Understand How the Human Brain Works to Build Classroom Routines

Wf1421559 Building Routines Hero

Think back to the first time you drove from your home to your new school. If you were like me, I had to use MapQuest (think old-fashioned print-out directions) and follow them step by step. I paid attention to landmarks, road signs, the church with a blue roof, and the little housing addition in Majenica, Indiana. I was unfamiliar with the new route, and I was taking in every single piece of information along the way. Fast forward four months, and after a day of teaching and coaching basketball with the sun long set, I could make the drive with little to no effort. Have you ever had that experience? It’s like my brain knew exactly where to go. It’s because it did.

This is how all learning happens. When we learn a new idea for the first time, we store the information in short-term memory. For the information to move to our long-term memory, your brain begins a process called memory consolidation. But how does that occur?

Synapses—junctions between two nerve cells—fire when learning occurs. Basically, the synapses pass signals from neuron to neuron with the help of neurotransmitters. The more frequently we pass the signals (such as “turn right” by the church with the blue roof), the stronger the synapses become. When these neurons continue to fire at the same time, they become trained to fire together. When this happens, the brain is strengthening connections (the neural pathway) between information, and it begins to rewire itself for this new learning.

My quick tutorial just scratches the surface in understanding how the brain works. We need to understand these processes because the brain is an organ we use each day. Dentists need to know about teeth, cardiologists need to know about the heart, and teachers and education leaders need to know about the brain.

Building Routines as a Teacher or Administrator

As you return to your school or classroom this year and develop routines, there are a few ideas to keep in mind to create a neuro-friendly environment as a teacher or administrator.

1. Establish routines

The quickest way for teachers to create a sense of continuity and calm in your classroom is to establish, practice, and use routines. The first few times you practice a routine, be explicit in why you are turning to it. Our goal is for our students’ synapses to fire neurons together in building these neural pathways so they remember the procedures.

Leader Lens: As a leader, what’s your routine for each day? Do you start in the foyer to visit students and then go to five classrooms every morning? What are your typical tasks to ensure continuity, consistency, and communication? Spend time establishing a daily routine so your key priorities happen every day.

“The first few times you practice routines, be explicit in why you are turning to this routine.”

2. Understand that intelligence is a function of experience

Assume nothing about your students’ understanding of strategies, practices, and learning. Each student comes to your room for the first time together on day one. They may have come from different classrooms, schools, or even states. Your number one job is to level-set your learning environment. When we make assumptions prematurely, we begin to inaccurately assess a students’ intelligence—when, in fact, it could be that the student has not had the experience to formulate practice from short- to long-term memory.

Leader Lens: Avoid assuming you know your school’s culture, including its strengths and weaknesses. Take the time to really understand your school culture from key stakeholders. This could mean scheduling 30-minute meetings with each staff member before the year starts. Spend time asking open-ended questions and listening to what you are being told. Host minute-meetings with students. Ask a few questions and give a minute or so for each response. By using this strategy, you get a lot of information quickly. Analyze the data and respond appropriately. With this new experience you can build the culture you want.

3. Be explicit in feedback

As we work to move information from short- to long-term memory, sometimes students don’t learn the routines correctly. When that happens, the student has formed an incorrect connection between two neurons. We must unwire that connection and rewire it properly. This means we should be explicit in the type of feedback we offer. Affirm what the student does correctly and use positive language in redirecting what needs to be adjusted. For example, you can say, “You emailed your assignment on time. Next time, be sure you upload the assignment in the correct folder. Let me show you how really quick.” Take time to save time.

Leader Lens: As you visit classrooms, be sure to provide explicit feedback. Avoid vague, general praise such as “good job” or “keep up the great work.” Be specific in what you observed students doing in the classroom and annotate what it was and why it stood out. Leave it in a note or email, or have a conversation. Do not let these coaching opportunities slip away.

4. Ensure collective teacher efficacy exists

John Hattie’s research is clear that collective teacher efficacy is the top strategy to enhance student learning. If we can build collective teacher efficacy in our strategies, we develop consistent routines and procedures not only in our own classroom but in all classrooms. Students pick up the patterns, in part because we are explicit in pointing them out. This allows students to maximize their time and learning because of the continuity and consistency that exists in their learning environment.

Leader Lens: This is the most important job of the school leader. Begin by identifying two to three strategies you would like your staff to utilize in the first semester. Be sure they are high-yield, high-impact strategies. Develop a professional learning loop where you give direct instruction, observe the strategies in the classroom, and provide feedback to the teachers. Then, build a plan to analyze the data and course adjust.

5. Begin with relationships

Students can execute and practice routines and procedures to move information from short- to long-term memory. In working with educators across the country, I have observed various levels of success in procedural tasks. Here's what I notice: teachers who have strong relationships with students tend to have well-established routines. Teachers who struggle with student relationships tend to have more challenging management issues.

One strategy for teachers is to spend 15 minutes each day on relationship-building with students. I suggest dividing your class list into groups of five—one group for each day of the week. Then, focus on strengthening relationships with each group of students. (Learn more about building relationships with your students this fall.)

Leader Lens: Relationships make rigor and relevance possible. As leaders, you were hired to boost academic achievement and growth while building collective teacher efficacy. None of that can happen if relationships are not prioritized. The best and easiest advise I can give is simply this: BE VISIBLE. When students are there, so are you. Be in the learning spaces. Show up in the lunchroom and cafeteria. Visit the playgrounds. Be at the academic bowl meet, the show choir competition, or the sporting event.

The brain is a pattern-seeking device. These five strategies can ensure we start the school year with clear and consistent routines in our schools—and we can use neuroscience to make it happen.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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