The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education

There is no shortage of theories to explain how learning works and how teachers, as purveyors of knowledge, should disseminate that knowledge to students (though there tends to be a shortage of supporting evidence for any of them). In The Teaching Brain, doctoral candidate and former New York City schoolteacher Vanessa Rodriguez proposes yet another: Forget learning styles and multiple intelligences; teaching is all about “awarenesses”—of learners as individuals, of teaching practices, contexts, and interactions, and of one’s “self as a teacher.” 

She casts off older theories as antiquated, instinctive, and too student-centered, arguing that they’ve hindered educational innovation and stifled educators’ professional development. How students learn ought not be our only concern, she says. Instead, the book introduces “system-centered teaching,” which aims to infuse instruction with awareness of both how students’ brains work when they learn (“the learning brain”) and also how teachers’ brains work when they teach (the so-called “teaching brain”).

Because this is somewhat uncharted territory, a large portion of the book purports to examine the minds of expert educators. Rodriguez concludes that the brains of teachers differ considerably, which means that one-size-fits-all approaches to instruction are bound to fail. What may work for one teacher might not work for another. Instead, every educator has a unique optimal style of instruction, and each must work hard to unveil it.

Rodriguez infuses this section with an awful lot of new-age jargon, like “synergy” and “shared energy.” To find his or her best-fit teaching brain, a teacher needs to be mindful of her instruction methods, how well her students are connecting with the material, and how the former affects the latter; then she ought to experiment with various teaching styles and see what produces the best results.

Despite a concluding chapter entitled “Next Steps for Education Reform,” there are few concrete suggestions for how schools should act on this, aside from designing new frameworks for teacher evaluation and student assessment that would match Rodriguez’s more flexible approach. After so many pages devoted to finding connections between teachers and students, The Teaching Brain left me feeling rather cut off.

SOURCE: Vanessa Rodriguez and Michelle Fitzpatrick, The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education (New York, NY: The New Press, 2015).