Avoiding Seductive Details

Drawing children into learning activities can sometimes feel like Sisyphus rolling an immense boulder uphill. Just when we think we’ve gotten their attention, we discover that their enthusiasm stems from something tangential, like a cute puppet, potential prize, or funny story. They’ve been hooked by an irrelevant idea and that’s all they want to talk about.

Interesting but irrelevant bits of information (also known as ‘seductive details’) can be major impediments to learning. Educational psychologist Kripa Sundar found that seductive details inhibit both immediate and longer term recall of more pertinent information. Furthermore, the later in the lesson that children are exposed to extraneous information, the larger the negative effect on children’s learning. So chatting with a puppet at the end of circle time becomes what children remember, not whatever lesson came before.

Sundar’s research has pinpointed four reasons that seductive details interrupt learning:

  • They are more interesting than essential content, so children focus on them instead.
  • They remind children of prior irrelevant knowledge (e.g., the last time they visited the zoo or how cute koalas are) rather than pointing toward the lesson (e.g., caring for the environment or saving endangered species).
  • They cause confusion about what the focus of the lesson really is.
  • They spread children’s attention across too many ideas, which affects how well they process concepts.

There is no denying the positive emotional effects that children attach to fun but irrelevant activities. That means we may not want to banish them altogether. Rather, we can tailor our use of seductive details to keep them from hindering children’s spiritual learning. Sundar offers three tips that could be helpful:

Distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information. Avoid mixing seductive details into the lesson – keep them separate in timing and format. Bring out a puppet briefly and then put it away. Or use something like a GIF or another form of brief communication that you don’t typically use during the actual lesson.

Use images and sound effects purposefully. Children’s brains use both auditory and visual cues to help them remember information. So make sure the images you use reinforce the ideas you most want them to retain. Tell a story using a distinct voice (or different volume) for a key character. If you create a presentation online, pick design elements that reinforce key themes. Add sound effects (voices, bells, drum rolls) that draw attention to important points.

Close with a summary of key ideas. You might provide this information, or you might invite children to share what they have learned. For instance, if your lesson was about meditation, you might ask, “What are three things you can do to stay focused during meditation?” Or, if you’ve explored how to respond to racist comments, ask each child to identify their takeaway from the lesson. This approach also serves as an assessment tool: if children report something other than the substance of the lesson, you know what information distracted them.

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