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Why Leaders Need to Make Time for the Brain


As educators, we know that understanding the brain must be important. It makes sense. This powerhouse is the control centre for all aspects of our lives—physical, emotional and mental. Furthermore, students spend most of their waking hours at school with us, strengthening their brains—during their most significant years of brain development.

We can now access a myriad of articles, books and youtube videos that explain the latest brain research. We are—and have been for the past 10 to 15 years—experiencing a revolution in cognitive research that could significantly empower young people, teachers and leaders and influence of structure of schools.

Educators, including school leadership, however, have little time to decipher fact from fantasy, let alone create practical applications for the classroom and school development plans. As an education consultant, who goes into a number of schools, this missing link between the science and practical application seems obvious to me, especially during the new age of linear exams and the push to cover more content and focus on knowledge. It’s time for leadership to prioritise the brain.

The implication of cognitive science on education is extensive. Making it accessible and practical for schools is on-going—evident at Learning and the Brain’s February conference “The Science of How We Learn: Engaging Memory, Motivation, Mindset, Making and Mastery” in San Francisco, where I presented a workshop, “Unleash Your Students’ Brain Power.” alongside Nina Dibner, Executive Director of PowerTools, LLC. Three evidence-based strategies continually resurfaced throughout the conference that schools need to take on board immediately: distributed/spaced learning, practice testing and interleaving.

  • Spaced Learning: Students will retain knowledge for a longer period of time when they distribute their learning or practice over time to allow themselves to forget the information in order to retrieve it again.

  • Practice testing (or retrieval practice): When students put effort into remembering information, through for examples low stakes self-testing, they learn significantly better than by simply rereading notes over and over again.

  • Interleaved practice. Student learn best when there is schedule of study whereby practice is mixed with different kinds of material rather blocked according to topic.

Conference presenter and researcher John Dunlosky reviewed the efficacy of 10 learning strategies, including some student favourites like highlighting and rereading. Dunlosky found that practice testing and distributed practice were the most effective—regardless of age—to enhance learning and comprehension of large amounts of materials, leading to student achievement and transfer. Alternatively, highlighting and reading showed to have little effect. Interleaved Practice was regarded by Dunlosky as having ‘much promise’. (See “Strengthening the Student Toolbox”)

As explained by Robert A. Bjork, Director Of UCLA Learning And Forgetting Lab, blocked practice (teaching one topic at a time) is ‘seductive’ because performance improves quickly. “However, research has shown that the long-term effects of a more variable approach, where multiple things are practiced mixed together, are much more beneficial” to learning over in the long run.

All of the above strategies combine to help information from the environment move to the long term memory more efficiently, thus freeing up the working memory for the task at hand. These strategies are also easy to implement once set up, making them less burdensome on teacher time to maintain. But there is an initial investment in time and resources across all levels of the school.


What does this look like for students, for teachers and for leadership?


For students, this means they must understand the science behind revising early and implement it. After each unit, the student has to devise a schedule for recall. Take GCSE English. The student will now spend almost two years learning a course, and must be able to quote from a number of different text—without the book. She’ll need to know why she can’t wait until the traditional ‘revision period’ if she wants to utilise your brain’s capacity. She should make flashcards or practice test to quiz herself periodically, because simply rereading or highlighting notes is not an effective strategy. In fact, it can do more harm than good, causing “the Illusion of fluency”, because students believe they have revised when actually the brain has not, according to the authors of Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, Roediger and Mcdaniel).

Flashcards, or self testing, sound like a traditional, straight-forward method to memorise, but far too often the strategy is either misunderstood (students put all of the information on only one side of the card) or not used effectively over time. Students need to focus on how and when to use them and how to interleave them across topics for the most impact. In schools, I teach students a menu of brain-based strategies that improve memory. I teach them how and and when they might work best and give teachers strategies to model this in their teaching.


“Teachers are brain changers” (literally), according to Glenn Whitman and Dr Ian Kelleher of The Center for Transform Teaching and Learning. Whitman and Kelleher are also colleagues at school outside of Washington DC that has committed itself to training 100 percent of teachers on Mind, Brain and Education Science.

For teachers, planning with the brain in mind means pulling back to look at the big picture before honing in on the details. This means looking at your whole curriculum and spacing out units. For a year 3 class, for example, this could mean starting the year with the Stone Age or a thematic unit but building in opportunities several weeks later and again several months later to return to the key concepts or terms.

Treat all key units in a similar way as you space out the content. Incorporate low stakes practice recall sessions and make your strategy explicit: “Today, I am going to quiz you on something we learned a few months ago. You may have forgotten some of. That’s okay. Our brain learns best when it has to work hard to remember something again.” Rearrange and reword the retrieval questions as part of interleaving. Also, in science, for instance, routinely alternate between ‘worked example solutions’ and ‘problem-solving exercise,’ according to The the What Works Clearinghouse, an initiative of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) that evaluates a range of best practice.


Leadership’s job is to enable the above to happen. Being be truly responsive to the brain takes a commitment that must be clear, consistent and ongoing. Teachers need time to plan units so that the content is spaced out and interleaved. This is potentially a complete overhaul of how the year unfolds. To offer the research behind how the brain learns, but no time to plan will only frustrate staff and be another blocker for implementation.

Give teachers examples of how this is done in other schools. I give a curriculum road map with a list of questions that help to organise their content over a longer period of time. Present them with strategies for retrieval practice that are adaptable. Don’t expect your staff to reinvent the wheel when there are useful tools out there. Space out the professional development. Like learning anything new, it must be spaced out over time, purposefully practiced and interleaved into different content.

As leaders, it is important to be realistic about the goal and strategies within your school context. As Daniel Willingham points out in Why Don’t Students Like School, the classroom application does not always duplicate the laboratory work. For example, Willingham points out that repetition is good for learning, but can be terrible for motivation for some. Students get bored! Expand your repertoire of brain-based strategies to appeal to student motivation. Use novelty, choice, and prior knowledge. Learn how we process information using different visual techniques and pique their interest with prediction.

Evident at the “The Science of How We Learn” conference was that we need to pay attention to the research on the brain and make it real for our students. The strategies mentioned here are the tip of the iceberg, but a first start that will have an impact. Educators must be learning specialists, and that means teaching and leading with the brain in mind.

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