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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Take CHARGE Day 24: Active engagement and pacing

Updated: Feb 6, 2020

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

(To read Day 23, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)

Take CHARGE of the Classroom







I am not a control freak. At least, I don’t think I am.

As a teacher, I always tried my hardest to plan things out and maintain order in the classroom. I’d dutifully write my lesson plans in those little boxes in my paper lesson planner. I’d put name tags on desks and organize the supply caddies.

As much as I tried, however, things never went according to plan. A concept I thought would be simple took an extra class period for students to master. An activity I thought would be awesome ended up winning first prize in the Snooze-o-rama contest. Like trying to hold dry sand in my clenched fist, the harder I squeezed, the more I lost.

Try as I might to organize learning activities, my students were never as interested as I thought they should be. I had a lot of enthusiasm for what I was teaching but the students never seemed to mirror it. Even though they tried to stay engaged for my sake, I could look into their glassy eyes and see a lack of connection.

How we learn

One area that continually frustrated me was how students learned the material. I tried to come up with mnemonics, rhymes, or acrostics to simplify the content. I’d demonstrate procedures and wax eloquently about facts and figures. I tried my hardest to share my knowledge with the students but I always had mixed results.

As I gained more experience in the classroom, I started noticing something about learning. I like learning new things, always have. I taught myself how to play the guitar and how to juggle. I quickly picked up the game of disc golf and even took over all the cooking duties while my wife was recently sick. If I’m interested, I’ll try anything. But to learn it, I have to do it.

Whenever I teach myself a new skill, I learn by doing, not watching. I might reference a YouTube video if needed but, for the most part, trial and error is how I learn best. If a so-called expert wants to laboriously show me how to do something step-by-step, I try my hardest to ignore him. I just want to try it myself and see what happens. In video game terminology, they call that learning by death. Every time you fail, you learn something new.

Too busy to misbehave

When I connected my own learning preferences to the classroom, a light bulb exploded over my head. A lot of the difficulties I faced as a teacher resulted from me trying to be the expert. Students, for the most part, want to try it themselves. They’ll use me for support if needed but, just like me, they need to actively interact to make meaning.

Teachers that constantly see misbehavior in their classrooms might take a moment and reflect on the level of active engagement. For the majority of class, who is doing the talking? Whose responsibility is it to demonstrate mastery? Whose brain is under the most strain? If the answer to any of these questions is the teacher, disruptions are most likely to follow. Even though teachers are the experts, they aren’t the ones who need to learn. They must suppress their desire to script how students learn, keeping things neat and orderly and within the lesson plan squares. Instead, they must give learning back to their students. Put the responsibility on their shoulders. Let the students try, fail, and try again until they get it right. When students are actively engaged, they are too busy to misbehave.

Cups overflowing

The knowledge you contain as a teacher is immense. For the sake of illustration, let’s quantify your knowledge as 50 gallons of information. The content you teach is a much smaller subset of what you know, say 2 gallons worth. Your task as a teacher is to somehow transfer 2 gallons worth of information to students over the course of the year. You have pacing guides, planning calendars, and oodles of fun activities planned to facilitate learning. If students can learn even a cup of information a day, you’d call that a great success.

This is the point, however, where some teachers get into trouble. They plan their lessons based on the knowledge they need to convey rather than the containers students have. Teachers sometimes plan a cup or more of learning each day but the students are only working with thimbles. This is not a slight on students by any means. A lack of maturity and life experiences place them at a disadvantage as compared to adult processing skills.

Students’ learning capacities are typically smaller than their teachers. To continue the metaphor, they’re working with shot glasses while teachers wield gallon jugs. If teachers aren’t careful, they’ll overfill their students. When this happens, knowledge gets lost. If you have 16 ounces of liquid to pour into an 8-ounce container, you can only pour half before the receptacle is full. Continuing to pour after the container is full would only result in liquid spilling over the side and being lost. When the container is full but the liquid continues to flow, the cup begins to overflow.

This happens all too often in classrooms today. Teachers can read the signs if they are observant. Glassy eyes. Heads lowered. Fidgety bodies. Pencils doodling. Students exhibiting these symptoms are trying to let the teacher know that their brains are full. Pouring in more information would be useless.


Students still need to learn about a cup of information a day regardless of their container size. The key to managing this discrepancy, then, is processing. When students have had about as much as they can take, they need a chance to do something with the information. They can discuss it with a partner, write a short reflection, or even apply what they just learned.

Processing breaks do not need to be taken for a grade and should NOT be a worksheet. The point is to actively involve them with the content so that the cup can be figuratively drained. It might involve other students, such as asking them to stand up and find someone across the room. They can then tell their partner three things about what they just learned. On the other hand, students can quietly close their eyes and visualize what they just heard in their minds.

Building in processing breaks into a lesson gives students a chance to empty their cups. Instead of losing information, chewing on knowledge transfers it to a different part of the brain and clears out their working memory. With space cleared up, they can then continue learning new information. If students are starting to stare off into space ten minutes after class has started, that might be a sign that their brains need to process.

When students aren't given adequate time to process, more than learning begins to suffer. Often their behavior declines to the point of becoming a distraction for others. The next time a student misbehaves in class, ask yourself if his cup is full and if he needs an opportunity to process what he's just learned. That, along with active learning by doing, will greatly decrease the behavioral incidents in any classroom

Next steps

Action: Think about your lesson plans for tomorrow. Make sure that they include plenty of active student participation rather than passive listening or reading. Also, plan for several processing breaks throughout the lesson to give students a chance to think about what they've learned and drain their cups.

Reflection questions: How much talking do you do compared to your students? If you find yourself talking more than them, how can you balance the cognitive load? Are some of the misbehaviors you find in class the result of children with full cups that just need a chance to process?

To read Day 25, click here.

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