I am John Higgins and The Story of Teaching is my professional home for journalism about the new biology of teaching and learning. Scientists and educators are working together to unravel some of the most complicated and important questions about how the brain develops and learns. Recently, researchers from a variety of fields have focused on how the brain teaches and the evolution of that ability, which begins to reveal itself in infants as young as one year old. Teaching may be an innate ability that literally changes the form and function of children’s brains to survive in their native societies.
The story of teaching has deep roots in our evolution and may have emerged more than a million years before modern humans. Somewhere along the way to our humanity, we discovered that valuable skills and innovations didn’t have to die with the individual; they could be taught to a new generation. But that required us to form a new kind of relationship with each other — not parent to child and not mate to mate, but teacher to student. This teaching bond enabled us to build, generation upon generation, all the human cultures of the world. Yet we are only now beginning to understand from a biological perspective how that bond works, what strengthens it and what weakens it. We need that bond to work better, especially in schools where poverty has left many deserving, bright children far behind their wealthier peers from the very first day of kindergarten. We need to know more about how to help parents become their children’s first teachers and lay the foundation for successful relationships with teachers throughout their lives.
I was a reporter at the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal for 15 years and covered K-12 education for the last five. I first learned about the emerging field of educational neuroscience while writing a series of stories on project-based learning with a grant from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University. The series focused on the development of a new STEM middle school in Akron. In 2011, I received a scholarship to attend a 10-day seminar called the “Penn Neuroscience Boot Camp” from the Center for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2012, I received a year-long Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT. During the 2012-2013 school year, I explored the biological foundations of human teaching and learning. I audited classes at MIT (neuroscience and biology) and several classes in the Mind, Brain and Education master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as well as a Harvard class on the evolution of human culture.
A few months later, I was invited to talk about what I’d learned during my fellowship year at The Eighth International Summer School on Mind, Brain and Education at the Ettore Majorana Centre for Scientific Culture in Erice, (Sicily) Italy. The title of my presentation was “A journalist’s quest to understand how teaching makes us human.” In 2015, I contributed an essay to a paper celebrating the 10th anniversary of the conference.
In September of 2013, I accepted a contract from The Seattle Times to work on its new Education Lab project, a partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The idea was to raise the level of debate around important education issues by focusing on promising, evidence-based solutions to seemingly intractable problems in education. I wrote in-depth stories about the neuroscience of reading, the relationship between emotions and thinking in the classroom, and the benefits of professional mental health coaching to prevent expulsions from preschool. When my contract ended in July, I left the newspaper and I have devoted myself full time to writing about the new science of teaching.
I was born and raised in Oregon and received Bachelor of Arts degrees in Journalism and English in 1993, and a Master of Fine Arts degree in nonfiction in 1996, from the University of Oregon. My parents were both K-12 teachers and my first teachers. The bond I formed with them enabled me to form meaningful relationships with other great teachers that have lasted for decades and made my writing life possible.