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Brain-Based Learning Strategies: Hold Students’ Attention With a Radish

Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.


Brain-Based Learning Strategies: Get Students’ Attention With a RadishBefore you can make memories or learn, you must hold students' attention.

Based on my background as a neurologist and my experience as a classroom teacher, I’ve created this list of tips for any teacher to integrate brain-based, neuro-logical learning strategies to grab and hold students’ attention.

All learning enters the brain through the senses. The subconscious mind needs to be on automatic pilot to process the enormous amount information from the world available through all the senses. Neuroimaging studies provide support for classroom strategies that operate on the brain’s first sensory filter, a thin strip of brain tissue low down, just above the spinal column that determines what captivates attention. This primitive intake filter, called the reticular activating system (RAS), admits less than one percent of the sensory information available to it every second.

Much like other mammals, the human RAS favors intake of sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations that are most critical to survival. The RAS is a virtual editor that grants attention and admission to things that have changed in the environment with priority to changes that signal threat. When threat is perceived, the RAS automatically selects related sensory input and directs it to the lower, reactive brain where the involuntary response is fight, flight, or freeze. If the change is assessed as not threatening, the RAS focuses on sights, sounds, movements, smells, and other changes that provoke curiosity or are recognized as potential sources of pleasure.


Calm the Nervous Fox

Think of students’ RAS as that of a fox, coming out of its den, alerting to changes such as new sounds. The howling of a predatory wolf would get first priority, but when that sound is gone, the new sounds and movements of a rabbit in the bush alerts focus as a potential yummy dinner. Keep your little foxes feeling unthreatened by consistent enforcement of class rules, where students feel safe, where they can count on adults to consistently enforce the rules that protect their bodies, property, and feelings from classmates or others who threaten them.

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Create Positive Anticipation

Start the or class telling your students it will be a great day, you’re glad to see them, and they are in for a wonderful experience.


Advertising upcoming unit with curiosity-provoking posters or adding clues or puzzle pieces each day, invests students in predicting what lesson might be coming and gets the RAS primed to “select” the sensory input of that lesson when it is revealed.

If a Star Wars movie is popular put up a sign, “TWENTY FOUR HOURS UNTIL THE FORCE ARRIVES.” The next day when you discuss forceful or powerful opening sentences for essays, centrifugal force, or forces of nature, you’ll have created anticipation, and that will harness attention.

What You Say (or Don’t Say)

A sudden midsentence silence is a curiosity the RAS wants to investigate. A suspenseful pause in your speech before saying something important builds anticipation as the students alert to what you will say or do next.

What’s New?

Change the seating arrangements, put up photos of last year’s students doing an activity your students will be doing, light a candle, put a new exciting poster relating to the new unit under the one that has been hanging and when you walk by, “inadvertently” bump into the wall so the old one falls down and the new one is suddenly revealed.

Play a Song ...

when students enter the room to promote curiosity, hence focus, when you tell students there will be a link between some words in the song and something in the lesson.

Walk the Walk

If you behave in a novel manner, such as walking backwards, at the start of a lesson, the RAS will be primed by curiosity to follow along when you unroll a number line on the floor and begin a unit about negative numbers.

That Doesn’t Make Sense.

Cognitive dissonance or discrepant events promote attention when students see or hear something that is contrary to what they think they know or expect.

You can promote RAS admission of lesson on estimating by overfilling a water glass until it spills. When students question or comment about what you did, respond, “I didn’t estimate how much it would hold.” What you say next will be granted passage through the filter.

Rotate Techniques, lest the unexpected become expected.

Greet students at the door with a riddle or a note card with a vocabulary word. The riddle answer or the definition of their word is posted at the table at which they should sit.


There will be several minutes of curious excitement when your students enter the classroom and find a radish on each of their desks, but this time will be paid back – literally with interest. They will be engaged and motivated to discover the reason the radishes are there. 

For young students, learning the names and characteristics of shapes, the radishes can become a lesson to develop the concept of roundness and evaluate what qualities make some radishes have greater “roundness” than others.

The lesson for older students might address a curriculum standard such as analysis of similarities and differences. The RAS will respond to the color, novelty, peer interaction of evaluating these objects, that are usually disdained when found in their salads, as they develop their skill of observation, comparison, contrast, and even prediction as to why the radishes that seemed so similar at first, become unique as they become detectives using magnifying glasses.

You can even spark interest in square roots when they guess the meaning of the radishes and someone predicts, “Radishes are root vegetables, I bet we’ll learn square roots!”

The multisensory, novel radish experience has a greater chance of becoming long-term memory as your students are likely to actually answer parents’ often-ignored queries about, “What did you learn in school today?” Students will summarize the day’s learning as grateful parents give them the positive feedback of attentive listening. The impact of the radish as a novel object, and something they’d never expect to hear described by their child, now alerts their own RAS, and the stage is set for family discussion of the lesson beyond the doors of the classroom.

Once you have their attention, you empower your students to become engaged in their learning process. Using wonder (discrepant events), humor, movement, change, advertising, and provoking curiosity capture students’ attention. They will be ready to focus on the sensory input (information) in the lesson that relates to the radish, form connections and relationships, and achieve the ultimate goal of adding new knowledge into their memory storage centers.

A radish on students’ desks today will reward you when students are captivated and focus on the lesson attentively. The even greater rewards come months later when they remember the lesson on their year end tests, and years later when they use the memory of that lesson to find creative solutions to new problems and develop interests that sustain curiosity for life long learning.


And you’ll probably never see a radish again and think of it as just a root vegetable.


How do you get students attention in your classroom? Share in the comments section!

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