How Brain Research Helped Retool Our School Schedule for Remote Learning

Jun 10, 2020

In the fall of 2018 our school made a big shift. After twelve months of planning we launched a new daily schedule based on brain science and designed to encourage deeper learning and student wellbeing.

Three months ago, COVID-19 closed our school, along with nearly every other school in the country, and we realized we’d have to start over. Once again, we turned to research.

As we chronicled in an earlier EdSurge article, we had tried to change our school schedule once before without success. The difference two years ago was that we trained 100 percent of the teachers from PreK to grade 12 at St. Andrew’s Episcopal in Maryland, where we both work, in the science of teaching and learning—which helped our staff realize the schedule we were using did not align well with the most promising research on how students learn best.

In our old schedule, classes weren’t long enough for deep learning, our students were cognitively overloaded and nightly homework for every class raised anxiety and put pressure on sleep. Opportunities for things like quality feedback, deep learning and metacognition were limited, as was time outside of class for working independently and meeting with teachers.

Our revised schedule delayed the start time (to let students get more sleep), lengthened classes to 65 minutes, decreased homework and fixed many other problems. So when COVID-19 struck, we decided to keep the schedule we had in place, as though this were an extended snow day. Classes met at the same times for the same 65 minutes, but online.

We quickly learned how unsustainable this was.

How did we know? As a research-informed school, we surveyed all our constituencies—teachers, students, parents and caregivers—and a certain alignment emerged. At least 87 percent of each group believed that class was too long and too challenging for attention.

To create a new plan, we balanced what we know about developmentally appropriate amounts of screen time with research on the importance of teacher directed instruction (particularly one paper with a title that should be on everyone’s mind as they plan distance learning: “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work”).

Basically, we believed an effective distance learning plan needs high quality direct instruction from teachers who are able to guide learning and keep students on task, along with time away from the screen for students to practice, create, read and explore—“homework” reimagined. This blended approach was the basis of the schedule in the Distance Learning Plan we developed.

But how did we use the time? We know that one thing will never change. The brain, whether learning on campus, fully online or in a blended environment, is the organ of learning. So the same research from the field of Mind, Brain and Education that we used in 2018 to create our new at-school schedule became the starting point for designing what distance learning should look like as well. Because we understand the underlying principles that help students learn, we were able to reimagine school online, rather than just trying to recreate the same bricks and mortar experience. What must online school include? And how do we do it?

Sample of a revised schedule from St. Andrew’s.

We concentrated on creating an even better balance between the academic growth, social and emotional development and overall well-being of our students. We sought to reduce screen time by shortening class periods and elevating offline independent work, which we supported through targeted faculty professional development to help staff understand that research on homework is unequivocal; the quality of assignments has a much greater impact than the quantity of minutes spent.

These changes allowed us to start later, at 9:00 a.m., and end class time earlier, boosting well-being and engagement. It also allowed students more time for non-screen-time work, as well as to pursue non-school passions and find some balance in their lives.

Importantly, we built in 15-minute breaks between classes and a larger slice of time to meet with advisors and teachers during Office Hours. Lunch was lengthened so students could eat with siblings, parents or guardians—or online with classmates for elementary students, which proved extremely popular.

We also knew that the anxiety and weirdness of our current times had created an increased executive functioning struggle. So we made classes start on the hour, with the same basic routine each day. And each week is exactly the same—we have that mythical unicorn schedule, the 5 day rotating block.

We realized we could teach less content as well as give less homework by focusing on essential questions and core competencies. We asked ourselves the question, “What do I want my students to still know, value and be able to do in two years time?” Less important things can go.

Feedback both from and to students was critical. We knew that gaining insights into what students did and did not currently know would be harder, so we included more low- or no-stakes formative assessments, and used them to guide the teaching we did and the assignments we set. We knew that the feedback we gave students would be more crucial than ever, so we made sure we designed lessons and assignments that gave students smaller, more regular doses of very targeted feedback.

We elevated project-based learning that didn’t revolve around screens. But we also made sure we took a research-informed approach to project-based learning. Teachers used direct instruction to impart core knowledge, and gave students formative assessments to make sure they understood the material. Projects were then used as a means of getting students to transfer these skills to a new context. The timing was perfect for this—late in the year, a lot of background knowledge had already been put in place. It is much more impactful to craft projects that force students to transfer knowledge to new contexts than use projects to learn new concepts.

We taught our content better by making informed choices of when and where to use edtech tools. Before choosing any tools, we decided on our learning objects and matched them to science of learning objectives. Afterward, we launched elementary and secondary school versions of a “Science of Learning Field Guide” that helps teachers find the right tool for where their students are in the learning process.

Online learning has reminded us of something Dr. David Daniel, one of the founders of the field of Mind, Brain and Education, once said about students: “They have to want to learn.” It is why we are closely looking at the research of Chris Hulleman and others at the University of Virginia’s Motivate Lab, and research of purpose and relevance from the Mindset Scholars Network.

Online learning has also reminded us that cognition and emotion are highly intertwined, both in the brain and in each child’s everyday lived experience. We continue to look at the work of Mary Helen Immordino Yang at the Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning & Education (CANDLE) and Dr. Pamela Cantor and the Turnaround for Children team for guidance.

Our schedule is still a work in progress. But we will leave you with an insight from one of our students, who said that “distance learning has all of the elements of school, but none of the fun stuff,” which raises two points. First, how does the next iteration of our schedule bring back the fun and elevate social connection should we remain at a distance of more than six feet apart? And second, how do we include the end-user experts in the plans we make? We may not yet know what the fall will bring, but there is expertise—from research, teacher experience and student’s insights—that can guide us.

Agility and flexibility isn’t something that just happens. But by helping teachers and leaders understand the fundamental principles of how students learn best, we can design for it no matter what the future brings.

Glenn Whitman (@gwhitmancttl) is director of The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) at St. Andrew’s in Potomac, Md. Ian Kelleher (@ijkelleher) teaches science and is the Dreyfuss Chair for Research at CTTL.

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