Homeschooling Hack – Short Lessons

Have you or a friend ever complained about how long it takes your child to get through a math lesson? “He could be done in 45 minutes but he sat at the table for 3 hours yesterday and ruined our afternoon plans,” is something I’ve heard dozens of times from friends. What if I told you the way to put an end to this prolonged agony is simple, easy, endorsed by my favorite 19th century educator, and backed by science?  Short lessons are one of the best ways to make your homeschooling more focused and fun.

I am so thankful for Charlotte Mason! Even though we do not follow her ideas to a T in my house, she has influenced and inspired us for decades. This educator from the 1800’s was way beyond her time in regards to child psychology and educational principles. Living in Victorian England, Charlotte Mason seemed to instinctively know truths that science is only now recognizing. One of Miss Mason’s ideas is using “short lessons” to build attention. In Miss Mason’s schools, 1st – 3rd graders never had lessons lasting beyond 15-20 minutes, 4th-6th graders never more than 20-30 minutes, and older students never beyond 45 minutes.

How do short lessons help? Let me (quickly) count the ways!

  1. Short interesting lessons build attention. When a child is delighting in a focused lesson, he or she is practicing the habit of attention. When a student is used to taking 2 hours to get through a math lesson, he or she develops the habit of interruption, daydreaming, procrastination, misery, etc. When a timer is set for 15 minutes, the student understands this time period will go quickly, and focus becomes more natural in short bursts.
  2. Short lessons make it easier for a student to do his best. It’s so much easier to put forth one’s best effort when the time of doing so is limited. Think of the popular Couch to 5K program – a non-runner starts off with short bursts of running, building up running stamina as they go. 
  3. Short lessons reduce mental fatigue. Once a student is discouraged and exhausted, learning is no longer happening. Short lessons prevent a lot of this fatigue.
  4. Short lessons encourage curiosity and learning. When we whet a child’s appetite with a positive, focused burst of learning, they want more.

I find it remarkable that Charlotte Mason had these ideas over 100 years ago. Modern psychology and biology keep reiterating what Miss Mason already knew. For example, Gwen DeRar, Ph.D, explains in Spaced learning: Why kids benefit from shorter lessons — with breaks how two different experiments done in the early 2000’s demonstrate this truth. One experiment showed kids learning how to read did better when the learning was done in 2-minute bursts throughout the day. The other experiment compared students learning 4 5-minute lessons in 1 day, 2 5-minute lessons a day for 2 days, and 1 5-minute lesson a day over 4 days. The children who learned just 1 5-minute lesson a day retained much more than those in the other groups.

Interestingly enough, traditional learners only remembered 78% of the material presented in the first half of an hour-long lecture, but by the second-half, they only remembered 22%. This suggests that shorter lectures are more effective for student recall. What this means for those involved in the expanding adult learning market is that shorter lessons, with frequent breaks and creative activities, are the most effective way of ensuring that learners get the most from their learning experience.

Tess Taylor in New Study Shows the Power of Learning in Short Bursts

Paul Kelly, an honorary research associate at Oxford University, has found that breaking learning into short bursts helps young adult students remember more material. According to The Secret of Effective Learning Might be Less Studying, Not More, Kelly’s conclusions make sense because, “Broadly speaking, this works on the basis that memories are created by neurons firing in the brain, but for these memories to become embedded, the neurons have to then be left undisturbed for a period of time.” Just last week, I came across a suggestion for adults with ADHD called the Pomodoro Technique. Using time blocking, this technique suggests working on a focused activity for 25 minutes and then taking a 5-minute break. After 4 of these cycles, you are supposed to take a 20-30 minute break. It seems whether we are thinking of 6 year olds learning to read, college students studying for exams, adults in the workplace, or people with ADHD, short “lessons” are the way to go for maximum learning and productivity.

In a later post, we will talk about what short lessons might look like in your typical homeschool day and how they can become a regular part of your week. For now, just know that learning in small segments is an idea backed both by science and by Charlotte! Perhaps today you can just try to set a timer for that math lesson. Decide you will not care how far into the lesson your child gets, only that he or she stays focused for a short burst of time. Or the next time you and your student become frustrated or bored with a lesson, put it away with no remorse and come back to it later. Please let me know in the comments how this homeschool hack works for you.