What We Can Learn From Einstein's Brain

“Sitting on your shoulders," physicist Michio Kaku once observed, "is the most complicated object in the known universe.”

No wonder pathologist Thomas Harvey made off with Albert Einstein’s brain after conducting his famous autopsy in 1955. You couldn't ask for a better, more complicated, subject. But Harvey’s study, which involved sectioning pieces of Einstein's preserved brain and mailing them off to various scientists, didn't yield much.

After the pathologist's death in 2007, photographs that he had taken of Einstein’s brain came to light. In 2012, Fred Lepore, a Professor of Neurology & Ophthamology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, published a study of Einstein’s cerebral cortex with fellow scientists Dean Falk and Adrianne Noe.

I spoke with Lepore recently about the group’s findings and ongoing research that is shedding light on brain plasticity. Even if we can’t all be Einstein, we can change our brains, it seems—physically, functionally, and chemically—just by using them.

Here are more excerpts from my conversation with Lepore, edited for brevity and clarity.


Q: Can you tell me about your study of Einstein’s brain?

A: Dean Falk, a paleoanthropologist, was really the anatomist on the project. Once we obtained those photographs that had been lost for half a century, Falk analyzed them for the better part of two months, looking at every single sulcus, that’s kind of a groove, and every single ridge, or gyrus. She compared the anatomy of Einstein’s brain to standard atlases out there, like Connolly’s and Ono’s.

Every lobe of Einstein's brain is different. By every lobe, we’re talking about the temporal lobe, the occipital lobe, the parietal lobe, and the frontal lobes. The limbic lobe, too. If you look at each one and compare them to norms, Einstein's are all different. The standout is in the right prefrontal lobe. In normal human anatomy, you would have three ridges, three gyri. Einstein had a fourth.


Q: Is there a distinction to be made between the brain and mind?

A: I make my living as a neurologist. If there’s something wrong with your left arm, I’m going to look at the right side of your brain. To me, the brain equals the mind. But science hasn’t really nailed that down. There have been a lot of distinguished neuroscientists who are what we call dualists. They thought that consciousness, or the mind, was a bit separate from the brain. [Charles] Sherrington wrestled with that conundrum and could never fully resolve it.


Q: Is it true that learning new things causes your brain to undergo physical changes?

A: Eric Kandel, a neuropsychiatrist, shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000 for his work on a sea slug, an invertebrate that lives in the Pacific Ocean. It’s called an Aplysia californica, and it’s got about 20,000 neurons. Kandel found that when you shock the mantle, it withdraws the gill. It has this reflex. You can look at these neurons and see what happens in a very simple nervous system. That’s your proof of concept. Learning changes the physical substrate of the nervous system of this very, very simple creature.

Now, does that happen in humans? We would assume that learning must be phylogenetically preserved as you go up the tree. I don’t think we really know that. But if you’re coming back to the idea that your mental experience, particularly things like learning, does that change the nervous system? It seems like a good bet that it does.


Q: How has the concept of brain plasticity altered the way we view learning?

A: It’s a huge concept. If you don’t have a dynamic nervous system, where are you going to get your information? The only way you’re going to get it is, it’s got to be built into your genome. It’s nature versus nurture—nature being your genome. We’ve got 30,000 genes—12,000 more than a roundworm. We’ve got 86 billion neurons. Each of those neurons has, I don’t know, 1,000, 10,000 connections, synapses. You’ve got so many more elements in your nervous system. Without nurture, there’s no way that 30,000 genes are going to be able to program them or connect up different parts of the brain to make new discoveries. You can’t do it with your genome alone. If you don’t have a mechanism for learning such as neuroplasticity, you're restricted to genetically determined neural hardwiring for transmitting information from generation to generation.




Can Games Make Us Smarter? A Q & A with Greg Toppo

I met Greg Toppo for the first time in 2007. It was the year Scholastic released Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh installment in J.K. Rowling's famous series. He probably doesn't remember meeting me, but I know he remembers the energy of that time -- the joy and excitement that the series brought (and still brings!) to the young fans who lined up at midnight to get first copies of the new book, the voraciousness with which they devoured the stories, the feelings of friendship and camaraderie that readers had with the characters. All this energy and devotion to BOOKS that often approached 800 pages in length!

I remember Greg being fascinated by the series and asking: What is it about these books that hold kids' attention and keep them up all night reading?

In the opening chapter of his fantastic new book, The Game Believes in You, Greg explains how this turned into a similar question: "What are kids paying attention to these days?"

Video games are certainly at or near the top of the list - and now educators and game designers are thinking about how they can harness the intrinsic addictiveness of games and apply it to academics and other social good. While many of us think video games are at best a distraction and at worst a poison, Greg's book makes the case for how great games can help us learn more efficiently and even treat conditions like ADHD.

What's the connection between gaming and learning? What are some games teachers should check out? I posed these questions (and several others) to Greg this week, and he generously answered:

1) You said you got interested in games, in part, by thinking about what motivated kids to read 800-page Harry Potter books. How is playing a video game like reading a Harry Potter novel?

The two activities exercise slightly different muscles, but as I say in the book, both are adaptations of an impulse we’ve developed over millennia to hunt and gather – in this case, we are hunting for information, not caribou, but it’s basically the same survival instinct. Though a lot of people would frown upon the idea that play is necessary for our survival, research shows that it absolutely is. I like what critic Tom Bissell once said: “Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos (a reference to the open-world game series Grand Theft Auto).  The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience. Unfortunately, the mental activity generated by playing games is not much valued by non-gamers; in fact, play is hardly ever valued within American culture, unless it involves a $13 million signing bonus.”

2) It seems like there’s a lot of overlap between the science of gaming and the science of learning (research on “flow state” or “growth mindset,” and much more). Are they one and the same?

In many ways they are. When you look at the kind of learning players do in games, it’s just good learning – period. Like school, a good game is a designed experience that ideally takes the learner by the hand and guides him through each of the steps to learning the material. People like James Paul Gee and Kurt Squire would say that’s why games are so much fun – not because of the shooting and explosions, but because we naturally love to learn.

3) You reference the “chocolate-covered broccoli” phenomenon in ed tech and educational gaming. Could you explain that?

Though many people outside of the educational gaming world aren’t familiar with it, the term “chocolate-covered broccoli” dates back more than 15 years. In 1999, Georgia Tech researcher Amy Bruckman pointed out that most attempts at making software both educational and fun “end up being neither.” Most educational software, she wrote, was “all pretty much the same old junk: drill and practice.” Fun, she said, is often treated like a sugar coating to the educational core, which “makes as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli.” Her sentiment, which has morphed into the ubiquitous and derisive phrase “chocolate-covered broccoli,” has become a kind of rallying cry for people who don’t like games that separate drill and practice from game play. But even now, most educational titles rely on this approach, presenting little more than digital flash cards followed by an opportunity to shoot aliens or other assorted bad guys. Research has shown that it doesn’t work very well either.

4) Were you surprised by how many educators are finding ways to use games in smart ways?

I was, though in hindsight it makes perfect sense. Teachers have always been on the lookout for better tools. It was just a matter of time before digital games got good enough to consider. What surprised me most – and it shouldn’t have – was that many of the teachers I interviewed had gotten into this discipline not because they love games, but because they love children and wanted something better for them. After a while, I stopped counting the number of times that someone leaned in and told me, “I am not a big gamer.”

5) What did you learn that surprised you while you were reporting/researching the book?

What surprised me most was not just the extent to which smart teachers were embracing games, but how incredibly advanced their understanding was. A few, as I say in the book, have even begun developing their own games. At the same time, other teachers I met were struggling to understand this world – even people who had experience with it had misconceptions about things like screen time, addiction and the effects of violent games. I felt like they needed a way to talk about gaming in a more sophisticated way.

6) What are some interesting games that you think educators should check out?

I’m a big fan of the iCivics games and the Mission US games, two free series that tackle, respectively, civics and U.S. history in very clever ways. I also really admire what games like ST Math, Wuzzit Trouble and DragonBox are doing for math. And though they’re not as clearly teaching games, I love the aesthetics and beauty of Daren Carstens’ Math Doodles games. I’ve also become enamored with an iPad science game called Ravenous, in which you play as a raven trying to survive in the wild. It’s from the Educational Gaming Environments group (EdGE) at Technical Education Research Centers, Inc. (TERC) in Cambridge, Mass., and like other innovative games these days, it has gotten funding from the National Science Foundation. That’s a whole area we haven’t explored – the degree to which government and philanthropic funding is supporting gaming efforts. I’m also completely gone on the heartbreakingly beautiful puzzle game Monument Valley.

7) I was fascinated by Chapter 10 where you talked about research into how games can strengthen certain cognitive functions -- games as treatment for ADHD or schizophrenia. Do you expect we may see more instances of games being used to treat ADHD?

This is an emerging field that is really going to explode in coming years. It will revolutionize treatment of conditions like ADHD. What excites me most about this is the serious, research-based approach that a few folks are taking – they could really make a difference in kids’ lives someday soon. As I point out in the book, there’s this small group of psychiatrists, researchers, educators, and game designers who are dissatisfied with current ADHD drug treatments, so they’re running a quiet but intense footrace to become the first to earn FDA approval for a medically sound, prescription-strength ADHD video game. That’s not a metaphor. They are seeking approval for a game that a doctor can actually prescribe. If that’s not exciting, what is?

Five Lifesaving Lessons from My First Year as Principal

With very little time to prepare for my first school year as principal, I quickly realized we had to do some things differently to move Poughkeepsie High School – which has been underperforming -- forward. Facing these challenges head-on, I learned some very important lessons over the course of that first year.

1. You’ll never get far without establishing truly collaborative teams.

We started by working on our literacy program. It was definitely a team effort. We set up interdisciplinary teams to implement rollouts of our new literacy strategies throughout the year, department by department. For example, as we began to look at our data and really hone in on the skills that our students were lacking, we realized that they needed a lot of work on inference. We asked all of our department chairs to go back to their individual departments and find out what inference looked like in their classrooms. We worked on getting everyone involved in developing that one key skill.

2. One of my most important roles as a principal is to mentor teacher leaders.

As we say in our building, the answers are in the room. I turn all my faculty meetings into professional learning opportunities. We see pockets of success throughout the building and we ask those teachers to share what they are doing at a faculty meeting. We ask them to be the leaders that we want to see. I think that teachers often look to us to bring in outsiders to teach them skills that some of their colleagues already have. So we draw upon the faculty and staff that we have in our building and ask them to become the professional developers for their colleagues and to share the successes that they’ve had.

3. Engaging all stakeholders in our vision for the school is essential.

When I first came to the school, we had to look very closely at our vision and mission statement. I think having that conversation and making everyone feel like they were a part of the vision gave people a lot more buy-in which, in turn, helped to change the climate at the school. It turned around the morale of the building and everyone started trying to work together and hold each other accountable for what we said that we wanted our school to look like.

4. As a leader, I must demand accountability from my staff and myself.

When we started implementing the new literacy initiatives in our school, I asked all of the teachers to give me three pieces of student work—ones that they would rate high, medium, and low. I provided feedback for that work using the common rubrics we had created. I have a LOT of visibility in the building—popping into various classrooms during what we call our instructional rounds. I always share notes about what I observe in each classroom and pass along any queries that I have. I think that when you are an instructional leader it is very important to be extremely visible and to regularly monitor instruction, review student work, and have plans in place for quickly addressing any problems I may notice in the classroom.

5. I’ll never make it through the day if I don’t prioritize all of my commitments.

I look at how things need to happen. With organization and planning, I create a schedule for my day with set times for certain activities. That way, I make sure I provide the leadership my school needs without feeling overwhelmed since I also have to make sure that I’m meeting state mandates. I need to have the right people on my team so that I can delegate tasks and responsibilities as necessary. As Jim Collins says in the book Good to Great, you have to make sure you have the right people in the right seat who are doing the right thing.

To hear more from Phee Simpson about her approach to school leadership, click to access the replay of a recent webinar she participated in with Education Week (registration required).


For information on how Scholastic can support professional learning services for literacy, math and leadership, visit the Scholastic Achievement Partners website.

Model School: Creating a School Culture That Drives Student and Staff Achievement

At Kathleen H. Wilber Elementary School we hold near and dear our school motto: “Inspiring Excellence: Culture Drives Achievement.”

We believe that creating a positive, engaging, and inclusive culture in our school allows teachers and students to come to school each day striving to do more, achieve more, and enjoy learning together. When people enter the building, they often tell us that something “just feels different” about our school -- and they want to keep coming back.

Wilbur, in Bear, Del., is the state’s largest elementary school with more than 1,100 students. We have spent the last three years creating a motivating way to come together and work toward meaningful common goals as a community.

Here’s how we do it:

Building a Positive STUDENT Culture


iCommunity stands for inspiring community and is what we call our monthly school assemblies. iCommunity meetings are built around the school character trait of the month – such as perseverance, growth mindset, honesty, leadership, or proactive responses to negative thoughts.

Our iCommunity meetings have a pep rally-like atmosphere as students enter and exit to drum line music and sing the Wilbur school cheer multiple times. Presentations during iCommunity meetings focus on a character traits using technology, videos, cooperative learning activities and high-energy songs that all require students to engage in conversations and dialogue about scenarios related to each character trait. As the school cheer goes, "We are WILBUR. We are INSPIRED. Hard WORKERS. Great THINKERS. We PERSEVERE!"

As an example, students in all grades learn how to recognize a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset” about their learning and to adjust thinking and self-talk so that they can combat the idea that they “can't” learn something.

This initiative has radically changed the culture of our building. By placing a high standard on character traits and making them a priority even in the time of high stakes testing, we are having an impact on the people that our students become.

Character Traits and a Growth Mindset: Daily “Give Me 5”

In addition to the monthly iCommunity meetings, each grade level has its own assembly where the character trait is explained to the students in an age-appropriate manner. To ensure that these tenants of character become engrained in our students’ mindsets, we developed the idea of using a few minutes during lunchtime for Give Me 5.

In the Give Me 5 activity, we set a positive tone for all students by covering a topic related to the monthly character trait. These short activities include discussions about various situations, scenarios, and quotes, all of which are focused on peer interactions, improving group cohesiveness, and the appreciation of individual differences. These five minutes used to be unstructured and prone to chaos for the 200 students in the cafeteria. Now they are a fun, focused, and important time of the day.

Continual Growth for STAFF

With a focus on creating a positive working environment for staff that allows for continual growth, we plan for regular, targeted professional development that balances high expectations with fun. 

Dream Teams

Last year, we needed to come up with a way to give regular, targeted professional development on reading or math intervention best practices because we have been implementing a Response to Intervention (RTI) framework in our district. To ensure that no one was overwhelmed, each staff member was invited to be a part of a “Dream Team” that met twice a month.

We divided staff into three teams: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Every other week, teacher leaders present a strategy that can be used right away in the classroom. The expectation is that all teachers take what they have learned back to their Professional Learning Community to share. 

Friday Game Day

For our Friday Game Day initiative, teachers arrive every other Friday to find themselves engaged in a carnival game. As they sign in, they try to “ring the pole” or get to play a Plinko chip or try to balance a penny on a pencil point. Each Friday Game Day has a different game and staff are able to earn “Beth Bucks,” which can later be spent on instructional materials, casual dress passes, or late passes. This fun activity allows the staff to end their week on a positive note and models how we can be playful and have high expectations for performance.


Wilbur has become a place where each and every student can expect to find success. Community members and families often report that Wilbur students are better mannered and “nicer” than many others with which they engage. We feel that this is a direct result of the character-building activities we do with them on a regular basis.

When compared to other schools within our school district, the data shows that by the time our students reach the 8th grade, they are outperforming students who come from other schools that feed to our middle school on the state test.

Student attendance rates and behavioral data have also been positively affected:

  • 95% of Wilbur students attend at least 90% of the time, the highest rate of persistent attendance in the Colonial School District, indicating a level of engagement with both students and parents.
  • Only 14 students received more than one bus or school behavior referral. With a total school enrollment of more than 1,100 students, this is less than 1% and the lowest rate in the district.


For information on how Scholastic can support professional learning services for literacy, math and leadership, visit the Scholastic Achievement Partners website.

How a Focus on Explicit Instruction is Transforming Teaching at Our High School

"I Do, We Do, You Do."

Take a minute and think about these words and the impact they could make each day in any school in the world. These simple words are part of the foundation and framework for instructional practices across Haslett High School, where I have been Principal for the past 11 years. Our district has been on a journey in recent years to improve the pedagogical practices of all of our teachers. As a high performing district, Haslett faces the challenge of working to close the gaps between high achievers and low achievers, and increase student success for all.

Our school leadership team, (made up of the School Improvement Chair, myself, eight teachers and an intervention specialist) understands that our main goal is for all of our students to achieve and be successful. And we have come to believe that the best way to maximize academic growth is through Explicit Instruction. Explicit Instruction is a structured, systematic, and effective methodology for teaching academic skills, supported by almost 30 years of research. It is a direct approach to teaching that includes both instructional design and delivery procedures.

In her book, Explicit Instruction, Anita Archer writes: “Explicit Instruction is characterized by a series of supports or ‘scaffolds,’ whereby students are guided through the learning process with clear explanations and demonstrations of the instructional target, and supported practice with feedback until independent mastery has been achieved.” Explicit Instruction does not exclude inquiry learning, it is just a matter of when to use it. The guiding principle of Explicit Instruction is that the more novice the learner, the more explicit the instruction should be. In other words, the inquiry process needs to be explicitly modeled so that students have the tools they need to be successful.

Our teachers do not assume 80 percent or more of their students have prior knowledge on a topic or an area to be studied. They begin by quickly assessing where knowledge gaps may be. By doing so, teachers can speed or slow the pace of instruction so students stay engaged with the learning. In addition, research tells us (Kirschner, 2004) that inquiry-based, discovery learning works well only with students with a lot of prior knowledge guiding them through the discovery process. With Explicit Instruction, students are the apprentices being guided by the teacher as they walk and talk through the steps to problem-solve.

The Reading Apprenticeship model is a great example of this technique. The teacher explicitly makes his thinking visible as he reads through a text, making annotations along the way with the intention of clarifying what a successful reader is thinking and doing, and what habits of mind he uses when reading. Given those strategies, students can practice with the teacher, in small group, then on their own. This approach works more effectively for all students. Every student is then walked down a path to success and learning.

Our staff has worked countless hours to develop teacher-led, student-centered classrooms where initial practice is carried out with high levels of teacher involvement, and then is systematically withdrawn as students move toward independent performance. As Hattie writes in his book, Visible Learning, “The model of visible teaching and learning combines, rather than contrasts, teacher-centered teaching and student centered learning and knowing."

Recently I spoke with my intervention specialist who said this: “Explicit instruction works because it includes all students, especially our students with learning challenges.” Explicit instruction clearly leads students to a learning criteria or objective through the "I do" and "we do" stages, and then allows them to explore, inquire, and expand their learning through the "you do" stage. This has given our teachers more instructional time in the "you do" stage as they don't have to wait for all students to "discover" the concept being taught.

One of my commitments as principal is to visit every classroom every day to monitor the progress of my teachers’ instructional practices. I believe, if you Expect It, you have to Inspect It! Teachers respect my (almost) daily walk-throughs, because it creates a visibility that not all building administrators achieve. Also, there is an authenticity to my instructional feedback because I am regularly in their classrooms. My journey as a “Lead-Learner” with our teachers in improving pedagogical practices has dramatically changed my role as principal. Our building culture for students, staff, and administration has improved dramatically too. 

Providing professional development centered around Explicit Instruction practices over the last several years, and having professional conversations around its benefits, has helped our staff grow instructionally. The PD has been especially powerful when provided by the teachers themselves, rather than an outsider who "tells us how to teach." It is a more organic, authentic feel when a colleague can say "This is how I did it and why it worked." Walking through our building today, we see agendas posted, essential questions posed, warm up activities tied to the day's goals initiated, and students problem-solving and collaborating. 

Finally, over the years, we have built a Multi-Tiered System of Supports with the beginning steps focusing on explicit instructional practices across all tiers of instruction. Our teachers have become students of their own teaching practices, and as a result, we have created more targeted, engaging and visible learning environments for all. My major message is clear to our teachers…what teachers do matters!

Building a Brighter Future in Asbury Park: Assess, Create, Execute

I’ll never forget the joy, pride and stress I felt after I was appointed Superintendent of Schools in Asbury Park, N.J. last year. After taking in the congratulatory comments and well wishes of getting a new job, I stole a few minutes that evening to reflect on what I had accomplished and the experiences I had gained on my journey of self-actualization. Abraham Maslow defines self-actualization as "the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for the individual to become actualized in what he is potentially.” During my moment of reflection, I realized that I had reached the pinnacle as an educational leader by being appointed the new Superintendent of Schools.

As I prepared for my first public meeting, the thoughts of someone raising his or her hand and asking me, “What’s next? What are your plans?” began to dominate my mind. Now that I have the job, the expectation is that I will “Know What To Do” and that people will be expecting me to “Lead” on day one. It did not matter if I was the new Superintendent of Schools, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Director of Special Education, or Building Principal; the expectation would be for me to live up to my resume and cover letter immediately.

Facing the district stakeholders for the first time was stressful as well as exciting. It was a defining moment in which the success of my speech would help shape the district and community’s perception of their new Chief School Administrator. My most pressing concern prior to delivering the speech was this: Which approach should I choose that will garner me credibility, respect, and trust? I opted to employ a systematic approach to lead my learning organization. A systematic approach is one that is repeatable and learnable through a series of step-by-step procedures. I named my approach A.C.E.  -- an acronym for Assess, Create, Execute.


Assessment is the process of collecting and evaluating data from varied sources in order to gain a better understanding. I used a mixed-method approach to assess my school district by collecting quantitative data (formative/summative assessments) and gathering qualitative data (interviews/focus groups/observations) in hopes of understanding the community as a whole, culture and climate of the district, and the internal/external challenges of student achievement. The process was very beneficial. It allowed me to use that rich information to support existing assumptions and develop a better understanding of the challenges ahead.


According to Peter Senge (1990), “learning organizations are organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” What are your mission, vision, values, and goals? Creating a plan of action is essential when establishing SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely) goals. The strategic planning process should include all stakeholders when developing an action plan, which establishes high expectations and creates diverse strategies intended to produce desired outcomes.


The execution of the strategic plan is the most difficult aspect of the process. All well-conceived strategic plans that are not implemented are just dreams or wish lists. There are two components that are essential to the execution process -- deployment and reflection. Deployment is the implementation of the strategies. Reflection is the assessment of the strategic results. I call this process Plan, Do and Check. 


As I look back on that stressful moment of seven months ago, I recall standing in front of the large crowd in the auditorium delivering my first public speech in my new district. I felt comfortable. Subconsciously, I guess I knew I would A.C.E. this next chapter in the journey of my new self-actualization. 

Presently, I have completed the Assess process of my systematic approach and created action pillars to guide our learning organization. Those pillars are: Rebuild, Retool and Restore. Now I am halfway through my Create process of “Building A Brighter Future.” This systematic approach and subsequent experiences have taught me that leading an organization begins with understanding the essential questions of a learning organization: Where are we now? Where are we going? How will we get there?

What If You're Not Einstein?

Fred Lepore and I were both English majors who took Physics for Poets. Years later, I barely remember Newton's laws of motion, while Lepore is a Professor of Neurology & Ophthalmology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. I met him last month at 92Y’s 7 Days of Genius Festival in New York City. He spoke on a panel with physicist Brian Greene and author Thomas Levenson about the life and work of Albert Einstein. Levenson wrote Einstein in Berlin, which explores the physicist's astonishing scientific breakthroughs in Germany in the decades leading up to World War II. 

I told Lepore that I found the panel discussion fascinating, at least the 20 percent that I was able to grasp. “Don't feel badly," he said. "When Greene talks about tensor calculus and non-Euclidean geometry, I’m in over my head. You take what you can. You do take away a lot. And you realize how amazing this guy Einstein was.”

In 2012, Lepore and fellow scientists Dean Falk and Adrianne Noe published a study of Einstein’s cerebral cortex, based on 14 new photographs that had come to light. Careful study revealed that Einstein had an “extraordinary” prefrontal cortex, as well as “unusual” parietal lobes, which “may have provided some of the neurological underpinnings for his visuospatial and mathematical skills.”

We still don’t know exactly why Einstein was a genius, but thanks to the scientists' work, we have a better sense of what was packed inside his brain, including four prefrontal lobe gyri, or ridges, instead of the usual three. I asked Lepore how those of us who may be short on gyri could tackle subjects like fluid dynamics and chaos theory. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.


Q: How can students integrate the arts and sciences into their education when they may have a passion for only one or the other?

A: I don’t know why some people are born with a passion for the arts, while others are real technophiles for whom math is straightforward and simple. We do talk about left-brain and right-brain dominance, although psychologists like Michael Gazzaniga think that’s really an oversimplification.

Nevertheless, if you cut the corpus callosum, you see that each side of the brain does have different capacities. I don’t know if it’s akin to the pop literature myth of the right side of your brain being your artistic side and the left side being more analytical. It’s an interesting generalization. The question is: How do we cultivate different skills and interests? Like anything, it’s all about the teaching. We can’t go in with preconceptions, like girls might not be as good at science as boys. We’ve got to throw that out the window, and we have.

If someone turns out to absolutely love reading Shakespeare but hate doing quadratic equations, or vice versa, we’ve still got to expose them. If you're a humanist, take Physics for Poets. Molecular biology majors should take creative writing and read Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot. These are hard things to do. But that's why we have education. You may still end up being a programmer or an adjunct English professor, but if you’ve had your awareness raised to the possibilities inherent in another field, at least you'll know what’s out there.


Q: Why do I find it shocking that a neuro-ophthalmologist majored in English?

A: It’s only shocking because the template is, “You’ve got to be a science major to go into medicine.” It can be difficult in medical school when you go up against others who have already taken a heavy course load in the sciences. You realize that you’re not going to get it in quite the same way they do. But life is a long process. You can pick these things up.

I think it’s great knowing how to work both sides of the street, the humanities side and the science side. C. P. Snow had it right when he talked about “the two cultures.” One of the great intellectual challenges facing us is the fact that poets can’t really explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Not that it’s that hard. They just have no interest in it, and their education has reflected that.


Q: How do we confront the limitations Snow identified? How do we help kids who struggle with both physics and poetry?

If there’s a cri de coeur for your audience, it’s that education is incredible. But we always knew that. And the earlier you start, the better. My wife is a preschool teacher. She knows how critical those early years are. By the time you get into high school, if you’re on the right side of that bell-shaped curve, you’re going to do pretty well, no matter what. If you're on the wrong side, it's going to be very tough.

Certainly, there are unique challenges to teaching geniuses. Einstein was a pain in the neck. One of his teachers said, “The problem with you is, we can’t tell you anything.” I’m paraphrasing, but not that much.

Einstein was an independent-minded guy, and maybe that was one of his strengths. He didn’t accept the received wisdom. He looked at the science, such as it was, and judged it by his own critical abilities. He was not the apprentice to some other great scientist. He really was a maverick in that regard. Maybe that was why, with no preconceptions drilled into his head by some guy who had a more authoritative position, he was able to look at things and analyze them. And, boy, he got it right. Most of the time, he got it right.

Where the real challenge lies is for all the rest of us who are in the middle of that bell-shaped curve. That’s where you really have to break into a sweat as far as teaching goes. To get the folks who are right in the middle of the pack and show them the possibilities inherent in a great education.

This is especially true when children are very young. Having a 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old is an important responsibility, to make a school environment that is rich and creative and fosters a lifelong love of learning.

I’m amazed at how tough early childhood educators often have it: “Oh, you’re just sort of doing day care.” No, you’re not! Not if you’re doing it right.

How One Illinois District Shifted the Professional Development Paradigm

Rigor, argumentation, identifying evidence from the text, conceptual understanding, and procedural fluency…these dispositions illustrate a shift in expectations for students as articulated in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While implementing higher standards is laudable, and many say necessary, how do we, as district and building leaders, support our teachers so they can make needed shifts in their own professional practices to enable students to realize the potential of the CCSS?

Here’s what we did in a small, suburban elementary district outside of Chicago (1600 students in grades PreK-8 in four neighborhood schools) to support our teachers in making the instructional shifts essential to their students’ success.

At the district level, we knew that transforming our classrooms required building a strong foundation. We couldn’t focus on changing teaching practices without providing the necessary instructional tools. Instructional materials were reviewed and selected, initial training was provided, and ideas for collaboration and group work were shared. All parties were engaged and excited by the potential of these changes. However, as the school year began, when walking around the buildings, one would observe teachers at the front of the classroom, many desks still in rows. What had happened to that vision of transformation? 

Old ways of providing professional development didn’t give teachers a vision of student-centered learning in their classrooms. What could a student-centered classroom look like in respective subjects? How could we foster perseverance in students who were solving difficult open-ended math problems or tackling challenging texts? We needed a new professional development paradigm that supported ongoing professional learning. We decided to seek outside experts to serve as coaches and facilitators to our teachers and the District 126 administrative team. Based on demonstration lessons, individual, and collaborative coaching (a modified version of lesson study), our classrooms began to shift instructional practices and subsequently achieved a greater depth of student engagement and success. Productive student talk was evident, deeper questions were asked and answered. However, this was just the beginning of building something lasting and sustainable.

At the district level, our coaches became part of our planning team, giving input as to next steps and brainstorming ways to accelerate our progress. They identified areas that could benefit from targeted PD, worked with teacher teams to build their expertise, and assisted in building our internal capacity by collaborating with our teacher-leader teams. With this guidance, we created a multiyear plan that:

  1. Fit the needs of our district,
  2. Considered the culture of each of our schools,
  3. And supported growth of teachers and students alike.

The relationships built over the next 2 or 3 years with coaches fostered open and honest interactions that enabled our teachers to take risks in stretching themselves. Students also took more academic risks with confidence in a supportive network provided by well-trained teachers, coaches and administrators. Many of our literacy teachers’ toolboxes had been filled with new instructional routines from READ 180 (the Red Routines) and Expert 21. Building on the success seen in these classrooms, our teacher-leader teams reevaluated their literacy instructional practices and implemented new supports at various grade levels. For example, while all grades use Think-Pair-Share, beginning in 3rd grade, students began using some of the more complex instructional routines. These practices promote active, engaged learning across many subject levels. When results were not what we expected, the coaches and teachers worked together to address roadblocks to student success, such as creating protocols to help scaffold student thinking during independent reading. Our math teacher-leader team has begun the same process based on their learning.

We are presently in the middle of year four. Our coaches continue their work with teacher-leaders to refine skills, and now, enable them to provide training and support for their colleagues going forward. Our administrators also continue to build upon the cultural shift that supports and challenges our teachers to stretch themselves professionally. Our classrooms now look very different from those previously described. Desks are grouped and re-grouped to support meaningful student dialogue. Students are engaged in both independent and collaborative work. Students set their own learning goals and monitor progress right alongside their teachers’ formative and summative assessments. Students who previously sat staring blankly at a challenging task are now engaged, using the strategies and tools they have been taught to create a plan of attack. These observations are supported by our data. For our 6th-8th graders using the SRI as a measure of their growth, more than 55% of our students have already exceeded their expected average annual growth.

Our success has been a team effort: district and school administrators, coaches, teachers, and students working together. The outcome of this deeper and more collaborative professional development has been some of the most rewarding work of my career, and has proved to be transformational in its ability to help us shift our teaching practices and realize greater student achievement throughout our district.

How Learning Walks Have Renewed Passions for Teaching in My District

One of the best strategies to increase student achievement is to “develop a ’laser-like‘ focus on improving teaching,” says Dr. Kevin Feldman.

We took that message to heart, and with his approach and guidance, my colleagues at Ingham Intermediate School District (ISD) and I developed an initiative called Teachers Learning Together (TLT). This effort focuses on improving student engagement and literacy strategies through Learning Walks and teacher collaboration.

Ingham ISD is unique in that we provide support to 12 different public school districts, serving 44,570 students. As a leader of the TLT initiative, I have had the opportunity to participate in countless Learning Walks, which have all resulted in productive learning, collegial conversations, excitement, and renewed passions for teaching. 

The TLT initiative initially started when elementary and middle schools in the ISD service area embarked on a grant-funded statewide plan to implement Multiple Systems of Support. (MTSS) The grant didn’t include high schools, so we sought help from Dr. Feldman to include our secondary teachers in the MTSS work. During our first year of implementation, he led seminars that were focused on instructional strategies and provided training in giving and getting specific feedback through the Learning Walk process. Teachers who attended the seminars committed to this process in collaboration with their colleagues. We immediately found that the typically reserved high school teachers were visibly excited to go back to their schools and begin implementation. 

Before our TLT initiative, many of our teachers had never observed another instructor’s classroom despite having spent many years in the profession. The experience was powerful. Participants gained deeper knowledge of instructional strategies as well as a renewed vigor for teaching.

After attending one of Dr. Feldman’s seminars, a group of middle school teachers initiated their own observations during each other’s prep hours, and saw that the engagement and literacy strategies were working. They began discussing these strategies during the 5 minutes between classes, and even got together after school at a local restaurant to continue the fruitful conversations about teaching and learning. The excitement was infectious, and soon, other teachers wanted to get involved. By the end of the year, TLT participation at their school swelled to 100%. At present, approximately 500 teachers from our service area are involved in the TLT initiative. 

We continue to find that Learning Walks are exceptional vehicles for motivating teachers to improve their practice. Plus there is an added bonus of creating a collaborative culture for instructors. I have observed this phenomenon firsthand. Instructors, who regularly butted heads with each other in staff meetings, have learned from each other and found a new mutual respect. Teachers, who taught in the same building for almost 20 years, entered some of their colleague’s classrooms for the first time and gained both valuable insights into teaching techniques and the value of collaboration.  

Leadership support is a key component of our TLT initiative, and one brave principal who had been out of the classroom for over 10 years volunteered to teach a lesson and get feedback from a large group of teachers. This group included people she had never met from other districts. Her results were overwhelmingly positive because she gained even more credibility with her staff, demonstrating a willingness to “walk the talk,” and show them her commitment to the Learning Walk process. Having said that, the TLT initiative has largely been teacher driven, and is sustained by committed, “grass roots” groups of teachers.

As part of the TLT initiative we have established a TLT video library on our website so that teachers can post videos and give and get feedback online. Staff in several school districts have posted videos of their teaching for other TLT participants to view. In many schools, Learning Walks have become a part of the culture. One teacher reported that they don’t have TLT “events” anymore, it’s just part of what they do – business as usual. 

Teachers at one high school have color-coded signs on their classroom doors indicating that they are open to visitors at any time, or open to visitors with some advance notice. These teachers have what Dr. Feldman calls “collaborative coherence” for teaching and learning in their building. They have learned valuable engagement strategies, thus breathing new life into their teaching. For example, during a Learning Walk at this school you might see students engaged in a “Give One, Get One” activity: Each student writes down thoughts in response to a prompt, and then pairs up with others to exchange ideas. Teachers are focused on Dr. Feldman’s mantra, “Everyone does everything,” by using engagement strategies designed to include all students, with no opting out.

We are now in our 5th year of TLT implementation, and expanded the audience to include elementary and middle school educators who begged to be involved after hearing positive stories from their high school colleagues. Teachers are experiencing increased student engagement, resulting in a vibrant, energized learning environment. I have never been more proud to call myself an educator than when I experience the thoughtful, supportive, collaborative conversations that take place among teachers during Learning Walks.

Getting Through March Madness: Five Ways Administrators Can Help Teachers

This is the hardest time of the year for many of us in the classroom. The never-ending days of winter, the testing season, and the overall feeling that all of us are in a bit of a rut. It is no new revelation that we as teachers are feeling stressed. While there are many negative implications of this on our profession ranging from high teacher attrition rates and the subsequent investment of billions of dollars to hire and train new teachers, there is one side effect of our stress that that is rarely discussed: We are passing it onto our students.

Anyone who has taught for a measure of time knows this instinctively: Our energy, whether it is positive or negative, shapes the work we do with our students and how our students feel in our classrooms. While changing the dynamic of testing season in school is a much bigger topic than I can address here, I think there are some concrete things each school community can do to thrive even in these stressful times.

As leaders of learning communities, I think principals and administrators can do a great deal to keep their community moving forward. Here are five ways that building leaders can start to turn the tide and find ways to better support their teachers:

1)   Listen. Many of your teachers may simply need you to listen to them about their day, that difficult sixth period in their schedule, or about a new approach that they are trying out in their classroom. Taking the time to simply listen will empower your teachers to process their thinking about teaching and help them to be more reflective.

2)   Take time to celebrate the good that’s happening in your building. Highlight the good work that’s happening in your building by giving shout-outs in meetings and posting pictures on your school’s social media sites. This is an effective way to recognize the great work that’s already happening in the classrooms and give parents a peek into the work we do every day with children.

3)   Provide time for teachers to learn with and from each other. Create opportunities for teachers to share their expertise during meetings. Recently, I sat in on a session led by my colleagues Matthew Kay and Pearl Jonas on creating meaningful conversation opportunities in our classrooms. It was an amazing way to learn from my colleagues.

4)   Extend the ethic of care to your teachers. We often talk about the ethic of care our students need, but this applies to teachers as well. When someone is experiencing challenges in their  personal life, be flexible in your expectations. This is not about bending rules; this is about treating teachers with the same respect that you would extend to our students.

5)   Monitor your own stress and anxiety and examine how it affects your teachers. There’s no question that testing season is a “test” for all of us but be mindful how your stress is being transferred to your teachers. Find ways to connect with other administrators and share strategies to reduce your own stress.

If you’re an administrator reading this, I want to thank you on behalf of teachers everywhere, and I extend an invitation to try these ideas out in your building and report back your experiences. I look forward to your responses.


For information on how Scholastic can support professional learning services for literacy, math and leadership, visit the Scholastic Achievement Partners website.


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