Learning styles – getting beyond the myths

The common interpretation of “learning styles” is perhaps the greatest neuromyth in a packed field of misknowledge, and is a travesty to Howard Gardner’s research. Phrases like “I am an auditory learner” or “I am an kinesthetic learner” can end up being self-fulfilling prophecies, and contribute to students having a “fixed mindset” in some key areas – this neuromyth does damage to students. And, shockingly, in one research study more than 94% of teachers incorrectly answered the survey question, “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic).” [1] How can we be so bad at this? How come this myth is so prevalent?

So I set myself this challenge, how hard is it to find the actual research on learning styles? It turns out, phenomenally easy. Much of Howard Gardner’s work is freely available, not behind must-pay firewalls. And, whilst it is technical, he has a wonderfully easy to  understand style. So it turns out that quality research is easy to get hold of and very accessible to read. So what intellectual laziness is at work here to prompt 94% of teachers to get this wrong?

More importantly, though, what should we do. A better way may be to think that each student has individual differences – current learning strengths and learning weaknesses. The key word is current. The brain has sufficient plasticity that by working hard and working smart (using strategies, using teachers, using feedback, using reflection, for example), students can rewire their brain to shift, to some degree, this their picture of strengths and weaknesses. So firstly, we must create school communities – teachers, students and parents – that do not force students to define themselves in narrow learning styles.

Secondly, what should teachers do? DO NOT TRY TO TEACH INDIVIDUAL LEARNING STYLE IN THE ROOM! Instead, research suggests that teachers should let the content they want to teach be the driver of what learning styles they stress. In the words of Professor Howard Gardner himself:

“It may seem that I am simply calling for the “smorgasbord” approach to education: throw enough of the proverbial matter at students and some of it will hit the mind/brain and stick. Nor do I think that this approach is without merit. However, the theory of multiple intelligences provides an opportunity, so to speak, to transcend mere variation and selection. It is possible to examine a topic in detail, to determine which intelligences, which analogies, and which examples, are most likely both to capture important aspects of the topic and to reach a significant number of students. We must acknowledge here the cottage industry aspect of pedagogy, a craft that cannot now and may never be susceptible to an algorithmic approach. It may also constitute the enjoyable part of teaching: the opportunity continually to revisit one’s topic and to consider fresh ways in which to convey its crucial components.” [2]

What teaching and assessing methods, each one emphasizing a different set of “learning styles” are going to work best here, for this topic? And how does this fit, perhaps, with the ones I have just place emphasis on and the ones I am about to next? And, maybe, are the “learning styles” I am stressing the most the ones that are truly, deeply germane to my subject? That is an interesting idea. It places a huge emphasis on knowing our subjects really, really well. It also serves as a reminder that, to work in the sphere of Mind, Brain and Education research informed teaching, we have to remember to work equally hard on knowing our subjects as implementing teaching strategies that enhance learning. But, most of all, please stop hurting our students with this!
[1] Dekker, Sanne, Nikki C. Lee, Paul Howard-Jones, and Jelle Jolles. “Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence and Predictors of Misconceptions among Teachers.” Frontiers in Psychology 3 (October 18, 2012). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429.
[2] Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory, Volume II. 1st edition. Hillsdale, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999.   Also: https://goo.gl/PLJXsn

Great teaching needs great professional development…

…and boy do we have a long way to go. But fortunately there is now some guidance.

As school leaders begin tooling up for the new year, they are making decisions that commit vast sums of money and gargantuan human work hours to professional development. Writing in Slate this week, Laura Moser gives the following insight into how this typically goes:

“A study raising a lot of eyebrows in the education world this week suggests that, despite the billions of dollars we are pouring into teacher development every year, we have very little to show for the expenditure. The report, released by the education-reform organization TNTP, puts a shockingly high price tag on professional development, which refers to the ongoing, on-the-job pedagogical training, both formal and informal, that teachers receive throughout their careers: The unnamed three large school districts and medium-size charter network it examined spent, on average, $18,000 per teacher for training that spanned 19 days, or roughly one-tenth of the school year. All that cash and time, for what TNTP found to be questionable outcomes at best. Among the roughly 10,000 teachers surveyed, teacher evaluations found that only 3 out of 10 teachers improved while 2 out of 10 got worse over two or three years.”

The results are similar to those reported by the Teacher Development Trust in the UK, www.tdtrust.org, whose study found that just 1% of all professional development was what it categorized as “high quality.” What sad irony, that some of the worst education to be found anywhere is deployed in teaching teachers how to be better teachers.

So what is good professional development? What works? Two studies give perhaps the best insight.

One is “Teachers Know Best” from The Gates Foundation.

The other is “Developing Great Teaching” from The Teacher Development Trust (I urge you to read the full report – the summary is good, but the details in the full report make this unmissable).

The overlaps are considerable and the insights profound. The quality of research on “what is great professional development?” is much more developed, much more robust than you might think. If we are going to use research to inform what we do – and we should for the sake of our own professional credibility – this is an area where we need to take note. As a teaser, here is a snippet from the Teacher Development Trust, which comes after the research underpinning these claims has been discussed.

“School leaders…should interrogate providers (including internal facilitators) prior to signing up to/commissioning a CPD [continuing professional development] programme, to ascertain how they intend to:

  • Support identification of teachers’ and school leaders’ starting points.
  • Use content-specific formative assessment.
  • Build time into any away-from-class or out-of-school activities, for planning changes to be made back in the classroom.
  • Embed collaborative learning and the development of shared understanding and goals within the professional learning process.
  • Demonstrate in-depth expertise in relation to teaching and learning, the curriculum content, and the process of professional learning process – and have ensured all three are aligned.
  • Provide tools to help teachers and leaders engage critically with evidence about how pupils respond to changes they are making in their day to day work settings.

In the same way, any provider or facilitator must be able to demonstrate expert practice across these areas. They should ensure their expertise and understanding is rigorous and up-to-date…”

These sound like perfectly reasonable expectations; actually doing it might seem like a scary proposition, but the expectations themselves – and remember, these are drawn from and supported by research, not just things plucked from the air – are perfectly reasonable. Does your school live up to this research? All school leaders with any involvement in committing time or money to professional development should read both these documents. You are committing a lot to this endeavor – particularly the very precious human capital that makes learning happen at your school – so please be as good at it as you can possibly be.

Dr. Ian Kelleher, Head of Research, The CTTL

Crossing the Atlantic: What We Learned from Teachers, Schools and Researchers in England . . . Thank You!


Post by Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher

What happens when two American educators spend a week traveling through the United Kingdom talking with teachers, university researchers and visiting schools? In the spirit of similar journeys recently taken by the likes of Grant Lichtman, author of #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, across the United States to explore schools, we embarked on a one-week jaunt in a different direction, landing in English cities such as Cambridge, Durham, Windsor, London, and Crowthorne.

The initial impetus for this trip was for us to present at the gathering of teachers, school leaders, and policy makers at the Sunday Times Festival of Education that attracts educators from around the world. But with five days between our arrival and the start of the festival there was a chance to learn from others who were equally passionate to enhance teacher quality, student achievement, and the schooling experience for all students. Too often, the lens in which we look at education reform and innovation is constrained by our geography. The Internet has certainly broken down those barriers, but there is still nothing better than interacting with individuals in person. There is a lot we can learn from talking with educators from other parts of the world. This is our short story and a hopeful introduction to important people and schools that should be on your professional reading list or included in those you follow on Twitter.

We arrived in London at a very stressful time for English high school and university students, and their parents. Many were preparing for or finishing up various levels of GCSE examinations that would have strong implications for their future schooling. The intensity and pressure associated with these exams is unlike anything in the United States for students as well as teachers. At the same time, England’s Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, was calling for even more rigorous examinations in conjunction with targeted teacher training.

In one week, we met directly with or listened to an amazing line-up of forward looking thinkers in education who should be on all of our professional radars: Rob Coe (@ProfCoe), David Weston (@informed_edu), Johnnie Noakes (@JonnieNoakes), Tom Bennet (@tombennett71), Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick), John Tomsett (@johntomsett) and Lucy Crehan (@lucy_crehan). And if these names are not YET familiar to you, then Angela Duckworth, Sir Ken Robinson, and Carol Dweck almost certainly are. Equally important are those that we met and learned from as part of Research Schools International where at three different roundtables, led by faculty and researchers from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, we learned about school-based research being conducted around globalized learning at Mid-Pacific Institute and growth-mindset at St. George’s School and Wellington College. So what follows are some of our takeaways that we hope introduce you to important research and individuals whose research, writing, and modeling should inform how we define and develop exceptional teachers on either side of the Atlantic and how we design and deliver schools and curriculum that challenges and supports students, that is researched informed, and that prepares students for the complex, globalized world they will inherit.

Ian is a native of England and even though Glenn has been to London three previous times, he never ventured into the North and the city of Durham. If you are a fan of the author Bill Bryson, you might recall reading his declaration about Durham, “It’s a perfect little city. If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It’s wonderful.” Keep in mind that Mr. Bryson was once the Chancellor of Durham University.

But it wasn’t Bryson’s suggestion that drew us to Durham, it was the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring that is directed by Professor Rob Coe. We came to further understand the research of Professor Coe and his team, including Dr. Stuart Kime (@StuartKime) and Dr. Christine Merrell (@CHMerrell), and to consider how it could be used to develop a professional growth framework that we are designing for the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. Our interest was also sparked by some adaptive learning assessments that Dr. Coe and his team have been using on a large scale in the UK and to see how they might translate to schools on the other side of the Atlantic.

Now, we have heard that the British are kind people but after six-hours with us (including a great lunch) we can safely say Rob and his team were overly generous. We took away many things from this idea exchange, but particularly important were a much greater appreciation for the obtaining, evaluation and use of evidence, and our heightened sense of the value of feedback, meta-cognition and peer-tutoring that was highlighted in the “Teaching and Learning Toolkit” that Professor Coe co-authored (which, among other great statistics, is now used by 64% of school leaders in the UK). While this is pitched primarily for English schools with English students, the research it analyzes comes from all over the globe, and it should certainly draw the attention of state-side teachers, school leaders, and policymakers.

After indulging on our first “proper” fish and chips of the trip we headed south to one of the most famous schools in England and possibly the world, Eton College. It was highly suggested that we meet up with Johnnie Noakes, the Director of The Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research. Any stereotypes of Eton were quickly broken as Johnnie gave us a quick history lesson of the school that was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI for 70 poor boys. While the student population has increased to 1300 and certainly includes the aristocrats of English society it remains true to its mission of public purpose, for example, connecting its boys to area state school students as tutors, and by collaborative projects conducted by the Centre for Innovation and Research that seek to push the mark on “what is great teaching?” and disseminate this research knowledge – a purpose so similar to the CTTL at St. Andrew’s. It was great to see the expansive library of the Centre that includes authors such as John Hattie (Visible Learning) and Martin Stephen (Educating the More Abled Student). It was also privilege to exchange ideas about each of our centers and to imagine ways our teachers and students might virtually collaborate in the coming years. Walking out of Windsor to catch our train to England’s capital for the night we were excited about the growing collection of schools, old such as Eton (575 years) or young such as St. Andrew’s in Potomac, Maryland (38 years) that are each looking to use research to inform the practice of teachers and to enhance learning for all students.

The next morning we found ourselves meeting up with David Weston, the founder and director of the Teacher Development Trust. We had previously met David at the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, New York as he presented at the ResearchEd conference held there in the spring of 2015. The Trust’s mission is “Dedicated to improving the educational outcomes of children by ensuring they experience the most effective learning. [The Trust] is raising awareness of the importance of professional development and building tools to help teachers to transform their practice and achieve success for all their pupils.” We sought David’s advice on a tiered Mind, Brain, and Education Science Professional Growth Framework that we were building for teachers and school leaders. David’s perspective was invaluable and he directed us to think deeply about how change actually happens in schools and among teachers as he directed us, like Rob Coe had, to the “Teaching and Learning Toolkit.” We suspect that one-day soon David will be a name under consideration by, or even for, England’s Secretary of Education. He certainly has our vote and for now, we suggest you check out his Tedx Grand Rapids talk, “Unleashing Greatness in Teachers.”

After saying goodbye to David it was off to Wellington College, in Crowthorne, England, which founded and continues to host the Sunday Times Festival of Education. The school’s head, Anthony Seldon, is a force of nature who clearly enjoys provoking teachers, school leaders, and policymakers to both defend and reimagine their vision of teaching and schools. Many themes percolated throughout the Festival’s 150+ sessions. We particularly enjoyed idea exchanges around the role research can play in informing school change, teacher training, and curriculum innovation as well as debates on the question of whether or not “Teaching is an Art or a Science?” Similar to the United States, the debate over the short and long term benefits of school and university tests were also heated and we found that despite the English’s reputation for politeness, they are ferocious debaters and we were glad to be introduced to the Battle of Ideas and the strong convictions of Claire Fox (@Fox_Claire) the director of the Institute of Ideas.

There were far fewer presentations around technology than we expected and only a limited number of subject specific programs. We particularly enjoyed the passion of Nvellie Gwynne and his thoughts on how to better teach Latin. We were inspired, and jealous, of the travels and observations of Lucy Crehan (@lucy_crehan) who visited the “known for great schools” countries: Finland, Canada, Singapore, Japan, and China (focusing on Shanghai) and who will be soon sharing her work in a self-published book about the experience titled Cleverlands. We were introduced to new books titled, What if Everything We Knew About Education Was Wrong?, Trivium 21c, The Seven Myths of Education, How to Get the Most Out of Homework without Really Setting It and This Much I Know About Love Over Fear: Creating a Culture for Truly Great Teaching. It was great to walk amongst the authors and to listen to their publishing stories as we work to bring our own book, Neuroteach, to educators sometime in 2016. But one of the highlights of the festival for us was seeing the first publication from Wellington College’s Learning and Research Centre that was inspired by our own Think Differently and Deeply that Research Lead Carl Hendrick learned about during his visit to our school in the fall of 2014. We challenged Carl and his colleagues to produce their own publication and we were excited to see the results and look forward to seeing what both our centers can produce in volume two.

Within the Festival of Education there was a smaller conference for those schools, like ours (St. Andrew’s) that are part of Research Schools International (RSI). We were there to share research that took place in the United States (Mid-Pacific Institute, St. George’s School, Pine Village Spanish Immersion School, and St. Andrew’s), England (Bedales School and Wellington College), Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador, and Australia. Dr. Christina Hinton, and her team that includes Dr. Bruno della Chiesa, brought this group together to explore the research each of these schools are doing in partnership with researchers and faculty from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who lead RSI. Despite our geographic differences there emerged a common theme among research projects around topics such as globalized learning and what continues to be called—to our dismay—the non-cognitive factors associated with learning (growth mindset, mindfulness, grit, and happiness, compassion, motivation, and care). Our dismay comes from our knowing, from research, of the role emotions play in learning and thinking so we look forward to someone finally developing a better term than “non-cognitive” or what have also been termed “soft” skills.

Exhausted but invigorated it was time for Glenn to head back to the states and for Ian to lose himself in his native country for one more week. It was a privilege and a delight to spend time in a country with a vigorous and passionate dialogue on “how do we improve the craft and profession of teaching – and thus improve the learning for all our students?” Everyone in the U.K. reminded us that it was far from a rosy picture so don’t get too carried away, but the nature of this question is so very different, so much more optimistic for changes that will improve learning across the whole range of schools and students, than the debate in the US which is so dominated by high stakes, narrow focus standardized tests. We are certainly curious to see how the push the English government is making toward “evidenced-based teaching” balances out with their continued commitment to measuring student learning through rigorous, standardized assessment. We are excited to have new research about how to prioritize the professional development program for our colleagues at St. Andrew’s who continually are exploring ways to enhance the knowledge of their subjects and the pedagogical strategies that will enhance learning and the experience of being a student. We are thankful to have formed new allies with teachers, school leaders, and policymakers who recognize, as David Weston pointed out at the end of his TedX presentation that, “If we want the best for our children, let’s do the best for our teachers.”

Summer Professional Development Reading . . . An Opening Salvo

Post by Glenn Whitman

There is no question that one of the great perks, and necessities for many teachers, is the summer break. It is an important time to recharge, reflect, and revision for the next school year. This said, I do believe that there is a learning cost to the extended summer breaks students are given. Research in Mind, Brain, and Education Science, and common sense, validate the idea that “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” So it should not come as too much of a surprise at the difficulty students have at recalling previous year’s material at the start of another school year.

As this year’s summer break draws near, I recall my religious school rabbi, on the final class before each summer, recommending to his students that the summer should be used for three things: “Reading a good book, taking a long walk, and making a new friend.”

Every year around this time, a variety of lists emerge on social media and blogs suggesting good books for teachers to read that can inform and transform their professional practice over the summer. If you are like me, you might already have a stack of books sitting beside your bed or in your Amazon.com cart or “Wish List”. Over the years, I have benefited greatly from such lists and have been directed to books that were not on my professional reading radar.

At St. Andrew’s, professional summer reading has been a long-standing tradition for faculty and staff. The biggest change has come in the transition from offering one book for everyone to read to offering choice, to honor the different stages individual’s are in their professional practice and personal passions.

To be honest, the only book that I am really interested and excited to read this summer is Harper Lee’s long-awaited second novel, Go Set a Watchmen. I would be surprised if it is able to live up to the hype that it is receiving but considering the impact To Kill a Mockingbird had on me when I first read it in high school, and in the number of times I have read or listened to it since, I cannot wait until its release.

That said, here are my contributions to the growing number of suggested professional reading lists for teachers:

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Make-it-StickLike all teachers, I want what I teach to not only “stick” for the short term, a summative assessment or project, but also for the long-term. This book offers some of the most applicable, research-backed memory strategies that teachers can use in their instructional practice and students can apply to their study strategies. If you have time, I would pair it with Neurocomic, a fun and simple way to think about the complex brain.

Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds

Talk Like TEDEvery class for a teacher is a “Ted Talk” opportunity. What if teachers integrated some of the research informed strategies presented in this book to better engage and inspire their students in ways some of the best Ted Talks have? If you have time, I would merely watch some of the most inspiring Ted Talks from Sir Ken Robinson (more than 32 million views), Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor (over 17 million views) or David Christian (over 5 million views) and consider connecting them with the classroom through TedED: Lessons Worth Sharing.

Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t LeaveTPR-book-cover_800

When it came time to enhance the efficiency of the Ford Auto Company’s Assembly Line who had the best ideas, those working the line or the “suits” at corporate headquarters? The same mindset should be applied to creating great classrooms and schools. Teacherpeneurs provides a model for teachers to develop, share and hopefully reward their successful pedagogical practices and policy ideas while never leaving the classroom. Wouldn’t it be great if our most effective teachers could remain in the classroom while also being leaders in the schools in which they work? This is a question that Teacherpreneurs helps to answer. If you have time, I would pair it with Grant Lichtman’s, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, that captures some of the most innovative teaching taking place in schools across the United States.

Teacher Proof: Why Research in Education Doesn’t Always Mean What it Claims and What You Can Do About It

51LDOi8gWyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Teaching is an art. But teaching is also a science and teachers and school leaders must consider themselves researchers. They also must be able to discern between good and bad research. This book, from the director and founder of researchEd, helps teachers to think about ways to sift through the growing body of research around teaching and learning. If you have time, I would pair it with Daniel Willingham’s, When Can We Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education.

This list is just a start and even though I think summer break is too long for students, it is never long enough to read all the great books that are on my list. This said, come July 14th my hands will be wrapped around a printed version of Harper Lee’s work. What will your hands be on?

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.

4’33” (Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds): What Our Brains Need


Post by Glenn Whitman

As my students know, their brains fascinate me and my colleagues. If they think about it, it is the only learning tool that they can never forget for our classes. Students can forget their homework, laptop, pencil or books. But there is no way they can forget their brain. But having their brain in our classes, on the athletic fields, or stage, does not mean learning or a strong performance will happen. Our brains are just not that simple and, at 3 lbs., the brain is pretty incredible and cannot be ignored.

Throughout this school year, I have been fascinated with memory, especially after reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. All teachers should desire to have what they teach and have students experience, not just stay in their brains for a test, but also for a future moment when they might be at a social event and they need to recall who the Great Compromiser was in American history (Henry Clay) or who was LBJ (hopefully you will not say LeBron James).

But what do we ever truly remember? For example, why do we never forget how to ride a bicycle? Even if we have not done it in many years, most of us could get on a bike and head off somewhere without a problem. I went to Dickinson College. Recently, I was asked what one of my favorite college classes was and I recall it being Music 101 in which we listened and talked about the great symphonies in the context of the historical period in which they were written.

Most of you don’t know that I have a “man crush” on Bruce Springsteen and know the lyrics to nearly all of his songs. I also often claim that because of Music 101 I know all the words to Beethoven’s 5th and 9th symphonies (the latter actually has German words that I don’t understand), Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition” and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. But there is one symphony that I was introduced to in that college class that is particularly memorable and pertinent to our brains. It is one that we should play more often in our lives as teachers, students, and parents. It is titled 4’33’’ and is delivered in three movements and was composed in 1952 by John Cage. Take a listen.

Our brain never stops working, even in our sleep. But it needs time to catch up, to think and ponder. But hardly do we, teachers, students or life, give it such “catch up” time. Have you ever wondered how much information a student’s brain receives each day, whether in class, at lunch, on the playing fields, or via social media. Our brains are constantly receiving, filtering, and pruning away information, making choices. We don’t need the next Taylor Swift or Bruce Springsteen song to calm our brains, we need 4’33’’ each day, a silent symphony, from which new ideas can emerge, opportunities can be evaluated, or momentary peace can be sought. Our brains deserve this and research shows that such a symphony is good for us. Moreover, this is a great time of year to make 4’33” a consistent part of your pedagogical practice. Let’s give students time to reflect on what they have learned this year, to assess the goals they established for themselves and their current progress, and what their current learning strengths or weaknesses might be. Or better yet, let’s build silence into our instructional practice. After initially freaking out most students, they will probably come to appreciate and welcome each of the symphonies movements.

Therefore, my challenge for each of us is to make 4’33’’ seconds more a part of how we teach, learn, and live each day. Recalling the words are easy, the melody is catchy, and it is one symphony that all of us can actually play on any instrument of our choosing, even my personal favorite, the air guitar.

Thank for reading and hopefully remembering!