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Engaging Classrooms: Rethinking Instructional Time in Education (AbCD Learning Cycle)

by Kate Wolfe Maxlow

In this age of screens and 30-second clips, it’s vital that educators keep abreast of the current research on student attention spans and how we leverage our instructional activities so that they’re developmentally appropriate. There’s both an art and science to stretching students’ attention spans successfully.

Enter then: the AbCD Learning Cycle.

In this cycle, we recognize that we can only ask students to Absorb information for so long before they need to either Connect it to what they already know or Do something with it. Otherwise, students reach a saturation point and start dumping the information we’re working so hard to pour into them. The younger the students are, the less time they can engage in an Absorb activity before they need to move to a Connect/Do activity.

One of the most frequently asked questions I get about this is: How do I find the time to insert all these Connect/Do activities when I already have too much to cover in my curriculum?

Well, I’m glad that you asked. There’s a few pieces to unpacking the answer to this question.

1. We have to redefine what it means to “cover” material.

We’re used to defining whether we have “covered” material by whether students have been exposed to the material (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Did we say it out loud? Did students read it? Then check, we call it “covered.”

But to really, truly cover material, it’s not about whether we as teachers made sure students saw or heard it–it’s whether we made sure that students learned it. This is called cognitive engagement. After all, isn’t that the point of teaching? Otherwise, we could all easily be replaced by textbooks or online modules. (Or even good ol’ fashioned tape players!)

Having students hear or see information is a part of the Absorb cycle. In order to not only have students move the information to long term memory, but to check to see whether they’ve actually comprehended the material, we must engage students in a Connect/Do activity. Otherwise, we can’t know if they learned it, and then we can’t claim that we covered it.

2. We have to spend more time teaching to spend less time reteaching.

One of the most difficult things about teaching is figuring out how to cycle back to knowledge and skills that we know our students missed, while also needing to move on (because, as stated above, there’s just so much curriculum). And part of the problem is that when we only think of “covering” information as “exposing students to information,” most of our students do not learn the first time around. Hence, we end up reteaching. And reteaching. And reteaching. And then crossing our fingers on any end-of-year assessments.

Instead, adding more frequent Connect/Do activities to our lessons will allow students to learn at a deeper level. Yes, we may only get through three big ideas instead of five, but when we do more Connect/Do activities, we have a chance to see what students actually don’t know and correct any misconceptions in-the-moment. This also makes students less likely to practice skills wrong (because practice doesn’t make perfect, it just makes permanent).

And what we find is that we not only save time every day, because we won’t have to keep going over the same skills, but we save time at the conclusion of units, too, when we used to spend a lot of time reviewing information students had brain dumped. When students have opportunities to connect the information to what they already know or do something with it, they make more neural connections to the information in their brains, and they retain it better.

In other words, we’re going slow (in the beginning) so that we can go fast later.

3. The more we use Connect/Do activities, the better and faster our students will get at completing them.

The first time a teacher introduces a Connect/Do activity, students might struggle a bit…especially if it’s above the level of rigor they’re used to. For instance, say that a teacher chooses to use the “Last Word” as a Connect/Do activity, in which the teacher summarizes the main idea into one word and then students create an acronym out of the word that summarizes what they know about the topic. For instance, we might use the word CIRRUS in a unit on clouds, and students might create the following acronym:

Cloud that looks like thin fingers

Ice particles

Rain unlikely

Run to grab your picnic basket

Usually fair weather

So far up in the atmosphere

The first time we do this technique with students, they’ll probably struggle. We’re going to have to define what an acronym is and probably take the time to model it with the whole group. We might even need to do it again with some small groups, and we probably want to let students work in partners to complete it at least the first few times (maybe more frequently, depending on whether your students need some collaborative time).

But what we’ll see is that the second time we do it, fewer students will need help. It will go a lot more quickly (though it still might take longer than we’d like; don’t despair yet!). But the third time? The third time is usually the charm when we try out a new Connect/Do activity. That’s when we can say, “Okay, I need to you to do a Last Word. Your main idea word is FRACTION. You have five minutes to work with a partner and get as far as you can. GO.” And they’re off to the races.

We recommend having about 7 to 10 go-to techniques like this that you use multiple times throughout the year. Sometimes the techniques can be more complex, and sometimes they can be super quick, like a simple turn-and-talk. It’s helpful to create anchor charts with the major rules for each of your magic 7-10 Connect/Do techniques, and refer students to them as necessary rather than repeating the rules ad nauseam.

What you’ll find is that you only end up losing about 3 minutes per Connect/Do activity on average, but you will literally save days of reteaching in the long-run.

Kate Wolfe Maxlow is the Chief Creative Officer at eObservations and DCD Consulting. She has worked as an elementary school teacher, an instructional coach, a Director of Innovation, and a Director of Curriculum. She’s taught classes from PreK-PhD. She alternates between hours of deep focus and being distracted by anything shiny. She can be reached at

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