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A team of psychologists and neuroscientists are applying novel findings to help middle school educators teach more effectively.

A few years ago, an undergrad student raised her hand in Dr. Ethan Kross’ psychology seminar at the University of Michigan. The question she asked is one he’d never heard before: “Why are we learning about this now?” It was the end of the semester, and the question caught Kross off-guard. “I didn’t know what to say,” he recalls.

The student recognized that the material presented contained important, practical guidance for successfully navigating academic environments like the very course she was taking. The problem? The course was only offered in her senior year, when her academic career was nearly complete. The question led to vigorous discussion among the students and struck a chord with Kross. Should educators teach students much earlier about how the mind works — not just in a student’s freshman year of college, but perhaps even in a student’s primary and secondary educational years?

The question led Kross, along with collaborators John Jonides (University of Michigan), Angela Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania), and Daniel Willingham (University of Virginia) to look for answers. The result is “The Toolbox Project,” a research initiative dedicated to applying the findings of psychology to the middle school classroom.

Bridging the Gap Between Academia and the Classroom

The gap between scientifically validated best practices and actual classroom instruction has been growing in recent years. In 2008, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) released a statement on the growing chasm: “Teachers are told to use ‘research-based strategies’ and yet such strategies may be presented to them stripped of the very sensitive context, analytic rigor, and thoughtful skepticism that are hallmarks of quality research.” Researchers spend years conducting studies and developing best practices for primary and secondary education without ever stepping into a classroom. The results of the research, and how it is described and disseminated, makes it challenging if not impossible for teachers to weave the findings into their own practices. Kross and his team have dedicated a large part of “The Toolbox Project” to building the bridges from such research into the practical domain of the classroom.

The project includes a partnership with curriculum experts and 7th and 8th grade teachers, from both public and private schools in geographically diverse areas of the country, to translate curricular materials on the science of the brain into two 15-lesson-plan units for middle school students.

Kross notes that one of the most important criteria for selecting teachers was a passion for the project’s big-picture goal of educators and researchers working together. Then Kross and his team worked to cram an entire semester’s worth of “essential information” into four hour-long webinars for the purpose of familiarizing the educators with the curriculum. The team then provided teachers with a lesson plan template from which each team of teachers could write their own customized lesson. From there, educators and researchers work together to iterate and refine the plans.

While the lesson plans have yet to be put into practice, Kross has already found himself amazed by the ability of the educators to relate the content to the lives of their students, including those with students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. What stands out to the researchers, however, more than anything else, is the educators’ dedication.

“They care so deeply about the students and their education,” Kross says of the teachers. “They have this passion about helping their students, which is really nice to be around.

“We’re really good at writing research papers and talking to undergraduates and peer, adult academics,” Kross says. “But we’ve never undertaken this kind of project of translating our science into this kind of material.”