Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Title of course:  Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Conclusion: A Community of Educators


Section 2:
Mind, brain, and education (MBE)

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Fortunately, starting in the 1990s, researchers like Kurt Fischer at Harvard, Bruno della Chiesa in Paris, and Hideaki Koizuma in Tokyo almost simultaneously began a movement to bring together cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, educators, and students in the service of improving both research and education. Prior to this movement, researchers tended to explore in their labs questions that interested them, but their insights were rarely influenced by student behavior or teacher experiences in the classroom or even by questions raised by teachers. And, it was equally rare for theories developed by researchers to find their way into the classroom, either to be tested against or to influence reality. Those that did find their way into schools, such as, most notably, the theory of multiple intelligences, typically left the researchers at the door.

The inspiration for MBE was, and remains, the research development and practice model of the teaching hospital, where researchers work closely with doctors, patients, and interns to improve medical outcomes. Theory and practice, and models and reality, would finally inform each other in schools, as partnerships developed among researchers, graduate programs, and K–12 schools. At first, a few graduate schools of education offered interested students courses that integrated biology, cognitive science, and education, and researchers lectured educators at various conferences and workshops on learning and the brain. Unfortunately, too few teachers, aspiring or veteran, participated in those MBE programs. The interactions between researchers and teachers at conferences tended to be one-way affairs, leaving teachers excited but puzzled by the theories and with no idea how to implement them in the classroom. Predictably, commercial "brain-based" programs sprang up to fill the void.

Dr. Paul Yellin
Dr. Paul Yellin
"I think the notion of mind, brain, and education is to be equal partners. The important issues that affect how children learn don't live in any one discipline... there needs to be a..."  – Dr. Paul Yellin
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Dr. Paul Yellin

Dr. Paul Yellin

"I think the notion of mind, brain, and education is to be equal partners. The important issues that affect how children learn don't live in any one discipline... there needs to be a conversation across disciplines, and... as that conversation happens, first of all, we all have a lot to learn from each other, and more importantly, we can all be more effective in how we do our jobs." – Dr. Paul Yellin

Paul B. Yellin, MD, FAAP, is director of The Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education, a student evaluation and professional development organization which provides customized support for students and educators based on emerging knowledge in neuroscience. Dr. Yellin is an associate professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics.

Since those early days, the MBE movement has grown more robust, and real collaborations among teachers, students, and researchers are appearing here and there. For example, a group of college and K–12 educators led by researcher Donna Coch started a partnership in the Upper Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire. Part of the program included opportunities for veteran teachers to enroll in graduate courses in MBE and invitations to teachers to develop experiments that they could conduct in their classrooms. To prepare themselves to become researchers, these teachers visited the labs at Dartmouth College, interacted with neuroscientists, and learned how to conduct rigorous research. At the same time, the scientists in this partnership learned more about the specific sorts of problems that teachers confront in the classroom—the sorts of errors students typically make in reading and math. The conversations also helped the researchers to develop new projects and to gain better insight into student differences, insight that further affected their research. For example, based on conversations with teachers, one researcher studied bullying in middle-school girls, and together the teachers and researchers developed and implemented a program to address bullying.

Another collaboration developed in Massachusetts when researcher Todd Rose approached teachers at the Landmark School with the goal of figuring out some of the processes behind the dyslexia that characterizes most of the students there. (Landmark specializes in students who experience "language-based learning problems.") Todd met with a number of the Landmark teachers to discuss their ideas about the reasons students struggle with reading and writing. He had particularly long and energetic conversations with Chris Murphy, a veteran teacher who had worked for several years with many dyslexic students. Todd talked a lot about "working memory," the number of items that people can (top)

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hold in mind when they are reading or writing text. He proposed that working memory was the fundamental problem for students with dyslexia. They had trouble keeping enough items in their working memory to be able to understand text that they were reading.

Chris was not satisfied with Todd's explanation. He kept raising objections, asking questions based on his extensive experience with many dyslexic students. He doubted that working memory was so simple: It did not seem to him that all dyslexic students experienced the same kinds of problems with holding items in memory when they were reading or writing.

Back and forth the discussions went, with Todd pushing the argument that the fundamental limitation in dyslexia was working memory, and Chris arguing that many students with working memory limitations turned out to be skilled with reading. Based on all their debate, Chris and Todd realized eventually that they needed to separate working memory limitations from vocabulary limitations. Perhaps a student could have some problems holding items in mind but have a strong vocabulary so that in reading and writing the working memory limit was not a factor.

The result was a research hypothesis: Working memory limitations could lead to difficulties in reading and writing; but if a student had an extensive vocabulary, maybe the working memory limit was no longer an issue or at least less of an issue. This hypothesis formed the core for the research project that Todd designed for his dissertation.

Todd collected data from high school students attending Landmark, putting together scores from a number of standardized tests of working memory and vocabulary. He examined how these skills related to fluent performance in reading "connected text" (such as reading this paragraph). The findings strongly supported the complex hypothesis that Todd and Chris had built together.

This modest partnership between a teacher (Chris) and a researcher (Todd) illustrates how researchers can benefit from discussing their hypotheses with teachers. The direction of Todd's working hypothesis changed as a result of his debates with Chris, whose classroom experiences with students struggling to read challenged Todd's original theory and led to a more complex and nuanced understanding of these struggles. The result was new insights into the relationships among working memory, vocabulary, and reading fluency in students with dyslexia. The beneficiaries of these sorts of partnerships are the students.

Practical Research for Sesame Street
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Currently, these partnerships continue to form as researchers and teachers talk to each other. Some develop as a series of simple workshops and discussions. Others aspire to and may eventually become full-blown laboratory collaborations like those envisioned at the end of the 19th century by John Dewey. For example, Harvard Graduate School of Education has teamed with both Landmark School in Massachusetts and Ross School in New York to create research schools. Harvard researchers are also examining specific research questions with the Boston, Brockton, and Belmont public schools. A process called Instructional Rounds has been created in a number of schools to promote discussion among educators by focusing on individual student cases, in a manner similar to the way that doctors and researchers in teaching hospitals focus on individual medical cases. See book, Instructional rounds in education: A network approach to improving teaching and learning. Public schools in Boston and Texas are working with DiscoTest, an initiative to explore new approaches to standardized testing based on how students develop conceptual understanding. See article, "Redesigning Testing: operationalizing the new science of learning."

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