My 5 Year Plan: Year 1 Update

My last post outlined my 5 year teaching and learning project. In this post I review how the first year went. Part of the project is to share what I’ve done and found out but I’d also like to use this opportunity to solicit help from other teachers who might be able to suggest resources or offer advice. The following is an edited version of my year 1 update to the college (NSCC).

Goal 1: Explore Education science and best practices from other alternate programs as they pertain to adult education and learning. Incorporate them into my classroom in order to maximize student success

This year’s progress was mostly research. I read and collected a number of articles on neuroscience and brain based teaching and also a couple of books. “Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning” by Neuroscientist Gary Marcus and “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain.

Here is brief summary of what I take to be the basics of Education Science or brain based teaching (see for the articles and resources):

  • The brain is plastic & unique. It is a physiological organ. Like any muscle, there are things we can do to either strengthen or weaken connections in the brain and therefore affect learning. Everyone comes from a different place, a different background and therefore each brain has already been uniquely molded.
  • A low stress/anxiety emotional climate is important. Memory and learning are highly tied to emotion. Stress blocks processing in the prefrontal cortex, where higher order manipulation occurs and diverts new input to the reactive centers of the brain (fight or flight, etc…) Little or no higher order synthesis occurs in these regions and retention is severely limited. Interestingly for adult education, chronic stress or a high allostatic load can cause damage to the prefrontal cortex that affects life-long learning and decision making.
  • The brain looks for patterns. This is important to know when designing new materials and also in how we connect topics to each other and prior learning.
  • Novelty is key to remembering. Novelty releases dopamine in the brain. This leads to higher pleasure and motivation.
  • Interconnectedness promotes better learning and retention. Memories form and are strengthened by repeated use of the same neural pathways. The more new learning is connected to old, well used pathways in the brain, the more it will be retained and synthesized.
  • The physical environment has an impact. All five senses contribute to memory and learning so the sights, sounds and smells, etc… all play a role in remembering.

Through my readings I made a lot of connections to andragogy. It was interesting for me to see once again how general good teaching really is and that good pedagogy, andragogy and brain based teaching are all the same thing (A belief I have long held. I always tag my posts with “anthrogogy”). For example, from “Understanding How the Brain Thinks” by Judy Willis, “We activate these networks through active learning experiences that involve students’ prefrontal cortex circuits of judgment, critical analysis, induction, deduction, relational thinking with prior knowledge activation, and prediction. These experiences promote creative information processing as students recognize relationships between what they learn and what they already know.” If we take out the brain circuitry parts this is simply Malcolm Knowles telling us that adults need to connect new learning to their past experiences. Most good teachers do this regardless of their students’ age. In a broad sense I have been applying brain based teaching throughout my career. It is good to further understand the theory behind why it works in order to make good teaching decisions in the future and pin point areas needing improvement.

Some other learning that was new to me was the relationship between stress and the prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive function and working memory. This area of the brain is responsible for learning and retaining new things and also regulates many of the non-cognitive skills I also want students to be working on. Both past and current stress affects the prefrontal cortex and therefore learning and behavior. The literature is clear on the importance of reducing stress in the classroom as a prerequisite to academic success.

“Guitar Zero” was interesting in that it actually discussed how adults learn new things. I read it due to the obvious connection to my own plan to learn the guitar as an adult. The whole book is a case study of a 40-year-old cognitive scientist on himself trying to learn the guitar with academic research on adult learning peppered in. For example, the book sites a study on barn owls that originally showed adult owls could not relearn how to navigate by sound and sight when their sight was offset by the use of prisms.  Young barn owls could. Further study showed that old owls were indeed able to relearn how to fly by sight and sound if the distortion was done in smaller chunks as opposed to all at once. Author Gary Marcus wonders if adult humans may simply need a more incremental approach to new learning. Old dogs (and owls) can learn new tricks.

“Quiet” by Susan Cain was a reminder that we all learn differently and that sometimes old wisdom isn’t always so wise. The drumbeat in Education to more group work and collaborative learning space is shown through many examples to be flawed in a general sense and detrimental to many introverted people. As a highly introverted person myself I related well to the anecdotes showing how productivity, learning and engagement are dampened by the very things so many spout as educational gospel. From my own experience I know that my creativity and work quality fail the more I am subjected to meetings and group activities and that my best work is only done when I have long periods of time to myself. I certainly still believe that group work has its place and social learning is real but the book draws much needed attention to the ~1/3 of people who identify as being introverted. Introverts and extroverts have distinctly different brain responses to stimuli. Introverts’ brains are easily over stimulated and need quiet and focus to work best. Extroverts need just the opposite to thrive, the extra stimulation social situations and group work bring. Since extroverts are the majority and we live in a society that worships extroversion (picture the stereotype of the successful business person, celebrity or politician) what works for them has often trickled down into the classroom as general principles for success. In reality it should be viewed as simply one strategy amongst many to address the individual needs of all learners. The truth is everyone needs to be in and out of their comfort zones at times to learn, both introverts and extroverts. A balanced approach is best. Not all desks need to be arranged in groups and not all tasks should be solitary but, as always, it remains important to pay attention to what works for the individual in all contexts. This old piece of educational wisdom trumps any others.

I expanded “Brain Week” as part of the psychology unit (I started teaching a week on the brain last year). I focused on how learning and memory work and how that knowledge has a feedback effect on one’s perception of ability. I created a powerpoint and taught them about neuroplasticity and Carol Dweck’s “mindset” theory (from her book by the same name) where a “fixed” mindset cannot learn and grow whereas a “growth” mindset sees setbacks as opportunities to learn. Both IQ and emotional intelligence have been shown to increase if a person can switch from fixed to growth. The growth mindset and feedback effect is something I want to learn more about and reinforce next year.

Goal 2: Define and develop a process to measure and assess non-cognitive skills associated with better learning, personal wellbeing and higher economic status after finishing the ALP program

Measuring non-cognitive skills remains tricky. I have no better ideas on how to quantify such a thing beyond recording attendance. I truly believe that it encompasses the many things I want students to develop like reliability, hard work and perseverance. Once in the classroom things like taking pride in work and effort can be qualitatively assessed and with a feedback system of evaluation it can be commented on and direction given. Progress can be noted from there.

In order to get a better idea as to what kind of commitment returning to school is I decided to do some experiential research as well. I wanted to take on something that requires a true commitment while not dropping any of my other responsibilities, much like an adult student who returns to school. Originally I was going to take a math course at one of the universities but they weren’t offered at times when I could attend without leaving work. I wasn’t interested in an online option since actually going to the class was something I felt was important to the experience. I have always wanted to really learn the guitar. It was something I had tried and failed at and I felt like it made a nice analogy to what many of our students are doing and how they feel about it. Since the lessons were only once a week it is hardly comparable to returning to school full time but there was a large time commitment that I needed to layer on to the rest of my life and that was to practice. I knew that finding time to really practice was going to be where this disrupted my life the most. On top of marking and lesson planning and home life responsibilities in the evening I practiced an average of a half hour to an hour each day (some days less, some days more). I kept a chronicle of my learning and reflections during the fall semester under the series title NO CHORDS BARRED.

I read “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character” by Paul Tough. It is a book on the importance of character building in education focused on children (obviously) but there are lessons for adults as well. There was quite a bit of neuroscience in this book which dovetailed nicely with my other project research. I wrote a blog post on the book and the lessons I took from it. Other articles on non-cognitive skill development I have collected and read can be found at

Goal 3: Develop a standards based grading [narrative feedback assessment and evaluation] system that relies on continuous feedback for both curriculum content and non-cognitive workplace readiness development.

I only wrote comments and feedback on Science work all year and negotiated a final mark by reviewing all the comments over the year with the student. My system involved photocopying the comments for my records and then returning the assignment to the student so that they could use it to improve on their next assessment. It took a little while to get the hang of making good comments (see resources on effective feedback). I resisted things like “great work” or “could use improvement’ without pointing out the specifics as to why it was great or needed improvement. I also wanted the feedback to be useful in a general sense since I also resisted giving the same assignment over and over. Originally I had planned to give a limited number of assignment/project types so that students could easily apply the feedback but that doesn’t work with my belief in student choice and use of creativity. Also, I’m not interested in the perfect poster or paragraph. I worried that students would focus on the format and not their science learning. Overall it worked out well. 16 out of the 19 students who had only this type of evaluation filled out a survey after they had completed the course and received their final mark. Not one said they preferred the traditional method of grades. I was pleased that several students mentioned how the narrative feedback reduced their anxiety and this was an unexpected connection within my project goals. Over the year I realized what I was doing is not Standards Based Grading but closely related “narrative feedback”. I plan on continuing and expanding it next year.

The next steps are to begin applying more of the Education Science in my classroom.  I’ve got the background so it is time to put it into practice. For further research, I would love to find another similar adult high school to see what they are doing. It would be nice to see what works for them and compare that to what works for us. As well, a true method of measuring non-cognitive skills development is still needed; some mix of qualitative and quantitative data collection in order to document progress (or lack thereof). The narrative feedback also needs to be expanded and systematized. For 2013-2014 I have added a student response component to the feedback.  I want students to be true stakeholders so the process needs to be conversational, dynamic and active. I hope to make continued progress on each of my goals and that they will continue to converge forming a more holistic and consistent practice.



Cain, Susan; 2012, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” Crown Publishers, New York

Dweck, Carol; 2006, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” Ballantine books, New York

Marcus, Gary; 2012, “Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning” Penguin Press, New York

Tough, Paul; 2012, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York

Willis, Judy; 2011, “Understanding How the Brain Thinks”



2 Comments on “My 5 Year Plan: Year 1 Update”

  1. eileen burchill says:

    I appreciated your “narrative feedback assessment”; it is more in line with what I do than anything else, and now that you have laid it out so well I am going to try your version next year. I also bought “Quiet”, but found she talked a lot but didn’t say much … there is a great article in Huffington on performance teaching which may be useful, I will hunt it down and tweet it to you.

    And, I wanted that adult learning experience too, I started drumming last fall and almost instantly was fed up with the whole process; I loved doing it, I hated the whole practicing part. I am constantly awed at how our learners can do anything, given their often disrupted outside school lives.

    Thanks for continuing to be an inspiration.

    • Hi Eileen, Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you are on board for narrative feedback. We’ll talk in September about how we can work it together. “Quiet” was definitely pretty repetitive. However, it speaks to a point of view often overlooked in Education. Get back on the drums! We’ll start a band.

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