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Nick (Section 3) and Martha (Section 5) are part of an army of teachers that has been growing for decades—teachers committed to finding ways to improve a badly flawed system, teachers who have found allies in researchers who are studying the brain and how we learn. Some of these teachers have joined forces under different banners: multiple intelligences, the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), constructivism, differentiated instruction. But you can also hear their individual, often isolated voices as you walk down the halls of different schools, voices that echo various principles emerging from neuroscience.
"Something's not right here. What is it?" asks Krista stepping back as she works through the problems that her tenth-grade math students have put on the white boards around the room. She looks at the numbers as students shout suggestions. "OK," she says, "so 16x to the sixth is the variable expression for the area, and what happens when we plug in 5? Why isn't Karen's answer coming out right?" A cacophony of suggestions, all of them focused on possible errors Karen has made, and Krista stands quietly looking at the numbers.
"Oh, wait," she says, stabbing at the board with her marker. "What if Karen is right? Look, look. What do you see here? I made an error. My arithmetic is wrong."
"I knew it," shouts one of the boys, who is followed by a chorus of "I got it right."
Krista turns to them. "So why didn't you say so? Why did you assume I was right? I make mistakes, but you just assumed the teacher must be right, didn't you?"
Krista works hard to get her students to think like mathematicians, to understand the importance of noticing errors, and to begin to trust their own powers of emotional thinking—to question answers and explanations, even those emanating from authority. By drawing attention to their emotional responses ("I knew it"), Krista helps her students trust their emotions and develop the skilled intuition that will make them successful problem-solvers.
Down the hall, Meghan, a Latin teacher, encourages her students in the same direction. "Kids seem to do much better with concepts and ideas when they have to figure them out on their own and put them into their own words." So she has her students teaching gerunds and the gerundive to each other. "It's very interesting to listen to the kids talk about grammar concepts in their own words. Often, they make discoveries or come up with ideas that are advanced and complicated. I think the class went quite well, and I was pleased to hear two grammar topics being discussed in six different ways." Through teaching each other, these students are building richer, more robust neural networks for grammatical concepts. Meghan also taps into the social nature of learning and helps align the goals of learner and teacher: In this exercise the learner is the teacher, and the teacher is the learner.
Upstairs, Laura turns off the lights and asks her English students to close their eyes and recall something that frightened or delighted them as children, something to rekindle a strong emotion from childhood. Then she asks them to imagine what sort of animal this emotion might resemble, and they move on to create descriptive poems about these animals in preparation to read Emily Dickinson's "Hope," "a thing with feathers."
"I recruited their emotions to get them in the right mindset to address the ideas in the poem," Laura explains. "Then I had them try to do the same things Dickinson had done in her poem [use language, imagery, metaphor] so they would be less intimidated by the poem itself. They would have done the same (top)
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thing on their own already and would have some understanding of what she was trying to do in her poem. Then I had them read the poem and try to understand it, analyze and interpret it." Not only are her students emotionally prepared for Dickinson's poem, but they also are invited to come to the assignment using their own emotional experiences and their own understanding of the world. Laura recognizes that each of her students is inevitably going to perceive the poem differently.
Across the campus in the science classrooms, Michael is having his students "design and carry out an inquiry-based lab on enzymes." Jim's room is empty because he has taken his chemistry students off campus to a local stream to analyze the degree of pollution and determine its sources in preparation for meeting with the town's conservation committee. These science teachers understand that doing real science to achieve important, meaningful goals increases the likelihood that their students will experience their education as emotionally relevant. They also know that having to explain the results of their inquiries to a committee of non-scientists will build strong neural networks.
These efforts to help students think like scientists, writers, mathematicians, historians, and artists reflect the work of thousands of other good teachers all over the country in all sorts of schools. They are the fruits of years of struggle to reform these schools, to graduate skilled students who can think creatively instead of giving diplomas to parrots. These are teachers courageous and honest enough to admit the failures of the deadening lecture—regurgitating traditions of schooling—and are intellectually alive and curious enough to search for better ways to promote deep, lasting learning.
These teachers have often had to battle a system that is big, relentless, and inflexible. Outnumbered, they have fought an often lonely war. Fortunately, they have found powerful allies in neuroscientists, whose research not only supports their efforts, but also deepens their insight into how learning happens. As a result, despite the intolerable slowness of the struggle against the forces of inertia, there are signs that reform might finally achieve escape velocity. More and more teachers are attending workshops on learning, teaching, and the brain. More are trying out new ideas in their classrooms. Partnerships among college education departments, neuroscience labs, and K-12 schools are forming. And most important, supported by a growing body of research, teachers like Nick and Martha are becoming more confident and venturing outside their classrooms to share their successes with their colleagues and to take leadership positions. It's about time. Innovative, imaginative teachers deserve the support of innovative schools and real systemic change. They deserve to work in conditions where their goals and understanding of learning are aligned with those of their schools.