The growing body of research in the evolving new fields of ‘The Learning Sciences’ and ‘Mind, Brain, and Education’ provides great opportunities to improve learning outcomes for all students, to help each and every child achieve their greatest potential. It holds tremendous promise to increase teacher efficacy and to help close achievement gaps. Yet significant challenges remain in turning promising research principles into classroom and school practices. This step, referred to as ‘translation’ in the field, remains a significant barrier. This case study shows how one school addressed it by developing a Mind, Brain, and Education Science professional growth pathway for 100% of its teachers and school leaders. The paper also posits the experience of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School as a replicable model of how and why a school should use research to inform its schoolwide policies, daily classroom practices, and work with each individual student.
How do you make good teachers great and great teachers experts? And how do you create a school faculty culture where this is the norm? St Andrew’s Episcopal School in Washington DC, a coeducational day school with 580 students, ages two to 18, posed itself this generative question in 2007. Our response was to train all of our teachers in mind, brain and education (MBE) science, also known as the science of learning, so they can use research informed strategies to validate and transform how they design their classes and work with each individual student.
A still-evolving, two-track, four-tier MBE professional growth framework (see Figure 1) provided a pathway for teachers to move from a ‘novice’ to ‘school leader’ level of experience and expertise with MBE research. The framework’s two tracks highlight the fact that merely developing a teacher’s MBE knowledge, skills and mindset is not enough. Sustained and widespread growth in an institution also requires school leaders to understand the value and high priority of such training and the school culture it can thrive in. Our professional growth framework is also designed to create mentorship capacity within an organisation – to cultivate and use the considerable and often under-utilised human resources in schools, as colleagues collaborate with colleagues in each individual’s personalised MBE journey.
AMBE in the classroom
Our vision is for teachers to take ideas supported by research, operationalise them into a course of action that will work in the context of their class and with their own voice as a teacher, try it out, see if it worked, reflect, tweak and iterate. Furthermore, this should be done in collaboration, and the collaborations should be beyond traditional age and subject silos – and by creating a common framework and language for research informed teaching and learning, we can help facilitate this.
There exists a vast bucket of research for teachers to begin exploring and applying ‘tomorrow’. We have helped teachers on the journey to being a research informed teacher by identifying good entryways – strategies such as formative assessment, retrieval practice and spaced learning that are: (1) robustly supported by research; (2) are readily adaptable by teachers to make them work in their context (this is a really important step, and is why we say research informed); (3) are likely to have an impact that is worth the time, energy and any financial cost in implementing them. We have also helped teachers by providing structured guidance on the pivotal step of how to take a promising research principle and translate it into a promising classroom practice that will work in their context.
MBE now happens in small, everyday moments all around St Andrew’s. For example, a biology teacher and a history teacher, both memory intensive courses, collaborated on how to best use strategies such as the spacing effect and retrieval practice in their courses. They now teach memorization strategies alongside content, and include metacognition strategies to help each student develop strategies that work for them, and the self-knowledge to use the right strategy at the right time. Math, English, science and history teachers are using the same research framework to investigate how to give their students the most effective feedback they can, including how to make the students think hard and giving them opportunities to act on the feedback. Three sixth grade humanities teachers who understand the link between emotion and cognition (Immordino-Yang, 2015) will work hard to make sure new students will feel known and that they belong early in the year, because creating a positive emotional environment is crucial in allowing the rigor and challenge they want the year to contain. A science teacher, an English teacher and a music teacher discuss how cognitive load theory (Sweller et al., 2011) ties in with the scaffoldings they already use in their courses, and the common language helps them use each other’s experiences to develop new strategies for their own classes. Three English teachers restructured the entire year’s grammar component with interleaving in mind (Brown et al., 2014). Teachers everywhere give far more formative assessments and far fewer pop quizzes. Phrases like “I am a kinesthetic learner” have been banished.
Throughout, we have been very intentional to draw a clear pathway from research principles, to professional practice and view of oneself as a professional, to real outcomes for real kids. Being able to successfully connect these three dots is crucial to making MBE translation work. We have also been intentional in making teachers think of a long term timescale; the true power comes from the culmination of iterative practices over time. More details of how we translate research into practice are beyond the scope of this article, but are published elsewhere (Kelleher and Whitman, 2018).
Taking it further
In 2011 the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) was founded to provide the best professional development for teachers and school leaders that exists. Research tells us that teacher quality is a crucial factor in student learning outcomes (Hattie, 2012). In particular, pedagogical content knowledge and quality of instruction are significant factors (Elliot Major et al., 2014). Research exists that can inform our growth in these crucial areas. It could have an impact on teacher efficacy and instructional differentiation. It has great potential for lessening the achievement gap. The CTTL is the translational hub that helps turn promising research principles into promising teacher, class and school practices to make this happen.
With hindsight, several factors present at the inception of the CTTL have proved pivotal. Firstly, we had an ‘all in’ model, where all of the faculty must be trained in and expected to use research to inform their practice. Secondly, whilst the founding mission of the CTTL was to serve the teachers, students and families of St Andrew’s, we realised we must also have a public purpose to serve other schools and educators beyond our walls. Thirdly, critical to the ability of a school to become research-informed is leadership. Who has sufficient MBE research knowledge, sufficient practical expertise in translating research into practice, and sufficient knowledge of research methodology to gauge impact and guide teachers?
We believe that the novel position of Research Lead in schools is critically important. Stafford-Brizard et al. (Stafford-Bizard et al., 2017) proposed a strong case for MBE translation. But recent experience in the field of MBE has shown us that translation is a major stumbling block. We need to find, train and support people to be leaders of translation and available to their colleagues every day during their personalised MBE research-to-practice journey. Trans-Atlantic idea exchanges with the likes of Rob Coe, Evidenced-Based Education, and Alex Quigley have helped us shape our school’s version of the ‘Research Lead’, and act as a reminder that the science of learning movement is only strengthened by international collaborations.
As Dylan Wiliam (Wiliam, 2015) put it, “Changing what teachers do is more important than changing what they know.” We do aim to affect the latter, this is still important. But our focus is on getting teachers to use the science of learning to inform and transform their practice in a series of often small, incremental ways, and with very real effects. We do so by lowering the barriers and the fear-factor around being a research-informed teacher. We help educators discover how they are a research-informed teacher or school leader already. We help them find new ways to use research to inform their work. And we give them a pathway to “evolve credibly over time” (Daniel, 2017). We achieve this by doing for education what is common practice in other professional professions, by connecting its daily practice to its research base.