Brains That Do the Work Do the Learning: A Story of Two Classrooms

Eddie settled in with his back to the wall in his usual student desk in a classroom where time seemed to move sluggishly. Eddie was a rising senior now, and could not wait to graduate from this classroom, something that, thankfully, would happen in a few days.

This history teacher had always seemed pleasant enough, but his monotone could put rocks to sleep. He seemed to love the sound of his own voice, a voice that had a soothing effect on Eddie and his classmates; they invariably went to a better place in their minds within a few short minutes. Fridays brought quizzes, and every 12 days or so, Eddie could count on a chapter or unit test. He and his friends approached this class the way the shipwrecked approached the future—they simply hoped to survive.

But in a few minutes time, Eddie would walk into a science classroom that seemed to inhabit a different planet. This rare world was one where Eddie and his classmates were more often than not in control, much like they were when they held cell phones in their hands. The big tables in that classroom each held a group of four students, and the groups worked on various projects mostly on their own, coaching each other and other groups when the situation warranted. They moved, talked, questioned, pondered, reflected, researched, laughed, shared, and otherwise collaborated in an emotionally safe environment, one where negativity and sarcasm had been shown the door long ago.

Eddie’s science teacher lectured on occasion, but the lectures were short and to-the-point. Then she turned them all loose to work interdependently; she walked around the room, checking in with each group in turn, asking questions, and providing a bit of coaching now and again. She did not answer their questions directly. She would pause, look away, then ask a question of her own. Those questions might include, “What is your next step?” or “How do you know where you are on your road to your learning target?” How different this was from Eddie’s history teacher, who with great regularity and frequency asked, “Who knows the answer to this question?” or “Who can tell me who won the Battle of Gettysburg?”

In Eddie’s science classroom, each student had a laptop, and he and his classmates worked in collaborative fashion against a set of learning targets. There was no such thing as failure in this classroom. Students worked with teammates, and if someone did not “get” something, classmates worked with that person until he or she did. The teacher trusted them, encouraged them, and held them to a high set of standards. Those standards included the speaking and listening standards that lived inside the language arts standards.

With barely five minutes to go in his history classroom, Eddie could not wait to head upstairs to his science classroom, where today the groups were doing presentations on their last and most difficult projects. The science teacher had worked with them early in the year on listening and speaking skills, and Eddie had to admit he had made great progress. Talking in standing pairs had been difficult and frustrating at first, but they were all old hands at it now. During the course of the year, everyone in that science class had worked with everyone else several times, and classroom procedures had long since become routine.

The bell was about to ring, and Eddie wondered, not for the first time, if there would be a teacher during his senior year who did what this science teacher had done. That wonderful science teacher was the exception, not the rule.

The bell brought him out of his reverie; he had, apparently, survived another history class. But up the stairs at the end of the hall, another and far more satisfying experience awaited. His team would present today, and they were ready. The science teacher had let students be students, and now they would become the teachers.

While coaching in a particular school for a week or more, I have had occasion to observe students in more than one setting. In adult-centered classrooms, students settle in, settle down, and tune out. The same kid in an environment like Eddie’s science classroom become players rather than watchers. They become participants rather than attendees. They become energized rather than comatose. The body language changes, and smiles replace chiseled faces. Genuine laughter takes the place of furrowed brows and sarcastic chuckles. Purposeful energy in a standards-based classroom begets synergy as students work together toward a clearly defined learning target.

A teacher’s role in these learner-centered cultures is different. The “sage on the stage” moves over to make room for learners in continuous-improvement mode. The stress eases for students and teachers alike, as control and compliance are replaced by the language of learning and the power of WE. Thriving replaces surviving, and everyone’s body language and mood reflects this shift. For teachers who have made a choice to disrupt the adult-centered status quo and replace it with a collaborative, standards-driven, mistake-accepting, learner-friendly environment, everyone wins. And those teachers are likely to remain in the profession a lot longer.

Eddie is close to graduation. One more year and he is done, but he now understands what a great classroom culture is like. He and his iGen’er friends, along with all those who follow, deserve to experience what Eddie did in that science classroom. We can make that happen; it is a simple matter of choice. Prensky (2010) says that teachers enjoy explaining, and many are excellent explainers-in-chief. “But this method is no longer relevant, because students are no longer listening. I often liken this to Federal Express: You can have the best delivery system in the world, but if no one is home to receive the package, it doesn’t much matter” (p. 10).

Today’s iGen’ers don’t want to be attendees. They don’t want to “settle in” the way Eddie did every day in his history classroom; they want to be part of their own learning. Two sixth graders told me they loved their teacher because she “let them do things.” Classrooms cannot be passive places. Classrooms must serve as interactive environments where students can indeed be students, and where teachers join their students as participants in the learning process.

This begins with the realization, as Toth and Sousa (2019) remind us, that “the brain that does the work is the brain that learns” (p. 1). This is why I learned more about U. S. history my first year of teaching than I did in four years of college. I did all the work. I did all the thinking. My kids…not so much. Students must be engaged in their own learning, and this begins with the development of academic teams.  In teams composed of students who have gotten to know each other and work well together, “engagement skyrockets as students have the opportunity to share their thinking, respectfully challenge the thinking of their peers, and deepen their learning” (Toth and Sousa, p. 1). This is exactly what Eddie was doing in his science classroom, in high contrast with what he was doing—or not doing—in a history classroom dominated by teacher talk and a one-way flow of information.

Today’s students spend so much time looking at screens that they miss out on the kinds of face-to-face conversations that encourage the sharing of differing opinions, new information, and various points of view on the part of classmates. Teachers who want to engage students in their own learning can begin by creating oodles of opportunities for students to stand, move, pair, share, laugh, and learn in simultaneous conversations that allow them to pause, think out loud, and process information. In my early classrooms, I talked while students copied down notes they would next visit, if at all, an hour before a quiz or test. I talked and called that teaching. Eddie’s history teacher talked and called that teaching.

Eddie’s science teacher understood that the brain that does the work does the learning, and so she put her juniors to work in academic teams. She understood something Eddie’s history teacher and I as a new teacher did not understand: She knew she was not the only teacher in the room. Students sharing in pairs and working in teams can accomplish a great deal. Teachers would do well to remember that students must be allowed to be students, and that the adult in the room can learn right along with them.


Prensky, M. (2010). Teaching digital natives: Partnering for real learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Toth, M. D. & Sousa, D. A. (2019). The power of student teams: Achieving social, emotional, and cognitive learning in every classroom

Written by

Ron Nash is the author of the Corwin bestseller The Active Classroom (2008), along with The Active Teacher (2009), The Active Mentor (2010), and his most recent book, The Interactive Classroom (2019). Nash’s professional career in education has included teaching social studies at the middle and high school levels. He also served as an instructional coordinator and organizational development specialist for the Virginia Beach City Public Schools for 13 years. In that capacity, Nash conducted workshops and seminars for thousands of teachers, administrators, substitute teachers, and teacher assistants. In 2007, he founded Ron Nash and Associates, Inc., a company dedicated to helping teachers shift students from passive observers to active participants.

No comments

leave a comment

10 + 1 =