Direct Instruction vs. Independent Stamina; Do the Same Time Rules Apply?


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When it comes to lesson length, age equals time. Neuroscientist Ken Wesson teaches about the direct correlation between children’s ages and the effect of lesson length on their ability to process and retain information presented during direct instruction. It was Wesson who originally offered this rule of thumb: the average age of the children we’re teaching equals the average number of minutes they can maintain attention during direct instruction.

This means that if we teach 6-year-olds, we have six minutes, and if we are teaching 9-year-olds, we have nine minutes. However, this rule applies only through age 10. In Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, John Medina discusses the fact that the brain has a stubborn timing pattern of 10 (Medina, 2014). After about 10 minutes of direct instruction, the brain must shift to refocus. Applying this information to our teaching, we keep lesson length to no more than 10 minutes for students ages 10 and older.

This information has had a profound effect on our whole-group, small-group, and individual lessons. We now use the instruction protocol to keep the length of our lessons brain compatible.

So, if we follow the age-equals-time rule, can we expect to build student stamina to 15, 20, or even 30 or more minutes when they work independently? Yes! The key words in the above information are direct instruction.

The age-equals-time rule applies when students are receiving direct instruction and are learning new information. This is the case when we lead whole-group and small-group lessons, and when we confer individually with students. However, when students work independently or collaboratively during reading workshop, they are not receiving new information but are processing and applying previously learned information. This allows for lengthier stamina and is why each round of Daily 5 is longer than the direct instruction lessons that take place.

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