I’m so excited to share this interview with Vanessa Rodriguez, a veteran NYC middle school teacher, Harvard researcher, instructor and author of the just-released book, The Teaching Brain. This is a fascinating and accessible book that introduces new, and, I’d say, ground-breaking thinking on what the act of teaching really entails. I’ve met Vanessa several times and can say she’s the real deal–she is bringing the wisdom and mental framework of serious, practicing teachers to the research world, and vice versa. ~Ariel 

Vanessa Rodriguez taught humanities in New York City public schools for more than ten years before deciding to return to graduate school in pursuit of understanding exactly what-beyond her love of children- inspires her love of teaching.  She is now an advanced doctoral candidate and Instructor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where her research has been recognized for its innovation and potential impact on education with the prestigious Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) award.  A New Yorker at heart, she currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her family.

Ariel: Tell me about your background as a teacher in New York City:

Vanessa: Before coming here to Harvard School of Education, I taught humanities for over a decade in NYC public schools. It was usually in more progressive schools, but varied types. I was a middle school teacher and loved it. I loved the challenge of how to have that interaction with students—the time to figure out how to bring particular content to particular students—the shifts I constantly had to make in how I was structuring learning activities for them so they could be in a position to keep learning in their own way. Actually, there was something very selfish about my teaching. We often see teaching as a selfless act, but for me it was selfish, because I get really jazzed about the challenge of how to bring this content to the learner. 

Ariel: What was your inspiration for the research you’ve been doing on the “teaching brain”?

Vanessa: I like to think of it as something I fell into, but I may just have that outlook in general—I take opportunities as they come along. For example, I would still say teaching chose me. Once I student taught, I knew I had no chance of choosing something else for my work. It was really the same when I started the research on the teaching brain. 

I started this doctoral program in education at Harvard as a surprise to myself. I was exploring action research as a teacher, and as a reflective practitioner. And I felt like, especially in New York City, there was a lot happening in education policy that was not informed by teachers, which was problematic. But I’m also very practical, and I understood that a lot of the work coming out of classrooms labelled as action research was not in the language of researchers. So I wanted to learn how to write my research in a language that would be seen as appropriate evidence to researchers and policymakers. 

As I started researching, I began to realize that what we know about teaching is significantly less than what we know about learning. We label best practices based on learning outcomes, but we don’t understand the development of teaching as a cognitive skill of all humans, birth through adulthood.

Ariel: Does teaching actually start at birth?

Vanessa: Almost. Humans cannot teach until we are able take on the perspective of another human. It develops somewhere around age of one to two years, when we are able to develop a theory of someone else’s mind—a theory of mind, we call it. This makes sense when you think about what you do in teaching. You can’t teach until you’re ready to acknowledge another person who has a mind of their own. 

This kind of thought process turns out to be an area we don’t know so much about! We are accustomed to understanding teaching based on our understanding of learning, saying what we should do as teachers based entirely on what we know about the learning process.

Ariel: Wow, so tell us about some of your findings you think are most significant to the field of teaching. 

Vanessa: The huge take away is the idea that, even though teaching and learning are completely linked to one another (there is no teaching without learning), teaching can be studied in its own right. Teaching is an interaction, but when you see learning, you can look at it individually. In other words, you can learn without interacting with others—taking a ride on the train or a hike in the woods, you can learn a tremendous amount by yourself.  But teaching you can only study as an interaction. That really shifts the design of how we do research on teaching. 

The way I like to think about teaching is that if you recognize teaching as a social-cognitive ability, then you study it as a social interaction. This is different from looking at learning: learning is a cognitive ability, too, but teaching is specifically a social-cognitive ability. 

We aren’t born with the ability to teach, but we do develop it within a few years of life. So if you were to imagine a scale of cognitive complexity, teaching is inherently more complex than other cognitive abilities because it’s social, which adds so many layers to it.

Ariel: That makes sense—I know a big part of the reason I was attracted to teaching was how much it drew on my intellectual inclinations and how social it is at the same time!

Vanessa: Teaching is also something we need to start seeing as a natural part of our cognitive ability and growth. Rather than looking simply at the effects of teaching, we’re looking at the natural ability of teaching in humans, mapping out that cognitive development. Then we can look more clearly at what we need to happen in the classroom.  

I like to think that we’ve come really far in having a sense in how learning develops over time, and we’ve used that as ruler to see where is this student as a learner. But you would never say, “This is a bad learner.” But we still do that for teaching and label “bad teachers.” But we are all teachers! I’ve found we really don’t understand this, and we don’t know how to label it in an appropriate way. Once we have a better understanding of the cognitive development of teaching, we can ask, where are you as a teacher in this developmental framework and in relation to the goals and context of this district or school?  We could then have a ruler for teaching as a cognitive ability.

Ariel: That contextual piece makes a lot of sense here. Teaching isn’t isolated from context, and that also reflects on the social aspect of teaching. 

Vanessa: Yes, what one community might value as good in a teacher may be bad in another community. That is a really difficult reality for teachers to navigate.

Ariel: How is this research on the teaching brain useful to teachers?

Vanessa: In the book, I describe how in order to get to the expert level of classroom teacher, a classroom teacher has to create learning experiences in the completely artificial context of classroom—and make them seem relevant to the real world. That’s an expert skill.

Expert teachers (which is the population I worked with in the study) have five awarenesses:

  1. Awareness of the learner
  2. Awareness of self as a teacher
  3. Awareness of interaction
  4. Awareness of context
  5. Awareness of teaching practice

We hear a fair amount about awareness of the learner in the professional teaching community, and also #5, awareness of teaching practice (that refers to the content and the skill-based goals teachers have), but you hear much less about awareness of self as a teacher as a teaching skill.

I describe in the book how everything you do and see as a teacher comes from who you are as a person. When you’re teaching a learner, you’re not really teaching that student.  You are teaching who you think that student is. We’re always just forming a theory of who they are. We use feedback, direct or indirect (what we pick up) to try to figure out who they are as a learner, and the theory we form is equally informed by who we are in the world. Without awareness of self, we’re not going to understand how we do this and also where we are inevitably wrong. If that interaction isn’t working, we’re not going to understand why our theory is wrong without understanding that we’re a part of it. In expert teaching, you keep changing theory until you find something that’s working. All of that relies on awareness of self.

Ariel: How do you think the book and research can affect the field of education and policy makers?

Vanessa: The book is written for general public—to redefine teaching as a cognitive skill of all beings. It’s not about all of the research I’m doing, but a call to the public, saying, Hey, have we really been looking at the right thing? 

The research I do is more to affect policy, because it’s about presenting the evidence—and that’s not the most attractive way to write a book. The studies are about using the framework of social-cognitive studies and social interaction studies to understand what’s going on when we teach. I’m looking at physiological data, what’s happening between teacher and student when they are engaging in an interaction—I looked first at what happens in the body, and now am following up with what’s happening in the brain during teaching interactions.

If we can show the results to policy makers, then when teachers describe that feeling they get in the classroom, when we just know students are “getting it”— we’ll be able to show, scientifically that there’s credibility to those perceptions.

Ariel: Could we change policies based on this finding? 

Vanessa: At the very least, we would see that it’s not effective to measure teaching primarily on learning outcomes. It’s too far removed to attribute, for example, test score data on learning outcomes to teaching effectiveness.  We need a ruler that is based on teaching. Now I’m not suggesting that a teacher could be great with horrible outcomes, but we need understanding both on the learning side and the teaching side to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

Ariel: What kind of push back have you gotten on these ideas?

Vanessa: There’s different push back from different groups. One group that has done research on teaching, they feel that the existing research is enough to say that’s how we teach effectively. But my argument is that it’s still coming from the perspective of how learning happens (which assumes 1:1 causality). If we don’t understand how teaching happens in humans then our recommendations could be wrong!

There is also the perspective that teachers are hired to do their jobs and should do what they are told. That’s what some policies are there for—to make sure teachers do as they are told. And having an idea of what goes on in the mind, brain and body of a teacher isn’t useful. It’s too much information. Then I would say that as government, both at state and federal level, we are spending a lot of energy and funds on teaching, and trying to improve effectiveness. It would be silly to continue to do that if we still don’t know what it is. You can’t really make the argument that teachers should just go do their jobs, when teaching is an interaction between human beings. You’re never going to be able to put on paper exactly how a teacher should teach every student in every situation so that the outcome is successful.

Ariel: This is kind of the “teacher-proof” curriculum idea?

Vanessa: Yes. You can’t ensure specific outcomes if it involves humans; humans are just too complex for that. You’d have to eliminate the human element. Some are trying to do this, but they’d literally have to have a learner in isolation, not interacting with the real world in order to do this. 

Ariel: What was most fun about writing this book?

Vanessa: Getting to work with the teachers involved in the book. All were expert teachers, but they were not at all the same. I couldn’t take what one teacher did and put it in a professional development book and say, “Do it that way.” What they had in common were these awarenesses. They could say who they were at these various levels. They could describe who they were and how that benefited the learner, and that was fascinating. It was great to see how that played out on paper. These ideas were always in my head as a teacher— I always knew there was this way I was teaching, but it was very difficult to describe how I thought about it as this dynamic interaction between teacher and student.

This book was an opportunity to really say what I meant: this is what I mean by teaching. It’s not just delivering content. And even now, I would say this really complex definition of teaching we’re working with is just scratching the surface.

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