Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

BE RESILIENT has been chosen for the Reading Well for Teens booklist from The Reading Agency

Why getting an answer wrong becomes an invisible problem

In a staff INSET session recently, there was a point on a slide that I didn’t have time to elaborate on. Afterwards, someone in the audience asked me to explain further and I’m delighted he did. As well as emailing him, I decided to write a post about it, as it’s something all teachers (and parents) should understand.
Here is the slide. The point I didn’t explain was the last one. (In my defence we had lost some time at the start because of tech issues between me and China but, to be honest, I always go through the material fast, because there’s so much of it! So, sometimes I don’t address every point.)

“Recovery time is invisible”

Let me give the explanation in logical steps, as there are some things to understand which I had explained in the session.
The first thing to explain is that in certain situations – let’s use the example of participating in class by answering a question or speaking up – “brain bandwidth” or attention is occupied by what one might call the stress or alertness involved. The person is for those few seconds on high alert, trying to answer the question correctly while aware that everyone is focusing on them. When they then make a mistake of any sort, this then becomes even more bandwidth-taxing.
Answering a question in public is a moment of threat, challenge and high attention. We do not like being looked at, unless we either actually do at that moment want to be looked at and have chosen that to be the case. For introverts, that situation of wanting to be looked at is rare.
Answering a question wrongly exacerbates that discomfort enormously. (Similarly, presenting in public is a situation of intense alertness; messing up that presentation is even more so.)
Answering a question or speaking up, and especially when a mistake was made or the person feels they messed up, creates a need for recovery time. The recovery time is a period of time, which will be different in different cases, during which the person’s brain bandwidth is occupied by the incident and its results and is therefore not available for other activity such as listening or concentrating, including listening to or concentrating on the teacher’s voice or the task in hand. 

Why this is a bigger deal for some than others

For some groups of people this is a much bigger deal than for others.
One such group would be teenagers in general. In that slide, I talk about the biological propensity for teenagers to be more self-conscious and suffer greatly from social embarrassment, compared to younger and older people.
Another such group would be the introverts: hyper-alert to being judge and noticed; extra anxious about messing up in front of others; very concerned to say the right thing and make the right impression; extra self-conscious.
And another set would be perfectionist, high-achieving, “Type A” personalities, who are, again, hyper-aware of being judged and very avoidant of getting things wrong.
For these people more than anyone – though anyone can suffer this – their brain bandwidth will be more occupied during those moments/minutes/longer times when they are under the spotlight, getting things wrong in public etc.

And the invisible recovery?

And the “recovery being invisible” point is that you, as the teacher, are likely to be completely unaware that a student is unable to focus attention on the task in hand (eg listening to what you are saying) because they are still processing/worrying about/coming down from that stress/anxiety/alertness situation. You are unaware because you can’t see into their mind. What you see is them looking at you, apparently listening. But they aren’t listening. They are thinking “why did I say that rather than that?”/”Everyone laughed at me”/”I felt so stupid”/”I’m sweating.” They are looking at you, face impassive, and you think they are listening,  but they may not be because they can’t as they haven’t freed up the brain bandwidth required.
Listening to the human voice typically takes more than half the brain bandwidth so, if someone is fretting about something, which also takes up a dominating amount, there’s not enough left for listening to you.

The extra problem for young people

The part of the brain which you need to divert brain bandwidth onto the desired thing – in this case the teacher’s voice – is the prefrontal cortex. This is not fully developed until well into the 20s and therefore teenagers and children are at a disadvantage compared to adults.

What is the solution?

The solution, I believe, is all about awareness.

Brain bandwidth

Help students be aware of this brain bandwidth issue so that they can spot when theirs is being diverted away from the more important task (listening to you) and then they can consciously say to themselves, “OK, so this is what is happening now but all I have to do is say to myself ‘stop fretting about the unimportant mistake and listen to what will help me now.'” Teach them that they need their prefrontal cortex to do that and their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. But it exists and can work very well when harnessed carefully and consciously.

Common experience

Teach students that feeling upset and distracted when they speak up in public and especially when they make a mistake is completely normal and that most of their peers feel the same. And that their teachers and parents would, as well!

Learn to look forward not back

Help students realise that they can, if they actively try, shift their focus forward and away from what has happened and what therefore can’t be changed. Saying things to themselves such as “It doesn’t matter”, “I can do better next time”, “I am proud of myself for speaking up” and “What other people might think is irrelevant” – all these self-supporting words become thoughts and become the truth.

The main point

The main point, however, is for teachers to realise that there is that silent recovery time after a student has answered a question or done anything visible or audible in class, during which time they will be less able to process information. This makes it more important that teachers:
  • Don’t go too fast
  • Support spoken words with written text, whether as written notes or on a whiteboard or Powerpoint
  • Repeat important points
  • Stop frequently to check that everyone is keeping up
  • Ensure that the politics of the classroom make it easy for a student to say when they have missed something

For more resources:

 

3 Responses

  1. This is fascinating! I wish we could get the information into every classroom in the country, what a difference it could make to students’ participation, confidence and esteem to have a supportive environment based on the factors described in the article.

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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