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Science Education - Learning in the Midst of Practice

Paul Grobstein's picture
During the summer of 2008, Paul Grobstein, Wil Franklin, Luisana Taveras, a rising sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, and Julia Lewis, a rising senior majoring in Chemistry and Bryn Mawr College, will be thinking about science education and trying out ideas in a summer institute program with K-12 teachers. These forums are a place for ongoing thinking by the four of them, and any one else interested. To contribute your thoughts, use the forum entry form at the bottom of this and other forum pages. Postings will be checked to prevent spam and so may be delayed in appearing. An updated list of all forums in this series is available here.
Learning from Practice

Our fifth conversation gave us some feeling for what once can learn by trying out things in practice. Now we get to try it out in spades, in our own experiences, ongoing. What have we learned about education from the first week of this summer's Brain and Behavior Institute? What works, what doesn't, what other things might be tried? For the second week of the Institute? In general?

LuisanaT's picture


This year’s institute has been, without a doubt, a huge success in many different ways for everyone participating in it. I am also inclined to mention that, in general, the implications for education were not made explicitly enough. In retrospect, I understand that the Brain and Behavior institute has the potential of being more than just about the human Brain and student Behavior. In a more abstract sense, this institute can have people focus on the individual, the group-the classroom, and just as importantly (and intangibly) the teachers own behavior, all which I feel could have been developed more fully throughout the two weeks.

Looking at the impact this institute can have, I have come to recognize even more the need for a change in education. There needs to be a change in the way teachers and students interact which needs to hold precedence over advancing the level of skill in a curriculum. This very much reminds me of an excerpt I read in an Education course I took last semester called Learning and Teaching Elementary Mathematics by Liping Ma where she the juxtaposes American and Chinese education in its the internalization of the material. The Chinese believe that in order to completely develop competence in an area like mathematics, there needs to be a deep factual understanding of the knowledge being presented by the teachers just as much as from the students. For this reason, these teachers go through the trouble of learning about basic mathematics in depth continuously throughout their professional careers, getting away from “a mile wide, an inch deepteaching.

For this institute in particular, there’s definitely a need to locate and clear up the miscommunication found between the teachers entering and the team working in the Brain and Behavior Institute because many teachers come with preconceived notions about what a teacher development workshop will be like, will grant a teacher, and so on. This clarification along with the other minute particularities regarding the utilization of the internet, the different computer programs, or even the afternoon sessions at the very beginning of the institute will help minimize confusion, indifference, and unproductiveness from the participating teachers.

Now to piggy back on an earlier post I made during this Institute: "Although a subtle difference in mentality, this change [in teachers] can definitely create positive results in better accommodating a student’s style of/ learning.", (Please refer to the two posts prior to that for some clarification.) Teachers and workshops in general should not be limited to thinking solely about the interactions between the students and their subject material but also consider the approach teachers take in addressing their students.

On a slightly different note, throughout the two weeks I did have difficulty wrapping my brain around certain concepts such as the immediate difference between the I-function and the CU (cognitive unconscious) to then thoroughly understand the difference it has for effective and efficient learning. Granted, I am younger than the typical intern Grobstein would have for his institute which may account for my delayed comprehension of the material. But that fact, I feel this helps reach a more complete diverse (for example, nuerodiverse) team for the Institute which can better relate to the diverse set of k-12 teachers participating in the Institute who may be similar to me and have little to no background in neurobiology.

To help minimize this delayed connection to the material/conversation, I feel that the Brain and Behavior Institute would be more effective if the sub-stories (anecdotes, experiments, etc.) were a bit more explicit in it means to provide evidence for important concepts of the nervous system.

jrlewis's picture

two days later...

Before the Brain and Behavior Institute began, I was interested in memory for personal and professional reasons.  I was hoping to hear a range of stories about everything from memorization to repression.  I am interested in the conflict between memorization and thinking in education.  However I was disappointed in terms of depth and detail by the institute’s treatment of this topic.  Conversely, I recognize that the program provided me with information and opportunities to pursue this inquiry outside of the discussion/lecture.  
jrlewis's picture

two days later...

After frying both my brain and my cell phone this week, I am still thinking about the brain and behavior.  It was so hot outside this morning that the display on my cell phone melted.  However, contemplating the implications of neurobiology for me own life is at the moment more interesting than pondering the chemical reactions which describe the unfortunate state of my cell phone.  This is my primary praise for the Brain and Behavior Institute; its stories are still amusing to me.    Currently, I am reflecting on how my brain and behavior relate to my horses.  The connection between our cognitive unconsciouses when we perform as a team.  How my behavior influences my horse and how her behavior affects mine.
LuisanaT's picture

The behavior of the week thus far

One thing we all need to keep in the back of our minds when Grobstein is teaching his lectures/discussions or when we are left to explore our own interests is that the k-12 teachers are, for the most part, more students than they are teachers. It is important to emphasize the slight social and mental differences that can effect one’s approach in the classroom/lesson, which I feel is lacking when conducting this kind of institute.
I feel as though this institute has failed to explicitly address the great concerns surrounding teacher’s behavior and especially their subconscious behavior towards their students. One way to resolve the tension found in these teachers and Grobsteins expectations of this institute would be in focusing in more on the social ramifications that have come from disregarding such things like neurodiversity, students behavior, and, because it is often not given enough attention, the teachers own behavior.

I’d like to suggest Grobstein change his wording in a way to better lead the (teachers) students to the implications of the brain to (for their purposes) student’s behavior. What has been done in this institute thus far is introduce fundamental concepts of the Nervous System that can eventually be applied to student behavior. But because this connection is not always clear, it would be helpful if Grobstein mentions the middleman between the understandings of the brain and the class, that being the social implications from brain functions that leads one to better understand/accommodate to a student in a classroom.

Brain→ Nervous SystemThe Individual→ The StudentThe Class.

Here is a little visual representation of what I feel should be covered explicitly throughout the Institute where both extremes have been addressed unequally from the rest. I would like to see Grobstein make a more conscious effort in crystallizing the entire thought process to satisfy everything that falls under BRAINS and BEHAVIORS. For with this slight change in the way the institute is conducted, the discrepancy found in what a teacher can potentially get out of this institute can be better handled.

ptong's picture

Before we started the

Before we started the institute, I believed good science education involved letting student's explore subjects that interest them, and to find ways to engage them in an inquiry based education instead of making science a memorizing class. Although we discussed these issues in the institute, my experience here has led me to think that good science education has more to do with the students, than completely changing the educational system. Looking at education in a neurological/behavioral view, I seem to think capturing the interest of the student, is one of the more important aspects of education than what i previously thought.

It seems that altering teaching methods to make subjects more "fun" and interactive is a good approach to changing student behavior towards science education in a more positive direction.

jrlewis's picture

The connection between the

The connection between the humanities and the brain and behavior. Maybe it is important to teach teachers and students about the brain. Could this be done outside of a neurobiology or psychology class? Could it be done with kindergarten kids?

I consider the purpose of education to increase a student's understanding of themselves and their surroundings. I'm pretty sure that the brain and behavior piece is fundamental to realizing that goal. Yet, I can't recall receiving any explicit information about it in my educational experience. Except in health class (sex ed) where I wasn't paying any attention. That might be a reflection on either me or my high school.

Anyway, I wonder how knowledge about the brain and behavior might empower students. An understanding of the mind in general, other creature's mind's, and their own mind could provide student's with a way to relate to the world. Consider how such principles as empathy and sympathy might be given greater meaning. I think knowledge about brain development might facilitate student's taking responsibility for their own learning a little more. It would provide them with tools to analyze their own education or progress. This individual meta-analysis of learning relates to the concepts neurodiversity and personalized experience.

jrlewis's picture

There is one area of content

There is one area of content that I would like to see made more explicit. I think it might be helpful to clarify that the institute is designed to apply and incorporate the implications of neurobiology that the teachers are learning about. It might be useful to them to see what the theory they are thinking about looks like in practice. When they attempt to critique the institute, they could consider this fact. It will also help them relate to their students, when they are back in their own classrooms.
jrlewis's picture

We are all guitly of this,

We are all guitly of this, or at least most of us are.  The consistent cell phone ringing and answering during institute presentations.  This behavior seems a little disrespectful and immature.  Can we try to behave better?
joycetheriot's picture

Mindful reflections

Within the past week I’ve been of 2 minds (so to speak), in my consideration of our B&B workshop. The first and perhaps most crucial is how the material can impact my classroom via my development of new strategies in order to advance my teaching practice. The second is my own growth as an individual, by increasing my knowledge and advancing my humanity skills.On the first day I scribbled a list in my note of my observations on student priorities in a classroom. Today I made a list of my priorities and compared them and found a some insight in the task.
Student Priorities Teacher Priorities
Social interactions Exposure to new teaching strategies
Having FUN Gain insight about the teen brain
Being able to MOVE around Formulate new ideas, plans to implement
Wanting to be entertained or surprised, something that they’ve not seen before. Learn new things that have nothing to do with teaching but that interest me.
No work involved Make new contacts, friends
Seta Palmer's picture


Last year I had a difficult time with some students who needed to be placed in an emotional support enviorment. This situation helped me to see that I needed to do more research on behavior. Brain & Behavoir has given me a different perspective on how I look at these students. I am enjoying working on the computer. I never find the time and when I do have the time my children are using it.
Sage Hunter's picture

suggestion / request

I would like to hear more about how to apply this information we are learning to the classroom… teaching strategies, methods, application…
Ayotola Oronti's picture

Connections with the real world

Despite all the confussions and clarifications that I am going through this week, like I am taking a ride on a roller coaster, I am still able to sieve and process some information that brings me to a bridge/link to reality. I am seeing people in my family a little differently from what I saw before. For example I can now allow room for behaviors that I could not understand before because I can think of where that behavior is coming from and probably why it is coming.

Getting to work with Scratch and NetLogo has been exciting, though time consuming. I am hoping that by the end of the institute I will be able to have something set-up for my students to use later.

bronstein's picture

reflections on the first week

1. I have had a feeling from time to time that the course could move faster to include more content delivered at a faster rate. However, after this mornng's discussion, I realized that sometimes need the discussion to clarify and deepen my undestanding of the concepts being presented. The difficulty, then, is to determine which principles need more time and which can we move through faster. Further, is there a way to determine if all those in the class feel the same way about the same principles. (Probably not.) If there are such cases, it would enable you to speed thru certain concepts and have room, then, to include more material.

2. I, for one, am always filtering material using the phrase "Can I use this?" or "Where can I use this?" or "How can I incorporate this knowledge into my lessons or techniques?" I am very pragmatically motivated . . . and I try to think that the kids brains work the same way. So, my problem with some parts of the course is that I tend to listen only half-heartedly when the topic concerns something I can't see the purpose for or of . . . unless I find it interesting on a purely intellectual basis.
GMH's picture

Institute week 1

The materrial that you have covered is very interresting and relevant to teaching on any level. Emerging learners in kindergarten have been a decades long facination for me personnally and professionally.Developing environments where this age group can flourish, learn and grow needs to be tweaked frequently.

The children today appear more burdoned with complicated developmental and to some extent psychological tasks than 20 years ago. SO much has changed in our society and those changes are reflected in the children's behavior. The information we have been exposed to is a valuable tool in viewing the children.

The course is a fine one. I prefer the morning portion of the course far morethan the afterrnoon. Paul's lecture style and content is engaging.We needmore of this than the computer work.

cisrael's picture

some not so profound thoughts

When I think back on this week, I think about what the goals are for this institute. I also think about what my goals were, which is a little harder for me to articulate, even to myself. I know that I wanted to learn more about how the brain works. I also wanted to learn how to teach how the brain works. I didn't particularly think about developing lesson plans or learning additional computer tools, and wouldn't necessarily have thought I wanted that. As it turns out, it has been useful and interesting for me to spend time developing these skills/lessons, although I think I would have preferred more content about the brain, and less time to work on my own. I ultimately came to view the afternoons (and my evenings, since I was kind of obsessional about doing 'homework') as good opportunities to do some work that I wanted to do anyway, on developing new ideas for teaching about the brain, so the afternoons and evenings turned into good focused study/work sessions for me; a kind of enforced self-discipline.

Yet I have to say that what I enjoyed most, and wanted more of, was teaching from Paul about the brain. Mornings started with lots of time processing our own comments from the night before, which I have come to see as an important teaching tool which engages students in the material and makes them more responsible for their own learning. That said, by the time we were done processing our thoughts, there was only a limited time left to introduce new material about brain function, since afternoons were off the table, as far as specific brain information. I do understand the notion, though, of walking students slowly through material to allow us to absorb because we are watching it be built.

As for my goal of learning better how to teach about the brain, I think I have learned in a way different than I expected. Yes I learned more about how the brain works. But more interesting, I watched a way of teaching by completetly engaging students in the process, that, although slow, can be 'profound'.


Couple more thoughts:

Since the institue includes teachers of kids from K-12, I think it would be good to include a bit more mention of developmental differences. I know that you are teaching a method of thinking that is good for all students, but it seems worth emphasizing that there are real developmental differences in the brain. I don't think we need to necessarily know all of what those developmental differences are, simply that they are real.

Also, I think in terms of helping people be comfortable with the computer, perhaps the 'teaching fellows' could be introduced as, and function more as, teachers/helpers in that regard.

cisrael's picture


one more thought:

Although I was intially uncomfortable with the fact that Paul makes up his own words to call things (!), cables, boxes, stories, I function, central pattern generator) , I have come to see that it is a really useful way to explain concepts to us/students. However, if I am having a conversation with someone who does not use this vocabulary, it would be really handy if I knew what word he/she was using to refer to the same process/structure. So even though I completely buy into the new vocabulary, I'd like to hear, as we go along, how "normal" people refer to some of these things!

adiflesher's picture


Carol, I second much of what you said here. On the one hand, even though I already know a fair amount about nuerons and plasticity, I could happily sit and listen to Paul talk about the functions of the brain for the whole day.  The material is so rich that one could spend a life time covering it.

I also sometimes feel the impatience of wanting to move faster.  During these times I find myself riffing off what Paul is saying either by searching for stuff that is related on the interent or by jotting down my thoughts. 

It reinforces for me the idea that any group of people is made of so many different types of learners, with so many different types of agendas, level of previous background and interest in the material. 

I love the online form for this purpose. It allows us to make our points, explore what interests us and engage other people in meaningful diversions that don't slow down the pace of the overalll class.

It also allows us to ask our own sets of questions. 

I've been evolving my set of questions about brain education since the course began.

My initial theory (um story) is that it is very meaningful for students to engage their mind/brain on a deep level. This theory was based on my experiences in psychology and buddhist practice, both of which are based on some type of increasing awareness of the types of thoughts, feelings and behaviors which make up our mental life. I was also passionate about introducing cutting edge brain science into the equation.  

As we move through Paul's course I ask the question where is a good place to start that investigation. 

I really love Paul's model of starting with us as scientist/story tellers, because it sets the tone for the conversation and the method of investigation, but I also wonder if there isn't a step before that which brings students (especially high school studnets) to the beginning of their journey of inquiry. 

My other question is what are the basic topics that we should probably include in a discussion of the mental life (brain) to prime investigation by our students in all the ways that would actually interest them. 


ptong's picture

This week +'s

From the meetings I have attended this week, I have been pleased to see how well the group has interacted despite the vastly different experiences each teacher has of teaching different grades. The lectures are effective in that it does not favor any particular grade school.


ptong's picture


During the lectures, sometimes we go into depths about the observations of a certain phenomenon, and in the very end we tie it with education. However the discussions sometimes favors the observations over the implications it has on education. More discussion on the students and their education would make a stronger connection to the observations.
jrlewis's picture

The institute seems to be

The institute seems to be off to great start. I am enjoying myself emensely and everyone else appears to be as well.  I have neither direct nor severe critism.  Only ideas about different directions to explore in the future.  Currently, the institute is heavily strucutred around and reliant on computers.  I would like to see some activities or time spent away from computers.  Another area to consider is how the members of the institute interact.  It might be useful to incorporate small group activities as opposed to individual or collective experiences.

Sage Hunter's picture

I find the morning

I find the morning discussions very interesting and useful. I enjoy Paul's scientific explanations and the feedback and input that the class shares. I think that this is an ideal way to learn and explore new concepts and ideas.
Bernadine Dancy's picture

Brain and Behavior

This course has been helpful to me learning how our brain function.It has made me look at my students in another way. I think I would like to learn how to help my students with behavior issue by using different types of activities. are there activities we can use in our classrooms?
Judith Lucas-Odom's picture

Learning in the Midst

I found this Brain and Behavior workshop to be very helpful because it allows you to think about and learn about different possibilities. The workshop allows you to see different possibilities and to understand how and why my students think the way they do. It helped me to understand or at least admit that there are different stories for different situations. I think this year's Brain and Behavior workshop is one of the best! Kudos! Paul and your team!
Paul Grobstein's picture

reflections a week in

Very pleasing set of interactions, people learning from each other, me included. Like very much the give and take, the engagement with an interesting set of questions, about education, the brain, life. Have looked forward to seeing what each day brings, looking forward to another week of it.

What could be better? Was struck by the realization of a difference between my approach to the computer models and other peoples', by the contrast between my wanting to encourage teachers to create new things themselves and the expectation of getting things that would be useful. My neglect of existing models was an aspect of that, as was my not thinking (until after the fact) about computer use to collect observations. The whole computing/project enterprise could have been laid out better from the start, with smaller steps along the way rather than a too diffuse and open-ended assignment at the beginning.

Is that relevant in a more general education context? I think it is indeed. No matter how excited one is oneself about a particular perspective/objective, its key to share it with others in appropriately sized hunks that build on one another, and the first hunks have to be ones that make immediate sense to the people one is working with (students or otherwise I suspect).

Wondering too about the balance between preaching and offering new openings for ways of thinking. The latter is, of course, intended, but I certainly sound sometimes to myself as if i'm doing the former. On the flip side, there seem to me times when I'm too slow, when people would really like to have the answer instead of working through all the steps (where is the I-function?). Curious too about how to better keep people from getting frustrated with computers, organizing things so that frustrations are minimized, and quicly dealt with when encountered. Think we could do a better job along those lines.