Monthly Archives: April 2015

In Partnership: Bringing Quality Mind, Brain, and Education Science to Teachers and Schools

Post By Glenn Whitman bridgingthegap In 1997, John Bruer’s article, “Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far” highlighted the unlikely union or linking of neuroscience and education. Have you read it . . . yet? One of the premises of the article was that it would require university researchers and classroom teachers to work together in ways that do not naturally occur and in the face of too many institutional barriers. However, I am writing this post at 33,000 feet heading back from The Washington University at St. Louis having just spent the afternoon with my colleague, Amanda Freeman, and professors from Washington University who make up a group called CIRCLE: The Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education. What brought teachers from St. Andrew’s and its Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning together with professors who make up CIRCLE was Professor Mark McDaniel’s book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Mark is the leader of this group). Both Amanda and I read this book and have been applying many of the strategies to our teaching of history. We went to share the work of the CTTL and to get feedback from university professors about how to better translate research in how the brain learns and to create school-based research studies. If John Bruer was in the room on the Washington University campus today, he would see that the length of the bridge span is a lot smaller than it was in 1997, especially in how researchers and teachers are thinking about cognitive psychology and the classroom. Like most teachers, Amanda and I want the rich content and skills we teach to stick beyond the summative assessments, for a unit or a class, in Amanda’s case the AP European History exam in May. We believe strongly in students having many opportunities to actively retrieve– “forcibly” recall–taught material. So what did we learn about research and memory retrieval practices that will help both our teachers and that reinforce and expanded upon what we learned in Make It Stick?

  • Teachers need to be trained to sift through the growing body of resources that claim to be “research” or “evidence-based” and should look for research that has been replicated and that has taken place in authentic, also known as the classroom, settings.
  • We need to have students recalling more through more formative, low-stakes or no-stakes, assessments.
  • Overlearning is preferable to “dropped learning” when self-testing through active retrieval of information.
  • All students should be “on the hook” to retrieve answers to every question posed in class. Doug Lemov in his book, Teach Like a Champion, calls this “cold calling”. In typical classrooms, the student who raises his or her hand is giving his or her classmates a cognitive reprieve. But not having students raise their hands puts every student “on the hook” for being called on thus forces each student to actively retrieve their response to a question.

I will be implementing this last strategy in class with one caveat. “On the hook” instructional practice needs to honor the fact that students process answers to questions at different rates. Therefore, teachers must give time for reflection and processing prior to calling on a student. Let’s reward the thinking process over the thinking speed. One more caveat. When a student who is called on does not know the answer, they should be able to pass. However, they will be asked to immediately repeat the correct answer given by their classmate. Thus, in the words of Lemov, no student can “opt out.” Beyond this day at Washington University, we at St. Andrew’s have been the beneficiaries of faculty from The Johns Hopkins University School of Education and researchers from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education receptiveness to helping us translate and apply their work into the classroom. They have provided professional development for our faculty, we have collaborated in designing research questions and then conducting research studies, and we have worked together to disseminate those findings to the larger educational community. Opportunities like this should become the norm for more schools. Policymakers, along with individual donors and foundations, have the power to foster and inspire such partnerships. Mind, Brain, and Education Science is the most innovative thinking being applied to enhancing teacher quality and student achievement today. University researchers are conducting important laboratory and classroom research and there is a growing body of teachers and school leaders who recognize one of the great ironies of education in the United States today: that the organ of learning is the brain but few educators have ever had any training in how the brain works, learns, and most importantly for students, changes. Classroom teachers and university researchers need one another. Each group brings to potential partnerships skills that the other group does not have but that both need in order to conduct quality research. I have often said that Mind, Brain, and Education Science is the missing resource, a jewelers eyepiece, in most educators’ tool kit. It will verify some classic teaching practices but repudiate others – with evidence, and it will offer new strategies and structures. It is the next frontier for teacher and school leadership training. My recent trip to Washington University brings to this thinking one corollary. Equally important are school/university partnerships and the coming together of like-minded researchers and classroom teachers who recognize the fertile opportunity to research, measure, and disseminate findings in Mind, Brain, and Education Science to enhance teacher quality, students achievement, and professional satisfaction.

Starbucks: A Model for the Future of Teaching

Post by Glenn Whitman


In the last month, have you purchased a drink at Starbucks? In one study, it was estimated that Starbucks has 87,000 different drink combinations. For the record, I have never had a cup of coffee in my life but I do spend a lot of time in Starbucks. After I work out most mornings, I head to Starbucks and order a grande soy latte for my wife as I try to rack up good husband points. I tend to order a grande English breakfast tea for myself as well.

But recently, I was at Starbucks for a different reason, to grade the Oral History Projects for my two 11th grade history classes. At one point, I needed a break from reading some amazing interviews about 9/11, the March on Washington, and cars, to keep track of how many different orders customers requested over a 30-minute period. I stopped counting around 25. But what occurred to me was that Starbucks, maybe better than any teacher, school or other company, has mastered the art of personalization and differentiation, respecting each of us as individuals (while also exploiting our brains need for caffeine).

If Starbucks only served black coffee, equivalent to a teacher only lecturing every class period, nobody would be interested in the coffee or the class. It would go out of business. Starbucks, in my mind, is a great model for what teaching and learning should be. It honors each consumer’s individuality, drinking preferences and continually provides choice and novelty in its products. These are all things that our brains like. Starbucks also inspires creativity.

Our individual preferences, and how we see things differently, were also on display recently with the whole phenomenon around the dress. Research shows that vision trumps all other senses but we certainly do not all see the world, or a dress, the same way. I was amazed when someone asked me about the color of the dress, and I said, “Brown and Blue” and I was essentially laughed at. But both Starbucks and the dress are important reminders of how vital it is to honor and respect our individuality and the different ways each of our brains work.

Imagine for a moment if we thought of our students more as consumers, would they, if they had a chance, truly buy what they are being taught. Instead, let’s begin to share authority with our students in the design of our classes and schools. There is no question that this would enhance their intrinsic motivation but it is not new thinking. Robert Frost was famous for asking his Amherst College students, “What do you want to learn today?” Is that any different from a Starbucks barista asking each customer, “What would you like to drink?”.

So the next time you head into Starbucks, just don’t think about your drink order, think about all the ways Starbucks builds choice and differentiation into how they serve each of their customers as you consider how to bring more choice and differentiation into better serving each of your students.