Have you ever plunked yourself down in a staff meeting where some of your colleagues were, for lack of a better phrase, not paying attention? Grading homework? Having private conversations? Texting?
As we know all too well, kids aren't a whole lot different than adults: If they aren't absorbed by what's going on, they'll find something else that interests them.
Getting all your students focused, eager, and on task at the beginning of class is challenging enough. Equally problematic, once you have them locked in to the lesson, is watching them zone out. There's nothing unusual about that. After all, anyone who has to sit through a long routine -- including a teacher's presentation -- is bound to drift off at some point.
Still, unless you manage to capture and keep students' focus, whether at the beginning of or midway through class, the engine of student learning that you are trying to drive simply isn't even in gear.
From Dead Time to Active Learning
I call this lack of engagement dead time. Dead time interferes with students' learning, and it is contagious. It lures those who are on task into wondering, "Why should I pay attention if others aren't?"
I have come to feel that dead time is so pernicious that I will do everything I can to prevent even the hint of an outbreak. If you strive for maximum learning for all your students, then allowing kids to be stuck in dead time feels like a small betrayal -- to yourself and to them.
Active learning and active listening -- in which students are thoroughly and thoughtfully engaged with each other or the teacher -- represents the opposite of dead time. In their book Inspiring Active Learning, Merrill Harmon and Melanie Toth present a ladder that describes four levels of student motivation.
They call students at Level 4, the lowest level, the work avoiders, and on level 3 are the halfhearted workers. Near the top are responsible students, and, finally, come the fully active learners.