May I Have Your Attention Please? The Power of the “Toward” State

By Mike Fisher, Marie Alcock and Allison Zmuda

As we imagine a contemporary curriculum that is rooted in foundational literacies, teachers need the hearts and minds of their students when they attempt to teach the curriculum. Teachers are very clear that it starts with attention — and the challenge is how to create the conditions for that attention that is in line with what we know about the brain.

One of the most transformative ideas we learned throughout our neuroscience research is the power of how learners feel about the learning matters to their likelihood of engagement and further development. Davachi, (2010) describes this as being in a “toward state” or an “away state.” At the neurological level, the brain perceives what’s happening in the moment and classifies it as good (we want to move toward it and engage) or bad (we want to move away from it and disengage). The “toward” response reinforces new insights and new “re-wiring” by connecting to previous knowledge.

When a teacher helps students to discover/uncover connections, students feel more creative and have a greater capacity to stick with or tackle new problems. Conversely, minimal learning takes place when the “away” response is triggered.

The “away” response takes place when people:

  • cannot make connections to previous knowledge (this causes anxiety, tiredness, uncertainty, and is threatening and causes retreat);
  • feel no sense of autonomy (no choices, no agency);
  • do not feel part of the group (among foes, no empathy distrust and unfairness assumed);
  • their status is threatened (left out, challenged/questioned, not respected, not valued).

The result is much less is possible in the “away” state: loss of attention, loss of focus, distractions, fuzzy thinking, and anger.

That’s why spending time and attention on the why for students and how we think and work together increases the likelihood they will want to take that action. Learning is more likely to stick when healthy balances of dopamine and norepinephrine release during the experience.

Dopamine, a chemical in the brain, is more likely to be released when learners believe that what they are engaged in is relevant; they understand why they are doing what they are doing and believe it is worthy of their time and attention. Another chemical, norepinephrine, affects the chemistry of alertness, of feeling aroused and focused (Davachi, et. al., 2010). The learning creates a degree of stress due to challenge, competition, and/or deadlines. So, in order for learners to pay attention, we have to design something relevant and interesting, with enough of a challenge to keep our attention (Davachi, et. al., 2010).

Knowing what we know about engagement and attention, we’d like to share a few tips to help teachers get and sustain their students’ attention:

1. Propose something that will capture attention and trigger a toward state through emotion and interest.

Again, toward states occur when the brain perceives or classifies an event as good; students want to move toward something when they are in this state.

2. Make it a challenge but still doable.

Think zone of proximal development. Difficult or complex enough to cause them to think but not so overwhelming that they back into an away state.

3. Enlist students to help recognize when they are in the “away state.”

What does it look like for this student to shut down or tune out? What does this student do when he or she is bored? Have them help you to identify the signs and then you can navigate that better with the student.

4. Have students draft a commitment statement when they are beginning to work on a new challenge.

Here is a sneak peak at an example from our new book: I have worked hard. I have addressed the tough questions. I have focused on my learning needs. I have considered many choices and I have made my selections. I have decided that I will dedicate myself to learning more about _________. The results of this Quest will help make me a stronger communicator and social change agent.

5. Use a progress monitoring tracker with the student to help them self-regulate and help clarify instructional cues for you.

I know these:
I need to practice these:
I need to learn these:

Engaged students are at the heart of our new book, The Quest for Learning: How to Maximize Student Engagement. This is just one of myriad new ideas for getting learners engaged and keeping them that way.

Works Cited

Alcock, M., Fisher, M., & Zmuda, A. (2017) The Quest for Learning: How to maximize student engagement. Solution Tree.

Davachi, L., Kiefer, T., Rock, D., & Rock, L. (2010). Learning that lasts through AGES. NeuroLeadership Journal, 3, 1–11.


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