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Embed the learning sciences into professional learning

By Maureen Corio, Carrie Crawford and Kent Wetzel
June 5, 2019
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Have you ever been to a professional learning (PL) session and loved the ideas presented but left thinking, “There is already too much on my plate. How am I ever going to implement this?” As educators we are often asked to do more but never seem to have permission to let anything go. The one constant amid the various educational trends and initiatives that come and go is that every learner brings his or her brain with them to class. Therefore, it is imperative for us as educators to learn how the brain learns.  

One of the most exciting and liberating aspects of the learning sciences is that it takes the many strategies we’ve developed throughout our careers and pushes them through a sieve of brain science research. This refining process identifies strategies that have evidence to promote better learning, some of which are already in our instructional tool bag.

The results are empowering! The learning sciences help us better understand how the brain works, how learning occurs and best practices for moving information into learners’ long-term memory. At first, this may require some unlearning as we have to work to debunk neuromyths, but through unlearning we are also empowered to let some things go that aren’t beneficial to learning.

In our role as teacher specialists for Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland, we had the opportunity to spend time at the Science of Teaching and Leadership Academy at the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL). We returned with a new perspective and renewed enthusiasm for tweaking the PL we deliver using the learning sciences. Not only are we offering PL sessions specifically on learning sciences strategies, but we use these strategies in all PL sessions and let our teachers know what and why we did so. It is our hope that with each exposure to learning sciences strategies, teachers will put them into immediate practice with their students.

To reinforce the learning sciences practices, we try to model them in our PL sessions. As we demonstrate the various strategies, we use them purposefully to help teachers acquire a stronger understanding and make the learning stick. We point out the deliberate use of each to provide direct explanation of learning sciences, the research behind it and how it might look. It is important that teachers take these strategies to their students and explain why they are doing things certain ways while modeling metacognition. After all, students should also know how their brains work and what they can do to make learning more permanent.  

We would like to highlight a few of these strategies, including minimized visual stimuli, enhancing long-term memory, teaching in multiple modalities, voice and choice, and metacognitive practices such as reflection.

No more bells and whistles

We recognize the role that cognitive load plays in student learning and that environmental stimuli competes with content for attention in our brain. Stimuli that interferes with learning comes in many forms. It can be sensory, such as irrelevant images or sounds, or in the form of seductive details that take away from, rather than enhance, the intended learning. The underlying principle is that our working memory has limited resources, and hence reducing irrelevant information allows learners to focus on what is important without overloading the working memory.

This idea has caused us to change how we think about and create presentation visuals for both adults and students. Where once we thought it good to model tech skills using images that did little to aid in understanding, such as unrelated GIFs and flashy fonts, we now know that clean and simple is best for people with low prior knowledge, such as when learning something new or hard. This is especially true when information is presented in short time frames (about six minutes) or if there are both text and graphic seductive details. Below is an example of two versions of the same playlist used in one of our PL sessions: one that includes additional, irrelevant details and another that is focused on the objective of the resource (which is what the learning sciences recommends for learners starting out).

Multiple modalities

Building multiple modalities into learning strengthens connections to that learning and make it sticky. Integrating dual coding is one example of giving the brain multiple ways to take in and store the information, making recall of information easier. Concept mapping involves describing the relationships between concepts using words and arrows. Since this requires learners to think about each concept and how they relate to each other, concept mapping has evidence to boost students’ metacognitive thinking.

After hearing our presentation on learning sciences strategies, a middle school social studies teacher introduced concept mapping to her students. Below is a hand-drawn example from one of her students. There are technology tools like Coggle, that can be used to create digital maps. They allow learners to strengthen their understanding of information with concept maps.



Voice and choice

We have found that just like students, adult learners really appreciate having choice and voice in the way they access PL. We have begun to offer a blended learning approach to PL called Bright Nights where we model station rotation, free-flow station rotation and playlist models. This type of PL is very different from what we have done in the past (very linear and in-person only and has been well received by participants).         


Learning for the long term

The brain’s ability to remember can be supported through various learning sciences practices, such as spaced study and retrieval practice. The learning sciences suggest that by spacing out information and returning to it later, we first forget and then remember, strengthening the connections in our brain that help us remember for longer. When we remember what we have learned, it is called retrieval practice and when we have gaps of time between learning sessions, it's called spaced study. At monthly department meetings we provide opportunities for staff to review and retrieve information from previous meetings, often sharing certain pieces of information a second time, ideally in a different format or modality. In doing so, we have spaced information; that is, we’ve reintroduced topics from previous meetings and allowed opportunities for more effective retrieval of the information to occur.

The photos below show both a tech and nontech example of strengthening memory. The first, on the top, asks staff to use FlipGrid to share their ideas after a review of curated information from previous meetings (retrieval practice). The example on the bottom shows learner-created flash cards that include words and pictures (dual coding) that allow the learner the powerful opportunity to retrieve information through self-testing.



Metacognitive practices

When we present, we pause every 30 minutes or so to allow the audience to reflect, summarize and process what they have heard. The idea is that when learners stop and assess what they learn at regular intervals, they get better at identifying what they know and don’t know; i.e. work on one aspect of their metacognitive skills. When possible, we collect their written thoughts — with no names to keep it a no-stakes assessment — and allow ourselves to check for understanding and correct any misconceptions. Two ways we’ve done this is by asking teachers to tweet a summary of their learning or complete an affirm, inform, transform reflection sheet. Teachers have shared with us that they have been able to transfer this type of activity to their classes, which allows for formative assessment and on-the-spot, meaningful feedback.

Teachers have been very responsive and enthusiastic about the learning sciences strategies we have shared. One of the things that they find so exciting is that the learning sciences provide the research to support good teaching practices, including blended learning and those outlined in the ISTE Standards for Educators, specifically standards 1, 5 and 6. By modeling these strategies and providing teachers the opportunity to experience many of them in their PL, we’ve encouraged them to be more willing to take risks and try these strategies with their own students.

We’ve learned from providing PL to teachers on learning sciences strategies that they feel affirmed by what they are already doing, and our PL simply gives them the academic vocabulary with which to discuss it and the research to motivate them to continue and grow. As we continue to incorporate learning sciences strategies, we find the discussion among teachers regarding these strategies to be rich and encouraging.

Moving forward we intend to continue to infuse learning sciences strategies into all of our PL offerings, allowing for teachers to retrieve and apply learning sciences strategies in a variety of new contexts. Teachers seem excited about the idea that they are becoming “brain changers” and that the simple no-cost changes they are making to infuse learning sciences in their classes are backed by research evidence to improve learning. Importantly, they are excited that they as teachers can not only teach what to learn, but how to learn.  

Maureen Corio is an advanced academics teacher specialist focusing on middle grade students and teachers at Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenCorio.

Carrie Crawford is a math and science teacher specialist for highly able learners at Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland. Follow her on Twitter @CarCrawFCPS.

Kent Wetzel is a social studies and language arts teacher specialist for highly able learners at Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland. Follow him on Twitter @KentWetzelFCPS.

This post was written in collaboration with NarayanKripa Sundararajan (@KripaSundar), learning sciences specialist at ISTE. This blog post is part of the Course of Mind project, an ISTE initiative made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Tell us what you’ve learned and your story @courseofmind.

This blog post is part of the Course of Mind project, an ISTE initiative made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Tell us what you’ve learned and your story @courseofmind.