Successful Schools Avoid False Choices

Today’s commentary published in Education Week by Karen Chenowith, senior writer for the Education Trust Foundation, contains broad and profound implications supported by brain-based learning and cognitive research. In her observations of successful schools who work with disadvantaged students, she writes: “they based their teaching not on a preset philosophy, or a set of program prescriptions, but on what would best help their students learn” (italics mine). People often say that everyone can learn. Yet the reality is that everyone does learn. As Prentice Hall author, Dr. Lynn Quitman Troyka, writes in the introduction of some of her books, “Thinking is not something you choose to do any more than a fish chooses to live in water. To be human is to think.”

Indeed, the brain’s ability to act and react in ever-changing ways is known, in the scientific community, as “neuroplasticity.” This special characteristic allows the brain’s estimated 100 billion nerve cells, also called neurons (aka “gray matter”), to constantly create new pathways for neural communication and to rearrange existing ones throughout life, thereby aiding the processes of learning, memory, and adaptation through experience. Without the ability to make such functional changes, our brains would not be able to memorize a new fact or master a new skill, form a new memory or adjust to a new environment. The brain’s plasticity is the reason it can heal itself after stroke or injury and overcome addictions. According to Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself: “The brain is not ‘hardwired’ from birth, but holds a remarkable lifelong power to change—a phenomenon called ‘plasticity.’ Positive or negative environments, exercise, nurture, learning, and other experiences continue to change the brain throughout life.”

Which brings us back to today’s article. The reason a flexible approach to teaching works– as this article implies–is because students aren’t a one size fits all, nor is their intelligence fixed at birth. Everyone’s brain is unique and malleable for endless learning possibilities. As the principal at Imperial High School, Lisa Tabarez, in the Imperial Valley of California, quoted in this article said: “Every single student who comes before us has the ability to learn. As educators, we must accept our daily responsibility of taking students, at whatever level and place in their lives they may be, and helping them to learn—to learn how to become productive, contributing members of our society through the opportunity of education.”

  • How can we ignite and nurture student minds and emotions to transform learning?
  • How can the revolutionary findings in the field of neuroplasticity direct us to new possibilities for ‘rewiring’ the brain to help overcome learning disorders and to enhance memory, learning, and achievement in all learners?
  • What are the implications of cognitive research for student success and transition programs, which seek to address opportunities and vulnerabilities during adolescence?


Education Week
Published in Print: October 14, 2009
Successful Schools Avoid False Choices
By Karin Chenoweth

I know I am not the first to notice that education as a field tends to get whipsawed between what seem like incompatible alternatives: We can teach phonics or surround children with literature; we can teach skills or content; we can prepare students for the workforce or for college; we can provide schools that are equitable or schools that are excellent. The examples are endless.

For the past five years, I have been examining schools that have, for the most part, sidestepped these battles. They are schools I have visited as part of my work for the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. The job involves identifying and writing about schools with significant populations of low-income children and children of color that are also high-achieving or rapidly improving. In many of these, just about all of the students meet or exceed state standards, and achievement gaps are narrow, or sometimes nonexistent.

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