Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

April 15 Press & Release

“Brains, like hearts, go where they are appreciated. Robert McNamara

Successful teachers know that for students to be successful learners, they must strive to initially engage their minds in classroom activity and instruction. They comprehend (some intuitively) that if you are going to successfully educate children and insure they comprehend subject matter, you must begin by engaging their brains.

They develop their classroom activities and instruction based upon the premise that students only remember what they think about and to accomplish this, their brains need processing time.

However, many educators, particularly high school teachers, teach in a manner that insures the non engagement of students’ brains and leads to near certain inadequate comprehension of the material.

This type of teacher is known to lecture nearly non-stop for an entire class with minimal breaks in the flow of information. Using a teaching metaphor, they are referred as a “sage on a stage.”

John Almarode, assistant professor at James Madison University, refers to this teaching method as the “Spray and Pray” method of teaching when the teacher stands in front of the class, and hoses students down with information, and prays something sticks. Afterwards upon grading tests, they wonder why students did so poorly and why they demonstrate little to no comprehension of prior “teaching.”

Often a “Spray and Pray” teacher believes their job is simply to give a decent performance, with the rationalization of “I taught it. It’s not my fault if they didn’t learn it.”

The “Spray and Pray” teaching method is ineffective because it violates three fundamental educational neuroscience theories: attention span of students, Miller’s Law = 7 ± 2, and the principle of mass vs. spaced learning.

Our brain can only stay engaged for a relatively short amount of time. The universally accepted guideline for attention span for young learners is 5 to 10 minutes, for adolescences 15 to 20 minutes, and for adults 20 to 25 minutes. (Note: A child's attention span while watching TV is not an accurate measure of his or her attention span.)

Another principle that a “sage of the stage” teacher breaches is known as the Miller’s Law = 7 ± 2.

In 1950s, George Miller conducted research on the limits of short-term memory for Bell Laboratories while a professor at Harvard University. Miller, one of the founders of cognitive psychology, discovered there is a fixed capacity for the average person to receive information and a limit on the number of objects they can hold in working memory.

As a result of his research, Miller developed what is known as the Miller’s Law = 7 ± 2, or "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” In short, the Miller Law states that the average person can hold seven pieces of information in their working memory for 30 seconds (7 pieces of information for less than 30 seconds).

Miller goes on to explain that if something does not happen to the information, it becomes lost– the memory becomes extinct! Moreover, in order for the information to be relearned, a person needs to be re-exposed to the information. This is referred to as maintenance rehearsal.

Miller’s research led to the creation of 7 digit phone numbers by Bell’s Lab. Additional work by Miller with an educational term known as ”chunking” lead to the creation of the 10-digit area code phone number using the dash to aid in visual processing and memorization.  For example, the phone number 8183128631 vs. (818) 312-8631.

The third neuroscience educational principle that a primarily lecturing teacher violates is known as the spacing effect. Researchers studying mice have found that the long-term effects of learning are strongly dependent on whether training is performed all at once (“massed training”), or in spaced intervals (“spaced training”). They have found that gains incurred in massed training disappeared within 24 hours, while those gained in spaced training were sustained longer.

In the field of psychology, this is known as the spacing effect. The spacing effect is the phenomenon whereby animals (including humans) more easily remember or learn items when they are studied a few times spaced over a long time span (“spaced presentations”) rather than repeatedly studied in a short span of time (“massed presentations”).

Illustration wise, learning to drive a car in 6 sessions/20 minutes per day over a week (spaced training) is more effective than a single block of a 2-hour practice session (massed training).

As any ex-college student knows, ”cramming” the night before an exam is not likely to be as effective as studying at intervals in a longer timeframe. A true example of distributed study/practice being more effective than massed practice.

The following three teaching techniques help address these facts and will help improve learning for all students: “Press and Release”/”Pulsed” learning pattern and the “Primacy-Recency” effect methods of instruction.

All three methods are based on a need for teachers to provide class time for students to reflect upon recently presented material and for metacognition (thinking about thinking).

The “Press and Release” method of instruction is modeled on controlling how information should flow to students’ brains.

A classroom utilizing the “Press and Release” model is designed so that there is a constant adjustment period of pressing (instruction) and releasing (a reflecting/recapping/summarizing activity). Normally, classroom time is divided into longer time for instruction (press) followed by a shorter time for reflection and metacognition (students thinking about their thinking).

Also found in educational literature and similar to the “Press and Release” method of instruction is the “pulsed” learning pattern. This teaching technique is based on research that the brain prefers a “pulse”-learning learning pattern. The “pulsed” learning teaching pattern underscores that the best learning occurs when “focused” instruction/lecturing is interrupted by breaks of 2 - 5 minutes for diffusion activities to process the information.

A high school model of the “pulsed” learning pattern would resemble the following example: focused = 15/20 minutes, diffused/processing = 2/5 minutes, focused = 15/20 minutes, diffused/processing = 2/5 minutes, and focused = 15/20 minutes.

A third exceptional and insightful teaching technique is the “Primacy-Recency” Effect. This phenomenon is based on research that indicate people remember best what happens first, second best what happens last, and least what happens in the middle.

“Primacy-Recency” effect requires teachers to change the person, place, or activity every 10-20 minutes to maintain a high level of attention.

In practice, the moments in the “middle” should be dedicated to student-centered practice.

The last part of the class should be dedicated to summarizing important concepts, including bridging activities to the next class.

All three instructional methods are supported by neuroscientific studies connected to the functioning of the hippocampus, the brain’s Grand Central Station of memory.

The hippocampus is a large curved structure buried deep within the medial temporal lobe on each side of the brain. It is behind the amygdala (the fire alarm of the brain) and gradually curves upwards as it extends towards the back of the brain.

The hippocampus is the key structure that weaves various memory streams into a unified experience forming declarative memories, the type of memories you can actively recall, reflect upon, and talk about. It aids in spatial navigational and most importantly, it works closely with the amygdala and PFC (the brain’s CEO) to evaluate the importance of incoming information.

Stress is exceptionally toxic to the hippocampus. Biologically, when the hippocampus is even slightly impaired in any manner due to any type of stressors, memory is instantaneously and significantly impaired or temporally disabled.

Educationally, information overload and boredom are stressors for the hippocampus. Acting as the brain’s surge protector and similar to a surge protector for your computer that shuts down when overwhelmed by electricity, the hippocampus does exactly the same thing when overwhelmed by stress in the form of excess information and boredom.

The “Press and Release,” ”Pulsed” learning pattern, and the “Primacy-Recency” effect method of instruction all help prevent the hippocampus from shutting down memory due to stress caused by being inundated by excess information and boredom.

So, let’s review. Teachers must always bear in mind that students only remember what they think about and to accomplish this, their brains need processing time.

They need to be attentive that students’ attention spans are only 15-20 minutes and remember to change the activity, pace, place, or focus frequently to help facilitate this need.

Educators must be sensitive to the fact that for students to remember best, it is necessary to allow them to reflect upon their classroom experiences. Given the vast amount of information that students are bombarded with daily, it is important to give them much needed “down time” to process.

Finally, given that on the average a student can hold 3 to 4 chunks of information for a few minutes, teachers should structure their lessons to present new information on an average of 8 to 10 minutes (press), then redirect/reflection (release).

Although educators believe they are instructing students in the classroom, it is critical for them to remember it’s their minds they are educating and interacting with in the classroom.

Like hearts, brains greatly appreciate understanding and compassion for how they learn.

I hope you found this article beneficial and useful.

~ Happy Teaching ~


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.