Neuroplasticity: A Road Map of Neural Pathways for Education


On July 29th, on Twitter, our colleague, @DrTeresaSanders[i], shared information about neuroplacticity, a concept of which every education policy-maker, administrator, teacher, and professor of colleges of education should be aware. The dictionary defines neuroplacticity as:

“The capacity for continuous alteration of the neural pathways and synapses of the living brain and nervous system in response to experience or injury.”[ii]

What neuro-scientists are learning about neuroplasticity is confirmation of our belief that a child’s brain is programmed to learn, even after deprivation or injury. Just because a child grows up in a family-environment with fewer experiential enrichment opportunities than other students does not mean the child will be unable to learn as well as their classmates. That child’s brain learned everything there was to learn in the environment in which its owner resided. With the proper time and support, each child’s brain will allow its owner to learn whatever we are able help it learn and more.  

The brain learns by processing sensory information from the world via an incessant process of creating new connections along the neural networks and synapses of the brain. An article in Psychology Today writes:

“Research has firmly established that the brain is a dynamic organ and can change its design throughout life, responding to experience by reorganizing connections—via so-called ‘wiring’ and ‘rewiring.”[iii]

This is especially exciting for children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, and for their parents and teachers. Dyslexia, for example, does not diminish a child’s intelligence or creativity rather, learning difficulties have to do with the way their brain perceives and processes stimuli from their environment. Research has found the brain can reorganize itself, with a little help from its friends, allowing the child to overcome the obstacles their disability presents. Many accomplished adults, probably people we know, are dyslexic and have had to learn how to process sensory data they perceive differently than others do.

Our granddaughter was nine years of age when her parents learned she was dyslexic. We had believed her to be a good reader not realizing she was not reading at all. Instead, she had been reciting from memory stories we had been reading to her, which demonstrates both intelligence and a remarkable memory. Since the recognition of her dyslexia and the special help she has received, she has made wonderful progress. We can only lament the time and opportunities lost before she received the help she required. The importance of diagnosing and treating such disabilities as early as possible cannot be overstated.

Not beginning an assessment of each child’s capabilities, when they arrive for their first day of school, is one of the flaws of the existing education process; a flaw The Hawkins Model© has been designed to address.  The current education process—the tool teachers and schools have been relying on for generations—was designed to ensure teachers and students conform to schedules embedded in academic standards as well as to the standards, themselves. The process demands teaching whole groups children, thus limiting a teachers’ ability to adapt what they do to the unique needs of individuals.  For all this time, while being asked to shoulder  the blame for the disappointing outcomes of their students, teachers have been doing exactly what they have been taught and expected to do. It is the education process that is failing to meet the needs of our children, not their teachers.

What we require is an education process that exhibits the same plasticity as the brains of the children it exists to serve, and this is exactly the kind of learning environment The Hawkins Model© is intended to provide for both teachers and their students.

The reluctance to exchange the existing education process for a new model would be understandable if everyone was happy with the outcomes students are getting, today. The reality is, hardly anyone is happy with the way things are, but it has proven oh so difficult to change. However much we might admire the effort of education leaders who are introducing a steady stream of innovative initiatives, outcomes for students across the nation have not altered the reality that is education in America.

The question for education policy makers, school administrators, and teachers is: how long will they choose to endure a reality in which the outcomes for students in the aggregate never seem to change no matter how hard they are asked to work or how many new methodologies and technologies they are asked to employ. In the existing education process, new ideas and approaches are exceptions a few schools have been able to carve out of the process, not expectations for all.

Once they overcome inertia and embrace the need to reimagine the education process, what educators and policy makers will discover is how easy implementation of The Hawkins Model© will prove to be and how cost-effective genuine success will be.

Our thanks to Dr. Teresa Sanders for tweeting information about neuroplasticity and for the important work she and Safari Small Schools are doing. The reader is encouraged to learn more about the micro-school concept. In essence, The Hawkins Model© is a way to do for an estimated 53 million American children what Dr. Sanders and her Safari Small Schools are doing for five students in each of its micro-school. Her philosophy is “do what you can” rather than wait for the education system to change.


[i] Dr. Sanders is a leader of Safari Small Schools, in Canton, Texas. Her schools are described as “an innovative micro-school serving students in grades Pre-K through 3rd”. Such schools are designed to serve a maximum of five students. Here is a link to her website if you would like to learn more: Safari Small Schools:Texas – Safari Small Schools

[ii] Merriam Webster Dictionary

[iii] Neuroplasticity | Psychology Today

Education is the key to everything!

We are what we have been taught to be and our children will be what we teach them to be. The solution to providing equality in education to every child would be so easy, most people would think it to be “too good to be true!”

If all educators would put their heads together with advocates for children of color, English language learners, and other disadvantaged kids and consider a new idea, they would wonder why we have waited so long and would be asking “why would a school district choose not to implement The Hawkins Model©?”

Surely, we have learned we cannot legislate an end to discrimination and racism. We have been trying for over fifty years, and discrimination still ravages the lives of men and women of color. Only an education of the highest quality can render these young people impervious to discrimination.

No matter how hard our teachers and principals work or how dedicated they may be, they cannot make the existing education process work for all kids, especially the disadvantaged. The problem is not teachers and schools, it is the education process at work within those schools; it is the way we go about teaching our precious sons and daughters. Consider what happens in even the best public and parochial schools, today.

Kids show up for their first day of school, at age 5, and we do not take the time to thoroughly assess their level of academic preparedness, nor do we utilizes that knowledge to create an academic plan tailored to the unique requirements of each child.

These youngsters show up in a classroom in which there are too many students to allow any one teacher to forge the kind of nurturing relationships these kids need to feel safe, secure, and cared about, all of which are essential to learning. The positive relationships that do develop for a fortunate few, will be severed at the end of the school year. These students will return to school in the fall and can only hope to be assigned to a new teacher who will believe in them and make them feel special.

Students are given lessons for which they may or may not be prepared and, after a few days, they will be given a test over that material.  It will not matter whether they understand the lessons they are asked to learn, or whether they get an F, D, C, B, or A. Ready or not, they will be moved on to a new lesson.

Teachers are given only so much time for each lesson. Children who do not yet comprehend their most recent lessons will be moved on with the rest of their class and be expected to learn subsequent lessons without the pre-requisite knowledge their prior lessons were intended to provide. Neither will they enjoy the benefit of the confidence that flows from successful learning.

A student’s scores will be recorded in his or her teacher’s gradebook, to become part of the child’s academic record and will begin to influence their teachers’ assessment of the child’s academic potential and intelligence. Worse, those grades will affect each child’s perception of themselves.

These boys and girls will then be asked to repeat this ritual in every subject area, for each lesson,  semester, and school year for the next thirteen years, without relief or exception. Somewhere along the line students who struggle will begin to think themselves incapable of learning and unable to keep up with classmates. It is only a matter of time until these kids give up and stop trying.

After thirteen years, these—now young men and women—will leave school, with or without a diploma, lacking the knowledge, skills, wisdom, pre-requisite knowledge, confidence, and self-esteem necessary to overcome the ravages of  discrimination. They will lack meaningful choices for what to do to make a life for themselves and their families and to participate in their own governance.

They will, also, begin to produce their own offspring who will replicate the same ritualistic childhood their parents and grandparents have endured for generations. None of this will change until we replace an education process that has been dysfunctional to the point of obsolescence, for as long as any of us can remember.

Do not be deceived by the false promise of “school choice” that suggests a charter school will provide a better opportunity for our sons and daughters. Please understand, there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of a charter school other than most rely on the same education process at work in the public and parochial schools they were intended to replace; nor do they serve entire communities.

Let me introduce you to a solution.

The Hawkins Model© was designed to provide the education each one of our children deserves and is available for free to any public or parochial school district willing to implement it, beginning in their elementary classrooms. The model has been engineered to eliminate all the issues addressed in the preceding paragraphs. It will be transformational, and the decision to act is already within a school district and its superintendent’s purview. They need only say “yes!”

You will be surprised to learn how easily the model can be implemented. It changes the way the game is played.

Although instruction will still be guided by academic standards, progress will be a function of a student’s success rather than arbitrary timelines. Transformation will require a few adjustments to the way a school organizes its teachers and classrooms, and how long they remain together. Minor physical modifications of classrooms might be nice but are not essential. 

Other significant changes are redefinition of purpose and changing expectations for principals and teachers. Students will be expected to learn as much as they can at their own best pace. The model is constructed on the premise the brains of children are programmed to learn and that failure is a choice the existing education process requires us to make.

We must choose otherwise and give every student whatever time and attention they need to learn.

How we teach will be altered to focus on the primacy of relationships between teachers and students and converting time from a parameter that limits time to learn, to an asset available to kids in whatever quantities their success requires. Once they have learned, how long it took is inconsequential.

Implementation will be so simple the question educators and leaders of advocacy will be asking is “why would a school district choose not to implement The Hawkins Model©?”

This is not a request for financial support. Whatever revenue I generate will come from the royalties of a book I will be finishing, soon. I am asking organizations that serve as advocates for people of color and educators to help convince school superintendents to test The Hawkins Model© in one or more of their underperforming elementary schools. Consider how many schools and school districts are struggling to provide a quality education to children of color, English language learners, and the other disadvantaged students they serve and how many of those kids are giving up and will, soon, stop trying.

There are many wonderful programs available for kids who have fallen behind but if all we do is wait until they fall behind before we help, we have waited too long. Besides, there are many kids these programs never reach. We must choose to prevent students from “falling behind” in the first place. Nation-wide, there are millions of boys and girls at risk, waiting for us to act, and there are millions more waiting to follow. The Hawkins Model© will help all students learn how to create success for themselves.

With your help, children could begin benefitting from my model as early as this fall. Let us not forget, however, it takes thirteen years to educate a child; thus, we dare not drag our feet. I urge you to become advocates, reaching out to school districts with which you have a connection and encouraging them to act.

Please examine The Hawkins Model©. It may prove to be one of the most important things you will ever do.

The Hawkins Model© – the Perfect Solution for the Post-Covid Challenge in Our Schools!

What we hear on the news, night after night, is how concerned educators and parents are that their kids have fallen behind during the almost a year and a half of a pandemic that has placed the entire world in turmoil. It seems only logical we are striving to figure out how to help students catch up. The question is, catch up with what?

Educators and parents are encouraged to step back and rethink their concern about the need for students to catch up and get back to where they would have been had their lives not been so unexpectedly disrupted, for what seemed like forever. Unfortunately, none of us can go back to where we used to be or where we think we should be. Life is forcing us to create a new normal and this presents us with an incredible opportunity to change the course of history.  

Educators are preparing to make decisions that will have long-term consequences for every single one of our children, so let us be sure to make the best decisions possible. The truth is, we cannot help students catch up nor should we.

We must change our perspective so that we can understand our students are not behind—”they are where they are,” to paraphrase a popular idiom.

Our challenge must not be to return to our practice of pushing kids ahead more quickly than they are ready, which has long been one of the most devastating flaws in our existing education process. Most of our students have been pushed ahead before they were ready from one lesson to the next, since Kindergarten.

Educators worry about test results, but what test results have revealed, for decades, is whole populations of students who are behind where someone thought they ought to be. Our interpretation should be something else, altogether. What test results reveal is that what we have been doing has not worked for millions of children. Do we really want to repeat the mistakes of the past?

Let us re-clarify, for ourselves as well as for our students, that our mission is and has always been:

“to help children learn as much as they are able at their own best pace, in route to whatever future they will choose for themselves, some day.”

We must have no illusions our children will all end up in the same place on graduation day, all headed in the same direction, any more than we should cling to the illusion they should all be at the same point today, or any other day, on an arbitrary academic development track.   

Not only is it true “they are where they are!” it is equally true “what they know is what they know, not what we think they ought to know!”

It is from what they know, today, that our schools should restart the marathon, helping students along  a path to get where they will someday want or need to be, at their own best pace; not a pace designated by arbitrary standards and schedules.

A truth we already know but must be reminded of is millions of children start from behind on their first day of school and most of them never catch up; not because they are incapable of catching up rather because the education process is not structured so that helping them catch up is a priority.

The Hawkins Model© is designed to do what we should have been doing all along; determine where kids are on an academic preparedness and emotional development continuum, beginning on the day they become our responsibility, and then tailor an academic plan to help them progress, one success after another, toward whatever future they will choose for themselves, someday.

Our initial goal must be to help all students build a solid academic foundation and a healthy self-esteem on which they can create their own unique futures. It does not matter who gets where, first; what matters is learning enough to give themselves meaningful choices.

What matters, whether we are talking about reading, writing, math, science, social studies, or learning how to ride a bicycle, is not how fast they learn, or how quickly they make up lost ground. The only thing that matters is whether they have learned to ride that bike and utilize everything else they have learned to get to where they need to be or to go.  Our objective must be applied academics—how well can young people apply in real life, all they have learned.

We do our students no favor by pushing them beyond the cusp of their capabilities. Instead, we must remind ourselves, repeatedly, everything our students learn today becomes the pre-requisite knowledge and skill they will need to learn the lessons of tomorrow and all the tomorrows that follow. If they reach a point where their portfolio of pre-requisite knowledge and skills is empty, we have set them up for failure; the kind of failure from which many of them will never recover.

If we began today, by this September of 2021, we could implement the principles and practices of The Hawkins Model©, adapted for the age and grade level of every student. From that point forward, students would begin moving from one success to the next where they will always find themselves well-prepared.  

One of the exciting things about teaching kids to think of success as a process is once they master that process, their pace of learning will accelerate until the next thing we know they have progressed further than they could ever have gone had our minds been focused on catching up.

Making Transformational Change

We all know how hard it is to change things that we’ve been doing  for what seems like forever. If you have ever tried to quit smoking, lose weight, start exercising, or one of a thousand other things, you know inertia can seem almost insurmountable.

Sometimes, however, we cannot get the need for change out of our head. It eats away at us and we might even lose sleep because we can’t stop thinking about it! Deep down we know something is wrong and we also know someone must do something about it. Why not let that someone be you?

Usually, we are only one among many who suffer the consequences of someone else’s inaction.  In the case of public education, everyone suffers because we seem to be stuck in time.

It is even harder when people are bashing us, always telling us we need to do something about this habit or that. No one likes to feel nagged into doing something and we don’t want to be blamed for it.

There is a part of us, however, that just wants to dig in and resist. Often, it is simply a matter of not wanting to admit that the other person might be right, especially when they are right for the wrong reasons; or to suffer what we feel is a blow to our self-esteem; or, just feel the need to defend ourselves from being unfairly blamed.

So, what do we do when there is a crisis and the need for a dramatic transformation is compelling? How do we overcome the monumental power of inertia and, often, self-defense?

Many teachers and administrators are experiencing all these things. They know public education is in crisis and they are sick and tired of taking the blame. They know many of their students are struggling and nothing we do seems to change that fact. Of course, even in struggling schools and classrooms, we do help some of our students but, often, there are just too many of them.

Teachers also know that all the attention they are asked to pay to high-stakes testing  only makes it worse, not better. The seemingly incessant focus on preparation for high-stakes testing just makes it harder to find the time to do the things we know are more important. We also have learned to resent the data from testing and how the numbers have been weaponized to attack teachers and the public schools to which we are so fiercely dedicated.

The truth is, teachers don’t need test scores to understand the problems in public education, because they see them every day in their schools and classrooms. The education system, however, is like a runaway train and all educators feel a sense of powerlessness to slow it down, let alone bring it to a halt.

Even teachers in high-performing schools and classrooms know, deep down, how fortunate they are to be teaching in district, school, or classroom where students want to learn. But for the grace of God—or good fortune–they could be laboring in a classroom where students who want to learn are few.

I challenge all public-school educators to take a step back and acknowledge that something is wrong and that the education process within which we are asked to teach offers no solutions.

I also challenge teachers and administrators to understand that legislators and policy makers cannot fix what is broken because they are too far removed from it to comprehend the full breadth and scope of the challenges facing our public schools.

It is imperative, also, that public school educators understand that education reformers; with their focus on charter schools, teacher- and union-bashing, and voucher programs; cannot fix public education because not only do they not understand how to fix it, they even fail to comprehend how much damage they do with their criticisms and misguided reforms.

The truth is that the only people who can fix what is wrong in so many of our schools and that harms so many of our nation’s precious sons and daughters, are the teachers and administrators who are up to their gills in challenges. What these teachers and educators must be willing to consider is that the answers cannot be found in the trenches.

It is the trenches, however, where professionals learn what is not working and they must feel compelled to utilize what they witness, daily, and what they have learned from those experiences as powerful motivations to embrace transformational change.

We must take back to the laboratories and drawing boards that which we learn in the pits, and then utilize the principles of systems’ thinking, of organizational development, and of positive leadership to create and entirely new way to structure, organize, task, and resource our schools. Only then are we ready to take these new solutions back to our community schools and classrooms.

Have no illusions. The only place we can fix public education in America is in our communities where men, women, and children live, learn, work, and play; and, the only people who can fix it are the teachers, administrators, and the parents of our students.

The key to transformational change is not in complaints, protests, demonstrations, and labor actions—as necessary as they might, sometimes, be.

The key to transformational change will come when professional educators and the communities they serve unite as positive advocates for a new and innovative idea. It must be understood that the sweeping changes that will be required will not be found in incremental changes, new approaches, methodologies, and new technologies, although each of these things will find a home in a new and well-conceived, 21st Century education process.

I respectfully offer an education model  I have developed as a point of embarkation. I call it The Hawkins Model© only to claim the right of authorships. If implemented, someday, my model will be available for free to any public, parochial, or private not-for-profit school that wants to utilize it. The Hawkins Model© was developed from all that I have learned after forty-five years of working with kids, leading organizations, solving problems, working as an independent organizational development and leadership consult, and of walking in the shoes of public school teachers as a substitute teacher in the elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms of a diverse, urban public school corporation.

Please take time to investigate my model. It may prove to be the solution we need. The very worst that can happen is that it will spark a better idea in the minds and imaginations of a few of you who are reading this post. If you are intrigued by what you read, please share it, widely, and open a dialogue.

The Importance of Feedback and How To Provide it

Performance management has become a necessity in almost all organizations, irrespective of venue and yet, typically, they are one of the most stressful and virtually useless activities in modern-day leadership.

Unfortunately, in public education and elsewhere, the evaluation process has become engrained as a bureaucratic requirement, much like high-stakes testing. If principals, as with all supervisors, focus on their mission, however, formal performance evaluations should be little more than a minor inconvenience.  All it requires is to integrate feedback into the daily work of principals. Same is true for superintendents providing feedback to principals. I call this integrated performance management.

This may seem impossible within the context of the existing education process, but imagine an education process structured to support these responsibilities. This is exactly the type of process I propose in The Hawkins Model©.

So, what is a principal’s purpose?

Their mission is to help teachers develop their potential to the optimum and do the best job of which they are capable; to help your teachers develop their craft, relentlessly. Principals have no greater purpose and their success will be measured in terms of how well teachers are able to serve the needs of their students.

What is “a teacher’s craft?”  

Teaching is an uncertain science. Never can we be assured that if we do “x”, “y” will be certain to follow. Not only is every teacher unique, as are each of their students, every teacher is on a unique growth and developmental path and the principal’s role is to help them improve the level of their “craftspersonship,” daily; which, in turn, improves the quality of outcomes.

A teacher’s craft is a dynamic body of skills, tools, experience, and wisdom coupled with the ability to apply them to meet the unique needs of individual students.  By utilizing their accumulating body of experience, teachers learn how to assess and respond to the unique needs of each student as each of them moves along their individual growth and developmental path; whether academic, physical, and emotional.

The teacher’s mission, also, is to help students begin accepting responsibility for their own dreams and aspirations. The ultimate objective for each of our students is that they leave school with meaningful choices and become productive members of a participatory democracy.

Ironically, teachers are much like their students; they must take increasingly more responsibility for their own professional growth and development.

As a principal, the job does not involve comparing teachers to one another or to grade them. Neither is it to find someone doing something wrong, unless it presents a teaching opportunity. When you spend time, daily, talking to each team member about their unique situations and working to help them develop their craft, they will always know how they are performing, and you will always know their status. Providing this kind of ongoing, integrated support is not something done once a quarter, semester, or school year, rather it is what you do every day in your interactions with both teachers and staff.

Principals must also understand that his works only if your teachers are willing to trust that your purpose is to help them be successful. They must view you as their champion and this must be demonstrated by your actions, not just your words.

This kind of an approach will help teachers feel they have some level of control over both process and outcomes. Having control over the outcomes in our lives is a powerfully motivating force.

Neither teachers nor students will commence their developmental journey from the same point of embarkation; rarely will they follow the same pathway or progress at the same speed; and, always, the objective is to help them apply in life what they have learned every step along the way.

If we learn to appreciate the value of every individual, what we do ceases to be work and becomes an adventure. There are few things in life that feel better than helping another person be successful. Being a principal, like being a teacher, is supposed to be rewarding.

There may be times when principals must make tough decisions. We do not want to give up on our teachers too quickly, however, any more than we want our teachers to give up on their students. The key is to give everyone an opportunity to surprise us, which, in turn, gives us something to celebrate together.

When formal performance evaluation reports are required, they will be little more than a status report and will almost always be a positive. The exceptions are when some remedial action has been deemed necessary and, in such cases, there should be a specific remediation plan where expectations are clear for all parties. Never should a teacher be out there feeling alone, hopeless, powerless, or unsure of their professional standing. We must help them learn to expect positive outcomes. The same goes for students.

Working in a bureaucracy is never easy but we are not required to let the bureaucracy define us. The best way to avoid being constrained by the environment around us is to keep a laser-like focus on our mission/purpose, which is: “help people be successful.”

If you are thinking this is impractical or even impossible in your school, you are offering “proof positive” that the existing education process is obsolete and unable to meet the needs of kids, teachers, and communities. For as long as a principal or teacher must circumvent the process to do their jobs, we will never produce the outcomes we need.

My education model is engineered so that the structure supports the work we do, not the other way around. Please take the time to check out The Hawkins Model©. You might be surprised!