“This month seems like a lost cause for learning.” Have you heard someone say something like that before? I’ve got an idea for you this month to keep you green and growing all the way till the school year’s over. It’s never too late to try something new that can boost student learning.
This is a great time of the school year for an experiment. Practice going a bit too far in either direction with the strategies below and see if you discover more boredom or chaos. Your student’s not-so-subtle pushback will be the precise feedback you need to find the balance between …
As humans we are creatures of habit. We like our routines. You likely follow the same pattern when getting ready in the morning, drive the exact same route to work every day, and walk the same pattern through the grocery store as you pick up the “staple” foods you always keep stocked in your fridge. We find comfort in the predictability of life and often steer clear of things that disrupt our desire for certainty.
Simultaneously, we are drawn to things that are unique or novel. We notice the pink car on the freeway amidst the sea of black, silver, blue, and red cars. We love the element of surprise and plot turns in our favorite movies. Our brain is drawn toward novelty and finds it exciting.
So, which is better for the brain – Predictability or Novelty?
The short answer is … both! The tricky part is finding the right balance between the two.
Too much predictability and students get bored. Not too concerned with students being bored in school? Well, you should! Boredom has an effect size of -0.49. To put that in perspective, boredom is the 3rdworst researched factor we know of for learning. Boredom impairs student learning more than a student who is depressed (ES: -0.39). It also has a lower effect size than a student experiencing corporal punishment at home (ES: -0.33) (Hattie, 2017).
If the pendulum swings too far in the other direction toward non-stop novelty you’ll quickly see a classroom in chaos. Students who don’t know where they can sit, what is expected of them, what they can count on their teacher for, etc. will struggle to focus on the learning. Too much novelty can distract from the learning goals (Boeve-de Pauw, Van Hoof, & Van Petegem, 2019). In addition, they will likely experience cognitive load (an overactive working memory) which makes learning difficult as they try to sort through all the chaos.
In extremes, predictability and novelty can create undesirable learning environments. In healthy amounts, they both have value and should be a part of every classroom. In fact, finding that sweet spot of balance between the two can create a powerful synergy of safety and excitement – the kind of classroom every student craves to learn in.
To help you find the right balance, let’s explore the benefits of each.
The Value of Predictability
Predictability is knowing that when X occurs, Y happens next. When a student predicts something good is going to happen, they get excited. That excitement fosters positive emotions that enhance student learning. And, once a student predicts something positive, there is less of a need to create buy-in – it happens naturally.
In fact, the brain releases MORE dopamine when anticipating something good than when the good thing actually happens (Lloyd & Dayan, 2015).
How does prediction impact achievement? Here are a few ways:
Student’s prediction of the grade they will earn has an effect size of 1.33.
Teacher’s estimates of student achievement has an effect size of 1.29.
Student planning and prediction has an effect size of 0.76 (Hattie, 2017).
In summary, prediction is a HUGE influencer of student achievement.
It all comes down to safety and stability.
Predictable classrooms help students feel safe. When students know there is a zero-tolerance policy for violence, bullying, teasing, etc. they feel safe to ask questions, fail, and take on challenging tasks.
Predictable teachers have consistent systems in place that informs students what happens when they are late, absent, helpful, or disruptive. There are predetermined responses or consequences for common behaviors that help the student feel safe, rather than a victim to the current mood of the teacher or the latest taunts of a bully.
Students thrive when they know how things work on an assembly day, what days they have PE, art, or music. They find safety in knowing their planner will be their consistent ally in remembering things.
Far too many students come from unstable homes filled with uncertainty. They don’t know if they’ll be evicted this month … again, or if they’ll be a full dinner on the table tonight. They don’t know if mom has a new boyfriend, or if dad will be drunk and violent again.
Schools can offer a tremendous amount of stability for these students. Students find stability in seeing the same caring teacher show up for them every day. They find stability in consistent grading and assessment tools like rubrics that reduce the amount of teacher bias.
Predictability can go a long way in helping students feel safe and secure. But too much predictability and you’ll have a room full of bored students. How do you avoid that? A healthy dose of novelty.
The Value of Novelty
The brain is intrinsically motivated by novelty. When a student thinks, “I wonder what Ms. Jones has planned for us today?” they have accessed some of the most positive states for learning – curiosity, anticipation, and excitement.
Novelty is not a “pop quiz”, surprise new expectation on a project, or a made-up consequence on the spot.
The novelty we are talking about is the kind that sparks student interest and flames the fire of engagement. It is a temporary change in the normal routines that gets their brains thinking, “Whoa! This isn’t normal. What is happening here? I better pay attention!”
Novelty enhances learning and memory retention (Oudeyer, Gottlieb, & Lopes, 2016), and breeds creativity (Gillebaart, Förster, Rotteveel, & Jehle, 2013).
As you experiment with more novelty and predictability in your classroom you might wonder, “How will I know I’ve found the right balance?”
Here are some clues:
Pay attention to the flow and rhythm of your class. How engaged are your students? Look for the non-verbal cues of smiles excited eyes looking around the room searching for answers or meaning to the novelty. Recognize the signs of boredom – slumped shoulders, slow movements, and less eye contact.
Finding the perfect balance of novelty and predictability requires a high level of sensory acuity in the teacher. The good news is this can be learned – keep practicing and you’ll get better every day.
As you work to find the balance, consider the following 3 ways to enhance the predictability in your classroom and 3 more to incorporate more novelty.
- Opening/Closing 5 min of Class: Can students depend on you to greet them at the door with a smile every day? Do they know what to do at the end of class if they don’t feel confident to complete the assignment? Examine the bookends of your class time and be sure students enter and leave your class feeling safe and secure. Greet them at the door, morning affirmation, quick energizer/yoga stretch, passionate delivery of what they will be mastering today. Of course, there is room for variation – maybe every Thursday is Thankful Thursday and you squeeze in a 60-second gratitude exercise to your routine.
- Students Do the Heavy Lifting: You set up the structures (or class routines) and invite the students to do the preparation and activation (that’s the “heavy lifting” part). A great way to mix the predictable with the novelty is to use predictable structures (a daily team report, an energizer every 22 minutes or partner or team summary of what was learned in class that day). In other words, the structure is the predictable item. But the content and character of the students who deliver the structure is always novel.
- Celebrations: Do the students in your class know what will happen on their birthday? Or will they be worried it will go unnoticed? When the class achieves a significant milestone or goal (mastered the outcomes for the class or day), what’s the celebration? What about when students read a chapter, or one, ten or a hundred books? Can they anticipate a celebration of some kind (dance party, victory lap around the classroom, etc.)? If there is anything you want to be sure students can predict, it is the routines saturated in positive emotions and joyful celebrations.
- Change the Delivery Platform: Whether you are a habitual PowerPoint presenter, whiteboard writer, smartboard pointer, or flip classroom fanatic, surprise your students randomly with a different style of delivery. Maybe you use students as the platform to each share one thing inside their teams. How about a YouTube priming to gain interest? Can you use a mural or picture to start up a conversation? How about bringing into class an unusual prop on the subject you are teaching?
It’s OK if you aren’t 100% comfortable with the new platform – ask a colleague to give you a few pointers and then go for it. Even if there are a few minor hiccups, your students will benefit tremendously from the novelty.
- Change the Scenery: Give students a different perspective by changing the physical environment. Rearrange the desks or tables to be in a unique configuration for the day. Rotate the room so the “front” is now the back. Go outside with some sidewalk chalk and teach on the playground, quad, or outside the main office. Can you pull off a field trip within the school? How about at a nearby museum? Hang posters or flipcharts displaying key content around the classroom, auditorium, or gym, and take students on a virtual museum “gallery walk” as you teach new content at each poster.
- Change the Presenter: That’s you! By this time of year your students know your routines very well. Empower them to lead a small portion of your daily routines. A different face at the front of the room will be novel enough to boost engagement. As a bonus, students will develop greater leadership skills, empathy, and confidence. Create a schedule so students can take turns greeting students at the door with you, leading your morning stretching/yoga, or even teaching a small portion of the lesson. Evaluate your plans and ask yourself, “Is this something a student (with a little bit of coaching) could do instead of me?”
You will know when there is too much novelty (kids get a bit over the top) or too much predictability (yawn, “Here we go again.”). Now is a great time to experiment as you search for that perfect balance between predictability and novelty. Choose a strategy from above and get ready for incredible results that will follow.
Mirror-Mirror (Just for YOU)
Feeling the teacher burnout this time of year? Find your own balance of novelty and predictability to rekindle your fire for teaching so you end this year on a high.
Learn something new. If you have been curious about experimenting with a new tech tool in your class, today is your day. Go find a YouTube tutorial and make it happen.
Which teacher in your school is often talked about (in a good way) by students? Go watch them teach, this week! Modify something you see from their teaching and incorporate it in your classroom.
Invest in yourself and your student’s learning. Now is the time to make plans to attend an inspiring summer workshop that will offer hundreds of new ideas you can implement right away.
If you’re feeling like your life is in total chaos, perhaps it’s time to add a bit more predictability. Open up your calendar app (or paper planner) and start scheduling everything that is on your plate.
Write out your morning routine. Starting your morning off with purpose and precision will set you up for a calmer and more productive day. Literally, write it out: wake up, make coffee, 10-minute stretching, check these 3 apps on my phone, etc.
Choose one major task or project that is looming or taking up too much mental space and map it out in detail. Need extra help? You might like the WOOP model available here, or the Goal Mapping concept available here.