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Q&A: The Teaching Brain

Vanessa Rodriguez is co-author, with Michelle Fitzpatrick, of the new book, The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education.

In it, they contrast behaviorist models of instruction, which cast the learner's brain as an "empty vessel" to be filled with knowledge, with cognitive psychology models, which view learning as a more dynamic and vibrant process, starting at birth.

Rodriguez taught in New York City public schools for 10 years before pursuing a doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in human development and education.

After more than a decade in the classroom, you went back to school to research and ask some fundamental questions about teaching. What prompted you to do that? Unanswered questions?

Pretty much. It was the idea that student test scores weren't what I thought was a good measure of the complexity of teaching that was happening in classes. I really wanted to just know more about what was going on in my mind when I was going through the processes of teaching. I'd often come up against principals challenging me on why I was making certain decisions. And other than saying, 'I know it works, come into my classroom and see,' I really didn't have that foundation of evidence that's expected for why I was making certain teaching decisions that weren't the norm.

For your book you draw on education research, your own experience in the classroom and brain science. A bit of a unique path in combining those three?

I do think it's unique for teaching. But it's something that, when you read examples — there's a dad with his daughter, a mother with her two children, and of course classroom teachers — that the reader would say 'oh, that makes perfect sense but I've never looked at it that way.' So, typically when we explore teaching what we're really doing is looking at learning. We are not looking at teaching at all. We're just looking at learning outcomes and attributing that to what we should do in teaching. Which is not the same as saying 'all humans can teach' – What is that?

The core of your message seems to be that that teachers have to include an understanding of students' innate knowledge in order to be effective in the classroom.

What we have not considered is that humans have a natural ability to teach. We've not studied that development over time. The paradigm shift in the book is that all humans have the capability to teach. I'm sure you see your own daughter teach all the time. Maybe it's not something you've explicitly taught her how to do, but she knows how to do it. It is teaching. And we don't quite understand that. We've never explored it.

We have with learning. There is all sorts of research on how humans develop this cognitive skill from birth through adulthood and then we utilize that to design plans to intentionally help children to learn. Teaching, however, is inherently an interaction between humans.

You talk about re-defining teaching as a revolutionary, cognitive skill that everyone builds on over time. Explain.

So imagine if we had a sense of what this skill looks like??? developmentally from the moment we are [first] able to do this, through expertise. Then inevitably we'd have a ruler, a true ruler of what the capacity of this skill is for humans. That would mean when we start talking about evaluating and training and prepping teachers effectively, we are using a ruler for the actual skill. Rather than saying 'this is what we want children to learn, therefore this is what should teachers teach.' Instead we are saying 'this is a measure for this skill of teaching. Where is this teacher, and where would we like him or her to be?'

You write about how teaching is an inherently interactive experience. And everyone talks about collaboration. But not all of us do it that well. What are some practical tips for classroom teachers to foster collaboration?

It would be impossible for a teacher to do one on one teaching with every child every day. That's OK. What they can do is look over what they want to accomplish, say, in a day and decide, 'Where can I work directly with a child and where can I let students work in groups or two or four or five?' That kind of collaboration ... to understand you are not the center of it all delivering information from on high, but that you are all collectively working together.

Do you think the book will help not just teachers but parents and any others who care about teaching?

Yes I'm actually a new parent of only two months. So much of what you do with them is trial and error. You are your child's first teacher. Often when we are teaching a child, what we're really doing is attempting to teach ourselves. I have a newborn. He can't really give me much feedback on whether I'm doing well! He can't talk, doesn't always focus like I'd like him to. So I'm using what I call feedback that's unintentional. And we use that as teachers all the time to try to gauge whether our learners are learning. But usually we're teaching to a vision of a learner that comes from a vision of who we are as learners. Often we train teachers to have a student-centered focus. And we think that's a really great think. The struggle with that is that when you put students at the center you are acting as if the teacher doesn't exist. And that means you're avoiding the perspective that that teacher is utilizing. That's a problem.

You and your co–author, Michelle Fitzpatrick, detail five areas you think need to be developed more in teaching. Describe those.

We call them awarenesses. First is to understand who your learner is as an individual. That might be, 'Do I have a student that's struggling, do they have dyslexia, or do I have a gifted student?' and so on.

An awareness of teaching practice is really content skills: things such as lesson plans, time management and curriculum development.

The other areas include awareness of context, those external factors such as state mandates or the culture of the environment you're in and the history.

Next, awareness of interaction is a favorite of mine. It's basically acknowledging you're interacting with a learner. Do you believe this interaction is one of collaboration? Are you co-creating knowledge?

Finally, there's the awareness of self as a teacher. Are you aware that there's the self that you are outside of the classroom that affects what you do as a teacher. Things like your culture, your personality, your family history and your values – just the things you find important. If you believe the reason you're in a classroom is to help create informed citizens, that's going to be very different than if you believe your goal is to have students leave with a certain, set amount of content.

You're mixing brain science with your own practical experience. What practical tips do you have for teachers? Give us some tips for building what you call your teaching brain.

This is a way for teachers to step back and empower themselves to look at what they are doing as a teacher: look at the five awarenesses and say, 'Where are my strengths and weaknesses and where do I want to set goals and expectations?' So that you're never feeling like you're just constantly being bombarded with things you should be doing that you're not, but you can use what you're strong at to lift up the others. Break down the awarenesses. Take one of those awarenesses you think you need to work on, map that out, and look at one you are really good at. And then map out small, attainable goals.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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