As I reflect on my day at ASCD’s conference, I will be thinking and reflecting on a lot of topics and discussions. The one that really struck me, however, I feel I must reflect on first.

My last session of the day was one that I was really looking forward to. I am not one to easily be drawn in by big names, but I felt that with so many of them here, that I needed to attend at least one session and have my starstruck moment at the conference. At the end of the day, Carol Ann Tomlinson, the queen of differentiated instruction, presented on the connections between brain research and differentiated instruction.

I have done some reading on using neuroscience to inform the way we teach (Brain Rules, The Architecture of Learning), so this session really interested me. While some argue that we don’t have enough information about the brain to truly correlate neuroscience and learning, I think that we are silly to not pay attention to the way the brain fires during learning experiences. As Tomlinson stated during her presentation, everything that teachers do in the classroom sets off chemical reactions in the brain. If teachers have a better understanding of these chemical reactions, then we do a better job and building experiences around how the brain actually works.

First of all, Tomlinson’s session was structured in a way that allowed participants in the huge ballroom to talk and interact with each other about the session content. We had discussion ‘buddies’ that we had to identify before the session really began and we were given time after each section of the presentation to talk to our ‘buddies’ about what had been shared. This was a really powerful part of the presentation for me, as I am not a fan of ‘sit and get’ presentations, no matter how talented or famous someone is.

As far as the content of the presentation, it’s hard to know where to start. It was an incredible amount of information and ideas to digest.

One quote that really set the tone for the hour was Tomlinson’s view on differentiation itself. She said, “Differentiation is the logic of the classroom.” For all of the hype around differentiation (for better or for worse) I wonder how many people actually know what it means. It has become one of those buzz words that everyone uses, but few ever reflect on. Part of that may be because it really is a logical aspect of any reflective teacher’s practice. No successful and talented teacher can ignore the practice of differentiation in their classroom because it’s just what needs to be done.

I was also struck by the idea that students should think about class as much after they leave as they do in anticipation. My reflections here are an example of that. I was very excited to attend the session, and I left still thinking about what I heard.

While not all of the content of the session was mind blowing due to my own reading on the topic, (i.e., I already knew about the hierarchy of needs–survival comes first for the brain), Tomlinson was able to frame the research and the theory in an easy to digest, yet thought-provoking way.

I was struck by her statement that having clarity in our learning goals for students is not just for the learner, but also for the teacher. We can be as transparent as we want with kids, but if the learning goals are not transparent for us as teachers, then we won’t know what we are looking for and we cannot properly assess and educate our students.

She shared findings that the smaller amount of content that we ask kids to learn, the better, and that we need to teach big ideas because the brain needs patterns to link content. Some people call these ‘hooks’ that the brain ‘hangs’ information on. The hooks need to connect or retention does not occur.

She also referred to the teacher as a coach, similar to a football coach. The coach/teacher allows his or her students to practice, refining skills with guidance from the coach, in preparation for the big game. The better the practices, the better the players will do in the game. She argued that we need to make sure that we design the best practices for kids and that these practices use formative assessment and are not graded. Part of the grading process that hinders learning is the release of cortisol when the brain feels stressed.

I found it interesting that in the hierarchy of the brain, the main focus of the brain after survival is emotional data. According to Tomlinson, this explains why students in caring classrooms perform better than students in classrooms that tend to have high levels of emotional stress. She shared a chart that showed that there is a middle ground for the amount of challenge and stress we impose on learners and how it affects their learning.

Another interesting aspect of brain research she shared was the link between rote learning and convergent responses versus open ended, more problem-based learning that evokes divergent responses (just guess which one is occurring more often in schools). She stated that “we are legislating brain atrophy” by continuing to deny children the opportunity to engage in activities that promote divergent thinking. This kind of thinking, she argued is what is needed in the job market of the future.

For more of my notes on the presentation, you can click here.

Hopefully I will be able to reflect on my other parts of the day soon!

For more reading on the topic:

Judy Willis, Brain Friendly Strategies

David Sousa How the Brain Learns


Coming soon: lunch with the Outstanding Young Educators and Edcamp as professional development


  1. Kevin Biles


    Outstanding reflection, Mary Beth. I will definitely be citing this in my staff blog.

  2. Reply

    “No successful and talented teacher can ignore the practice of differentiation in their classroom because it’s just what needs to be done.”


    Differentiated instruction is simply a reaction to the failure of heterogeneous grouping.

    Bruce Cattanach

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