in a short amount of time. In the example above, it was recognizing (in the clapping and dancing activities) and accurately performing (in the clapping and singing activities) pairs of eighth notes to a steady pulse. With older children who are able to maintain focus over longer periods of time, the activities can be longer, making it possible for them to tackle harder problems, and more abstract concepts; however, the objective is still the priority. Simply making an activity longer because the student is older, without increasing depth or learning level does not foster better learning. On the contrary, it may well result in boredom because long periods of time are being spent on achieving a goal that just doesn’t seem to be worth the time investment.

The objective determines the amount of time needed to achieve it, including how long students will spend working on it at a time. The time spent on an activity must be justified by the value of what learning is to be gained. When the value is low, the activity becomes merely busy work. Generally, I find that for a forty-five minute class, 7-8 activities works well for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, 3-4 is good for 5th grade, and 1-2 activities per class works well for 7th or 8th graders. If new learning is being introduced, fewer activities are better so that more time can be spent learning and practicing what is new. Classes of the same grade or age are different from each other too. One fifth grade class might do well with 3 activities per class while another needs 5 to hold their attention. Stick to the objective, and make the number of activities fit the objective and the students.

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