Let me present you with a scenario: Let’s say that, as a master teacher, you design and deliver the World’s Greatest Lesson. This gem of a lesson includes some short input sessions, both reading and lecture. Because of the short duration of the input sessions, you don’t overload your students’ short-term memory buffers. During the lecture sessions, you are brilliant, changing the inflection of your voice, using props to make abstract ideas concrete, and moving around the room, making eye contact with students to keep attention high. You have carefully selected the readings to tap into your students’ prior knowledge of the topic and add important new information. In addition, the texts are high-interest and are appropriate for your students’ reading levels.

In between the input sessions, you have carefully designed a write-pair-share activity where your students get up and move to find a partner, so they reap the benefits of individual processing, peer processing, and movement; a cooperative learning activity where they brainstorm ideas using an equal participation structure, then select their top idea using a voting structure, and finally share their idea out to the class; and a simulation activity which helps your students connect emotionally to the material. As a result of designing and delivering this incredible lesson, you have ensured that your students are highly engaged throughout and that they have worked with the important material in the lesson in multiple ways during the class.

Now, here’s my question: have your students learned anything from this gem of a lesson? You might be tempted to answer immediately, “Of course! It was, after all, the World’s Greatest Lesson.” Well, let’s pump the brakes on the self-congratulatory train a bit.

The fact of the matter is that, technically, your students have not learned the material from the lesson… yet. What they have probably done, given your masterful teaching, is form some solid memory traces due to their encoding of the material and events in the lesson. But, contrary to what most teachers believe, the learning itself (at least as defined by neuroscientists) does not happen during the lesson itself, but rather much later, when your students aren’t even in class.

I know, it sounds strange, but it’s true. The real learning takes place during what is called consolidation, and it’s crucial that teachers understand this process, as it has important implications for lesson and unit design.

Consolidation: What It Is and When It Happens

First, let’s define consolidation. This is the stage of learning following initial encoding, when the mental representations (“memory traces”) created during encoding get strengthened and added to long-term memory. Over the course of hours or even days, the brain reorganizes and stabilizes these memory traces, replaying the initial encoding experiences, making connections to prior knowledge, and filling in gaps. At a biological level, new connections are made between neurons, creating a new “mental map” of the material. Only when these physical changes occur do neuroscientists consider learning to have taken place.

OK, that’s what consolidation is, but when does it happen? I’ve already mentioned that it takes place over a period of time, long after the lesson is over. The process happens mostly at a sub-conscious level, and starts soon after the initial learning, but the key time for consolidation is during sleep, when no new external input is competing for the brain’s processing space. That’s right, we actually do most of our learning while we’re asleep!

Implications for Lesson and Unit Design

When we take into account the crucial role consolidation plays in learning, and when we take into account how long it takes and when it takes place, we are forced to draw some important conclusions that impact the design of our lessons and units. First of all, we should realize that learning takes time, and that trying to cram massive amounts of material into a single lesson does not do anything to speed up learning (in fact, it greatly reduces the amount learned).

But to take this discussion farther, we need to say a few words about massed practice versus spaced practice. Let’s say that a foreign language teacher has a set of thirty important vocabulary words to teach. Here are three different scenarios; which one will result in better learning?

    • Scenario A: The teacher teaches all thirty words in one day’s lesson, having the class practice for a full hour (I will refrain from any discussions of methodology here–let’s just assume that she uses a solid approach and that the approach is the same for each scenario).

    • Scenario B: The teacher teaches the same thirty words each day across three days, but only has the students spend twenty minutes on the words each day, using the rest of class time to teach other material.

  • Scenario C: The teacher teaches the same words for the same amount of time in three lessons, with another day’s lesson in between–for example, twenty minutes on Monday, twenty minutes on Wednesday, and twenty minutes on Friday.

OK, which scenario will result in the greatest learning? Scenario C, without a doubt. Scenario B will result in the second most learning, and Scenario A will result in the least amount of learning. The superiority of “distributed” or “spaced practice” (Scenarios B and C) to “massed practice” (Scenario A) have been proven in research over and over again. In fact, this is one of the most robust findings in the cognitive science literature.

Why is this the case? Well, you should probably already know the two key reasons. One reason that spaced practice beats massed practice has to do with working memory limitations. In massed practice, it is easy to overwhelm working memory, leading to less efficient work with the material.

However, the key factor involved in the superiority of spaced practice to massed practice has to do with consolidation. Spacing the practice out over a period of time allows the brain time to consolidate each practice session during “down time,” and especially during sleep. Each time the student returns to the material, he will be strengthening the connections he has already started to build.

Break It Up and Focus on Variety

So, what does this all add up to? Well, obviously, the take-away here is to avoid massed practice sessions. If you are a math teacher, don’t teach one type of problem and then have your students do a gazillion problems of that type for the rest of the class period. That approach will not result in good retention.

Instead, teach two or three different problem types during the lesson, with shorter practice sessions on each problem type. Then cycle back to these different problem types after a day or two of delay, review them, and have students work on them again in short, focused practice sessions. By spacing out the practice sessions, you give your students’ brains time to consolidate each day’s learning and then reinforce it when they return to it.

International teaching is growing more and more popular and the number of opportunities is increasing every week. When you choose to work internationally you give yourself the chance to work with some of the most respected schools in some of the most interesting and exotic locations all over the world! It might not be the most obvious career move but it’s definitely a rewarding one! And therefore definitely one to consider!

There are a number of respected organisations who specialise in the recruitment of teachers in international schools which are definitely worth getting in touch with. They help to guide teachers in finding exciting opportunities for qualified, skilled, English speaking teachers in a large number of international schools in a huge variety of countries.

Four years ago Gerry and his wife Jane managed to find a placement in Mauritius for the two of them meaning they could move away together. They loved working with other internationally travelling staff from all over the world and welcomed the change in lifestyle, spending a lot more of their free time outdoors enjoying the sun and beaches. A lovely change from the fantastic British weather I’m sure we’d all agree!

“We never realised the possibilities that were out there to develop our careers as well as to travel and see different countries and cultures – to live them rather than just pass through them” – Gerry

Last year the couple relocated once again, this time to Harrow International School in Bangkok, eager to start their next adventure. They took up the opportunity to replace the quiet relaxed Mauritius school for the busy bustling city of Bangkok and the chance to work in a much bigger more well-known school. They were given the options of over 6,000 international schools to work in before choosing Harrow and greatly appreciated the advice and help they had received from international teaching organisations.

International recruitment organisations face the challenge of matching teacher’s skills and experiences with reputable schools that support their career growth and offer them the lifestyle and location they wish for. They each work with a number of respected schools around the world and successfully place hundreds of teachers each year providing a personal and reliable service to both recruiters and teachers. If you’re part of a teaching couple like Gerry and Jane, they can also cater for you too as many schools have multiple openings. These organisations can easily hunt these down to provide you with easy access to possible opportunities allowing you to take up the challenge together. They take the stress out of job hunting which can be especially hard when looking internationally. It is extremely useful to have help throughout the whole process from people who know exactly what they’re doing in order to take away the stresses and worries that come with moving away to a new and unknown place.