The May 2020 issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership is all about learning and the brain, a topic that’s near and dear to McREL. Our Bryan Goodwin and Darienne Day contributed a Research Matters column that encourages educators to consider knowledge about how learning happens as they design lessons—knowledge that, they say, has been “hidden in plain view” for decades.
In their first year of teaching, new teachers often find themselves lifted by their own idealism but weighed down by real struggles with routines and practices around lesson planning, classroom management, collegiality, and mentorship. As the gulf between fantasy and reality widens, disillusionment can also mount over the course of the year, leading some newcomers to simply fall out of love with teaching, despite their deep investment. They, instead, look for a way out.
Two years leading a school is not enough time for a principal to create meaningful, lasting effects for students and teachers. Yet 35% of principals serve even less than that, according to new research from the Learning Policy Institute and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. (I read about it at the Education Dive website.) On average, principals are staying at their schools for four years, before leaving for other schools, taking on different jobs within their districts, or simply exiting the profession altogether. This constant leadership turnover in a school is a tragic waste of human capital that has negative consequences for teaching and learning. As Learning Policy Institute chief Linda Darling-Hammond was quoted as saying, “you’ve got to reboot those schools” every time a new principal is hired.
Why do they leave? The study found that departing principals commonly cite reasons such as poor working conditions, lack of resources and support, inadequate professional development, low salaries, high-stakes accountability, lack of decision-making authority, and the overwhelming nature of the job.
Ever since we articulated McREL’s six-phase model for student learning in our April 2018 white paper, Student Learning That Works: How Brain Science Informs a Student Learning Model, I’ve been having great fun talking about it with thousands of educators at conferences and workshops around the world, sharing instructional strategies and classroom practices that support each phase. (Learn more about the model in the spring 2018 issue of Changing Schools magazine and this October 2018 blog post.)
The purpose of the model is to remind us all that the goal of school isn’t teaching, it’s learning. This hasn’t been news to any of the educators I’ve interacted with. What is new is seeing the entire learning process—from disconnected data points to a robust plan for ongoing personal growth, mediated by known science on neurological and psychological processes—described in a unified model for student learning. Teachers often tell me they’ve been doing many of the strategies we endorse, yet have never before had an opportunity to think about why they work or how to sequence them in a cohesive manner (or how to tweak them to work even better for the precise mix of students in their class). In other words, they’ve long had a good toolkit and materials but often lacked the blueprints, and you need both to build a sound house.
Imagine asking hundreds of students and adults to share their unfiltered thoughts and feelings about taking notes in school. What do you think you’d get back? It turns out that our team has actually conducted this mini research experiment in schools across the country, and here are the most common responses: pained faces, deep shudders, a litany of adjectives like boring, tedious, and torture (not technically an adjective, but you get the idea.)Are these responses about what you expected? Are they similar to what your own would be if you were one of the respondents?This visceral and negative response to notes is a real problem because we know from research (and experience) just how important notes are to student success. In fact, the comprehensive meta-analytic study that underpins the second edition of Classroom Instruction That Works (2012) shows that teaching students how to make effective notes is one of the highest-yield strategies of all, with associated student gains of over 30 percentile points (Beesley & Apthorp, 2010).
Principals are super humans, but they’re being asked to perform a superhuman range of responsibilities, and that’s not fair—not to them, not to teachers, and not to students. In the March edition of ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin asks how school leadership got so overly complex and demanding. He believes the phenomenon dates to the 1970s when researchers first started describing principals as “instructional leaders”—a catchall phrase that had unintended consequences.
As the body of research around effective school leadership traits grew over the decades that followed, so did the understanding that specific leadership traits showed more promise than others in their effects on achievement. Further, the role of collaboration in shared leadership gained new importance and we began to seek “transformational” leaders who might usher in a new era of educational effectiveness.
Imagine a student who is well adjusted socially but . . .
• Is reserved in group activities; rarely contributes to classroom discussions or activities.
• Has difficulty completing tasks.
• Appears to not follow instructions.
• Is reported as not paying attention, having a short attention span, or “zoning out.”
• Makes poor academic progress.
What could be causing these problems?
One might not initially consider memory, particularly working memory, as the mechanism at work in these types of young learners’ struggles. However, research has shown that working memory problems, even in the absence of diagnosed developmental disabilities, can result in learning challenges for students (Dehn, 2008; Gathercole, Lamont, & Alloway, 2006; Gathercole & Alloway, 2007; Holmes, Gathercole, and Dunning, 2010; Willingham, 2009).
McREL 6-Phase Model of Learning | As deeply committed as we are to curiosity here at McREL, we recognize that in the absence of knowledge, curiosity wouldn’t do anybody much good. That’s why we’ve also been doing some digging into the nature of memory, hoping to guide teachers toward practices that maximize the acquisition and retention of knowledge.
As explored more deeply in our recent white paper, Student Learning That Works: How Brain Science Informs a Student Learning Model, the human brain works quite hard to help us filter out and forget extraneous information. This probably made good sense in the hunt-or-be-hunted days, but in the information age, forgetting is not a recipe for success.
Fortunately, once teachers know the stages of memory—and what happens between them—they can use some clever workarounds to help students strengthen recall. Essentially, we need to trick our brains into forgetting to forget.
Have you noticed the word “curiosity” appearing in the titles of more and more McREL publications, resources, and services? We have a good reason for that. We’ve been excited to share our Curiosity Works™ approach to school improvement and innovation with teachers and school leaders, many of whom are already familiar with our other bodies of research-based knowledge, such as Classroom Instruction That Works® and Balanced Leadership®. Some of these educators have asked if Curiosity Works supplants these resources. It doesn’t. To the contrary, Curiosity Works brings a new degree of focus, and perhaps some new vocabulary, to McREL’s existing resources that are still as relevant and effective as ever.
What makes you, or your students, curious about a particular topic?
And have you ever been curious about curiosity itself? What is it, exactly? What triggers it? How can we best use curiosity in teaching and learning? Can it be encouraged (or discouraged), harnessed, and strengthened (or weakened)?
These questions, and more, have captured our interest here at McREL, and have driven us to review research studies and academic publications, and talk with educators in the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere about the use of curiosity in instructional planning and delivery, and its effects on students and adult learners. We’ve been so intrigued by what we’ve learned that, in addition to incorporating our findings into our peer-to-peer coaching work with educators, we’ve written several books recently about the power of curiosity, including Curiosity Works, Unstuck, and, due out in September, Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives.