I was reading this book called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and one of the points in the book that was noteworthy was the work of Roy Baumeister. (You can see a video of Baumeister here). Baumeister's research is in self-control and will power. He says that will power is expendable and when it is used up, it needs to be replenished. He cites research where hungry subjects were told to eat radishes and resist some delicious chocolate cookies that were available. The subjects were then given some impossible math puzzles to solve. The ones who expended energy resisting the cookies gave up far faster than the ones who were given nothing or the ones who were allowed to eat the cookies. Baumeister says that this energy devoted to resisting all kinds of temptations comes from one central pool.
I can back this finding up with a recent experience of my own. I was a meeting on Friday afternoon that was the end of a series of meetings we had throughout the year, so we decided to have a celebration at the end of the meeting. Before we began the meeting, we set up the food and decorated. Someone asked me to bring in a revolving disco lamp I had. I turned it on and forgot to turn it off when the meeting began. And do you think I could think clearly during that meeting? It was just after lunch, so I wasn't hungry but I found the stupid disco lamp such a distraction that 15 minutes into the meeting, I had to turn it off or else I was going to implode.
Now transfer this situation to our students. They sit in these hard little chairs for hours while the teachers drone on. The lighting is usually harsh. Sometimes there are displays or colours that scream for attention. There are noises from every direction that reverberate off all the hard surfaces in the room (the desks, the walls, the ceiling, the hard tile floor, etc), plus the whirring of heating systems or fish tanks.
Add to this whatever social or emotional factors that are preying on our students' attention, and it is a wonder they learn anything at all. Our students come to school hungry, tired, sad, worried, and angry sometimes. We may not be able to fix all of these problems, but we can acknowledge them and help students deal with these challenges.
In my classroom, I'm trying to mitigate some of these physical environmental challenges:
- I try to keep my instructional portion short so they don't have to sit and listen for too long.
- If I do drone on, I allow them to sit on risers that do not confine movement and they can wiggle to self regulate. They are also allowed to stand if they need to. Due to my sciatica (ah, age), I understand the need to stand up after sitting for a while. Choice and movement seem to help with self regulation.
- When they work, students can lie on their bellies, stand, or sit. In terms of seating, there are barstools, rolling chairs, stacking chairs, risers, and benches. I've seen classrooms with yoga balls and I think that's great for kids because of the comfort and ability to move. I do not use them myself because I don't know how to store them when not in use; whereas all my other seating options, when not used for seating, can be stacked, folded, or used for something else.
- In terms of working surfaces, there are desks, risers, lapdesks, the floor, bulletin boards, counters, the surfaces of rolling storage bins, vertical bulletin boards and computers.
- I keep the lights on the low side. When I am using the Smartboard, it is downright dark because it focuses all of the attention on the board and away from other distractions. If we are having a discussion or interaction, I'll turn the lights up a bit so students can see each other. As the conditions change, I have a student monitor who adjusts the overhead lighting as necessary.
- I'll turn the lights a bit down again during individual or partner work time because it sets up different zones of work. Cooperative work tends to happen by the natural light of the windows. Individual, silent work tends to happen under the glow of individual spot or floor lighting. The dark minimizes distractions and the light amplifies the work spaces. Students start to understand for themselves the kinds of conditions they need for the type of work they are doing at the time.
- I use material to filter some of the harsh fluorescent lighting. There are "daylight" bulbs in the lamps around the classroom to provide warm light, also.
- I've brought my background colour of my walls way down to neutral, except for a few splashes of accents on the "non-teaching" side walls.
- When tile was installed in my classroom last summer, I brought in some cheap area rugs to limit the amount of reverberation from the hard floor surface. Luckily, I have one of those sound towers that amplifies my voice without having to yell or strain my vocal cords.
- As an aside... Before I became a teacher, I remember watching my mom teach a primary class, and just before all pandemonium was going to break loose, she brought all of the students together and talked to them in a REALLY quiet voice. Later, I asked her why she did that and she gave me 3 reasons. First, yelling at them would have riled them up and not calmed them down. Second, because she was so quiet, they had to be really quiet in order to hear her, and it created this nice community tone as they sat there together. Third, she was letting them know they were good kids just by her tone, but they needed to be quieter, good kids. I was impressed with Mom, and I recognized how much patience (or as Baumeister would say "ego depletion") that took.