Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers were pleased to be interviewed for Poland’s Sygnal Magazine by reporter Agnieszka Korcz. The interview means even more since Conyers and Wilson, co-founders of BrainSMART, recently visited Poland and met such lovely people there.
Here is a transcript from that interview:
1. Donna, you and Marcus created a new process of learning for everyone: for children, students, teachers, and all educators. Your BrainSMART program does a great job with important concepts in education. Tell me, please, what was your inspiration for this program?
Donna Wilson: BrainSMART began in 1998 with a mission to support educators to teach and lead so students globally become more effective learners, thinkers, and communicators. Our inspiration comes from the many teachers who tell us how much they have learned through our approach. There is overwhelming evidence that the single most important school-based factor influencing student achievement is the effectiveness of the classroom teacher. Within any school district with a common curriculum, the teachers who are more effective instructors produce higher levels of student learning. We are committed to supporting educators by sharing the research, theory, and strategies teachers need to continue enhancing the effectiveness of their instruction so that they can experience the thrill of seeing their students achieve at higher levels. We love hearing their success stories!
2. Please tell us more about BrainSMART. What is new and different about this program?
DW: BrainSMART begins with the belief, supported by an ever-expanding body of research, that every human brain has tremendous potential to learn and change throughout the life span. BrainSMART is an applied approach to using research and theories from the fields of cognitive education, psychology, and the emerging field of mind, brain, and education. This is a new, cutting-edge approach to teacher education. With our approach, the focus is on the learner and how we can teach each student. This is different than an approach that has at core primarily standardized testing; a fragmented approach to curriculum; and a focus on standards without support for teachers on how to best teach.
Another difference that sets BrainSMART apart in the field of teacher education is that we believe teachers’ voices must be heard worldwide in support of effective teaching methods as we move forward to create 21st century education systems. Many teachers with whom we have worked report that for decades the emphasis in their schools has been on changing the content rather than providing the resources they need to improve the process—the “how-to”—of instruction. So, we listened to hundreds of teachers as we developed our approach, and they helped us construct our frameworks for effective instruction. BrainSMART is a top-down (science-based) approach and a bottom-up (field- and teacher-based) approach.
3. The numbers are impressive: Thousands of teachers from the USA, Europe, Asia, and Canada share 98% positive recommendations. How long have you worked on this program to achieve such great results?
Marcus Conyers: We have been privileged to work and learn with more than 160,000 teachers over the last 30 years. In 1999, we began to share our approach in a three-year statewide initiative for the Florida Department of Education. Shortly afterward, our work was supported by an Annenberg Challenge Award in association with Florida Atlantic University. The success of these initiatives led to our developing graduate degree programs focused on brain-based teaching with Nova Southeastern University. The programs began in 2001. Over the past 15 years, it has been exciting to see classroom teachers put our innovative approach into practice in their classrooms and witness increases in student learning. Almost 3,000 teachers from 48 states, Canada, Bermuda, Japan, Malaysia, and countries in the Middle East and Europe have enrolled in these highly rated graduate degree programs through Nova Southeastern University. These teachers are pioneers in putting research into practice in their schools and classrooms.
4. “The question is no longer ‘How smart am I?’ but ‘How smart can I become?’” Thinking for Results is a research-based approach to equipping students with higher-order thinking skills they need to achieve their full potential in school and in life. How can we help our children and students to make their life in the school easier and to learn more effectively?
DW: Over the last half-century, research in cognitive psychology and education shows that two essential components to increase student learning are (1) to teach students the human processing skills they need for high academic achievement and lifelong learning and (2) to teach in ways that engage students in thinking. When students are explicitly taught how to think at higher levels, they are better able to learn educational content more effectively.
The research community has created a strong base of support for the importance of teaching thinking strategies to improve student performance. At the same time, educators have identified a disconnect between research and practice: The curriculum in many U.S. states and districts does not encompass direct instruction on learning how to learn. When educators don’t teach strategies for accomplishing classroom tasks, some students succeed and others don’t. But when learners are taught the thinking strategies they can use to succeed in learning, they have a fighting chance to do so. Teachers have told us again and again that their students benefit from learning and applying strategies such as learning how to better plan and organize a paper, gathering information from multiple sources, increasing attention and focus skills, and learning memory strategies. Research on factors that positively influence student achievement suggests that when students are taught effective thinking skills, increases in academic achievement, gains up to 30% or more, may follow. Unfortunately, schools have traditionally not had the teaching of cognitive strategies as a focus. The good news is that we have a great opportunity now to change that!
5. Marcus, you are an international speaker on innovation, leading, learning, and cultivating 21st-century competencies. What is your experience in education, working with teachers and with education systems generally?
MC: For the last 20 years I have worked with 100,000 educators in school systems throughout the United States and Canada and in other locations around the world. A specific focus of my work has been on helping to cultivate skills to help young people thrive in school and their future careers, including critical and creative thinking skills, collaboration, and communication.
6. What do you think are the biggest weaknesses of education systems now in the USA and in Europe?
MC: Teaching is an incredibly complex and challenging profession, so it’s no wonder that teachers working in isolation sometimes feel overwhelmed and beleagured. It is possible to overcome some challenges in education by providing teachers with regular opportunities for purposeful collaboration and leadership alongside school administrators. In our latest book, Smarter Teacher Leadership, we present research showing that the most productive educational leadership includes roles for teacher leaders. They may emerge from all levels of education and take on a wide variety of roles and responsibilities, all of which aim to contribute to improving students’ learning and academic outcomes. An important aspect of teacher leadership is that educational systems be designed to encourage teachers to work together on a variety of daunting professional challenges with the support and guidance of peers.
Your question implies that educational systems need to change to support teachers, and we absolutely agree. It is critically important that teachers are supported with the best teacher education and professional development available and that they have a chance to work together to share lessons that have worked well. There is a saying that many hands make light work. With the support of their colleagues and administrators, teachers may be able to avoid some of the burnout, stress, and feelings of discouragement due to flawed systems.
7. How can we use recent research about the brain to create a new style of education?
MC: Educational neuroscience informs educators, educational policymakers, and parents that virtually every child has tremendous potential to learn, change, and complete school successfully. Armed with this knowledge, schools and communities will have high expectations for all students and can better use research from psychology, education, and neuroscience to set up the conditions to support academic success. Research in education and psychology has amassed evidence of effective teaching and learning strategies. Research from neuroscience can provide inspiration so that we have the will to create educational systems that work.
8. We know that emotions play a special role in learning. What else is important for students to learn better and be smarter? What about “the simple things,” like kindness, gratitude, and optimism? How can we create positive emotions in our classrooms to replace feelings of being burned out, tired, and discouraged?
DW: In fact, Marcus and I like to say that emotions are the gateway to cognition. Teachers know that student performance increases when children know their teachers and parents care. In our book Positively Smarter, we discuss the importance of joy, happiness, and optimism in learning, school, and life. Happy people are more creative and better problem solvers. They have a greater motivation to succeed and are more likely to persist through difficulties to work hard to achieve their goals.
Through explicit instruction about the power of optimism and by modeling a positive outlook as they interact with their students, teachers can help foster a positive classroom environment in which all students feel safe, secure, and valued. Celebrating small successes is another way to nurture optimistic outlooks and to encourage students to continue to move forward. Learning is an incremental process, and students who feel hopeful and optimistic about their abilities to learn and progress are more likely to put in the hard work they may need to succeed.
9. Let’s talk about metacognition, which is very interesting but can seem quite abstract. What is metacognition, and how can we use it in our lives and in education?
MC: Metacognition involves thinking about one’s thinking, or cognition, with the goal of enhancing learning. Metacognition refers to the active monitoring of cognitive processes, usually in the service of a goal or objective. More simply put, metacognition can be thought of as being knowledgeable about and in control of our thinking. For example, metacognition includes the ability to know why, how, when, and where to use what you have learned.
When students are taught to use metacognition, they learn to wield powerful tools to help them in a range of school and life contexts: They can think about and apply strategies to improve their study habits and test-taking skills. They can be more mindful about maintaining healthy and positive relationships with friends and family. They can plan how to communicate effectively in job interviews. And those are just a few examples.
10. Do you think that teaching metacognition is widely accepted as an education method today? It seems like students are just pushed to learn what they need to take tests, and teachers may not be motivated to help their students develop new skills that may be seen as outside standard education methods?
DW: It is true that there seems to be a great deal of emphasis today on testing, but teaching students to employ metacognitive and cognitive strategies is consistent with a variety of educational standards that have the stated goal of guiding students to become self-directed learners. And teachers can apply these same metacognitive and cognitive skills to their own professional practice, so a practical, cognitive approach must be at the heart of teacher education and professional development.
It is no longer sufficient for students to demonstrate an understanding of the curriculum content or just to be able to use basic learning skills. Rather, students must be able to deploy content knowledge and higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills appropriately on their own in new learning situations. Metacognition is the tool that makes this type of transfer possible. Our new book that will be published by ASCD in 2016 aims to make the teaching of metacognition less daunting. We’ve also written an article called "The Boss of My Brain" for the journal Educational Leadership. It’s available online at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct14/vol72/num02/£The-Boss-of-My-Brain£.aspx.
11. Dopamine is involved in many brain functions and is known for its role in important aspects of learning, including motivation, memory, and attention. Does that mean we should hold a higher level of dopamine to learn better?
MC: Yes, and one way to increase dopamine levels is to exercise. At school, making lessons meaningful can also generate greater activation in the reward system of the brain as students “get it” and experience meaning and relevance to what is being taught.
12. In your book Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching, you write about the big ideas of neuroplasticity, potential, malleable intelligence, body-brain system, and metacognition. If I do everything according to the guidelines in the book, will I be a genius?
DW: Well, discovering the amazing potential of your brain to learn and develop new knowledge and skills throughout life is certainly a giant step in that direction! It’s a common assumption that “geniuses” are born smarter than the rest of us and that top performers in sports, in the arts, and across professions have inherent talents that other people can never develop. Research has shown that what sets these top performers apart is their willingness to work hard over the long term and keep practicing and getting better bit by bit until they achieve their goals.
13. What kind of advice can you give our polnisch teachers?
MC: First, remember that, as teachers, you are the hope for the future of your country and beyond. Second, because teaching is complex work, you need to take care of yourselves. Several key ways to do that are by becoming more practically optimistic, exercising regularly, and eating in a healthy way. A great resource for living a lifestyle of joy and health is our book, Positively Smarter: Science and Strategies for Increasing Happiness, Achievement, and Well-Being. Third, ensure that, formally or informally, you have opportunities to learn with your teaching colleagues. When you share resources for effective lessons together, you make the workload lighter for each and every teacher. And as you proceed on your journey of learning more about brain-based teaching and our BrainSMART methods, do keep in touch at the following sites online:
BrainSMART website: www.brainsmart.org
Mind, Brain, Learning, & Teaching with Donna Wilson, PhD [blog]: http://donnawilsonphd.blogspot.com
Innovating Minds [blog by Marcus Conyers]: http://www.innovatingminds.org
News Your Brain Can Use [BrainSMART email newsletter]: http://www.brainsmart.org/-Newsletter
BrainSMART on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BrainSMART-125849007450253/timeline/?ref=hl
BrainSMART on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BrainSMARTU
BrainSMART on Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/brainsmartu
The Brain-Based Learning blog on Edutopia where we are regular contributors: http://www.edutopia.org/blogs/beat/brain-based-learning