How Educational Neuroscience Influenced the Calgary Changemaker School
When a teacher understands the role neuroscience plays in education, their instructional practice becomes more differentiated, they grow more confident as teachers and they experience higher levels of student engagement and achievement (Whitman & Kelleher, 2016). The traditional model of a teacher lecturing to a classroom of obedient and passive learners is outdated and is neither effective nor equitable. Neuroscience and the theory of neuroplasticity is critical for students of any level, background or ability because it supports the belief that a child’s environment and experiences play just as great or a greater role in the development of the brain than genetics. Furthermore, the theory of neuroplasticity explains a child’s ability to succeed and exceed expectations regardless of background or perceived ability.
Providing students with frequent, non-threatening, and low-stakes feedback on their understanding is critical to learning and retention. When I started studying educational neuroscience during my Master's program, I was pleased to find that I had already been practicing many of the research-informed strategies that the experts were now promoting. In my classroom I have always provided students with plenty of verbal feedback and provided written suggestions and/or corrections to make before grading or formally assessing their work. This was in junior and senior high. (I question the necessity of assigning grades to elementary students at all). I often design classes around a variety of discovery, research and activity stations so that students who are ready to work independently can begin quickly and have the opportunity to advance further than if I had only given instructions for a single assignment. Meanwhile, I spend time circulating, giving feedback and supporting students as they need it. I assess each student's level of understanding daily through conversations, exit-slips, individual whiteboard 'check-ins' and various online tools before I assign grades or move on to a new topic. Intuitively, I have always thought this progression of assessment and learning to be in alignment with best teaching practices but research shows that one of the most underutilized yet critical teaching and learning strategies that Mind-Brain-Education-Science validates is formative assessment (Whitman & Kelleher, 2016).
While Whitman and Kelleher (2016) point out that “tolerable stress can be a good thing if it occurs in short duration and in a supportive community” (p.16), Judy Willis notes that an extended state of stress sends signals into the lower part of the brain that is responsible for the fight, flight or freeze response and stops the capacity to learn (Edutopia, 2014). In my own classroom I prioritize student engagement by means of setting strict time limits on my instructions and direct teaching (lecturing), offering a variety of hands-on and authentic learning opportunities to peak curiosity, and encouraging students to find meaning and relevance between the curriculum objectives and their own communities and lives.
Most importantly, I emphasize the importance of a safe classroom with my students as described by Judy Willis (Edutopia, 2016). I teach (and model) lessons on vulnerability, I describe (and model) how we build a community of trust and respect, and I give examples to demonstrate the positive power of mistakes. In order to prepare students for the 21st century, I believe teachers need to be relentless in their pursuit of ‘how’ students learn (which includes creating safe learning spaces) and not be so focused on ‘what’ they should learn. I have discovered that this is not the standard way of thinking yet. This is changemaking in education.
References and Further Reading:
Whitman, G., & Kelleher, I. (2016). Neuroteach: Brain science and the future of education. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Damasio, A., Fischer, K., Baird, A., & Gabrieli, J. (n.d.). A Brief History of Neuroscience. [Video].Retrieved from http://www.learner.org/courses/neuroscience/common_includes/si_flowplayer.html?pid=2375
Yellin, P. B. (n.d.). Mind, Brain, and Education. [Video]. Retrieved from http://www.learner.org/courses/neuroscience/common_includes/si_flowplayer.html?pid=2373
Edutopia. (2014, April 14). Big Thinkers: Judy Willis on the Science of Learning. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/video/big-thinkers-judy-willis-science-learning