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Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice

reviewed by Michelle Zoss & Ian Custar - September 14, 2020

coverTitle: Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice
Author(s): Donna Wilson Marcus Conyers
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807763772, Pages: 224, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

Ask any English teacher or college professor what they have read lately, and the answer will likely be the opening of a lengthy conversation. These discussions can reveal how we shape our lives as readers and life-long learners. The “we” at hand for this review refers to Michelle Zoss and Ian Custar. Michelle is an English teacher educator at the college level; Ian is an English teacher at the high school level and a doctoral student. With tremendous appetites for reading and conversation, we find our bookshelves filled with a wide variety of books about teaching, learning, literature, literacy, and more. These shelves have education books that typically fall into one of three categories: a piece of policy or scientific research, a workbook, either for classroom use or pedagogical growth, or a personal narrative recounting teacher experience. Wilson and Conyers’s book, Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching, is a combination of all three. Foremost, it is an introduction to current science regarding the brain and learning; also, to guide the research discussion towards actionable goals in the world of education, it includes some strategies for the classroom; finally, to humanize the endeavor, it provides narratives from real teachers about the impact this research has had on their teaching. We found the book to be a succinct introduction to key terms and ideas that may prove useful in our own teaching. For both the high school and college classroom spaces, the book explains ideas that are important for understanding how people learn at any age, that indeed everyone can learn at any age, and that meta-conversations about learning and the connections among body, mind, emotions, and community are all fruitful for supporting thinking and development. Further, the book functions as a primer to point readers to more in-depth reading, including more of Wilson and Conyers’s other independent and collaborative work.

The authors organize the chapters to present five ideas, one per chapter, bookended by a conversational introduction and a call-to-action closing. Each of the five Big Idea chapters is structured to (a) introduce and justify the science of the idea, (b) provide a grounding for and theoretical link between the idea and learning, and (c) suggest some real-world classroom applications for the idea. Within the chapters, there are brief summaries and each chapter ends with a list of key terms, serving as an opportunity to review the concepts. Additionally, each chapter includes suggestions for further reading. Administrators, teacher-leaders, and self-starters may find use in the reflective questions also located at the end of each chapter. Throughout the book there are snapshots of teachers that ostensibly showcase the individual ideas at work, but these brief narratives lack explication. Instead of exploring any teacher’s practice in depth, the authors encourage readers to seek out their other publications and those scholars whose ideas undergird the big ideas. While the examples may be brief in any given instance, they do represent teachers working in a variety of schools in multiple states across the Unites States.  

The five big ideas presented in this book are (a) neurocognitive plasticity, (b) learning potential, (c) the modifiability of intelligence, (d) the importance of emotions and the body in learning, and (e) metacognition. Some of the concepts here should be familiar to educators currently working in schools: the growth mindset, the importance of motivation and effort, social and emotional learning, and the value of thinking and talking about thinking. Other concepts, those less directly focused on classroom settings and more attuned to neuroscience, deal with the biology and physiology of the brain; the “grey and white matter” (p. 28). Wilson and Conyers bring together wide-ranging research from biology, literacy education, neurology, psychology, and teacher education to show that the five big ideas are not isolated to any one space of inquiry. It is fitting that their work illustrates how researchers and educators might apply ideas across fields to continue to learn.

Wilson and Conyers argue that if the book is to be of use to the audience of “teachers, teacher educators, professional developers, administrators, and policymakers” (p. 4), then the research and science presented “must be translated into practical application and strategies for classroom use” (p. 3). They approach this charge first by synthesizing research on brains, minds, learning, and growth into the five big ideas. Then, within the five ideas, they explain concepts that support teachers and students, and they provide some strategies, examples, and questions that can be adapted and implemented in schools. The questions show that they can be used in a broad scope of environments, from K-12 classes to university courses. Perhaps because the book serves as a synthesis of research, ideas, and practices in a relatively brief package, strategies appear more as lists or brief examples of teachers who have found success rather than a nuts-and-bolts approach to learning how the strategies are put into action.

The organization and progression of ideas in the book create a clear path for us to learn. The book offers copious terms and citations to contemporary and classic studies done in laboratories in multiple countries and in schools across the U.S. to back up the five big ideas. Wilson and Conyers make the case that learning in the 21st century requires both teachers and students of all ages to embrace the notion that learning is ongoing, relational, and social. Likewise, it is clear that learning interconnects bodies, minds, emotions, and communities.

Especially now in the pandemic of COVID-19, when educators in schools and colleges are faced with less time to spend with their colleagues, this book may serve well as a resource for continuing to learn about their own learning and their students’ learning. As a framework to launch conversations, this book could be of use for teachers and administrators working together in professional learning communities. The last chapter in particular focuses on the learning that can happen in small communities of educators seeking to exercise their bodies and minds with challenging ideas. For teacher educators, this book could kick off discussions with preservice teachers about how to navigate teacher certification requirements. At a time when life in schools and universities may seem overwhelming, this book offers readers a glimpse into framing this moment as an opportunity to expand and develop.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 14, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23432, Date Accessed: 9/27/2020 4:58:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Michelle Zoss
    Georgia State University
    E-mail Author
    MICHELLE ZOSS, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English Education at Georgia State University. She co-edited the book A Symphony of Possibilities: A Handbook of Arts Integration for Secondary English Teachers. Her artwork appears on the covers of the journal English Education and the forthcoming book, The Corona Chronicles: On Process, Leadership, Commitment, and Hope in Uncertain Times.
  • Ian Custar
    Georgia State University
    E-mail Author
    IAN CUSTAR is a high school English teacher in metro Atlanta and a doctoral student at Georgia State University pursuing a degree in curriculum and instruction. When hes not teaching, writing, or reading, he enjoys getting outside as much as possible.
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