Mind, Brain, and Education Science

Embracing the Science Behind Effective Teaching and Learning.

Like all schools during the pandemic, Xaverian Brothers High School had to pivot quickly when the world locked down in March of 2020. However, not all schools utilized the experience as an opportunity to fine-tune their educational practices. Xaverian did, and continues to do so. As a direct result of teaching during COVID and navigating the worlds of remote and hybrid education, this summer Xaverian launched a new professional development initiative for all of its teachers. 

“Research suggests that the greatest influence on student outcomes is the quality of the teacher, and we believe if we understand how the adolescent brain works, learns, and ultimately creates knowledge, we can use this to inform and optimize our teaching practices in the classroom,” says Dr. Michael Nicholson, Principal. For this reason, Xaverian has partnered with The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) to provide all faculty with professional development centered on Mind, Brain, and Education Science  (MBE). This approach combines the latest research from neuroscience, cognitive science, adolescent psychology, and education to ensure that our teaching methods continue to best serve our students. As a first step, over the course of this year and next, Xaverian teachers are taking 12 MBE online courses. 

To facilitate this training, Mr. Gary Bowers ’87, P ’21, ’23, a Xaverian social studies teacher, was appointed the new Coordinator for Teaching and Learning. In addition to his work in the classroom, Mr. Bowers is collaborating with Mr. Steve Dacey ’95, Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning, to support faculty with the online learning modules as well as the design and implementation of MBE-informed lesson planning. “The concept is simple,” says Mr. Bowers. “By understanding how the brain works and how students learn, teachers can better deliver content to their students to help them not just learn the concepts necessary to graduate from high school, but to become better learners in general. Many of our teachers already do these things because it’s good teaching, and there are good teachers here. The difference is that now we’re looking at the science behind why these practices work and we’re implementing them in an informed way. We’re becoming more efficient and gaining a common language that we can use to discuss our effective practices with our peers.”

Ms. Andrea Doglioli, a veteran world languages teacher who is in her first year at Xaverian, appreciates this communal aspect of the training. “We’re all in this together; I don’t feel like I’m trying to catch up because we’re all at the same stage in the training. It gives me a sense of belonging and it really feels like the school is invested in us — training us to be even better at what we do.” 

“As a school, we have an obligation to make a commitment to our faculty to keep them on the ‘cutting edge,’ knowledgeable in their field and their craft of teaching,” says Mr. Dacey. “This process should be very affirming because really good teachers are reflective in their practice, and that’s who we have here at Xaverian.” MBE-informed approaches are already being implemented across all grades and throughout all disciplines at Xaverian, positively impacting everything from the way content is presented to how assessments are conducted. “These first 12 courses are really just the beginning,” Mr. Dacey adds. “There’s so much that we can learn and practice together, and we look forward to seeing all of the good this incredible opportunity will bring to Xaverian.”

A few MBE takeaways

Since our founding in 1963, Xaverian has always emphasized the critical importance of relationships to successful teaching and learning. Now MBE tells us that what naturally flows from the school’s mission—building enduring personal relationships—is supported by neuroscience. Strong relationships with adult role models and peers are best for our young men. They thrive within a caring and supportive community at school, and we will continue to provide this type of community at Xaverian.

Human brains continue to develop throughout life, which means our young men’s learning potential is not fixed. They can learn to learn! This exciting truth is supported by the science behind MBE. Here at Xaverian, having a growth mindset means that we are committed to affording every student the opportunity to perform to their greatest potential, and we believe that potential is unlimited. 

Xaverian has already taken active steps to lighten the cognitive load, including a revised homework policy and a brand new schedule that changes a student’s class load from eight (in pre-COVID times) to six classes per day. This allows our young men to find more balance in their lives, giving them adequate time for extracurriculars, athletics, family, and friends. Additionally, there are actionable steps teachers take in the classroom to lighten the load, from presenting information in simpler, smaller steps to eliminating distractions like unnecessary decor or overly complicated instructions. Why? Because science has shown that we can only hold about three-to-five items for roughly 20 seconds in our active memory. Delivering content with careful attention to cognitive load means better learning and more long-term retention. It’s about lowering the barriers, not the bar! 

Educators can help students become better learners by teaching them to “embrace the rust.” Simply put, the act of trying to remember something helps us learn and remember information. Stepping away from material and then working to recall it can help students retain and use course material more effectively. As a real-world application, this means that consistent low-stakes assessments will improve student performance on tests at the end of a teaching unit. 
A private, Catholic, college preparatory day school for boys in grades 7-12. The Boston area prep school offers a rigorous academic curriculum, a well-developed campus ministry program focused on faith, character, and leadership, and a proud athletic tradition featuring competitive Division 1 high school athletics in the Catholic Conference.