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Five MBE Insights for Teaching in a Complex New Year

This is my 25th back-to-school after winter break and I still find it a weird time. It is challenging too, even in a normal year, to get that classroom buzz going again, connect new material with old threads, and re-establish the routines that help my students be successful. At the beginning of 2021, with hybrid and online school, plus the mental space it takes to process the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the challenge feels magnified. So what insights from Mind, Brain, and Education Science (MBE) can I use to help make this critical point of a unique school year go well?

1. Begin with Belonging

Students always return from an extended break in a wide range of emotional states, which impacts their capacity to learn. We can imagine that this is the case even more so this year.

Pause and create opportunities for emotional check-ins with your students, and, when concerns arise, communicate internally using your school’s system of support so that you do not feel like you are the only person dealing with the issue. Include short, simple activities that help each student feel like they belong to this class collective. Keep hitting this through January and February, not just the first week of school.

Elementary classes tend to do this very well, but it is important at every grade level. Just because a student seemed to be connected in December doesn’t mean they will pick up where they left off. 

2. Design for Motivation

Many students, sitting at home facing online school after winter break, are going to have a hard time getting motivated. Here are some things we can do to help build motivation:

  • Work on the three learning mindsets that underpin motivation.
  • Make real-world connections to things that are genuinely relevant to your students.
  • Include carefully constrained elements of choice in topic of study or the medium students can use to produce a piece of work.
  • Clearly explain the purpose of topics and assignments.
  • Build in opportunities for social connection and let students talk about things not related to your class, but also make sure you have a way to quickly bring students back on task.
  • Remove unnecessary barriers by breaking longer projects into discrete steps and including rubrics and scaffolds that help students plan their work and know when they have met the objectives.

3. Deepen Learning and Build Connection with a Project

Our goal every year is to build knowledge that is durable, usable and flexible. The first step of this is building and consolidating fundamental knowledge and skills, and we have done a lot of this since August and September. The next step is getting students to transfer this to a new context – and our students are perfectly poised for this step.

Projects are a great way to do this. This is also a great time for a project as it allows us to build in many of our “Design for Motivation” elements, such as socialization, relevance, and choice, and helps us schedule one-on-one or small group chats with students to check in on how they are doing. But not all projects help learning. For details on a Mind, Brain, and Education Science approach to designing great projects, see our post in Edutopia.

4. Mind the Gap

One focus of the time between now and spring break needs to be finding and addressing gaps in what your students know and can do. Begin with this six minute reflection activity:

(i) Look left. What are the big ideas from last year that your students should know but might not? Set a timer for two minutes and make a list.

(ii) Look right. What are the essential skills, ideas, and factual knowledge that students need from your class in order to be successful next year? Again, set a timer for two minutes and make a list.

(iii) Look up and down. Think back on all that you covered so far this year. What do you really hope your students know? What do you really hope they can do? Once more, set a timer and make a list.

Research suggests that even in normal school years teachers have a very hard time accurately judging what their students know and can do. This year it has to be harder still. Plan a series of short formative assessments spread over the next two to four weeks to find out (either no-stakes or by giving a few points that can be earned by putting in good effort). Use what you listed in (i) to (iii) above to write these formative assessments. Include key ideas and skills more than once. Reteach where you find systematic gaps, and create practice and review assignments where students are rusty. Instead of writing the same thing on many students’ work, include three-to-five minute bursts of direct instruction to address areas where numerous students seem weak.

5. Reduce Cognitive Load

– yours, as well as your students’. The stress and added mental burden of school this year is very real. Students report feeling that work is harder and more intense than in other years, that stress levels are higher and motivation levels lower. When we compare the volume of material we have taught to other years, it is significantly less, but to students, the work burden seems greater.

  • Reduce cognitive load by setting reasonable expectations, and providing scaffolded support where necessary.
  • Focus on (3) deepening knowledge and (4) finding and filling gaps rather than an endless drive to present students with new content. Cover less but teach it well.
  • Record simple two-to-five minute videos of yourself explaining something (using Loom or Screencastify). This can be time and energy saver. Your first video will feel horrible – that is normal – but this will fade over time.
  • Be on a mission to eliminate extraneous cognitive load wherever you find it.
  • Be mindful of the Yerkes Dodson curve – too little stress or too much stress hurts learning, but there is a Goldilocks Zone in the middle. This is what you are aiming for, and it is going to take day-to-day, often spur-of-the-moment decisions to help keep your class in it.
From Neuroteach by Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher, used with permission from the authors.

Here at The CTTL, we love to see how our community integrates Mind, Brain, and Education Science research into their classrooms and schools. If you try any of the strategies above, let us know. Send an email to or tag us on Twitter @TheCTTL.

About the Author

Dr. Ian Kelleher is a science teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, and Head of Research for its Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning. His work focuses on helping teachers translate the science of learning into everyday practices in their own classrooms, and measuring the impact. Ian is the co-author of “Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education,” and co-designer of Neuroteach Global. Ian is the the inaugural Joseph and Kathleen Dreyfuss Faculty Chair for Research, an endowed position at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School for the lead CTTL researcher.