Post by Glenn Whitman
An op-ed piece in the recent Mane news posed an important question for our school community: “Is the CTTL really that transformative?” My answer, as director of the nearly two-year old Center, can be found in the title above.
Whether it is in the classroom, on the athletic field, or the stage, the one tool that every student brings to each of these experiences is their brain, the three-pound organ of learning. It should therefore go without saying that all teachers have a strong understanding of the architecture of the brain, how it receives, filters, and uses the large amount of information students, athletes and artists are exposed to each day.
The fact is, that most teachers know little about how the brain learns. The principles and strategies of neuroeducation are not a mandated part of teaching education programs. They should be. Therefore, St. Andrew’s decision to establish a center that ensures that 100% of its pre-school through twelfth grade teachers have research and on-going training in educational neruoscience is transforming how teachers think about how learning happens. This decision puts St. Andrew’s at the forefront of connecting research in education, cognitive science, and behavioral psychology to the classroom and has allowed the school to become a nationally recognized leader of such work. However while the work of the CTTL targets the professional development of all teachers, the chief beneficiaries of this work are the students.
Therefore, I was happy, but quite surprised, to open the recent edition of the Mane news to see one student’s assessment of the work of the CTTL. If, in the immortal words of Mr. Holden, we are “doing it for the students,” then we need to hear what the students, or at least one student, think about the work of the CTTL. A free and fair press is vital for America’s democracy as well as our school. But such freedom comes with an enormous burden. “Accuracy,” as one of my favorite historians E.H. Carr once declared, “is a duty not a virtue.” Unfortunately, no member of the Mane news staff, or the writer of the op-ed piece, interviewed me about the work of the CTTL. I was not asked about resources that might help inform an article being written about one of the key initiatives of the school. Such research would have helped bring more context to the author’s “critical evaluation” of the CTTL. Here is what I would have shared.
The CTTL is the conduit between the growing body of research on how learning happens and St. Andrew’s teachers. The CTTL disseminates to St. Andrew’s teachers research from leading universities, such as Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Virginia, around enhancing student attention, motivation, effort, and memory and the recognition that students have the ability to change their brains (also known as the brain’s plasticity).
I would have pointed to the CTTL’s recent publication, Think Differently and Deeply, which has been distributed widely to educators across the United States and is being held up as a model of how teachers can connect research to their practice. Did the author read this resource in its entirety to see how 20 different teachers at St. Andrew’s have used research to inform, validate, or transform their practice? I would have also pointed to the CTTL’s web cite (www.thecttl.org) and the many different blogs by teachers in all four of the school’s divisions.
What makes the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning innovative is its deliberate efforts of getting good research into the hands of every St. Andrew’s teacher. The author was right. Good intuition and instincts, and their own “trial and error” approach to teaching strategies, have always been characteristics of exceptional teachers. But the intentional use of research has not.
The “best” educational research is both old and new. It says that students will remember most what is taught at the beginning and end of each class. Therefore, teachers should design their classrooms to maximize these learning moments rather than reviewing homework. The research says that if teachers want students to remember essential information, students need more recall opportunities such as ungraded, surprise quizzes or moments to reflect on what they learned at the end of each class period (sometimes referred to as “Exit Tickets”). The research also says that students engagement is enhanced by choice, novelty and challenege. Thus it is critical that teachers provide students with opportunities to write extended analytical essays as well as opportunities to transfer knowledge, an important part of consolidating information into one’s long-term memory, through other formats, including the arts. In fact, the benefits of integrating the arts across all academic disciplines has been firmly established by research.
Unfortunately, too many students, especially in high school, see learning as a trip, with the destination being college, rather than a journey to find one’s passion, take risks, and, dare I say, even fail. Thus it becomes the job of every teacher to challenge students to develop their strengths and weaknesses, areas of passion and disinterest, and to take students out of their comfort to engage their brains in new ways and to develop new neural pathways.
The transformative possibilities of the CTTL for students is no more important than this time of year. AP and final exams are stressful experiences. They are also opportunities to embed the most essential content and skills into students’ brain for future recall or application to more creative or higher order thinking endeavors. As a result, every student has received researched backed exam study strategies and coaching during advisor period and each of their classes that should make them more efficient, effective and maybe even less stressed as exams near.
The St. Andrew’s pre-school through twelfth grade faculty are tremendously dedicated to each of their students, have great instinct and great intuition. They know how to inspire, challenge, and support. And they now know more about how the brain learns than most educators in the Washington, DC area. The CTTL is helping to realize the potential value of research to the classroom practice of all teachers and the beneficiaries are, and will continue to be, every St. Andrew’s student.