How did we get here?

     We did what any concerned educator would do.  We met at an outdoor picnic table with extra-large take-out coffees, sharing concerns about what the COVID pandemic would bring.  We could hardly fathom the evolution of thought we were about to embark upon.  I shared how my granddaughter’s eyes spoke clearly to me as I home schooled her in the last half of her first-grade year. This prompted me to publish an article in a national journal depicting the social, mental and emotional fallout about to befall our youth upon being sent home to use laptops in place of teachers, peers, classrooms–school.  I shared the article and my saga with my good colleague. 

     As early as five weeks into home-schooling during the pandemic, I saw fear in Caitlyn’s eyes.  The barrage of TV news and public reaction was already taking a toll on her well-being.  “I’m noticing you are distracted,” I said to her.  “What’s happening?”  She looked down, welled up with tears and said, “I don’t want anybody to die.”  She continued, “The “TV” keeps talking about people everywhere dying.  I can’t see my friends or Ganny (great-grandmother) because I don’t want to be the reason anyone dies.”  The fear was palpable for Caitlyn… and for millions around the world.  The long-range ramifications for this to go unchecked were more frightening than the pandemic.

     Caitlyn already felt the absence of interaction in her life.  I suggested we gather information to determine how we all might navigate the uncertainties we were confronted with.  We sorted information about the virus into categories of health concerns, social concerns, emotional concerns, and school/learning concerns.  Once organized, we generated a list of things we would NOT do, a list we would like to do and a third list of possible options to consider at a later time.  We asked ourselves, “How close to others are we willing to get?”  and “What could we do where there were fewer people around that might align with schoolwork?”  We decided to go on “field trips” each week.  The first trip was to a local fishery. We’d be outside.  We could keep our distance from others.  At the Shy Beaver Trout Farm we discussed types of fish, habitats, their growth, and the purpose of hatcheries.  Big fish, little fish, green fish, lots of fish!  Where was Dr. Seuss?!!  A list of questions was generated about the hatchery to explore. We reflected on our visit, both agreeing it was safe AND an interesting, fun way to learn!  A “light of hope” with respect to people, pandemic and circumstances flickered that day.  Navigating the mental, social, emotional and learning challenges would take thought and effort, but the impact on Caitlyn’s engagement into the  learning  process was incredibly moving.

     Elaine and I recalled investing a lifetime working to improve the learning journey for youth and their worlds to come.  Having taught in classrooms, led, administered, and coached at the department, school, and district levels we were poised with varied perspectives.  Having professed in several institutions of higher education, including an Ivy League University, and traveled the world organizing and conducting workshop sessions for educators, surely our ideas would be fertile ground to help others. 

     At all turns we heard and read about student capacity to persevere being compromised.  The toll of isolation plagued everyone.  Educators sought fixes and hastened to cover as much ground as possible.  Completion anxiety grew to a cacophony of “catch them up” echoing between school walls.  The compulsion to check off boxes overrode the connections required for learning.  Relevance, interest… learning itself, had been jettisoned. along the recent intrusion to what we have all known as schooling.

     Looking across the picnic table wondering why, for as long as we could remember, we’d been involved in one initiative after another yielding no clear breakthroughs in reform.  Obviously, it made little sense to reconstitute what had already been done and generate yet another program to dangle in front of hopeful, yet beleaguered, educators.  We understood that this was going to take time—lots of time.  Could we tap into the interests of practitioners with a relevant offering that would be purposeful for learning as well as doable within the scope of today’s schooling practices?  We cared.  This mattered to us. 

     We looked at the works of many credible, influential minds asking, “Why had these ideas not been embedded in the culture of teaching and learning ? What will it take to help our field let go of never-ending trends that haven’t lived up to the hype, and embrace the science of learning in a more functional way with promise for classroom practice?  How do we stop doing what doesn’t work?


     Three years in the hot sun, rain and chilly breezes at the picnic table elapsed.  We asked teachers and administrators where it hurt, what was missing and the sources of distress.  We kept asking what needed to be different in the work… and gradually, the “DNA of Learning Blueprint” emerged and evolved. 

     Keeping the purpose of schooling in focus, we cross-walked what it takes for a student to engage in learning, what it takes for an educator to facilitate learning and what makes for a sustainable practice in which both leader and learner thrive.  The Blueprint elaborates and congeals the essence of learning, not teaching; the basis of guiding learning, not managing others; the intersection of human need with the building of capabilities and competencies. 


So why this book now?           

What does When Teaching Mirrors Learning bring to the field?




           The Hollywood box office hit, The Perfect Storm, is a story about a commercial fishing vessel,  the Andrea Gail, that was lost at sea with all hands during the Perfect Storm of 1991.   After a successful haul was made, the crew failed to return due to a set of circumstances that simultaneously created the storm of the century.   Our ship will not sink; however, the urgency is now to collectively understand the multiple circumstances before us that is creating our perfect storm:

  • The pandemic of 2020-2022 has left a mentally and emotionally exhausted workforce, which has taken a cumulative toll on students, parents, teachers–with precious few unaffected. A culture of blame of our teachers by mass media, has also led to an exodus from the field of teaching. Worse yet, there’s a significant decrease in our youth pursuing the field, leaving a major shortage of educators
  • Knowing the student and his/her needs has been supplanted with screens, apps and scripted materials. Human interactions have become secondary to catching up with the already outdated curriculum of content.  ChatGPT is but one blip in the path signaling vastly changing skill demands
  • Teachers are being challenged to let go of old concepts and principles and think about how children learn in this age of digital competence, research and information fluency.
  • How people learn must now trump what is taught. “How do I teach this?” is not the same as, “How will they learn this?”  Beyond getting their attention and maintaining decorum, understanding how information is being processed for memory and application (or not) is imperative for individuals, commerce and community.
  • Working memory and cognitive load must become common language for educators. Processing for meaning and retrievable transfer is imperative for success in personal and professional living.

     We’ve all listened to the news and read articles addressing the state of education.  A host of disenfranchised students, academic challenges, kids behind—catch them up, teacher shortages, increased behavior issues, mental health concerns, scripted programs.  The urgency is now to focus on how we learn, rather than solely what we learn.


The DNA of Learning Blueprint

     Each chapter in this series will walk practitioners through a blueprint for re-starting our passion as educators.  The “DNA” represents all that is needed to address learning across ages, social situations and cultures.  This aggregate of research, experience and practice coalesces on the personal and contextual elements required for our educational enterprise to move from a segregating read, listen, recite and regurgitate for grades cycle to a pattern of purpose that addresses personal interest, motivation, processing for understanding and importantly, learning that is applied, transferable and timeless.

     Moving through the chapters provides a journey that unpacks the essential, required components of the DNA of Learning.   The pieces of this puzzle energize thought and engage readers through reflection, story and doable practices.  The anthology will represent a complete blueprint of the fundamental requirements for engagement in and toward timeless learning. 


     The graphic below illustrates decades of investigation and study.  Any component can stand alone.  As one becomes familiar with the interactive relationship between all components of this blueprint the potential of powerful lifetime access and habits of learning emerge.



Table of Contents



  • How did we get here?
  • Why this book now?
  • The DNA of Learning Blueprint

Article 1   Timeless:  The Thirst for Learning

  • Reveals the major issues facing an antiquated system of schooling 
  • Discusses the impact of the digital culture and why children are disengaged with and the process of learning as it exists in most schools

Article 2   Kids Leading the Learning Journey

  • Explores the student as the focal point of the learning journey
  • Reviews why learners need to engage in and monitor their own learning as a skill that will serve them through life and how interdisciplinary skills can be acquired through personal interest far better than the drudgery of a one-size-fits-all content coverage
  • The impact of meaningful learning that is relevant to learners

Article 3   Requisites-Navigating Uncertainties

  • Identifies that navigating challenges is part of everyone’s journey
  • Demonstrates why problem solving skills are essential for success in life—and importantly, learning
  • Shows why the ability to problem solve must be taught as a requisite for learning and for success in life

Article 4   Requisites-The Art of Relating

  • Identifies that the capacity for relating to the world impacts each person’s journey
  • Demonstrates why the art of relating to others and to information is comprised of skills that are becoming increasingly essential for success in life—and importantly–learning
  • Shows why the ability to compare, contrast and connect must be taught as a requisite for learning and for success in life

Article 5   Requisites-Understanding Cognition

  • Unpacks that how we teach is not the same as how others learn
  • Identifies that understanding how learning actually happens is crucial for all who work with children in our educational system
  • Demonstrates why awareness of and expanding our personal cognition is essential for learners to take control of their learning journey

Article 6   Wings of Instruction

  • Depicts four principles for engaging youth in their learning
  • Establishes five researched approaches that align with how the brain processes to attend, relate and process to memory and recall

Article 7   Engagement

  • Outlines four principles that generate interest and attention that ameliorate disinterest and promotes individual engagement in exploring big ideas and concepts relevant to youth today
  • Explains the role relevance, choice, personalization and continuous feedback in generating student agency in their own learning journey
  • Outlines the need to move from content coverage to meaning and purpose through concepts with personal meaning

Article 8   The Context Neuro-Move

  • Reveals how context provides cues to meaning, relationship and improves initial processing efforts
  • Shows how all ideas, knowledge and thought must connect in relation to proximity or situation if understanding is to become transferable
  • Underlines how prior knowledge and prior experience play a major role in contextualizing new learning and in constructing memory

Article 9   The Classification Neuro-Move

  • A primary, naturally occurring means of gaining understanding comes by comparing how things are similar, different and/or sharing attributes
  • Explores sorting and other classification practices that enhance processing that expands understanding and sustained attention
  • Examines how developing criteria for inclusion/exclusion in a group builds deeper, more transferable understandings

Article 10   The Dual Coding Neuro-Move

  • Demonstrates how the simultaneous merging of visual and verbal cues generates multiple pathways for comprehension, application and recall
  • How the explicit connection between two forms of input creates a more sustainable memory path with higher incidence of transfer to new learnings

Article 11   The Emotional Tags Neuro-Move

  • Explains that without meaning, there is no lasting memory
  • Shows how the absence of emotion (meaning) relegates information to be of insufficient purpose to generate adequate processing for long-term memory
  • Describes how emotional tags allocated by the student drive motivation, purpose, and perseverance for deeper learning

Article 12   The Social Functions Neuro-Move

  • Explains how social interactions create increased neural activity that powerfully shapes how an individual relates to either people or information over time
  • Reveals how social well being and emotional safety are essential for optimal learning to occur
  • How interactions provide the give and take, examination, options, differences of perspective, argument, agreement, prioritization, and other opportunities for feedback that solo experiences cannot

Article 13   Bundling Competencies

  • Explores the concepts and big ideas that can be applied across content areas and in different careers, passions, and interests that engage learners beyond simple recall efforts
  • Explores the skills needed by everyone of us that are interwoven between content, subjects, experiences and job requirements
  • How bundling competencies promotes process and learning over content coverage and completion of tasks

Article 14   Assessment Dualities

  • How we can move from a system that sorts with tests to continuous formative feedback based on student work evidence
  • That schooling must focus on growth and durable learning that extends beyond PK-12
  • The demonstration of interdisciplinary application through analogy, application, or transfer are more meaningful and lingering than recall-based summative tests

Article 15   Timeless Learning

  • Supports moving away from following trends and grounding practices in gold standard, tried-and-true practices that have stood the test of time
  • Demonstrates that the traditional curriculum-instruction-assessment model is flawed in that it fails to place the primary focus of the teaching-learning intersection on each student’s learning journey.
  • Reiterates that how we teach is not the same as how one learns, which must be the focus of all schooling.

Dr. Robert K. Greenleaf

Dr. Robert K. Greenleaf was formerly a professional development specialist at Brown University. Bob has 45 years of experience in education ranging from superintendent, principal, teacher, & special education.  As President of Greenleaf Learning Bob has traveled the world conducting Brain & Learning Institutes.  Dr. Bob’s doctoral work was at Vanderbilt with undergrad psychology.

Elaine M. Millen

Elaine M. Millen, M.Ed. C.A.G.S., has over 50 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of special education, curriculum director and assistant superintendent of schools.  She has taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  As an educational consultant/instructional coach, she has worked countrywide with hundreds of school leaders in areas of leadership, instructional coaching, and student engagement.  She worked with Brown University as a consultant, guiding project work.