Imagine a seed planted in the ground. To merely survive as a plant its needs are fairly basic. Dirt. Moisture. Light. However, in order to truly thrive, its needs become a bit more complex. Rich, aerated soil. Consistent, clean water. Full spectrum light. Climate, weather, competition, air quality, and locality all play a role as well.
Our work in education is of a similar vein. For students to merely survive the basics may suffice — Classroom. Teacher. Content.
However, in order to truly thrive, a student’s needs are a bit more complex. Engaging and enriching learning environments; passionate and professional educators; relevant and meaningful lessons that balance content with experiences. Influencing these elements are numerous other factors: community, peers, leadership, access to technology, basic needs, health, safety, and a student’s own learning profile, among many others.
The intricacies of the dynamics at play necessitate that we as educators and education leaders view teaching and learning through the dual lenses of specificity and complexity. We must simultaneously consider the big picture of the whole child and the individuality of each student in every class. The effort of walking that tightrope is compounded when the surrounding environment puts stresses on the students’ growth and development.
In attending ASCD’s Annual Conference this weekend in Philadelphia, I found that there are growing developments that stand to transform education. The cool part about them to me–they build the capacity of educators, attend to the larger questions about providing for students, and empower teachers. In essence, they aren’t about The Test.
Three major trends caught my eye:
1. The increasing accessibility of applicable research.
2. The growth of the whole child movement.
3. A grassroots leadership of educators filling a demand for transformation.
An increasing amount of brain research, coupled with a more comprehensive look at what works in schools, helps to provide a better sketch of where we need to focus our efforts in order to affect positive growth in students to our greatest potential as a school. (Hint: It isn’t more testing!)
In order to achieve the academic and intellectual growth we envision for our students, their basic needs must be taken care of. As Pedro Noguera said during his session with Wade Boykin, “Unmet social needs become unmet academic needs.” This is supported by the brain research presented by Carol Ann Tomlinson.
Before information can reach the relational, patterning, and memory storage areas of the brain, it must pass through the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS filters all incoming stimuli and decides which data a person attends to or ignores. The most powerful stimulus for the RAS is physical need; the brain will not be able to engage in the task of learning unless basic survival needs are first met. If students associate their classrooms with a visceral sense of fear, the RAS will filter out all but life-sustaining sensory information. This survival response to the stress of the classroom will greatly limit brain access to incoming information, and the students will fall farther behind (Cooper, Bloom, & Roth, 1996).
While it is acknowledged that schools cannot provide for everything a child needs, they can do more to ensure every student attends a school that is healthy, safe, supportive, challenging, and engaging. Negruera and Boykin lay the foundation for this growth with a simple mindset shift: Educators MUST believe that ALL students can learn.
Every educator, from administrators to classroom aides and everyone in-between, must believe that ALL students can learn. Then, educators need the knowledge, skills and pedagogical practices to capitalize on and leverage that belief.
Noguera and Boykin (more on their session on Mike Ritzius’s blog) advocated for building supportive relationships with students, protecting and advocating for their health, engaging them in meaningful and relevant activities, providing an emotionally and physically safe environment, and ensuring students have real opportunities to be academically challenged.
The short of it: a whole child education.
The emerging neural developmental research backs this up:
- Before the brain can attend to cognitive learning, students must feel physically safe and emotionally secure. Emotion is a strong force, and when learners experience strong negative emotions, the limbic system kicks in and both shuts down cognitive processing and enhances our memory of the negative event in order to support survival. In other words, “reflex” trumps “reflection” when negative emotions occur.
- A positive learning environment increases endorphins in the bloodstream which generates a positive feeling and stimulates the brain’s frontal lobe to support memory of the learning objective and of the positive situation.
- A negative learning environment leads to increased cortisol in the bloodstream which raises the learner’s anxiety level, shuts down processing of what it perceives to be low-priority information (the lesson content), and focuses the brain on what it perceives to be high-priority information (the situation causing the stress) so that the stressful situation is remembered rather than the lesson content. (Sousa, D., & Tomlinson, C. A, 2010)
(More on Tomlinson’s presentation on Mary Beth Hertz’s Philly Teacher blog)
Whole Child Education
The emerging awareness of the Whole Child movement stands to make a considerable impact in schools and on students. Fortunately, the research supports this development and the tools to help educators leverage students strengths is being developed and deployed. For example, try out this Learner Sketch Tool that can help students understand their own learning profile.
As educators learn more about the brain, students, and the intersection between content delivery and student growth, they find that whole school and whole district cultures dedicated to the whole child are not only possible, but also successful.
Take a look at Matt McClure, one of this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Young Educator Award. As a superintendent of Cross Country Schools in Arkansas he instituted a district-wide whole child approach. In doing so he successfully turned around schools, added innovative and community building projects, and was recognized by Arkansas Department of Education as a Coordinated School Health district.
When the well-being of students are the focal point, the debate on what we need to do to transform schools and cultivate cultures of learning is effectively reframed. As Heidi Hayes Jacobs told a roundtable of education bloggers during a luncheon, “In all of our conversations about education we need to pull an empty chair to the table and envision one of our students in the chair. Then, in all of our deliberations, we must continually ask, ‘How is this good for [insert the imaginary student's name here]?’”
It is precisely this desire and demand to make a difference in the lives of students that has inspired the Edcamp movement. Based on the idea of an “unconference” in which the professional development content that is delivered reflects the needs and wants of the participants, Edcamp events capitalize on and build on the knowledge and skills of teachers and leaders in an organic and personalized way.
As educators take control of their own learning, they build their capacity to affect change where it matters most — in the lives of the students they teach. What’s more, this localization and personalization of professional growth empowers the participants as learning leaders within their schools and districts. This is precisely the kind of culture — a culture of learning from top down and left to right — which constitutes the type of soil, climate, and light necessary for all students to thrive and grow.
These three trends — research in practice, whole child focus, and empowered educators — coupled with the arising tools of technology, leadership expertise, and cultural responsiveness, allows the pollyanna in me to see beyond the commercialization of our schools to a future of holistic growth. Not just for student test scores, but for teacher leadership, communities of learning, and, most importantly, for students’ well being–of mind, body, and spirit.
Thanks for the great conference, ASCD. I’m already looking forward to Chicago.