By Glenn Whitman, Director of the CTTL
Attention. Calling each of my former students. Come back. Whether it was geography 6, AP United States History, Historical Methods, or United States/European History since 1860, I ask you to clear your schedules for a year to return to St. Andrew’s to retake my class.
This student recall is not because you were poorly taught one, five, or twenty years ago. Most of you did well because of your work ethic, and this was before any of us had heard of Carol Dweck’s research around growth mindset or Angela Duckworth’s work around grit. You successfully drew a world map by heart, scored high on AP exams, and produced essays or oral history projects that met the scholarly standards of each assignment.
But this is why you should disrupt what you are currently doing to return to your alma mater for another year of history. I am an exponentially better teacher today than I was when I first taught history in 1991, and I can also say I am a better teacher today than even five years ago. Yes, I know the content of my course really well. That naturally comes from teaching the same class multiple times as well as from a deliberate focus on growing my content understanding through research and reading. In fact, as I write this I have just finished reading Lincoln’s Sword, a book not only about Lincoln’s greatest speeches, but also his speech writing process. When I ask students to write, I often encourage them to “channel their inner Abe Lincoln.” Next year, and in subsequent years, I will be better able to guide them to this threshold based upon my deepened content understanding. My future students will thus be better served during our study of the Civil War as well as taught to be more efficient, confident users of language to articulate their interpretations of the past.
While the improvement in my content understanding is measurable, what my former students would most benefit from is the improvement in my understanding of the learning brain, how it works, learns, and thrives. This has only been possible because my colleagues at St. Andrew’s and I have been part of a professional development journey unlike any other.
When St. Andrew’s committed to training and providing professional development in Mind, Brain, and Education science to 100% of its then, 6th through 12th grade faculty and now Preschool through 12th grade faculty, none of us knew where it would lead the school or each individual teacher. Ask almost any public or private school teacher about the introduction of a new initiative to enhance teacher quality, student achievement and to close the education inequality gap and you will certainly get a smirk and a story about surviving the latest education fad only to be replaced by another one.
But why does this MBE science professional development initiative have such enduring power at St. Andrew’s? Look at our mission: “To know and inspire each student in an inclusive community dedicated to exceptional teaching, learning, and service.” Any definition of exceptional teaching and learning must require teachers and students to understand the learning brain. Until teachers and school leaders develop their Mind, Brain, and Education Science knowledge, skills and mindsets, their students will not meet their full potential in school.
I am confident that a student will never forget his or her brain for class. However, I am less confident of whether a student uses his or her brain effectively during a class period. I used to think that if a student was not learning, then that was because the student was not trying and that the burden of learning was on the student, not me. I taught the history; afterwards, it was each student’s responsibility to learn it. But now I know that for learning to happen, a teacher and student must share authority for whether something will end up being received, filtered, and then recalled by a student’s brain.
So for my former students, who I am asking to return so I can provide you an even better history class experience, what can you expect? First, I have a better awareness of how emotions, sleep, and identity impact cognitive functions. Remember that time you pulled the “all-nighter” for the Cold War Period LOPP (I use the term LOPP instead of test, quiz or exam), but the next morning you could not recall so much of what you tried to imbed in your long term memory? For the visual artists I taught, I have created assessments that will allow you to use those strengths to demonstrate your knowledge of historical events. And yes, the amount of homework I give has decreased, and I would like to think that the homework is not only less, but also it is better. Need to memorize history terms? I will no longer merely suggest that you use flashcards but rather have you consider applying the testing and spacing effect to your study strategies while I provide you more formative assessments to practice recalling the three S’s of the Civil War Period, the five I’s of the Progressive Period, or the 12 causes of the Great Depression. In addition, we will follow-up a summative assessment with “test” corrections, and meta-cognition opportunities to reflect on your current strengths and weaknesses before moving on to the next unit.
And here is the good news, I assume you will enjoy even more success in my class. But, if your new grade does not surpass that of your old, we will keep the original grade on your transcript. Regardless, your experience will be that much better and when asked at a social event, “Who was LBJ?”instead of saying LeBron James, you will be able to recall the complex presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
So former students, what do you say?