The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

One Step at a Time

For the past several months, I have been working my way through a fascinating book called Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Dr. Eric Jensen. The focus in the book is on understanding how neurobiology can and should inform our decisions as teachers. Instead of discussing cognitive psychology and theory, the author explains the actual biology of how the brain works (at least, to the best of our understanding) and how these physical aspects impact learning and should impact teaching.


One of the more interesting points that I recently read was about the processes that affect memory. Specifically, the author shared that

[c]apacity limitations should also be an important consideration… For a 5- to 12-year-old, the limit is normally one or two bits of data. But as a practical matter, many students have poor short-term memory because of conditions such as attention deficit disorder, learning delays, and auditory-processing deficits, and it’s better to stick to one piece of information for all students. In a classroom, directions just one at a time…

I spent a lot of time considering this over the Thanksgiving Break. How often do I give my students several steps to follow and then get frustrated when they don’t follow all of them? One example is our end-of-day routines. I have spent most of the year instructing students to do the following:

  1. Quietly get mail
  2. Quietly put mail in COYOTE Binders
  3. Get backpacks without talking in the hallway
  4. Put binders in backpacks at desks
  5. Move to carpet and sit quietly

Some would think that this would be easy to do, but thinking about what Dr. Jensen wrote made me realise that one of the reasons we have had so much chaos at the end of the day has simply been that I have been giving too many pieces of information at a time. So today I resolved to try a new tactic. Instead of telling the students all of the steps. we did them one at a time.

This is what it looked like:

I told the class that we were going to go through the process one step at a time and explained the neurobiology of it. This made them more willing to try it out. First I had the students get their mail one row at a time without talking. (I direct them to do it without talking because it always takes much longer if students are talking to one another.) Once everyone had their mail, they took out their binders and put their mail in the correct folders. Then they got their backpacks and returned to the room, once again doing this one row at a time without talking. The final step was to move to the carpet and wait for further instructions.

The difference was amazing! It took more time than I would like, but it was controlled and focused and safe. The focus now will be to continue to doing this one step at a time but doing it faster. The goal is for the students to do all five steps in five minutes or less. I know they can do it; now my students need to believe it!


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