George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

Connecting Research to Practice: How to Bring Quality Brain Science to the Classroom

April 15, 2015

In 1997, John Bruer’s article, “Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far” highlighted the unlikely union or linking of neuroscience and education. One of the premises of the article was that it would require university researchers and classroom teachers to work together in ways that do not naturally occur and in the face of too many institutional barriers. However, I wrote this post on my way back from The Washington University at St. Louis having just spent the afternoon with my colleague, Amanda Freeman, and professors from Washington University who make up a group called CIRCLE: The Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education.

What brought us together was Professor Mark McDaniel’s book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. (Mark is the leader of this group). Both Amanda and I read this book and have been applying many of the strategies to our teaching of history. We went to share the work of the CTTL and to get feedback from university professors about how to better translate research in how the brain learns and to create school-based research studies.

Like most teachers, Amanda and I want the rich content and skills we teach to stick beyond the summative assessments for a unit or a class, or in Amanda’s case, the AP European History exam in May. We believe strongly in students having many opportunities to actively retrieve-- “forcibly” recall--taught material. So what did we learn about research and memory retrieval practices that will help both our teachers and that reinforce and expanded upon what we learned in Make It Stick?

  • Teachers need to be trained to sift through the growing body of resources that claim to be “research” or “evidence-based” and should look for research that has been replicated and that has taken place in authentic, also known as classroom, settings.
  • We need to have students recalling more through formative, low-stakes or no-stakes, assessments.
  • Overlearning is preferable to “dropped learning” when self-testing through active retrieval of information.
  • All students should be “on the hook” to retrieve answers to every question posed in class. Doug Lemov in his book, Teach Like a Champion, calls this “cold calling”. In typical classrooms, the student who raises his or her hand is giving his or her classmates a cognitive reprieve. But not having students raise their hands puts every student “on the hook” for being called on thus forces each student to actively retrieve their response to a question.

I will be implementing this last strategy in class with one caveat. “On the hook” instructional practice needs to honor the fact that students process answers to questions at different rates. Therefore, teachers must give time for reflection and processing prior to calling on a student. Let’s reward the thinking process over thinking speed.

One more caveat: when a student who is called on does not know the answer, they should be able to pass. However, they will be asked to immediately repeat the correct answer given by their classmate. Thus, in the words of Lemov, no student can “opt out.”

Beyond this day at Washington University, we at St. Andrew’s have been the beneficiaries of faculty from The Johns Hopkins University School of Education and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education receptiveness to helping us translate and apply their work into the classroom. They have provided professional development for our faculty, we have collaborated in designing research questions and then conducting research studies, and we have worked together to disseminate those findings to the larger educational community.

Opportunities like this should become the norm for more schools. Policymakers, along with individual donors and foundations, have the power to foster and inspire such partnerships.

Mind, Brain, and Education Science is the most innovative thinking being applied to enhancing teacher quality and student achievement today. University researchers are conducting important laboratory and classroom research and there is a growing body of teachers and school leaders who recognize one of the great ironies of education in the United States today: that the organ of learning is the brain but few educators have ever had any training in how the brain works, learns, and most importantly for students, changes.

Classroom teachers and university researchers need one another. Each group brings to potential partnerships skills that the other group does not have but that both need in order to conduct quality research.

I have often said that Mind, Brain, and Education Science is the missing resource in most educators’ tool kit. It will verify some classic teaching practices but repudiate others - with evidence, and it will offer new strategies and structures. It is the next frontier for teacher and school leadership training.  

My recent trip to Washington University also brings to this thinking one corollary. Equally important are school/university partnerships and the coming together of like-minded researchers and classroom teachers who recognize the fertile opportunity to research, measure, and disseminate findings in Mind, Brain, and Education Science to enhance teacher quality, student achievement, and professional satisfaction.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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