At the Learning & the Brain Conference, November 15-17 in Boston, teaching professionals from around the world gathered to hear renowned educators and neuroscientists explore new developments linking the two fields. One such workshop, Common Core and Neuroscience, presented ways that educators are able to meet the pedagogical shifts demanded by the Common Core by understanding the newest research from neuroscience. Jay McTighe and Judy Willis, MD, M.Ed., combined forces, noting that educators are involved in stimulating the development of brain functions that will help students expand their innovative and creative cognitive resources.
Dr. Willis focused on new understandings of neural networks and how they develop in the brain. She reviewed recent findings on the impact of neuroplasticity on an individual’s ability to successfully transfer knowledge to new applications. It is the transfer of knowledge that, she contends, is the key to sound decision making and to generating creative solutions to new or unfamiliar problems. The attendees participated in an activity highlighting key executive functions that need to be developed before individuals can effectively create those neural networks: emotional self-control, judgment, cognitive flexibility, reasoning and so forth. Dr. Willis followed that discussion with additional insights on the role of emotions and stress in determining where and how information is processed in the brain and how both negatively impact learning. She encourages educators to set goals that are clear, personally relevant and believed to be achievable in order to promote brain ‘buy in’ and effort.
McTighe has written extensively about an approach, Understanding by Design, that encourages educators to build curricula around the goal of ‘student understanding.’ During his part of the workshop, he observed that we want students to develop the ability to make meaning of ‘big ideas’ and transfer learning into authentic performance. Essentially, the UbD approach suggests that curriculum planning is best done backward: reflect first on the desired results, determine performances and products that will reveal evidence of ‘meaning making’ and then generate a learning plan incorporating activities, experiences and lessons that are most likely to achieve the desired results. It was McTighe’s contention that whether one is talking Common Core standards … or the National Driver Development Standards expected of new drivers … the same processes will lead to desired results. He encouraged the audience to read the new Common Core standards deeply and carefully, contending that, at their foundation, they are designed to set an ‘expectation of understanding.’ When effectively turned into learning practices and curriculum, he believes that these standards will ultimately result in students being better able to apply knowledge to new situations and problems.
The two components of the workshop were tied together using a UbD template identified as a “Neurological Lesson Planner” with McTighe and Willis suggesting that educators keep readily available the list of executive functions and that they consider how to embed those functions in any lesson, homework or project assigned. They noted that “assignments and assessments planned to promote the use of executive functions (e.g. making judgments, supporting opinions, analyzing source validity) activate these highest cognitive networks developing in students’ brains…”