Survey question: Ever been absolutely bored to tears in a class?
Of course you have! We get bored from things that are too easy, that seem too irrelevant, or that are so familiar and routine that they fail to hold our attention (especially those of us for whom attention is a slippery thing to begin with).
A little novelty can be a wonderful thing in teaching. It can catch and retain students’ attention to present them with new material. It can invigorate familiar subjects with new perspectives. Used judiciously, it can raise the challenge to a manageable level that makes students reach to stretch their boundaries, without being so high they run the risk of complete failure.
Novelty can affect educational difficulties in different ways. Educational difficulties are frequently described as “learning difficulties”, although not all of them are expressed in “learning”, the acquisition and integration of new knowledge. Rather, educational difficulties can result from mismatches in teaching methods or in environmental factors. When we run into environments with high levels of novelty, we can run into educational difficulties. Take for example, field trips …
Field trips are chock-full of novelty! New places, new things to see, perhaps to handle, smell and taste, and hopefully new things to do as well. Novelty can help a person more consistently retain attention, especially those people who have problems with varying levels of attention. Please note that “more consistent attention” does not necessarily mean that your AD/HD or autistic student will be “better behaved” on a field trip!
This is because attention-switching can be more difficult when the novel thing has become a sudden, fascinating, all-absorbing interest. Thus, one has to “drag away” a girl from an exhibit on steam engines. Or, the novelty can be so overwhelming that the student hardly knows where to turn – everything in the Hall of Egypt is fascinating! This is the student that won’t dutifully follow the troop from one exhibit to the next in a quiet and linear manner. Instead, he is bouncing all over the place, “Hey, look at this cat wearing an earring! Wow, a real sarcophagus!” His attention is on the exhibit, but nearly all of it all at once. Either way, the teacher leading these “poky little puppies” or “bouncing kangaroos” despairs of keeping the class together, either in the literal sense or in the pedagogical sense when delivering explanations about the materials. (And that, O Best Beloved, is why teachers are always drafting additional adults to be chaperones.)
On the other hand, novel environments, or even familiar environments with highly novel activities, can be problematic for students whose coping strategies are dependent upon having a particular enabling environment, or dependent upon having particular way of approaching and processing work in different ways, either physically or cognitively. This can happen even if the concepts and methods being used are familiar. Sometimes (with strokes, other kinds of brain damage, pharmaceutical side effects, auditory or visual processing difficulties, or autism) students simply have certain processes that they won’t be able to access consistently, but those kinds of events will also happen when nothing has outwardly changed, which indicates that the difficulty is interior to the person.
But sometimes there is something so profoundly new in the system that it “throws a spanner into the works”. The mental gears come to a halt. Outwardly, it appears that the student is either being noncompliant, or else has forgotten what they learned earlier. But in the case of excessive novelty, no amount of cajoling, rebuking or of punishments & rewards is going to “make” the student comply.
In situations where the student gets profoundly stuck or shuts down, it helps to remember that everyone is an organism within an environmental system. Is there something different in the environment since the task was last accomplished? Is there something different in the methods being used? Is the instructor using a very different approach or verbiage? In cases like this, we want to go back and re-establish the previous situational parameters, and reinforce the abilities gained before. This may have to be done on another day; sometimes “stuckness” can be sticky for hours.
Having achieved the skill again, practice it with a single minor change. During the practices, modify the change in small increments, and do not try to introduce multiple changes. Don’t expect to make very many changes at once, either. Doing something differently three times may not be enough to cement it in, and when assaying the task again, it may take a few more tries to get things down thoroughly with all the new changes.
In situations like this, the difficulty can also be with generalising, or being able to apply familiar skills in unfamiliar situations. This isn’t the same problem of being unable to access the skills, but rather, of recognising that this new situation requires that particular set of skills.
Lest these problems seem absurd, and related only to students with cognitive disabilities, then think back to when you got an entirely new version of your computer’s operating system, or when you changed from one word-processing program to another. It’s not that you didn’t know how to use the “file cabinet” in Windows 3.1, or how to save files in WordStar, but rather that lurching into Windows 1996 or WordPerfect, and then later on lurching into Windows 2000 or Word, has changed all of your familiar cues and ways of doing things. You may have had the skills, but now you’re looking for the old things in new places, or using slightly different commands or names for things. Or if you’re a newbie to the world of computers, then think back to your second car, and having to switch on the windshield wipers or headlights with different controls, and of not having the radio buttons working in familiar ways. Somehow, even though it’s the same old thing you’ve been using competantly for a long time, it’s also all new, and every single task is fraught with a dozen little glitches to trap you. Or if you’ve traveled to other countries, consider the first time you stepped into a market and couldn’t automatically identify the packaged goods. The brands, label configurations, aisle locations, even what shapes of containers your items would be packaged in, are all different. It makes the head spin.
Such are the effects of excessive novelty: too much invigoration or too many inputs to sort. Think of it as “educational jetlag”.
P.S. Was the novelty of having the picture of Charlie Chaplin from his film “Modern Times” distracting when you were trying to read the blogpost?