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Sean Briel and Daniel Nash: Developing Critical Thinkers In and Out of the Classroom

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By Ty Clark on January 10, 2012

In April 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education formed by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell released a report titled “A Nation at Risk”. The most famous line of the highly publicized report read, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Some 29 years later I have to ask the question: Have we moved out of that erosion? Personally, I do not think so, but there are individual teachers and educators who are fighting hard and investing deeply into changing our educational systems from within the classroom walls. 

Sean Briel Daniel Nash Education Tedx HonululuTwo of those individuals are recent TEDx Honolulu presenters Sean Briel and Daniel Nash, two public high school mathematics teachers who are striving for new possibilities in our nation’s classrooms. I have known Sean for about 11 years now and have had the pleasure to watch him grow as a former employee of mine at Quiksilver, to a college graduate looking for his path in life, to loving and investing in students in Honolulu. Now for Sean and his colleague Dan, the sky’s the limit. Sean and Dan have redesigning the way high school mathematics can be taught through their “Developing Critical Thinkers” system that they created to help students who struggle in the classroom. Their idea has become a tangible system of teaching and garnered the duo an opportunity to share with a TEDx audience in October 2011. Here is my recent interview with Sean and Dan about how they are Developing Critical Thinkers (DCT).

Your journey has been amazing and humbling with many incredible opportunities to take an easy road to success, yet you specifically chose to be where you are. You are in a lower income school system in a struggling community, loving and investing in your students and surroundings. What in your life or who brought you to this mindset?

Sean: I love questions that offer an opportunity to take inventory, recognize and pay respect to how eloquently life manages to string together a whole mess of variables into an overlooked perfect equation. In my case, my mindset or world view would never have guided me to education and the completely understated amount of time it takes to create without my parents, Bryce Courtny’s The Power of One, a Surfboard, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance, Hawai’i, and my fiance. These people and places (yes a Surfboard is a person and a place in my book) have helped tune my personal compass’ true north towards personal responsibility and the overwhelmingly simple yet complex puzzle it often is.  Whether it be my parents’ unwavering and lifelong work ethic, Courtney’s message of change and possibility, a surfboard’s multidimensional sense of work, play, struggle and glory, Emerson’s inspiration through personal exploration, Hawai’i’s in-focus view of give and take nature of respect, or my fiance’s endless and unconditional patience, they have all helped to shape my view of the fundamental role personal responsibility plays in our lives. Without getting too preachy, personal responsibility really is a relentless lifelong commitment to continuously rediscovering not only one’s self and our sense of possibility, but our individual connection to our communities and their ongoing march into the future.

Where did the two of you meet and how did you come up with DCT?

Dan: One word has described the past year’s events: serendipitous. After graduating from college I wanted to make an impact on the world of mathematics education. Hawaii was one of the many states I considered due to its need for math teachers. After deciding on Hawaii and getting hired to teach at Waipahu High School I met Sean.  Sean helped me get settled into the school, showed me around the island, and introduced me to many of his friends. However, our friendship at that point was still no more than one colleague helping a new colleague out.

Sean then came up with the idea to co-create a test preparation program for our students in February. It is the development of this program that DCT can attribute its origin to. Sean and I began meeting two times a week to develop the program and work with our students. While running the program and working closely with our students Sean and I had a plethora of observations and ideas to sift through and reflect upon. Two times a week became three times a week and then slowly we were meeting almost every single day of the week to flush out ideas, observations, and reflect on them. By the end of the school year we had developed the ideology that sits at the core of DCT and a friendship that continues to be fueled by our passion and commitment to educational innovation.

Tell me the stages you went through as DCT went from an idea to its fruition?

Dan: There is a multitude of stages, opportunities, and events that have helped DCT transition from an idea inside the heads of two math teachers into what it is today. After creating this new model and seeing its success with our students, we then began trying to share and spread the idea to others. This is where we realized that growing our idea is and will continue to be one of the largest obstacles to overcome.

After running in circles and going nowhere for quite some time we finally decided to really put our method to the test. If this method was as good as we thought then it should work when it comes to understanding or seeing new possibilities with ANYTHING. After hunting down and organizing critical words and the ideas those words represent we began to see some starting points and direction when it came to growing an idea. During this process one of the most helpful insights we stumbled onto was getting others to see value in your idea. We found if you explain the journey you experienced during the development and refinement of your idea it helps give your idea life and value. It’s obstacles like this that have helped create invaluable opportunities to bring DCT from an idea to where it is today.

How has DCT impacted your students in the classroom?

Sean: DCT has impacted our students by offering them opportunity to learn how to learn while also fostering their critical thinking as well as confidence to develop their own creative approaches. This shift in our respective classrooms has led to not only students truly teaching them selves, but phenomenal increases in our classroom rates as well. From Algebra I, repeater and non-repeater students, to Geometry, we have seen our pass rates rise on average by 30% and in some cases double!

So not only are our students feeling more confident, but their performances are mirroring their confidence as well. The truly amazing impact DCT has had on our classrooms is our ability as educators to move away from lecturing. This difference has led to exponentially more one on one time with our students in class. By spending more individual time, we are able to focus on building the relationships that many of our students require to cope with the unprecedented challenges they face as under resourced students. Many of these challenges range from teen pregnancy to all the issues revolving systemic poverty. By working one on one rather than lecturing, we are able to offer an “listening ear” when things get to much, which offers us the opportunity to help redirect students either back on task or to the appropriate help, when situations are serious enough.

Click Page 2 below to find out more about how DCT has impacted students beyond the classroom and how Sean and Daniel’s efforts can shape the future of education…

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