Teachers Bring Learning and the Brain Conference Back to Westtown

From Educational Leadership to Independent School Magazine to workshops in regional and national conferences, what we are learning about how our brains work and learn is very much on educators minds. In some cases, we are finding scientific basis for things we intuitively knew were best teaching practices. In other cases we are having to reconsider instructional approaches. In many instances, what the scientists are learning sounds intriguing but we’re not yet sure how it translates to the classroom. Westtown has been sending teachers to the Learning and the Brain conferences and workshops for several years. Four teachers, Josh Reilly, Wendy Dubas, Bill Monahan, and Jeanne Watson Smith attended the most recent conference in Boston, “The Science of Character: Using Brain Science to Promote Student Self-Regulation, Resilience and Respect.” In reflecting on their experiences, each teacher found affirmation for certain practices and was challenged by others. As one of them said, “this was by far the most interesting conference that I have ever been to. The speakers were professionals at the top of their respective fields; they were engaging and accessible. It was also a valuable experience to talk to colleagues from different academic settings from all over the country to “compare notes”.

One of the great things about teachers invested in their learning is the way in which connections are made from one learning experience to the next. Jeanne connected what she heard and learned with previous reading of Howard Gardner’s book Five Minds for the Future. She writes that “Gardner examines how the ethical mind will be instrumental in shaping the values that propel mankind forward instead of the reverse”. For her, the conference focus on ethics, emotion, and resilience allowed her to deepen her understanding of how we develop as ethical humans. One speaker in particular helped her see how resilience can be developed. “Rick Hanson, PH.D gave an amazingly inspired keynote talk on “Positive Neuroplasticity: Tapping the Power of Everyday Experience to Build Resilience”. Neuroscience is now revealing how the flow of thoughts actually sculpt the brain.”

Sometimes, conferences raise questions for us, that are themselves generative of new thinking. Josh came away from the Learning and the Brain conference with great questions. As a Quaker school we would call these queries!

  • I wonder: To what extent are our pedagogical decisions supported by the most current brain research? Do we do what we do because it is what we have always done?
  • I wonder: What can Westtown do or what are we doing to be a leader in this area (applying brain science), the way we are a recognized leader in Sustainability?
  • Do we look at our students as the lump of clay that is moldable only via the artist (the teacher), or as seeds whose growth is inevitable but whose final product is a function of the environment they are grown in?
    • This quote from John Holt really encapsulates the clay v. seed idea for me “…children learn best, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world as accessible as we can to them, paying attention to what they do, how they do it, and by answering their questions and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.
  • Where do we help develop social perspective taking?

Josh also found the conference affirming of practices in place at Westtown. Given what we know and are learning about the way children learn and the way their brains develop Westtown’s practices of ….

  • Getting outside
  • Learning by “playing” and exploring
  • Self-discovery
  • Mindfulness in the classroom
  • Whole child model of education

….are best practices.

As we continue to build capacity as educators for using what we are learning about our brains and the way they develop, we will better serve our students and our school’s mission. Sending small cohorts of peers to conferences helps to create a critical mass of teachers who have had experiences they can bring back to school with them and share out more broadly than if it were just one teacher. Sending teachers over several years to a conference series such as Learning and the Brain, allows us to build a network of teachers thinking and talking about neuroscience and education. Together they become the leadership infrastructure for all of us in this area.

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