Applying the Natural Learning Cycle

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These two sample lessons are adapted from Kristen Vincent’s Make Learning Meaningful: How to Leverage the Brain’s Natural Learning Cycle in K–8 Classrooms. The book discusses a brain-based approach to sustaining student engagement and provides examples of what the natural learning cycle looks and sounds like for teaching academics, discipline, and social-emotional skills in grades K–8.

Leveraging the natural learning cycle can help students develop autonomy, intrinsic motivation, and responsibility while increasing their knowledge and skills. It starts by challenging students to choose a focus for their learning or practice, based on their needs or interests. Then, by sharing, teaching, and modeling a skill or content with our students, a common foundational experience can be provided, whether it be a direct teaching mini-lesson, a modeling of a skill, or a role-play of rule-following behaviors.

After this foundational experience, we observe students as they apply the skill or work with the content. We look for areas where students seem to struggle, where there might be gaps, or when students are ready to take that learning to the next level. From those observations, we identify a skill or content knowledge to address the area for growth. This becomes the focus for their work while engaged in the natural learning cycle.

Here we share two lesson plans that cover the working and reflection stages—one on science and one on math—and that offer a glimpse of teaching academics, discipline, and social-emotional learning utilizing the natural learning cycle.

Fifth Grade

Spotlight: The Working Phase

Rule to follow: Taking care of yourself and others.

  1. Provide a Foundational Experience: Use role-play to practice strategies for how to communicate and handle frustration.
  2. Identify Areas for Growth: Communicating and handling frustration in group work.
  3. Leverage the Natural Learning Cycle: Throughout the week.

Goal setting: What are some appropriate ways of handling your frustration during group work? It’s appropriate when it helps you calm down and at the same time takes care of other group members. It involves using a straightforward, respectful tone and words (“I statements”), and strategies to calm down and that allow you to rejoin the group. Choose one idea you can try this week when we have group work.

Working: All week, when engaged in group work.

Reflection: What worked for you? What might you try differently? How can we support classmates who are trying new ideas to handle frustration during group work? How does communicating frustration in a way that takes care of yourself and others help us follow our classroom rules?

Mr. Miller directs his fifth graders to gather together in their science groups to continue preparing their projects for the upcoming science fair. Students pack up materials at their desks and gather in their assigned groups around the classroom. Mr. Miller watches for a few minutes as students settle into chairs and spots on the floor. He rings a chime, and when all students are quiet and looking in his direction, he reminds them of the goals they set for the week about using strategies to handle frustration when working in groups. He asks students to share any success they’ve had so far in using any of the strategies they’ve been practicing. A few students share their experiences from yesterday. Mr. Miller asks students to think quietly to themselves about a strategy they might use today. He asks for a thumbs-up from everyone when they’ve decided on a strategy to try, and then lets the fifth graders know they have 20 minutes for working in their groups today.

The groups begin working as Mr. Miller walks around the classroom, watching and listening to them interact. Mr. Miller is listening for tones of frustration, anger, or disagreement to see if students are employing the “I statements” and other strategies they have been working on. Mr. Miller makes a point of approaching each group, asking open-ended questions to prompt some new thinking or to help move a group along if they seem stuck. He asks, “How did you decide who would present each part of your project? How have you resolved any disagreements? Is every group member’s voice represented in these plans?” Mr. Miller uses reminding language to help draw students’ attention to the strategies they have been working on. With one group, Mr. Miller models how to use an “I statement” instead of staying quiet when there is a disagreement.

I Statement Example

I feel/felt____________when I see/saw (hear/heard)_____________________because____________________________.

Example: I felt upset when I made my suggestion and no one listened to it.

Eighth Grade

Spotlight: Reflection

SEL Competency: Assertiveness

  1. Provide a Foundational Experience: Responsive Advisory Meeting. Post the Quote of the Day: There are no mistakes, save one: the failure to learn from a mistake. —Robert Tripp, musician Maître d’ Activity:
    • Table for four: What’s one positive thing someone might do after making a mistake, and why?
    • Table for three: What might someone do to avoid being too hard on themself for making a mistake?
    • Table for two: What might someone do to avoid making the same mistake twice?
  2. Identify SEL Skill for Growth: Persisting through challenge.
  3. Leverage the Natural Learning Cycle: Throughout the week.

Goal setting: One aspect of assertiveness is persevering when faced with a challenging task. Envision you have a friend who has always done OK in school, but this year they are struggling in math. Whenever they get stuck working out the solution to a math problem, they get very frustrated and give up and simply move on to the next problem. Using a sticky note, write down one piece of advice you’d give this friend. Post your advice on the bulletin board. Use the advice during the week for yourself. Take one sticky note if you need it.

Working: Several class periods during the week.

Reflection: Closing: Reflection question and Quote Corner activity.

Mr. Zhang shares with his class an example of how he used the advice on one of the sticky notes. He then asks his class if anyone else used the advice from the sticky notes. He has students turn to a partner and share. Mr. Zhang then leads his class in a Quote Corner activity. He points out five different quotes that have been posted around the room. He instructs students to count off by fives and then to stand by the quote labeled with their number. He allows students five minutes to talk in their small groups about how the quote relates to their own work or lives. After the discussion, Mr. Zhang asks each group to share with the whole class some ideas from their discussions.


Failure is a part of [the] process. You just learn to pick yourself up. And the quicker and more resilient you become, the better you are.

—Michelle Obama


Striving for success without hard work is like trying to harvest where you haven’t planted.

—David Bly


The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

—Martin Luther King Jr.


It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.

—J. K. Rowling


Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.

—Jim Ryun

Kristen Vincent is the Assistant Director of Marketing for Center for Responsive Schools, and has over 20 years of experience working in education. She is the author of Make Learning Meaningful: How to Leverage the Brain’s Natural Learning Cycle in K–8 Classrooms and of Closing Circles: 50 Activities for Ending the Day in a Positive Way, and coauthor of The Joyful Classroom: Practical Ways to and Engage and Challenge Elementary Students.