Various doodles drawn during an afternoon math...
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A scenario with which you are probably familiar: You are giving directions for an upcoming project, or explaining a complex math concept, or leading a discussion about the story the class just read in the reading book. Dozens of eyes are focused in your direction as the students hang on your every word. You glance to the left, where you see one of your gifted students, eyes down, pencil drifting lazily across the page of her notebook in elaborate, abstract swirls and angles. Interrupting your speech, you call her name. She looks up, you ask her to put the pencil and notebook away and pay attention, she complies, and you go on, confident that she is now engaged in the important stuff.

Most of us have been in that position. I’m certain, though, that you can recall more than once in class (or as likely, graduate school) being where that student was.

Why do we doodle? It is entirely possible that by making your students stop doodling, you are actually harming their ability to focus on what you’re teaching. A report about this on NPR last week has some interesting implications for teachers of gifted students. Jackie Andrade, a psychology professor at the University of Plymouth, has studied doodling and its effects, and found that it is a coping mechanism that people use to give their brains something to process when they are not being sufficiently stimulated:

“If you look at people’s brain function when they’re bored, we find that they are using a lot of energy — their brains are very active,” Andrade says. The reason, she explains, is that the brain is designed to constantly process information. But when the brain finds an environment barren of stimulating information…the brain [typically] turns to daydreams…. The function of doodling…is to provide just enough cognitive stimulation during an otherwise boring task to prevent the mind from taking the more radical step of totally opting out of the situation and running off into a fantasy world.
Your gifted students, whose brains are generally already in a higher gear than the rest of the class, probably find themselves in this low-stimulation state frequently. So before you ask your kids to put away the pencils, consider that they may actually be paying more attention than the ones with nothing else to do.

But even more, consider the possibility of being proactive in your approach:

  • Whenever possible, plan high-engagement and high-stimulation activities
  • Give your students scratch pads or paper and allow them to keep them out at all times
  • Switch modes frequently to keep the brain alert
  • When students doodle, don’t take it personally
  • Look for cues that you need to take breaks or shift gears

Understanding the brain and recognizing the outward signs of what it is doing will help you stay in tune with your students and meet their needs more easily. And the next time you’re in a faculty meeting, glance around and see how many of your colleagues are keeping their brains occupied.

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