We live in an era where innovation occurs at an unparalleled rate. Many aspects of today's world would be unrecognizable and unfathomable to those living just twenty years ago. As we look around, we see change in the fields of architecture, technology, and communication, to name a few. But what about our classrooms? How have our school environments transformed? On the surface, they appear to have changed quite a bit. We have more technology, better resources, and more learning support for students. However, if we look a little deeper at the actual teaching going on in classrooms, how can we measure a clear and compelling difference from how students learned decades ago? At Far Hills, a Preschool–Grade 8 private school in New Jersey, our faculty is on a mission to find out.
Over the last ten years, there has been a quiet revolution happening in education. A concerted effort to bring together researchers in the fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and educational theory, commonly known as both Mind, Brain, and Education Science (MBE), has transformed educators' best practices for teaching and learning. The research in the field of MBE isn't new, but the application of this research into practice is in its infancy. One of the leading organizations in MBE is the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL). Far Hills has partnered with the CTTL to bring the most research-informed strategies into the classroom, and to benefit our students. Over the last two summers, twenty-one Far Hills teachers have had the opportunity to study at the CTTL's Summer Academy and have been amazed by what they discovered.
For example, did you know that researchers have learned that the brain can continuously change and adapt according to its experiences? The concept is called Neuroplasticity, and it indicates that the brain has incredible elasticity, continuously rewiring itself in response to experiences. So, the saying "you learn something new every day" is not too far fetched.
Let's pause for a moment. This is MONUMENTAL!
Contrary to the long-held and widely touted myth that the brain finishes growing by the time children reach puberty, current research has found that brain maturation continues to change well into later life! Let's combine this with another myth that says we only use 10% of our brain. Well, we know this also be false since the brain is continually making new neural connections and pruning unused ones. If we combine this fact with Neuroplasticity, it is easy to see that in every moment of a student's life, his or her brain is constantly changing. Teachers truly are brain changers.
But that isn't all. Have you ever considered the role of forgetting in learning as a strength? Research documents that the best way to strengthen memory is by allowing the brain to forget the information and then begin a process of "spaced retrieval" to remember the information and store it for long-term use.
By applying current MBE research to classroom practice, Far Hills faculty understands how to help our students learn faster, deeper, and longer. From the intentional feedback that we offer to how we ask students to reflect on their understanding, MBE research provides a gateway to better learning outcomes for every student.
Time for Change
Brain research has continued to evolve and develop over the years, but not all learning institutions haven't necessarily kept pace with new findings. In what other fields would this happen? Imagine going to visit with a medical specialist, such as a cardiologist. You would expect this doctor to have current, in-depth knowledge of the heart, as this is the major organ that they work with every single day. What if their knowledge of the heart was from reading a few books and from trial and error? What if they said, "I'm not entirely sure of what I'm doing, but I promise to work hard and as passionately as any doctor you know!"
Think about how you would react. Most likely, you would reconsider any medical advice this doctor gave you. Most likely, you would move heaven and earth to get out of that office as quickly as possible. The same is true for teachers and the brain. Every day, every student brings his or her brain to class. So, of course, teachers should understand current research about how their brain best learns and works!
Thanks to the work of universities, researchers, and institutions such as CTTL, we can dispel the myths about the brain (dubbed neuromyths) that have slowly crept into thinking over the years. For example, 30 years ago, researchers thought that the brain stopped developing after a certain period of time, meaning that your knowledge and brain capacity was fixed and could not be substantially changed. We now know that this information is categorically wrong and, in fact, when believed, is hugely detrimental to our students. The time for change is upon us, and we are equipping our Far Hills teachers with the latest MBE research to ensure that every one of our students fulfill their learning potential.
Why Does it Matter?
We believe that the science of learning isn't something that should be chatted about informally or skimmed over during a one-day professional development workshop. Rather, the science of learning needs to be at the forefront of education. From the newest teachers to the most experienced veteran, every teacher needs to know how the brain works and how to help our students harness it to learn and grow.
While it's all well and good to talk about the research, the question quickly becomes, "How do we take the concepts and make them count for our students?" Through our studies, we know that there are clear applications of brain research that can be made in every grade, every classroom, and, most importantly, for EVERY student.
We can take the concept of Neuroplasticity and use it to inform our practices around building empathy. By exposing students to more situations that demand empathy skills, we can support the elasticity of the brain to be able to develop the appropriate response.
We can use our knowledge of memory and apply it to how we implement our math curriculums. Have you ever sat through a test and thought, "I remember learning this concept, but I have no idea how to answer the question?" MBE research gives us the answer!
We can help students discern how and what they know and don't know. Sounds confusing! This concept is called metacognition, and by using it, we can better support students to understand their strengths and areas that they need to hone.
We can provide better feedback to students so that they can use it to solve the next problem or express themselves more clearly.
The CTTL, located on the campus of St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland, has a unique insight into how the science of learning translates into classroom practice. Why? Because the students they work with benefit from this research. Because the teachers they inform are the teachers who can make a difference in the classroom that same day. A central pillar in the CTTL's work is putting students front and center. Last winter, our entire faculty had the honor of working with the Director of the CTTL, Glenn Whitman, when he visited our day school in Somerset County, NJ. During his visit, we heard from four Far Hills students on their experiences as learners. Listening to their stories and how they fit seamlessly with what the research says was truly validating.
Take "Cognitive Load Theory," for example, the idea that students can hold, on average, 4–5 pieces of information in their active working memory. One Far Hills student commented that a hurdle for him is "having to memorize lots of steps in one question." He elaborated that he could remember "about five things at a time." Another student, when asked what her teachers did best to help her learn, said, "Instead of always having to take a test on the material we were studying, I appreciate being able to show my understanding through group projects or writing pieces." This experience is supportive of the work done around student engagement and achievement, which indicates that by providing more choice in assessments, teachers engage students in a way that allows them to show their best learning.
Again, every student brings his or her brain to school each and every day. As educators, it is incumbent on us to understand how that organ works best for learning. Teachers must understand that the first step in remembering something is to forget it. Teachers must know that the brain has tremendous elasticity and is constantly rewiring according to its experiences. But teachers must also remember that the students in front of them provide a unique insight into what makes them learn best. Giving flexibility to teachers to experiment and fail and then try again ultimately creates long-lasting success.
At the beginning of this article, we noted the "quiet" revolution that is happening in education. Well, it's quiet no more! In our hallways, classrooms, labs, fields, and stages at Far Hills, we are bringing together our knowledge, expertise, and passion for ensuring that the learning experiences and outcomes of Far Hills Preschool–Grade 8 students are the best they can be. Our students learn better, deeper, and longer.
Meet the Authors
Peter McBride Jennifer Phillips
Fourth Grade Teacher Director of Teaching & Learning, Wellness Teacher