How Professional Development Choices Changed my Life Forever

How Professional Development Choices Changed my Life Forever

By: Robert Murphy

There are clichés about how learning should never stop, but to be brutally honest, many professional development (PD) courses seem like a chore. In fact, they are often dreaded. I think I may have felt that way a long time ago, but because my feelings have changed so drastically, I have a hard time remembering the dread!

When I reached the age of 30, I realized I wanted to gain more professional knowledge about the specifics of teaching. I got my feet wet with a few Oxford Continuing Education online courses; I studied Online Tutoring and Creative Writing. In retrospect, they were great “stepping stone courses” to raise motivation for heavier content. When I finally returned to more serious academic study at that age of 35, I was not yet a university professor, but by then I had lofty hopes for what I would learn in post-grad level education. Being nerdy about science since I was in primary school, I read through all the TESOL/Applied Linguistics papers and books that I could get my hands on, looking for that page that said, “…and this is neuroscientific proof that conclusively shows Method X to be a superior teaching method.” Of course, I never found such a page. It is certainly not any one program’s fault, per se – at the time, there were no academic books/papers out there that seriously connected science (especially neuroscience) to language teaching pedagogy. In fact, as many of you probably already know, far too many papers are about “who said what about whom and why;” they are looking at dogma and either challenging it or agreeing with it.

Still, I did not lose hope. I searched the internet for any professional development programs that might help me in my quest. It was then that I found out about the Mind, Brain, and Education initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I saw that they had Masters degree programs that were campus based—and week-long Summer Institutes headed by none other than Kurt Fischer himself (with Todd Rose as co-chair). I jumped at that chance to find a key to connecting neuroscience with education! As it turns out, the handful of choices that I happened to make early on regarding professional development had a sort of “butterfly effect” on the development of NeuroELT in Asia. Interestingly, none of those outcomes were fully ascertainable from the start line, but many ended up being significant in retrospect.

So, my message is–don’t underestimate chances for Professional development as being “just a PD course.” See PD as a real opportunity to make a difference in the world. Moreover, I recommend looking on the PD instructors as potential role models for you; watch how their teaching content evolves over time, and see if you can mimic their best pedagogical attributes. (Click here for more about Harvard’s history in this area.)

In this article, I will discuss personal growth experiences with: (1) Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education Summer Institute, (2) Harvard’s online WIDE World programs, (3) CAST online learning programs, (4) Learning and the Brain study programs, (5) the Mind, Brain, Health, and Education semester course with Harvard Extension, and (6) Lectica’s courses on cognitive development and language coding.

MBE Summer Institute

The story begins the first time I set foot on Harvard campus—when I took the Mind, Brain, and Education Summer Institute of 2008. Oops …let’s take one step back… there was a ton of pre-Institute homework—mounds of reading and video content to familiarize myself with before I got to the campus. So, the story begins before arriving at the venue. I first learned about Fischer’s Skill Theory the traditional way—by reading about it. Much later I was able to write up a concise explanation of Skill Theory. The pre-Summer Institute content was daunting, but I did my best with all the homework, and then I flew over to Boston.

What awaited me was far more overwhelming than I had imagined. We were bombarded with 3-4 study sessions per day, taught by the highest authorities in neuroscience, education, and psychology, and had nightly science article reading to do to prepare for the next day, while trying to digest what we had studied until then. To drop names, that week we learned directly from: Kurt Fischer, Todd Rose, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Marc Schwartz, David Rose, Paul van Geert, Zachary Stein, Elena Grigorenko, and David Perkins. It was a full-on, eyes-wide-open and mind-blowing experience that just kept going (and going) all week; my brain had never been so extremely hot and tired from being so “on” for such a long period of time. And, after it was over, it still wasn’t over! We had post-Institute homework to do and projects to complete. It was borderline torturous, but it also felt like the most perfect academic experience I had ever had.

I took what I learned (with a special focus on Fischer’s Skill Theory), applied it to my MA TESOL dissertation for the University of Birmingham (UK) that I was working on concurrently, and received a mark of Distinction. I am convinced that I received a mark of Distinction because of the synthesis of Skill Theory into EFL teaching within the dissertation; according to Kurt Fischer, I was the first person to directly bridge Mind, Brain, and Education content (using the Self-in-Relationship [SiR] test on Japanese students) with what we do in EFL teaching. In fact, it was Kurt who persuaded me to do so as my follow-up project for the MBE Summer Institute. He was happy to see the Institute homework lead to high marks for an MA dissertation; it was proof that his work was making a difference even in distant fields of study.

WIDE World Program at Harvard

From that time, Kurt and I became friends and he quickly became my academic mentor; we had many email exchanges over the years and I made a point of flying out to Harvard once a year to spend about a week with him on campus, asking him questions and learning directly from him. As I was doing this, I signed up for Harvard’s WIDE World program, which was led by David Perkins. Over the span of several months, I took several of their online courses, and during my last course with them I was contacted from the administration—asking if I wanted to teach for them. There was a WIDE World teacher training course that I would have to pass in order to get the position; Harvard waived the fee for that course for me (cool!), and I worked hard and passed that too. I was then asked to help represent them at the JALT National Conference. So, Harvard’s Qin Higley and I set up and manned the first Harvard WIDE booth at JALT 2009, and we co-presented on Harvard-style teaching at JALT that year; it was in Nagoya. This may be a surprise for many JALT old-timers who don’t recall seeing a Harvard booth at JALT. Here is a link to the paper that Qin and I co-authored for the JALT 2009 Proceedings. It contains much of what we now take for granted in the BRAIN SIG—but the content was mostly unheard of, or ignored (gasp!), back in 2009.

Kurt Fischer with autographed prints of his seminal papers.

Ironically—in 2009—my own context and timing didn’t allow me to teach for WIDE World, but what an honor it was to be on that journey with them. Moreover, although we had this historic Harvard booth set-up, there were too few course-takers to merit continued JALT booth hosting. It would seem that 2009 was just a bit too early for MBE-like content to fit well into the JALT community. But now—in 2020—how times have changed!

Talking about change, that Harvard program eventually meshed with other Harvard online programs, and newer incarnations of the content are now available for study. Here is a link to online study content at Harvard that is an evolutionary step forward from what we were learning and presenting on back then:


I enthusiastically continued re-connecting with the PD instructors that I first met at the MBE Summer Institute; I got back in touch with David Perkins, originally an HGSE professor, who was also a co-founder and long-term leader of CAST, probably most famous for his work in Universal Design. I attended a number of CAST gatherings, and was later given the opportunity to co-author a paper with David Perkins and two other CAST researchers.

It is amazing how you can be learning from a group of people, but if you click just right, you can move on to doing research with them. I flew out to the CAST headquarters in Boston that year and worked out the details of our paper with my co-authors. Unfortunately, my main contact for this project at CAST decided to move to a different job, and that quickly put the brakes on our paper. I bring this up here because I’d like people to know that sometimes things work out extremely well up to a point and then those projects fizzle for unforeseen reasons. This can be hugely disappointing—I lost the opportunity to be a co-author with David Perkins(!)—but learning to move on is also a part of professional development.

Perhaps, if pursued with zest, PD is somehow meant to be this overwhelming cocktail of successes and disappointments. Although we didn’t see it through to the end, I had several take-homes from the experience. For example, I learned how CAST works internally, and I learned a lot about academic project management. This is interesting mostly because I had neither of these points on my mind when I started out with the CAST courses! From what I gather, good PD courses can take you to places you had not imagined when signing up for them—so, remember to embrace it when you see this beginning to happen for you too.

Learning & the Brain

Learning and the Brain conferences and workshops have become synonymous with professional development for MBE-oriented teachers. They are a for-profit organization but don’t hold that against them; because of how they operate as a business, they are extremely successful in getting top-tier researchers to talk for them. In the early 2000s I made of point of attending several of their conferences and Summer Institutes to see what all the hubbub was about.

Through those L&B conferences I was able to meet and learn from Nobel laureate Eric Kandel and PD leader extraordinaire Judy Willis. But I must say I learned the most from the Summer Institute I had with Mary Helen Immordino-Yang. You may recall that I first met Mary Helen at that first Harvard Summer Institute (where she taught a single slot during the week, and had just graduated from Harvard), but now she was an associate professor at USC (working with Antonio Damasio) and conducting her own Summer Institutes. Over the past decade, I loved being able to see this growth in the educators that I had been following, first-hand.

What did we do that particular week? We stayed in dorms at a picturesque campus in Groton, MA, studying the intricacies of cognitive development, with a strong focus on Skill Theory and Mary Helen’s contributions to MBE. Interestingly, Zak Stein (back then, still a PhD Candidate under Kurt Fischer) was also there as Mary Helen’s assistant. He taught us about his doctoral work with Kurt and of his work with Lectica, which he co-founded. See below for more on Lectica.

Mary Helen’s teaching style, along with Zak’s, left a strong impression with me and it informed how I would conduct my own upcoming neuroELT learning/teaching content. So, by this point, I was not only learning new (deeper) content from them, but I was also picking up important nuances for the better design of professional development programs—and tweaking them for Asian audiences. In fact, “better pedagogical design for EFL in Asia” was the specific “problem” that I was working on in Groton, and we had follow-up homework that polished it up.

PD is brain food!

Harvard Extension Semester Course: Mind, Brain, Health, and Education

You can read about this Harvard course elsewhere in this month’s edition. I took the inaugural course, which Kurt Fischer taught. At the end of the course I was asked to be a part of a presentation tour that would visit key cities around the world. Similar to the CAST story, these plans fell through, so I wasn’t able to tour with the MBE group. That was crushing (again!), but being selected for such a mission made all the difference.

Just as the research tells us, when you have somebody that clearly shows faith in you, you can be incredibly motivated. So, it was around this time that I was able to throw all my passion into helping develop the FAB conferences and neuroELT-based teacher training in Asia—with a group of like-minded friends that I personally lassoed-in. I now had the torch in my hand and had that proposed mission firmly planted in my brain.


Lectica is a company co-founded by Theo Dawson and Zak Stein. It is an online PD course school. The school aspect is an outgrowth of the work they started off with—the coding of written responses from students (and adults) that longitudinally tracks the growth of cognitive development. You can take courses that teach you how to code response language so that you get an in-depth understanding of how human cognitive growth works and how it manifests and is displayed in our language usage. You can also take courses that are more tuned for business leaders—learning how to assess which workers are “management material” and which are not, and clearly explain your rationale with solid data from the coding.

At Lectica, I learned how to code the development of students’ writing, and then use Lectica’s ruler to see how L2 students’ command of English developed through a university course that I taught. This data made its way into my doctoral research. But again, this was not my intent when I started studying with them. My take-away from this (and advice to readers) is to allow your brain to wander into new areas with your PD studies. This invariably happened to me with all the above PD courses, and perhaps mostly with Lectica. If coding student growth interests you, have a look at my previous Think Tank article on Lectica and check out their site for a list of their training options.

Concluding words

In this article, I have discussed several PD programs that I took while I was doing my masters and my doctoral work. As you’d likely suspect, the PD content fed me hints on how to enhance my on-going post-grad research projects. However, I’d like to make sure the spotlight also shines on other points that may be more important for readers in the long run.

As I spent a decade on the above PD studies and followed the work of these PD instructors, I was able to: (a) see how these instructors piece together their material, (b) compare the different pedagogical approaches each of them used, and, perhaps most importantly, (c) witness how each of the instructors evolved into better instructors along with their improved content.

I am fascinated by cognitive growth, so I felt privileged to be able to witness PD teachers’ growth up close, but not only that—they also became excellent role models for teacher training. My parting words for you are, please do seek out PD programs and let the content take you to new places. Allow yourself to become nerdy with their content and let the best instructors become your role models. If you do that, you will more quickly see how to interconnect the best they have to offer you with the needs of your teaching context. In this way, you will be able to go out and make a difference in the world—most likely in ways that you have yet to imagine. Although there will surely be bumps in the road, embrace those bumps like I did and make your PD instructors proud with your ground-breaking accomplishments!

"Let the content take you to new places."
Robert Murphy
TT Author

Robert Murphy received his Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Nottingham and MA TESOL from the University of Birmingham (UK). He researches Teacher Education and authors neuroELT-based textbooks. He is co-founder of FAB neuroELT conferences, stemming from studies in Mind, Brain, and Education (Harvard Graduate School of Education).   [email protected] 

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