Modeling the Research: Bringing Play, Challenge, and Engagement to Teacher Professional Development

The greatest irony of the professional development opportunities that focus on the learning brain is the disconnect between the research and how it is delivered to the adult learner audience.

So when we were invited to speak at the November 2016 Learning & the Brain Conference, we hoped to model the research we were sharing, to create a research-informed professional development session that honored how much we know about how the brain learns, works, and thrives.

There are two brains that always need to be considered in every school: the adult brain and the student brain. Because of brain plasticity, we can confidently say that both are changeable, though there are more sensitive periods of brain plasticity in the early years of life.

But the dilemma my colleague and co-author or Neuroteach Dr. Ian Kelleher and I faced was how to honor the overall theme of the conference “Engaged, Empowered Minds” while presenting a keynote address in an enormous ballroom space filled with 6 sections aligned in 16 rows of 12 seats each.

For the first two days of the conference, leading thinkers in Mind, Brain, and Education Science including Howard Gardner, Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Tony Wagner, Ron Berger and Zoe Weil shared important research, perspectives, and experiences with the audience. They recounted stories and models of how teachers and schools are using brain science to educate ethical 21st century citizens and problem solvers.  Teachers were given opportunities to turn and talk and to laugh, as well as a few moments to consider the implications of what they were hearing for how they design schools and classrooms and work with each individual student.

When it was our turn to take the big stage as the last keynote speakers for this three-day event, we knew we had to create a professional learning session that aligned with how Ian, our colleagues and I design our classes at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School each day. As we prepared, we pondered the question: “Is it possible in a ballroom setting to provide teachers a design challenge: to build the tallest, free-standing tower with 25 straws and one piece of tape?” We knew there were risks involved in this idea and that there was a high probability that this activity might fail. But since we talk about failure and struggle as critical to learning, shouldn’t we model it in our presentation?

So we went for it. As the images below attest, it worked. We used this activity to have participants consider the question, “What demand did this design challenge place on your brain?” We conducted a similar activity with our colleagues at St. Andrew’s as a playful way to begin developing a language and a mindset around being a Mind, Brain, and Education Science research-informed teacher or school leader.

In addition to this activity we also knew that for our presentation around “An MBE Research-Informed Pathway for Purposeful Teaching, Learning, and Thinking” to stick that participants needed a chance to actively retrieve what they heard and experienced during our one-hour and fifteen-minute session. The “Exit Ticket” we provided was informed by the research of Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, and we were seeking to address one of the remaining unconscionable practices that permeate schools today. Too often, teachers teach to the last minute of a class period. While students are packing up, teachers are still giving new instructions. However, what we hope to see is more teachers using the final minutes of class for students to begin to reflect on the content and skills for that class period, to begin using that knowledge and experience to share what they know or don’t know and for that to be data for the teacher to use in the design of the next class period.

We are grateful to the Learning & the Brain Society for the invitation to share the work of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning with an eager audience of teachers, school leaders, policymakers, counselors and more. We appreciate all those who engaged with us during our session that is truly only valuable if some element of the research and strategies we shared actually inform participants’ work with students. But what we also hope is that our risky idea to create a design challenge for 1000 educators in a space that was not conducive to such a task becomes the norm for how we professionally develop educators. Let’s not just share the research, let’s do the research. Teachers, like students, learn best through play, collaboration, challenge, support and fun. The smiles presented in the following series of images from our session suggest what is possible for how we can develop more Mind, Brain, and Education Science research-informed educators.

 

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