Destined for Greater Things: Future Teacher Brings Neuroscience into Her Classroom

Kaitlyn McSweeney didn’t always want to be a teacher. In fact, when her high school classmates voted her most likely to become one, she resented the honor. “I was angry,” she recalls. “I didn’t want that to be my mark in this life. Back then I had it in my head that I was destined for a greater purpose.” Today Kaitlyn is a senior earning her bachelor’s degree in secondary education and biology at Franklin Pierce University. And she couldn’t be more excited about bringing new ideas from neuroscience into her future classrooms.


So what changed her outlook on teaching? Sometimes it takes time—and time off—for clarity in one’s life. For Kaitlyn, it also took overcoming adversity. After a rattling freshman year during which her family was in close proximity to the Boston Marathon bombing and one of her best friends passed away from an overdose, Kaitlyn decided to leave Drexel University. She wanted to be closer to her family. “I kind of lost myself that first year, so I took a break to figure out who I was,” she says.  


An open question.

During her academic pause, Kaitlyn spent time with someone she loves dearly, her grandfather. He taught science for 35 years and still substitute-teaches today. Kaitlyn had always shared with him a love for science. “One day,” says Kaitlyn, “my grandfather walked into the kitchen after a day of subbing and said, “So alright, then, what’s the plan?” He actually meant what was her plan for the day, but, for whatever reason, the question seemed more profound. “It hit me right then that I had loved school since I was little. I was the teacher’s pet. I was the class nerd,” she recalls. “I kept hearing a friend’s voice in my head telling me, ‘Man, you should be a teacher.’”


“I didn’t realize I wanted to be a teacher until that moment,” she recalls. Her transformation from resenting to embracing the profession was a complete reversal of attitude. “Looking back at that high school mindset, I laugh at myself,” she says. “Because what I’m learning and doing right now is that greater purpose I was searching for. I just needed the time and experience—the maturity—to recognize it.”


Today she couldn’t be more excited about her future as a teacher. After transferring from Drexel to Franklin Pierce University, Kaitlyn buried her head in the study of neuroscience. Sometimes referred to as cognition in the education world, Kaitlyn sees a huge untapped area of research bridging pedagogy and the study of the brain’s function. At the 2018 Alpha Chi National Convention in Portland, she presented her research paper, “Implementation of Brain-based Learning Methods in the Classroom.” “Essentially,” she says, “my research is looking at the neuroscience of learning and how we can make our classrooms more neuroscientifically efficient.”


Learning how students learn.

Kaitlyn has focused on the VARK assessments (Visual, Aural, Read/write, and Kinesthetic sensory modalities) as a means of identifying types of learners. According to Kaitlyn, the nervous system connections between different parts of our brains interpret our senses in different ways that allow us to categorize and remember things. In her research, Kaitlyn proposed that teachers assess their students with the VARK questionnaire and break down the sensory learning styles of the class. The ultimate goal is to give teachers the knowledge to adapt teaching styles to their students’ needs.


If a classroom were to end up with seven auditory learners, four visual learners, and a slew of multimodal learners, rotating learning stations would offer the chance to learn according to a student’s given modality: lectures, charts, diagrams, etc. “The idea,” says Kaitlyn, “is to reach students in their own physiological learning style.”


“I want my students to understand themselves,” she says. “I want them to be able to apply skills that will be genuinely useful in either the workforce or in collegiate life.”


As intriguing as her research has proven, to Kaitlyn’s disappointment, her own education classes glossed over this most elemental notion of how students learn. “Looking into the future, I saw this wasn’t going to be something we were going to talk about. And I thought, well, why?” This gap in both the research and the practice has given Kaitlyn an exciting opportunity and sense of mission for her own work. “I want to inject science into the conversation,” she says. “Right now I’m not hearing it in the world of education, so bringing this back into the conversation would be very satisfying.”


Preparing for the real world.

Alpha Chi’s National Convention in Portland gave her a stage to do just that. It also reassured Kaitlyn that she was not alone in her studies. Just looking through the list of presentations was an eye-opener. “Oh, wow,” she remembers saying to herself, “There are nearly a dozen other students presenting their education research here.”


Reflecting on her time with Alpha Chi, she has come to truly appreciate what it offers. “When I first received my email to join Alpha Chi, I was like, that’s cool. It’s for just the top 10 percent of juniors and seniors.” But with one national convention behind her and more time for insight, Kaitlyn sees Alpha Chi as more than an accolade added to her resume. “To me, Alpha Chi is about real-world application,” she says. “It’s so much more professional than what happens in a typical honors program.”


After Portland, Kaitlyn returned to Franklin Pierce for her senior year excited about her own academic journey. Her goal is to help her Franklin Pierce Alpha Chi chapter grow. With so much planning and committee work for next year’s convention, who knows, Kaitlyn hints—she might even take on a leadership position. That is if she has time between her student teaching, science classes, and landing her first job as a second-tier licensed teacher in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.