“Why I Teach . . .Now?”

Post by Glenn Whitman

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“Why I Teach . . .Now?”

is a question that every educator should reflect upon each year. For me, the easy answer has always been my love for working with students and the belief that, like prescription drugs, if I can come up with the right “cocktail” of learning interventions for the strongest, weakest, and “just fine” student, I can help each meet his or her peak potential. “Doing it for the students” is part of the DNA at the school in which I teach where we recognize that teachers and students each share authority for learning. I am reminded of this partnership between teacher and student each time I return to Parker Palmer’s seminal work, The Courage to Teach, where he declares:

When I ask teachers to name the biggest obstacle to good teaching, the answer I most often hear is ‘my student’ . . . Criticizing the client is the conventional defense in any embattled profession and these stereotypes conveniently relieve us of any responsibility for our students’ problems-or their resolution.

But of late, I have broadened my response to the question, “Why teach?” My revised answer is because “I love the challenge.” I believe if we can get past the politics of education reform than there truly is a formula to enhance teacher quality and student achievement within all educational settings. The formula needs to recognize that teaching is both an art and a science. The science that fascinates me and my colleagues at St. Andrew’s centers around how the brain learns. It is not a perfect science, because in the end, every student’s brain is different, and the experiences and environments that are so crucial to prime the brain for optimal learning are so diverse for each child. But what I have found interesting, and what should help attract and retain America’s “best and brightest” to careers in teaching, is the opportunity to be at the “cutting edge” of this field by showing how science can enhance teacher quality and student achievement.

The questions I often get from teachers, school leaders, and policy makers is, “What science do we need to know?” or “What are the top ten things I should be doing differently in my class that are informed by research?” These are practical questions considering the time constraints teachers face. The challenge of finding the right science to bring into the classroom is critical to the ongoing conversations that need to happen between university researchers and those who live the classroom each day. A “Cognitive Science Revolution” is only possible if teachers, researchers, school leaders, and policy makers work in concert with one another. And here is why I am hopeful that this can happen. When considering ways to enhance a student’s memory, to make foundational knowledge and skills “stick” better for when students take the Common Core tests or other knowledge assessments, I have little concern with the actual content that too many people have opinions on.

The science of teaching and learning focuses more on pedagogical practices and the research that should be informing teachers is compelling in the areas of: Attention and engagement, the integration of the arts, differentiated assessments, memory, brain plasticity and growth mindsets.

The good news is that the science, the research, is becoming more accessible. The challenge is how to get accurate research into the hands of all teachers and for them to easily see how it can be integrated into their already full class periods.

For those researchers or teachers who are already playing in this sandbox, I would argue from the experience of our center’s work that there are three critical components to getting the research into the hands of teachers:

  1. A common framework and language
  2. A pathway for professional growth and accountability
  3. A critical mass of teachers AND school leaders at a school that embrace Mind, Brain, and Education Science as the next frontier for teacher training and a way to enhance student achievement

The growing field of MBE research is at the “cutting edge” of pedagogical practices. It is research that can inform how each teacher meets the challenge of the complex learning environments and learners we are privileged to work with each day. Individual funders and foundations have an opportunity to ignite a “A Cognitive Science Revolution” so that every student in every one of his or her classes has a teacher who knows how the brain learns and works.

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