4. Teacher Professional Discipline and the New Learning Infrastructure

Mary Chapman’s story continues. The middle level science teacher who received a more enlightened kind of professional preparation. And was employed by a school district that both supported and took advantage of Mary’s skills and beliefs about the purpose of education.

Mary’s unique qualities were her ability to participate in the creation of a dynamic curriculum AND teach it in an engaged manner. The school district in which she became a part could be an even more active learning infrastructure.

An infrastructure that was not simply an inert subterranean system, but one that contributed and was responsive to the society it served.

Mary and her colleagues gave life to learning, thereby exciting students the same way. Both teachers and students with real opportunities to explore, learn deeply, and act on their learning in productive and creative ways.

Those actions must be authentic and purposeful in the context of societal expectations. Fully accountable to everyone who trusts and depends on what and why students learn.

That is the essence of professional discipline, to serve the larger good. For Mary and her colleagues who design curriculum and use it as the basis for teaching. For their students and the long-lasting quality of their learning, as measured by multiple types of performance.

Mary Chapman’s Story – Part 2

Brain-Based Learning was one of the units of instruction offered in my teacher preparation. How funny! What else should learning be based on?

But I began to understand that education has traditionally treated the human brain as a neutral repository of information considered important by society.

By those who decide what is necessary for us to learn.

The assumption that we teachers just push buttons to open a cognitive trap door and pour in prescribed knowledge. Smart students retain and use that knowledge. Those not so smart allow it to leak out.

But that view is simplistic. It interferes with the kind of real learning that stimulates creativity and new ways of behaving.

The brain is a highly active organ that processes information in extremely complicated ways. It becomes more powerful by making all kinds of connections.

Connections made by emotions, prior memories, concepts we manufactured through other experiences, and remembering details acquired from previous learning.

Real learning occurs when a new understanding attaches itself to something previously learned. The famous “ah ha” when we feel something reformulate inside our heads.

“I never thought of it that way before.”

This new way of thinking about teaching and learning has huge implications for curriculum and instructional design. And for how we teachers assess student progress, intelligence and aptitude.

We now realize intelligence is unique and changeable, not a single condition identified and recorded once or twice.

Those facts resonated with me. And formal research verifies what we know almost intuitively.

We learn things in parallel and our entire body can be involved. Information is significant only if it is meaningful and makes sense. For something to make sense a pattern or structure must fit.

Emotions can override learning. A brain attacked by depression, grief, or anger is not ready to learn something new.

Research elaborates on the brain’s complex way of remembering and processing. Every brain is unique. And operates holistically.

One finding particularly struck me, because I recognized it so quickly. People learn best when challenged. But not when threatened.

—————

We were taught how to make brain-based learning part of the learning infrastructure. And why we needed to practice professional discipline in making curriculum and instructional design reflective of the new understandings.

Not all public schools or their patrons would accept these new understandings. No institutions in America are more traditional than public schools and how they function.

Tradition is hard to break.

“What was good enough for me is good enough for my kids.” 

Finding a school district that understands the kind of change advocated by brain-based learning would be a real challenge for me and my fellow students. In fact, it was downright risky.

If we did not have the geographic flexibility to find a district compatible with what we were learning, we could be enormously disillusioned.

After all, in the traditional infrastructure new teachers do not lead change. They learn “how things are done here” and “get along.”

I was lucky because I did find a compatible district. One that appreciated my training and perspectives on teaching and learning. And fully used my skills in curriculum and instructional design. Skills taught in my preparation program.

—————-

My teacher education program taught me that the nuts and bolts of curriculum and instructional design are critical. Another essential part of professional discipline.

Before anything else is done, a definition of mastery is essential. Both generically and specifically.

In other words, what do we educators expect our students to know, do, and become after graduating from school?  And after completion of each grade level.

What do we expect them to master? Now and for the future.

Something that seems so simple is a struggle for most public schools. It has to do with the old view of curriculum, that it is something to be covered

The belief that it is just human nature for some young people to cognitively capture bits and pieces of knowledge provided in the classroom. Others fail or do poorly.

Such is life.

Today that philosophy is not good enough. Too much is at stake. Letting people fall through the cracks in our system is unacceptable.

My professor had all of us go through the drill of creating three mastery statements. A general one for a fictitious district. One specific to a subject area for the district. And one more for a subject we would likely teach at a particular grade level.

Creating the district’s general mastery statement was done in small groups, as would be the case in the real world. We were given three class periods to accomplish that task. And initially wasted time trying to get our heads around the complexity of the assignment.

That frustration made us aware of the enormity of the task. For K – 12 districts to nail down what they aspire their students to master in concrete and holistic terms.

That is why so many districts ignore mastery declarations. Instead, they resort to the use of mission statements. Which are nothing more than flowery sentences or two. Text for brochures, web pages, and other media.

Merely aspirations, not specific mastery goals.

—————

Subject and grade level mastery statements developed individually were easier, but still challenging. The challenge was recognizing the impact of scope.

Scope is the amount of time available in the instructional timeframe, such as a school year, to accomplish intended learning goals. Aligning scope with such considerations as student readiness, content difficulty, and instructional time available is necessary for students to master anything.

Virtual instruction in the time of COVID complicates everything dramatically.

Mastery is not an aspiration. It is a realistic intention. And how mastery is achieved is critical. A curriculum that emphasizes brain-based learning cannot be taught quickly.

Soak time is required. Reflection is essential.

Discerning whether mastery has been achieved requires ongoing formative assessment, using subjectively accurate measures created and administered by teachers. Making judgments based on evidence and intuitive observations.

The New Learning Infrastructure requires trust in teachers to make those judgments. And for teachers themselves to feel confident to do so.

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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