Teachers for Teachers | Applying Some “Brain Rules” to Professional Development
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Applying Some “Brain Rules” to Professional Development


We always find it humbling to get up in front of an audience of teachers for six or more hours to “provide” professional development.  A professor once told us to always assume that at least one-third of your audience knows more than you  (we found out it is typically more).  This assumption makes our work a bit nerve-wracking as we try to engage and respect the knowledge of all the members of an audience.   So you can only imagine how we felt when we read Brain Rules this summer and learned that, “After 9 minutes and 59 seconds the audience’s attention is getting ready to plummet to near zero.  If something isn’t done quickly, they will end up in successively losing bouts of an effort to stay with you.” (p. 90) In a 6-7 hour professional development session… that is a lot of plummeting!!!  The butterflies that we typically experience in our stomachs right before a presentation have now grown into birds of prey.

We decided to take one concept we learned from Brain Rules and incorporate into all of our sessions this year.  The concept is called “Bait the Hook.”  John Medina’s research showed that in order to keep our audience’s attention we need to use emotionally competent stimuli about every 10 minutes throughout a lecture to give the audience a break from new information and a chance to move on to new learning.  He calls these stimuli “hooks.”  He has three principles he follows to make the hooks successful:

—  The hook has to go between modules

—  The hook has to be relevant

—  The hook has to trigger an emotion

We took this concept of “bait the hook” and thought about how we could apply this to our presentations.  We revised our presentations to ensure that our audience would get a “brain break” every 10-20 minutes and tried to embed these principles.  Here are some ideas we are trying:

Looking for modules of learning in our agenda:

Instead of just creating an agenda we decided to really think about the 3-4 big ideas we are trying to teach in a full-day session.  We then thought about how these 3-4 ideas link together to create a deeper understanding.  In order to provide hooks every 10 or so minutes we needed to think about stopping points that would inspire relevant reflection and conversation.  We found that by thinking through when we would “bait the hook” we developed a clearer understanding of what we were teaching in each module.   Taking the time to plan the modules helped us better understand how each concept fits into the rest of the presentation.  Medina’s research has shown a 40 percent improvement in understanding when we teach by explaining the general idea first and then link more specific information to the core concepts you are teaching.  Identifying our 3-4big ideas and reorganizing our presentations into modules helped us make sure we were explaining information in a hierarchical fashion.

Making some of the hooks summarize one module or introduce the next module so the learning throughout a session builds:

This idea of using the hooks to link the modules together so that each piece of the presentation builds on each other was very interesting to us.  We have always known in our minds how our presentations flowed but we have never thought about making it explicit to our audience.  After reading this book we knew we needed to explicitly and repetitively make the linkages between our modules with hooks.  If the audience does not understand how each piece of a presentation fits together their brain needs to think about that while you are presenting.  This is considered multitasking, which this book asserts the brain cannot do.  Medina has also found that just any hook does not work, the hook needs to be relevant and “so compelling that it triggers an orienting response toward the speaker and captures executive functions, allowing efficient learning.” (p.91) He found that when he made these hooks relevant to the content the audience felt engaged in the content even though they were really taking a break.  We made a lot of revisions to our presentations to make sure the flow between modules connected, that there were opportunities to repeat core concepts and that we were not delivering too much content without a brain break.

Thinking about how to use emotion to lift the level of learning:

The idea that “emotionally charged events persist much longer in our memories and are recalled with greater accuracy” was the next principle we tried to tackle (p. 80).  Some of these breaks or hooks need to trigger an emotion, but the emotion needs to be relevant so the break is not disjointed or patronizing.  We often use humor in our session, but not any other emotion.  Medina suggests the use of photos, video, quotes, statistics and narratives as good ways to trigger emotion when you are “baiting the hook.”  Narratives jumped out at us right away.  We have lots of stories of students that can trigger an emotion and are relevant to the content.  We plan on using stories of the readers we have taught in our presentations to see how they will work as emotional hooks.  These stories definitely trigger emotion and we hope that each teacher can connect the story we share to a reader he knows and apply the content we are discussing.

Our first professional development session is next week.  The birds of prey are certainly flying in our stomachs but we are also excited about trying some of these ideas.  We are looking forward to hearing from our audience members about how it worked for them as learners and how we might begin to think about using some of these ideas in the classroom.  Ultimately that is what we want to think about –our students – and how this research can be applied to help them engage in learning and make meaningful connections.  For us, the first step is trying it out on an adult level.  We hope this shared experience with teachers will help us take the next step to try it out in classrooms with students.  We will let you know how it goes in a future post…we look forward to sharing what worked well and the revisions we know we will make as we continue to learn.



  • Avatar
    Katie Dicesare
    Posted at 10:09h, 04 October Reply

    So much to learn from you both. This book looks great and your reflection so helpful. Hope you guys are well! Looking forward to seeing you at NCTE.

    • Avatar
      Clare and Tammy
      Posted at 18:51h, 06 October Reply

      Thanks Katie. We are learning so much in this process. We are also looking forward to seeing you in our hometown at NCTE.

  • Avatar
    Lynn Mangold
    Posted at 17:49h, 04 October Reply

    I am planning and revising presentations for two upcoming PD sessions and I loved this piece. I am going to be re working my sessions to try and incorporate these ideas! Can’t wait to see how it works! Thanks and I am using many of the ideas from this site this year !

  • Avatar
    Clare and Tammy
    Posted at 18:54h, 06 October Reply

    Let us know how it goes for you. It has been working really well for us. We would love to hear your ideas–please keep in touch.

    Clare and Tammy

  • #SOL15: Inspiring and Joyful Professional Development | Resource - Full
    Posted at 05:15h, 10 February Reply

    […] Tammy Mulligan  and Clare Landrigan’s blog, “Teachers for Teachers”, where they describe themselves as “… staff developers who are still teachers at heart. We believe that effective professional development includes side by side teaching; discussions of current research; analysis of student work; and mutual trust and respect.” A post that may be of interest is “Applying Some ‘Brain Rules’ to Professional Development“ […]

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