Learning Fast to Implement Well

Aside from teaching a doctoral course called Research on Effective Professional Development this summer, I think I would have immersed myself in research on the learning sciences anyway. Number 1: It’s how I geek out. Number 2: It makes me a stronger learning designer when working with children and adults.

The phrase “learning fast to implement well” is from Anthony Bryk and colleague’s (2015) book Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools can get Better at Getting Better. When I first read their book several years ago, I don’t think (actually I know) that I didn’t get as much out of it then as I have these past few months. I’m always looking for ways to make me a better classroom teacher, but I’m also looking to improve and hone my skills as a researcher. 

Needless to say, this book has become a good friend lately.

In light on the shifts we’ve had to make in how we approach the new year, I think teachers are going to need to learn fast to implement well. We don’t have time to take things slowly (on our end) since we have 100+ students who need us right nowIn fact, I’ve met with my department twice so far (we’re still technically on summer break) to discuss how we can use technology to facilitate learning for our students. We discussed ways to scaffold the learning for our English language learners and special education students. We brainstormed synchronous tools so that learning would be more engaging for our students. We still have ways to go, but I’m happy with our progress thus far. 

The technology skill and knowledge level in my department varies, and I think coming together early enough before the start of school was the perfect way for us to begin discussions on how we can hit the ground running as technology is the medium by which we are going to build connections, facilitate learning, and assess understanding. There will be mishaps (of that I am sure), but if we learn fast, we can implement wellthe next time around.

Please know that I am not saying that we are going to be throwing things at our students at a fast pace. In fact, I’m not advocating that we begin the school year at a sprint for us either. What I am suggesting is that we will be more effective teachers for our students if we have open conversations about what worked last spring, what has worked in the past (pre-COVID-19), and how can we take those experiences and make learning meaningful for our students now. We need to internalize the lessons learned to figure out how we can best serve our students—learn fast to implement well.

I will echo a comment from a colleague who said, “I’ve been doing this for 16 years, yet I feel as if this is my first year all over again.” Amen, brother! This is certainly uncharted territory for all of us. 

So, I was thinking about my big take-away from last spring, and I believe the best place for me to start is by intentionally creating activities around building a warm and supportive learning community. I just finished reading both EduProtocol (Hebern & Corippo, 2018/2019) books, and it’s already given me some ideas on how to start the school year by building and layering foundational skills for long-term success—more on that in another blog post.

What I’m thinking might be a good way to approach the start of the school year—and it doesn’t matter if you’re starting in-person, hybrid, or virtual—is to think of ways to bring humanity to the forefront. Think of it, many of our students have been isolated from friends since March; they likely haven’t been out playing in the summer like they used to; they have not had the same level of social interactions with peers, family, and other people (in general); they are probably freaked out about school starting up again (first day jitters don’t disappear even in the online environment); they are likely worried that they are somehow falling behind the academic curve; and they are probably thinking “Will everyone like me?”

To hopefully alleviate some of these fears, while also slowly introducing them to the technology tools and foundational skills they need, I created activities for my students based on several of the EduProtocols from Hebern and Corippo (2018/2019). In the forefront of those activities are ways that my students can build relationships with each other.  

This past spring posed a huge learning curve for me. But I am here…and ready to start the new school year. 

I am ready to learn fast to implement well

Bring it on 2020.


Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. G. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Harvard Education Press.

Hebern M., & Corippo, J. (2018). Eduprotocol field guide: 16 student-centered lesson frames for infinite learning possibilities. Dave Burgess Consulting.

Hebern M., & Corippo, J. (2019). Eduprotocol field guide book 2: 12 new lesson frames for even more engagement. Dave Burgess Consulting.

Brain Dumping Data Analysis

If you have been following my posts for the past year, you are aware that I have been keenly interested in retrieval practice. I regularly incorporated retrieval practice (in the form of brain dumps) with my GATE/PreAP students last semester. Their reflections revealed the value of brain dumping on their long-term retention of information. Thus, I decided that I would fully roll out brain dumping to all of my world history classes this semester.

We are about five weeks into the quarter and my students have done four different brain dumps. The first three were small in nature as they focused on one main concept. The brain dump my students recently finished covered four main concepts: origin of Islam, Five Pillars of Islam, rules that guide a Muslim’s life, and a brace map of Sharia.

To recap, my students use pencil in their initial brain dump and pen for when they engage in collaborative learning with peers. NOTE: Some of my students used black pen which makes it hard to see the difference initial versus collaborative recall.

For this brain dump, I cued my students while they were discussing their learning with peers. I saw the faces of students light up as they remembered the information after my verbal cues (e.g., dates, key terms). Thus, I felt that by giving students hints without outright stating the answer was helping them to make stronger connections.

The last step was for students to pull out their notes and continue to add to the gaps in their brain dumps in pen. Luckily, the following student used red pen so it’s easier to see what they did and did not remember.

I told my students that what they wrote in pen were the things they needed to study as they were clearly not remembering those facts. Because I teach middle schoolers, I know that they don’t always have the best study skills or time management. Therefore, I stressed that they should ignore the pencil items and focus their attention on the pen.

After the quiz, I went through each student’s brain dump and looked at their performance. In the majority of the cases (approximately 90%) there was a direct correlation between what the student remembered on their own (pencil) and the questions they got right. A similar correlation was found between what students wrote in pen and the questions that they missed. I am assuming that the information written in pen or out-right missing (see first image) posed an issue for students because they:

  • Did not spend enough time studying that information
  • Did not have enough time to relearn the information
  • Did not understand the information or how it was related to the concepts
  • Were not in class when the information was presented and applied
  • . . . ?

The next step is to pass the brain dumps back to students and give them access to the quiz questions. I want them to reflect on their brain dump and the effort they put forth on the quiz. Hopefully, they will see the correlation on their own as they prepare for the unit test.

Only time will tell.

Brain Dump #1

My world history class (500-1500 C.E.) is a semester-long course. Don’t get me started on how, why, or the injustice around that as that’s a story for another time. One of the benefits of teaching a semester course is the ability to course-correct half-way through the school year. I don’t have to wait until August to start anew. I can do that in January (at the half-way point in the school year).

Having implemented brain dumping with my GATE/PreAP students, and reading their reflections on the benefits of that on their ability to retain information, I decided to institute regular brain dumps across all of my six world history courses this semester. I don’t have the GATE/PreAP class this semester, so all of my world history classes contain a heterogeneous mix of high-achievers, English language learners, and special education students. I see this as a positive because these students were randomly assigned to my classes so I should be able to get a good idea of the impact of brain dumping on the ability of my student to retain information over the long-haul.

Friday marked the introduction of brain dumping to my students. This was a timed exercise in which students were given three minutes to dump the contents of their brains onto a blank piece of white paper using only pencil.

The second part was another three-minute timed exercise in which students shared their brain dumps with their group. Anything they did not have on their mindmap, they could add in pen. The point being, what was written in pencil are things they remember and the items written in pen are those they need to spend a bit more time on since they did not remember it without prompting.

I collected their first brain dumps because when we do another one on this same topic, I will pass out their first attempt so that they can (hopefully) see growth over time.

What I loved hearing from the conversations of students is the fact that many remembered the details of the various themes of geography after being reminded by their group. This realization served to lend value to this process as believe students gained confidence in the knowledge that they had the information in their brain, they just had to activate it.

One may ask why use valuable class time for this exercise if you only have 20 weeks to teach 1000 years of history. And I would ask: How can we afford not to? Isn’t the whole point of education to help students learn the content so they can apply it to their lives?

This is a valuable strategy to employ with your students. If you consistently apply it, I believe you will soon find yourself in agreement with me: Brain dumps are worth it.