It’s early in the morning and not many people have managed to get a second cup of much-needed coffee. But that’s not why people’s brains are a little fuzzy. This is the third of the four-part series, Perspectives on Teaching, Learning, and the Brain and Dr. Christian Jernstedt, Professor Emeritus of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, has just asked these aspiring teachers to recall a meaningful portion of the content of his last session. Everyone is clearly struggling. Dr. Jernstedt is looking at one young man in the back row and waiting patiently for an answer.

“Can I use a lifeline?” Ethan, an aspiring English teacher, asks playfully, and many in the room chuckle.

Dr. Jernstedt specializes in human learning. And he knows exactly why everyone is struggling and furiously flipping through notebooks, searching for their notes from the last class.

“It’s disappointing,” he said later, that people can’t remember a very crucial point from the last session. But Dr. Jernstedt knows a teachable moment when one presents itself. He tells the room that the disappointment he feels is a reality that teachers need to grapple with. Teachers can deliver what they think is a good lesson, but students will not necessarily learn or remember.

The reason we forget, he tells us, is not that the idea or answer has gone from our minds. Interference is why we forget. New information interferes with previously stored information. Our brains are very smart, and crammed with an enormous amount of information. Forgetting happens when we can’t retrieve a memory. And trying to retrieve memories is not analogous to searching in a file cabinet for the information. “It's more like an archeological dig,” says Jernstedt.

Have you ever tried to remember something, been frustrated at the inability to recall, and then the memory comes to you at another time, such as when you’re in the shower? That’s the amazing power of the brain -- to continue to work in the background to retrieve a memory, even when you think you’re not working on the problem.

So what does this all mean for teachers? Well, the answer is complicated. Learning often depends on the ability of a student's brain to retrieve information. Research, Dr. Jernstedt says, tells us that when subjects take a nap immediately after learning new information, they can recall more than those who remain awake. Since most of our students won’t be napping after our lessons, we’ll have to try a different approach.

There are many things teachers can do to minimize interference. Teachers can use structure, elaboration and imagery to maximize meaningfulness. Teachers can chunk information into the small, meaningful bits. And teachers can help students rehearse and remember.

But at the moment, the fuzzy brains in the room are still working on the problem at hand: What was the important information Dr. Jernstedt said at the last session that we should have remembered?

Perhaps we all need to sleep in it. Or get that second cup of coffee.

Commentary by Kristen Downey

Kristen Downey is UVEI’s Associate Director for Teacher Education and a member of the program faculty. Kristen’s commentary on participation strategies can be found here. You can follow her on Twitter @UVEIDowney


This morning, fourteen school leaders gathered at UVEI for a bi-monthly session as a part of their year-long program to become certified administrators. The agenda for the day was school budgets, but after the long, surprising evening watching election results come in, these educators know that some time needs to be spent on what the election means for teachers, leaders and students. The conversation revealed that no has definitive answers, but these leaders are determined to lead with compassion.

An intern, Sarah, brought in a Huffington Post article about what to tell students about a Trump win.  Daniel, a current Vermont science teacher, was uncomfortable with the opening of the article: “Tell them, first, that we will protect them.”

“I have to assume,” he said, that “the majority [of Trump supporters] voted for him to protect their children,” and their perceptions of the dangers we face in this country are real. We need to root our work with our teachers, students, parents, and communities in empathy and understanding, regardless of where we stand.

A current assistant principal in a Vermont school agreed. She said, “Even if the outcome was different, kids would be struggling with difficult feelings. We have a lot of work to do.” She went on to acknowledge that fear and anxiety is harmful for our students, and if the election had gone the other way, some portion of our school communities would be processing complicated feelings. “Care-taking needs to happen in a sensitive way.”

But there is fear and anxiety in this room, and feelings of uncertainty about how to proceed. One teacher shared that her co-teacher was in tears this morning. “We’ve referred to Trump for so long as a bully. We have a [child who can be a] bully in our classroom,” and she wondered what she and her co-teacher could tell him now.

“We don’t have a lot of students of color, and we need to be sensitive to how isolated they might feel,” another intern shared, “but we do have 50% females. I’m the mother of strong-willed daughter, [and] she is flat-out devastated and terrified.” She noted that other girls must be wondering what this means for them. Wherever the fear comes from, and people in the room noted that it may be inflated by the media, it’s a real reaction our girls might be having.

The overwhelming sentiment in the room was one of awareness of how challenging it is to be a teacher in moments such as these, and the enormous weight and responsibility of leaders to attend to the needs of diverse communities.

Our executive director, Page Tompkins, weighed in. “All these tensions are real, and we don’t have any easy answers for you.” But he shared his own experience.. “There have been so many times that I have not been the leader I want to be, but when I am, I am leading from a place of compassion, human connection, and care for people’s growth. Evan saying that out loud, it seems a little trite right now,  ” he chuckled, “But it is the best I’ve got for you right now.”

It’s a good starting place.

Perhaps the principal at Marion Cross School in Norwich summed it up best in a letter to his school community. "Uncertainty can bring an odd clarity to what we really consider important. Recognizing that sometimes unexpected events and behavior happens, we should pursue our mission—and our commitment to the kids—together."


As a classroom teacher, one of my favorite pastimes was participating in professional development.  I visited other schools, attended workshops and took online courses.  I especially enjoyed workshops, since they were a chance to connect with professionals from all over the country.  The resources and excitement in those days, weeks or weekends were reinvigorating, especially in the middle of the New Hampshire winter. However after returning to my classroom, the afterglow soon wore off.  Although it was better to attend with a colleague (with whom I could bounce ideas off later), the lack of sustained focus and follow-up led to, more often than not, the materials and energy quickly fading from view.

At UVEI, we approach professional education differently.  How is it different?  Through sustained coaching and inquiry cycles, educators immersed in their practice receive feedback and reflect with the help of a coach.  Cycles last several weeks, months or even a full year.  Instead of a “one and done” course, we spend time in each school to observe, model, debrief, plan and facilitate peer coaching and reflection.  We are currently partnering with several school districts, bringing coaching and inquiry cycles to a team or an entire school, where teachers and administrators engage in inquiries such as balanced literacy, differentiated instruction, and project based learning.

One of our current partnerships is with Holland Elementary School, which is as close to the Canadian border as you can get without going through customs.  Each week, I make the drive north to work with the teachers and students at this tiny pre-K through sixth grade school.  Through weekly observations and coaching sessions, teachers aim to move their practice closer to “gold standard” project-based learning.  Principal Kelli Dean, a UVEI Principal Intern Program alum (and current UVEI Curriculum and Instruction candidate), helped bring our faculty into a district-wide partnership focused on project-based learning.  By the second meeting with teachers, I was already feeling new energy and momentum building as these educators brainstormed new units and approaches.  As we journey forward together, our shared goal is to reinvigorate teaching practices that are valuable and sustainable.  

This photo of Kate Underwood and her K-1 class was taken by Becky at Holland Elementary School earlier this fall.

Commentary by Becky Wipfler

Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator and a member of the faculty.  You can follow her on Twitter @bmwipfler. Other commentaries by Becky can be found at and