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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

Working Smarter, Not Harder

Last Friday, I spoke to a group of Middle School parents about how to help students “work smarter, not harder.” At Rivers Middle School, we don’t just focus on what kids should learn; we want to help them figure out how they learn.

This week, we had the year’s first Meta Monday, a day each month devoted to metacognition and a holistic approach to learning. In small groups, we spent time talking about this quote from John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

When I reflect on my experience working with middle schoolers, here’s one key takeaway: Of all the skills students need to thrive academically, one of the most important is the ability to focus. And while it’s easy for us to tell kids to “pay attention,” learning how to pay attention takes time and effort. It also helps to have a little understanding of how the brain works.

Focus is the brain’s ability to tune out distractions and attend to the task at hand. Our senses are bombarded with stimuli: sounds, smells, and images. We are distracted by our hunger. We are distracted by our phones and devices. And we are more easily distracted when we are overtired or when we have been sedentary for too long.

But we know that we can train the brain to focus.

And we also know that constant distraction weakens our brain’s ability to concentrate.

In my last post, I urged parents not to become overly involved in their children’s homework—to allow them to work and struggle and reach out to teachers as needed. But here is one way parents can make a profound difference at home: Work with your child to create a distraction-free work zone and to build study habits that foster focus.

Do middle schoolers need to focus all the time? No. It’s not only impossible (cognitive overload is a real phenomenon), it’s also not conducive to deep learning. As Barbara Oakley writes in her book Learning How to Learn, the brain has two modes of thinking: Focused and Diffuse. Diffuse mode is when your brain is wandering—when you are on a walk or daydreaming or taking a shower or meditating and suddenly have an “aha” moment. More and more, psychologists are touting the benefits of planned “diffuse” time as a way to help the brain recover and recharge, so that it can once again focus.

Perhaps the best, simplest method to help students learn how to focus and recharge is the Pomodoro technique.

It’s so simple. In fact, if you help your child develop the habit of “doing Pomodoros,” they will discover that they can complete their work faster and more efficiently while training their brain! I wrote about it in this post, but in a nutshell, here’s how it works:

Choose a task to work on. Put away all distractions:  turn off the notifications on your computer, put your phone in a drawer, turn off the TV, and so on.

Set a timer for 25 minutes, and work until the timer goes off. That’s focused mode.

Then, take a five-minute break (again, set the timer). During break time, stretch, grab a snack, dance to a favorite song, laugh, go outside, or whatever gives your mind and body a rest. This is diffuse mode.

A Pomodoro is simply 25 minutes of focused, distraction-free effort followed by a five-minute recharging break. Most students discover that they get their homework done significantly faster when they use this technique, because people typically waste lots of time refocusing attention on the task at hand.

As you talk to your kids about the importance of training the brain to focus, you might discover that you, too, are motivated to put down your phone and turn off pop-ups and lose yourself in a task … for at least 25 minutes!

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