Post by Glenn Whitman
Like many high schoolers, I at one time I imagined myself a student at Harvard University. Unfortunately, my high school passions and priorities, as well as my grades, stymied the fulfillment of this dream. Thus, as I tell my friends, I went to the Harvard of Pennsylvania, Dickinson College, and chose a different Ivy League school to pursue my graduate degree (Go Green!).
But amidst a very trying time for the city of Boston, I found myself on a flight to Beantown to deepen my understanding of the connection between educational neuroscience and teaching and learning. With my Head of School, Robert Kosasky, I found myself at Harvard where I considered myself, for all intensive purposes, a student for the day.
We were there to learn and share. Our time on the ground in Cambridge included an idea exchange with graduate students in the Mind, Brain and Education Program as well as the School of Education. We shared the recent publication from the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning titled, Think Differently and Deeply, that schools are considering for their faculty’s summer professional development reading. The publication is a series of essays by the St. Andrew’s faculty, coaches and alums that highlight the mission of the CTTL. It also provides proof points in how St. Andrew’s teachers, from preschool through grade 12, takes the latest in research on how the brain learns, and puts it into action in the classroom. The purpose is to educate other educators. In our discussion with the graduate students, we were exposed to the most current research that has shaped their studies. Needless to say, my summer professional development reading list grew exponentially during that time to include titles such as: Lost at School, and Square Pegs and the work of Hunter Gehlback, Stanislas Dehaene, Todd Rose and the web site http://www.learnnow.org.
This discussion was followed by a conversation with arguably “The Godfather of Neuroeducation,” Dr. Kurt Fischer, who in a 2007 article in Mind, Brain, and Education, the professional journal of the International Mind, Brian, and Education Society that he founded, declared, “Research must move beyond the ivory tower into the real-world setting . . .” and that “answering any key questions about mind, brain, and education requires reciprocal interaction between scientific research and practical knowledge of educators and caregivers.” St. Andrew’s collaborative research project with The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine and Education, that included Dr. Douglas Granger, Dr. Mariale Hardiman, and Dr. Luke Rinne, is an important model of how pre-collegiate schools and universities should be working together to better understand all aspects of learning. In the case of this study, Johns Hopkins and St. Andrew’s were looking at the relationship between peer relationships, stress and academic achievement (the results will be available shortly).
So what did we learn during our day at Harvard? We were reminded that the field of neuroeducation remains young and efforts to link science to learning faces skepticism from all stakeholders: the scientists and the classroom teachers. Scientists remain, in my opinion, too concerned that their research will be misinterpreted, misused, and overstated by teachers. On the other hand, the barriers to teachers use of research center around the “perceived importance and comprehensibility of the research,” a point recently highlighted in an article titled, “Mathematics Teacher Educators Perceptions and Use of Cognitive Research” (Mind, Brain, and Education March 2013). We were reminded of the compelling research around the brain’s plasticity that should be in the hands of all educators and shared with all students and the importance of continued exploration around student engagement and effort.
We also learned that the CTTL is an important ally to the work of Dr. Fischer and other scholars whose life work is to better equip all educators with an understanding of how the brain learns. While such work targets the professional development of teachers, the chief beneficiaries are the students whose educational journey deserves the benefits of how much more we know about how the brain learns.