Rewiring Education: A New School in Downtown Project in Las Vegas
When school got underway this year in Las Vegas, Nevada, 15 children aged six weeks to 5 years walked, toddled and were toted into a brand new institution that’s founded on relatively novel ideas, including the notion that education should be delivered according to how the brain best processes it.
Working with few restrictions and plenty of moxie, 9th Bridge School has gathered consultants in cognitive neuroscience and psychology to help develop a learning plan that seeks to “redefine the experience of education.” Indeed, from its architecturally renovated space to a list of core values that include “sustainability” and “passion,” virtually every aspect of 9th Bridge oozes newness. The school is also part of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, a vast urban revitalization plan for Las Vegas.
The concept of brain-based teaching, also known as neuroeducation, has been gathering steam over the past few years based on a veritable explosion of research over the past decade into how brains develop and learn.
“We’re working on memory and what creates longer memory traces for kids,” says Mariale Hardiman, director of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Neuro-Education Initiative, which helps educators and brain science researchers share knowledge and translate it into classroom use.
“Much of what we do is backed up by research over time into cognitive science, including brain plasticity and neurogenesis. Children are not coming from fixed intelligence, but experience brain changes every step of the way while learning,” she says.
Studies show certain ways of learning create better memory retention, she says, including reciting or enacting lessons, self-quizzing, or integrating lessons with singing or dancing. A positive environment helps stimulate interest and overcome anxiety when something isn’t easily understood.
Such teaching methods are one answer to a system that is failing by many measures. According to The Nation’s Report Card for 2011, compiled by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, roughly 1/3 of all 4th graders and 24 percent of 8th graders were below a basic level in reading in the U.S; the numbers were 18 and 27 percent, respectively, for math. Students lag far behind international peers in math and science.
“With current education, you sit at school and process auditory information. If you don’t fit into that mold, you risk becoming a labeled learner. [Neuroeducation] teaches to every child, so there’s more equity in the classroom,” says Meg Murray, Downtown’s Research and School Designer.
Consultant Trish Martin, formerly a speech pathologist and now a consultant on literacy education and its relationship to neuroplasticity, is teaching 9th Bridge teachers to use a reading program called “Rewiring” that uses a sound-based teaching method and a visual tool. The English alphabet does a poor job of conveying the actual sounds of our language, she says, and kids spend so much time in front of screens, their neural pathways have an even harder time connecting the dots between sounds and written words. Some districts in which she’s worked have raised the percentage of children meeting state-mandated proficiency levels to over 90 percent, she says.
Hardiman says her research suggests brain-based teaching also empowers teachers, perhaps because it stresses teaching methodology rather than test scores. Novices showed the most gains in self-rated teacher efficacy according to her research, she says, which is critical as most who leave the profession do so in their first five years on the job, particularly in urban schools.
A school’s physical environment is another engagement component, Hardiman says. Here, too, 9th Bridge has a jump start, undoubtedly thanks in great measure to Downtown’s $50 million pledge towards investment in local education. Architects have engineered its building, once an old church, to maximize exposure to daylight, open space and a community feel. When its glass doors are all open, all spaces are co-joined. Parents and local residents are helping to build a school garden.
In one sense, neuroeducation may even teach to the test. Hardiman sees the advent of Common Core standards in many states, which emphasizes reasoning and other skills rather than a set curriculum, as a plus. Previously, she says, some schools said they had too much too teach, in too little time, to try her teaching methods.
Further to its community-inspired goals, 9th Bridge also hopes to provide what it calls sustainable education, nurturing enduring traits like curiosity and independence so students can land jobs 30 years from now in a fast-changing world. Downtown is also funding scholarships – they will not comment on dollar totals — to help with tuition, which ranges from $13,000 for a six-week-old to $15,500 for a kindergartener for a full day program. The school plans to add at least one grade each year, eventually teaching through the twelfth grade.
Still, it’s not likely that neuroscience will have a broad and cohesive impact on children’s education soon. Though some aspects have made inroads, such as spaced learning – teaching and repeating concepts over time – classroom-tested research is scanty, and theories and programs abound. Teachers aren’t typically trained in cognitive science, and ramping up can be an arduous process. Martin is training only seven other schools, a process that can take three years; Hardiman, who wrote a book, “The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st Century Schools,” has taught her methods to some 300 teachers. And exploring uncharted territory is a big task for administrators already charged with running a school.
As Murray says, “Thinking of a neuroeducational approach for an infant is overwhelming in itself.”
(Photo Courtesy of Subject)