We didn’t need the electrodes on students’ skulls to know that they learn through social interactions: A Tallahassee Democrat op-ed on neuroscience research

The Democrat published my op-ed on how students learn science.  The op-ed described how students learn both from the perspective of our own experience in the FSU Studio Physics Program and from the perspective of the NYU and UF researchers who recorded high school students’ brain waves to find out what the community of science educators already knew about the importance of social interactions in learning.

The op-ed gave us the opportunity to shout out to three high school physics teachers who are increasing their use of interactive engagement.

An irony to this whole thing:  While several of Florida’s postsecondary institutions (including FSU) have adopted interactive engagement in their introductory physics classes, UF has not.  Perhaps the UF biomedical engineers who worked on the research should have a chat with the physics faculty there.

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Teachers are paramount in improving learning. So giving more students access to strong teachers should be the central theme of any proposal to improve K-12 education.

In the Summer 2011 issue of Education Next, Stanford’s Eric Hanushek said this:  “The quality of the teachers in our schools is paramount: no other measured aspect of schools is nearly as important in determining student achievement.”

If you accept this assertion, as many education policy experts do, then there is a simple test for whether an education policy proposal would be good or bad for students:  Would the proposal increase the number of students who are taught by strong teachers?  

Of course, this question is simple in concept.  Actually answering it is much more difficult, at least most of the time.

Start with this:  Strong teachers deeply understand the subjects they are teaching.  Middle school math teachers must be able to do algebra at a high level effortlessly.  A middle school math teacher who struggles with algebra is not going to be successful.  In fact, a 2011 study by researchers at Michigan State University showed this is a particular problem in the U.S.

Of course, being good at math doesn’t by itself make an individual a strong teacher.  There is so much more to it – the understanding that children learn best through intense social interactions (including one-on-one interactions with the teacher) and the ability to juggle twenty-five children (and their parents) in such a way that the learning environment remains orderly.  And that is really just a start.

But it’s fair to insist that a proposal to make changes at the school, district or state level should, for example, give more middle school students the opportunity to be taught by strong math teachers.

Florida’s HB 7069 would initiate an effort called Schools of Hope to change the way educational opportunities are provided to students in some of the state’s toughest places.  The proposal would do this in two ways.  One is to provide incentives for charter school operators with strong track records to open facilities that would serve these students.  The second would be to provide grants to traditional district schools to enhance services that students can receive through the school – a scheme known as “wraparound” services.

But to be successful, both schemes – for both charter and traditional schools – would have to bring more strong teachers in for their students.  As the Orlando Sentinel reported, Carver Middle School in Orlando – a traditional district school – is now making a serious effort to do exactly this.  They are offering bonus packages that add up to as much as $70,000 over three years.

In fact, in addition to the Schools of Hope proposal HB 7069 also includes two teacher bonus programs – one “old” and one new.  The “old” one is the Best and Brightest program that has given teachers who scored well on their own SAT or ACT tests and earned “highly effective” evaluations substantial bonuses for the last two years (first year teachers can earn the bonuses just for having the high SAT/ACT scores).  This year under HB 7069, those bonuses would be $6,000 each.  The new bonus program would reward every teacher in every charter and traditional district school who earns an evaluation of “highly effective” a $1,200 bonus.  It is likely that the “highly effective” bonuses would cost about $90 million, dwarfing the expenditure on the “old” Best and Brightest program.  The new program would also provide bonuses of up to $800 to each “effective” teacher – depending on how much money is left over in the $234 million bonus pot after the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program, the $1,200 “highly effective” bonus program and a new principal bonus program are funded.  However, the $800 bonuses could cost as much as $70 million.  (Thanks to Kristen Clark for civilly but convincingly pointing out the “up to” aspect of the $800 program).

But back to the controversial Schools of Hope idea that seems to pit charter schools against traditional district schools.  My kids attended traditional public schools, Catholic schools and even a “ritzy” (by Tallahassee standards) private school.  I’ve worked with teachers from traditional public schools and charter schools.  I’ve seen some terrific teaching in all of these schools.  I have also seen in every one of these categories of schools teachers who really should be doing something else for a living.  I don’t know the answer to the question of whether Schools of Hope would make things better for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  But I am convinced that the very existence of this proposal should prompt each of us to take a clear-eyed look at the school in which we are involved.  Here is a guarantee:  There is at least one teacher at your school who should not be teaching there.  If you don’t agree with me, then you are almost certainly not being honest with yourself.

Governor Scott is presently mulling over how to respond to HB 7069.   Much of his calculus is political and concerns how the action he chooses – approve or veto – will affect his campaign to win a seat in the U.S. Senate next year.  But I hope Governor Scott and his staff are also thinking about whether HB 7069 would give more of the state’s students the opportunity to work with strong teachers.

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NYU and UF researchers invent new techniques to “discover” that “our brains are designed to learn through complex social interactions”. Fortunately for our students, we already knew that.

A group of researchers led by neuroscientists and engineers from New York University and the University of Florida recently announced the results of a study of how high school students learn science best. In this study, electrodes were attached to the students’ skulls during class to record their brain activity. According to lead author Suzanne Dikker of New York University, the primary conclusion was that “our brains are designed to learn through complex social interactions”.

Fortunately, those of us teaching in the Studio Physics Program at Florida State University came to the same conclusion a long time ago – and without having to attach electrodes to our students’ skulls. The studio instructional model we adopted takes full advantage of the power of social interactions in the classroom. Our model, which was originally developed at North Carolina State University, emphasizes active collaboration among students in performing hands-on experiments and learning problem-solving techniques. We lecture very little because when students are quietly listening to us lecture they are not engaging in “complex social interactions”.

Not surprisingly, student learning gains in our studio physics classes are much larger than they are in traditional lecture classes. For some key concepts, our learning gains are double what they are in traditional lectures. Similar results have been achieved at other universities that have adopted the same classroom model, including Florida A&M University and the University of Central Florida.

The “interactive engagement” strategies that we use in our studio physics classes aren’t just for the college level. Two Bay County physics teachers, Rachel Morris at Rutherford High School and Nancy Browne at Bay High School, have significantly increased their use of interactive engagement in their courses with the help of equipment loaned to their high schools by FSU. Matt Martens, the high school physics teacher at Florida State University Schools and a 2015 graduate of FSU’s Ph.D. program in physics, is preparing a full implementation of the studio model for next year’s physics class.

Nor are interactive engagement strategies only useful in physics. According to North Carolina State University education researchers, the studio model we use in Physics at FSU is used at other postsecondary institutions in chemistry, math, biology, astronomy, engineering, and even literature courses.

The success we have had with the Studio Physics Program at FSU could not have been achieved without the tremendous support we’ve received from our university’s administration. That is just as true at the other institutions that have adopted this approach to student learning – both at the high school and postsecondary levels.

Support from institutional leaders will continue to be a necessary and key ingredient for implementing interactive engagement strategies that harness “complex social interactions” to improve student learning. We can only hope that these leaders understand the importance of this research so that they support educators who are willing to do the hard work necessary to bring these strategies into their classrooms.


A picture from the NYU/UF experimental classroom…


…and a view from ours, where we already knew what the NYU and UF researchers recently “discovered”

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FSU Physics visits Florida’s Capitol on FSU Day at the Capitol

Once during each legislative session, FSU brings a large delegation of faculty, students and staff to the Capitol to show off, as the university should.  This year, FSU Day at the Capitol was April 4.

An FSU photographer followed President John Thrasher through the delegation, and here are a few shots from his time with professors from the Physics Department.

FSU Day at the Florida State Capitol. John Thrasher.

President Thrasher, Professor Christianne Beekman, Professor Kevin Huffenberger

FSU Day at the Florida State Capitol. John Thrasher.

President Thrasher, Professor Winston Roberts, Professor Susan Blessing, Professor Vladimir Dobrosavljevic

FSU Day at the Florida State Capitol. John Thrasher.

Jean Thrasher and Susan Blessing

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When it comes right down to it, for educators success comes from personal interactions

Sooner or later, every educator has to come to terms with this truth: that each triumph is the result of a one-on-one encounter.

Maybe you are a classroom teacher who has a conversation with a student that straightens out a student’s crippling misconception or reignites a student’s interest in a topic.

Perhaps you have talked with a colleague who then sees something in your practice that would improve the learning of her or his own students.  Or maybe you’ve learned something important from a colleague the same way.

Or maybe you are an educator in a leadership position who has led another educator in your unit to discover a new way of reaching students.

But in each one of those scenarios, an improvement in understanding or a change in beliefs resulted from a challenging conversation that required great concentration on the part of both participants.

It’s helpful if your physical classroom is designed to facilitate those one-on-one conversations.  That’s the idea behind the SCALE-UP classroom design.  But the room design itself can’t guarantee that those personal interactions will take place.  The educators in the room have to believe in the instructional model and be looking for opportunities to talk with students.  If they don’t, the learning gains in the SCALE-UP room can be as dismal as they are in a traditional lecture class.

And even a class held in a lecture hall can harbor the personal discussions that foster better understanding and stronger learning gains.  Just consider the work the Peer Instruction folks at the Harvard Physics Department (although their neighbors in the MIT Physics Department prefer the SCALE-UP classroom design).

If you are a Dean, the money that supports your college can come and go.  But if you change the beliefs of your faculty about how students learn, that improvement will endure.  And those changes come from intense personal conversations.

If you’re chairing a committee planning a new teaching facility and fill the facility with SCALE-UP rooms, it doesn’t do any good if your colleagues continue to be addicted to the traditional lecture method.  So part of that job has to be encouraging your colleagues to look at teaching in new ways – during one-on-one conversations.

But for those of us who have dreamed about triumphs on the macro level, and maybe even experienced failure in such an effort, it’s important to keep this in mind – our genuine and enduring triumphs have resulted from one-on-one conversations.

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Northwest Florida Average Teacher Salaries 2015-16

From the FLDOE web site, which as always is an amazing source of information.


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HB 7069 includes a new academic requirement for Florida’s public colleges and universities – a civics literacy course

If Governor Scott signs the mammoth education policy bill HB 7069 into law, it will impose a new academic requirement to take a civics literacy course on students at Florida’s public colleges and universities.

The bill language offers the possibility of circumventing the course requirement by passing a test on civics knowledge.

Other than the civics requirement, HB 7069 is focused on the K-12 system.  A separate bill, SB 374, includes significant reforms for Florida’s postsecondary system.

The civics literacy bill language from HB 7069 is shown below.



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