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Are schools guilty of peddling myths about the brain?

Understanding how children learn is a critical part of the studies teachers undergo in order to qualify in their field. For decades researchers have studied the science of learning and have tried to bring some level of deeper understanding to the complexity of the learning process from birth through to ongoing learning as adults. What are the factors that produce greater learning? Why are some people able to learn more in certain subjects than in others? What role does social interaction play in learning? How can teachers provide optimal conditions for learning to occur? Can we really train our memory? What causes us to remember some things and not others? The list of questions is endless!

 

Over the last few decades, the field of neuroscience has blossomed and the education sector has sat up and taken a keen interest. As a profession whose work revolves around learning, it makes sense that teachers continue to develop their understanding of how the brain learns. Unfortunately, along with excellent insights and understanding, has come a plethora of neuromyths which have unfortunately been peddled by schools as neuroscience. Parents and teachers have taken these ideas and embraced them in homes and classrooms as if they are absolute fact without due consideration given to the truth of the science behind them.

 

Have you ever heard these before?

 

– A child is either a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner.
– We only use 10% of our brain.
– A child is either left-brain or right-brain dominant.
– Playing brain games make you smarter.

 

The attraction of these myths is that they make the complex simple; the confusing clear. It is tempting to latch onto one or more of these and to categorise our children according to what seems to be their learning style or area of brain dominance. What we know is that teaching children using a variety of senses results in stronger learning and that children sometimes choose not to give of their best in certain learning areas as they’ve been told it doesn’t fit with their right or left brain dominance. False science runs the risk of preventing our children from fulfilling their God-given learning potential. When we learn more about how the brain actually does learn, we can provide the best possible opportunity for real learning to occur.

 

In her book, Brain Matters, Patricia Woolfe lists eight ways we can optimise learning based on what we know about how our brains learn:

 

– Provide as much experiential learning as possible
– Build on prior knowledge
– Use rehearsal strategies appropriate to what is being learnt
– Provide many opportunities for children to revisit information
– Emphasize concepts over facts
– Assist children in understanding information and how it can be used in the ‘real’ world
– Provide a safe psychological environment
– Provide positive emotional events

 

While not neuroscientists or brain researchers, teachers continue to grow in their understanding of how the brain learns. Great teachers work diligently at using research and data to provide the best possible opportunities for their pupils to optimise their learning.

 

As science continues to shed new light on how the brain learns, teachers need to continue to use this information to provide the best possible learning experiences for their pupils.

 

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Teacher Stretch

I recently came across this statement in the book ‘Leadership for Learning‘ by Carl Glickman. I love the sentiment and challenge expressed:

If, as a teacher,

  • I present the same lessons in the same manner that I have used in the past;
  • I seek no feedback from my students;
  • I do not analyse and evaluate their work in a manner that changes my own emphasis, repertoire and timing;
  • I do not visit and observe other adults as they teach;
  • I do not share the work of my students with colleauges for feedback, suggestions and critiques;
  • I do not visit other schools or attend particular workshops or seminars or read professional literature on aspects of my teaching;
  • I do not welcome visitors with experience and expertise to observe and provide feedback to me on my classroom practice;
  • I have no yearly individualised professional development plan focused on classroom changes to improve student learning; and finally,
  • I have no systemic evaluation of my teaching tied to individual, grade/department, and schoolwide goals;

THEN

I have absolutely no way to become better as a teacher.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if we truly to create learning environments which teach children to love learning, to engage creatively with the world around them and to develop the skills needed for them to be successful adults in our ever-changing world, every teacher in every school will need to create a culture of continual learning and a commitment to a growth mindset. There is simply no more place in our schools for teachers who believe that they can no longer adapt their practice through professional learning and feedback.

Glickman also states,

“Successful schools stand in great contrast to mediocre and low performing schools where faculty work apart from each other, and without common purpose, and with self-centered beliefs that they are doing the best they can.” – Glickman, Carl D. Leadership For Learning. 1st ed. Alexandria: Assn Supervn & Curr Dev, 2002. Print.

This is such a powerful challenge and one which those of us working in schools need to take seriously if we are to provide places of dynamic and relevant teaching and learning.

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A Teacher’s Load

When I decided on teaching as my career of choice, I was under no illusion that this was an easy career path. I grew up around schools as my mother was a successful teacher who received several accolades over the course of her career. The hours of dedicated preparation, the weekend and after-hours events, the challenge of helping pupils reach their unrealised potential, the late afternoons of school-imposed professional development and the effort required to build positive relationships with parents, were ingrained in me as a child and teenager. I grew to love the idea of one day teaching in my own classroom and perhaps even one day leading my own school.

Many years later I now find myself as principal of a well-resourced independent school and am now in a position where I am able to set expectations of delivery from my team of teachers and ancillary staff. Over the past few months I have been challenged to examine those expectations in light of various discussions had in either one-on-one meetings or comments made in staff meetings.

Upon reflection I have had to examine my own thinking on staff commitment, the professional life of teachers and my own assumptions about the profession and individual staff members. It seems the busyness of life has taken its toll on teachers who regularly remark on how little time they have. I want to have a team of well-balanced professionals who are able to teach with enthusiasm and energy each day and who are also able to enjoy life with family and friends outside of school. How then to make this happen?

The reality is that teaching is not an easy profession. The physical and emotional demands are very real and it can become easy to become bogged down in the day-to-day pressures of the job. Perhaps the challenge then is to help teachers learn to work smarter not harder (a cliché perhaps but real nonetheless). We also need to re-examine the curriculum and stop chasing marks (grades) but rather aim at authentic assessment which reflects true learning. The CAPS documents make this increasingly difficult but I still believe it can be done despite them. Add to this the extra-mural commitments of teachers and the expectation that they take ownership of professional growth, as well as other school commitments such as attendance at sport festivals and professional development seminars and one begins to understand concerns about time and achieving life-balance. Many teachers are also under pressure from parental expectations and this needs to be managed carefully as well.

That all said, I believe that our school provides a caring and supportive environment for our teachers. One of our strengths is the sense of community which prevails in our staffroom.There are always going to be times in the year which are more stressful than others. That is the nature of any profession. I would far rather be in a school which sets the bar high for its academic professionals than be in one in which anything goes. In order for us to remain a leading school we have to realise that change, hard work and high expectations are par for the course. Achieving mediocrity takes work but who wants to be mediocre? Achieving excellence is a much harder task and demands more of everyone in the team. My job is to ensure that every member of our team is supported, encouraged and given the tools and skills they require to remain excellent at what they do. It is also to be the sounding board for when the pressure is on!

As a school principal, I believe in what I do. I still hang on to the idea that teaching is the noblest of professions and that teachers have arguably one of the most important jobs in the world. I am passionate about leading our school towards more effective 21st century education and about developing a team of teachers who are leading educators. The example set to me by my mother and other outstanding teachers and school principals with whom I’ve come into contact, continues to burn deep inside me. I know that lots of hard work lies ahead and that I need to manage the workload of my team well so that we can build our preferred future together.

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School Leadership Lessons

Video source : http://www.mentorcloud.com/resources/weekly-insights-19/

Although this video is aimed at business leaders, I believe there are take-away pointers for school leadership as well. What follows is my attempt at summarising some of the key points from the various speakers and a few thoughts on their application in a school context.

  • There is a need for leaders to develop the skill of managing across boundaries (real or imagined)
    • Schools are full of boundaries. Some are real while others are imagined. There are boundaries between grades and departments, among the pupils (across and within grades), professional boundaries (often linked to a lack of skills in certain areas), boundaries of knowledge, boundaries of leadership capability, boundaries of time, boundaries of classroom doors and walls separating physical space and boundaries set up by those who seek to maintain their sense of power by position alone. Effective school leaders are those who can identify the boundaries in their school which are causing conflict and inefficiency and deal with them decisively and fairly.
  • Tomorrow’s leader needs to be excellent at engaging with people and be willing to give things away (knowledge, skills, time)
    • At the core of school leadership is relationship. A school leader who is unwilling to engage with  his/her school’s constituents (pupils, parents, staff, community) is bound to fail. It is imperative that a school leader be willing to make time to speak to parents, visit classrooms, engage with pupils and be a person to whom teachers can come and chat about curriculum, class management, challenging students and more.
  • Leaders need to accept that they will be much less in control and that they are no longer the only ones who set the agenda of their organisation
    • The picture of the Victorian school principal patrolling the school grounds, cane in hand and academic gown flowing behind him, is an outdated one and yet there are some school heads who act as if they are the 21st century embodiment of that stereotype. This approach to school leadership is doomed to failure as these principals have failed to understand that in an ever-changing world, access to knowledge, ideas, innovations and collaborative endeavours is now the norm and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. The school principal is not the tyrant ruling his school with an iron fist but rather the catalyst for discussion and the enabler of teachers, parents and community to develop new initiatives in the school.
  • Leadership is about connection – allowing distributed leadership across the organisation and across sectors, divisions and industries. It is also about being a leader who builds bridges across assumed boundaries and who is willing to be open to alternative viewpoints.
    • Our world is no longer insular. Technology has enabled us to make connections with people all over the world. These connections expose us to varied views on educational theories and management ideas. They force us to consider a different viewpoint and provide a platform for the sharing of best practice. Our connectedness helps us become better at what we do.
    • It would be wise for school leaders to seek ideas about management, leadership, organisational theory and strategic planning from outside the education arena. There is much that can be learnt from the business and entrepreneurial worlds. School principals need to seek these connections to increase their own efficacy and capacity for high-level leadership. Likewise I believe that business can learn from education. Its a partnership which needs to be forged so that there is mutual benefit.
  • Communication remains key but leaders need to become adept at the effective use of many different media to engage with others
    • Technology and the rise of social media has presented school leaders with an unprecedented opportunity for more effective communication. A ‘spray and pray’ approach to communication is however not effective and school leaders need to learn how best to use the various media now available. They need to understand their target markets and know which tools are  best suited to those markets.
  • Leaders need to be in the present to allow them to recognise talents and solutions in their organisation. 
    • School principals needs to be practitioners of “Leadership By Walking Around”. They need to be visible to their staff and students and should always be on the lookout for those who need a helping hand or those who can be praised. The solutions to problems faced inside a school can often be found simply by recognising that within their staff (admin and estate staff included) there may well be innovative solutions and expertise waiting for the opportunity to be released. Empowering the staff of a school to be part of the solution-finding process is a powerful practice and creates community and ownership amongst all those who work together at the school.
  • Ultimately, leaders must be clear about their purpose
    • There are few things that make me feel more despondent about a school than a principal who is simply going through the motions. Perhaps it is a little naive and idealistic given the demands of the job, but I still believe that leading a school is a calling. Those who have given up on this ideal, who have been burnt out and who no longer feel the passion of their work, need to think very seriously about why they continue in the job.
    • Purpose gives passion. Passion creates energy. Energy creates action. Action in a school creates exciting, dynamic learning experiences set into motion by inspired and motivated teachers. It starts at the top.
    • I feel desperately sorry for those principals who are burdened by bureaucracy, held to ransom by politicised teacher unions, constantly hassled by department officials, made to feel incompetent by unsympathetic governing bodies and pushed to the limit by the day-to-day life and death struggles of the impoverished communities in which they find themselves. How easy it would be for them to throw in the towel! I salute those who continue to lead their schools with passion despite these conditions. They are our education heroes. May we never lose sight of their dedication and may they continue to inspire us to lead with passion.
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All In A Day’s Work

My wife and I recently attended a rather special show at Sweet Valley Primary in Meadowridge, Cape Town. What made this school concert different was that no children were involved in the show. All parts were played by members of the school staff. It was a wonderful evening’s entertainment and was certainly value for money.

I could not help wondering as I watched these academic professionals perform their hearts out in music, dance and song, how many other professions would happily give many, many extra hours of after-hours time to prepare costumes, decor, sets, practise lines and perfect dance steps so that they could perform in front of 300 people (many of whom may be unknown to them) for three nights running with no extra remuneration other than the applause of the audience and the knowledge that they have contributed to a greater sense of esprit de corps.

One must remember that this was done in addition to the ongoing responsibilities of lesson preparation, marking of assessments, extra-curricular activities such as sport coaching, parent meetings and all the other responsibilities inherent in teaching.

I salute the Sweet Valley Primary staff and all other teachers who continue to give way over the expected time and effort they are paid for in order to improve the school experience for pupils, parents and community.