Those of us of a certain vintage grew up with “Space: The Final Frontier” opening each episode of Star Trek. We embraced Captain Kirk’s certainty that space was the final frontier. He was Commander of the Star Ship Enterprise and he was out there among the stars. Everything else had already been discovered, or so we thought: the earth’s surface and its oceans explored, mapped, named and claimed; ancient civilizations uncovered; countless mysteries solved…
But what if he was wrong? Now, more than ever, we are fascinated by another frontier – the human mind and all of its elements. Over the past decade or so, we have benefited from a golden age of neuroscience, one that provides unparalleled opportunities for educators to gain a deeper understanding of how the brain learns and how the mind works through a dynamic integration of mind, brain and relationship, combining to create physical experience, cognitive experience, emotional experience, relational experience.
This emerging nexus between neuroscience and education is fertile ground for huge growth in interest in self-regulation and an uptake in schools and districts across Canada and beyond. At the Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative we support schools and systems in looking with fresh eyes on 150+ years of schoolhouse habits and rituals, many of which were based on old and insufficient understandings of how the mind and the brain function and how learning occurs.
With that knowledge, we no longer believe that:
- intelligence is pre-determined and fixed;
- the formation of neural pathways ceases at a relatively early age;
- specialized parts of the brain, if compromised, will cause specific functions to be disabled permanently;
- kids should be batched based on birthdate and moved through a mechanistic learning process aimed at doling out pre-determined doses of information on the same day at the same rate;
- order is maintained thanks to behavior modification as reward & punishment rule the day.
All of those old certainties (and many more) from bygone eras formed pillars of educational practice that are being replaced, not just repainted. This change isn’t about blame or shame, but it is a commitment that ensures what we know impacts what we do.
It’s both an exciting and challenging time to populate this nexus between neuroscience and education. Thankfully, there are many, many great resources to inform the journey. Here are a few that help to guide our work:
- for a brief tour of the human brain and the breakthroughs in neuroscience understanding, read Dr. Norman Doidge’s books: The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing. They are full of remarkable examples of neuroplasticity that we are just beginning to understand;
- follow The Nature of Things series on the brain. It has made the science more accessible and very popular, prime time, riveting television viewing;
- Stuart Shanker has been a champion of the education and neuroscience connection across Canada and beyond. His book Calm, Alert and Learning is an essential resource in many schools. Stuart’s newest book is another gem for parents and for educators. Its release date is June 21, 2016 and the title is Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life;
- Learn with Michael Merzenich’s world class work around brain plasticity
- Dan Siegel’s observations and clear thinking enlighten us about the whys and the wherefores of the human condition, with particular focus on the formative and teen years;
- Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset is affirming and is helping to change the learning relationship for many kids and, in doing so, their life trajectory. If you haven’t seen her TedTalk, invest the time. It is a great resource.
At CSRI, we share a belief about the potential of Every Child, Every Chance, Every Day. For that commitment to be realized, we are exploring and amplifying the nexus between neuroscience and education…and we believe that Captain Kirk might not have had it exactly right. This new frontier is even more complex and more important than the previous “final” one.
Our recent CSRI (Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative) Round Table in Vancouver connected educators and other youth service partners committed to learning more together about various approaches to self-regulation and what it takes for neuroscience to influence our system norms. Very quickly, the session went beyond the specifics of self-reg to the fundamentals needed to adopt any significant change effort. As the Transformation Agenda overtakes the status quo, we better understand what’s needed to supplant long-held beliefs about how learning takes hold. It’s a “big tent” conversation and an essential one.
Following are a few observations from our CSRI gathering :
- Permission and policy directives aren’t the change drivers. Rather, there is a grass roots movement to refresh what we know to change what we do. It’s influencing how people invest professional and personal energy. Their commitment to being part of a change initiative is deep, wide and action oriented. That’s not a surprise; it’s evident that there are more and more people willing and ready to jump start change efforts through micro-networks of support and sharing;
- We know things aren’t going to get less complex any time soon. We also know our highest priority has to be to make the essential difference to support over-represented vulnerable populations: Aboriginal learners, Children in Care, refugee and other high needs immigrant groups. It isn’t a matter of asking everyone to work 10% harder. Professional effort isn’t the variable. Success happens when people build on what we saw at the Round Table: positive curiosity and energy throughout the room, building micro-networks, sharing stories, strategies and resources;
- Introducing good ideas without a diffusion strategy feels like a candle in the wind. We know how often those efforts have bloomed and withered and how difficult it can be to activate the next one. David Albury from the Innovation Unit in London innovationunit.org says it well. He has studied and written/spoken about what it takes for innovation to go deep and what it looks like when it flounders. It isn’t a matter of hierarchical endorsement or the amount of money committed or a number of well-worn but flawed approaches to initiating change. Take a look at the Innovation Unit website for enlightened commentary on how implementation thrives. David’s experience across education, government and industry shines a light on how to move beyond exciting “pilot” projects into the So What/Now What? focus required to go deeper and broader to sustain momentum. System transformation can’t happen without that.
- It’s time to end the “silo” metaphor in our work with kids. Silos are great for keeping the grain dry and the rats out. Apparently, they are also essential in long-range missile operations. But in our work, they just don’t fit. The Round Table included professionals from outside the school system whose work is focused directly on dysregulated/resource-poor children and their families. These colleagues operate in government and non-government agencies with a mandate to change the life trajectory of our most vulnerable young people – the very kids who need a coordinated systems response that is thoughtful, research-based, strategic and aligned. Their work is our work but there is a palpable frustration that we haven’t yet figured out how to share and initiate joint work plans, specific strategies, access to resources and communications protocols.
Statements of good will aren’t enough. It is time to take a single table approach to human capacity development. In doing so, we are far more likely to create the aligned and sustainable impacts our vulnerable populations need. No more silos. It’s time for deep operational linkages and commitment to a common focus.
- System self-regulation has many of the same attributes as individual self-reg. Dysregulated systems don’t create environments where students are calm, focused and ready to learn. It makes sense that neurophysiology applies to groups: our organizations are made up of people. Here’s the link to my blog and a previous post on that topic: http://mikemckay.ca/?p=2223
- Celebration is a positive contagion in the work of educators and other human services professionals. It is fueled when people are willing to open their professional practice to colleagues and give selflessly of their resources and their experiences. We saw and heard that at the CSRI Round Table. Here is one lighthouse example of what that looks like: energy, reflective professional practice and a belief in the difference we make. Enjoy the regular blog posts from a West Vancouver teaching team. http://theselfregulatedteacher.com
Shared learning builds momentum and creates knowing/doing potential. More to come from www.self-regulation.ca
Before September school bells rang, many educators were engaged in a complex and productive dialogue about THE WHAT/THE PURPOSE of public education. That narrative continues; it revolves around curriculum revisions that go far beyond updating learning outcomes and changing resource materials. It is about the commitment to deep transformational learning rather than tired efforts to sustain the status quo by cycling through minor tweaks and calling them significant/game changers.
Why is this so crucial? There is a “real-time” global context in today’s classrooms, courtesy of social media, 24/7 news cycles, increased social conscience, and competing pressures and priorities. That should compel us to design learning pathways that maximize engagement by addressing those complexities. We live in an “Ethical Dilemmas Are Us” society, so currency and relevance are essential. Simply put, it’s not a black and white world, so we can’t have a black and white curriculum with the answer key at the end of the chapter.
Today’s learner acquires and demonstrates knowledge, skills and attitudes in very different ways than when the schoolhouse foundations were laid more than a century ago. The 19th and 20th century framework was built to accommodate yesterday’s certainties, social norms, communication capacities and beliefs about learning. Compliance and memorization were highly valued. But yesteryear doesn’t equip young people to deal with tomorrow, and a simple binary construct of right and wrong answers laid out in old school print resources doesn’t cut it. Real learning doesn’t link to worksheets, quizzes & tests and rewarding out-of-context retrieval of facts is so “Pre-Google…”
A key condition for transformation to take hold is our acceptance that we (the system) can no longer “sanitize” the school experience to keep John and Jane insulated from controversial, values-laden, politically or culturally sensitive issues. If they don’t grapple with those matters at school, in a scaffolded, skillfully supported environment, where and when will they confront what really matters.
While our approach to a curriculum/learning framework is transformational, it’s not all new. The difference today is that skilled teachers are encouraged to keep doing what they have always done, but now with system support. They need that as they build from the what of the core competencies to the how those skills are applied in ways that are light years beyond answering the questions at the end of the chapter. The problems or challenges students engage with are far more real and important than the old standbys. Remember this one?:
A train traveling on the track from Toronto to Vancouver departs at the same time as a train heading from Vancouver to Toronto. At what point will the trains pass each other, moving at an average speed of 95 km/hr?
Challenging problem? Maybe. Interesting/engaging? Not so much. There better more relevant and topical ways to demonstrate core skills.
Today’s newscrawl can lead to tomorrow’s lesson and followup problem-based activity. It’s not a stretch to see how we can teach and reinforce all of the CORE areas through artful navigation of real-world themes like these:
- environment and global warming;
- world responses to the refugee crisis in the Middle East, Africa and Europe;
- intergenerational damage done to the Aboriginal people following First Contact;
- post-industrial workforce realities;
- economies and realistic expectations of home ownership for an emerging generation;
- impacts of social media on a civil society…
You can see numeracy and literacy, science and social studies, the Arts, economics, social justice and more in those few examples.
Of course, bringing real world issues into the classroom requires sensitivity and skill. It’s not without risk, but inertia is an even greater risk if we want to change the perspective shared by students quoted in John Abbott’s Battling for the Soul of Education. In Abbott’s call to action, he cites a forum where students commented to their teachers:
“You treat education like a TV dinner. You tell us to go to the freezer, pull out a box, read the instructions carefully, take off the wrapping, puncture the cellophane, then set the microwave for the right time. If we’ve followed the instructions carefully, we’ll get full marks.” Full marks for honest perspective, anyway!
We know better. We have to do better. That’s at the core of transformation. Quite a journey.
When our ancestors believed the world was flat, their reference points and expectations were based on a flat earth reality. They could rationalize whatever they saw on the horizon or in the heavens in relation to their flat earth. It all made sense given the certainties of the era. One indisputable fact led to another and reality was established. At some point, a few brave souls began to consider and speak of different possibilities, ones that caused them some trouble as they challenged the infallibility of the flat earth truth. And when their wondering took flight and their voices gained confidence, evidence became more visible and new realities emerged. Goodbye old certainties as everything changed – and no one fell off the edge.
When the 4 minute mile and the 10 second 100 yard sprint were unconquerable feats, great athletes simply couldn’t break through those standards. It wasn’t possible and many world-class runners tried and failed. The certainty that it couldn’t be done, that it was beyond human capacity, defined reality…until someone believed differently, someone ran faster and then it was done. Once the records were broken, the “impossible” barriers were conquered over and over again. Now there are high school runners achieving those standards.
If a physicist from a millennium ago were asked about the possibility of traveling to the moon, the answer would have been that it couldn’t be done, never would be and such foolishness shouldn’t be spoken of again. That was absolute, based on all the available science. Eventually, new curiosities led to new theories that infiltrated old certainties and different realities began to emerge, born of a wonderful combination of curiosity and perseverance.
How does any of this resonate in our educational galaxy? How many “old knowns” continue to rattle around our corridors and how many have we finally stopped believing and relegated to the archives, just like a flat earth and the unbreakable 4 minute mile?
Here are a few to check on for starters:
– there are smart kids and not so smart kids and “levels” of intelligence are pretty much set before we ever see kids at the schoolhouse door;
– gender and ethnicity influence areas of strength: eg. boys are better at Math and Science than girls…;
– the Arts are a nice frill if we can afford them but important learning happens in the core academic areas;
– a school’s role is primarily to impart knowledge and content and to make judgments based on the ability to recall facts;
– the 8 X 5 timetable rules supreme and learning has to be organized within that framework;
– the bus schedule trumps any educational rationale for change;
– the kid needs to fit the system rather than the system fitting the kid;
– the reward and punishment dyad is central to motivation and the infallibility of school house rules;
– discipline motivates. Misbehaving kids are just being willful, not dysregulated;
– if it can’t be measured by a standard test, it can’t be very important;…
…and so it goes. Your list may be different, longer or shorter. But there is a list and we work through it to create environments where new curiosities challenge old/stale certainties. Here are two thought leaders who cultivate some rich conversation as we hold current practice up to the light of what human potential can achieve:
- John Abbott’s Battling for the Soul of Education http://bit.ly/1MDVwGM is a clarion call, worthy of study with a pencil and highlighter (real or digital) for margin notes and professional dialogue. His perspective challenges us, and we have miles to go, even in places where we hold forward-thinking beliefs about every child’s capacity to thrive. Abbott’s piece is both an affirmation and a reminder of the hard work ahead. He takes us back in time to revisit some of the fundamentals of universal education and then forward to new times full of the authentic power of rich and meaningful learning environments;
- Another discussion piece presenting a very different look at system norms is Andreas Schleicher’s Five Things I’ve Learned http://bit.ly/1FaG01a. It honours the spirit of curiosity and the potential of new understandings to shift old myths to the past tense. Schleicher challenges assumptions that remain as building blocks of our education system even when flaws in their structural integrity have been exposed.
In educational renewal work, we are finding ways to nurture new curiosities and bid adieu to those old certainties beyond their expiry date. Let’s continue to apply that when we engage in curriculum and overall system redesign; learner-focused assessment processes; multiple ways to engage kids’ interests and talents; relentless efforts to support our most vulnerable students; and, activating & applying emerging knowledge about neuroscience. It’s a long journey, but we won’t fall over the edge.
…but it never did make the grade as a call to action for an education system needing something more authentic, substantial and current. It contaminated a progressive concept of accountability, one that we are still refining to support real progress.
First, let’s acknowledge that no caring/compassionate society would tolerate the notion of throw away kids or abandoned cohort groups. Communities of integrity don’t ignore, punish or marginalize struggling populations under the flawed assumption that “motivators” like sanctions and scarcity will promote redoubled effort and a greater likelihood of success. It just doesn’t work. Never did.
We should also recognize that educators today more fully understand, value and nurture human potential in all its forms as we hold ourselves to the highest standard: every child, every chance, every day. It is tremendously challenging work, but that is the professional commitment educators make. Not for the faint of heart; absolutely for the big of heart. Never simple to measure; always important to track.
Moving from the individual educator’s beliefs and passions to the systems level, it’s fair to say that 21st century learning organizations are becoming more nimble and flexible in designing, monitoring and adjusting the multiple pathways needed to activate, engage and extend kids’ unique intelligences and gifts. It’s a big task. It’s what we do. The discard pile is out of bounds.
While we are at it, operating as we do in a results-driven world, let’s finally get to a place where accountability isn’t a bad word, in spite of the angry reaction it still attracts from some people. Yes, there’s more work to be done in moving beyond some stale understandings around it. But we are making progress: taking it far from the blame and shame, high praise/high punishment regime that was born in less enlightened times. Accountability today adds value as it has us declare our most important/highest priorities, share how we develop and activate plans to address those highest priority needs, and ensure that we monitor, adjust and inform about our progress. Those three simple declarations are at the foundation of accountability going forward:
- What’s most important?
- What are we doing about it?
- How do we know how well we are doing?
We use those questions to focus individual and system accountability on identifying the ends we commit to and the means we use to get there. Further, declaring priorities and developing a game plan to achieve them invites more openness, transparency and accessibility. It isn’t so lonely when people in our communities – education professionals, parents and our public – understand and have confidence in what we are all about and how we are progressing. Such understanding builds support and momentum. 21st century schools need both.
In refreshing our approach to accountability, let’s make the first port of call our most vulnerable learners, those kids who are the outliers in a system that delivers many overall successes and positive trends. In the “old” accountability process, we aggregated individual and cohort group stories into larger data fields, obscuring lack of success with the kids who need us most. Accountability for progress with at risk learners eliminates any ambiguity about our priority commitment to their life chances. Attention to those youngsters’ learning leads to us to activate research-based practices that are successful in changing learning trajectories. Monitoring and adjusting at the classroom, school and system levels helps us to refine our approaches so the environment fits the kid rather than the other way around. It’s a pretty clear three-step approach, far more progressive and less convoluted than the myriad compliance-type accountability processes that have tied schools and districts in knots for too many years.
To those who are inclined to rally in support of making a first priority of “all the other kids” who aren’t in the at risk cohort, we have some good news. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, it is equally true that application of quality practice, addressing individual needs and attention to learning science benefits all kids. Good learning design works across subjects, learning styles and abilities/challenges. No one suffers. Everyone thrives.
Focus…clear priorities…alignment of resources and efforts… adjusting practice in response to evidence: that’s how we activate human potential, one child at a time. It’s where we need to be and it’s happening.