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Analysis: Summer Institutes

Brie Stark's picture

This summer, I participated in the summer institutes with K-12 teachers, sponsored by Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  The goal of my summer research activities was to participate in and facilitate discussion, form relationships and develop new ideas in relation to the brain, education, mental health and inquiry with K-12 teachers in both the Brain and Behavior Institute, lead by Paul Grobstein, and the Inquiry Institute, lead by Wilfred Franklin.  I will summarize these institutes and offer conclusions and further points of discussion for the future.
I was both a facilitator and active participant in discussion during these institutes.  I took part in the daily blogging ritual, as well as in the discussion of curriculum projects and open-ended projects developed for both institutes.  I helped facilitate the use of Serendip as an educator about the usage of the website, the HTML and the formatting, as well as taught side-programs like Windows Movie Maker and Excel.  I maintained an ongoing synopsis blog about my experiences throughout the entire internship, which can be found at /exchange/bstark.

In all, I felt that this internship has given me a more global viewpoint of education and its many approaches, as well as connections with diverse behavior and learning styles.  I learned to express myself well through blogs and in person on a variety of subjects.  This opportunity helped me formulate several career paths of interest through exploration with many professionals in the field of education, biology and psychology.

Brain and Behavior Institute

Moving into the institute, I had a few concepts of what I believed to foster successful education.  Throughout my life, I knew that I wanted to have a life-long learning experience, where my education didn't just stop at the end of formal schooling.  I also knew that I enjoyed class discussions more than lectures, but that most of my pre-college career had focused on lectures and that, over time, I had learned how to 'work' the system.  I expected to learn a different approach to education when I entered into these institutes, mostly from the diverse points of view of the teachers and how they experienced education compared to my student perspective.  I was not expecting the discussions on emergent pedagogy that occurred between myself, Paul Grobstein, Emily Lovejoy and Wil Franklin, but those are probably what impacted me the most in the institute, in terms of the concept of education.  I had never thought of education taking this discussion form, nor had I thought of the great implications of doing so.  I thought back to my high school career and realized a lot was left unsaid and unlearned because of a lack of discussion and lack of interest by most members of the course.  I feel like I have an opportunity to learn more from utilizing emergence in the classroom, and hope to see this thought grow throughout my college experience.

Further more, I felt that I had a bit more background and expectations grounded in the fact that I had recently taken Paul Grobstein's neurobiology and behavior course, at Bryn Mawr College.  I knew that the institute would use and build off of ideas from that course, and I was therefore prepared to encounter some similarities between the two.  For that reason, I came in with several thoughts about issues we had discussed in the course, in an attempt to prepare myself to generate or contribute to new discussion.  Over the course of the two weeks, I found that, while a lot of the material that was presented was similar to the course, the discussions that was generated from these K-12 teachers was very different than what the college students had contributed (in the course).  I really enjoyed hearing the new ideas, and for me, the context was very much so important: these were individuals who came from differing school systems and whom taught different grade levels, and therefore their opinions were shaped not only by those two factors, but also by their personalities, education and environmental factors.  Globally, I saw a slow shift of interest start to generate itself as the two weeks progressed: in the first week, there was a lot of emphasis on personal contributions (such as how teachers had implemented discussed topics in their own classrooms and their personal experiences).  However, as the second week came, emphasis on personal interest started to decrease and there was a lot more discussion about global culture, learning styles of students and how to assess the student in order to encompass these ideas.  While the process of growth is going to be long term--for instance, when the teachers return back to school and choose how to use what they have garnered from the institute--there was visible growth throughout the duration of the two weeks.  Leaving the institute, I found that I took away many new viewpoints on authentic assessment, multiple learning styles and ways of teaching--all subjects that had not been touched upon in the neurobiology and behavior course that I had previously taken.  I made great friendships with some of the teachers and continue to be in contact with them, hoping to follow along on their journey of reflecting on the ideas raised in the course and generating their own interpretations to implement in their classrooms.

A discussion of several key points:

  • The institute, on the first day, attempted to create a safe place for discussion.  I felt that, while there wee some adversarial discussions taking place, the overall atmosphere of the institute still enforced positive conflict.  I think the overall make up of the participants allowed this safe space to occur, because the majority f the participants came to the institute with a fairly open mind and desire to learn and explore new ideas.  However, in the future I believe that a point should be made to address the necessity of positive conflict earlier on in the course, as many participants became sidetracked and often took comments personally or reacted on a personal level.  While personal stories are sometimes beneficial to discussion, the constant discussion of one’s own practice and teaching style—without the willingness to look constructively at it—is often not beneficial to discussion.
  • I felt that the morning sessions were often very informative for the participants.  It would’ve been helpful for most attention spans to move to different places with discussions, as to not enforce the very confining aspect of the room upon the discussion (which I found often happened, even if by accident).  I think that the participants were engaged in the morning discussions and offered new ideas and insight, and more often than not, good discussion was generated from the ideas.
  • I felt that the afternoon time was a bit “back and forth,” whereas many people wanted to work on their project and many others simply did not understand how to approach the idea of an open-ended project.  I think that discussing several key points for an open-ended project (which I ended up putting up on a webpage later, which seemed beneficial to the majority of the participants) would alleviate this downtime and foster a creative environment.
  • I thought that a large conflict in the class resulted from the usage of the internet as a tool for learning.  There was a lot of disagreement about whether or not the internet should be used as such a tool.  I think it would be very beneficial to have even a morning lesson on the topic, because the afternoon discussion of the paper (which I doubt many read) did not help to discuss these issues further, but rather created a rift that divided the class into two sections.  These two sections had a very tough time hybridizing their ideas, later on, and I think that this lack of understanding of the web permeated into other topics in the institute.
  • I think that the idea of an emergent project 'presentation' must also be emphasized.  Since the entire class was based around emergence, why shouldn’t the projects also be emergent?  While I think we tried to foster this idea, it was obviously not taken into account with 75% of the participants, who had no class involvement in their 5-minute project ‘presentation.’  The concept of a ‘presentation’ also made many teachers wary of the environment and I think brought back the concept of what a presentation is often considered: a lecture.  We do not want to encourage this viewpoint, so perhaps even a name change would be helpful.  I also found that the 5 minutes seemed a bit short for an adequate emergent presentation, but that the time limit should be enforced, whatever we decide it to be.  Often, the ‘soapbox’ would prevail and the project would turn into a 20-minute presentation, which would prevent other participants from sharing.
  • I think a general rule should be that participant should post AND reply to a forum post (at least one) every night.  While there was a lot of discomfort about this, we also discussed the need for discomfort and overcoming the sense of fear.  Plus, the forums tend to discuss many unspoken issues that class time did not allow to be discussed, and therefore they can be very beneficial to learning even more. 
  • The growth of the participants is a really key angle to analyze.  Longitudinally, over the course of the two weeks, I saw the majority of participants change their ideas about certain subjects and more willingly engage in discussions without fear of failure or retribution by the other participants.  I felt that, over the two weeks, there was more continuity in the discussions (which often carried into the lunch break and before class), and that the interest steadily grew over the institute.  I believe that the participants were genuinely interested in each others' points of views and this became more prevalent as the weeks progressed, because the discussion on the forum often grew more thoughtful, as did the discussions between each individual.  I saw great friendships spawn over similarities, but also, great interest spawn over dissimilarities -- all in all, I think the institute created a genuine learning atmosphere for the participants.

Inquiry Institute

Unlike the circumstances in the Brain and Behavior Institute, I was not primed for what to expect in the Inquiry Institute, nor had I had any affiliation with the instructor, Wil Franklin.  However, I did have a few broad ideas I thought I should prepare myself to expect from the institute: the discussion of inquiry in terms of science, hands-on activities to support open-ended inquiry and much generated discussion.  I must admit that, even though I usually function around broad-concepts rather than singular definitions, I did come into the Inquiry Institute expecting a pretty solid explanation of what inquiry was.  I was, I found out, not unlike most of the participants that attended.  However, as the weeks progressed, we all found that 'inquiry' did not have the solid definition that we had been expecting.  Many were disconcerted with the idea while many took the idea as a comforting.  Nonetheless, we did settle into the tone that there was no concrete definition for inquiry--that inquiry could be guided or unguided; have or not have overarching principles and that the teachers all had very subjective experiences with implementing these ideas in the classroom.  I personally found that the definition of inquiry is subjective to the teacher and to the student and must be explored on many levels.  Inquiry has an entirely different meaning to the teacher because the teacher often has a pre-developed idea that they would be like explore.  The student, often, is only focused on the discovery of ideas that interest them personally.

The institute had many more participants than the last institute, and therefore, there was a lot more diversity in the group: public and private school, quaker and non-denominational, some catering to children with diagnosed learning disabilities (who worked off of a chart of strengths and weaknessees of each child), others catering to children who had been or were moving toward juvenile detention and, finally, the under-funded school systems.  The diversity was astounding, at first, and often brought about a lot of controversy in the discussion because each individual had their own viewpoint of the topic at hand.  While this was disconcerting to many participants and myself at first, over time, it generated some great ideas: specifics about how graphs, like those used at the school for children with learning disabilities, should or should not be utilized; how science can be brought into the under-privileged school systems where supplies were in high demand but money was scarce; how science could be moved through the grade-levels, generating a link between kindergarten through upper level grades and how inquiry could still be fostered in a school environment which had trouble keeping a solid administrator for more than a few months at a time.  I left the institute believing that inquiry certainly had a place in the classroom and wishing that I had had more exposure to open-ended projects and inquiry throughout my pre-college school career.  I hope to keep in contact with many of the participants to gauge what level, to what extent and how they will utilize what was generated from the institute in their own classrooms.


A discussion of several key points:

  • The overall larger number of participants and inadequate room size made for difficult discussion, but I believe that the class used the room to the best of their ability in order to keep facilitating new ideas.  When the tables and chairs were moved to create a more open space, I felt that the participants connected more with each other.
  • In the beginning, I feel that the safe space feeling was not as prevalent than in Brain and Behavior, most likely because of the large number of participants.  Many teachers who spoke the first day were reluctant to speak later because they felt threatened to degraded by the other participants and the idea of ‘constructive’ or ‘positive’ conflict wasn’t reiterated strongly enough.  However, many participants took both Brain and Behavior and the Inquiry Institute, and were therefore more comfortable in the conflict situation, which I believe put a bit of stress on the new arrivals at the Inquiry Institute.
  • A lot of personal ‘degradation’ was felt at points in the class, but I do not believe that it was the fault of anyone in particular, but rather, the personality of the individual.  The class itself spawned new ideas and discussed the conception of new projects quite openly and constructively.
  • I believe that the inquiry-based lessons were a great way to provide a hands-on experience that could be easily adapted to fit any grade level.  The fact that every lesson was very hands-on helped to engage the teachers in constructively analyzing the lessons to better suit what they believed to be inquiry, and to fit into their classrooms.  I believe that there could’ve been more than just two presenters (who both presented twice), as the class would feel that they received a broader range of styles and could learn more because of it.
  • I feel as if the constructive critiquing of the presenters was necessary, and I believe that the presenters took the constructive critiquing well.  However, it did seem that those who presented always came back with a, “what I was meaning to do…” statement; in the future, I think it would be better to have the class have a discussion, with the presenter present, though silent.  Only after the class had addressed their constructive points, the presenter would give his or her own opinion of how they believed their lesson applicable to inquiry, etc.  I think that this would facilitate more constructive discussion and less emphasis on personal character.
  • In the beginning of the class, I don’t think we ever clarified what we meant by inquiry—which, however, is not a bad thing.  The thing that got the class stuck was that the class was convinced that, throughout most of the class until the very end, that there was ‘one’ universal definition of inquiry that we were all striving for and that they somehow had to agree on that one universal concept.  As they realized at the end of the institute, there are many definitions of inquiry (specifically for some participants, there was guided and unguided inquiry) and that those concepts of inquiry were not necessarily ‘universal truth’ or ‘wrong.’  I think it is important, than, in the future, to empower the idea that there are many concepts of inquiry.
  • As I stated in the Brain and Behavior analysis, I believe that there should be a rough guide for the participants about the forum: post at least once with your own ideas after a discussion, and then reply to at least one other post form that day’s discussion by another participant.  I think that a lot goes unsaid in class, because of many diverse factors (personal issues, discomfort, lack of time, lack of space, etc) and that the forum provides a means to still get that idea out to the other participants and to receive feedback.  However, we cannot grow as participants if we do not post new ideas and receive feedback—which ended up occurring in the forum—and I think that caused a roadblock where the learning was a bit impeded.
  • I think that the afternoon sessions could be utilized in a better fashion, as just creating a lesson plan seemed to create a lot of downtime for many of the participants.  I think that having a short discussion in the afternoon on the topic of the day (rather than discussing this in the morning) might adequately use half of the allotted afternoon time, and the time remaining could be allotted to project creation.  Or, divide the weeks into segments where partners/groups were created that lasted about 3 days, and those groups created their own lesson plan incorporating their grade levels.  Then, after about an hour and a half of that group creation, the participants could work on their own individual lesson plans.  I think this would facilitate more movement between members of different schools and grade levels and create more relationships in the class (which I believe the institute lacked because of the vast size and lack of space in the room).
  • I thought that the institute was very successful in allowing participants to create their own idea of inquiry and to have hands-on projects, with which to base their own lesson plan off of or to get new ideas for a lesson plan.  There was some collaboration between members of the class (the integration of seventh and first graders in gardening [Moira and Diane], as well as the introduction of inquiry-based education to parents of students), which I think was a great addition to individual projects.