Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education

December 17, 2018 by

Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher begin Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education (2016) with a bold and inspiring statement: “Teachers are brain changers” (p. 1). Thus begins their exploration into how teachers can leverage Mind Brain Education (MBE) strategies to design enhanced learning experiences for students. Early on, Whitman and Kelleher, both teachers at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland, make a powerful analogy between teachers and doctors to relate the importance of keeping up on research and innovations in practice. As medical patients, we would not choose a doctor whose only treatment plan consisted of the use of leeches, as this would indicate both an impoverished ‘tool kit’ and a lack of knowledge (although leeches are still used in innovative ways). Likewise, the authors of this book argue that we would not want teachers working with our students who are not keeping up with pedagogical advances. It is simply not good enough to do things the we always have just because it has worked for us in the past.

In Neuroteach, Whitman and Kelleher wade into the ongoing debate over the value of neuroscience in informing and guiding classroom teaching, attempting to bridge the gap between cutting-edge research on the brain and school-based learning environments. Both have extensive teaching experience and together lead the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CCTL) at St. Andrew’s, which declares its mission to be to “create and innovate in the field of Mind, Brain, and Education Science Research to allow teachers to maximize their effectiveness and students to achieve their highest potential” (CCTL, 2018). Importantly, they practice what they preach. The book is structured according to MBE principles from the outset, modeling many of the strategies it includes. For example, the authors include a formative assessment at the beginning so that readers can establish a baseline of understanding and monitor their own progress as they learn. Each chapter ends with three formative assessment questions to encourage recall and contextualization, both of which are strategies for which they advocate. In addition, the chapters are short, leveraging what neuroscience tells us about memory and attention and the brain’s capacity to chunk information. And, they begin each chapter with the most important information to highlight the primacy-recency effect, which tells us that students remember most what they experience at the beginning of a class and second most at the end.

Not only does the book model the strategies it advocates, but it works to debunk myths about how people learn, particularly ones which are prevalent in education spaces. First, they tackle the issue of learning styles. Teachers have long been trained to believe that students have different ways of learning (e.g., visual, auditory, and kinesthetic) and that instruction should be provided in modalities that meet those needs. Whitman and Keller assert, however, that “there is no evidence, despite many studies, to show that [students] learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style” (p. 37). Rather, teachers should be encouraged to provide instruction based on the content instead of their perceptions of individual learning styles in their classrooms. Further, the authors  “explode the myth that we are right-brained or left-brained—all tasks use brain networks that involve both brain hemispheres—as well as the myth that we only use 10 percent of our brain” (p. 35), showing us that it is important to treat all students as capable of learning and growing across styles and preferences. Other myths they take on include that our brains are able to multitask (this is not possible) and that emotions are disconnected from learning (they are inextricably tied).

Whitman and Kelleher next move on to the importance of the growth mindset—for both students and teachers—as integral to the MBE framework. Building on the work of Dweck (2007), Whitman and Kelleher’s take labels the growth mindset as a “yet sensibility” (p. 43), going so far as to say that “yet” is one of the most important words in education. The idea of the yet sensibility is that when students say they can’t do something, they need to add the word yet to the end of the statement. In this way, students can cultivate an internal dialogue that anything is possible with hard work and focused attention. The authors also stress the importance of explicitly teaching students about the plasticity and adaptability of the brain, asserting that when students learn their minds are not fixed entities and that through intentional effort they can grow and improve, they are more likely to take on challenges and build intrinsic motivation.

As a former teacher and current program director for an education non-profit, I found the resources in this book to be invaluable. Neuroteach is chock full of concrete, research-based instructional strategies that can be implemented immediately (in fact, one of the three formative assessment questions included at the end of each chapter is “What are two things you would like to do tomorrow with the information you learned from reading this chapter?”). The strategies are so clear, sensible, and inspiring that it makes me want to be back in the classroom to try them. The authors include citations for each idea—from interleaving to self-testing to timely feedback to arts integration—which are included throughout the book and listed at the ends of the chapters.  I have been so excited about the potential of MBE instruction that I have been widely sharing the content with anyone who will listen.

Where the book falls short, however, is in relation to equity. Serving students who have been underserved in the traditional education system has become a rallying cry for innovations such as student-centered learning and competency-based education (discussed at length on CompetencyWorks), but Neuroteach does little to address it. Throughout the book, Whitman and Kelleher refer to three kinds of students: the high flyer, the “just fine,” and the struggling student. However, most of the examples the authors provide from their own teaching experience relate to the high flyer and the “just fine;” there are few, if any, illustrations relating to the struggling student. For example, they discuss the importance of including lecture-based instruction in classrooms, as students must be prepared for this type of environment in college; this is not inclusive of the many different opportunities of which students might take advantage upon graduating from high school. In fact, the only reference as to how MBE can improve learning for historically underserved populations is contained in one sentence: “Research has shown that developing a growth mindset among high-poverty, marginalized groups of students has shown statistically significant improvement in essential skills such as reading” (p. 50).

Despite the lack of focus on equity, Whitman and Kelleher make an important argument about the role of research in teaching. They dedicate an entire chapter to teachers as researchers, stating that teachers “collect enormous amounts of data each day, and they rapidly evaluate and make decisions based on those data…They may be second only to doctors in doing this” (p. 149). The authors importantly honor the amount of information teachers take in and analyze each day without necessarily being conscious of it and encourage them to start journaling and recording their observations. They also recognize that there is no one size fits all in the teacher-as-researcher approach: it is critical to acknowledge individual school settings and context and allow teachers to be responsive to the needs of their specific student populations. Whitman and Kelleher stress that collaboration around problems of practice can greatly increase the effectiveness of teaching and learning, and they espouse that the most important message of the book is to “be on an evolving-evidence, research-informed teaching journey” (p. 199).

Overall, Neuroteach is a worthwhile read, and I highly encourage any educator interested in the learning sciences to pick up a copy. The authors’ contributions to teacher professional development are relevant, timely, and salient. The instructional strategies offered, all based on what we currently know about learning and the brain, should certainly result in improved learning experiences for students. The rapid pace of research and development in neuroscience means that we will continue to learn more about how the brain works, which has huge implications for instruction and pedagogy.  I highly expect Whitman and Kelleher to continue sharing what they learn, but for now, this is one of the best works I’ve read on the science of learning.  I am encouraged that, in the right hands, all students—especially those who are currently furthest from opportunity—can benefit from teachers who are actively researching in their classrooms and providing intentional brain-based instruction.

References

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Whitman, G. & Kelleher, I. (2016). Neuroteach: Brain science and the future of education. Lanham, MD: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.

About the Author

Amy Spicer is a former teacher and current senior program lead at the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI), which seeks to accelerate innovation in education across Colorado. Amy leads the Competency-Based/Personalized Learning portfolio of work at CEI.

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