DISD pilot program rethinks how to teach middle schoolers from the top down

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by SHELLY SLATER

Bio | Email | Follow: @wfaashelly

WFAA

Posted on September 12, 2013 at 11:24 PM

Updated Friday, Sep 13 at 9:27 AM

DALLAS -- Inside middle school walls, it's a time of change.

One of the biggest, you often don’t see. It’s in the brain.

“During adolescence the brain changes more than any other time in life except infancy,” said Dr. Jaque Gamino with the Center for Brain Health in Dallas.

She is teaching 70 teachers and staff at Thomas Edison Middle Learning Center in Dallas to brain train - not what to teach, but how to teach - all based on a program called Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART).

“We box kids in and say, 'This is what I want you to learn, and this is the way I want you to think,'" said reading teacher Timothy Bennett. "We don't need that anymore."

Bennett said the biggest change is what's called "top-down processing." That means give the students the big picture first, and details next.

Research shows our brain works better that way, and yet it's opposite of what's put in most schools.

“I'm going to show you the whole thing. We're not going to put it together and watch it work, we're going to see it working and then take it apart and go, 'This is what makes it work,'" Bennett said.

Middle school students are required to do higher-level thinking. Yet, Gamino said they often get lost in the facts.

“Kids are overwhelmed with information -- they get it from any and every place and they don't know how to sift through it,” Gamino said.

So by training teachers to think differently about teaching that information, the Center for Brain Health believes the classroom will transform.

“We've always taught our kids strategies -- every school in the district teaches strategies for learning this skill," Gamino said. "Now we're learning. Let's not deal with strategies, let's teach them to think."

“The test scores will go up, students will be more empowered and motivated to enjoy learning, and to know how to get the most out of classes,” said Brent Christopher with the Communities Foundation of Texas.

He is paying for this pilot program in DISD based on proven results in other states. So far, the program has put 200 teachers and 15,000 students to work.

Looking at the TAKS results for those kids, sometimes the SMART kids see a 50 percent improvement from before.

“There is not one correct answer; there are many. There are wrong answers, but there are many correct answers,” Gamino said.

“We're going to go from 'You have a right or wrong,' to 'Okay, that's good, but let's think about that. Tell me why you picked that,'” Bennett said.

Thomas Edison is the first entire school to do the training. If the grant is successful, it could expand from there.

E-mail sslater@wfaa.com

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