In the wake of pandemic-related learning loss, there’s widespread agreement that we must find more time for learning and a number of schools and districts have added afterschool tutoring and summer school to their calendars. While such additions to schools’ teaching and learning time have benefits, intensifying our focus on how we use the classroom time we already have is even more important. To that end, I urge consideration of “learning density.”
By which I mean the amount of new learning—concepts, vocabulary, insights, and reasoning—jammed into every chunk of a lesson. It’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot lately at Success Academy, the charter school network I founded and lead.
In classrooms with high learning density, every minute is packed with penetrating questions, purposeful discussion, new knowledge, and high-quality ideas. Students love being there because they’re making connections and gaining insight at a fast clip, and it’s more enjoyable for teachers because each lesson does more to boost students’ intellectual growth.
Learning density is different from instructional efficiency, which is about eliminating pockets of wasted time during lessons. Instructional efficiency has long been a focus in high-performing charters, and is an important reason why Success Academy and other schools embrace high standards for student behavior and efficient routines for everything from entering the classroom, to handing out materials, to moving around the room.
Instructional efficiency is limited, however. Achieving it allows teachers to cover more material faster but leaves aside the question of the quality of learning—its richness, depth, and range. In a math class with instructional efficiency, for example, students may briskly learn how to employ a new procedure to solve a specific kind of problem and have several opportunities for practice. In one with high learning density, by contrast, students learn not only how to solve the problem, but also why the procedure works and the mathematical concept underlying it. Along with computational skills, they practice mathematical reasoning and gain conceptual understanding, which will help them tackle unfamiliar problems in the future. In the same amount of time, students’ knowledge grows along more dimensions.
When we observe lessons in our schools, we evaluate them through the lens of learning density. We often close our eyes for five minutes, listen closely, and ask ourselves, “Is my knowledge and understanding of the problem or text increasing in this chunk of time? Would I want to be a student in this class?” Too often, the answer to both these questions is no—but I think we get ahead of the game just by asking them.
Educators tend to be satisfied by any lesson that has active student participation and little obvious disruption. Yet what’s often happening is that teachers simply “pass the mic” without driving toward a clear intellectual purpose, frittering away both their and their students’ time. The end result is disengagement—particularly among students who struggle most—and high rates of academic failure. Teachers, meanwhile, feel exhausted and rushed for time because they constantly have to make up later what students didn’t learn.
This is a tragedy for both kids and adults. If we want our pupils to have a productive, impactful schooling experience—and want teaching to be enjoyable and manageable for educators—class time must be packed with dense, layered learning. This starts with high-quality curricula and instructional materials. Works of literature and primary sources should be rich in vocabulary, knowledge, and ideas. Math problems and science experiments should push students to grapple with essential underlying concepts. Assignments and assessments should be intriguing and spark deep thinking.
We must also pay far closer attention to instructional practices. Are teachers starting off discussions with a challenging question that gets students thinking right away or one that pitches to the lowest level? Are they introducing new knowledge, vocabulary, and ideas or reteaching what students already know? Are they promptly correcting inaccuracies or wasting time debating questions with clear yes and no answers? Are they delighting in a spot-on idea and building on it or failing to distinguish low- and high-quality ideas? These are all important questions for determining the level of learning density in a classroom.
Needless to say, a peaceful, orderly classroom environment is an essential precondition for achieving high learning density. Once routines and systems are established, however, going for high learning density is itself a powerful classroom management strategy. Students don’t act out when they’re being provoked, challenged, and stretched by difficult and worthwhile questions and problems.
As schools and districts work to address learning loss in the wake of the pandemic, an intensive focus on learning density is a strategy that will allow teachers to engage students, supercharge learning, and reduce academic failure. It doesn’t require additional funding or major systemic reform. It also makes the job of teaching far easier: Students learn more, their outcomes improve, and the need for reteaching recedes. But getting to learning density requires training and coaching, along with time for intellectual preparation so teachers can develop their own high-quality ideas about the material and questions that spark student thinking. Ensuring that teachers and leaders have the time and space to pursue this goal should be a top priority for schools across the country.