The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning: Bringing Mind, Brain, and Education Science to Teachers and the Classroom
The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning: Bringing Mind, Brain, and Education Science to Teachers and the Classroom
Abner Oakes, Director of Outreach and Partnerships, Alliance for Excellent Education
Glenn Whitman, Director of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School
On January 12, 2017 the Alliance for Excellent Education held a webinar about the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) and had a conversation with its director Glenn Whitman, who is also the co-author of Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education.
Winner of the 2016 Mission award from the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, CTTL is an innovative research and training center based at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland. It ensures that all teachers at St. Andrew’s receive training and ongoing annual professional development in mind, brain, and education science, and since its founding, it has served as a model and opportunity to learn for over 250 different schools and more than 3,000 teachers and leaders who have attended the center’s presentations, workshops, and programs.
During this webinar, Mr. Whitman talked about how CTTL is “a sterling example of how educators are informing the teaching and learning process through research-based practices” and its efforts to scale its work, particularly for public school teachers and their students.
Panelists also addressed questions from the live online audience. Conversations about the event were on Twitter at #ScienceofLearning.
Please direct questions concerning the webinar to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are unable to watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available at https://all4ed.org/webinars approximately one or two business days after the event airs.
The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington, DC–based national policy and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those who are traditionally underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship. www.all4ed.org
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Hello and welcome. I’m Abner Oakes, director of Outreach and Partnerships at the Alliance for Excellent Education. Thanks for joining us today. As many of you know, the Alliance is a national policy, practice and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those traditionally underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, in a career and as a citizen.
Today our topic is the neurodevelopment of adolescents and what that means for the classroom and for teaching. The Alliance’s interest in adolescent brain development is driven by our focus on closing long-standing achievement gaps for traditionally underserved high school students.
Over 50 percent of students in the U.S. are diverse or from low income families and we have a moral and economic comparative to explore what’s known from research and apply it to policy and practice to ensure equity in outcomes for all young people. We think neurodevelopmentally appropriate instruction and school structures can help with that.
To help with today’s conversation, we’re very happy to welcome Glenn Whitman, the co-author of the book, Neuro Teach: Brain, Science and the Future of Education. Glenn is also the director of a unique school-based center called the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, or as we’ll refer to it today, the CTTL.
Winner of the 2016 Mission Award from the International Mind, Brain and Education Society, also known as IMBES, the CTTL is an innovative research and training center based at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland. Welcome, Glenn.
Thank you for having me.
It ensures that all teachers at St. Andrews receive training and ongoing professional development in mind, brain and education science. Since its founding, it’s served as a model and an opportunity to learn for over 250 different schools and more than 3,000 teachers and leaders who have attended the centers, presentations, workshops and programs. Welcome, welcome, welcome. Glad you’re here.
Thank you very much.
We’re glad you’re here. Now before we get started, a few technical details. Please join the conversation via Twitter using the hashtag, #scienceoflearning. You can also ask questions via the form below this video window as you’ll see. And then video from today’s event will be archived and be available on demand at www.all4ed.org/webinars.
Now, Glenn, you’re here today and you’re gonna talk to us about your work there at the CTTL around adolescent brain research. I know you’ve got a deck and some information that you want to share?
I’m gonna toss it to you.
Caught. I’m ready.
I’m ready. Thanks, Abner. Thanks to the Alliance for allowing me to share the expertise, the experience and the research most importantly with what I hear is a global educational community. So that’s very exciting. As Abner said, I direct the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St. Andrews Episcopal School. It’s a preschool through twelfth grade school located just outside Washington, D.C.
And our journey to the creation of a center has been about a ten-year process. And it began actually in about a decade ago. And we asked ourselves, our faculty and our administration a really important question that I would argue for the teachers and school leaders out there who are listening or participating, what is the next frontier for teacher training? To taking great schools and their teachers and making them exceptional?
And as you can imagine, we dabbled with a lot of really important topics and opportunities. Do we need to go deeper in project-based learning? Do we need to really figure out what technology can do to deepen learning? Do we need a better job to honoring the identities and the learning strengths and weaknesses of each of our students and advancing our work in multi-cultural education?
All really critical elements of excellent schools and excellent teaching. But what we came to in a very organic way was that our teachers collectively did not have much experience or training in what back them was probably mostly called brain-based education, but what we prefer to call mind/brain education science.
And this is that intersection, cognitive science, developmental and behavioral psychology and educational theory. It’s not new research. There’s a lot of research that’s existed and been done for a very long time. And there’s a lot of new research coming out of great schools and great educators and universities.
And as we began this work we did so with a hypothesis. And it was really around this. What if our teachers new more about mind/brain education science? Would they be more likely to do those things that we know creates opportunities for students to thrive in ways that are not similar to the traditional classroom setting?
Would our teachers bring in more design thinking, expand student choice and collaboration, use reflection and metacognition for students to think about their current successes or challenges as a learner? And you name it. So with this hypothesis in mind, we say we’ve gotta go scour the research.
And we started with a very important article entitled “A Bridge Too Far.” And this was an article that really said, you know what? The bridge might be too – the gap might be too wide between academic research and the ability to use it in intentional and transformative ways in the classroom.
So we love a challenge. Our school, St. Andrew, loves to see what we can do that others say we can’t. And so we say you know what? Let’s try this. Let’s train 100 percent of our preschool through twelfth grade faculty in educational neuroscience and see what it does for their attitudes, skills, knowledge and mindsets, and more importantly what it does for the diverse student learners that they get to interact with each school day.
But where do you start? The good news is is that there’s really three buckets of research that exists for all school settings, whether you’re a public school teacher, public charter school teacher, private school teacher, home school teacher, you name it. There are ways to approach this in three very distinct research informed ways.
The first way we went out is we asked ourselves a question – what research already exists that’s being underutilized by our faculty and teachers generally? Who are the researchers that we need to get connected with and to use their research in intentional ways? That’s sort of that first bucket of research that you see on your screen right now.
So the likes of Rob Co out of the UK, Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck, Curt Fisher, Mariale Hardiman from Johns Hopkins University. These names hopefully sound familiar to you and if not they should become familiar to you. Because this is ready-made research that teachers and school leaders can use tomorrow to inform how we design our classes, design our schools and more importantly work with each individual student.
The second bucket of research we were interested to explore as a school was, can we actually do original research in our school setting, in our school context with our students? We knew we could not do this alone and we started to draw up some initial questions that we’ve actually launched research studies with professors at Johns Hopkins University of School of Education, in particular Dr. Mariale Hardiman, and researchers and professors at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, in particular Dr. Christina Hinton and Dr. Curt Fisher, the founder of a group called Research Schools International.
This middle group is a little more challenging to be honest, a little more costly from an economics perspective. But it also puts the responsibility on schools like ours and research centers like ours to share the results, to have a strong public purpose, which we certainly do through our work.
The last category of research that is certainly accessible to teachers is what we call discipline inquiry. I’ve gotta be honest, we did not coin this term. It’s borrowed from a gentleman who we interacted with in the UK, Dillon William. But it sort of replaces the term of action research that might be more popular or familiar to you.
Could teachers with its students in front of them in a very intentional deliberate way create what micro research studies with those students to see how intentional interventions or strategies might be enhancing or hurting learning? So with those three buckets in mind we figured, what else do we need to know?
And one of the first pictures that I remember seeing about a decade ago as we began this work was this. And I was enthralled by this. It certainly part of my own teacher training. I had zero experience in educational neuroscience before this and I was really intrigued with what was being said by this image. And if you look at this image, it’s about neural growth and synaptic pruning from birth until high school you can argue.
And I think this image is an important reminder of why teachers and school leaders should be using research and mind/brain education science to inform their practice. There is great change, neuroplasticity that’s going on the brain, every year of a child’s educational journey.
And if you notice how thick and dense at the six-year-old level most brains, not all brains, most student brains are, and if you notice what happens, the pruning that goes on when students either use it or lose it, a term we love using from Dr. Judy Willis from California, as they try to deepen their expertise and skills and knowledge in certain areas. I would argue that knowing about neuroanatomy and how the brain changes is really critical to the mindset of educators and school leaders today.
It’s no different with understanding how neural pathways grow and change. To be honest, I didn’t know what myelination was about five or six, seven years ago. But I know it’s critically important for not only learning to begin but for learning to stick. And I would ask you in the audience if I could actually hear your response, I would love to know that, what do you know about myelination?
How is it informing your practice? How you assess students? How you talk to students about learning? How you pick them up after they’ve been challenged or faced a barrier in their educational journey? The good news out there is wherever you are in the world and listening to this webinar, there are excellent teachers, university professors and researchers who want to work directly with pre-collegian school teachers and schools to deepen their knowledge and use of mind/brain education science in the classroom.
Certainly we’ve been fortunate. We have wonderful partnerships with a group out of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Research Schools International. We work very closely with Johns Hopkins and their Science of Learning Institute and the School of Education. A wonderful organization in the UK called Evidence Based Education has been an important partner. And certainly Teach for America in the D.C. region has been an amazing ally in trying to see how does research in the learning brain inform core members, as well as as they support students in some of the most challenging learning environments in the United States?
So how do we do it? How can we move at scale a whole school, maybe even a school district, in this work? And we sort of have developed a what we would call a secret sauce to borrow from one major corporation in the United States.
And here is the secret sauce sort from the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. One, it starts with trying to develop a common language for your teachers and school leaders. There’s an efficiency to have a vocabulary that you all can hang your hat on as you talk about kids and learning.
So I’m sharing with you in this slide some of the common terms and language that I’m sure are very familiar to you and they’re certainly very familiar to the faculty at St. Andrews. The other big challenge and opportunity is really creating a new mindset for educators. And the one we want to inculcate very early on from our early career teachers to our most sophisticated long master teachers is this idea of brain plasticity. That every year there’s an opportunity for a student to change their brain.
And in fact, teachers need to strongly believe that the work they are doing is not only changing brains but they need to do research to do that work at the highest most effective levels. In addition to a common language and in addition to this mindset of teachers being brain-changers and researchers, there are certain other mindsets that we need to develop with our faculty or teachers, and that is an understanding of the connection between a motion and learning that stress significantly impacts our students’ ability to be successful every day in school.
Now I’m not saying we should remove all stressors. There is definitely good stress out there. But I can tell you honestly I was not thinking about the emotions and the stress of my students when I started in this career in 1991. But I do know if I want my students to work in the high order thinking parts of the brain, right in the prefrontal cortex area, that I need to find that right balance between stress and challenge and that is sort of a mindset that emotions and learning are critical to a students a success. And that teachers having this lens into how students work is really necessary to create exceptional teachers.
And, you know, there’s an activity I often do with our own faculty or people we present to and there’s a concept called downshifting. Dr. Mariale Hardiman from Johns Hopkins shared with me this term, and it’s this idea of think about your own educational journey. At what point were you downshifted by a teacher? At what point was your learning paralyzed by a comment or interaction by a teacher?
I’ll give you mine. In fifth grade I remember very distinctly my English/Language Arts teacher would pass back grammar tests, weekly grammar tests in grade order. I wasn’t really strong with the comma. I gotta be honest with you. So I was always at the bottom of the pile. And to this day I think it paralyzed my ability to be a strong writer early on.
Now I can say that after having written a book or two, but I really – that moment, that emotional moment really paralyzed me as a learner. So think about your own downshifting moment and then think about moments when you might have downshifted your students and consider the connection between emotion and learning.
The other mindset I want to really instill in those listening today is that in no way does it increasing a teacher or school leader’s understanding of mind/brain and education science, lower the bar we should have for our students. All we want to try to do is lower the barriers. And again, another term and phrase that I’ve stolen from Dr. Judy Willis, if we can lower the barriers to student learning we can insure that they all achieve at the highest levels that we want them to attain, to prepare them for college, to prepare them for the life and the world they will inherit and the jobs of the future.
So I ask you – obviously this is a rhetorical question in many ways – what are the barriers for a student to meet his or her potential in your school setting? And can educational neuroscience help you break those barriers? My answer is from our own experience at St. Andrews and from the research we’re doing and the relationships we foster with other schools around the world, the answer is yes.
So how do you move a school? The other part of our secret sauce that I would like to share with you today and sort of end with you today is what we are involving and creating is a mind/brain education science, research engagement professional growth pathway. How do we move teachers and school leaders from a novice understanding of the research to an experienced expert at a teacher/leader level?
And if you see by this framework we not only have realized that we can’t just move a school’s teachers, that school leaders have to be a part of this journey, because teachers alone need that support. They need that time created in a school for the collaboration, to look at the research, and we have found ultimately that a common language of framework that we’ve just shared with you, a mindset of being a brain-changer and a research-informed teacher, and an understanding of the connection between emotion and cognition is critical.
But here’s the problem. I’ve often enjoyed showing this comic. Professional development at most schools doesn’t really work. It doesn’t really create change. And that is a critical element to our success with our own faculty and potentially others out there who want to go on the mind/brain education science journey.
We know this from our own book cover. You know, we had a choice when we wrote Neuro Teach, which book cover do we choose? The one with a big fat brain on it or the one without a brain? And we know teachers are susceptible to believing a book with both the word brain on it and a big brain image on it would be more reliable.
But that in itself does not mean the content in the book, even though in this book it is, is really excellent and worthy to be applied to teaching. We also know from statistics, and I use this research from the teacher development of trust in the UK, that one percent of professional development is really transformative in a teacher’s practice. And that’s a critical number to keep in mind as we think of how to design great PD for our schools.
And initially we know from research that comes out of the TMTP report, again out of the UK, that only 30 percent of teachers show noticeable improvement in their teaching through PD, but they can’t pinpoint the professional development elements that led those teachers to improve.
So I love this quote from Bell Weather Education. It’s actually a local D.C. group that we had a chance to partner with. Its sober and even humble conclusion and every stage of it teaches career, we simply don’t know how to help him or her improve. We want more teachers and school leaders to know mind/brain education science, to make it part of their daily practice. But the way we’re delivering PD is not necessarily the most conducive way to achieve that end.
And if your professional development looks like this, teachers sitting and listening, we want it to look like this. We want your teachers to dissect sheep’s brains. Look at these teachers who are smiling, doing this in a recent activity we did with our own faculty.
How many times are you smiling at your professional development programming? Or what about this? Do you have students at your school sharing with teachers their learning journey, their learning strengths and weaknesses? Or do you have students at your school actually working side-by-side, in this case with a researcher from Johns Hopkins University where they are collecting saliva samples, their own saliva, to look at stress compounds to measure it against peer relationships and academic performance. Look at the smiles on these students’ faces.
And finally, if there’s ever a doubt of who we’re doing this important work for, this is it. The work of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning targets teachers and school leaders. We are here to be a conduit between researchers and schools of what research should be used to inform practice. School design, classroom design and work with individual students.
And ultimately we want to best serve the students that are in front of us, whether it’s in a public school, public charter school or a private school in the United States or throughout the world. And the hope I give everybody out there, it is possible, it is truly possible to establish a research center like ours in your school, to create a position called a research lead and to really professionalize the practice and the commitment your teachers have to being at the cutting edge of education and to best serve their students with their research informed lens. Thanks for the opportunity.
Thank you, Glenn. Thanks. I want to go back to, if I could, I can’t bring that slide back up. But the slide about common language. So science of learning, right? Educational neuroscience, mind/brain education science, how did the schools settle on the mind/brain education science name for your work? And what does that say related to the other terms that are used for this kind of work, too?
A great question, and I think terminology is really critical in this space. So not surprisingly we got hooked into this world when brain-based teaching was really a popular way to express what we might be interested to doing. But we got really great advice, actually, from Dr. Curt Fisher and Christina Hinton at Harvard. And what they said was look, if you say something is based on brain research then you’re really losing a critical element of teaching and learning, and that is the art of teaching.
So they made a great suggestion to us is, you know what? Why don’t you say brain-informed or research informed, or mind/brain education science? Because it honors both the research, but also the art of teaching as well. And you can never be, and there’s no school who I would argue who wants to even claim to be 100 percent research-based or brain-based.
Because the teaching there relies so much on the artistry and the relational trust that we know is critical to the teachers at St. Andrews, but it’s critical to be successful with any student and any school community. So our bias is to say schools should strive to be research-informed and in the field of mind/brain education science.
Got it. Got it. Thank you. Thank you. You know the Alliance is focused on high school students.
And in that slide, right? Fourteen years old, so that’s a ninth grader.
How does a high school student’s brain continues to develop, correct?
So talk a little bit about this work as it relates to tenth graders, eleventh graders, twelfth graders, so on.
Fantastic. So when we work with schools and educators, the one thing we talk about very quickly is the neural myths that are out there. There’s a lot of neural myths that are informing practice, but it also debilitating a teacher’s ability to be more successful with individual students.
And one of the great neural myths that have been around for a long time is that the brain is fixed at a certain age. You might see research that says by 16 you can’t change the brain. Or even earlier the windows have shut permanently for reading and language acquisition. And the really critical research that has been transformed for me as a teacher, I would say today, and I hope my students if they’re listening out there would agree, I’m an exponentially better teacher today than I was five years ago.
And here’s why. The concept of neural plasticity. The good news even for us – I’m gonna be 48 and I don’t know how old –
Don’t ask. Don’t ask.
– you are. But the good news, even at our advanced age, the brain is changeable. It’s harder work for us but the good news for high school students and for teachers of high school students is that if you truly believe in the research around neural plasticity, that even a 14-year-old or 15 or 16-year-old’s brain can be rewired through deliberate practice and research-informed strategies and interventions. That’s greater hope for those students who we sometimes give up on.
And as we think about the education and a quality gap, this is where we argue that knowing more about the brain and learning can help us close any quality gap. Because teachers are gonna be better resourced, better research-informed to serve the teachers in front of them. In particular, high school students who really are trying to figure out, am I gonna finish high school? Am I gonna go to college, which I know I need to be economically competitive in this global market? Or what is my future pathway?
And if they have a teacher that is thinking about their brain and learning, the chances are that they might get through that experience at a higher level and more success.
I think, too, that slide that you had around the issues of stress, right? And particularly for a high school student who is thinking about those next steps, how that stress can be lessened in some manner, or the right stresses to be put on, right?
I have heard you use the term equity pedagogy –
– as it refers to this work.
Expand on that some.
Absolutely, and actually I was gonna use it two seconds ago with your other question. I was introduced to the term by Rodney Glasgow and Rodney Glasgow is a great ally in this work. He’s the head of middle school and really a leader and practitioner in multicultural education for both independent schools and nationally for public schools as well.
And when I first heard this term I was fascinated by it. The concept is the one size fits all model of education I think most of us agree does not work. Why? Because every kid brings different passions, different experiences and a different brain to our classes. So we’ve got to create an educational system, and pedagogical practices that is equitable.
Fair is not always equal. I know Rick Wormeli wrote a book I think around that title, which I’ve always loved the title. But creating an equity pedagogy means we are thinking about all the learnings in our classroom. We are thinking about which kids are struggling in a particular assignment or assessment, which kids have been successful and tailoring our learning environments to support that journey, where they currently are.
And I think my hope is also, though I have not seen it yet in a very advanced way, is I think technology is gonna help us get closer to creating more equity pedagogy in our schools. And that frontier I’m interested in seeing the evolution of for myself as a classroom teacher, I still teach history every day, as well as my colleagues in the larger educational community.
Can I build on that technology question?
So one of the questions that came in for us, and I’ve got a prop here, right? I can pretend I’m doing a text or something like that.
Fair enough, fair enough, fair enough.
Exactly. One of the questions that came in is again about this work and the use of technology, particularly at a high school setting. So either teachers are using tablets or phones in a classroom or students are bringing those in the classroom and using them maybe not for schooling. What does the research say about that as it relates to this neurodevelopmental work?
I would say there’s no greater opportunity, but no greater challenge in education to trying to figure out how technology can either deepen learning or detract from learning. In our book, Neuro Teach, we tried to write a chapter on this. We’re so early in this space around technology.
I think most of us can agree with the amount of screen time, all of us as adults and students have, it is rewiring the brain. It is impacting the brain. The way we’ve gone about thinking about one when we use technology is the threshold doesn’t actually deepen learning. That’s an important threshold. But we know the research that we like to look at around this is around multitasking.
You know, our kids – we have not been able to convince our students at St. Andrews that multitasking is very inefficient way to learn. You are continually making a transaction decision when you switch from maybe you’re writing that great English paper as a high school student, and all of a sudden your text buzzes. So it’s got to be Obama or a future President of the United States who must be texting you and you cannot ignore that text. So you better answer it.
But we know by doing that there’s a transaction cost around that. So you don’t go back to the same spot in that essay where you were. You were actually creating –
Not literally and figuratively, right? You’re just not.
Right. So you’re actually creating more on task homework time because you took that moment to engage with social media. So trying to figure out technology, there’s a great – we just wrote a blog about this. We were talking about a recent Southwest Airline pilot. I think this is a great story for education. And he was talking about how the Southwest Airline trained their pilots in monotasking.
Now that’s good news for me as a Southwest flyer because I don’t want my pilot to be texting and flying. For the same reason when, when we get lost and Siri’s not available, and Bruce Springsteen is blasting on the radio, what’s the first thing we do? We turn off the radio. So one area of mind/brain education science research that I’m fascinated about as it relates to learning and technology is this multitasking phenomena that kids believe they can do. But arguably there’s a cost to do.
Not only about time on task, but I would argue quality of work. So if we can create monotasking learning environments, I would be interested to see what schools can do and what research they can generate around. But I still think we have a lot to learn around technology. I would just say my threshold as a history teacher, if I think it’s gonna deepen learning, use it. I will still say traditional teaching sometimes is still the way to go.
Thank you. Hey, one more question about the deck.
There was your diagram of the process that you’re doing with teachers and with leaders, right?
The teachers I get I can understand the kind of training that they might be going through. Give me a specific example, or give our viewers a specific example of what you imagine leaders to be getting to kind of solidify the work that you want to see in classrooms in a school building.
Right. So I guess this is a memory challenge. I’m asking you to recall a deck and a slide nobody can see. But if you remember the deck, it’s a two-track deck and at its base was level one. The novice level of mind/brain education science research. And if you notice the way the track is set up, every teacher and school leader we argue needs educational neuroscience 101 around growth mindset, emotion and learning, neural myths versus neural truth.
We actually start teachers and school leaders from the same place. The research we’ve done with over thousands of teachers we’ve gotten to work with in five different countries throughout the world is roughly 30 percent of teachers and school leaders where we’ve worked have had what we would believe is significant exposure to mind/brain education science research, whether it’s through independent reading, to attending a conference, undergraduate or graduate work.
And our threshold is roughly around 40 hours of work. Thirty percent tells me that this is the great irony in education today. Teachers and school leaders don’t know enough about the organ of learning. I often joke we know students will bring their brains to each of our classes. They’re gonna forget their homework, they’re gonna forget their laptop or pencil, but they will have their brain.
And whether they use it at an efficient level, an effective level, I believe is a shared authority between the teacher and the school leader. Excuse me, the teacher and the student. But to answer your question a little more precisely, teachers need to know the foundational knowledge of mind/brain education science. School leaders need to know how to honor professional growth in that area, to create professional culture where they honor teachers as researchers, as explorers and innovators.
And I think if schools and school leaders can create that culture for teachers I would actually argue it can attract the next generation of teachers to education because they can see opportunities to be innovative, collaborative and working with research and being at the cutting edge of the field.
Listen, we’ve got a bunch of great questions that came in today. Here was one that came in earlier today. Someone from District of Columbia Public Schools, DCPS, asked about this work and its application to an urban school district and obviously a much larger setting than St. Andrews. And so what are your thoughts on that? A different setting obviously and a much larger setting.
It’s a fair enough question. So we are an independent school – preschool through twelfth grade. Our students pay a significant amount of money to come to the school. The argument I’d like to make is we have a situation where we are much more flexible, nimble and less bureaucratic than any public school in the country pretty much. Probably not charter schools, but traditional public schools.
And the work we are doing, the research we’re doing as we explore ready-made research or do our own research in our school setting is really critical to inform in the different context other school settings. So I would argue that private and public schools working together in this area is really important. So we look at research, we apply the research to our teaching and learning, we write about it in our publication called Think Differently, Deeply or Neuro Teach.
Because we have a strong public purpose. We know it’s serving our students excellently and our faculty excellently. But we want to be part of this educational movement, this mind/brain education science movement. So the DCPS teacher who gave that great question, research takes place in particular context with particular students. And it’s not apples to apples. What we ask you though is look at the research we’ve done with our kids and our contexts and see what it’s like with your kids in your context.
We do know though that we want to get the training to scale, and that’s why creating some of our next big projects around online tools that break geographic and financial barriers, that all schools and all teachers can have access to what we see as the next frontier for excellent teaching and school leadership.
Excellent. Thanks, Glenn. Another audience question, this is kind of like eating your own cooking, right?
I don’t know if you want to do that.
How do you use the neurodevelopmental research that you’re doing when you’re training adults, right? When you’re doing that PD work or you either for your building or when you’re going out. How does that transfer to that work with adults?
Right. So I’m just gonna tell you the greatest mistake our center made, so a decade ago we began this work. We wanted to be research informed and we’re all excited to jump into this. And the number one mistake is we never got a baseline of our faculty.
When we started out in this work, even before we seeded this idea, we never got to know their current and accurate knowledge of mind/brain education science. So one of the starting points that I would encourage any school out there or any school leader or even policymakers who are thinking about how to bring this to scale – data’s important.
Qualitative and quantitative data in education is not easy to collect. It is not easy to term in both correlation and causality. But we think it’s critical when working with teachers in this space that you must use a survey, their knowledge to get a baseline to be able to measure growth. It’s no different than students.
We are constantly trying to measure growth of kids and it’s not easy. It’s subjective, it’s objective, but we really believe for schools who are thinking about this, and that’s what we do. We’ve created surveys, we’ve created with faculty at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, in particular Dr. Christina Hinton out of Johns Hopkins and in particular Dr. Mariale Hardiman to say look, schools. We want to support you in this journey. Our center is here for you. If you can’t come visit to us let’s try to work together in either virtual ways or maybe the old fashioned way by talking on the phone.
Great. Someone had a question earlier. I think this came from Silver Spring, Maryland, specifically about dance. But I wanted to broaden it and just ask about physical activity. So we know from the research that physical activity aids brain growth. But then how do you do that in a school? How do you do that in a classroom?
Right. Well, we know movement’s critical. We know thinking about kinesthetic learning in our classroom settings is tremendous. I think sometimes we’ve got to remind ourselves of our own experience of students in sitting there for a 20, 30, 40-minute lecture and getting uncomfortable.
It’s interesting to me, the schools we get to visit, and when teachers bravely – when I see differentiated seating situations in schools. So I was recently at a school where half the class was literally standing up and the other half wasn’t. There were kids sort of pacing at the back and this was during a discussion of World War I. And I thought, boy this teacher gets it.
In a traditional classroom space she was letting her students choose their way of sitting or moving and didn’t feel like it was a distraction. So some boys and girls were in the back just standing and listening. Some students were actually sort of pacing and some students were just sitting still.
At our school we have an 80-minute block period once a week and one big difference, measurable difference in our school from ten years ago based upon our research is how we build in movement breaks during that 80-minute block or how we create build movement. I loved our AP Psychology teacher had students create a human brain out of just contorting themselves. That kind of movement is certainly curriculum-based. They’re trying to put themselves in positions to look like a brain and create exons and synopses. It was a fabulous exercise that I only heard about recently.
But again, you can build movement and you actually should build movement because we know if adults get stiff from listening to other adults speak, then you’ve gotta believe that the students there, and the brain is probably not getting the learning support it probably needs.
Hot off the press here, Lourdes in Massachusetts asked this question about teaching students. So what does the research say about teaching students who live in poverty or experience trauma, violence or chronic stress? Certainly you talked about stress. Expand upon that a little bit if you can.
When we do workshops at schools I try to make it playful. Adult learners are no different than student learners. We like to have fun, we like to learn. So once in a while I get a question and I recently about a couple of years ago I remember this question. What’s the most important part of the brain? And I thought that was a really interesting question for learning. And obviously I said you know what? One, let’s break a neural myth and both hemispheres of the brain are involved in all learning, not necessarily equally. We use more than ten percent of our brain.
But I often feel what has been transported for me, and I think about students from high poverty areas, or who are experiencing identity threat or who need identity validation that I really always say that that limbic system, that emotional switching station of your brain needs to become part of a teacher’s toolkit and thinking about teaching and learning.
Because if we know elements of the brain like the amygdala – I often joke with my faculty and my students that I love their amygdala. And granted I don’t want to simplify – I never want to simplify that all emotional learning and all emotions take place in one part of the brain. But we should love our students’ amygdala’s. Because we know if we teach students deliberately around the impact emotion has on their ability to be successful students they create an awareness.
And it really goes to sort of Carol Dweck’s worth of trying to foster a growth mindset. I’m really intrigued by the mindfulness work that’s going on in schools and certainly our lower school has dabbled in it. Because how do you get the brain at a calm, proper stressed state when kids are coming from environments where they might not have ate that morning? They might be coming from difficult home situations or who knows what even their living situation is?
I think understanding the emotions, how emotion impacts learning, how identity impacts learning has changed me as an educator. And I would argue it would not have come unless our school had done this deep dive in mind/brain education science research.
And it’s good certainly. And this is something we talked about a little earlier. Before coming on was certainly having teachers recognize that but also helping students to recognize that too when certainly the mindfulness work is that. But having students be able to recognize it and giving them some strategies to deal contain it in some way.
But I would even say it’s really first critical for teachers and school leaders to recognize what impact inner quality has as a student walks through your doors. Again, if my own experience is any indication I didn’t think about that when I started teaching. I love my content. I wanted to deliver my content and that was it. And if a student didn’t eat that morning that wasn’t my responsibility. I’ve learned differently now.
And granted, kids bring different stressors. It could be a divorce family. It could be economic situation. It could be gender. It certainly could be – there’s all these social and cultural impacts and identifiers on learning. But I still believe it starts with getting teachers and school leaders to buy in at a hundred percent rate in an all-in model that this is impacting learning and cognition and ability for students to demonstrate knowledge on tests of understanding and being successful and actually graduating at a higher level.
We’ve only got time for a couple more questions I think. So Russ in Kansas, he wrote this just now. What are some research-based strategies that we should look into first should we focus more at certain age-levels? So I guess it’s like how to get started.
Great question, Russ. I would say, you know what? This might be an over-simplification. We’ve tried to come up with a secret formula for using educational neuroscience and we often say memory plus attention plus engagement equals learning. And I often like to start – we often talk a lot about memory. There is research around memory that every teacher who is listening, every school leader who is listening can do tomorrow.
I’ll make a plug for Mark McDaniel’s great book that he co-authored called Make it Stick. Most of us studied very inefficiently by research ways growing up. We read our highlights. Just reread our notes. When we know research around the spacing effect, interleaving, a really critical self-testing, a really critical and easy strategies to give students to make what we teach stick.
And I understand that teachers are under enormous pressure. And especially public school teachers about meeting state and national standards of learning. And you’re gonna be accountable, and it could impact your salary. So I would argue memory is a very fertile ground that has an amazing amount of replicable research that teachers should be looking at.
The other thing I will say is I often talk to schools when we consult or visit. I would love teachers to always look at how they end their class period. So research around the primacy recency effect and recall and reflection is really critical.
Most teachers that we see in action, and to some extent our teachers on any given day, in class by talking and delivering content and information to the last second as kids are literally moving out of the class. Well we know from research that immediately what you were trying to instill or get into long-term memory, into consolidated memory, actually has no chance to start getting there unless you create forced recall or reflection opportunities.
So we’ve always loved the work of Doug Lemov and his discussion around exit tickets, really building in that exit ticket. That forced recall moment to end class. And finally the one other piece or area that I think is very fertile is reflection. This field of metacognition. How do kids reflect on their learning process?
If I give an essay in history, how are you gonna start it? What do you see as your potential barriers? And looking at the results in my feedback that should come quickly, what worked for you and what not? But I also encourage Russ, give me a call, email me because I would be more than willing to talk further.
Memory, though. Start with Memory. Remember, you think there’s –
I think memory because it really connects well with the pressures teachers face. And in the end they’ve gotta deliver contact, they’ve got to deliver skills, and I think some combination of memory, engagement, things around attention, if you want me to keep going – providing student choice relates to intrinsic motivation. We could have another webinar down the road about this.
Last question from our audience. We’ve had a couple of these actually, so I sort of put it together into one. And this was this issue of a brain-informed approach for students with learning differences.
Sure. Is there a question there?
Yeah, there’s a question. How do you work with those young people in that context, around their differences, again being brain-informed?
I can speak from the experience of our faculty. I would love every teacher and school leader to believe that every student has learning differences, and they do. Every student has, and I really want to use this word very demonstratively, current learning strengths and weaknesses. And I use the word current very deliberately.
Because if we believe in brain plasticity that some of the students’ current weaknesses can become a strength, and some strengths actually if you don’t use them enough, and it might actually become a weakness in the future.
So I think there’s a mindset you must create in that every kid has strengths and weaknesses. Every student learns differently and has learning preferences. Notice I’m not using learning styles and that’s a whole other conversation and one of the great neural myths out there because the learning style theory has never been proven.
Now granted teachers cannot, I argue, until we figure out really how to harness technology, create everyday personal learning pathways on a daily basis. It’s absolutely – maybe it’s possible and I would love to know the teacher out there who can do it and the school that’s doing it really well and there are some who are trying. But boy, if you can figure out the research around multiple modality and instruction, multiple sensory instruction, and that every week I would encourage teachers school yourself.
Are you using multiple modalities? Do an internal audit of your weekly syllabus or your weekly lesson plan. Are you hitting multiple senses in your classroom setting? And we know if you are doing that each week you are honoring the learning differences in your class. Kids are not gonna be successful every day. They’re gonna be stretched and challenged, and we know from research that’s how kids learn.
But there are gonna be moments when kids are gonna have so much success ’cause you really tailored that to their current learning strength or preference.
So that’s it on the questions. But what’s next for the CTTL? Where are you guys gonna be? How can people find out more information about you? What can you tell our viewers?
Absolutely. Thanks for the PR moment – the marketing moment I gather. A couple of things. One is, and I can’t emphasize it enough. We love what we do for our students at St. Andrews, but we have a tremendous public purpose. We want to work with teachers and school leaders internationally who want to be part of the mind/brain education science movement. We’ve fostered great relationships with universities who want to do that with you.
The beauty of writing a book and Neuro Teach just came out in July is that people actually want us to – they don’t just want to read it. They actually want to talk to the authors – myself or my co-author, Dr. Ian Keller. So certainly the book is out there and available.
We also have other publications through the center we make available. We are also gonna be at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas in March. One of our favorite stops is the Learning of the Brain conference. We’ll be in San Francisco.
But regardless of all that, we want to be allies in this work, both with the Alliance and thanks for this opportunity. But really with any teacher or school leader who wants to reach out by email, we want to talk with you. We want to share with you our experience to see what it looks like in your experience because really, doesn’t every student deserve every class period and every school day a teacher and school leader who knows how the brain learns, works and changes? We would say yes and I hope there’s people in this webinar nodding their head in agreement.
This is Glenn’s book here. You can get this on the website, right?
Yeah, and if you’re nice to us we actually might send it for free or for a very low rate.
Excellent, excellent. I really want to thank Glenn for being here today and that’s unfortunately all the time that we have for our discussion. For more information on all of this, on the science of learning, on mind/brain education certainly here at the Alliance you can visit our issues page at all4ed.org/issues. You can also, as I said before, visit the CTTL’s website at thecttl.org and you can get more information there.
I want to thank my friend, Glenn Whitman, for being here today and for his important work. Remember that today’s event will be archived at all4ed.org/webinars, and for all of you who are taking notes furiously we will also have the PowerPoint deck there, which you can get and download yourself.
I’m Abner Oakes for the Alliance for Excellent Education. Thanks so much for joining us today.
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