It’s a Small World After All: 15,000 Miles, Three Continents, and Four Days in Dubai

With all the talk of the promise of Mind, Brain, and Education Science (educational neuroscience), teachers, school leaders, and policymakers are clamoring for whole school models of integrating the research informed strategies to enhance teacher quality and student achievement. Therefore, when I got the invitation I had to take it. What it meant was four days of traveling 15,000 miles through three continents (I could not get a direct flight). Who would have thought that when the CTTL was created in 2011 that it would help educators in Dubai (United Arab Emirates) learn more about educational neuroscience and how it can inform, transform, and validate current teaching practices.

I went to Dubai to share the CTTL’s work not because we have all the answers but because we have a perspective and model, that certainly works for St. Andrew’s teachers and students and that research in MBE science has shown to be working for many more. We were invited to be part of two programs, the “Neuroscience of Effective Learning and Teaching” workshop and a gathering of the Special Educational Needs Coordinators Network (SENCO) that were both organized by COGx and their local Dubai partner, kidsFIRST Medical Centers, a leading provider of educational and medical services to students and schools in the UAE. Through the partnership between COGx and kids FIRST, the latest research in neuroscience is made available to empower teachers with practical insights and students through customized programs to enhance their learning ability.

Whether in the United States, England, China, or Dubai there are some common barriers that exist that thwart the transformation of schools from the industrial, one-size-fits-all model, to a more research-informed, brain-friendly model. The two barriers are that those making educational policy and those in the classroom today have significant blind spots that they must overcome if true educational reform is going to happen. First, we tend to teach or often make decisions in ways that are informed by how we were taught. Second, we tend to teach to our own personal learning strengths. So we went to Dubai to share our model and to let teachers in that region of the world know that they have an ally in the CTTL who is equally committed to enhancing teaching quality and differentiated instruction by getting into the hands of all educators Mind, Brain, and Education Science research-informed strategies.

During our two days on the ground in Dubai, we were met with a variety of questions: What research is worth looking at? How can you get a school’s teachers to use research to inform, validate, and transform their current instructional design, delivery, and work with each student? How can research inform work with all students, the learning challenged, the “just fine” students, and the gifted and talented?

The setting for each of the two days of workshops were two beautiful GEMS Wellington campuses. I arrived somewhat familiar with the GEMS brand. I was particularly inspired by our time at GEMS and meeting with teachers and seeing the amazing spaces for students to learn.

What was exciting was that during the two days on the ground in Dubai I had the privilege of presenting the experience of the CTTL to over 250 teachers, school leaders, parents, as well as government officials from the Ministry of Education. All the stakeholders were there and all were committed to understanding how each of our organizations–COGx, kidsFIRST, and the CTTL–see the opportunities and challenges with the growing body of accessible research in the teaching and learning sciences to enhance the learning experience for all students. We were also virtually joined by Dr. Mariale Hardiman who shared her Brain Targeted Teaching Model with the audience.

What was equally exciting to learn about was the mandate from the Dubai government to bring greater differentiation to classroom instruction, which research in educational neuroscience validates as critical to enhance student outcomes and experience. The challenge then is how to train teachers and school leaders at scale as well as to provide personalized support to students. Moreover, if governments continue to solely measure their students and standing by PISA scores, how can schools create teaching and learning environments that address each student’s individual learning strengths and challenges while meeting this international comparison of student achievement?

Certainly, arriving in Dubai felt like I was arriving on another planet, which might account for why they were filming the newest Star Trek movie in the streets of “The City of Gold.” What is great when presenting at a workshop is the opportunity to learn from other presenters. I was struck by three images two of the presenters shared with the audience. The first was a pair of images of Dubai in 1991 and 2015. I immediately connected each of these images with the educational neuroscience the presenters were sharing with the audience. The structural transformation of Dubai in less than 25-years is one of the most impressive growth mindsets I have ever seen. Moreover, the intricate system of roads that move people throughout Dubai were used to talk about the different pathways for one to get to his or her destination. This is no different than the type of individualized and personalized instruction that teachers are trying to bring to the design of their classes and work with each individual student.

I left Dubai inspired after engaging with a leading health organization, teachers, school leaders, parents, and governmental officials who are looking for models for how to implement research at a whole-class and an individual level. Leaving behind 250 copies of the CTTL’s publication, Think Differently and Deeply, was just a start, a window into how teachers can translate research into enhanced practice. But when we reached cruising altitude on the return trip home I decided that the CTTL can help fill a void that emerged in some idea exchanges in Dubai when I was asked, “How do we keep the transnational idea exchange around educational neuroscience going?” Therefore, the CTTL will work toward launching the “Neuroteach” network, an international online professional learning community for teachers, school leaders, parents, students and policymakers to share ideas and research in how the brain learns, works, and changes.

As I found out on this trip, the world is getting smaller and regardless of where you are there exist dedicated teachers and organizations who want to do better for students and prepare them for the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world that awaits them and that demands creative and adaptable mindsets that most schools continue to not prioritize enough. I also realized that their needs to be more transnational sharing of “what works” in education. As I have always believed, learning happens best in collaboration, it is now great to have connected with organizations such as kidsFIRST and COGx who support Mind, Brain, and Education Science as the next frontier for the professional growth of teachers and that seek to enhance the learning experience for all students.

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