In my last post I described the default network, the parts of the brain that are active when we are not consciously focused on our many tasks. “Default” becomes busy when we are daydreaming, mind wandering, or just pausing the rush of our thoughts long enough to take a mental breath. Only in recent years have researchers realized that the default network’s functions are important. They help us understand other’s feelings, have empathy, think about the future, imagine other options, and make personal connections. They help us consider the ethics of a situation. Because personal and emotional connections to ideas are essential to understanding, it seems logical that default network activity is important in school.
So, last time I asked the question, “So much of our time is spent helping students learn to focus—must we also help them learn to un-focus on occasion?” I think the answer is yes, but how? That is what I’ve been pondering all week. This is a dilemma research can present to teachers–when we know something interesting but the research thus far is more theoretical than classroom-practice-based. We don’t want to jump willy-nilly into day-dreaming curriculum, and yet children are in front of us, ready to learn. We don’t have five more years to wait for default-network research to continue. So, as my sports-analogy prone husband would say, we punt.
- Teach students about the functions of different brain networks. They don’t need all the details about the brain’s subsections, but it is valuable for them to know that there are different ways to use their brains. Most of the time in school they need to be focused on particular ideas, so they need to use the parts of their brain that help them control their attention. But sometimes it is important to let their thoughts wander, so their brains can make connections. The trick is, to know which kind of thinking we need, and when.
- Build moments of reflection and imagining into your lessons. Sometimes this can be just a brief pause. In a history class, take 30 seconds to have students imagine the scene they are studying and then describe their thoughts. Pause and imagine how a literary character is feeling. Envision a chemical bond taking place. Begin to build habits of taking in information, then pausing to consider what it means.
- Let reflection be personal. Take a minute to allow students to think, what would they do in a historical situation, what is the feeling a painting gives them, perhaps even what personal situation would feel like a particular algebraic equation!
- Structure simpler tasks between opportunities to think about more challenging ones, giving the brain a chance to relax focus a bit. For example, young children might begin thinking about a story idea, then take a break to draw a picture, have a few minutes of recess, or even go to lunch. Return to the story and see what new ideas emerge. Older students might break to organize their notes or listen to a few minutes of quiet music between generating ideas for science experiments or planning history essays.
How else could we include purposeful mind wandering into the school day? I’d love to hear your thoughts.