Learning is impossible without the brain, yet in the heated national debate over how best to improve and evaluate student performance, the brain is largely left out of the conversation. Mariale Hardiman, Ed '04 (EdD), co-founder and director of the School of Education's Neuro-Education Initiative, came to this conclusion more than a decade ago while she was principal of Baltimore's Roland Park Elementary/Middle School and completing her doctorate at Johns Hopkins. She frequently found herself attending academic conferences where neuroscientists presented the latest research on how the brain works. "There was always a teacher at the back who would raise her hand at the end and ask how she could use this in the classroom," Hardiman says. "And the researcher would say, 'Well, I don't know—that's not my field.'"
To bridge this divide, Hardiman, who is also a clinical professor at the School of Education, developed a method she calls (and has trademarked) Brain-Targeted Teaching to help educators create effective classroom instruction based on the latest understanding of how the brain processes, stores, and retrieves information. Learning is largely about repetition, but Hardiman's approach moves beyond drilling and quizzing students to present the material through multiple means, including collaborative activities and the arts.
Ramona Persaud is a believer. Two and a half years ago, the Syracuse, New York–based filmmaker was struggling to homeschool her daughter. She picked up Hardiman's book, Connecting Brain Research With Effective Teaching: The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model (R&L Education, 2001). What had been a fight became fun, she says. "I saw a huge difference in her enthusiasm, interest, and recall," Persaud says of her daughter.
She eventually decided to make a documentary film about the teaching method. Her film, Grey Matters, is in post-production and slated for completion in March 2015. The film follows three teachers as they use Hardiman's method throughout an academic year. One teaches at Hardiman's former school, one at a high school in Batavia, New York, and the third at a community college in Pennsylvania. (Hardiman appears in the film but has no other connection to it—"I've seen the trailer and it's lovely," she says.) For Persaud, whose previous documentary, It's a Different World, explored the lives of three siblings with autism, filming around 40 hours of footage in a working classroom was a challenge. Initially, the older students became reticent when the camera rolled, while the younger students became little hams. Eventually, everyone got used to the interloping lens. "It was relatively easy to stay unobtrusive since the crew consisted of just me," says Persaud. "I filmed and used a shotgun mic instead of a boom and worked as much as possible with natural light to minimize the disruption."
The film shows teachers presenting material in diverse, engaging, and "brain-friendly" ways far removed from a simple whiteboard lecture. For a geography lesson about the Panama Canal, students first walk the perimeter of the school, then cut through a hallway to return to class, bringing home how much time the canal saves. In another scene, a group of boys learns decimal places by writing pretend checks to their favorite football players.
Persaud has funded most of the film's estimated $100,000 budget herself, supplemented by nearly $3,000 raised through the crowdfunding website, Indiegogo. She plans to submit the film to high-profile film festivals, such as Sundance and the Tribeca Film Festival. But she says more modest screenings are more important. "We want to take it to every possible community town hall and library for showings before parents, teachers, school boards, and education officials across the country," Persaud says. "Education, which just seems to get hammered and hammered, needs a win."
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