Sometimes You Need to Take a Dip

Welcome to The Bridge, the monthly newsletter of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning.  Each month The Bridge analyzes a specific aspect of teaching and learning through a Mind, Brain and Education Science research-informed lens.

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Have you ever seen a student who mastered a concept one week, then failed an assessment on the same material the next? Have you witnessed students becoming worse at a particular skill as you continue to teach it?

Good news: this kind of slippage can be a natural part of the learning process. The Dynamic Skill Theory (DST), proposed by Professor Kurt Fischer of Harvard University, offers an explanation for the consistency and variability in students’ development. DST is a well-respected neo- or post-Piagetian learning theory. It builds on Jean Piaget’s concept of developmental stages that occur through the nonstop interplay between brain developmental and environmental experiences. Examine the diagram below that depicts this theory, which can and should play a role in your classroom:

First, notice that both lines go up as age increases – our ability level at any skill tends to improve as we progress through our school years. The top line is optimal growth, the maximum performance skill level that each student is able to operate at under premium conditions, i.e. with all the expert scaffolding and in-class attention that the teacher is able to provide. The lower line is functional growth, the skill level that the student is able to perform at without this ideal support, in normal everyday life conditions with all its “distractions and imperfections… [It is the] degree to which a particular skill has become stable and automatic.”1 Scaffolding matters, and how we peel back or apply that scaffolding impacts the learning process of each individual student.

Secondly, notice that functional growth progresses almost linearly – the smooth growth in ability at a particular skill as the result of purposeful practice. However, optimal growth occurs in cycles, which means that at times performance decreases during the very act of learning. Students may be getting temporarily worse at a particular skill; this is a normal and everyday possibility that can occur as part of the process by which students are actually getting better at that skill. This happens because during the process of learning new abstractions are mapped on top of pre-existing ones – a process which tends not to be 100% smooth. As differences between new and old abstractions are reconciled, ability at the skill once more increases beyond previous levels due to the new complexity of the student’s learning.

So what does dynamic skill theory look like in the classroom? And what does it mean for teachers?

Firstly, what about the dips? If a student is suddenly not doing well in your class, don’t panic. It could be for any number of reasons, either in or outside of school, and teachers need to be aware of any and all possibilities. But it could just be that it is a normal stage of the child’s learning. The student may be in one of those stages in which they are working out that form of cognitive dissonance. But if we grade every bit of a child’s day-to-day performance, these downward moments count, and the burden of required day-to-day perfection in the face of the reality of how we learn adds to a student’s level of anxiety. Teachers play an important role in helping each child “stay in the game,” and schools that purposefully work to create an environment where positive relationships, both between students and between students and faculty, have an advantage here. This is especially so if they have also worked to create a culture in which failure is a possible and even necessary part of learning and growth, as long as the response to that failure is a reflective rededication to further work.

The dips also have consequences for classroom evaluations. Class evaluators want to see skill levels increasing; only better performance is taken as an indicator of success. If skill levels seem to be taking a dip, clearly the teacher must be doing something wrong. Not necessarily. Dips happen.

Secondly, what about the difference between the lines or levels? The first point to note will be quite obvious to all teachers, students and parents: students tend to perform better in ideal school situations. Ideally, each student needs different amounts and alternative types of scaffolding; some students will need scaffolding added while others need it taken away. Expert teachers are able to do this simultaneously for every individual student in their class. John Hattie, in a meta-analysis of more than 500,000 research studies, said that the main difference between expert teachers and experienced teachers was automaticity – delivering just the right nugget of an intervention to each individual child at the exact time they need it but with a degree of automaticity that leaves their mind free to process the other myriad things going on in their classroom.

We might also ponder what this means for the evaluation of students. For each assessment you create, ask yourself which you are testing: the optimal level or the functional level? And which do you want to evaluate? When you look at a student’s grade, what mix of optimal level evaluations and functional level evaluations contribute to that grade? Is it the balance you want? What can you do about it?

Dips happen; how you reflect on your learning and respond with the purposeful use of strategies matters most. But how do you operationalize this – what does it look like in the classroom or advisor group? Can we present this concept to students in a way that will help them understand themselves as learners? Is there a way in which we can tie the dynamic skill theory of learning to the concept of growth mindset? Please share your thoughts with us.

We believe the possibility of dips as a normal part of learning will ring true to every teacher and every student. Learning is a journey which is not necessarily easy, linear, or always upwards. It is our job as educators to guide, prod, comfort, entice and cajole each student throughout their learning experiences. Knowing that dippiness is normal is, we hope, a reassurance to teachers. That knowledge is power; now we can plan for it, work with it and experience the dippy learning journey with our students.

Based on a talk that the fabulous Vanessa Rodriguez, author of The Teaching Brain, gave at St. Andrew’s last year for the CTTL’s Ideas Festival. If you want to know more about dynamic skill theory, this 8 minute video from Professor Kurt Fischer himself and this unit from Annenberg Learner’s Neuroscience in the Classroom are great places to start.

1 From Neuroscience in the Classroom by Annenberg Learner, “Unit 5 Text Section 4,” accessed October 15, 2016
https://www.learner.org/courses/neuroscience/text/text.html?dis=U&num=05&sec=04

Image from: http://www.learner.org/courses/neuroscience/visuals/img_lrg/opti_level.jpg

By Ian Kelleher, @ijkelleher. Edited by Julia Dean and Molly Magner

Why Being an Introvert is Easy at St. Andrew’s

Written and illustrated by Joy Reeves (a sophomore at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School Potomac, Maryland). The article originally appeared in The Mane News (April 12, 2016)

The buzz of constant liveliness and socialization at St. Andrews (or any high school, for that matter) is bound to energize the extroverted side of anyone. But what about those who draw energy from being alone? Those who find comfort in solitude and self-awareness? Around 50% of people would consider themself introverted. Here’s why introverts are able to thrive at St. Andrew’s:

  1. All types of people go to SAES.

What’s cool about St. Andrew’s is there is no popularity hierarchy based on who is the most outgoing. Frankly, no one is popular at St. Andrew’s. We are too small of a school to really measure popularity…and it doesn’t seem to matter to anyone. It’s easy to surround yourself with diverse personality types complimentary to your own.

  1. You don’t have to participate in everything.

One of the biggest differences between lower school and high school is that high school does not emphasize required participation in most events. Although you have many chances to participate in your passions in front of the school, you can CHOOSE which ones you’d like to showcase, and watch the rest. Participating in Class Cup Competitions (although most people prefer to watch) is different: some brave soul has to volunteer!

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  1. There are tons of social spots, but also a lot of nice, secret, quiet spots to hang out.

If you’re in the mood for a crowd, it’s easy to find one: basketball games, embarrassingly loud clumps in the hallway, study groups, band practices, or weekend dances. But breaking away is okay too. After being at St. Andrew’s for a year or so, you discover some comfortable little places to relax on campus: the library (make sure not to get kicked out), in the gallery, out in the garden, and soon, on the quad! Free periods help us all maintain sanity and stay on top of our academic and personal lives.

  1. Teachers are really into self-evaluations and understand shyness.

Teachers don’t pretend to read them. They actually read self-evaluations. If you hesitate to speak in class, as long as you clarify why in a self-evaluation, the teacher will completely understand. Some people learn best by actively participating and speaking, while others learn by actively listening. Introverts don’t have to force themselves to raise their hands constantly in order to receive an A in the class.

  1. You see the same people often enough that your encounters with them in the hallway aren’t awkward.

Inevitably, in such a small school, you’re going to see a lot of your friends. Every day, the facial expressions exchanged get a little weirder and the conversation a little more personal. Best friendships develop. Recognizing everyone becomes comforting and enjoyable. Introverted or extroverted, the St. Andrew’s community becomes home.

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Better Teacher Professional Development Now!

A 2015 study by the Teacher Development Trust (UK) found that just 1% of teacher professional development was high quality. Let’s just pause for a moment to let that sink in. It also, unsurprisingly, found that the typical pattern of going to a two hour or one day workshop or conference and coming home did little to shift the needle of teacher effectiveness. It is a sad irony that some of the worst education to be found anywhere is deployed in teaching teachers how to be better teachers. All this is echoed by the recent report from the education-reform organization TNTP. Among their shocking findings, only 3 out of 10 teachers in a survey of 10,000 improved over the course of 2 or three year’s professional development, while 2 out of 10 actually got worse. TNTP also put an approximate price tag to this “achievement”: $18,000 and 19 days per teacher. And any reasonable person must surely ask, “surely we can do better than this?”

It can be no surprise that research links high quality teacher professional development to increased student achievement. For example, Kraft and Papay (2014) suggest that in schools with a poor professional development culture, teacher effectiveness (as measured by student achievement), and plateaus after 3 to 4 years of experience. Beyond this, they do not get better at improving student achievement. However, in schools with good professional development cultures, teacher effectiveness keeps increasing with experience. If we think about other “professions” – medicine and law, for example – we would hope this would be the case. We just cannot imagine a doctor’s peak performance being reached after just three years – beyond this they never get any better at being a doctor. Would you want this person as your primary care physician or heart surgeon?

So what is good teacher professional development? What makes a difference? TNTP’s report sets up a question that needs and merits a well thought out, research informed answer. And this answer needs two prongs: what “content” should great teacher professional development focus on, and how should it be “delivered.” Fortunately, we have answers.

First, “content.” Teaching is unique amongst professional professions in how it ignores its research base. This is particularly sad because education has never had the quality of research evidence about what works as it does now. My lasting image from the New York Learning and the Brain conference is from one of the smaller breakout sessions that featured an eminent brain imaging scientist at MIT and an eminent psychology professor at NYU. As our small group walked out, like a tight audience from a black box theater after a gripping performance, it became clear to me that these two people, from very different academic fields that traditionally live on different islands, were aware of each other’s work, respected each other’s work, and seemed to share this utopian conviction that somehow this could all possibly fit together in a way that would help our ailing education system. We are at a remarkable point in time, a coming together of disparate research based fields, coalescing on ideas about what the most effective teaching and learning should be. Education now has a solid research evidence base to work from – but little if any is making its way into teacher training or professional development. This is our content.

Publications exist that try to translate this academic research for teachers to use, and below is a great (and free), though not exhaustive, list for those wishing to delve further.

The research, however, only gets a teacher part of the way. Exactly how it works in the myriad pieces of context that shape a particular classroom, exactly how it works for the “voice” of a particular teacher, has to be figured out by each teacher. And that is the challenge of it, but also the intellectual joy of it. We are indebted to one of our mentors, Dr. Christina Hinton at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, for the insight that we are talking about research informed teaching – because the word informed leaves room for the art and craft of teaching. To help make this work, we need to create a model of reflective, iterative, collaborative, research informed practice. Building a framework to facilitate this must also be part of our content.

Onto the second part: “delivery.” What should great teacher professional development look like? Here, too, there is research to suggest what this might look like. A good starting point is the 2015 report “Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development” from the Teacher Development Trust. We’ll summarize the findings below, but it barely does justice to the excellent report which is well worth a read. As you read through this list, it is important to resist “of course!” syndrome – yes, many of these things may seem obvious, but they are often not applied, and it is worth remembering that they have not been merely pulled from people’s minds, but are practices supported by evidence from research studies. Again, we want to make teaching a research informed profession!

(1) “The duration and rhythm of effective support.”
At least two semesters to a year. But the rhythm of the time and how it is used is important too, not just the amount of time.

(2) “Designing for participants’ needs.”
Create relevance to teachers’ day to day experiences, and their aspirations for their students. Create opportunities for teachers to work with their peers. Create a shared sense of purpose.

(3) “Alignment of professional development processes, content and activities.”
The professional development should be logically sequenced, and delivered in a manner that aligns with the principles of good teaching that it promotes.

(4) “The content of effective professional development.”
It is not sufficient to focus on general pedagogy. Both subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy – what could be called pedagogical content knowledge – should be included too. Teachers also need to learn about how students learn. Our content strand discussed above will play a crucial role in this point, as it will in point (3).

(5) “Activities associated with effective professional development.”
Teachers need to be taught how to translate this professional development knowledge into classroom practice; they also need to be taught how to experiment with its implementation – the type of iterative practice that we discussed above.

(6) The role of external providers and specialists.
Schools should set high expectations for their professional development providers, and, if they are external, determine how they will provide the ongoing mentoring/coaching support that research suggests is necessary for successful implementation.

(7) Collaboration and peer learning.
Collaboration is one key part of successful teacher professional development – but collaboration alone is insufficient and needs the other supports discussed above. Collaboration should be focused on problem solving that leads to improved student outcomes.

(8) Leadership around professional development.
Effective leaders become involved themselves – they do not just leave the learning to their teaches.

So, we have the research informed content, and we have the research informed method of delivery. And, unsurprisingly, there are common characteristics of the two. Great learning for teachers should mirror, in many ways, great learning for students. Potentially effective professional development is dead on arrival if participants are seated in rows and treated as “empty vessels” whose heads need to be filled with new ideas, then returned to their schools. This instructional practice of fill-and-move-on does not work for most students, why should we think it might work for teachers? Fortunately, the Teacher Development Trust’s work is based on good research informed principles of teaching. For example, we know from research that creating relevancy is important for engagement, which point (2) gets at, and that it is critical for long-term memory to have students recall and apply knowledge, either “use it or lose it,” which is addressed in points (1), (5), (6) and (7).

To this we might even be bold enough to add one further research-informed teaching strategy – using low stakes formative assessments to help teachers and their supervisors gauge what they currently know and what they don’t know, so they can plan accordingly so that the high quality professional development they have experienced is not forgotten or does not go unused. The ultimate goal, remember, is improved educational outcomes for all students.

Our solution of research informed professional development content and delivery may only seem radical in the context of teaching, but is one that has been embraced by other professional fields that have decided to place a high value on continued professional growth – and in a ways that are based on, and which contribute to, a growing base of research evidence. The TNTP report framed a pressing question for education. I believe we have the answer.

Ian Kelleher,
Head of Research, the CTTL
@ijkelleher
@thecttl

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.

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!

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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.”