Breathe, Doggonit! Breathe! How to Revive a Dying Lesson Plan

Three years ago, I attended an inservice session on quantum learning presented by John Parks Le Tellier, the author of Quantum Learning and Instructional Leadership in Practice. Le Tellier’s book details the inner workings of the brain, its synapses, the cycles of brain activity and periods of dormancy, the way information is coded into long- and short-term memory, and other aspects of the brain and its myriad functions.

His research helped me better appreciate that students do learn differently. And as educators, we must learn and apply the techniques that will lead each student toward success.

Le Tellier describes an instruction model that includes four essential elements for motivating students to learn and ensuring that what they learn is encoded in long-term memory. This model involves the teacher’s ability to engage, chunk, diversify, and reinforce.

Engage Students

To engage students, according to Le Tellier, is to capture and hold their attention. The key elements of this strategy are:

Knowing the Why: Help students maintain their focus and increase their motivation by helping them understand the purpose and advantages of learning the content. “Because it is on the state test” is not a suitable reason.

Teaching with Enthusiasm: Pay attention to your verbal and nonverbal expressions. Students are more likely to learn from educators who are excited about their topic.

Using Example and Actual Experience: Bring the learning to life by using visual aids. Tilt a table to teach about slope, for example, and let the students actually climb the table, learning by experience how the change in height affects their ability to climb.

Keeping Engagement Alive: Ask students to share an experience related to the content. Going back to slope, students love to tell stories about sledding accidents and cars stuck in muddy ravines. These discussions allow the students to make a connection beyond the classroom.

Teaching the Mundane: Be creative. Le Tellier recalls an English teacher who brought a large cardboard box into the classroom to teach about prepositions. The teacher climbed into the box, crawled under the box, sat beside the box, and positioned himself near the box and helped the students verbalize prepositions.

Chunk Information

To chunk information is to break the content into smaller segments. Chunking information allows students to digest the information without becoming overwhelmed and shutting down.

Why teach Pythagoras’s Theorem, the 45-45-90 rule, and the 30-60-90 rule in the same day? Students should first learn Pythagoras’s Theorem by talking about it, taking some actual measurements around the school, familiarizing themselves with the computations involved, and then practicing during “Homefun,” not “Homework.” After students understand this concept, you can segue to a deeper level of instruction.

Diversify Instruction

To diversify is to understand that the hemispheres of the brain work independently. An effective lesson incorporates visual stimulation, auditory stimulation, and kinesthetic activity, which LeTellier refers to as VAK teaching. Students who are visual learners will not excel in classrooms where instruction is based solely on lecture; they will fair better with colorful PowerPoints and colorful graphs rather than an overhead projector and the ever-present black marker. Students who learn by doing will thrive when engaged in an activity that sends them outside the classroom on a content-related scavenger hunt.

Reinforce Learning

To reinforce is to emphasize a segment of learning until it is encoded in long-term memory. The Quantum Learning for Teachers programs suggest the 10–24–7 approach. A teacher introduces a concept, restates it within 10 minutes, re-teaches it 24 hours later, and reviews it seven days later. For example, a teacher introduces the formula for determining the area of a triangle. She asks the students to draw triangles of different shapes and sizes and then guess each triangle’s area. She restates the formula and asks students to find each triangle’s true area. The next day, the students enter the room to find a large paper triangle suspended from the ceiling. A repeat of yesterday’s activity utilizes the first 10 minutes of the lesson as students predict and then solve for the triangle’s area.

The following week, the teacher cuts a parallelogram in half, revealing two triangles. After she reviews the formula for finding the area of each triangle, she demonstrates how to determine the area of a parallelogram.

Le Tellier offers 20 effective reinforcement activities that incorporate these kinds of strategies. Here is a brief synopsis of my favorites:

Partner Recaps: Students quickly recap the topics with a partner or within their assigned groups.

Random Recaps: A student is randomly selected to summarize an essential idea for the entire class.

Fast Forward: This is recapping on steroids. The students must recap the information as quickly as possible.

Turn to Your Neighbor: Students quickly turn to their neighbor and repeat what the teacher just said.

See-Say-Do Reviews: For example, students study a chart or a diagram that has a strong graphic component and state what the graphic communicates. Then they point to and explain the key elements of the graphic.

Circuit Learning: This is similar to the educational concept of spiraling, where new topics are added only after the former ones are re-taught. Chunking these into smaller units increases the likelihood of long-term memory storage.

Content Map Reviews: Students evaluate and add flourish or other ideas to a partner’s content map. This peer review activity offers the students an opportunity to play the role of evaluator.

Students learn better in a classroom that is fresh and engaging. A little more effort in planning may provide the necessary boost to revive a dying lesson.

Joel E. Rowlett is assistant principal at Rock Springs Middle School in Smyrna, Tennessee. E-mail: