Neurocinematics in Education

So, if you’ve read any of my blogs or tweets, by now you should know that I’m a teacher. Like most high school educators in the US, I enjoy my summers unwinding from the hectic fray of the school year and prepping for the next.  Once upon a time (in my youth) I helped work on professional seasonal “Haunted Houses.” As I began to understand how the designs worked, I realized that they mimicked horror films.

Now that I’m an educator with a few more years behind me and advanced degrees in instruction, I wonder about films.  You see, I enjoy getting caught up on all those great movies I missed out on during the year, and the summer movie madness that envelopes Hollywood.  However, I had an epiphany the other day. What if all across the US, we were being psychologically developed to expect a balanced form of narrative like in the movies.  What if the reasons that we find some movies/TV episodes boring is for the same reasons we find some classes boring? This lead me to do research. Did you know that there is an actual study now called Neurocinematics?  It’s the study of how audiences brains perceive cinematic scenes.

This brings me to a better understanding of how lessons should be structured in classrooms across the nation.  If we transfer the information from Neurocinematics to Educational reform, we can see that each class period should have a set number of actionable activities at timed intervals with specific build ups.  So, for example, let’s take a look at a typical formula-driven TV episode of an action-mystery show, like Castle.


  1. Introductory exposition – the characters introduce what is happening that leads to an inciting incident.
  2. Rising anticipatory action – the characters are exploring their initial understanding about some new information.
  3. Actionable point – the characters go through the exercises of using their understanding about the new information
  4. Falling reflectory action – the characters confirm or re-adjust what they know about this information
  5. Wrap up – the characters wrap up any misunderstandings and re-affirm what they know about the whole plot-line narrative of the new case/information.

So, if students are neurologically wired to follow this formula for narrative consumption, why can’t we mirror it in education?  Take the same plot line and substitute in learning. The exposition/introduction would be the same. The (rising) anticipatory action would be crucial to hook interest into creating an actionable point.  This actionable point might look like a Cooperative-Learning structure. The crucial point would be the quick (falling) reflectory action and subsequent new anticipatory hook for new exploration. Everything could be wrapped up at the end with a true exit ticket of some sort of self-reflection.  The key would be the number. Notice how a 1-hour show (35-40 min of story) has four (4) actionable points?

I believe that where we as educators sometimes misjudge a lesson is two-fold.  First, we don’t have enough actionable points in a given class period. Second, we forget to have that quick (falling) reflectory action.  We can see similarities in the film industry. Ever watch an action or horror film and afterwards realize that after the first scene it wasn’t scary or excitable anymore?  It was because our amygdala didn’t have time to relax and reset for any new anticipation of the next scene. So, maybe there is a connection between Neurocinematics and Brain-based Education.



School Safety Solution

Recent events in schools across the US have been plagued with a series of violent events.  In eighteen years, there have been 130 shootings in K-12 and another 58 at colleges and universities (link).    There are approximately 132,656 schools in the United States as of the publishing of this article.  That means that 0.1% of the schools have dealt with gun violence.

The reactions to the violence have seen both moderate and extreme voices rise up.  As an educator, I won’t debate the issue of the second amendment or the laws. The response to installing metal detectors in every school seems a bit extreme once you consider everything involved.  So if the average school has 5-6 exits (for Fire Code) and three of them have metal detectors, that means having an SRO (Student Resource Officer) present at every entry. On my campus, we already have two officers (due to size of campus: 3000 students).  That would mean adding another SRO salary, plus detector cost. Students would have to line up single file to go through the detectors one-at-a-time, which would take forever (been to an airport lately?). Schools are supposed to be places of future mindsets.  Teaching children to be afraid and to go through metal detectors or pat-downs on a daily basis seems like we are setting up 99.9% of our children to be unsuccessful without the need of police action. While all of this discomfort seems acceptable for the safety of our children, the simple fact is, if a child really wants to bring a gun on campus, they will find a way.  So what is the solution?

It just so happens I did have a bit of an epiphany this morning on my drive into work based on what we can change.  When I was a student 30 some odd years ago, if there was a fire in the school, a teacher was to call the front office and they would initiate an immediate evacuation of the building.  Now in our schools, we have fire alarms sprinkled liberally throughout the building. The students have been trained that if there is a fire to pull it. If there is not a fire and it is pulled, severe consequences will occur (even legal in some cases).  This change came about to help with the efficiency of fire reporting and to identify which part of a building a fire was located first. Schools also have automated defibrillators (AED), fire extinguishers, and so forth spread out as well.

What if we had sprinkled throughout the buildings instead, Safety Stations.  These stations would be a great place to locate an AED, fire extinguisher, and fire alarm; all already in place on most campuses.  We could then add two important items. The first would be a phone with direct connections to first responders (Nurse, SRO, Front Office, 911, etc.).  The second would be a panic button for lockdown. Most schools already have a button to initiate lockdown, but like the fire alarms of 30 years ago, they are only located in the front office.  If we put these items in one location with mounted instructions for use and penalties for misuse, could we save lives more efficiently?

Creativity vs Innovation

I was recently caught off guard when I came across the quote below, “Creativity is thinking up new things.  Innovation is doing new things.” by Theodore Levitt. I’ve been doing an extensive amount of reading recently about Innovation and Creativity and this simple, yet realistic variation never dawned on me.  

For the longest time, I have struggled with Sir Ken Robinson’s thoughts that schools needed to integrate more creativity into their lessons.  Perhaps it was my own Fine Arts background, or the fact that I’ve always worked in a school district that valued the Fine Arts that persuaded me that it was already present. When I first read George Couros’ Innovators Mindset, I once again struggled.  I saw the inherent value immediately, but wasn’t sure about how to manage the information I had received.  That is, until I read Katie Martin’s Learner Centered Innovation.

Most teachers, when presented with all the newest trends in behavioral management and learner-centered instruction become easily overwhelmed with the terms and how to apply them. In order to marry the concepts of creativity and innovation in the classroom, you have to be willing to continually question yourself.  This self-reflection is invaluable. When your students are struggling with the contextual concepts you are teaching, ask yourself “Is it the concepts or how the students are learning it?” This simple questions can lead you to so many doors of understanding.

You see, when it is the concepts, it’s just like lexile reading levels.  Sometimes the information has made too big of a jump for the students to logically follow.  This helps us stop, go back, and make stronger connections to the information that reinforces those dendrites and neurons.  If you’ve ever studied brain-based learning, you know that the neuron is the particle of information that is stored in our brains, but in order to access it, we need multiple dendrites to hold it in place.  So the more connections we make, the easier the students can recall information.

If the struggle is in how students are learning, ask yourself again, “Have I properly scaffolded the ability to accept failure as a learning process and move on?”  The easiest parable to model this is the study where an art class was split into two halves. One half was asked to create the most perfect clay bowl. The second half was asked to make as many clay bowls as possible within the same amount of time.  At the end of the creation period (several days), the students who had focused on quantity actually had the highest quality. They had seen their mistakes, failed quickly and then failed often enough to correct their techniques.


This mirrors the struggle that is perceived between creativity and innovation.  When we focus on creativity, we are focusing on the ability to think in new avenues.  The problem lies in that when we just focus on thinking, we are not refining how we can accomplish what we have thought up.  In other words, we are dealing with “perfect world scenarios.” However, when we innovate, we struggle constantly, trying to fail forward.  The quantity over quality argument becomes moot. When we focus on the “Fail quickly, Fail often, and Fail forward,” the quality concerns take care of themselves.  The most creative design is worthless if it cannot be implemented effectively.  So, the question becomes, how do you model innovation in your classroom?


Couros, George (2015). The Innovator’s Mindset.  Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.

Martin, Katie (2018). Learner Centered Innovation. IMPress Books.

Robinson, Ken (2011). Out of Our Minds; Learning to be Creative. Capstone Publishing Ltd.

How do Digital Natives beat their drums?

How do Digital Natives beat their drums?  It sounds like the beginning of a bad “Dad” joke.  However, in education, every since Marc Prensky coined the term in 2001, there has been non-stop debate about the term Digital Native. Mr. Prensky used the term to rightfully describe a generation of people who had been born in an era where digital technology was widely accessible and prevalent.  It makes sense.  I mean, the students in K-12 right now have never existed on an Earth where cell phones or the internet haven’t existed.

The problem arises, I believe, when educators start trying to interpret the word “native.”  Since most educators could be considered analog natives, or even pre-technology natives, we think that the word implies the native person knows everything about what they are native about.  However, there is error inherent in that thinking.  For example, most Americans are native-born English speakers.  However, it takes 12+ years of taking English classes to come close to being considered a master of our native language.  Whereas a non-native takes English courses to learn to read, write, listen, and speak English and become almost as proficient within a couple of years of use.  In some cases (higher-education cases) a student from a foreign country learns English better than a native speaker because they’ve had reason to extensively research and study it.  Being a “native” of something is a label that means we have a disadvantage to what we are native to it.  Not because we can’t use it, but because it is so common, we don’t think to explore or use it in different ways.

So, how does this translate to technology?  If the students we are teaching now are so used to having the internet (another thing they don’t realize wasn’t always around), they don’t know how to use it functionally or in specific ways.  This is when it is vital that every teacher is reinforcing some sort of Digital Citizenship as part of their core curriculum.  The students know how to copy and paste.  They just don’t know when it is appropriate or not.  The students know how to look up a YouTube video, they just don’t know how to analyze it to take notes in a flipped learning environment.

So why should we shift our interpretation of the definition of digital natives?  I’ll give you another conundrum as an explanation, the file extension “gif.”  It stands for Graphic-interface.  It is an image file that is mostly conducive to its use of short animation clips.  It was coined by Mr. Wilhite in 1987.  Most people pronounce it with a hard “G” like the word gift without the “t”.  The problem is that when Mr. Wilhite created the term, he pronounced it jif (like the peanut butter) with a soft “G”.  The interesting thing is that there was a pronunciation shift in society during the 90’s.  Seems weird, I know.  This is where scientific and engineering terms spelled with a “G” shifted from a soft “G” to a hard “G.”  I would attribute it to the movie Back to the Future.  When Doc Brown pronounces the measurement of energy as “jig-a-watts.”  For the first time scientists and computer engineers heard it pronounced in open conversation.  I think with the memory of computers starting to increase, computer engineers started thinking of computer memory as “jig-a-bytes” being shortened to “jigs.”  This in turn was too close to an insensitive racial slur.  That is when I believe, the scientific community chose to shift the pronunciation to a hard “G” giving us gigabytes instead.  


So, how does this apply?  It shows how the computer field has historically changed the pronunciation or definition of a word to better reflect society.  In this case, we change the definition of “native” to mean a person who is casually familiar with a topic enough to discount its importance until necessary.   In this case, Digital Natives are students who are so casually familiar with their technology, they dismiss the appropriate, ethical, or creative uses of the devices in question (i.e.: digital technology) to solve problems.

So, How do Digital Natives beat their drums?  With key-strokes.  Like I said, a bad “Dad” joke.



Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.  Marc Prensky (2001),%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

21st Century Teaching

I recently read a blog that elaborated on the 21st-century skills every student needs.  You can see the blog here:  It’s not really that much different than the framework created by  However, it got me thinking.  Why are so many businesses or corporations repeating themselves about these skills?  Is it that students are being graduated from high school or college without them? Or, is there something deeper wrong?

I’ve been an educator for almost 20 years, and an instructional coach for the past six.  The more I think about it, the more I wonder if it’s not a question of what are the 21st-century skills that students need, so much as what are the 21st-century skills that teachers need to make students workforce ready?  Maybe it is time for us to shift our thinking from students to the teachers.

There have been a few writers explore this shift, such as Gayle Allen in her book The New Pillars of Modern Teaching. In her book, she explores the needed shift from instruction/curriculum/assessment to design/curation/feedback.  I believe this is a good start.  However, I’m not sure it’s enough to really impact teachers.  When I enter a classroom for a learning walk or observation, there are eight student-driven things I look for:

  1. Examples of student voice
  2. Opportunities for student choice
  3. Time for authentic reflection
  4. Opportunities for innovation
  5. Examples of critical thinking
  6. Opportunities or examples of problem finding, not just solving
  7. Student self assessment
  8. Connected learning

When I work with my teachers, I adopt a type of 21st-century mindset that I urge them towards as well.  Although I’ve never put it down in writing until now, I work to shift my teacher’s mindsets in four different categories:

  • Digital-pedagogical Literacy
  • Character Building
  • Instructional Design
  • Assessing for Curation

Digital-pedagogical Literacy is best described as the ability for an educator to create networks and build a library of information for students to access that relates to the 4C’s: Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication, and Collaboration.  It is based on George Siemens’ learning theory called Connectivism (published in Jan 2005).  This literacy includes the teacher’s ability to understand that learning is not primarily based upon the accumulation of information, but access to the information for direct application as well.  It comprises the majority of the context of what was previously taught in the classroom.

Character Building sounds like a 1970’s macho summer camp curriculum.  Instead, it is all about helping instill qualities needed for life: leadership, adaptability, persistence/grit, initiative, and curiosity.  These are done in such a manner as to connect to prosocial intrinsic behavior.  Whereby the students work collectively towards helping others either within a team or outwardly to solve a social problem in such a way that it reinforces those same five traits.

Instructional Design is very similar to what it was in the 20th-century.  The difference comes from the shift in loci.  Instead of the design being based upon what the best way to relay the context or content, the focus centers around students.  The teacher begins to design lessons where the intended outcome is a student driven classroom that looks identical regardless if the teacher is present or not (if out sick and replaced with a sub).  These lessons can only be designed once a positive respectful relationship has been built between the teacher and the students.

Finally, Assessing for Curation is not about quizzes or tests.  It is about creating an atmosphere where the teachers build student self-efficacy.  The students gain confidence in what they are doing by continually self-assessing their own progress and celebrating successes as they happen.  Sometimes this takes the form of gamification in the classroom, sometimes it is just a self-assessment.  The main point is that the use of assessments are not for grades, but rather as a measurement of where the learning is at a certain point in time.

Perhaps there are other categories or descriptors that better define what a teacher should be doing differently in the 21st-century.  


Allen, Gayle (2016) The New Pillars of Modern Teaching

Siemens, George (2005) Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age

Hu, Jia and Robert Liden (2014) Making a Difference in the Teamwork: Linking Team Prosocial Motivation to Team Processes and Effectiveness

Instructional Design: A Cautionary Approach

What is the purpose of Instructional Design?  To some perspectives, the answer might lie in the alignment or calibration of curricular needs to ensure equity of education.  In other groups, the answer may rest in the need to inspire students towards self-efficacy.  From my experience, to an instructional coach, the truth lies somewhere in between both of these goals.  We have to live in a happy balance of both curricular focus and student-driven curriculum.  

However, there are a couple of pitfalls when we attempt to reconcile these two mediums.  The first is the definition of curriculum.  I am writing from the great state of Texas in the good ole USA.  Unfortunately, for educators here, there is an actual legal definition of curriculum.  That definition is our TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) standards.  So to the average (much less beginning) educator, when they are told to focus on the curriculum, they are focusing on the standards.  These standards (much like the US Common Core Standards) do not include any form of soft skills such as self-efficacy, grit, ownership, integrity, spirit, curiosity, etc. much less classroom behavior.  As experienced teachers know, these soft skills become the cornerstone of all the learning of the standards and content knowledge.

The second pitfall is our addiction to quantitative analysis.  Why do I call it an addiction?  Quantitative analysis provides us with an answer that is usually very easy to interpret.  We don’t have to stop and think in order to understand what we are seeing.  The problem lies in that we become overwhelmed with the data and forget to investigate the context of the data itself.

For example, there is a sweeping trend among educational administrators across Texas to refer to Dr. John Hattie’s research on what affects student learning outcomes.  He explains that an affect size of 0.40 is equal to one year’s growth and then provides us with categories and their affect sizes.  His research spans six continents and hundreds of thousands of students, so his validity is very high.  An enamored administrator may look at his list and think “Ooh, Teacher Estimates of Achievement has a 1.62 affect size.  How do we ramp that up to have a larger impact on our students?” This is great, but then we step back and think to ourselves, that we want our classrooms to be student-centered, with students having control over their learning.  The problem is, when we look at Hattie’s list, Student-centered Teaching has an affect size of 0.36 (Direct Instruction is 0.60 for comparison) and Student Control Over Learning has an affect size of 0.01.  Neither one of these items though have context behind them to explain the low affect sizes.  For example, did the instruments used to develop these affect sizes measure what was occurring or what was probable?  Was the measurements taken in classrooms where student-centered anything wasn’t an option, therefore it didn’t warrant an impact?  If the study is focusing on impacts on student learning, what defines the learning?

On the other hand, when we are presented with qualitative analysis, we often get bogged down with trying to understand the nuances of what is occurring in the descriptions or dialogue of the examples.  Fortunately, some of those researchers also employ some sort of Sense-Making to provide us with categories to better understand the information.

For example, most educators have heard of Dr. Schlechty’s works on student engagement.  His center created a system that focuses on instructional design through the use of ten research-based Design Qualities: Content & Substance, Product Focus, Organization of Knowledge, Clear & Compelling Product Standards, Protection from Adverse Consequences for Initial Failures, Affiliation, Affirmation, Choice, Novelty & Variety, and Authenticity.  This instructional coaching system is all about creating student voice in such a way that the student feels empowered to learn more on their own.  This is different than the quantitative example, because in Hattie’s inventory list of 250 affects, student empowerment and student voice is not measured.   Below, is a table that compares Schlechty’s Design qualities to some of the Hattie inventory and their affect size.

Schlechty and Hattie
The beginning of this blog talked about finding a balance between both curriculum alignment and student inspiration.  All researchers agree that instruction needs to be designed.  It is interesting that the Schlechty model expects teachers to develop a spec sheet that helps define who they are designing for, while Hattie’s highest ranking inventory item, Teacher Estimates of Achievement (1.62 affect size), revolves around the teachers knowing their students.  In reality, design always requires the fore knowledge of who we are designing for.  So, how should we as instructional coaches approach instructional design?

Peter Dewitt in his book, Collaborative Leadership, talks about collaboration between instructional leaders and the impact on student learning.  “It starts with the self-efficacy of teachers, moves into the sense of collective efficacy, and ends with collective teacher efficacy.”  The collective efficacy ideals with the transference of a feeling of confidence of accomplishment between teacher and student.  As a side note, Collective Teacher Efficacy has a 1.57 Hattie affect size as a result.  Therefore, in order to have the highest affect on student learning, we have to examine how we are motivating our teachers and empowering them so that the efficacy is transferred to their students, thus resulting in the highest impact.  In tandem, interviewing students and witnessing their excitement while participating in a lesson that has been designed with Schlechty’s model results in a confirmation of learning.  So, in walking the line as an instructional designer, I will count my steps and pay attention to how I walk as well.

Allen, Gayle (2016) The New Pillars of Modern Teaching.

Bracey, Gerald, W. (2006) Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered.

Dewitt, Peter, M. (2017) Collaborative Leadership: Six Influences That Matter Most.

Schlechty, Phillip C. (2011) Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work.


Reconciling 21st Century skills with Career Competencies

In their recent blog, Why We Desperately Need to Rethink College and Career Readiness, Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers wrote about integrating 21st century skills into career readiness courses.  They write focused a bit on history and the paradigm shift from vocational skills to college readiness with a follow up statement imploring educators to bring back vocational classes updated with those 21st century skills.  However, what would that look like?

When I take a close look at the 21st Century Skill list that pertains to learning, we see the 4C’s: Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking.  These are the same four soft skills that get integrated into every core subject that we teach in school.  The focus, unfortunately, does seem to stay on just these 4C’s.  However, if we start looking at the whole, broad picture of the p21 framework, we see a separate category dedicated to Life and Career Skills.  The idea being that these soft skills are what companies are looking for after high school graduation.  However, in an interview with the Huffington Post, Google list five distinct key dynamics that potential employees need to be part of a successful team

21st Century Life & Career Skills

Google 5 Key Dynamics to a Successful Team

Flexibility and Adaptability Psychological Safety
Initiative and Self-Direction Dependability
Social and Cross-Cultural Skills Structure & Clarity
Productivity and Accountability Meaning
Leadership and Responsibility Impact

These two lists are not mutually exclusive.  For example, if we look at Leadership and Responsibility, we are defining how an employee takes ownership for a project and leads other to success.  Similarly, Google’s “Meaning” is referring to how work is personally important to team members.

Overall though, what does this look like in a set curriculum?  If we were to condense the two lists down into similar terms (or just choose one over the other), we could create student learning objectives (SLO) for these categories (or dynamics).  The SLO would then be put into place with some sort of measuring instrument so that each lesson or project performed in the classroom could be associated with it.  So, if I had students creating a portable, model airplane for an Aeronautics course, I could measure the level of competency or master the students had over their Productivity and Accountability based on their ability to:

  • Work positively and ethically
  • Manage time and projects effectively
  • Multi-task
  • Participate actively, as well as be reliable and punctual
  • Present oneself professionally and with proper etiquette
  • Collaborate and cooperate effectively with teams
  • Respect and appreciate team diversity
  • Be accountable for results  

All of which I could measure with a predetermined simple rubric similar to the one below:


Low Performing


On-Level Performing


Above Level Performing

Student can only work on one action at a time resulting in frustration, poor time management, and disagreeable attitude towards team members. Student works well and respectfully with team members.  They multitask when necessary to meet time constraints. Student takes ownership of project and leads in a professional and ethical manner.  They help and inspire the quality of the product focus so that all members feel successful.

The idea being that we don’t just measure the mastery level of a student at any moment in time, but rather the growth of the student over time.  A student might start out at a level 1 in the first project, but over the course of one semester and say, 10 projects, they have an average of 1.5.  This is possible because it shows the inconsistency that accompanies growth of learning over a period of time.  The student has still grown, and the evidence shows a growth at a rate that may be more or less than other students in the class.  It is important to note here though, never compare the growth of one student to another.  It can easily demoralize the slower growing student and hinder future relationships, both peer-peer as well as student-teacher.

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