The Teaching Brain: Book Review

For all the exploration of the learning process from understanding the impact of students’ past experience, to conducting brain scans during learning, to exploring the concept of the zone of proximal development, there is remarkably little work on what it means to teach.

We can explain teachingbrainwhat it means to give a lecture, or facilitate an experience, but are those activities explicitly teaching? Is it teaching when a child helps their younger sibling understand the rules of a game? Is it teaching when an adolescent helps their grandparent use Skype for the first time? Is there a difference between the child helping their sibling and what occurs in the classroom of a trained professional teacher? In The Teaching Brain Vanessa Rodriguez answers yes to all four questions. Those are all teaching interactions, however, they are each teaching at varied levels of complexity and development.

Rodriguez’s core claim is that classroom teaching is substantially more complex than we imagine it to be. Teaching, unlike learning, is inherently an interaction between teacher and learner. One can learn independently, but you can never teach in isolation. Teaching, like other skills, also has varying degrees of complexity from the reflexive level that primarily uses the midbrain, to high levels of conceptual abstraction requiring a strong understanding of intersectional relationships. This could explain the difference between teaching someone rote memorization of capitol cities and teaching someone the complex power relationships between black citizens of Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department.

This explanation of teaching as a complex interaction represents an important shift from only examining the cognitive demands of the learner to examining the relationship between the cognitive demands on both learner and teacher simultaneously.

In addition to the complexity scale, Rodriguez lays out five areas of awareness that a teacher can grow in order to become more effective as helping others learn new concepts. Each area of awareness can be developed from a very basic level to a highly nuanced and complex level.

  • Awareness of Learner: This is most commonly discussed as a teacher’s knowledge of their students. If I understand that my student loves skateboarding, I can potentially serve them better by making explicit connections between the content in class and their love of skateboarding.  If I do not have this knowledge, I may miss opportunities to engage them in the class.
  • Awareness of Teaching Practice: This awareness is also commonly discussed. This would be a teacher’s understanding of their own pedagogical abilities. This could be thought of as the teacher’s toolbox of techniques and their ability to self-assess their pedagogical skill or classroom management. An example could be that I am aware that I like to facilitate discussion in my social studies classes and I’ve developed particular methods for engaging students in discussion of relevant topics. This area is commonly seen in teacher evaluations.
  • Awareness of Context: The awareness of context is often where we begin to differentiate good teachers from more average teachers. This would be the idea that a teacher may adapt their plans in light of an event or respond to student experience. For example a teacher may abandon their lesson plan when a particularly important current event occurs so that they can help their students explore it. This would be a teacher that takes advantage of “teachable moments” to provide highly relevant instruction.
  • Awareness of Self as Teacher: In my experience this is an undervalued awareness and I only found it actively mentioned in mentoring scenarios. This awareness is understanding how your individual nature impacts your teaching. This means an understanding that my race, gender identity, and cultural background all have an impact on my teaching. This was explicitly brought to my attention in my first year of teaching when a Jewish student specifically asked for my advice on a sensitive topic because I’d identified my Jewish background to the class. It is possible she may have not felt as comfortable coming to me otherwise. Additionally that same piece of my identity may have negatively impacted other students, but regardless of my desires, it has an impact on my teaching that I need to be aware off. My ability to speak Spanish has other unique impacts that I can be aware of.
  • Awareness of Interaction: This last awareness is where Rodriguez introduces particularly new ideas. She claims that it is not sufficient to understand the learner and understand the self, but we must be aware of the unique interaction that occurs when the teacher interacts with a given learner or group of learners. The challenge here is that each interaction is unique and can be highly impacted by the other four categories. My interaction with a given student may change dramatically in a new context and in order to be effective I need to understand that awareness. My interaction with a group of students can also be impacted by my knowledge of their backgrounds and by my awareness of my self as a teacher. This is a highly nuanced awareness and depends significant exploration to fully understand.

Beyond simply naming these categories of awareness, Rodriguez posits that each one has varying degrees of complexity and a given teacher can develop their skill and level of awareness through practice. This is where her research becomes particularly useful to me and my interest in developing new teachers.

As a mentor, I struggled at times to help teachers find a clear way to develop their practice. Many districts use Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, however, the framework highly emphasizes Awareness of Learner and Awareness of Teaching Practice without significant mention of the Awareness of Context, Self, or Interaction. Additionally, Danielson makes the assumption that the highest degree of teaching skill is for students to be independent yet does not allow for varied contexts where it may be desirable for the teacher to take a more active role, for example during the introduction of new concepts or content. With some additional work to flesh out descriptors and examples for the five areas of awareness at varying levels of complexity, one could have a powerful structure for understanding various pathways to teacher development.

That being said, I would caution against handing such a structure to a teacher, particularly a beginning teacher, and ask them to go develop their awareness. Developing Awareness of Self as a Teacher may include significant introspective work that is best facilitated by a coach or mentor. Additionally the Awareness of Interaction would require extensive reflection and analysis of teaching moments, likely best captured on video and collaboratively analyzed. As such, the five areas of awareness, and their levels of complexity, would be a powerful structure for a new teacher mentor, principal, or an instructional coach. This would provide the person assisting the teacher’s growth with a vocabulary and guidance beyond their own personal experience and as the mentor/mentee role is in many ways a teaching interaction this framework could guide the mentor or coach as well in their own development.

Often in my work as a mentor I found myself searching for meaningful vocabulary to describe the importance of awareness of self. The structure outlined in The Teaching Brain would be helpful to better categorize and explain how to develop. Additionally, the concept of varying cognitive complexity allows for discussions of teacher development even when the classroom appears to be running smoothly. I’ve seen evaluators struggle to discuss improvement when teachers are doing well, and the awareness of self as teacher and awareness of interaction can be continually developed because we change, our students change, and there are always new interactions when we encounter new people in new contexts. This is also not limited to the teacher/student interaction and could be explored as interactions between peers or supervisors in the appropriate context.

I had the opportunity to speak with Rodriguez to explore her ideas further and she is in the process of examining how the brain reacts during the teaching interaction for both teacher and learner. Humans can teach and learn by instinct, and we are continually teaching each other, yet we have little understanding of teaching itself, or what differentiates the highly skilled master teacher in the classroom from the untrained lay person.

We each have an experience with “that one great teacher” who moved us in a particular way, and we can say with confidence that there was something that made the teacher stand above the other teachers, yet we can seldom put that experience into words. My high school English teacher Nancy Jones held me accountable for the quality of my work, but there were also innumerable other interactions we had and decisions she made that are intangible or invisible to me. Something she did put me in a place to be ready to hear her feedback and the integrate that feedback into my own practice. It would be incredible to be able to name and identify those intangible components to better learn from her example and other master teachers.

Teaching in the United States suffers from a powerful lack of credibility. Providing teachers with scripted lessons, fast tracking certification with minimal training, and evaluating teachers based on compliance undermine the concept that a teacher is a highly trained professional. Perhaps through further development of Rodriguez’s initial work we can better understand teaching as a complex interaction between teacher and learner that is highly tailored to the individual’s needs. Perhaps by better understanding that interaction, we can more effectively name the qualities of excellent teaching and, more clearly honor and praise teachers for the work they do.

Excellent teaching should not be magical or random. Excellent teaching must come from training, reflective practice, and dedication to the craft. In order for that to occur we need to better understand teaching itself. With The Teaching Brain, Rodriguez has made an excellent beginning and opened the door for many years of additional research.

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