Teachers, Take A ‘Brain Break!’


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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the ‘most followed educators’on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the ‘500 Most Influential People in Britain’ by The Sunday Times as a result of…
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Hands up! Who likes a meeting?

This is a question I always ask a room full of teachers when leading any session on reducing teacher workload. Almost 25% per cent of workload data (DfE) suggests teacher-workload is consumed by too many meetings …

Imagine this…

You’re the headteacher of a large school. Take a rough estimate of the average salary a staff member earns per annum. Now divide this figure by 25 periods per week. In England, considering contractual time is 32.5 hours, we could divide a teacher’s salary by 32.5 to get a rough estimate of how much it costs per period, per teacher. (We know teachers work up to 50 hours per week during term time). So, we’ve got some ballpark figures to work with.

Now, whether you put 15 teachers in the room or 100 teachers and another 50 support staff, how much do you think that time to conduct a meeting is costing a school (per hour) versus its impact?

17 hours of meetings, every week

In my work as a school leader, I had a degree of autonomy over the meetings I led for other teaching colleagues. When workload reached fever-pitch for me (c 2015), I once estimated (on top of teaching and task commitments) that I was working 17 hours of meetings, every week!

I used to be incredibly frustrated, particularly after a five-period day, when meetings laboured on unnecessary. This was sometimes made worse when asked to stay until 2130hrs for governors! I always wondered about my productivity and that of others.

Now, I won’t describe better alternatives for leading and attending the meeting as I have done this many times across this website. However, having spent the last decade reading more deeply into cognitive science, business performance, leadership and working memory, I now know better about managing performance.

This research may change the way your headteacher conducts meetings in the future.

Research proves your brain needs a break!

In a study conducted in March 2021, Microsoft human factors lab gathered 14 people across 2 days of meetings. The participants wore electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment to monitor the electrical activity in their brains. The setup is summarised below:

  1. Two sessions devoted to different tasks
  2. Day 1 = x4 back-to-back 30 minutes
  3. In this first session, participants move from one task to the other with no break.
  4. Day 2 = x4 back-to-back 30 minutes meetings with 10-minute breaks
  5. In the second session, participants were offered a period for reflection.

Results and conclusions

Breaks reduce stress: The people held in meetings back to back develop stress which increased over time. Compared to other participants who were given a chance to rest, their beta activity (electrical impulses) reduced, allowing for a reset. This resulted in them returning to the next meeting more relaxed (reduced stress).

Decrease in focus:  When participants had a break, participants were more focused compared to those without breaks whose levels of ‘frontal alpha symmetry’ reduced, resulting in less engagement and the brain experiencing stress.

Knowing about future transition: When people knew the meeting was coming to an end, and then had to make the transition to another meeting, their brains started to show beta wave activity jumping! In other words, they started thinking hard about something else. In comparison to people who took breaks, the electrical signals were much gentler and smoother. The message? If you know you have another meeting to attend, the present meeting you’re currently sitting in is likely to have reduced focus over time.

Brain breaks - Microsoft Lab

Allowing colleagues to have a short break during teacher training sessions and meetings reduces fatigue and stress.

Recommendations for school leaders

Since the publication of my last book, (Guide To Memory, 2022), I have been trialling ‘short bursts’ of information in my teacher training sessions (and in online seminars), followed by many five-minute breaks. Using ideas from Memory in the Classroom (Bailey and Pransky, 2014), the optimum timeframe I have been working towards is approximately 20-25 minutes.

The feedback I have received from 3,000 teachers this last term has been fascinating. Many, quite rightly, report that the CPD information is interesting and highly complex, but that they appreciate the short regular breaks to help process information. This is much more effective professional development.

This is no different to how teachers operate in the classroom. Our young people need managed ‘information’ with opportunities to reflect, share and revisit. It’s also the same for school leaders when they squeeze teachers into a meeting room for one hour after a five-period day. Teachers should also be given opportunities to retrieve, reflect and to discuss.

Doing less leads to more!

Having lived ‘brain breaks’ in my work with teachers, I asked colleagues how they would translate the research on working memory, providing breaks to young people support retention? We know that teachers cannot let students out of classrooms, so how do they engineer a moment to ‘decompress from the learning’ to support deeper learning?

I’ve got a few ideas, but what do you think? How will you change the way you teach or lead meetings?

Don’t believe that keeping colleagues busy in a meeting will lead to better performance – it’s a high salary cost too – when the opposite is likely to benefit everyone in terms of the organisation’s overall productivity.

I’ve worked in 25-minute chunks ever since!

Ref. Microsoft Labs