Seniors Step into the Shoes of Teachers: A MBE Research-Informed Final Project

Written by Christina Chalmers’s International Voices Class
Edited by Cristina Anillo and Julia Dean

          St. Andrew’s English teacher Christina Chalmers challenged the seniors in her International Voices elective to integrate Mind, Brain, and Education research into a reflection on their experience working with Chicos and Kids, an organization founded by St. Andrew’s alumna Stephanie Quintero.

          Ms. Chalmers’s students created and executed lesson plans for students at Gaithersburg Elementary School, a multicultural community that includes children from South America, Africa, and the Caribbean. The goals of the trip included serving the community, learning about the teaching process, and understanding the lives of immigrants and their children.

          For their final exam, Ms. Chalmers’s students reflected on how the experience helped them connect themes from the class to the community. In addition, students wrote about their own learning experiences in conjunction with their teaching experiences at Gaithersburg Elementary School. Read the following excerpts to discover the positive impact that Ms. Chalmers, a passionate and hardworking teacher, has on her students:

  • “By being in the shoes of a teacher, I know the effort and energy teachers put in everyday to teach a class. Before this, I really did not consider the directions and curriculum teachers have to design everyday to engage students. I will take this experience to college with me to help understand why teachers do the things they do and the effort they go through to engage you into learning.”
  • “Since my freshman year at SAES, I have seen huge growth in myself and my mindset thanks to my teachers… I have such appreciation for teachers that enjoy their job.  I believe that a good teacher is what makes the class, and as a student, I tend to work harder depending on if I like the teacher or not.  I do think that being a research informed student helps because it allows one to learn the limits of how much your brain can do and also shows just how amazing the human brain is.”

  • “There have been some strategies that some of my teachers used here at SAES that have helped me understand information while actually absorbing the information that is presented to me. For example, in a history class, my teacher used a PowerPoint presentation with pictures to try to explain information about a concept. I found this to be helpful because not only was I gaining information from the bullet points of information along with the pictures, but the visuals were helping me keep and remember the information from the PowerPoint… Now I appreciate my teachers and what they do more because I now see how hard it can be for them sometimes. Being a research informed student-teacher will help me as a college student because it will help me think more analytically and quickly when solving problems.”

  • “In the weeks preceding my lesson, I was very nervous and not keen on teaching a lesson mostly because I was not sure what to expect. Would the kids respect me? Would they like me? Would they pay attention to me? Did they even want to be there? Once I got the lesson with my first group out of the way, all my nerves, questions, and concerns vanished. With each group, I got better at teaching the lesson. One challenge I faced early on was keeping the kids engaged. However, I was able to solve this problem for the most part by participating in the activity, allowing me to be more engaged with them.”

  • “In ‘Infusing Psychological Science into Curriculum’ one researcher writes, ‘Should teachers be concerned with their students’ ability to learn? The answer to that question depends on a teacher’s belief about the primary goal of teaching… If a teacher believes that the goal of teaching is to develop student understanding, then whether and how students learn is a major concern.’ Teachers that believe the goal of teaching is to develop understanding are the teachers I’ve personally found myself learning the most from both in a classroom setting and a musical environment.”

  • “[One] interaction I had with a student was with a little girl who was absolutely silent. When I noticed that she was not talking to others in her group, I asked if she was ok, and if she knew what the directions were. When I asked the question she responded “yes” and showed me her work sheet, which was completely filled out with reasons why people should vote for her. This interaction gave me the knowledge that every kid is different when it comes to working in groups.”

  • “This experience really opened my eyes to how important teachers are in the world of education. According to the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), after the students themselves, teachers are the next greatest source of variance that can make a difference in a student’s achievement. Therefore, we need to ‘direct [our] attention at higher quality teaching, and higher expectations that students can meet appropriate challenges.’ Although, following this experience, I gained a greater appreciation for teachers and the role they play in shaping the youth, moving forward, I still am not likely to consider ever becoming a school teacher. However, I will move onto the next stage of life being a research informed student-teacher. This knowledge will aid my growth and ability to better communicate with my professors as I become a college student next fall.”

          Ms. Chalmers’s students appreciated this positive experience; they not only learned about the different voices in the community, but they also gained appreciation for the teaching profession and Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) science.  By employing their metacognitive skills, the students bridged the gap between MBE research and the classroom.  This experiential learning opportunity with Chicos and Kids allowed seniors to reflect on their service learning experience through a MBE lens while directly applying themes from their International Voices class with Ms. Chalmers, an educator who routinely integrates research into the classroom.

What the CTTL is Reading This Summer: 2017? (Our Top Ten)


One of the great myths about teachers is that they do not work during the summer. Certainly teachers at schools that have recognized the need for classes to meet more than the magic number of 180 days, or year-round schools, would loudly disagree with this perception that is rooted in the outdated way in which the American school year was designed around the farming calendar (see also “The Myths of Having Summers Off” from Edutopia).

But in fact, the most dedicated teachers and school leaders need summer days to engage in what might be both considered a luxury as well as a necessity to advance their thinking about teaching and learning. The opportunity for uninterrupted time to read, to learn from others, and then to return to school with new lenses in which to design their programs, classes and work with each individual student is important professional development for teachers and school leaders.

So, what is on the CTTL’s Summer reading list to enhance individual teacher’s understanding of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) Science research? The exciting news is that there continues to be a growing body of literature from various stakeholders in education: teachers, researchers, and policymakers that are translating MBE research into actionable strategies that teachers’ and students’ work should be informed by.

The CTTL’s hypothesis is that until teachers and school leaders understand how the brain learns, works, and changes, each individual student will not meet his or her full potential. We also have learned from our work with public, public-charter, state and private schools in the United States and abroad that few teachers have met our threshold for foundational knowledge, skills, and mindsets in MBE Science. Reading is a great next step to close the gap between where teachers and school leaders currently are in their MBE Science professional development journey and where they should be. Let us know what you are reading on twitter @thecttl and we welcome you to sign-up for a free subscription to the CTTL’s monthly newsletter “The Bridge”.

Screen Shot 2017-05-17 at 11.25.59 AM.pngNeuroteach: Let’s get the obvious, self-serving selection out of the way. Neuroteach was written by the Director and the Head of Research for the CTTL. So, while this suggestion is 100% biased, it is also 100% serving what many teachers are yearning for, a book written by classroom teachers that seeks to translate research into next day applications. The idea for Neuroteach was inspired by Toni Morrison who once wrote, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”

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Learn Better: Ulrich Boser’s hot off the press book validates what we have come to learn about memory (thanks Peter Brown, Mark McDaniel, and Henry Roediger for Make It Stick). It provides strategies for students, teachers, parents, and policymakers to better think about the science behind learning and its implications for the daily lives of students and how we think about the future of teaching, learning, and schools.


Screen Shot 2017-05-17 at 11.26.52 AMMaking Good Progress? This book was recommended by our friends in the U.K. who lead EvidencedBased Education. Simply put, they said this is their “go to” for rethinking of assessment. That was enough for us to buy it, read it, and begin to consider it in how we think about assessment for our students at St. Andrew’s.



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Overloaded and Unprepared: While this is the oldest book on our list (published in 2015) it was very influential as our school undertook an analysis and revision of its daily schedule this year. It forced us to address the question: “How do schools set a high and appropriately challenging academic bar while being mindful of students’ well-being and anxiety levels?” We also had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Pope at Stanford earlier in 2017 and we left thinking that if teachers and school leaders have not yet read her book, then they should.

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Leadership for Teacher Learning: We first became familiar with Dylan William’s work through researchEd and have found his work to be a much-needed lens into thinking about teaching and, in the case of this book, leadership.




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Clever Lands: We have been awaiting the arrival of this book ever since we saw Lucy Crehan present at the Wellington College Festival of Education in 2015. Lucy’s on the ground research and lived in experiences with teachers in countries like Finland, Japan, and Singapore will force all readers out of a local, state, or even national thinking about education. Cleverlands is a reminder that the evidence base for teachers, school leaders, and policymakers is a global one and we can look beyond our shores to find evidence of what works to enhance teacher quality and student learning. If only we all had the courage, and time, to take a journey like Lucy’s.


Screen Shot 2017-05-17 at 11.34.48 AM.pngThe ABCs of How We Learn: Before reading this book from a team at Stanford University led by Dr. Daniel Schwartz, Jessica Tsang, and Kristen Blair, a fun challenge would be to consider what you or your colleagues think each of the letters of the alphabet will stand for. Then check your work by diving into this very accessible book that will provide you with 26 fresh ways to look at your teaching and learning and your school.


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Visible Learning in Action: While not the most recent of Hattie’s books, the case studies are a great way to look at his larger meta-studies. We finally had the chance to observe Dr. Hattie present at the 2017 Learning & the Brain Conference in San Francisco. While hearing first-hand about his research methods and conclusions was exciting, so was his “Kenny Rogers” approach to teaching and learning strategies.


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The Teaching Brain:  We quickly became a fan of Dr. Rodriguez’s work as she forced us to give as much consideration to each individual teacher’s brain as educators give each individual student’s brain. Dr. Rodriguez’s book grew out of her doctoral work at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and Dr. Kurt Fischer’s dynamic skill theory model.



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Emotions, Learnings, and the Brain:  One of the most important Mind, Brain, and Education science concepts that teachers and school leaders need to be informed by is the connection between emotion and cognition. That is what makes Dr. Immordino-Yang’s book so important. It is incredibly well-researched and includes the opening chapter, “Why Emotions Are Integral to Learning,” which should be required reading for educators. This book is equally important as we consider both the student learner and the adult learner within all educational settings.

Some interesting research papers:

There is scant time for teachers and school leaders to read research studies during the flow of the school year. Most teachers do not have the training to read research articles, and one article read out of context of the field of research as a whole is a dangerous activity we should avoid. But in the same way we ask students to stretch themselves to take on achievable difficulties, teachers should use the summer to work their way through ONE meta-study that aggregates and discusses multiple studies in one area. Here are some of our very accessible suggestions and pass ones you like along to us.

Spaced Practice: One of the Keys to a Student’s Final Exam/Project Preparation

In less than 3 weeks, each individual 6th through 12th grade student will share his or her knowledge and skills acquired for each of his or her courses via a final exam or project. Beginning next week, St. Andrew’s students will receive final exam review sheets, project guidelines, or rubrics from their teachers. This is the official commencement of the first of three distinct parts of the final exam period at St. Andrew’s (noted in green on the calendar).

The second distinct period, one that every current and former student (parents, that’s you) has firsthand knowledge of, is completing the exam or project itself (noted in orange on the calendar). However, far too many schools equate the exam with the end of the school year, which certainly was the case for St. Andrew’s until last year.

But instead of just receiving a final exam grade two weeks later, St. Andrew’s students have the opportunity to reflect and receive feedback from each of their teachers on their performance during four final class periods (noted in blue on the calendar).

This decision is informed by research from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring and others in the Mind, Brain, and Education Science field, which suggests that developing a student’s ability to think metacognitively and to receive timely feedback on assessment performance are some of the “biggest bangs for the buck” to deepen learning (more about the exam feedback period will be available in a future newsletter and CTTL blog post).


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What students do with the review sheets is a critical step in their preparation for exams and provides an opportunity for students and parents to talk about the research-informed strategy of spaced practice (as opposed to “massed practice,” better known as cramming).

Using this final exam period schedule, students should layout how they will space their practice and preparation for their exams and projects. Although it can be expected that students will study the night before each of their assessments, their preparation should not be limited to cramming. While at times the cramming strategy might be beneficial for the short run, it also contributes to increased stress and the likelihood that what was memorized will not be there when called upon under a stressful exam situation. 

Think about designing a 10-day period by spacing out what exams students study for on a particular night. It could look something like this:



or, to prepare for more than one class at a time, the spaced practice over nine-days could look like this:


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After setting a spaced practice preparation schedule, students should consider the following strategies as they consolidate, and further embed into memory, the skills and knowledge they have learned this year:

  • Retrieval practice: Always begin each study session with this strategy. Have your child take out a piece of paper and write and sketch what he/she knows (“dual coding” of words plus pictures may help, depending on the subject and student – students can experiment with it and see what works for them).
  • Flashcards (Handwritten or Quizlet): Most students usually use the cards incorrectly. They flip them over too quickly, creating a false sense of understanding. One important tip: students should not turn over the card to check for an answer unless they have deliberately considered the answer. The not-knowing-struggle-pause is the crucial step.
  • Self-testing: Encourage your child to use review sheets, check the posted answer guide, check notes where understanding is unclear, and check in with the teacher if questions or uncertainties remain.

In addition to students independently figuring out what works best for them, the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning is a resource for all students looking for strategies to help make themselves more efficient, confident, independent, and successful learners. Encourage your students to stop by!


Retrieve, Recall, Reflect and Refine: Preparing for Exams/Projects…NOW: A Blog Post on How to Make Learning Last


Written by Glenn Whitman and Dr. Ian Kelleher

As the weather warms and students see that they are in the home stretch of the school year, their brains and the brains of their teachers are starting to think about summer. At the same time, we realize at St. Andrew’s and many schools around the world that significant stressors await: national and state assessments of learning as well as school and teacher-designed final exams and projects.

The longstanding tradition of summative assessment final exams as the way to measure a student’s cumulative understanding remains a common pedagogical practice. When we first got to St. Andrew’s, we provided students with two sets of exams, one just before Thanksgiving and the other at the end of the year (we now only give one set of exams for yearlong courses). Like many schools, we have deliberated over the proper number and placement of exams. But for what reasons? We think there should be two goals of summative assessments: to maximize the learning of new knowledge and skills and to best develop students’ exam/project taking skills (since exams will be a feature of most of our students’ higher education lives).

What is the purpose of exams? The traditional responses include to: “know what students know” and “see how well students can recall a larger body of material.” But, at best, students demonstrate such knowledge and understanding for the short term. Part of the unspoken game of exams is that students routinely expunge all this from their brain the moment they leave the exam room. UCLA psychology professor Robert Bjork calls this “accessibility,” and it is a pointless goal for a year-long arduous, emotional journey in a class.

Learning is different from accessibility. Learning involves creating durable and flexible knowledge that students are able to use in novel contexts. If we want exams to be related to learning rather than accessibility, what can we do differently?

A research-informed experience every teacher who is designing a final exam or project should consider is one school’s approach after having students take final exams in June. The following September they gave the students the exam again, unannounced this time. But the teachers pared the exam down to the crucial, big-picture elements they absolutely hoped students would have taken from the course. Even with this tweak, the results, as you might guess, were disheartening. Most students failed, and the average was 58%. Should we have expected anything more?

But research suggests that there might be a better way to approach cumulative assessments. And, with one month before AP exams, and two months before final exams and projects, we propose a new way of thinking about final exams and suggest the following research-informed strategies as ways to have students strengthen their neural networks. One hope for this work is that it will reduce student exam stress, which, as the connection between cognition and emotion shows, can contribute to a student’s poor performance, even if he or she studied for the assessment.

Beginning a final exam/project development review/preparation period two weeks before exams commence, the current policy at St. Andrew’s, is not enough. In fact, if we consider MBE science and research around memory, the weeks ahead provide excellent opportunities to make the spacing effect, retrieval practice, and formative assessment common occurrences in our classes. So here are some suggestions:

1. Determine the essential knowledge and skills you want students to know and demonstrate on a final exam or project. As you ponder the 3-5 essential understandings and the content that underpins those understandings, consider seeing your students twenty years from now and what you hope stuck in their brains from your class.

2. Inspired by a recent Tweet from Learning Scientists (@acethattest, create a one-month (for AP Exams) or two-month (final exams/projects) calendar that includes daily content or skills you want students to recall at the beginning of each class with a quick, written or online formative assessment. Another tweet-inspired idea from Brad Dale (@bradjdale) 24-hours before the finals of the NCAA women’s and men’s basketball championships is to create a bracket of content you want students to recall and have students discuss a matchup or two per day. Start with your #1 seeds. What would they be for a set of world history events, math formulas, or elements on the Periodic Table (imagine H going up against Fe)?

3. If you already have taught some of the knowledge and skills that you will assess on the final exam, start providing students opportunities to see how much they have retained and can recall through weekly, or even daily, short formative assessments. As a reminder, a formative assessment is one in which students get to see where they are, you get to see where they are, and you both do things differently as a result of this insight. One practical guideline for formative assessments is to give them the lowest grade point value possible for students to engage deeply with the task. As St. Andrew’s biology teacher Phyllis Robinson said, “Right now students in my AP Bio class would do anything for two points.”

4. For those teachers giving alternative exams or projects, use these recall opportunities to prime a student’s brain for the type of content, creativity, connections, and skills you want them to demonstrate.

5. As you work through the final third of the school year and introduce new content and skills to students, find ways for students to “hang” prior knowledge onto that new knowledge. For example, as students study the Korean and Vietnam Wars in history class, a teacher will have them review the causes of the previous wars they have studied that year to find points of intersection and departure. For example, it seems ships are always a common theme: remember the Merrimack and the Monitor, The Maine, Lusitania, and Pearl Harbor and the Maddox?

6. Teach students important memory strategies such as:

– Flashcards: Most students usually use the cards incorrectly. They flip them over too quickly, creating a false sense of understanding. One important tip: students should not turn over the card to check for an answer unless they have deliberately considered their response. The not-knowing-struggle-pause is the crucial step.

– Self-testing: Use review sheets, check the posted answer guide, check your notes where understanding is unclear, and check in with the teacher if questions or uncertainties remain.

– Retrieval practice: Take out a piece of paper and write and sketch what you know (“dual coding” of words plus pictures may help, depending on the subject and student – have kids experiment with it). Or create a post-it note organizational masterpiece. As with self-testing, check with notes afterwards and see the teacher if necessary. In the words of Dr. Judy Willis, who worked with St. Andrew’s teachers in 2014, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

7. Interleave new material with recap blasts of older material. Where it fits naturally, “spiral” by building on previous knowledge, though this is not always essential. For example, see the diagram below for an illustration of how spaced learning can look differently from massed learning.

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Research suggests that spaced review leads to higher test scores and longer term retention of learning than massed studying, as shown in the diagram below.

8. John Hattie’s giant meta-study of 300 million students found that the most important aspect of successful learning is to use the right strategy at the right time. So what exam preparation strategies work for each individual student? Have students go into Schoology, or your Learning Management System (LMS) equivalent, to see how they reflected on the exam or project from the previous year. Focus here on the strategies, not the grade, and what can be gleaned from prior experience.

9. When writing review questions, try alternating questions for students to do with worked example answers. Research suggests that this pattern improves learning.

10. Try this: two or three weeks prior to your final exam or project, provide students a giant formative assessment in the form of a “mock” exam. We see this as a game changer for how students prepare for exams, how teachers grade final exams, and how feedback is given. Such an assessment would do three critically important things:

    • allow the teacher to know what students know and don’t know (and thus bring focus to review sessions)
    • allow the student to know where he or she is currently with the material
    • allow both the teacher and student to do something different ahead of the exam

It means that the teacher can give feedback at a point in time when students can actually choose to make good use of it. All the ‘red pen’ on final exams is perhaps the least ‘bang for your buck’, and greatest waste of effort, that teachers do. So let’s cut it out. Also, by this point in the year, we should be aiming to give students less detailed feedback –leaving them to put in the thinking to fix their mistakes, using their notes and then their teacher when necessary. By the end of the year, we want our students to have taken a step forward in being independent thinkers and strong self-advocates, so let’s incentivize this in the exams.

Although giving students a mock exam may seem like “giving the test away,” that is, in fact, the whole point of the mock exam since our goal is for students to see where they are, where they need to get to, and what they need to do before the exam. We believe a mock exam could even work as a lead-in to a final project.

If you feel that giving a mock exam would be too much of a giveaway, we suggest you rethink the content of your exam: does it weigh too heavily on surface knowledge rather than the deep thinking that we want students to engage in? A great exam will require that magic mix of surface knowledge and deep thinking of our students.

As teachers, we are passionate about our subject and would love for as much knowledge and skills to stick with our students as possible. Instead of bemoaning our students’ amazing ability to forget, let’s work strategically to help make durable learning happen. Make the spacing effect, retrieval practice, and formative assessment your friends this spring. So when we ask students who LBJ was, they will be more likely to say Lyndon Baines Johnson than Lebron James.

For more research-informed ideas, follow the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning on Twitter @thecttl and sign up here for The Bridge, the monthly newsletter of the CTTL.  Each month The Bridge analyzes a specific aspect of teaching and learning through a Mind, Brain and Education Science research-informed lens.

A History Student Recall


By Glenn Whitman, Director of the CTTL

Attention. Calling each of my former students. Come back. Whether it was geography 6, AP United States History, Historical Methods, or United States/European History since 1860, I ask you to clear your schedules for a year to return to St. Andrew’s to retake my class.

This student recall is not because you were poorly taught one, five, or twenty years ago. Most of you did well because of your work ethic, and this was before any of us had heard of Carol Dweck’s research around growth mindset or Angela Duckworth’s work around grit. You successfully drew a world map by heart, scored high on AP exams, and produced essays or oral history projects that met the scholarly standards of each assignment.

But this is why you should disrupt what you are currently doing to return to your alma mater for another year of history. I am an exponentially better teacher today than I was when I first taught history in 1991, and I can also say I am a better teacher today than even five years ago. Yes, I know the content of my course really well. That naturally comes from teaching the same class multiple times as well as from a deliberate focus on growing my content understanding through research and reading. In fact, as I write this I have just finished reading Lincoln’s Sword, a book not only about Lincoln’s greatest speeches, but also his speech writing process. When I ask students to write, I often encourage them to “channel their inner Abe Lincoln.” Next year, and in subsequent years, I will be better able to guide them to this threshold based upon my deepened content understanding. My future students will thus be better served during our study of the Civil War as well as taught to be more efficient, confident users of language to articulate their interpretations of the past.

While the improvement in my content understanding is measurable, what my former students would most benefit from is the improvement in my understanding of the learning brain, how it works, learns, and thrives. This has only been possible because my colleagues at St. Andrew’s and I have been part of a professional development journey unlike any other.

When St. Andrew’s committed to training and providing professional development in Mind, Brain, and Education science to 100% of its then, 6th through 12th grade faculty and now Preschool through 12th grade faculty, none of us knew where it would lead the school or each individual teacher. Ask almost any public or private school teacher about the introduction of a new initiative to enhance teacher quality, student achievement and to close the education inequality gap and you will certainly get a smirk and a story about surviving the latest education fad only to be replaced by another one.

But why does this MBE science professional development initiative have such enduring power at St. Andrew’s? Look at our mission: “To know and inspire each student in an inclusive community dedicated to exceptional teaching, learning, and service.” Any definition of exceptional teaching and learning must require teachers and students to understand the learning brain. Until teachers and school leaders develop their Mind, Brain, and Education Science knowledge, skills and mindsets, their students will not meet their full potential in school.

I am confident that a student will never forget his or her brain for class. However, I am less confident of whether a student uses his or her brain effectively during a class period. I used to think that if a student was not learning, then that was because the student was not trying and that the burden of learning was on the student, not me. I taught the history; afterwards, it was each student’s responsibility to learn it. But now I know that for learning to happen, a teacher and student must share authority for whether something will end up being received, filtered, and then recalled by a student’s brain.

So for my former students, who I am asking to return so I can provide you an even better history class experience, what can you expect? First, I have a better awareness of how emotions, sleep, and identity impact cognitive functions. Remember that time you pulled the “all-nighter” for the Cold War Period LOPP (I use the term LOPP instead of test, quiz or exam), but the next morning you could not recall so much of what you tried to imbed in your long term memory? For the visual artists I taught, I have created assessments that will allow you to use those strengths to demonstrate your knowledge of historical events. And yes, the amount of homework I give has decreased, and I would like to think that the homework is not only less, but also it is better. Need to memorize history terms? I will no longer merely suggest that you use flashcards but rather have you consider applying the testing and spacing effect to your study strategies while I provide you more formative assessments to practice recalling the three S’s of the Civil War Period, the five I’s of the Progressive Period, or the 12 causes of the Great Depression. In addition, we will follow-up a summative assessment with “test” corrections, and meta-cognition opportunities to reflect on your current strengths and weaknesses before moving on to the next unit.

And here is the good news, I assume you will enjoy even more success in my class. But, if your new grade does not surpass that of your old, we will keep the original grade on your transcript. Regardless, your experience will be that much better and when asked at a social event, “Who was LBJ?”instead of saying LeBron James, you will be able to recall the complex presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

So former students, what do you say?

It ain’t what you know it’s… oh, no, sorry, it is what you know. The Foundation of Learning is Knowledge

Written by Ian Kelleher,

edited by Julia Dean and Molly Magner


               I sense that the tide is beginning to turn on the debate over whether to prioritize knowledge or skills, ’21st Century’ or otherwise. There is an increasingly confident voice shouting a phrase that educators have shouted for thousands of years: knowledge is essential. Even in this Google-able world, students need a sturdy foundation of knowledge to become critical thinkers.

With this edition of “The Bridge,” we as evidence-informed professionals boldly provide an epistemic nudge: an argument for the importance of knowledge that includes research-informed ideas for teachers on how to build knowledge and make it stick.

I recently heard Robert Pondisco, senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, speak at ResearchED DC on the importance of a re-commitment to teaching knowledge. During his talk, Pondisco eloquently painted the picture of President Obama during his first Inaugural Address, gazing down the length of the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. declared his dream to the nation just over fifty years ago. In this clip, Obama describes the sacrifices and struggles of past Americans that led to Obama’s inauguration: a monumental moment in American history.

After showing this clip, Pondisco posed the following questions: what knowledge do children need to have to understand the significance of Obama’s words at this moment in time? Do they have this knowledge? How would they have received this knowledge? Who might have it and who might not? How does this fit into the existing inequality gap? Pondisco’s thought experiment provokes us to think of knowledge as a critical base for the analytical thinking skills that we strive to teach our students. That being said, what can we do to help our students have a solid basis of knowledge?

1) Acknowledge the limits of active working memory

Active working memory can hold fewer things for less time than most people realize. Though it is hard to measure, 7 things for 30 seconds for adults is a well-agreed-upon estimate. For children the numbers are lower. There is a trade off too; we can hold more things but for progressively less time. Having knowledge stored in long-term memory frees up the active working memory to more effectively help with higher order thinking tasks. In other words, having stored knowledge helps us think.

2) Teach for stickiness

Whether we are teaching with a focus on direct instruction or with a focus on projects, we need to get content knowledge to stick in long-term memory. Fortunately, there is robust research to guide us that suggests both things we should and should not do.

Things to encourage students NOT to do

(1) Reread notes 

A trip down the aisles in Staples confirms what we already know – students love highlighters and markers. But research suggests that the staple of studying, rereading notes or the textbook, is a terrible, ineffective way to study. It tends to lead to what Brown, Reedier and McDaniel call “the illusion of fluency,” in which students become so familiar with the text that they believe they know it before they actually do.

(2) Misuse flashcards

Similarly, students tend to misuse flashcards, turning them over too quickly to see the answer. The key advantage of using flashcards is the process of deep pondering to try and figure the problem out, even if that proves to be a difficult task.

Things to encourage students to do

(1) Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice is the idea of trying to recall knowledge from memory. Even if a student is unable to recollect information, research suggests that the act of trying helps memory storage and recall. Retrieval practice can take many forms: self-testing, proper use of flashcards or online tools such as Quizlet, or taking a sheet of paper and writing out everything you know on a subject. The key is having students try deeply to recall, then check their work against their notes or model answers.

(2) Spaced studying

There is great research around the spacing effect, which entails studying, leaving a gap of time, then studying again. As educators, we can encourage students to space their studying rather than rely on massed studying, which does not lead to durable learning. Allowing your memory to become a bit rusty between study sessions makes the next study session more challenging, but in doing so, it helps create knowledge that is both more durable and more flexible. This is a concept that Clark and Bjork call “desirable difficulty.” But what is the optimal spacing gap for your students, your subject, and the content you are teaching? Embark on your own learning adventure to discover the ways in which spacing can work best for your classes.

Things for us to do as educators

(1) Formative assessments

Replace pop quizzes with no- or low-stakes formative assessments. As you give them, say something along the lines of, “This is for you to figure out where you are, for me to figure out where you are, and for us both to adjust what we do accordingly.” More of the brain restructuring associated with learning occurs when we struggle and when we get things wrong; therefore, we need to craft no- or low stress opportunities for students to make mistakes from which they can learn.

(2) Interleaving

Interleaving is a way to deliberately build the spacing effect into how you design your courses. Instead of starting the year with unit one, followed, perhaps, by unit two then unit three, there is an alternative way to organize your courses that will promote learning. After moving on to a new unit, plan on revisiting the core knowledge at least a few more times at spaced intervals later on in the year.

(3) Pre-testing

“Research suggests that starting a unit of study with a pre-test helps creates more enduring learning. It appears to give students something on which to hang subsequent information. This test should, of course, not be graded, or if it is, it should be graded for effort rather than correctness. The other point of this pre-test is to give the teacher an idea of where the level of the class generally is, and what knowledge each individual student brings with them already, so that the teacher can tailor subsequent classes to best match the needs of the class. It is important to avoid seeding boredom, and to avoid the potential skipping of foundational knowledge that could prevent future learning. These are two common toxic effects on learning.”

(4) Acknowledge Deficiencies in Project based learning (PBL)

PBL appears to have “silver bullet” status as a transformative teaching technique, but the actual evidence on its effectiveness is shaky. An excellent review of the literature can be found in the Education Endowment Foundation’s recently released report on the results of a large randomized control trial on PBL. Two key areas where support is crucial are knowledge building and executive functioning building:

“Balancing didactic instruction with independent inquiry will ensure that pupils develop a certain level of knowledge and skills allowing them to comfortably engage in independent work.”

“Student support: pupils need to be effectively guided and supported; emphasis should be given on effective time management and student self-management”

Without this support, PBL may actually contribute to the achievement gap as students from disadvantaged backgrounds often enter with deficiencies in knowledge and skills that are necessary to succeed on projects.

This echoes the work of Paul Kirscher (twitter: @P_A_Kirschner  -one of the great voices in research on education that you perhaps have not heard of)., Although unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, the point is made that these approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century that consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide “internal” guidance.

We may still decide to use project based learning to teach a range of different skills or to increase engagement – though this may only work if we expertly craft the project by incorporating factors such as student choice, relevancy to their lives, or empathy. However, research suggests that when we choose to do project based learning rather than direct instruction, an amount of direct instruction teaching that focuses on knowledge building is still important for students to gain sufficient knowledge so that they can grapple meaningfully with the project. In other words, even when we do projects, we need to begin them by explicitly teaching key knowledge in ways in which it will stick. Part of pedagogical content knowledge, that highly interlinked combination of subject knowledge and how to teach it, is to know exactly what knowledge-scaffolding students need to successfully launch into a project. If we want to create great projects, we also need to be great at teaching knowledge – and great at discerning what knowledge that needs to be.

A thought on how this links to assessment

Since I was a little kid, I have always enjoyed words. Some are more fun to play with than others, of course, but one of the best is ‘facile.’ We often use it to refer to someone who appears to be so good at something they do it with an effortless ease. But it’s more nuanced meaning is to refer to a demonstration of thinking that at first glance seems neat, concise and elegant, but which on closer inspection is only neat, concise and elegant because it is over simplistic, itself lacking in nuanced details.

The writing of this article has inspired a future one that needs to be written: how do we avoid facile demonstrations of knowledge by our students? How do we craft assessments that steer students away from this? Or, as Rob Coe and David Didau put it in their musings on a very simple theory of learning, where will students think hard in this lesson? But in the time before this article is written, I encourage you to explore this idea yourself. If you have ideas as to what should go in such an article, please let us know.

Interested in participating in our professional development adventure this summer? Click here for information regarding the Science of Teaching and School Leadership Academy, a five-day workshop co-designed by the CTTL and individual faculty from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and the Johns Hopkins University Science of Learning Institute.

Follow the Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning on twitter: @thecttl

1.  Thank you Troy Dahlke for this playful term2.

3.  Clark, C. M., & Bjork, R. A. (2014). When and why introducing difficulties and errors can enhance instruction. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying the Science of Learning in Education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum.  Retrievable from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

4. Whitman and Kelleher (2016). Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education


Modeling the Research: Bringing Play, Challenge, and Engagement to Teacher Professional Development

The greatest irony of the professional development opportunities that focus on the learning brain is the disconnect between the research and how it is delivered to the adult learner audience.

So when we were invited to speak at the November 2016 Learning & the Brain Conference, we hoped to model the research we were sharing, to create a research-informed professional development session that honored how much we know about how the brain learns, works, and thrives.

There are two brains that always need to be considered in every school: the adult brain and the student brain. Because of brain plasticity, we can confidently say that both are changeable, though there are more sensitive periods of brain plasticity in the early years of life.

But the dilemma my colleague and co-author or Neuroteach Dr. Ian Kelleher and I faced was how to honor the overall theme of the conference “Engaged, Empowered Minds” while presenting a keynote address in an enormous ballroom space filled with 6 sections aligned in 16 rows of 12 seats each.

For the first two days of the conference, leading thinkers in Mind, Brain, and Education Science including Howard Gardner, Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Tony Wagner, Ron Berger and Zoe Weil shared important research, perspectives, and experiences with the audience. They recounted stories and models of how teachers and schools are using brain science to educate ethical 21st century citizens and problem solvers.  Teachers were given opportunities to turn and talk and to laugh, as well as a few moments to consider the implications of what they were hearing for how they design schools and classrooms and work with each individual student.

When it was our turn to take the big stage as the last keynote speakers for this three-day event, we knew we had to create a professional learning session that aligned with how Ian, our colleagues and I design our classes at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School each day. As we prepared, we pondered the question: “Is it possible in a ballroom setting to provide teachers a design challenge: to build the tallest, free-standing tower with 25 straws and one piece of tape?” We knew there were risks involved in this idea and that there was a high probability that this activity might fail. But since we talk about failure and struggle as critical to learning, shouldn’t we model it in our presentation?

So we went for it. As the images below attest, it worked. We used this activity to have participants consider the question, “What demand did this design challenge place on your brain?” We conducted a similar activity with our colleagues at St. Andrew’s as a playful way to begin developing a language and a mindset around being a Mind, Brain, and Education Science research-informed teacher or school leader.

In addition to this activity we also knew that for our presentation around “An MBE Research-Informed Pathway for Purposeful Teaching, Learning, and Thinking” to stick that participants needed a chance to actively retrieve what they heard and experienced during our one-hour and fifteen-minute session. The “Exit Ticket” we provided was informed by the research of Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, and we were seeking to address one of the remaining unconscionable practices that permeate schools today. Too often, teachers teach to the last minute of a class period. While students are packing up, teachers are still giving new instructions. However, what we hope to see is more teachers using the final minutes of class for students to begin to reflect on the content and skills for that class period, to begin using that knowledge and experience to share what they know or don’t know and for that to be data for the teacher to use in the design of the next class period.

We are grateful to the Learning & the Brain Society for the invitation to share the work of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning with an eager audience of teachers, school leaders, policymakers, counselors and more. We appreciate all those who engaged with us during our session that is truly only valuable if some element of the research and strategies we shared actually inform participants’ work with students. But what we also hope is that our risky idea to create a design challenge for 1000 educators in a space that was not conducive to such a task becomes the norm for how we professionally develop educators. Let’s not just share the research, let’s do the research. Teachers, like students, learn best through play, collaboration, challenge, support and fun. The smiles presented in the following series of images from our session suggest what is possible for how we can develop more Mind, Brain, and Education Science research-informed educators.