Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

Ed Philosophy


“Very little is invested in understanding great teaching.  We’ve never had a meaningful evaluation system that identifies the dimensions of great teachers so we can transfer the skills to others.” ~ Bill Gates


One of my father’s favorite expressions was “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”  This phrase did make sense to me because it seemed to save unnecessary work, but as I age, I wonder if this was just an excuse by my father to do something more enjoyable, like partake in another friendly tennis match or bridge game with friends.


But, in my marriage as well in all healthy marriages, there is always a minor conflict of opinion between husband and wife.  My father’s expression contrasted sharply with my mother’s practical wisdom of “A stitch in time saves nine.”  Was dad using his excuse to be a little indolent or was mom correct in being sensible and realistic?


I do remember discussions revolving around my father’s point-of- view that if something works well there is no reason to change it and mom’s sound and realistic reasoning that it is better to spend a little more time to deal with problems rather than waiting until they get bigger.  I can still hear her saying, “If you wait until it’s too late, things will get worse, and it will take much longer to deal with them.”


How does this apply to education today in the U.S.?  Let’s look at some recent statistics to determine if either idiom applies to today’s classrooms.


There are appropriately 100,000 high schools in the U.S., and according to Arne Duncan in a November 4, 2010 speech,  “One-quarter of the U.S. high school students drop out or fail to graduate on time.  Almost one million students leave our schools for the streets each year.”


Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist and author of six books and numerous educational journals, states that the U.S. is the only country in the industrialized world where if you are in high school, it is more likely that your parents will have graduated from high school than you will.


Thomas L. Friedman, a New York Time’s columnist and author, reported on a sobering news conference he participated in with a group of top retired generals and admirals.  The stunning conclusion of their report is that 75 percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.  American’s youth are now tied for ninth in the world for college attainment.


Obviously, our educational system has problems and it is well beyond the time for a little stitching.  The phrase “teachers matters” now appear frequently in public discourse.  No one will dispute that one of the essential keys to fixing education is better teaching.  The keys to better teaching are figuring out what constitutes better teaching, determining the qualities of an effective teacher, improving the quality of classroom instruction, and increasing student learning.


But where to start stitching?  We need to begin by asking better questions.  Education does not need more precise answers to the wrong questions; we need to ask better questions.  We have been asking the same questions, responding with the same answers, and naturally getting the same results for the last couple of decades.  In order to improve student performance and improve learning, we need to get better answers by asking better questions.


In attempting to focus on this issue, I reflected upon my past educational training as a special educator for the past forty years spanning approximately 400 faculty meetings and over 1,400 hours of in-service.  I recall much time spent discussing and learning educational philosophies, methods, and practices.  Many hours of training were devoted to how to prepare a lesson plan, how to differentiate instruction and assessment, the value of engagement and anticipatory set, and how to organize cooperative or group learning.  I argue that all veteran teachers can readily identify good instruction when they see it.


But musing over the time spent in teacher training, I can’t recall any time devoted to examining and discussing why do these high-quality educational pedagogy techniques work.  Very little time has been spent trying to understand the inner workings of the student’s mind when engaged in learning or in a distracted state.  Of the countless hours spent at in-service, I cannot recall any days devoted to exploring the positive or negative dynamics of the interaction between teacher and student.


Throughout the years, Bob Brooks, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, has advocated the need to incorporate in our schools skills, which are associated with emotional and social intelligences.  Brooks feels this should not occur in a separate curriculum but as a common occurrence in the classroom.


Brooks believes that the initial step in this process is to examine the mindsets of successful teachers, i.e., a set of beliefs, or a way of thinking that determines one’s behavior, outlook, and mental attitudes.  To accomplish this goal, we need to analyze the mindsets of teachers who create motivating learning environments.  What are the characteristics of these adults who create these environments?  What are the mindsets of successful teachers who take their students beyond fear, pessimism, and disengagement to a classroom environment of trust, inventiveness, and engagement?


Quoting Antonio Damasio, an internationally recognized leader in neuroscience, and the David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, and head of USC’s Brain and Creative Institute and Adjunct Professor at the Salk Institute: “Emotions allows us to use our knowledge in ways that will be culturally appropriate and useful both in school and outside school.  Emotions are not add-ons that interfere with cognition.  Instead, they are functional elements of why thinking and learning happen.  Emotions involve the self and the body…and therefore so should schools.”


Donna E. Walker Tileston opines that children today have changed dramatically - not just in the way they dress and the music they listen to - but in the neurological wiring as well.  She feels this generation is the first generation – due to their vast knowledge of technology - to be leading their teachers into the changes of the 21st century rather than the teacher leading.


In her book What Every Teacher Should Know About Motivation (2010), Tileston notes that in the United States, our schools have been built on a model inherited from our northern European ancestors in which cognitive skills are taught first.  All other populations of the world believe in creating a relationship first, substance second.


Tileston observes that most of today’s teachers were trained to teach to the cognitive system of the brain.  The truth is the role of education has changed, but unfortunately, many educators have not.  According to research by Marzone (2001) learning does not begin with the cognitive system but rather, it begins in the self-system.  Tileston calls this the “Do I wanna?” system because it is through this system that we decide very quickly whether we are going to pay attention, whether we are going to engage in the learning, or simply dismiss it as not important. 


Our whole education system has been wrongly predicated on the mind/body dualism postulated by René Descartes.  In Descartes’ Error, António Damásio argues that Descartes was wrong when he said, “I think, therefore I am” based on his research which points to the conclusion that the thinking brain cannot be separated from the rest of the body.  Damásio feels that Descartes’ statement gives primary emphasis to the thinking brain as opposed to viewing the mind and the body as whole, but Damásio posits that in reality, the mind and the body cannot be dualized.  Teaching the intellect and forgetting about the body and the emotions is illogical and faulty pedagogy because both are constantly interacting during any activity, particularly when students are learning.


To better prepare teachers to educate our children for the demands of the 21st century economy, we need to step out of the so-called box and develop a new paradigm of teacher training based on cutting edge neuroscience research that reveals insights into how and why students learn best.  U.S. schools have been preparing our future and current teachers for the last two decades using the same educational training and naturally, getting the same results.  This is similar to the many companies over the last decade that have gone out of business by not recognizing the need to change due to the demands of a rapidly changing 21st century economy.


In order to avoid the similar fate of the businesses and industries that have met their demise, to improve the quality of education for all students, to prepare our children to meet the demands of the 21st economy, and to improve teacher training, I suggest we start examining our mindsets by looking for different answers to the following different questions:


Why does recall of prior knowledge and engagement at the start of a lesson result in improved learning?


Why do hope, enthusiasm, and praise engage learning while pessimism, apathy, and criticism turn children off?


Why do children love computer games that have an 80% failure rate but immediately give up in school when they first experience a problem? 


Why does a student one hour after class retain only 44% of what was presented and less than 80% after 30 days?


Why does differentiated instruction and assessment work?


Why does involving more sense in a lesson result in superior retention of material?


Affective Neuro-Education: The Educational Neuroscience of Affective Pedagogy Resulting in Effective Education


Learning in the classroom is a biological process.  According to Eric Kandel, 2000 Noble Prize winner in Medicine, short-term memory is linked to functional changes in existing synapses, while long-term memory is associated with a change in the number of synaptic connections.  Increased mylination of neurons occurs during learning.


John Ratey, Harvard Medical School and author of Spark, refers to teachers as so-called brain surgeons because when classroom learning occurs, the brain of the student is physically changed forever.  Or as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You never step into the same river twice.”


Affective neuro-education, or what I sometimes refer to as social and emotional teaching originating in the principles of affective neuroscience (the neural mechanisms of emotion), is based on the premise that the affective domain can significantly enhance, inhibit, or even prevent student learning.  The affective domain includes such factors as attitudes, feelings, interests, perceptions, and values.  Teachers can increase their effectiveness by considering the affective domain in planning courses, delivering lectures and activities, and assessing student learning.  The consideration of these factors has a profound impact on a student’s motivation and therefore directly affects the rate and retention of information, and plays a profoundly important role in learning.  Moreover, the efficiency of affective classroom practices can be traced to, and verified by, neuroscience research.


I propose that an effective teacher is an affective teacher.  An affective teacher realizes memory and retention have an emotional thread that includes, among other facets, fear, shame, enthusiasm, and safety.  An affective teacher is one who either consciously or innately incorporates many affective strategies and techniques in the everyday classroom interactions with their students, and the reasons for the efficiency of their affective classroom practices can be traced to, and then verified by, neuroscience research.  Affective neuro-education encourages teachers to consider the student’s affective domain, and to incorporate constantly evolving neuroscience research and theories that support the affective teaching practices into everyday classroom pedagogy.


Schools Must Begin to Incorporate Affective Neuro – Education into Teaching Pedagogy


Why is it so difficult to change?  Learning is more difficult as we get older only because we are more resistant to changing our mindsets; not because the brain cannot change.  For teachers to change their teaching pedagogy, they have to consciously examine and analyze their current educational philosophy and principles, and critique their existing instructional methods based on the results of this exploration.  In other words, teachers must revisit why and how they teach.


Speaking as an educator with forty years experience, transforming teaching and learning in the classroom and a teacher’s mindsets is an arduous and incremental process, met with tremendous teacher skepticism and resistance, and slow to yield results.  There are a myriad of reasons for this, not the least of which is that, next to religion, schools are our most conservative institutions and, in general, teachers teach either in two ways; the way they learn best, or the way they were taught.  In Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of School Reform, David Tyack, and Larry Cuban observed that, “Change where it counts the most—in the daily interactions of teachers and students — is the hardest to achieve and the most important.”


Contemplating the national mandate of standards-based assessments initiated by No Child Left Behind and the recently adopted Common Core Standards by nearly all states, one has to ask if more testing and linking of student-achievement data with teacher effectiveness is the answer for properly preparing our students for tomorrow’s working environment in our increasingly global economy?  Can adopting standards and assessments, and requiring adequate yearly progress better prepare our students for tomorrow’s work place?  Will building data systems that measure student growth and success and requiring all students to be proficient by 2014 build and instill the skills needed to succeed in tomorrow’s working environment-teamwork, collaboration, creativity, and innovation?


By themselves, I think not.  Educators should individually and collectively start getting different answers to the correct questions.  Educators must start a discussion of how to incorporate affective pedagogy based on neuroscience principles into our classrooms.  Understanding and utilizing educational neuroscience concentrating on affective pedagogy will improve the social & emotional classroom environment resulting in vibrant classrooms with motivated, engaged, and creative learners.


What do these challenges portend for teachers?  Education research has confirmed that sustained growth in achievement occurs in the classroom that offers high quality instruction and where learners are actively engaged in learning.  Naturally, teachers must have a clear understanding of the teaching craft and what good teaching looks like.  Moreover, we must start to view classrooms not as a classroom full of students but as a classroom full of minds.  Successful teaching by teachers and learning by students starts with inspiration.  Accordingly, teachers must engage the minds of students and promote active learning, create a climate of engagement, and ensure a safe and secure learning environment for all students.  Doing so will enable students to become motivated and engaged learners who are risk-takers on their way to becoming critical thinkers and problem solvers that our 21st century economy demands.  Then and only then can we begin to teach to the cognitive system of the brain.


Teachers must start to develop a basic understanding of how their pedagogy is interacting with the minds of the learners in the classroom.  By knowing the neuroscience behind learning, teachers can have an immense impact on student performance and learning.  Understanding what factors will enhance learning and what factors will inhibit it, they can incorporate the science into their educational philosophy and teaching instruction and methods.


The system is broke and it is well pass the time for just a stitch.  This is the time to be a visionary.  We must rethink what, why, how, and to what end students learn.  To accomplish this end, we must obtain contemporary and insightful answers by starting to ask the correct questions in order to seek better answers.



“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.