I went to a great session at ASCD on “Brain Based Strategies to Redesign your Classroom,” led by Agnes Matheson, a high school language teacher at the Westminster School in Atlanta. With a middle school teacher, she had worked with Robert Ryshke from the Center for Learning to use her classroom as a source of research.
Her main point was that not all of the minutes of a class are the same. There are times when students learn more than at other times. She began an investigation into how the brain works followed by observations of her students. To start with, she had a fellow teacher observe her class and record when the students began to lose their focus on the work at hand. After a series of classes were observed, they saw that after 20 minutes, no matter what the task, the students became distracted and their attention wandered.
Matheson then tried an experiment. She introduced new material at three different times in her class: at the beginning, after 20 minutes, and during the last 15 minutes. She waited three days and gave an ungraded quiz to see how much had been retained. The results were startling and will change the way that my class is organized.
When the material was introduced in the first 20 minutes, there was a 60% retention of the information with no other learning time. In the next 15 minutes , the middle of the class, there was a 30% retention, and in the final 15 minutes, there was a 45% retention. The first 20 minutes and the final 15 were the “sweet spots” of learning for students. They took in and retained information the best during those time.
I realized that I do not organize my lessons to match this research at all. I tend to think of the classes as building to a learning place in the middle of class. The beginning is the time to review and introduce whatever is going to happen that day. The middle is the work of the class, with the end as a reflection and organizing homework time. Matheson suggested that class start with the new material and the challenging learning. Then after 20 minutes, shift to review or a more physical activity that will re-energize the students, pair work or multimedia work. The end of class can then be for a closure activity that reinforces and extends what has been learned or it can be a time for introducing new material, something I never do.
This is a radically different way to thinking about a class. I want to experiment and see how it impacts my classes. I tend to shift activities regularly, but this research will change what gets done when. That middle time will no longer to the time when the most important work happens! Very interesting!