Where Do We Go From Here
University of Portland
Ian Diamond (2007) put the challenge that we all face in this light, “Attempts to introduce neuroscience into the classroom have to date been of mixed quality. Often they have relied too little upon research evidence and too much on impressive-sounding but scientifically questionable formulae.” My reflecting on this quote, throughout a period of further research and evaluation of course readings and discussions, led to the idea to design better staff development around classroom practices. In simple terms, the staff development can be considered defend and refine. This is a model wherein educators meet on a regular basis to use their professional knowledge, along with the knowledge of their colleagues, to defend practices they deem effective and refine practices that are ineffective. Colleagues will be paired with educators from a different background in order to defend, refine and jettison practices. Some examples of pairings: more experience in the classroom with more recent university training; cross-disciplinary pairings; early childhood-intermediate educator; resistant to change with changes too often; among others.
This practice begins not with changing immediately what the students do, but rather what our colleagues and ourselves use to decide what we bring for students to do. School personnel are reticent to let go of old practices. Worse at times, school leaders bring in and jettison practices before they have been proven to work or not due to popular trends in education. By implementing a defend-and-refine program, school personnel get a chance to put their own collective knowledge into practice by defending practices they want to add or keep while at the same time refining practices known to be partially or completely ineffective. Through this process, personnel can come to better understand and articulate the inner workings of programs, strategies, instructional design and the student as learner. Ultimately, they gain confidence and knowledge as educators to make informed choices about their teaching.
When something works for students, it needs to be considered as a valuable tool—but it has no value if we do not understand how it works. This is where the defend part of the innovation around staff development comes in. This practice would require staff development to utilize discussion and defense of current practices in order to maintain the practice. In schools, educators are able to take the long-term knowledge of experienced staff and combine it with more newly acquired knowledge of younger staff in order to ensure that practices that are being kept are truly beneficial. Ideally, combined with the more up to date educational training of newer educators, older practitioners will be educated through their own defense and the defense or refute/refining of the younger educators.
Not all known ineffective practices are truly horrific, and many partially work, but it is important to understand why they work and don’t work in order to make strategies the most effective for the learner. Thus, it is important to not just defend but also be open to the refine part of the practice. When a practice is ineffective it is important to understand what about the practice is not working prior to throwing it out. When educators don’t learn from their prior experience they repeat the same mistakes when utilizing new resources. Further, the refining part of the practice allows educators to take what they know in order to make sense and practical application of the strategies they use.
Hook and Farah (2012) note that educators are vulnerable to misinformation from curriculum creators. Teachers’ quest for innovative teaching methods often leads to a susceptibility to unrealistic promises of the potential of a certain strategy. Rather than letting profit based business dictate what happens in the schools, educators need to rely on their professional education and knowledge to determine what they do in their classrooms. Often administrators, far removed from practice and current training, are the decision makers. By removing administrators and curriculum trainers from delivering staff development—and putting this practice back in the hands of the trained professionals—we utilize what we know works for learning, the synthesis of known information with unfamiliar information to form new understanding by the educators themselves. Discussion and sharing one’s own thinking in ones’ own words with others through defending and refining one’s practice is what we seek for our own students; this same practice is the starting point for ownership of best practice and implementation of what will best help students on their own journey.
Howard-Jones (2007) notes that while many old ideas regarding the brain in education are at odds with current neuroscience, they are not in complete disagreement. Rather, if something is working, the basis for that effect should be researched further to support improved understanding and practice. Educators don’t have the research laboratories that scientists do, but they have something even greater—actual students and each other. The refining part of the staff development comes from discussing what is working and determining why based in current science and pedagogy findings. This is where the discussion with a variety of colleagues is so important. Utilizing the training and knowledge of more recent education graduates allows the experienced staff to build and refine their own knowledge while imparting their experience of what works and doesn’t work to those who have not had the chance to experiment.
Schrag (2013) equates the attempts at bringing pure neuroscience into the classroom as similar to bringing only knowledge of the neuromuscular system to athletic training. She argues that educations, like athletic contests, are the makeup of more than just the physical; there are cultural norms, equipment, rules, etc that create the whole of education and athletics. Integrating educator knowledge of students with current training in neuroscience and education creates a whole picture from which to base pedagogical decisions.
Educators need to be allowed to make these decisions through dialogue. Defending one’s practice with the thought on improving, not arguing, is critical to educators’ own learning—and doing what is best for their students. An openness to refining as new knowledge integrates with prior knowledge will be critical. Dialogue needs to happen between educators and neuroscientists in order to create educational programs based on sound science. (Howard-Jones 2007)
Critical to sound teaching is the debunking of neuro-myths and the understanding of what “works” means. Bruno della Chiesa (2009) cautions that these neuromyths are often founded on misunderstandings, bad interpretations, and distortions of research results. Discussion, defense and refinement, by cross curricular and diversely experienced staff, will open the door to debunking what is myth and finding what is real only if universities continue to evolve and educate based on current scientific findings. By requiring practitioners to defend and be open to refinement of their work in open, neutral collegial dialogue an atmosphere of questioning and answer seeking is created. This openness to questioning should lessen the ability for neuromyths to take strong hold before being refined to fit with true scientifically based methods. della Chiesa stated that transdisciplinarians would be required to bring neuroscience to the classroom. But just bringing in newly trained teachers will not be enough; those teachers need to be able to share their knowledge with the other educators in the building in a way that integrates their training into the teaching done by others so that sound neuro-based teaching is incorporated throughout the schools.
Willingham and Lloyd (2007) were unimpressed by early attempts at bringing neuroscience into the schools. Their concern was that while there were 4 distinct ways to connect neuroscientific findings to cognitive theory, the connection to educational theory wasn’t as straightforward. Scientists, both neuro and cognitive, need to work with educators to create and refine best practice. The transdisciplinarians that della Chiesa spoke of are the bridge between the two worlds. Based on Willingham and Lloyd’s research, the initial transdisciplinarians should come from special education departments. Certainly educators trained in special education should be at the forefront of neuroscience research and integration within the schools, but they should not be an island and separate department. Rather, they should be a part of the greater dialogue and through their defense and refinement practices be a model for others.
The specialty of Special Education within a neuroeducation lens has great power in the lives of all students. There are two findings within neuroscience that could have great impact on special education but can also shed great light on instruction for all learners: first that learning changes the brain, and second that the brain structure itself influences learning (Masson 2013). Both these findings impact how we define learning disabilities and can also impact how educators defend-and-refine practices that focus on learning abilities.
Masson (2013) cautions that the first step in any implementation is incorporating a university requirement for all educators in the area of neuroeducation. In this plan, the same requirement would be necessary. Without the new scientific knowledge, the dialogue around educational practices would not be rich. As well, defense of practices would be stuck in old thinking. The premise of this staff development idea is that the newfound knowledge would be brought into whole school practice through dialogue and that new practitioners would gain insight from experienced practitioners.
Another impediment will be administrator buy in. Many school principals cling to their power structure by having the answers and knowledge to hand to their staff—much in the same way they expect teachers to instruct their students. The defend-and-refine practice requires professional trust and acceptance of a new model of instruction and learning.
Ultimately, the most difficult buy in will be the teachers who have been practicing for a long period of time. The idea of being able to defend one’s teaching requires an openness to disequilibrium, confusion and the potential of needing to let go of one’s static former thinking in order to build new dynamic thinking. This is at the heart of learning. This practice depends on educators’ openness and desire to explore and learn alongside their students.
Implementing this defend-and-refine practice could be as simple as allocating staff development time to learning about what “defending” means. Stressing that it is not a prove your technique works, but rather an open dialogue about the reasons it works with an eye for clearly defining the connection between just working and being able to discuss why it works. As well, openness to refining through dialogue with colleagues who are different than each other will need time to incorporate itself into school culture.
In schools, we see grade level, content specialists, and other biases in which colleagues choose to trust or mistrust. Breaking these cultural norms will require a bit of a training period. Bolstering the courage of newer staff to speak up and encouraging experienced staff to be open to contemplation about their practices in light of the new information. After this period of disequilibrium, staff will be better able to deeply self evaluate and analyze their teaching. At this point, school administrators will need to allot regular time to dialogue about success, missteps and any new curriculum in order to evaluate its’ potential benefit from a neuroscience and pedagogical experience lens.
As universities add neuroeducation programs, and many top research universities such as Johns Hopkins and Harvard, along with other non-research colleges such as the University of Portland have, staffing at schools will increasingly have updated and continued knowledge in the area of neuroeducation. Continuation of universities adding neuroeducation courses is needed to make this a sustainable innovation in education that evolves on its own alongside research findings. The success of the program of defend-and-refine will be evident in not only the willingness of staff to listen to new educators, but also when staff openly and excitedly defends the practices they have using the language of neuroscience and the practiced experience of having implemented the strategy.
Further, in current practice administrators defend with stoic assumption of authority their programs and teacher practices. When a dialogue that institutes defend-and-refine practice is fully implemented, it would be expected that administrators encourage any inquiring mind to talk with an educator in the building about practices. Educators should be able to defend their own practice, and because they have constant deep dialogue, their colleagues should be able to explain others’ practices with clarity as well.
Ultimately, the ability to describe what one does, defend it and be able to refine as new knowledge comes to light requires truly understanding it. This innovation requires using science-based knowledge and an openness and active participation on the part of educators and administrative staff to making changes. If these changes are made based on this process, it is proof of success.
della Chiesa, B. (2009) Beginning in the brain: Pioneering the field of educational
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Howard-Jones, P. (2007) Neuroscience and Education Issues and Opportunities.
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Schrag, F. (2013) Can this marriage be saved? The future of ‘neuro-education’
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