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Interview Of The Month — Kevin D. Washburn

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As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Today, I’m publishing October’s “Interview Of The Month” a few days early. Kevin D. Washburn is a researcher, author, and teacher particularly focusing on neuroscience and learning. He is the Director of Clerestory Learning (you can subscribe to their free newsletter here). He’s also a blogger and author.

Can you tell us what Clerestory Learning is and how you got involved in education?

I discovered my love for teaching while in high school. We had the option of serving as aides in elementary classrooms during our free periods. I spent most of these times in a kindergarten classroom, and I knew almost immediately that I loved it. My first day there, a student squeezed his plugged glue bottle so hard that it burst and sent a flood of stickiness all over the table. Where else would you get to get to experience such fun?!?

That enjoyment was honed into a mission while I was in college. I had inspiring professors who pushed us to think, to innovate, and to find a way to share our learning with others. We were also told repeatedly that being a professional meant constantly learning and growing. That message found root in my mind because the professors did not just say it; they lived it. I remember we students tried arguing this with a professor. Our objection was, “What if we end up working in a school system that has no money to send us to conferences or graduate school?” Her reply was classic: “Can you read?” She helped us realize that WE were responsible for our own professional development.

After graduation I searched for a kindergarten position. I got all the way to board interviews at two schools, but the outcome was the same in both. The board members did not feel a man could be “motherly enough” to teach kindergarten. I was disappointed until I started teaching fourth grade. My nine- and ten-year-old students were a constant source of joy. Do people who do not teach get to laugh so much during their workdays? I doubt it.

Forgive me for sharing a story from those early days. The television show America’s Funniest Videos launched about the same time I began teaching. I was reading aloud to my class one day, and the section of the story was especially tense. As I wondered down the aisle, my voice rising and falling with the drama, I worked my way back to a stool I kept at the front of the classroom. I backed onto the stool, wove my legs into its legs, and then plummeted to the floor. I landed, face down, literally nose-in-book. My students were stunned into silence. I stood up, brushed off, looked up, and we simultaneously burst into laughter. A student in the back raised his hand and said, “Do it again, Mr. W., so I can get it on video!” We didn’t, but I frequently replay the event mentally, and it always makes me chuckle.

From there, I taught everything from third grade to graduate school, and I have loved every level. I also served as an administrator just long enough to realize it was not my forte, and then moved into curriculum and instruction-related areas. I’ve had the opportunity to lead development of an instructional reading program and guide schools in its implementation.

Which brings me to Clerestory Learning, an organization my wife and I founded about five years ago. Clerestory Learning is a business dedicated to creating practical classroom applications of neurocognitive research by developing programs and professional development for teachers, our schools’ most valuable asset. We strive for excellence in professional development and training programs by creating effective instructional solutions based on sound applications of multidisciplinary research. In short, we divide our time between researching and developing programs and tools for teachers and schools, leading professional development events, and writing. I love every aspect of this!

Right now, we have three popular programs. “Teaching the Learning Brain” is a one-day event that explores a variety of neurocognitive research findings that have implications for teaching. Then we have two multi-day programs. “The Architecture of Learning” focuses on instructional design tools that help teachers apply findings from neurocognitive research to their teaching. My current favorite is “Writer’s Stylus,” a K-12 instructional writing program that includes a professional development component. I love teaching this because teachers grow both personally and professionally during our time together. It’s one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I’ve ever had. Observing teachers use the methods with students literally moves me to tears. Their work helps students find their voices and craft their messages in ways that deserve attention. It’s moving and inspiring to witness.

What do you think are the three most important concepts that educators can learn from neuroscience?

Understanding LEARNING improves your teaching.
Everything you do as a teacher matters. From your intentional instruction to the very words you use, it all fosters (or hinders) learning.
To learn, the brain must THINK! We must plan time for student thinking and engage students in activities that foster the thinking that constructs new learning.

Please share a little about your book — what is it about and why did you decide to write it?

The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain presents the fundamental processes of learning and offers planning tools to help teachers develop teaching that engages students in those processes. In other words, it takes findings from neurocognitive research, explains how they relate to learning, and suggests ways teachers can apply the findings to teaching. It also explores related areas that are of intense interest to me, such as critical and creative thinking. If there is a bottom-line message to the book, it’s what I offered as one of the three important concepts from neuroscience: To learn, the brain must THINK! The book offers a few ways that thinking can be intentionally included in teaching.

I decided to write the book because there was wide-spread interest in the approach, and many teachers who were interested did not have the opportunity to attend a professional development event dedicated to it. Thankfully, the book has been well-received, even though when I read it I see things I want to revise (again!). I have a second book in the thinking stages right now. After that, I may return to the current book and work on a revised edition. I definitely want to include more examples of technology use, and I have some exciting ideas about applying the model to more self-directed learning emphases.

Thanks to Jason Bedell, who is both genius and blazingly fast learner, the book is available in traditional paperback and in Kindle and Nook formats.

What neuroscience research that is presently going on do you think has the greatest potential for application in the classroom?

Brace yourself. I think the wide-ranging field of wisdom research has significant implications for schools and teachers. I know, I know. Many people think wisdom is beyond the realm of scientific study, but researchers are pursuing this line of inquiry and discovering much that I think we as educators should be exploring.

Wisdom includes supporting capacities, such as self-regulation, that already are influencing classroom practice (or should be!). Many teachers are familiar with Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth’s research on self-regulation. But researchers are also exploring capacities such as compassion, emotional-regulation (resilience), humility, and altruism. We’re not at a place where these have been studied enough to offer many ideas for education. However, I see this field as potentially altering our ideas of what school should be.

Right now, I am tinkering with a model of four-fold emphasis: self-directed learning, self-directed reasoning, self-directed evaluating, and wisdom. There is far more to this than I can share here, but this emphasis would include elements that many teachers currently would like to emphasize, such as creative thinking. I agree with Robert Sternberg: much of what we do now in schools, including the assessment tools we value, is “orthogonal to wisdom.” I’d sure like to be part of an educational system that sought to produce wise individuals!

Ultimately, this research has to be examined and distilled to the point where we as teachers know what and how we need to change. We’re not there yet. But this are of research is loaded with potential!

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Yes. We must remember that the brain is an embodied brain. Our schools need to be attentive to the health of our students. Things like true physical fitness and free play support student learning. Students need to be building healthy fitness habits, and this augments the building and maintaining of a brain that is primed for new learning. I know that we cannot (and should not) control every aspect of a student’s life, but we can structure our programs so that influences on learning, such as physical fitness, receive adequate attention. Everyone seems to want more time for teaching. This is the wrong perspective. We need to ask ourselves, “What does a student need to optimize learning?” Part of the answer is physical fitness and free play. We want more time to each; students need more time to maintain healthy brains for learning.

Thanks for this opportunity. Your questions have motivated me to dive back into my work with renewed vigor!

Thanks, Kevin!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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