John Jensen: Classroom Turnaround is Easy, Part 2

by John Jensen, PhD

In my prior article “Classroom Turnaround is Easy” I suggested three conditions for jumpstarting student motivation and learning. First was to make the instructional goal to be maintained rather than temporary knowledge, and arrange practice time so students could achieve that.  Second was to perform what everyone masters .  Third was to write out personally everything they master.

A reader responded  with an inquiry about the practicality of  this paragraph in my article:

Arrange for your students to continue to practice explaining what they wish both to master and to recall. Optimal time-use sees fifty to eighty percent of each period spent at this in partner pairs. From the first week, they easily explain everything back to the beginning of the term, and continuing to do this, by the end of the term they master the entire subject. But this occurs only if you turn over the bulk of class talking time to students so they can repeatedly practice putting the entire course into their own words and thought-forms.

The reader continued:

I understand and appreciate the purpose and value behind the paired review and the process of recalling, summarizing , and modifying the content as the school year progresses, but for the 50-80% time stipulation, I am interested to see how this would look in practice.  How would one go about responsibly putting this into action when the benefits are long-term but the initial thought suggests that time should be spent focusing on the current material? …I can see how this could be implemented at the classroom level but not how that would stretch to a larger-scale system.  Administrators I have interacted with simply do not seem to be inclined to buy into a bigger-picture plan such as this.

I’m accustomed to being on a different wavelength (sometimes even planet ) than many educators, and often find that words I assume to be plain and understandable are not received that way by others.  So here I guess at understanding the question adequately.

In the paragraph cited, the issue appears to be time-use. Basically I suggest that the proportion of classroom time spent in practicing needs to be vastly larger than it currently is coast to coast.  The problem is compounded by what I observe to be teachers’ unfamiliarity with what it means to practice (which I explain in depth in the books noted below).

The easiest way to understand the point is to think about common skills we obtain. Compare the amount of time spent getting a lead, or new idea, or coaching about it with the amount of time spent practicing its application. A ski instructor may take three minutes to suggest a change in a skier’s technique.  The skier does three ten minute runs to practice it.  A piano teacher gives a weekly lesson for an hour, and the student spends seven hours practicing the lesson during the week. For two minutes an English teacher makes suggestions to a student about a paper. The student applies them for an hour.

When I was in the military decades ago, I had a class for officers-in-training about designing training for recruits.  Our teacher told us that from long experience, the Army had found that to deliver a new skill to recruits, the optimal use of time was 5% used for explanation, 10% for demonstration, and 85% for practice.  A study I read long before the Internet was created (and that I cannot retrieve now) aimed to pin down the most effective use of time for student learning, assessing the common methods known then.  The study concluded that the optimal use of time was 40-80% of it spent in the effort to recall.  Various studies of expertise in adults reveal a direct correlation between their level of ability and the sheer time spent in practice of their skills, whether mental or physical.

As to how this would look in practice, I attempt to answer that question  by breaking time down minute by minute in chapter nine of the Effective Turnaround book (cf. below).

The change in purpose is the essential organizing principle.  The intent I propose is to align every minute of the period in service of long-term retention.  As we proceed with classroom activities as they are done now, we  tweak time-use toward that outcome.  So I suggest that the period begins with 5 minutes of review practice, calling up all prior material from memory.  Why?  We first want to solidify everything previously known, and restore students’ intent that they are learning for the long haul instead of for knowledge they will discard.

A presentation or other gathering of new knowledge follows, combined with writing it out.  Why?  Our aim is to carve off a piece we can immediately place on a conveyor belt toward permanence, so it needs to be the right size. Writing it down delineates it exactly and underscores that we are serious about specific knowledge mastered long-term.

Then they spend the larger time of the period in practicing it, telling it back and forth to each other.  Why?  I think teachers miss the obvious here, failing to notice that it is only calling up what we know approximately that enables us to know it completely.  We strengthen the neurons carrying this particular memory only by stressing the memory!  We do so by retrieving, remembering, and explaining it.  Remembering alone is important (anyone who has taken a test will vouch for that), but explaining it to a person adds a demand for sense-making.  When we face someone else, we configure our knowledge differently, conscious that we cannot fragment our thought processes if we expect to make them understandable to another.  So having students face each other and challenge their brain with this particular task over and over is the essential activity that gives them complete mastery of it.

About the reference to administrators, my own impression is that they are so preoccupied just with operating the system that they have little mental space left to be instructional leader.  Yet I would think that any teacher whose year-end scores showed a dramatic improvement would get their attention and cooperation.  A key feature of my approach is that it remains entirely under the control of the teacher and accommodates curricula of any content.  It amounts just to a more efficient way to reach year-end goals than what most are doing now.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request: jjensen@gci.net

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.