Here’s the Best Single Idea of the Year

  • Brain Based Ideas

I am on a mission to help 10,000 teachers become extraordinary this year. This article is about something quite important. Below you will get an insight into teaching and lifelong learning. Stay a learner for a moment and we can turn this into the best year of your professional life.

Let’s start with a critical process for success. It is called “buy-in.” Before we go further, let me remind you,

“If your students are not buying into what you are teaching, their brain is not changing.”

And if their brains are not changing, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Let’s learn how to do this right.


The effectiveness of activities, engagement, directions or content blocks depends partly on how well you prepare learners before you even begin instruction.

First, remember, relevance is everything to students’ brains. That’s why inviting secondary students to develop their own student voice and vision is critical. They will get vested in your class and the content. That’s why having choice is important. That’s why having roles that matter in the classroom works. That’s why classrooms have to be culturally responsive. Save this in your brain, the #1 thing that students care about is “WHY”!

Maybe you start out class by saying, “OK class, let’s pick up where we left off yesterday. Can you guys please find the start of Chapter 5 on page 51?”

Ooooops. If that’s you, this article is especially for you.

There are two processes you should know about: setup and buy-in. These two practically ensure the next thing that you do will work and the lesson will be effective. Remember, if the brain’s not buying into the content, the brain’s not changing. If the brain’s not changing, you’re wasting your time. Creating behavioral relevance may be the most powerful skill you can master. With it, students will remember what you teach.


There are two types of classroom learning: (1) compliance (“OK, I guess I can do this.”) and (2) choice learning (“This sounds good; I will jump in and give it my best.”).

Over fifty million U.S. students attend school, and many are compliant learners. According to the High School Survey of Student Engagement (with over eighty thousand participants) 58 percent of students attend school because it’s the law, and 68 percent attend because their friends are there (Yazzie-Mintz, 2007). That is not a rousing endorsement of our teaching colleagues. You, of course may be different.

I want more learning to be the “good” type of learning.


Compliance learning invites re-teaching in your classroom. Compliance learning means students go though the motions, but the learning is rarely recalled.

Motivated, choice learning is more likely to stick (get remembered). Motivating your students before the learning (vs. assuming they have “bought into” what you are doing) is critical.


Unless the brain perceives the task to be behaviorally relevant, it is unlikely to “save” or remember the learned task.

A teacher who opens a lesson with a problem to solve, a puzzle, game or joke is certainly building up and hoping for student arousal. Those are not bad ideas, they are just NOT buy-in.


Arousal means the student is awake, alert and in a good metabolic state for potentially learning something. But that is not the same as a state of buy-in, which is a yearning, hungry state that MUST be fulfilled. Buy-in says to the learner, “This is worth learning, pay attention and save it!”

I cannot emphasize this enough: unless you get buy-in from your students every single time you introduce new content, an activity or anything you want their brain to “save” you risk students forgetting it. The human brain is driven by behavioral relevance.

It is as if the brain is saying, “Why should I care about this? Because if I really should care about, I’ll remember it!” So let’s pause and distinguish between arousal “hooks” and relevancy buy-in. Check out the list below:

  • Teacher enthusiasm (may incite arousal)
  • Compelling relevancy (this is the “holy grail”)
  • Urgency or excitement (arousal hooks)
  • Anticipation or curiosity (arousal hooks)
  • Novelty (creates curiosity)
  • Props or costumes (activate curiosity & arousal)
  • Problem solving (invites a state of “challenge”)

You can see that many times a teacher will confuse the arousal with buy-in. By the way, arousal is a good thing to do. If your students are sleeping or bored, nothing good is happening for learning. But to get students to learn with energy and momentum, both arousal and buy-in are critical.

The following buy-in or arousal strategies can hook students into your learning and they are simple and sweet. The idea is to get students to nibble at a good idea until they want to eat up the rest of the learning. These six hooks introduce the content.

  1. “Now, let’s tie in what we just did to what will be on the test. First, grab a pencil.” (the “hook” word is “test”)
  2. “Here’s an idea to help you get the grade you deserve.” (the “hook” words are “get the grade you deserve”)
  3. “Oh! I’ve got a great idea; it’ll only take a moment. First, stand up please.” (the “hook” here is curiosity)
  4. “I’m going to share something that will boggle your mind!” (the “hook” here is anticipation)
  5. “First, take in a deep breath. Now, if you’re ready for something awesome to learn, stomp your feet twice.” (the “hook” word is “awesome” to invite curiosity)
  6. “I’ve got an idea that might cut your time spent with your head in a book. It should take just a few minutes. Are you game?” (the “hook” words are “cut your time spent” which is a clear benefit)

For any teacher at the K-12 level, there are at least fifty or more hooks you can use in your classroom. At the secondary level, see Teach Like a Pirate (Burgess, 2012) and How to Motivate the Reluctant Learner (Jackson, R, 2011) for specific ideas.

In closing, you CAN have the best school year of your life. Implement ideas from this monthly newsletter and get ready for a miracle!

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education

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