Learning from the Experts Down the Hall: Kent School Teachers Lead Mind, Brain and Education Science Workshops

Robert John Meehan, one of the our nation’s leading voices for the teaching profession, said: The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.
On Friday, February 15 Kent School teachers spent the day in professional learning taking a deeper dive into mind, brain and education science. Our teachers shared lessons and experiences on how they can incorporate some of the latest research into enhanced learning. The sessions were led by four current Kent School teachers who were trained at the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) Academy. First grade teacher, Cheryl Plummer and Learning Specialist, Jess Thompson led the first session. Plummer and Thompson along with Assistant Head of School for Academics, Michelle Duke were the first Kent School teachers to attend the Mind, Brain and Education Science (MBE) conference in 2017. Their enthusiasm for what they learned was contagious. The following summer, Seventh and Eighth Math teacher, Amanda Whitaker and Middle School History and Geography Teacher, Patrick Pearce attended the conference. Whitaker and Pearce led the second session on February 15.
The first session of the day focused on “productive struggle.”  Teachers know that students are not learning if there is not some element of struggle in their work. A student may be able to relay a series of facts without error which may come in handy but they are not showing they are learning by reciting facts.  Plummer said, “Slow, deep thinking is what is important. Sometimes the wrong answer is as important as the right answer.”
To illustrate her point Plummer and Thompson asked the assembled group to solve a problem to the best of each person’s ability using a grid. The faculty was challenged to outline as many boxes in the grid without touching the sides and without retracing any lines. We learned we found success through trying different strategies, learning from mistakes, learning from peers and moving forward. Thompson’s and Plummer’s exercise illustrated the importance of having a growth mindset. Students should not simply know something. Students need to be  metacognitive which is knowing how they think, how they know something and knowing how their thinking helped them find the solution.
Later in the day, Pearce and Whitaker led sessions on Cognitive Load Theory. Cognitive Load Theory helps teachers and students understand different strategies for consuming and understanding different amounts of information. Pearce challenged the group to memorize and recite a string of 16 random numbers: 471796347971. He told a little story incorporating each number. Some members of the group established a pattern. A few chunked the large number into a few smaller numbers while others made up a jingle. Interestingly, those who relied on the story to remember the numbers really only remembered the story, not the string of numbers while those who relied on a mathematical pattern were able to retain the string of numbers for a longer period of time. Pearce’s exercise gave us strategies to tap into the ‘struggle’ and move away from automatic thought.
Whitaker’s presentation asked us to move even further away from automatic thinking and remind us that “confusion leads to higher thinking.” Initially Whitaker gave us a simple word problem: A bat and ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs exactly one dollar more than the ball. How much is the bat? Many answered with an automatic/without thinking answer of $1 which of course, is wrong. The correct answer it $1.05. The correct answer requires more thought, something our brains do not like to do because it is harder than automatic thought.
Whitaker showed us how she brings this higher order thinking into her math class so students truly learn how to solve problems and not rely on automatic thought. She presented the following geometry illustration. In class she resists asking students specific questions like ‘What is the perimeter of the shaded area?’ Instead she will initiate a ‘goal free’ series of questions like, ‘What do you know about this shape? What do we know about the angles?’ The discussion can involve every student in the room which results in discussion-based problem solving and differentiated instruction. The discussion encourages learners at every level in the class to think more deeply about what they know and how they know it. They are engaged in ‘the struggle’ and will learn more deeply through it.
Kent School teachers will continue their relationship with the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning into 2019 and beyond. Three additional teachers will attend the CTTL conference in the summer of 2019. By then, one third of the Kent School faculty and administration will be able to extend their knowledge of research informed teaching to our full teaching staff.