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  • Scott Murphey

Quick and Easy Tips for the Classroom based on the Science of Learning.

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

As a teacher, I have tried to reflect on how I teach in my classroom. I want to find ways of including the science behind learning into my everyday teaching to make it more powerful. I would have to say it has been very powerful and transformative and these strategies do work. I hope anyone who reads this is helped by them as well.

Tip 1: When presenting information be careful with visuals and talking over visuals.

Simply our brains can only process so much at a time. If we overload this processing system things gets lost (cognitive overload). We need to be strategic about how we do this.

Talking and Reading

  • Problem: If the words you are saying and the words you are presenting are different. That will cause problems because kids only have one way to process both of these information streams called the phonological loop.

  • Solution: If you want to talk, make sure the words you are presenting are the same as what you are saying. This is powerful. It gives kids two ways of processing the information, the phonological loop and the visuospatial, sketchpad. Pictures without words are good too but make sure they connect to the topic. If they are too weird they can distract from the information you are trying to convey.

Tip 2: When asking questions to the class don't just ask one kid to answer.

  • Problem: The key to learning is "output" as Patrice M. Bain and Pooja K. Agarwal put it in their book Powerful Teaching. If we ask only one child to answer, then they are the only one to retrieve that information. Also if we are using it as a measure of if our message is getting through, that is a pretty poor measure.

  • Solutions:

    • Don't ask for an answer immediately. Give wait time. Let all kids know you want them thinking of an answer. Prompt them by saying, "Zoe, are you thinking of an answer? Abdullah, what about you do you have an answer?" Let them know that you might call on any one of them at any time.

    • Have all kids answer at the same time. You can achieve this by using a small whiteboard where kids write answers down.

    • Ask multiple kids to answer the same question, even if they are giving the exact same answer. Maybe have them explain it in different ways. Maybe they can add on to an answer. Make one kid repeat the answer and another kid repeat the question.

Tip 3: Attention and focus take effort, but they are teachable skills:

Attention and focus require "active effort". That is why so many kids struggle with them. This can be caused by both natural (physical, chemical, developmental) aspects of the child, or nurture the habits and skills the child has been taught as they have grown. The degree to which each one influences the child is different for every child. But in general, that is not going to be helpful. From what I have read, and this is backed up by my personal experience, every kid can be taught the skills needed to focus.

  • Don't blame it on ADD/ADHD. ADD or ADHD is a spectrum, we all fall on it. For most kids, and I mean Most kids my biased and unscientific number is 99%, this is not where the real attention/focus already problem lies. The real issue is they never were taught the skills, or given the training to necessary to focus well

  • Focus and Attention is an "Active skill". This is why it is hard. Kids need to be taught metacognitive skills: Paying attention to their body and what it is doing. Where they are looking, what they are thinking.

    • Do this by asking them at different times, "Where are your eyes, what is the position of your body, where is your pencil, etc..". "Is that helpful or not helpful.

  • Specifically, teach what focus or attention look like in different situations:

    • Carpet: Your eyes should be on me, your body should be faced in my direction, criss-cross apple sauce, etc.

    • At a desk or table: you should be sitting up in your chair, your pencil should be in your hand its tip on the paper.

  • Kids need positive feedback when they do these skills correctly. Too often I think we take these for granted and think, "they are already supposed to know this".

  • Kids need to build endurance at this skill. They don't just have it. Start small, 5 min, and build up.

  • Be clear with the kids who need to improve on this. Tell them, "The Expectation is you are able to sit and work (pay attention) for........".

  • Put kids in places where you can monitor and give quick feedback.

Tip 4: A tiny bit of anxiety and discomfort is important for learning.

Brains are primed for learning when there is a little bit of anxiety. If there is too much comfort, the brain says, "I can unfocus nothing to worry about". Of course, anxiety is a delicate thing because too much is bad for learning. What does this look like?

  • Discomfort - sitting up on a carpet, sit up in a desk. This discomfort will help provide a bit of anxiety. Too often we get fooled by this idea of letting kids relax on couches and laying on the floor. While this is great and should be an option sometimes, it's not great for a "prime learning situation".

  • Expectation - letting the kids know when it is time to work and that you are expecting them to work and "try".

  • Be a little more serious with your demeanor. Work on more of a coach persona than a "mommy" persona.

  • Explain very specifically when it is work and focus time. Give it a time limit. Praise the good work when you are finished.

  • Be strict on the rules and let kids come down swift and quick on students who mess up this work time. Show you are serious from he beginning. Not scary, but just serious.

The idea that we have limited attentional resources places a certain limitation on how much information we can process at any one time. The amount of information requiring our attention is known in the literature as “cognitive load,” and an overabundance of it is known as “cognitive overload” (Sweller & Chandler, 1994). Two theories of cognitive load have dominated the field: one known simply as Load Theory (Lavie, Hirst, De Fockert, & Viding, 2004), and the other as Cognitive Load Theory (CLT; Chandler & Sweller, 1991).

Weinstein, Yana. Understanding How We Learn (p. 52). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

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