Challenges in concentration?
by Suvi Krista Westling, VisitEDUfinn Pedagogical Expert
How to find patience during the day’s fifth online lesson? When the family members are fussing around and the dog is waiting for a walk? Or how to calm down students after lunch hour and a hassle in the hallway? In my years as a classroom teacher, I tried many times to make my students concentrate better by raising my voice or changing the seating arrangements. These pedagogical-surface-strategies consumed a lot of my energy as a teacher, but had little effect or suffered a quick influence. As a young teacher with little influence on the teacher community or parents, I lacked the tools to tackle the root causes of students’ concentration.
When I stopped teaching and started writing my research papers fives days a week, eight hours per day, I noticed, that sitting and reading without social contacts or physical exercise made me restless and increased my need to move – not only in a physical sense of moving the muscles but also moving my attention from one thing to another – in rather short time slots. As long as I had intensive sports hobbies and cycled to the office, the amount of physical energy consumption made the concentration on research work possible. When my work turned into ‘mobile’ (meaning I traveled in the middle of the week and had to quit my hobbies) I started to search for excuses to do something physical (such as cleaning the house or running to a train) in the middle of the day and the slot of concentration became even shorter. Only traveling on the train and sensing the quickly changing landscapes gave me the patience to sit longer periods on my computer.
In the time of home-based online teaching and studying the lack of exercise, daily structure, change of environments and social bonding with peers and colleagues may create a situation, in which self-constructed ‘structure & program’ may be necessary. When sitting the whole day in front of the computer, our body consumes less energy and brain more, which sets challenges for our habits of eating and exercising. With typical heavy meals, our body has more energy than it can consume during the day. When ‘locked’ in the home all the time, our mind starts to escape into virtual reality (such as tv, social media, youtube…). Thus studying and teaching remotely provides a relevant channel for our mind to ‘wander’ out of the walls of our apartment.
Traditionally the children have been walking, bicycling, or even skiing to the school. In the rural areas (as most of the Finnish population was still living in the fifties) the youngsters of the family took part in the physical work of the house. After working the afternoons and skiing or walking several kilometers to the nearest school, it was a privilege to sit and listen to the teacher talking. Also, the sleep came early after the heavy ‘work’, which ensured the deeper ‘brain curing’ sleep quality. Nowadays the comfortable warm apartments, computer games, and easily digestible supermarket food set a challenge for early sleep and ‘sitting-based’ teaching culture. In these conditions, it is not a wonder, that the kids have a need to run and move around. As research shows us, early night sleep ‘cleans’ our brain better than morning sleep. If we cannot change our (own or our students’) ability to concentrate or we cannot change the external conditions either, the only thing we can try to have an effect is our daily routines of eating, exercising, and sleeping. If those are adjusted properly, the rest is much easier. As teachers our influence on students’ home conditions is limited, but if we manage to awoke our students’ interest and study the effects of food, exercise and sleep together with them, they may find the motivation to begin to alter their routines. If the students would start to keep a daily diary about the hours of sleep, food, and exercise, ‘aha’-moments might occur. As teachers, we cannot rule the home life of our students, but we can suggest a structure for the online study hours consisting of breaks with exercises. Still, the family habits are so deeply rooted, that the lasting changes occur slowly. While taking the first step of the change, studying the pros- and cons of different cultural and lifestyle aspects may be worthwhile.
Suvi Krista Westling is an expert on educational psychology with a broad view of education and a deep understanding of the human mind. She has graduated from and later taught students in an innovative program of educational psychology at the University of Helsinki. Her teaching has included lecturing, supervising pre-service teachers’ practice, and facilitating group processes and phenomenon-based group studies. In her research, she has studied the quality of regulation of students’ learning and activity both at school and at teacher education. She has worked as an expert in educational program design at an academic level as well as in few international organizations.