What is the one universal truth for all teachers regardless of the country we are teaching in or our subject matter? We never have enough time with our students. We always feel like we could accomplish so much more if only we had additional time with them. With this being the case, let’s shift gears and control what we can, which is the quality of the instruction we are providing our students while they are in our classrooms.
Here is an analogy to illustrate my point. There are two people right next to each other at the gym on identical treadmills. Both are going to spend the next 30 minutes on a cardio workout. The first one keeps the incline of the treadmill at zero and does a combination of walking and jogging while the machine is set at three to four mph. The person right next to her sets the incline at six and maintains a running rate of closer to ten to twelve mph. They are investing the same amount of time and using the same equipment, yet their payoffs will vary greatly.
These are the key components you can incorporate to B.O.O.S.T. your instruction:
B. Brain-Based Learning Strategies
As teachers, our goal is to help our students grow as learners, gain the knowledge we are trying to impart, and internalize it and make it their own. This goal becomes much easier when you are familiar with how the brain learns and use this information when you are planning your lessons. Some of the key points to consider include:
• There is a difference between working memory and long-term memory. What can be done to help our students convert information from one to the other to make our lessons last? Working memory can handle only a few items at once, and this capacity changes with age. Students aged between five and 14 can handle three to five units of information, while those 14 and older can typically handle five to seven units. Are you trying to teach too much at once? Sometimes, less is more if we want the information to be converted into long-term memory (Sousa, 2011).
• The brain is a seeker of novelty. When we use this principle to plan and deliver our lessons, our students are more engaged in our lessons and more likely to learn. This can often keep the fun in learning, too. Use music to introduce your lesson, dress as a character from a book or history, change the direction of the desks, use humor, or get students moving and working together as a part of your lessons.
• Consider the whole brain as you teach. Present information in multiple ways that integrate verbal information with visuals. Present information in a logical order, yet try and to balance this with having the content connect with the learners and to tap into their emotions when possible. When we teach with both the left and right hemispheres in mind, we are able to help our students catch more information.
• Understanding more about how the brain learns and teaching this to our students helps them see themselves as capable. When students understand the concept of cognitive dissonance, the discomfort that they feel before a new concept makes sense, and understand it is an expected part of the learning process and that their brains are trying to connect the information to prior learning, they are less likely to shut down or feel like they are not smart enough to get it.
There are many powerful resources available to understand more about the brain and how it learns. As Dr. David Sousa (2011) states, “The good news is that the more we discover about how the brain learns, the more we can devise strategies that can make the teaching/learning process more efficient, effective, and enjoyable. The bad news is that we cannot get this information to teachers fast enough.” I highly recommend any of his books in the How the Brain Learns series, including How the ELL Brain Learns. I also recommend Dr. John Medina’s Brain Rules.
O. Overt Learning Objectives
Regardless of the age of the students you are working with, they should have a clear understanding of exactly what it is you are setting out to do in each and every learning episode. What is it you want them to accomplish and walk away with after the next however many minutes you have together? Anyone should be able to walk into your lesson after you have started it and ask any student in the room, “What is it you are learning today? Why are you learning it? What is your goal and how will you know if you have achieved it?” If the students cannot confidently answer these questions, you are not maximizing your instructional time.
• Overt learning objectives: These should be shared with the students according to their age level at the start of each and every lesson. Some teachers have them written on the board, others choose to have them prepared and integrated into a PowerPoint presentation while others have the students write them down on a lesson target outline. The key is to find whatever works for you and to be consistent.
• Content objectives: The content objectives is the “what” you want them to know. Often, teachers confuse this with a simple task. For example, teachers may think the content objective is “Students will be able to list the causes of the Civil War” rather than the more in-depth “Students will understand the fundamental conflicts that caused the Civil War.” Sample verbs for writing content objectives include identify, solve, investigate, classify, understand, and distinguish.
• Language objectives: The language objectives are the “how” your students are going develop the academic language to understand the content. Sample verbs for writing language objectives include retell, write, label, persuade, or summarize in writing (or orally share).
• Use the objectives to drive the learning. I have observed some classes where the objective shared by the teacher at the start of the lesson only loosely correlated with the actual activities in the lesson and was never referenced again after the start of the lesson. Skillful teachers who are maximizing their instruction time begin the lesson with their overt objectives, revisit them during the lesson, and design closure around revisiting the objectives while their students self-assess their goal attainment.
A helpful resource for understanding more about learning objectives is Learning Targets by Moss and Brookhart.
O. Ownership of Learning
When students are invested in their own learning, they are motivated and give more effort to learning activities you design for them. Just like our initial treadmill analogy, you may have students sitting right next to each other in your class who may have very different learning experiences based on their own expenditure of effort and overall involvement. What can we do as educators to try to have all of our students increasing that incline and energy given toward their learning?
• Increasing student effort: When students feel that they are not capable of the learning, they often shut down or try to blend in to get by with minimal effort. Instilling a growth mindset versus a limiting fixed mindset is essential. I can think back to my own childhood for a direct example of this. From a young age, I was told that girls were good at reading and boys were good at math. Using that fixed mindset information, I went into each math class thinking that I wouldn’t get it anyway, so why try? I never put forth the effort and struggled with math based on that perception. If I had had a teacher who explained our learning objectives, explained why they were relevant, and walked us through how we would get there step by step, I would have felt more capable and invested more effort.
• Involving students in their growth goals: When students have a clear understanding of their academic strengths and their areas targeted for growth, they feel like they are a part of the learning process. When students only receive information through a report card in an “after the fact” type of feedback, they tend to feel less ownership. Having a conference with each learner to set clear goals and game plans for how you will help get them there is a powerful way to encourage students to take ownership.
• Self-assessment: When you provide students opportunities to reflect on their own progress and evaluate their own learning after each lesson, or during/after each project, they become more invested as learners. Having the students graph their own data points of progress or maintain a portfolio to reflect their growth, talking with them about how they see their progress, will also further their investment in their own learning.
• Relevance: “Why do I need to know this anyway?” When students fail to see the purpose of the instruction, they tend to give less effort. When you can share with your students the reasons why what you are teaching them is relevant to their lives, most will naturally invest more effort. You can further this ownership by having them provide the reasons why what they are learning is meaningful.
Two resources that can help you increase student ownership in your lessons are Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck and Drive by Daniel Pink.
S. Student Discourse
In order to further maximize your instructional time with students, you must provide them opportunities to use what you are teaching them. These activities should be built upon students’ true understanding of the lesson’s content and language needed to talk or write about it. Moving beyond “turn and talk to a partner” and ensuring true academic discourse for students of all ages dramatically boosts the value of your lessons and makes best use of your limited instructional time.
• Importance of student discourse: As Dr. Stephen Krashen teaches us, for students to acquire language effectively, we need to provide them with meaningful opportunities to use the language and concepts they have been taught. If someone reads several books on playing tennis, learning the rules, how to hold the racquet, and how to deliver a powerful serve, it doesn’t mean they can apply that knowledge and acquire the skills needed to actually play tennis unless they are given a chance to use the information and get a feel for it on their own. The same is true of academic content and language. If we want students to make it their own, we need to design meaningful opportunities for them to use their newly acquired information through oral and written discourse and application.
• Cooperative Learning: While many teachers have increased student talk time in their classes through the incorporation of cooperative learning strategies, there remains opportunity for growth in the quality of discourse taking place. Increasing the quantity of student discourse is no longer enough. Providing your students these pair or group share opportunities is not sufficient. I have observed lessons where only one partner shares ideas while the less confident partner sits quietly by, and other lessons where students excitedly talk over each other. I have listened to some of these conversations, and many did not include any of the academic vocabulary or concepts just taught.
• Cooperative learning “plus”: To add value and quality to the actual conversations that are taking place as a result of cooperative learning structures, teachers must have additional elements in place. These include academic conversation scaffolds such as sentence frames and graphic organizers to help increase the quality of student discourse. Examples include “The similarities between ___________ and _________ indicate ______________” or “The differences between ________________ and ______________ are important because _________________.” Teachers need to model these conversations, provide tools for students to be successful in their academic conversations or writing, and then guide them to independence with sustaining this level of academic discourse, which includes explaining their thinking and engaging with responding to others about their thinking.
• Academic accountability: We must have high expectations for our students and simultaneously hold them accountable for both the quantity and quality of student discourse taking place in our classrooms. Even when this has been modeled and students have the tools they need, they might not push themselves to apply it. You can use concrete visuals to help, such as a list of new vocabulary terms to check off as they use the words in conversations. You may have them tape their conversations to play back and self-evaluate with a rubric. Continued modeling, tools, and accountability for your students will maximize your time and help them to truly acquire your content.
• One resource to see academic discourse in action is the WIDA website under “Resources for Educators,” where one can watch videos of lessons submitted by teachers where true academic discourse is taking place.
T. Tactical Planning
Hopefully, at this point you are starting to picture ways to incorporate some of these strategies to boost your instruction or to support the teachers you oversee. How many of you out there can think of at least one piece of fitness equipment, a cooking tool, or a possible infomercial item that you bought because it seemed like such a good idea at the time and you were convinced you would use it on a regular basis? Yet how did that go? In many cases, our intent is stronger than our follow through. Let’s make a plan to be deliberate in boosting your instruction.
Tactical planning: Just as for our students, when things seem like too much work or too time consuming, we tend not to do them. With simple, tactical planning, you can put these concepts into place to boost your instruction without being overwhelmed. Remember where this started—many of us wish we had more time to teach to reach our students better. With the few key practices I have suggested, we can boost our instruction to maximize the time we do have.
One Step at a Time
Rather than trying to incorporate all of the components of B.O.O.S.T. at the same time, focus on one that you can add to your lessons, or take one that you are currently using but could focus on strengthening. Once you feel comfortable with implementing that component on a regular basis and you and your students have gained those skills or habits, move on and add another component. Just as we encourage our students to self-evaluate, you too should reflect on how the implementation is going, the impact you are noticing, and the effectiveness with your students. Use a basic organizer to keep it simple. These small boosts will have a big payoff for you and your students.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY. Ballantine Books.
Medina, J. (2014). Brain Rules. Seattle, WA. Pear Press.
Moss, C. M. & Brookhart, S. M. (2012). Learning Targets: Helping students aim for understanding in today’s lesson. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.
Pink, D. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY. Riverhead Books.
Sousa, D. (2011). How the Brain Learns. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press.
Anne Paonessa, EL coordinator and an assistant principal for Batavia School District #101 in Illinois, teaches a graduate-level course in innovative methods for teaching ELs for National Louis University. She has presented at the state and national level on EL topics and is a contributing author to TESOL publication Language Teaching Insights from Other Fields.