I recently had a great discussion with some educators about bell-to-bell instruction: the expectation that students are fully engaged in learning tasks from the first minute of the class period to the last.
The conversation took place in the live chat during a session in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Online Summit. (You can still get forever access to the recordings + chat here.) Many of the presenters talked about ways they incorporate joy and playfulness into their daily routines and build classroom community.
It was clear from the chat that every single teacher attending the session understood the self-evident value of breaks and downtime for students; and yet many said their districts/admins would not permit it.
I promised to curate the neuroscience research and create a podcast/article that could be shared to open up conversations about how our schools can better meet the needs of students.
Listen to the audio below,
or subscribe in your podcast app
Sponsored by Practice.do
What exactly is bell-to-bell instruction?
The concept of teaching from bell to bell generally refers to the expectation that instruction should begin as soon as the classroom bell rings and continue until the bell rings again.
As you’ll discover through this article, these interpretations of bell-to-bell teaching aren’t best practice, as they’re not backed by research about how the brain learns.
I can almost get behind this interpretation … IF we agree to redefine what a constructive learning environment looks like, and envision one that includes breaks.
Certainly we don’t want to waste students’ time, or drag out transitions. Our time with students is precious and limited, and we do want to maximize it. What I’m proposing is that we maximize our instructional time by NOT attempting to pack every single moment with more work.
What’s the problem with bell-to-bell instruction?
As this teacher’s article so eloquently points out, bell-to-bell teaching is exhausting for both teachers and students, because there’s never a break for either group:
[Bell to bell teaching means] that there is no “free time”. If a student finishes early, then teachers need to create more work for them to complete. Does not matter if the student has mastered the skill, give Timmy more practice problems to do. Finish the lesson early and have 4 minutes to spare? Students should not be talking about their plans after school, spend the 4 minutes reading a DEAR book so students can increase their literacy scores…
Bell to bell instruction [also] means that a teacher is standing and constantly monitoring the classroom to support student learning. All students master the skill? There is always more to learn. No sitting down, no grading, no writing important emails, no lesson planning; only supporting student learning. Bell to bell instruction means a teacher must always be “on”. You need to catch every small misbehavior, incorrect answer, listen in on every conversation and make sure students are talking about the content, ensure everyone is answering each question with rigor, and make sure you mark it all down on your clipboard.
Adding to this is the fact that neither teachers nor students get much of a break during the school day.
At the secondary level, you and your students may just have 3-5 minutes to transition yourselves (both mentally and physically) and your belongings into the next class, with no time for human connection, follow up questions, re-centering ourselves, having a moment of quiet, etc.
At the elementary level, students and their teacher may be in the room together for multiple hours at a time with no break.
In all school settings, lunchtime tends to feel rushed and chaotic, and doesn’t serve as any sort of real break for teachers or kids.
So when do teachers or students get a moment to regroup and prepare for the next set of tasks they need to complete?
Most educators understand that as a problem. Yet I find there’s often a tremendous amount of fear about being “caught” letting students have downtime: What if an administrator walks in and sees students just sitting there chatting? What if a district rep comes in and the kids appear to be doing “nothing”?
And so we end up doing highly structured brain breaks but rarely allow actual downtime (in which students are not expected to be doing anything in particular and can use their time as they please).
I understand this. Even still, I encourage you to never make fear-based decisions, either in your classroom or in your life. Fear-based decision making rarely leads us to make the wisest choices.
Instead, boldly choose to do what your students need, and be prepared with the research to back up your choice. If you are “caught” allowing downtime in your class, you need to be able to defend your decision and explain how it fits into students’ overall learning goals and your plan for teaching them.
That’s what this article is designed to help you do. Most educators don’t have this research readily available, and you need it to go against the grain, and do what’s best for kids.
What does neuroscience tell us about how the brain learns?
Not having breaks goes against everything we collectively know about the neuroscience of learning. Most educators are not deeply entrenched in the latest brain research about how we learn. When is there time? Plus, there’s a lot changing in brain science and it’s hard to keep on top of it.
Similarly, neuroscientists are rarely trained in teaching methodologies, pedagogy, or andragogy (best practices for teaching adults). Scientists don’t often translate their research into implications for the classroom setting.
This leaves us with a disconnect; educators are typically interested in brain science and its implications for learning, and neuroscientists would typically love to see all their research put into practical application in the classroom, but there’s not a lot of folks doing that crossover work.
This is a big part of why I created the Finding Flow curriculum line: to bring brain science and educational best practices together.
Let’s talk about what we know from scientific research about how the brain learns that contradicts the idea of bell-to-bell instruction. I’ll share 6 takeaways from the research, and then 6 practical suggestions for how to incorporate the research into your instruction.
1. Multiple factors must be considered when deciding how much focused work can reasonably be expected.
We often assume that if the school day is 6 hours long, students should be focused for the entirety of that time, minus short breaks for lunch and in between classes. However, the 6-hour school day was not chosen based on research about the optimal amount of time students can/should do focused work each day. Therefore, we shouldn’t assume that the best way to utilize those six hours is to pack them with as many academic tasks as possible.
A notable study published in Science Direct by Professors Alejandro Lleras and Atsunori Ariga at the University of Illinois highlights the “vigilance decrement,” which refers to the decline in attention that occurs when we try to maintain focus for extended periods. Their research suggests that taking brief breaks can counteract this decline and help students stay more engaged in the learning process.
Things that impact how long we can concentrate include:
- Attention Span: Research has indicated that the average person’s attention span can range from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the individual and the nature of the task. However, attention tends to wane after a certain period, which is why breaks are essential.
- Circadian Rhythms: Human concentration can also be influenced by circadian rhythms, which dictate periods of alertness and drowsiness throughout the day. Most people tend to have a peak in alertness and concentration in the morning, followed by a dip in the early afternoon.
- Task Complexity: The complexity of the task can significantly impact how long someone can concentrate. More straightforward, routine tasks might allow for longer periods of focus, while complex or mentally taxing tasks may require more frequent breaks.
- Individual Variability: Everyone is different, and individuals have varying levels of concentration and stamina. Some people can maintain focus for longer periods than others.
- Physical Health: Factors such as sleep quality, diet, exercise, and overall health can influence a person’s ability to concentrate. Being well-rested and maintaining good physical health can contribute to more extended periods of effective concentration.
- Environmental Factors: Distractions in the environment, such as noise, interruptions, or discomfort, can reduce the amount of time a person can concentrate effectively.
- Rest and Recovery: Adequate rest and recovery are essential for maintaining cognitive performance. Factors such as getting enough quality sleep, taking regular breaks, and maintaining good physical and mental health all contribute to an individual’s daily limit for high-quality work.
- Energy Management: Effective energy management involves balancing periods of intense focus with adequate relaxation and self-care.
- Work-Life Balance: Balancing work with other aspects of life, such as social interactions, physical activity, and relaxation, is crucial for overall well-being and sustained high-quality work. Neglecting these areas can lead to burnout and decreased daily limits for productive work.
It’s not possible for us to consider each of these aspects for every student on every task, of course. But the logical conclusion we can draw when considering these factors is very few people (and even fewer children!) can realistically be expected to do focused work for 6 hours every single weekday.
2. The brain is like a muscle that can be strengthened but functions best with repetition and breaks between those repetitions.
Anyone who does weight training can tell you that the way to build strength in your muscles isn’t to tax those muscles to their limit the entire time they’re at the gym, or try to lift weights for hours on end every day. You need to rest between sets – and have entire “rest days”— to give your muscles a chance to recover before you push them further.
To appreciate the significance of breaks between “sets” of focused work in the classroom, we have to acknowledge the limitations of the human brain. Neuroscientists have clearly shown that our brains operate most efficiently when they alternate between periods of focused attention and relaxation.
When students are engaged in learning, their brains are actively processing information, forming connections, and solving problems. This intense cognitive effort can’t be sustained indefinitely. Just like a muscle needs rest after strenuous exercise, the brain requires downtime to recharge and consolidate what it has learned.
Research conducted by Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang at the University of Southern California supports this notion. Her studies have shown that downtime, or what she refers to as “constructive internal reflection,” is essential for making meaning out of information. During these moments, the brain processes and consolidates new knowledge, allowing it to be retained for the long term.
3. The brain is not “doing nothing” during downtime, but rather, performing functions that are vital to learning and working.
Downtime (in neuroscientific terms) refers to time spent daydreaming or letting your thoughts wander with no agenda or deadline.
Generally, downtime in schools is frowned upon: students should always have something they’re supposed to be focused on and doing. Neuroscience does not support this.
Dr. Immordino-Yang’s research was conducted via neuroimaging techniques, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). She wanted to investigate the neural mechanisms that happen during downtime and emotion processing.
Her studies have revealed that specific brain regions, including those associated with the default mode network (DMN), become active during periods of rest and reflection. This network is essential for self-referential thinking, autobiographical memory, and making meaning out of experiences.
So what does that mean in plain English? Her research demonstrates that the brain is not idle during periods of apparent rest or downtime. Instead, it is actively engaged in internal reflection. During downtime, the brain is making meaning out of previous experiences (such as lessons and skills that were practiced), as well as thoughts and emotions which might interfere with future learning if downtime is not offered for processing.
Downtime is an essential part of how the brain processes and consolidates information, allowing students to connect new knowledge with their existing mental frameworks.
4. Downtime is essential for anyone who has experienced trauma, stress, or emotionally charged experiences (which is, of course, all of us.)
A significant portion of Dr. Immordino-Yang’s work focuses on the intersection of emotion and learning. Her findings show that downtime is a crucial time for us to process emotions, which, in turn, influences our ability to learn and make sense of the world.
Emotions play a pivotal role in decision-making, motivation, and overall well-being. There’s a lot of talk in educational spaces right now about students’ mental health and socio-emotional well-being, but very little about how downtime plays an absolutely essential role. We focus so much on how kids are “behind” and therefore we can’t possibly waste a single minute of the academic day, without considering how downtime is what makes concentration on academic tasks possible.
Dr. Immordino-Yang advocates for the integration of moments of constructive internal reflection into educational practices. This means recognizing that learning isn’t just about absorbing information but also about allowing students time for introspection, reflection on their experiences, and emotional processing. In doing so, educators can help students develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter and promote social and emotional learning.
So in addition to providing downtime, this means there is value in guiding students through self-reflection and emotional processing between tasks.
5. There are limits to the human ability to concentrate and do high-quality work each day.
The Pomodoro Technique is a good example of a way this works. It outlines a 25-minute work period followed by a 5-minute break. This process is repeated several times, and then a longer break is given. Each break is supposed to be true “downtime” in which the individual can get a snack, stretch, go outside, and generally take a break from any kind of focused thought or directed activity at all.
After 3-4 hours of focused work in a day, most people’s output declines, and their quality of work decreases. Very few adults can do more than 4 hours a day of high-quality work that requires intense focus and concentration; the number of children who can do this is even lower.
This research is at odds with the structure of our school day, in which students are expected to perform optimally for around five hours or more, and then go home and do additional work which requires concentrated effort.
In fact, high schoolers may be expected to do around 10 hours of focused work each day (with schoolwork and homework combined). There is no research to support this practice.
An occasional day with a higher workload may be possible for some teens, but studying, writing, and reading 10 hours a day on a regular basis is an unreasonable expectation. For some kids, it is humanly impossible, particularly if they are neurodivergent.
6. A break IS a way to maximize every moment, as breaks lead to improved attention, memory, and problem-solving skills.
While all of this research sounds reasonable, you may still be hesitant. Perhaps you’re thinking, “We just have such a limited amount of time with kids and so much to teach them. I just don’t know we’d even fit breaks or downtimes in. We really do have to make the most of every moment.”
What I’m suggesting — and what the neuroscience supports — is considering breaks and downtime as part of how you maximize every moment.
This isn’t about letting kids wander the hallways and do whatever they want. It’s about recognizing that times in the instructional day in which they’re not expected to focus on anything, in particular, will help them focus on their tasks afterward.
Dr. Judy Willis, a neurologist turned educator, has conducted extensive research on this topic. Her work demonstrates that taking regular breaks during learning can lead to the following:
- Improved Attention: She suggests that taking breaks during learning can help improve students’ attention spans. The brain tends to become fatigued when engaged in prolonged periods of focused attention. By incorporating short breaks into the learning process, students can recharge their cognitive resources, making it easier for them to sustain attention when they return to their tasks. This improved attention can lead to better overall engagement with the material.
- Enhanced Memory Consolidation: Breaks in learning allow for a phenomenon known as memory consolidation. During these breaks, the brain processes and organizes newly acquired information, making it more likely to be stored in long-term memory. This means that when students take regular breaks, they are more likely to remember and retain the material they have learned.
- Improved Problem-Solving Skills: Cognitive fatigue can hinder problem-solving abilities. Dr. Willis’s research suggests that by giving students the opportunity to step away from a problem or task and return to it after a short break, they can often approach it with a fresh perspective. This can lead to more creative and effective problem-solving, as the brain has had time to subconsciously work on the problem during the break.
- Stress Reduction: Dr. Willis has also explored the relationship between breaks and stress reduction. Taking breaks during learning can help reduce stress and anxiety levels in students. High-stress levels can impair cognitive function, so creating a classroom environment that encourages relaxation and brief respites can contribute to better overall learning outcomes.
- Motivation and Engagement: Regular breaks can also positively impact students’ motivation and engagement. Knowing that they have planned breaks to look forward to can make the learning process feel less overwhelming and more manageable. This, in turn, can help maintain a higher level of motivation and enthusiasm for learning.
What are best practices for incorporating neuroscience into classroom routines?
So, what does this research look like in practice? Here are some suggestions for incorporating it into your classroom.
- Share the research around what students need and how they learn. Forward this article to your colleagues and administrators, and open up discussions about it. Most educators and school leaders have an intuitive sense that kids need breaks, but without the research to demonstrate why (and how) to implement them, it’s difficult to justify. Be proactive and get a conversation going in your school or district.
- Teach your students about the benefits of productive breaks and why they are necessary for learning. The key is not to just get out your phone and overload your brain with more stimulus but to take the kind of break that refreshes your mind for more learning. Movement (such as standing up/stretching, walking around); nature (stepping outside if possible or just gazing out the window); silence (putting your head down and listening to white noise through headphones);, and talking playfully with friends can all be useful ways to recharge during breaks. Students can be encouraged to figure out what type of break they need and communicate it clearly. (Finding Flow Solutions is a curriculum line I’ve designed to make this process easy for you and your students.)
- Create visual and audio signals for downtime in your classroom. You can display specific signs, images, or PowerPoint/Google slides during downtime to indicate to students they’re not expected to think or do anything in that moment. Try turning off the overhead lights, and/or play songs from a set playlist. The idea is to set a tone that seems different from your normal “let’s get stuff done” vibe in the classroom. Having these outward cues also gives visitors a sense that the downtime is intentional and planned, rather than students being lazy or you allowing them to do nothing.
- Offer whole class “brain break” activities as well as unstructured downtime. Brain breaks like those offered on GoNoodle can be really fun for kids and appear to observers as an engaging activity, so they’re quite powerful. However, if students are all expected to participate, sing, dance, etc. at the exact moment the teacher plays the video, then these breaks are likely not meeting all students’ needs. Some kids will want silence, some will want to take a break sooner or later than what the teacher indicated, and some kids will get riled up from the break and have a hard time settling down. Structured brain breaks should be offered in addition to unstructured downtime.
- Avoid rigid rules for what breaks must look like: give choice, and allow students to choose what they’d like to do, even if it appears to an outsider that they are “doing nothing.” Trying to look busy all day is exhausting, and we don’t need our students to pretend they’re on-task if you’re allowing a break. During downtime, students should not have to choose a “break” that requires them to sit still, pay attention, or concentrate on anything.
- Allow time for introspective and reflection at the end of lessons and activities. Our schools tend to be tremendously stimulating, bright, busy, and noisy spaces. Consequently, students don’t get much time to think deeply, ponder, or wonder. Not only are these practices essential to critical thinking and problem-solving, they also provide a type of downtime for students. Building in more self-reflection and self-analysis into your lesson (particularly if students get several minutes of quiet time to think/write) can be a great way to give students a break. This will also help them clear their minds more easily when it’s time to transition to the next task or class.
The case for more time spent “doing nothing” via Everyday Health
Brief diversions vastly improve focus, researchers find via University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Rest is not idleness: Implications of the brain’s default mode for human development and education via ResearchGate. Full paper here via ScottBarryKaufman.com
Dr. Immordino-Yang: Emotions are integral to learning via Novak Djokovic Foundation
Using brain breaks to restore students’ focus via Edutopia
The Truth for Teachers Podcast
Our weekly audio podcast is one of the top K-12 broadcasts in the world, featuring our writers collective and tons of practical, energizing ideas. Support our work by subscribing in your favorite podcast app–everything is free!Explore all podcast episodes
Founder and Writer
More resources on this topicExplore all podcasts
If you are a teacher who is interested in contributing to the Truth for Teachers website, please click here for more information.