Wednesday, December 26, 2012

On the Importance of Taking Breaks

Ah...Christmas Break! I still have a couple things to wrap up for the fall semester, but I'm looking forward to a week of downtime before I start planning for the spring.

My students furiously finished things up in a hectic week of projects and papers and exams. They are now safely home for a few weeks too. My own kids are enjoying a week and a half away from school right now too.

Teachers need breaks. Students need breaks.

I think breaks can actually help learning happen. In a school culture that is increasingly focused on time-on-task and other measurable inputs for education this might sound outrageous. But breaks are important, and provide times for new learning to "stick."

Breaks within the school day are very important for learning to happen. That's what recess is for, in part. (Of course, teachers will also say it's good for letting kids burn off some extra energy, which might be true, especially if they are keeping their kids chained to their desks "on task" the rest of the time. That's probably another whole post in the making...sorry to digress.)

Breaks within the school day give kids the chance to move new ideas from working memory and short-term memory into long-term memory. The analogy I once read from brain-research guru, Eric Jensen (you should read his book Teaching with the Brain in Mind): short-term memory is like a glass of water. You can keep pouring in water, but eventually it will just run over the side and spill out. Likewise, short-term memory can only hold a limited amount of new information at a given time. If the teacher just keeps talking, or just keeps giving one more worksheet, that new information will just spill over the side. [Caveat: I'm not a brain researcher nor a neuroscientist, and I don't actually have Jensen's book here at hand as I write this, so please don't beat me with a nylon stocking full of flour if I'm way off base, in terms of brain function.]

This is true for me as a teacher too. As I sit looking at a stack of tests to grade, I'm already plotting how I'll take breaks in the midst of the marking. I know that if I sit there with them for too long of a stint I may not be critical enough in my reading (because I want to get 'em done.) That doesn't sound very professional, does it? But again, I think our brains need breaks. We need time on other tasks to keep us sharp for the ones that need a lot of focus.

I think that longer breaks from school--such as Christmas break--may provide a similar function, though perhaps in more of an emotional capacity than a cognitive one. I think both students and teacher need breaks at different points in the year to help "empty the glass" of the busyness of learning. Changing the  routine may be good for the spirit. Having a few days or weeks of something different may be just the thing our students need. (Okay...teachers too.) I know I always feel that way around the end of February and beginning of March, when school work is busy and there are no breaks in sight. A little downtime away from the normal routine of school can snap me out of my funk and refresh my attitude, leaving me ready to get back to work again.

So, here's to taking some time away! Enjoy the break, everyone.

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