Wednesday, March 10, 2021

For Sticky PD, Apply the Science of Learning

We are pleased to share with you our recently published ASCD article! In this piece, we discuss how the science of learning can be used to make professional development meaningful and memorable.

by Marcus Conyers and Donna Wilson

Over two decades, our BrainSMART professional development program has employed a teacher-centered focus, with positive effects on teachers' reactions to training and their learning as well as organization-wide results. Our approach focuses on sharing principles and practices that teachers can readily apply in their classrooms (Wilson & Conyers, 2020). This practical element is key to making professional development stick. As Guskey (2002) states, teachers experience the most significant changes in their beliefs and attitudes after they begin using a new practice and observe the positive effects on student learning.

When we asked what teachers thought they most needed to learn, they asked for practical knowledge, skills, and strategies that could increase student achievement. Teachers identified the need for teaching practices, including how to assist students to think at higher levels, sustain positive engagement, and support students to transfer learning from one context to another (Conyers, 2017).

As we gathered teachers' input, we asked ourselves, "How can we share this theory and research and these strategies with educators in a way that results in actual changes in teaching practice?"

To answer this question, we utilized Joyce and Showers' approach for effective PD design (2002), which includes: 1) presentation of theory or rationale, 2) demonstration or modeling of skill or concept, 3) practice of skill or concept under simulated conditions, and 4) feedback.

With those concepts in mind, we developed a list of PD strategies that will have practical, long-lasting use for teachers.

Six "Sticky" Professional Development Strategies:

  1. Share key concepts from the emerging science of learning in a way that is relevant to teachers.
  2. Promote transfer by asking teachers to think about their own students and their content as the basis for incorporating new instructional practices into their classroom teaching.
  3. Model practical strategies that put research and theory into practice so that participants can observe the strategies in action.
  4. Give teachers the opportunity to practice adapting these strategies to their content and students in the classroom. Neuroscientists note that "practice makes cortex" (Duerden & Laverdure-Dupont, 2008).
  5. Give teachers the opportunity to get feedback on their use of the strategies, so they can build confidence in their ability to apply them.
  6. Finish the professional development each day with a group roundup, where teachers experience the thrill of knowing how much they have learned and remembered.

Our BrainSMART model, which employs these strategies, has been studied based on the four levels of the Kirkpatrick Model for evaluating training (Kirkpatrick Partners, 2016). Results suggest a positive effect on teachers in the following areas: 1) reaction to the training, 2) learning of the material, 3) use of what they learned, and 4) results of professional development on the organization.

One study of 294 educators who participated in the BrainSMART program (Conyers, 2017), revealed that participants:

  • better understand how students learn and the concept of brain plasticity.
  • are more metacognitive about their teaching practice.
  • are better able to support social emotional learning.
  • have improved their teaching practice and overall student outcomes.

PD Concepts from the Science of Learning

Now that we know how to present PD in a sticky way, we're going to focus on three key concepts for improving learning across the lifespan, rooted in the science of learning and development research: brain plasticity, metacognition, and social-emotional learning.

Brain Plasticity

Learning about the brain fascinates people of all ages. In our professional development, we have found that educators are motivated when they discover that they can develop and improve the knowledge, skills, and outlooks that support effective teaching at any age, thanks to brain plasticity that powers lifelong learning and growth mindsets. As Michael Merzenich, a pioneer in neuroplasticity research, puts it, "the brain's machinery is being continuously rewired and functionally revised, substantially under your control, throughout the course of your natural life" (2013, p.2).

Scientists refer to the brain as "plastic" to describe its capacity to change in response to the individual's experiences and sensory input from the environment. Related to brain plasticity is the process of synaptogenesis, the creation of synaptic connections between brain cells in response to learning. These neuronal connections form as a result of the one-of-a-kind blend of experiences we have throughout our lives.

In professional development, the following strategies can be used to make the most of brain plasticity. Teachers also can use these strategies in the classroom to teach the basics of brain plasticity.

  • Choose to learn a novel concept or technique. Learning something new is an excellent way to support the growing of new brain connections, which keep your brain young.
  • Seek out opportunities for purposeful collaboration. Social interactions and collaboration in one's professional and personal life have been linked to less cognitive decline associated with aging. Social integration—the feeling that you are a part of a community where you support others and are supported—is crucial across all levels of education.
  • Care for your body to nurture your brain. Take brain breaks and move. A fundamental mechanism that connects body and brain health is angiogenesis, the creation of new blood vessel branches to enhance blood and oxygen flow in the brain. Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve selective attention, working memory, and planning.
  • Reduce stress. Learning stress management tools such as meditation, yoga, or tai chi can be helpful for teachers and students alike (Conyers & Wilson, 2016; Wilson & Conyers, 2020).


In our professional development events, we make practical metacognition a key focus. When participants think about what they are learning in the context of their classroom, they are better able to transfer what they learn to their teaching practice.

Defined as "thinking about thinking," metacognition is an essential tool in the development of teaching expertise. Neuroscientist Stephen Fleming (2014) characterizes metacognition as a foundation for learning, success, and achievement that is applicable to almost any field. Metacognitive educators are more intentional, adjusting their approach based on students' needs and the content, and are more effective in how they plan, execute, and access their teaching. As a result, they are more likely to perceive themselves as having greater efficacy than teachers who do not use metacognitive strategies (Conyers & Wilson, 2016).

Practical metacognition is supported by the use of our PEAK Model: Planning, Execution, Assessment, and Keep making progress (Conyers & Wilson, 2015). Prior to using PEAK, establish your clear intent. Create a positive, motivating goal and envision its benefits. Using questions such as those presented below will support the "learning brains" of you and your students. (These questions were adapted from our book, Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, which features many methods for teaching with and for metacognition.)

(P)lan: Develop a specific plan for progressing positively and ask yourself …

  • What are the most important parts of the lesson?
  •  How can I link the new content to students' prior knowledge?
  •  How can I measure how effectively students have learned what I have taught?
  •  What strategies should I remind students to use?

(E)xecute: Focus fully on the implementation and monitor learning with questions such as …

  • Is this lesson going according to my plan? If not, what is leading us off course?
  • Is our pace appropriate?
  • How can I keep students who have demonstrated an understanding of this new content engaged and moving forward while providing more practice for others?
  • Is there any content that seems confusing or unclear? What unexpected connections are students making, and how can we capitalize on that?
  • How can we apply what we have learned in this lesson to other subjects and build on what we have learned?

(A)ssess: Assess, monitor, and adjust your thoughts and actions as you implement your plan and after you complete an action step. Ask yourself …

  • Do the assessments indicate that students have mastered the content taught?
  • Are there some students that need additional support?
  • How might I teach this lesson differently the next time?
  • What was unexpected either in challenging or positive ways?

(K)eep making progress (and improving the process): Aim for steady gains in a positive direction and be open for ways to improve the process.

Social-Emotional Learning

A vital key to making professional development stick is the harnessing of positive emotions. When educators' brains are in a positive state in a safe and supportive learning environment, they can be more engaged, motivated, and open to using creative applications of learning (Davidson & Begley, 2012).

In our professional development, we model a positive mood so that the experience is enjoyable, and we share the evidence of this approach on student outcomes. A 2011 meta-analysis found that students whose schooling incorporated social-emotional learning instruction experienced significant academic gains—11 points higher than students who did not receive this type of instruction (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011).

The following thought-provoking questions can be used in PD as well as with students in the classroom.

Ask participants …

  • What were the best things that happened that day? (When using this strategy regularly in the classroom, teachers have found that students begin to scan for positive things happening in their lives rather than focusing on the negative).
  • Who is someone they know who is practically optimistic and positive?
  • When in your life did you have to work hard to overcome a challenge?

It is exciting to provide learning experiences that support educators to make a positive effect on student learning. Creative and practical applications of the science of learning is key to PD that sticks.


Conyers, M.A. (2017). Improving teaching practice through education, mind, and selected brain research. (Ph.D. Thesis). Retrieved from Westminster Research, University of Westminster.

Conyers, M. A., & Wilson, D. L. (2015). Positively smarter: Science and strategies for increasing happiness, achievement, and well-being. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley.

Conyers M. A., & Wilson, D. L. (2016). Smarter teacher leadership: Neuroscience and the power of purposeful collaboration. New York: Teachers College Press.

Davidson, R. J., with Begley, S. (2012). The emotional life of your brain. New York: Hudson Press.

Duerden, E. G., & Laverdure-Dupont, D. (2008). Practice makes cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience, 28(35), 8655–8657.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1). Retrieved from meta-analysis-child-development-1.pdf

Guskey, T. R. (2002). Professional development and teacher change. Teachers and Teaching, 8(3), 381–391.doi:10.1080/135406002100000512

Joyce, B. R., & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Merzenich, M. (2013). Soft-wired: How the new science of brain plasticity can change your life (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Parnassus.

Wilson, D. L., & Conyers, M. A. (2016). Teaching students to drive their brains: Metacognitive strategies, activities, and lesson ideas. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wilson, D.L., & Conyers, M.A. (2020). Developing growth mindsets: principles and practices for maximizing students' potential. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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