Superfoods and Classroom Instruction

My wife and I love to watch travel and food shows…love the adventure of it all, learning about other cultures, and salivating over the amazing food. Recently, we were watching a show that revolved mostly around visiting places making conscious efforts to fight needless waste and sustainable living. One of the main characters on the show mentions the idea of consuming superfoods several times. Before watching, I had only heard the term superfoods a few times and never really paid much attention to what they are and why they are so super. Hearing them be discussed on the show, I decided to do a search to find out a bit about more. Turns out, these foods are super because they are known to be more dense in antioxidants, nutrients, healthy fats, et cetera than other foods. Basically, eating blueberries and kale and sweet potatoes and salmon and other foods provide more bang for your buck; more nutrition in every mouthful. People who subscribe to eating mostly superfoods are making the conscious choice to stop consuming foods that may still be good for them in an effort to eat foods that are better for their health.

This got me thinking about education (like most things). I see a parallel between the eating of superfoods and instructional decisions in the classroom. We do a lot of good things in the classroom and every teacher wants to do what’s best for their students. But, sometimes, doing what is good might not be good enough. To paraphrase Dr. Dylan Wiliam, we’ve got to stop doing good things so we can do better things in the classroom; more efficient instruction and more effective practices for learning. 

In my mind, I think of classroom activities that look engaging and fun but yield little retention of material like candy…they generally taste really good, yet are usually nothing more than empty calories; providing very little nutrition. And, like candy, these activities are often desired by students more than vegetables and other more nutritious foods. But, a diet consisting of a lot of candy is not healthy and will probably have negative consequences. There’s an obvious parallel to the classroom, here: an instructional diet high in fun, yet ineffective, activities may be craved…but will provide students with a diet lacking in nutritious activities and, probably, vitamin-rich content. Instruction needs to consist of more superfoods to go from good to better. 

So, what are some of these superfoods of the classroom? 

Why do I choose these two learning strategies? For a few reasons Dr. John Dunlosky mentions in the article Study Strategies to Boost Learning(1). Of ten learning strategies measured, these two were rated “most effective” because:

  1. They can help students regardless of age. 
  2. They can enhance learning and comprehension of a large range of materials.
  3. They can boost student achievement.

They offer such a wide range of applicability; across grade levels, ability levels, and subject matter. You’d be hard pressed to find any strategies more accessible and effective. In my classroom, I begin the year by introducing my high school students to these learning strategies and then provide numerous activities that build upon and showcase just how they can be applied both in the classroom and during private study time. I constantly instruct my students that using these two strategies will both simplify what studying should be and improve the outcomes of practice. 

So, what is retrieval practice? What is distributed (or spaced) practice?

Retrieval practice is any attempt to retrieve information from memory. In my classroom, I try to allow for this to occur many times across a 90 minute class block. Asking questions. Attempting to answer questions. A discussion about material that requires students to retrieve material in order to participate. Any activity that provides learners with the opportunity to recognise or recall material and use it appropriately and correctly will not only let students know what they know and what they don’t know (feedback), but also strengthen their memories of the material. One of the most widely applicable and modifiable examples of retrieval practice is the brain dump.

Distributed, or spaced, practice is allowing for time between introduction of material and attempts at retrieval of that information. By allowing for intervals between retrieval of content, students are allowed to forget. And, although this runs somewhat counter to intuition, providing this time to forget can make the retrieval more difficult, which is a more desirable condition for long-term retention of material. There are many different ways this strategy can be applied in the classroom. One of my favorite activities to do in my class is called last lesson, last week, last month

So, what am I not saying? Well, I’m not saying that fun = bad and boring = good. Activities that are entertaining certainly can be educational. I’m also not saying that 100% of a class should be ‘dessertless’, just as someone’s diet can allow for a small amount of sweets. But, it’s also important to let our students know the value of their superfoods and impress upon them they provide for a more nourishing meal. 

Food for thought. Food as thought.


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Feature image by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash


  1. https://www.aft.org/ae/fall2013/dunlosky

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