As English Language Arts and Math continue to be touted as top priorities, and as the assessment of related skills takes up more and more time in many schools, teachers are left with less time to share ideas with each other or with their students. In the realm of higher education, where more is being left to adjuncts and part-time staff, communication is limited within departments, let alone across them.
That is what makes Berklee College of Music professor Pratt Bennet’s Training Transformational Teachers program so remarkable. The program uses research from a number of fields to help educators better understand how the brain learns best, then shows them classroom-tested strategies to boost student interest, retention and creative applications of what they’re learning.
“Participants learn to shift their focus from covering more content to going into it in greater depth,” Bennet observes, suggesting that participants learn to transition from being the “sage on the stage” who knows everything to a “guide on the side” who helps students direct their own learning process and find practices and examples that are meaningful and relevant to them.
Through its full-semester programs and workshops (each of which ends with a celebration at which participants share with each other and with the community), TTT engages faculty from a wide range of departments, disciplines and even schools to come together to learn and develop best practices around improving student engagement, comprehension and retention, and overall outcomes. In the process, it is inspiring teachers in many institutions to develop their own more effective ways of teaching their students and inspiring their colleagues.
“In the second year of the program, we began to realize that people came to their greatest breakthroughs when interacting with people from other disciplines and schools, especially when ideas crossed over the humanities-sciences divide,” explains Bennet, a career coach trained in the neuroscience of learning and decision making.
By inviting and integrating faculty from multiple schools, Bennet’s program was able to encourage interactions across departments and across Boston. Among the most profound results has been a visual syllabus that involved collaborations among faculty in the Harmony Department at Berklee College of Music, the Design Department at Boston Architectural College, and the Communicative Speech Disorders Department at Emerson College.
“There was an explosion of ideas,” Bennet says, recalling how the first program in 2011 hosted 15 people and how it is now being used throughout the academically rich Boston area and also being considered by the Advanced Academic Programs arm of Johns Hopkins University.
“Pratt’s TTT classes have informed and inspired me to keep my classes fresh, exciting and student-centered,” says fellow Berklee Professor Mark Kohler, listing such specific benefits as greater student buy-in, improved attendance and increased retention.
A multi-institutional platform
According to Boston Architectural College (BAC) Director of Liberal Arts Studies Victoria Hallinan, what makes TTT stand out is its multi-institutional platform. “Working with a [mixed] population, rather than simply the population of a single institution, creates a real opportunity for instructors to recognize similar innovations and challenges in teaching regardless of discipline and a fruitful space for creative pedagogical thinking,” Hallinan observes.
“The varied perspectives that emerge in dialogue about teaching have a wonderful impact on our teaching,” notes Emerson College marketing professor Roxana Maiorescu.
These varied perspectives are enhanced by the diversity of the program’s participants, who not only come from various schools and departments, but also from different cultures and backgrounds.
“I am very inspired and challenged by the massive diversity of teachers and classes we end up talking about,” observes BAC Professor Peter Atwood, who also notes how TTT reveals and encourages similarities among the participants’ diverse curricula and practices. In fact, Atwood suggests, the greatest impact of TTT is “the realization that teaching is an incredibly diverse field of which there are very fundamentally similar challenges.”
It also inspires participants to vary their own practices. “During a Saturday TTT session,” Atwood recalls, “we talked about getting students to stand up, walk around and get the juices pumping.” Though he admits to being against the idea at first, as he was so used to staying behind his a computer screen in front a projector, Atwood eventually embraced the course’s “do something different” attitude.
“It encouraged me to figure out how we could get up move around and still do software demos,” he recalls, explaining that his classes now involve students taking turns in what they call a “captain’s chair” behind the screen, from which they each orchestrate the class for a time. “It was really fun and … we covered all the same material in approximately the same amount of time!”
After engaging in TTT, Emerson marketing professor Doug Quintal was similarly motivated to try new approaches. “I had been … getting bored with my own materials,” admitted Quintal. “This workshop made it evident to me that, while I thought I was making it relatable, it wasn’t always the case.” Since taking TTT, Quintal has found his material is much more engaging, both to himself and to his students. “I can now introduce concepts and have students take ownership through their experiences,” Quintal explained. “This has made it much more tangible and understandable, especially when each of them feeds off the others.”
Emerson Provost Michaele Whelan attended her first TTT event at Berklee four years ago, at which a few visiting Emerson teachers presented breakthroughs around improving the quality of student writing, allowing students to design part of their own midterm, and encouraging students to take more risks both in and outside of the classroom. She was inspired to bring the full program to her institution. She also decided to follow the example of Berklee’s program by sponsoring participants from other schools so that Emerson faculty would get access to an equally diverse range of ideas.
“It was apparent to me from the first TTT showcase that the faculty had made meaningful changes to their courses and were excited to share their learning with colleagues,” Whelan says. “The interdisciplinary perspectives across the [institutions] created a unique faculty-development program focused on pedagogy. Emerson’s faculty, both affiliated and full-time, have reported significant benefits from participating in this learning community.”
The cross-curricular impact impressed New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) Deputy Director James Mooney. “In my work with NEASC,” Mooney explains, “we focus on accreditation and particularly on school improvement. There is no question that Pratt’s work with TTT could be of significant value to high school teachers across New England as they seek their own paths of transformation.”
In addition to helping teachers reach students more effectively and encourage more student success, TTT helps teachers become better at their craft by designing and refining monthly teaching experiments that apply what they learn in the TTT program to their classroom.
“I think the opportunity to talk about teaching with colleagues from different disciplines and different institutions is tremendously useful,” says Emerson Assistant Vice President for Faculty Affairs Carol M. Parker, who notes that there is usually a waiting list to participate in. Parker also suggests that TTT offers “not only a wider perspective on possible teaching strategies but also an invitation to reframe understanding about one’s own particular teaching challenges.”
In fact, when asked why he became involved with TTT, Berklee songwriting professor Ben Camp, who has been through the program multiple times, replies, “I really wanted to dive into honing my teaching skills.”
Simple, illustrative, colorful and cohesive
During the recent event at Emerson, participants were divided into three groups. In each one, a TTT graduate (some of whom have gone on to become assistant coaches with Bennet) presented a story about which tool helped them reach their greatest teaching breakthrough that semester. Among the topics discussed were how to use what TTT calls simple, illustrative, colorful and cohesive—or “SICC”—visuals to engage and educate, create student success from the first day of class, and engender a “can do” attitude in teachers and students alike and also to tie together not only disparate topics, but a department’s entire undergraduate and graduate curriculum with what TTT calls a “central unifying metaphor.” Among examples of this open-ended unifying tool were Camp’s use of DNA images to explain the segments that make up many popular songs, a “cognitive cake” used by a professor working with students with brain injuries, and a syllabus that was laid out like the map of the Boston subway system.
“TTT has changed not only what we think about our own classes, but about our entire curriculum!” says Emerson speech and language pathologist Jena Castro-Casbon.
After each session, Bennet encouraged participants to “be the type of student you want in your class” and to raise their hands, ask questions and offer comments without being prodded. “Think about how you can use some of this,” he suggests.
In the process of the very open discussions that continued long after the official celebration was over, many participants revealed how, even if they were not in a particular presenter’s field, they could understand and take things away from their presentations.
While the benefits of the program are exciting, they can also be demanding. In addition to the 40-60 hours they invest in training, coaching and experimentation, many teachers end up abandoning ideas, protocols and curricula to which they have clung for decades.
“They are taking an enormous risk in stepping outside of their comfort zones to try new approaches,” Bennet notes, “but when they do, they get energized by the big boost in student engagement and responses. Often, the students’ responses inspire further experiments that get even better results.”
The “dream” suggests Bennet, “is to get to a place where the class becomes something you could never have imagined.”
Matt Robinson is a freelance writer who serves as the editor of the Advocate, published by the AFT MA (American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts). He is also an adjunct professor of writing and literature in the Boston area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.