Today’s educators face unique challenges, but they also have an unprecedented advantage: More than ever, they understand the astonishing potential that every learner brings to the classroom – including those learners who might once have been overlooked.
However, classrooms aren’t always set up to reveal and nurture that potential. Instead, the U.S. education system is built on the early 20th-century idea that some students have potential and others don’t. There’s an outdated perception that a school’s purpose is to “select and sort.”
Now, we have a better understanding of learning science and know this isn’t true. An education system that can rise to meet 21st-century challenges is one that’s designed for equity and unlocking learning pathways for all young people.
How do we get there? It starts with reconceiving the role of the teacher, to fully leverage what we know about the science of learning and development.
Reimagining the role of a teacher
When we delve into student learning, it’s important to look straight to the source: the teacher. Nowadays, teachers are expected to be more than purveyors of information. Educators must be able to evaluate their own lessons and classroom techniques to diversify their content, become more inclusive, increase active learning, and improve student-teacher relationships. That’s a lot of hats to wear.
This is why Newsela Chief Academic Officer Dan Cogan-Drew conducted our recent webinar alongside Dr. Pamela Cantor, founder and senior science advisor of Turnaround for Children, and Zaretta Hammond, a teacher educator and author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Together they discussed the biological relationship between professional development and student growth.
What skills are required to grow as a teacher?
Higher-order skills are fundamental to academic, social, emotional, and professional growth, and Cantor explained that agency and engagement are far more central to this type of skill development than tasks like memorization. Fortunately, understanding the chemistry of stress and cognitive load can help teachers cultivate that sense of motivation in their learners.
According to Cantor, stress — and especially the release of high levels of the stress hormone cortisol — can be toxic to the higher-order cognition that students need for enthusiastic, independent learning.
We know that students must be able to manage their stress before they can be fully engaged in the classroom. Oxytocin, which produces feelings of love, trust, attachment, and safety, is key: It has been shown to counteract cortisol.
“Oxytocin is the more powerful of the two because it can literally protect children.” Said Cantor.
In other words, relationships and feelings of belonging have the potential to remedy some of the stress that all students, especially the most marginalized ones, bring to the classroom. By embracing the power of relationships and centering this kind of connection in their teaching practice, educators can step into a new role in the classroom, teaching resilience as well as subject knowledge.
This presents a scientific incentive for teachers to form unique teaching relationships with their students to help motivate them and increase their resiliency in the classroom. An evaluation of how each student is connecting and participating during lessons is the best practice to encourage learning and student growth.
The relationship between student and teacher growth in the classroom
When it comes to the teacher and student dynamic, it’s all about figuring out how to catalyze growth and learning. Specifically, how teachers can design curriculum goals that adapt and change with their students’ needs.
In our webinar, Cantor compared the brain to a muscle: “So much of life is about building our muscles, muscles for resilience, for adapting to change, for becoming a learner… it isn't easy. It's about practice, it's about struggling, it's about challenge and growth.”
Essentially, mastering standards and subject knowledge are just as important as learning how to learn.
Hammond explained that this meta-learning requires a different kind of scaffolding than many educators are used to – scaffolding that invites students to engage in “productive struggle.”
“The brain has this thing called elaboration, meaning it takes new content,” she said. “And all that new content must be coupled with existing knowledge, our current schema, our funds of knowledge, and it has to be … chewed on and mixed together.”
When tasks at the outer range of learners’ abilities connect with what they already know, they not only have those moments of insight that spark further curiosity but also build the confidence to overcome failure.
Failure is inevitable when students are putting in the maximum effort – and that’s not a bad thing.
Hammond explained that classrooms need “a culture of errors. This means that the classroom, in addition to norms and behavior, has norms around how we handle errors.”
Furthermore, this can be part of an equity-centered whole-child approach, where educators go beyond discrete skills to give students the analytic tools and self-knowledge to pursue their own intellectual curiosity. A great way to achieve this is to value each lesson from a student’s perspective (an idea we explore in this blog).
Within this framework, the educator is like a personal trainer who gives students individualized support and motivation to drive their own learning.
Ways to improve learning strategy: collaborative inquiry and the scientific method
The panelists’ vision of the teacher as an equity-minded personal trainer may be new, but its components aren’t. Educators have always known the importance of relationships and motivation, and many are already using culturally responsive practices.
The challenge lies in executing this shift systematically so that all teachers have the support they need to inhabit their new role. Basically, what can teachers do to improve learning strategy and educator effectiveness? The fact is that it’s currently a lot of trial and error.
“This is usually an 18-[month] to three-year arc in terms of turning the ship around,” Hammond said of implementing new pedagogies and practices.
She called for a scientific method-based approach and encouraged educators to transform their classrooms using the same collaborative inquiry methods they teach their students — rather than simply experimenting ad hoc and then reporting back.
The key is in the evaluation of teacher performance in the classroom and the identification of what teaching strategies need to be shifted to gain the best learning results. If interested, check out our recent guide on the role of learning science in relation to student engagement here.
Whether you're teaching kindergarten or high school, this isn’t easy. There’s no one-size-fits-all lesson plan. But when schools give their educators the tools to achieve this, they’re laying the foundation of learner-centered classrooms that challenge students to bolt down the path to independent learning.
Dig deeper: Watch the full webinar
Excited and want additional information about teacher growth and the biology behind student motivation? Take a look at our recorded webinar here.