People are learners. Yes, all of us. Sometimes we learn what others want us to, other times we learn what we want to, and more often than not, we learn what we construct based on our experiences. These experiences with learning shape the architecture of our brains. In this way, educators are mind benders and blenders. Through the learning experiences they design and deliver, students’ brains are changed.
While caring for and cultivating vigor in the mind is of critical importance to student success, the brain has traditionally been given little regard in teacher development and curricular construction. Teachers are largely left to differentiate and meet the needs of individual students based on the demonstration of specific, isolated skills — writing, reading, arithmetic.
What if, instead, teachers were learned in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and pedagogical principles? What if teachers looked at areas of student strength and challenge as evidence of neural affinities and weakness? What if teachers employed strategies and interventions with the mind in mind?
Fortunately, with the recent gains in neuroscience and cognitive psychology over the past few decades, more and more researchers, scholars, and educators are blazing a new field that stands to shape the architecture of education and educators’ understanding of the science of learning.
Neuro-education is a blend of three previously disparate fields: Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, and Education. The result is an amalgamated field, just barely getting its legs under itself. However, the trend is clear — minding the mind bridges the gap between the cutting edges of scientific inquiry and the day to day practices of educators. This emerging trend stands to be a game changer. Below are four elements of the trend for your consideration as you begin to explore its implications for your learning community.
1. Let’s Get Together and Do Some Learning
Take, as an example, the upcoming Learning and Brain Conference in Boston, Nov. 16-18, 2012. Themed “Using Individual Brain Differences to Teach and Reach All Learners,” its program is made up of a plethora of lettered neuroscientists, researchers and educators — the effective A-list of neuroeducation experts. The likes of Judy Willis, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Kurt Fisher, scholars who have been working hard to bridge the gap between brain science and classroom practice, will provide the content that represents the front edge of the science of learning.
Educators, administrators and learning coaches would do well to find their way into this network and to engage with these leaders. Because, it is through the efforts of Learning and Brain Society that those of us in such seemingly disparate yet interrelated professions can co-mingle, co-inform, and hopefully, co-collaborate. It is here, at this intersection of research and pedagogy, that we stand to make the changes in our edu-practice that directly influence students in profound and transformative ways.
2. Where Everyday Surfing Meets Extremely Useful Knowledge
Popular sites such as Edutopia and KQED have devoted increased amounts of bandwidth to sharing knowledge about the brain and how it works, sometimes with direct implications for classroom instruction. Edutopia, in this regard, takes the lead as a go-to spot for applying neurodevelopment knowledge in learning environments. Their series on “Brain Based Learning” provides both the background knowledge about the brain as well as strategies for delivering developmentally and neurally appropriate instruction. KQED’s Mind Shift Blog on the other hand offers up ideas and trends related to brain based research and how it may inform action and technology. Both demonstrate the increasing demand for understanding students on a much more personalized manner.
3. Building Professional Capacity, Grad School Style
There are an increasing number of programs dedicated to building a foundation for educators to understand students, not in terms of test score data or subject area ability, but rather in terms of their neurodevelopmental profiles and constructs. Schools such as Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education masters program, Johns Hopkins University’s Neuro-Education Initiative, Colombia’s Teachers College, and the Peabody, Vanderbilt Brain Institute are all pioneering graduate programs that combine neuroscience with education in the emerging field of Neuro-education. This emerging field, though still young, is promising in its potential to transform how we understand students as both individuals and as learners.
4. Tools for the Everyday Toolbox
How do we integrate this learning into day to day practice in the classroom? A pioneer in the effort to bring neuroscience to the classroom in a way that can work for each and every teacher is All Kinds of Minds. Their neurodevelopmental framework helps both teachers better understand students and students better understand themselves. Building on AKOM’s efforts and research, QED Foundation is developing and prototyping their Learner Sketch Tool, which is designed to facilitate discussions between teachers and students as well as to empower learners through metacognition. You can try out an older version of the tool here, or test ride the newer prototype version designed for schools here (just select “Demo Facility”). The new prototype version combines an entire class’s set of student profiles into a “class snapshot” that provides teachers a better understand their class either as a whole or as a collection of individuals. It’s brain based data that attends to the whole brain, whole child, and when employed throughout an institution, whole school.
The bottom line is that the mind matters. With neuroscience making huge strides and the public’s increased focus on education, the need for learning communities to focus on and advocate for understanding students as more than just test scores could not be more urgent. Not just for test scores or “student achievement” but for the well being of students and to build capacity in our nation’s educators. Fortunately, there is an emerging trend of doing just that.
Minding the mind ensures the learning fits the learner and that the inevitable changes to the brain are positively transformative.
Full disclosure: I work for QED Foundation and am project manager for both our Learner Sketch Tool and All Kinds of Minds initiatives.