How professional conversations can change our brains

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Sometimes busy educators view “talking about” things as a waste of time, perhaps because they have had too many experiences in which discussion obfuscated rather than clarified and dissipated energy rather than focused it.

Well-structured  conversations, however, can enable professional learning that literally alters brains. Let me explain:

Psychotherapy is a specialized form of talk in which one person supports another in feeling better or in finding solutions to vexing problems. It encourages clients to take responsibility for their lives by following various therapeutic protocols. When effective it alters the brain, according to Larry Sandberg, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry, in a letter-to-the-editor of the New York Times.

“Numerous findings over the last two decades demonstrate how talk therapy alters the brain,” Sandberg writes. “Disabling conditions like clinical depression and anxiety can be treated effectively by understanding distorted patterns of thought, becoming aware of emotional conflicts that have not been conscious, or practicing new behaviors.”

When professional development is done well, it too is a form of conversation that alters brain (which is another way of saying it produces meaningful learning) by engaging emotions, examining beliefs, deepening understanding, and initiating new behaviors.

Professional development does so when educators use protocols to examine various forms of data and evidence and to engage in  a deep exploration of the most challenging problems of teaching and learning. Through this conversation educators feel empowered and assume responsibility for the continuous improvement of their practice and its outcomes.

What do you think… 

What is your experience with high-quality, conversation-based (as opposed to lecture oriented) professional development through which you took greater responsibility for continuously improving your teaching and/or leadership?

4 Responses to “How professional conversations can change our brains”


  1. 1 Joanne Mattiucci June 7, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Dennis,
    i have just particpated in a Common Core workshop series that was done deeply and well. Your mantra of “go slow in the begining” was done to perfection through the use of a number of protocols. A protocol that was used through out the session was “Notice and Wonder.” Whenever the facilitator gave us something new to look at, instead of telling us about it, she asked us to read it closely and talk about what we noticed and wondered about it. The outcome was that meaning was made, and ownership for what we were working on was gained. The facilitator did a really solid job of modeling this practice, and again, I thought of Leading for Results: what we want for our students, is what we want for our teachers, is what we want for our leaders.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks June 7, 2013 at 5:06 pm

      Thank you, Joanne, for that wonderful example of how well-structured conversations can produce meaningful and substantial professional learning.

  2. 3 clarkma54 June 10, 2013 at 10:30 am

    I heard you talk about this at NSDC in 2008 (Academy grad, class of 2008) and I truly believe learning is change. I have tried to reframe any change or district-wide initiative as learning; which is always successful when supported by quality professional learning. Win-win situation as improved student learning is supported by adult learning.

    • 4 Dennis Sparks June 10, 2013 at 11:02 am

      Like in the classroom, changing the focus from activities to outcomes can make a significant improvement in learning. In this case, professional learning. I appreciate your comment.


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