The Art and Science of Learning: How New Mexico School for the Arts Uses Research - Digital Promise

The Art and Science of Learning: How New Mexico School for the Arts Uses Research

October 25, 2017 | By

New Mexico School for the Arts (NMSA) is a high school that boasts rigorous academic and mastery arts curricula for students from across the state.

Though the school has collected six consecutive “A” grades from the New Mexico Public Education Department, and leadership felt proud of their accomplishments, NMSA Founder and President Cindy Montoya shared that staff had been operating primarily on intuition. Their instructional strategies seemed to be working overall, but staff couldn’t be sure which strategies were most effective, or why. Montoya and her team were looking for a way to ensure their strategies were evidence-based.

With this goal, they invited Dr. Melina Uncapher, Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and CEO and Director of Research at the Institute for Applied Neuroscience, to lead full staff trainings on the science of learning, starting in the fall of 2016.

In these training sessions, Uncapher introduced NMSA educators to research-based learning strategies, which helped the NMSA team put into words what they had been doing and why. The NMSA team learned about concepts including intrinsic motivation, growth mindset, and metacognition, and instructional strategies like retrieval practice.

NMSA has since implemented required classes that explicitly teach these concepts and strategies, which has helped students learn how to learn. Melanie McKinley, a former NMSA science and math teacher who is currently using data to measure student growth, described that understanding research greatly improved her work: “I realized how much more of effective teacher I could be, with knowing how the brain actually absorbs information, and what the best way to learn is.”

Below we share recommendations that can help other schools as they experiment with implementing new research-based practices. You can also watch the video and download the case study.

Follow the lead of NMSA: Recommendations for Other Schools

  1. Understand how the science of learning is related to your school’s mission: Research gave NMSA staff a shared language around many of their existing arts education practices. Stay true to your school’s own mission and practices by thoughtfully selecting relevant research strategies to apply.
  2. Start small: You don’t have to overhaul your entire curriculum to incorporate the science of learning. Like the teachers at NMSA, you can start by selecting a single strategy or piece of research that resonates with you, and using it in the classroom.
  3. Be explicit: NMSA administrators and staff share information about the brain, and the benefits of learning sciences research, with students. Let students know what you’re trying and why to include them in the learning conversation.
  4. Track your progress: NMSA teachers have collected ongoing data in their classrooms to find out which strategies are already working, and to continuously improve. Use informal conversations and observations, or more formal student surveys and assessment data, to conduct small-scale research projects to help you make evidence-based decisions.
  5. Collaborate and share: Once NMSA staff have implemented research in their classrooms, they share their learnings with both colleagues and the greater community. While formal presentations of data may seem intimidating, one-on-one conversations between colleagues are a great way to start sharing learnings and spreading best-practices.
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