Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology

TEACHERS AS SCHOLARS: JOHN DOWLING'S "AMAZING BRAIN" LINKS HARVARD TO THE GREATER BOSTON EDUCATION COMMUNITY

by Sophie Blum

January 27th, 2014

John Dowling with The Amazing Brain class of 2014

An alternative approach to professional development in K-12 education, Teachers as Scholars (TAS) was founded in 1996 in an effort to strengthen the vital relationship between local schools and universities. TAS courses—which range in subject from “Women in the Modern Muslim World” to “Design in Boston: Skyscrapers, the Waterfront, and the Greenway,” to Professor John Dowling’s “The Amazing Brain”—refresh and update teachers’ acquaintance with modern scholarship and reinvigorate their oft malnourished intellectual enthusiasm. Today, TAS continues to offer as many as 100 seminars annually to teachers hailing from nearly 50 public and private schools in the greater Boston area.

In lieu of what has become customary professional development fare—workshops held in spare classrooms at the end of an exhausting work day—TAS holds content-based seminars on university campuses during designated release time from the school day. This format allows teachers to engage productively as alert and attentive academics. Regardless of grade level or area of expertise, educators choose freely among diverse courses conducted by leading university scholars and experts in their fields. Teachers as Scholars believes that exciting and stimulating the minds of teachers results in their exciting and stimulating the minds of students. And according to TAS participants, it succeeds:

“TAS Seminars are a way to recharge my battery, so to speak. I chose the seminar [The Amazing Brain] so that I could develop an understanding of my students and how they learn. I have not been disappointed. Although much of the content will not be used in my 3rd grade classroom…I always feel energized at the conclusion of each seminar and that alone directly affects my students.” Anne Kelley, Milton Schools.

Teachers as Scholars incorporated in 2000 as a non-profit education organization, and is currently funded by school membership fees and a grant from the Broad Foundation. Seminar instructors receive modest financial reimbursement for their time and energy and seminar students gain not only knowledge and well-earned encouragement, but also Professional Development Points, or PDPs, which contribute to recertification.

Professor John Dowling has been teaching The Amazing Brain, a 3-day mini course in neurobiology, annually for the past 12 years. “I think it’s incumbent upon all of us,” Dowling avers, “to reach out with what information and knowledge we have to educate, particularly teachers in secondary schools that may not have been in college for 10-15 years or more and want to be brought up to date or learn about a new field.”

Professor Dowling’s popular course attracts teachers of all grades and disciplines—from AP Psych Teachers eager to expand their curriculum to Spanish and History teachers, reading, special needs, or learning disorder specialists, and academic administrators, eager to expand their horizons and increase their understanding of their students’ developing minds. “For the most part they’re not scientists,” Dowling observes. Deanna Magill, for instance, of Milton Public Schools, affirms she “took the course hoping to learn about how normal brain development occurred so I could better understand what is happening with students at my level. Now that I have completed the course I have a much better understanding of what is going on in my students’ brains [and] what happens to students while they learn.” On the other hand, Karin Drowne of Acton Boxborough Regional High School hopes to integrate content from the Amazing Brain into her syllabus: “I teach psychology and not only were the lectures incredible, but the book is so readable…really something I can pull from in my Grade 12 classes. I [was] always weak in the area of neurobiology in terms of psychology and I feel exponentially more confident and knowledgeable.”

Drawing on Professor Dowling’s Creating Mind: How the Brain Works (W.W. Norton & Co., paperback edition, 2000) as its text, the Amazing Brain seminar addresses three broad areas of Neuroscience. On day one Dowling explicates the basics of Cellular Neuroscience, or “the nuts and bolts of how neurons work.” “Then we move up to higher neural function…the full machine,” as Professor Dowling puts it, with Systems and Cognitive neuroscience on days two and three, respectively. The Amazing Brain covers both vertebrate and invertebrate systems, learning and memory, language, vision, perception, and consciousness.

Each day Professor Dowling hosts a “little lab” before lunch. The class examines light microscope slides and electron micrographs, records electrical activity from their hands, compares mouse brains to human brains (“they all get a big kick out of seeing a real human brain,” Dowling reports), and finally observes zebrafish development, including a simple experiment Professor Dowling recommends for the secondary school classroom: “One thing that I always encourage teachers to do is take a petri dish full of zebrafish embryos and put in four drops of vodka. You see that it affects development very profoundly so it’s obviously a good thing for teachers that are teaching adolescents the dangers of alcohol during pregnancy.”

Like all TAS seminars, The Amazing Brain “school day” lasts from 9 AM to 3 PM with an hour for lunch at noon. Lectures are dense but informal, peppered with questions and detours into teachers’ particular areas of interest. Dowling admires his short-term pupils tremendously and cherishes this opportunity to witness their dedication to serving their students. “The teachers are extraordinarily grateful,” Dowling extols, “They’re fun to teach, they’re enthusiastic, they do the reading! As I’ve often said, they really exemplify the old adage that maybe college is wasted on the young.” “They come to class five minutes late as if they’ve committed a heinous crime,” he laughs, “I say to them, ‘Listen, if I can get my undergraduate and even graduate students to class five minutes late I think I’ve accomplished something!’”

Each year, feedback from teachers is overwhelmingly positive and inspiring: “Thank you for stretching MY brain,” writes Ellen Nagle, a reading specialist at Scituate Public Schools. “This has great impact upon our teaching as well as our personal lives,” adds Amanda Grindstaff of the Brookline Public Schools.

Professor Dowling retires in June 2015, “which isn’t that far away,” he admits. And although he is considering maintaining his partnership with Teachers as Scholars, he concedes, “I’m not going to do this forever.” Dowling is one of nearly 50 Harvard professors who have been affiliated with TAS, however, only a small fraction represent the Life Sciences, while the majority hail from the humanities. Dowling is the only participating MCB member and this year the only Harvard professor to offer a science course through TAS. Individuals interested in involvement with Teachers as Scholars should contact Henry Bolter, former Brookline schoolteacher and founder of Teachers as Scholars, for more information.

As the TAS mission statement contends, “If the national efforts to raise standards in various disciplines are to succeed, teachers must be reinvigorated as academic thinkers and leaders.” TAS stands as a crucial reminder that schools and universities share goals and responsibilities and when they work together, the results are palpable. For professors involved with Teachers as Scholars, the program affords a unique opportunity to impact future leaders in their field from an early age by contributing to an excellent education prior to college and university. Echoing the sentiments of a vast majority of Teachers as Scholars participants, one Amazing Brain student submits, “This seminar has been excellent… I have felt challenged and inspired. Thank you for the opportunity!”

 

View John Dowling's Faculty Profile