My Doctoral Musings

February 20, 2018–Activity Theory & Brain-based Learning

Activity Theory provides a framework for thinking about a system and the myriad parts of that system. As part of our work on brain-based learning, Timothy Seavey and I used the Activity Theory to identify the parts of the education system related to our investigation of how neuroscience can positively impact student engagement through thoughtful lesson design.

Education has many moving parts, so using the Activity Theory helped us to flush out the different parts of the challenge facing the successful use of technology in education. I began by articulating the goal I am focused on for the K12 space: design engaging blended learning experiences and increase the effectiveness of blended learning environments. This is the object or the goal of my research. Then I worked backward using Engestrom’s model to identify the subject, activity, community, division of labor, rules, and artifacts.

Subject: Students and teachers

Activity: Engaged learning

Artefacts: Pedagogy and teaching practices/strategies

  • blended learning
  • technology-enhanced learning (TEL)
  • Frameworks:
    • Game Theory
    • Social Learning Theory
    • Cognitive Learning Theory

Community: Community of Practice (CoP)–”groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, 2002, p. 4).

  • Additional communities that may not fit the profile of a CoP include:
    • School communities
    • Departments
    • Student groups (e.g., student government, clubs)
    • Parent groups (e.g., PTA)

Rules and Regulations: Education Code

  • Federal and state laws
  • Funding requirements and restrictions
  • Time in seat/days in a year

Ideally, the activity theory helps a researcher to identify the parts of the system to effectively understand how it works and identify the areas of the system that must be considered to achieve a particular outcome.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.

Salomon, G. (1993). Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational Considerations. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


February 16, 2018 – Exploring Impact of Acute Stress on Learning

Gagnon, S. & Wagner, A. (2016). “Acute Stress and Episodic Memory Retrieval: Neurobiological Mechanisms and Behavioral Consequences.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1369 (2016) 55-75. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12996


When people are under acute stress–most common daily stress caused by demands of present and pressures associated with the future–the parts of the brain needed for flexible and goal-oriented thinking shut down. Psychological stress is caused by situations that are novel, uncertain, uncontrollable, and/or threatening and trigger two stress response systems–the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. Individuals in a state of short-term emotional arousal demonstrate higher levels of attention and enhanced memory. As learning is enhanced and the ability to code/make memory improves, the retrieval of unrelated information is suppressed. Chronic stress, unlike short-term acute stress, impairs long-term memory by causing changes in the basal cortisol levels and negatively impacting hippocampal function. Ultimately, the type and duration of the stressor impact a person’s ability to both encode/create and recall/access memories or learning. More research is needed to identify optimal windows of time for creating and retrieving memories and the role stress plays in this process.


This has implications for both teachers and students. First, teachers experiencing acute stress are less likely to take risks and try new approaches to teaching that are required by the shift to blended learning. Second, this could make a strong case for a blended learning environment that is student-directed. The more autonomy, flexibility, and control a student has over their learning, environment, and artifacts, the less likely they are to experience acute stress. Competency-based learning, which is a staple of blended learning, can also function to alleviate stress because learning shifts from punitive points driven culture to a master-based individualized assessment model.

Given that memory is enhanced during moments (short) of emotional arousal–even exposure to emotional scenes, words, and objects–this may create a strong case for the use of short VR or AR learning experiences in which students are placed into an emotionally charged moment or situation to enhance memory creation. For example, students learning about a moment in history are more likely to form long-term memory and be able to access and recall of those events if they “experience” them in a VR environment that is emotionally arousing.

Using VR and AR to enhance teacher training may also yield a better understanding of new education models. If they can enter a blended learning classroom via VR, they are more likely to make memories about the different models they can recall later.


February 4, 2018 – Cognitive Neuroscience & Technology Enhanced Learning

Notes from pages 131-139 of “The Potential Relevance of Cognitive Neuroscience for the Development and Use of Technology Enhanced Learning” by Paul Howard-Jones, Michela Ott, Theo van Leeuwen, and Bert De Smedt (2013)

In neuroscience, learning refers to memory and how a person forms memory. It is what happens inside the brain. By contrast, in education learning extends beyond memory to include interactions between people. In this context, learning goes beyond what happens in the brain to encompass social context. Educational research “emphasizes the importance of social interaction. For this reason, it seems appropriate that neuroeducational consideration of TEL [technology enhanced learning] should include two or more individuals represented as brain–mind–behaviour models interacting within a social environment” (p.134).

The authors suggest using the “levels of analysis” approach when integrating neuroscience into TEL. However, they point out that cognitive neuroscience uses the brain-mind-behavior levels (pictured above), but “our real-world behavior with technology inevitably involves our social behavior, with technology able to mediate our social interactions in several different ways” (p.134). This social behavior component of learning with technology opens the door for social science research methods.

The paper points out three roles that technology plays:

“(1) as a stimulus with which we can interact individually (2) as a stimulus around which social interaction takes place (e.g., collaborating around computers) (3) as a medium through which social interaction takes place” (p.135).

The authors point out some misinformation in TEL literature:

  • False: The brain is “vulnerable to damage by technology” (p.133). This assumes that the brain is static and hardwired, which is incorrect.
  • True: The brain “is plastic” and “can only develop through input from the environment and referred to as experience-dependent plasticity, a process that continues well beyond adolescence” (p. 133).

Items for further research:

Cognitive Psychology The author’s highlight the connection between neural process (brain), mental process (mind), and human behavior (behavior). They write that “the central role of mind in the brain–mind–behaviour sandwich makes cognitive psychology crucial to all cognitive neuroscience and in turn to neuroeducational TEL research” (p. 134). So cognitive psychology is an area I need to do more research one.

TEL (technology-enhanced learning)

January 31, 2018 – Cortisol and Learning

Today, I spent time researching cortisol and its impact on the brain, especially in the context of learning. Cortisol “binds to receptors that are found in the hippocampus and amygdala, which are important brain regions for learning and memory” (Munoz, 2013). The hippocampus processes memories in preparation for long-term storage. The amygdala is the center of the limbic-emotional brain and is “constantly alert to the needs of basic survival including sex, emotional reactions such as anger and fear. Consequently, it inspires aversive cues, such as sweaty palms” (The Brainwaves Center).

There is a lot of research about high levels of cortisol impacting memory; however, I found it fascinating that the research indicates that high levels of cortisol do NOT inhibit the formation of memories. In fact, high levels of cortisol aid the formation of memories, which has interesting implications for learning and the types of environments or learning activities that might increase cortisol and, therefore, help students to create long-term memories. This may have interesting implications for game-based learning and the use of competition in learning.

The problem with cortisol in the context of learning and school is that high levels of cortisol make it harder for students to recall memories and information. So, traditional forms assessment and timed, high-stakes exams may produce higher levels of cortisol and inhibit a student’s ability to demonstrate what they know.

My takeaway from my research today: high levels of cortisol help to form memories but makes it challenging to recall memories.

January 29, 2018 – Brain-based Learning 

When I was doing research about student engagement, I stumbled across Stephanie Knight’s (2017) blog titled “Brain Engagement: A Look at Chemical Reactions in the Classroom.” Though science and the brain are not my areas of expertise, I was immediately interested in this idea that student engagement is, in fact, brain engagement. If educators had a better understanding of how the brain works, we could design lessons that engage their brains.

As a blended learning expert, I am often asked to produce research that proves blended learning is more effective than traditional teaching strategies. It got me thinking about the value of merging what we know about the brain with what we know about technology and learning so we can draw more concrete conclusions about the impact of blending learning.

I’ve partnered with Tim Seavey, the General Education Coordinator, Associate Chair, and  Program Director at Loma Linda University, who has a background in radiology. His specific interest is in adult learning/andragogy, while my interest is focused on pedagogy, specifically at the K-12 level.

We have decided to look at brain-based learning with a specific focus on the way four chemicals in the brain–cortisol, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine–respond to different types of learning activities.

 After presenting our working concept to the class, we explored the impact that mobile devices are having on access to information, learning, and the brain. Clearly, the sharp rise of smart devices has exciting implications for connecting students with other learners all over the globe.

The third iteration of our working concept required that we find a Ashoka fellow whose work aligns in some way with our focus. Ashoka is “A global organization that identifies and invests in leading social entrepreneurs — individuals with innovative and practical ideas for solving social problems.” While researching Ashoka fellows, I found Emer Beamer in the Netherlands who is working to help teachers “tap into the natural space of play within a child and among children, to stimulate their interest and engagement in social issues, and challenging them to design solutions for these issues within the context of their formal education curriculum using modern technology.”

Beamer’s work intrigued me on several levels. I also believe students are incredibly creative and educators must tap into that creativity to get students tackling complex social issues. Technology creates exciting opportunities to make learning relevant and meaningful, which I believe is more likely to engage the brain. I have also used the design thinking process with my students to encourage them to work through complex projects. I’d love to see this focus on play and creativity at the secondary level as well.

After several iterations, Tim and I came up with a concise description of what we plan to focus on for our research.

The proliferation of technology demands new approaches to teaching and learning. This brain-based learning study focuses on the brain’s chemical reactions (cortisol, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) in response to different learning stimuli (textual, auditory, visual, Augmented Reality, Discourse, Virtual Reality, web-based) in online, offline, and blended environments. This study seeks to identify how brain engagement impacts the quality of learning in students of different ages–adult learners approximately 20-30 (andragogy) years old and secondary students (pedagogy) approximately 14-18 years old.

This is a HUGE topic, so I anticipate we will narrow our focus as we wade through the massive amounts of research currently available on the brain, technology, and learning.


January 27, 2018 – My Motivational Terrain

This semester at Pepperdine University I’m enrolled in a course titled “Virtual Learning and Collaboration.” My professor, Dr. Lani Fraizer, assigned us a motivational terrain paper to explore the following questions:

  • Where do you stand via your practitioner-scholar lens in terms of WHAT you are interested in?
  • HOW would you like to approach your scholarship and contribution to service?
  • What educational or intellectual issues fascinate you?

The goal of the motivational terrain assignment helped me to hone in on the aspects of education that I’m most interested in: student engagement, technology, and blended learning.

Technology is radically redefining the way students engage with information and each other. After failing to engage students using traditional teaching strategies and tools, I embraced blended learning. This mix of online and offline learning allowed me to shift the focus from me to my students placing them at the center of learning. My role as an educator changed from a disseminator of information to an architect of learning experiences. The dramatic changes in my students’ interest, engagement, and academic success was thrilling. I wanted other teachers to experience this same success. My desire to improve learning for students and support teachers as they adapt to an influx of technology has driven me to write books, publish blogs and articles, speak at conferences, and facilitate professional development for teachers all over the United States. I believe my doctoral work at Pepperdine University will challenge, inspire, and prepare me to lead innovative change in education.

Motivational Terrain
When I accepted my first teaching position in 2001, I was 22 years old. I entered the classroom with mental models shaped by my own experiences as a learner. I believed my primary job was to disseminate information. In the credential and masters programs at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was taught to teach using the same traditional tools I used when I was a student: books, writing utensils, and paper. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to excite and engage my students. They did not lean in. They did not take risks. They did not participate in conversation.

Over time, I became disillusioned with my profession. I was failing. I could not create the dynamic classroom I had imagined when I entered credential school. In this moment of crisis, I had two choices: abandon this career or find a way to make it work for me and my students. I decided to stay in the classroom and began the long process of unlearning everything I had been taught about teaching. For the last 15 years, my students have been my teachers. The lessons I have learned from them have led me to question established norms, experiment with technology, and share what I have learned with anyone who will listen.

In 2001 my students rarely entered the classroom with devices. I saw the occasional iPod, but it was not until the release of the iPhone in 2007 that devices began to appear more frequently in our classroom. The proliferation of technology and my students’ increasing access to and enthusiasm for devices played a crucial role in driving my development as an educator. Though I never considered myself tech savvy, technology quickly changed the way my students communicated, connected, and shared. While most of my colleagues banned devices, I saw an opportunity. Technology allowed me to explore new approaches to teaching and learning.

Technology had a transformative impact on my students’ interest, engagement, and depth of learning. All of the sudden, my students had access to limitless amounts of information. I no longer needed to be the single source of information in the classroom. Students had the ability to connect, communicate, and collaborate across space and time. Learning became fluid and was no longer limited to a physical classroom or class period. With an online connection, students had access to a global audience. As a result, the quality of their work improved dramatically. There were also countless tools available online for students to create artifacts that mattered to them. All of these new realities and possibilities piqued my intellectual interest and drove me professionally to change the way I approached teaching. My goal was to use technology strategically to shift the focus from me to my students.

My successes pushing the boundaries of learning in my own classroom combined with my affinity for writing and public speaking led me to assume many different roles in education. Though teaching is my favorite job, I also work as a trainer, coach, speaker, consultant, and author. In my teaching position, I experiment, fail, and learn. This work has been invaluable to my journey as an educator. Students are the customers in education, and I want to see what they respond to and enjoy. I blog weekly and write a monthly column for Educational Leadership about the teaching techniques, blended learning models, assessment strategies, and technology tools I use with students. My goal as a writer is to keep my writing concrete and practical. I want teachers to read about what I am doing and feel they can try it themselves. My publications have lead to my work as a speaker, trainer, coach, and consultant. For the last three years, I have split my time between a 50% teaching position at Windsor High School and my other work. The balance has been ideal. My teaching position inspires me and my work with teachers gives me an outlet to share my learning.

My particular interest in education is blended learning. Blended learning is defined as “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home” (Horn & Staker, 2015, p. 34). Within the large umbrella term of blended learning, there are many different models that combine face-to-face learning in the classroom with online learning. Although the Christensen Institute has clearly defined the four main blended learning models, these models and their definitions are shifting and evolving. In my most recent book, Blended Learning in Action, I make the argument that the Lab Rotation, which is a subcategory of the Rotation Model, should be called Whole Group Rotation. I argue that the rise of 1:1 initiatives and mobile carts eliminate the need to move out of the classroom and into a computer lab for online learning. Instead, the whole class can rotate between on and offline activities together. The teacher can use online learning time to conference with students providing personalized instruction and support.

Technology is changing rapidly which requires that we continually re-examine and refine our definitions of blended learning models. One of my professional goals is to keep this conversation about what blended learning is and what is looks like evolving. Educators, even those with access to limited technology, should feel empowered to blend technology into their practice. They may begin with substituting technology for traditional tools, but I want to help teachers redefine what learning looks like with technology. In time, I believe all learning will fall into this blended space with teachers skillfully selecting specific models and technology tools to meet the learning objectives for a given lesson. Similar to the traditional teaching strategies that teachers have used for years, I am hopeful that blended learning models will become a part of every teacher’s teaching toolbox.
Although many teachers fear technology’s ability to replace them, I passionately believe that the teacher is critical to the success of a blended learning model. Technology can disseminate information, generate adaptive practice, and connect students with resources, but the most challenging and human aspects of teaching cannot be replaced by technology.

Teachers, however, need to embrace new roles in this era of technology. Instead of being fountains of knowledge, teachers must become architects of learning experiences and coaches. Instead of telling students we know, we must invest energy and time into designing dynamic learning opportunities that invite students to make meaning. When teachers are freed from the daunting task of transferring information in real time to 30 students, they can shift into the role of a coach in the classroom providing individualized support as students work. The teacher’s role as architect and coach are irreplaceable.
In my work as a blended learning coach, I have the opportunity to spend time in classrooms as an observer. Too often the only person talking is the teacher. It is a missed opportunity. Learning should be a social experience. Classrooms are packed with 25-30 students, yet the collective intelligence in the room is rarely harnessed to drive dynamic learning. Students need to engage with one another and learn together. Wenger (2000) makes the point that “engagement in social context involves a dual process of meaning-making. On the one hand, we engage directly in activities, conversations, reflections, and other forms of personal participation in social life. On the other hand, we produce physical and conceptual artifacts–words, tools, concepts, methods, stories, documents, links to resources, and other forms of reification” (p.1). Wenger’s point that learning requires 1) participation and engagement and 2) reification and creation is at the heart of every lesson I design, each book I have written, and every keynote I have delivered. Students must engage and create to learn.

Learning should not be a passive experience. It must be dynamic, student-centered, and learner-driven. As a result, I am particularly interested in social learning theory and how educators can leverage the social dimensions of learning, both in person and online, to engage every student and achieve more meaningful learning experiences. Too often the online space is used solely for individual tasks or practice, but it can be a powerful space to connect students and foster collaboration. The collaborative possibilities available online are exciting, especially the opportunities to connect students in different locations around the world. I would love to see classrooms and learners regularly connect and learn together despite the physical distance between them. This space will explode in the future, and I am eager to continue exploring collaboration and engagement online as my career develops.

Almost everything I have learned as an educator has been through trial and error. I have approached teaching as an ongoing experiment. I design and implement a lesson, project, or strategy. I observe, critique, reflect and request feedback. Then I iterate. That is how I have learned everything I know about teaching and learning. Though I have learned invaluable information using this approach, I applied to Pepperdine University’s doctoral program because I want to continue to learn, question, and push boundaries. I want to be inspired to think bigger and lead innovative change in education.

After reading Simon Sinek’s Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, I asked myself the following questions. What is your why? What drives you to get out of bed each morning? What is your purpose in education? The answer was simple. I love learning, and I want to ignite that same love of learning in every student. That is the why that drives me, inspires me, and gives me a clear sense of purpose.

Horn, M. & Staker, H. (2015). Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sinek, S. (2011). Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York, New York: Portfolio Penguin.

Wenger, E. (2000). “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: The Career of a Concept.” Retrieved from