Teaching is more than a job, it's an evolved human ability, according to the authors of The Teaching Brain.

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Scientists have a well-developed picture of how learning works in the brain, which was summarized in the seminal 1999 publication “How People Learn” by the National Research Council.

But when Vanessa Rodriguez, a former New York City middle school humanities teacher, tried to find similar studies about how teaching works in the brain, she found almost nothing.

In her new book, “The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education,” Rodriguez and co-author Michelle Fitzpatrick, chart a path toward understanding teaching in all kinds of daily situations, not just in classrooms.

They argue that teaching is more than a job, it’s an evolved human ability that emerges early in childhood — just watch kids huddled over a smart phone teaching each other how to play the latest video game.

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“The human brain has been designed to learn,” Rodriguez said. “What I’m saying is that it’s also been designed to teach.”

She’s also adamant about what teaching is not: unscrewing a student’s empty head and pouring in knowledge. Likewise, teaching is not just a set of best practices that can be poured into a teacher’s empty head.

(Donna Grethen / Op Art)
(Donna Grethen / Op Art)

Rodriguez, who is pursuing a PhD at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wants to understand how teaching ability develops in individuals, from the time they are toddlers to when some become master teachers.  That development, like learning itself, is likely to be dynamic rather than a straight line from beginner to expert, with peaks and valleys,  set-backs and surges forward.

The key is to study teachers and students simultaneously engaged in a lesson, which is possible now with new, more mobile  tools for measuring brain activity. “Two-person neuroscience” is in its infancy, but researchers are beginning to try it out in experiments such as this 2013 study of teachers and students re-enacting a classic Socratic dialog.

“Teaching inherently is an interaction between a student and a teacher and they are both independent, both individuals with their own systems,” Rodriguez said. “But then once they interact, they are literally creating a new system that has its own operating force. You have to look at the individuals, then what they create together.”

Her work so far has focused on master classroom teachers she identifies, in part, with a teacher evaluation tool called CLASS, which focuses on the interactions that teachers have with their students. It’s also one of the evaluation tools Washington state is using to rate the quality of preschools.