Teaching to Learn: Two teachers innovate through graduate studies in education.

Ann Lyon Ritchie -

Joshua and Erin Brim-Simpson, Master of Science in High Performance Learning

Joshua and Erin Brim-Simpson

As a typical married couple, Joshua and Erin Brim-Simpson sometimes finish each other's sentences, but as students in Carlow University's graduate program in High Performance Learning (HPL), they are anything but typical.

"We treat the student as a whole," Erin says.

"Right, not just for their academic abilities," Joshua finishes.

Joshua, an instructor of health and physical education and financial and media literacy, and Erin, a math instructor, both teach at The Neighborhood Academy, where they first met.

A view of North Aiken Avenue in the Garfield neighborhood.

The Neighborhood Academy, located in Pittsburgh's Garfield neighborhood, defies expectations for a high school in a low-income community. One hundred percent of students are accepted into college and go on to four-year universities.

Inside the school building, built in 2011, ample natural light pours over brightly painted hallways. A large art classroom and two science laboratories proudly display student work.

The Brim-Simpsons spearheaded a financial literacy program to teach students about budgeting and investing. They admire other unconventional methods used at the school, such as an extended school day and an evening study period.

The couple wants to change current trends in education. They believe in shifting away from test-based assessments so prevalent in public schools and instead focusing on student-centered learning. They feel fortunate to teach at a school that provides them freedom to explore new ways of teaching.

In a student-centered approach, teachers address individual students and use responsive methods to optimize the learning environment. Teachers look for achievements based on an individual's goals and interests.

This approach encourages creative teaching methods, from setting up more engaging learning environments, to the use of mobile apps and computers as support tools. It also means to involving students in activities that stretch their social and mental abilities and allow them to mature emotionally. Academic skills and test scores are only part of it.

The Neighborhood Academy built a new school building in 2011.

Carlow's Master of Science in Leadership in High Performance Learning was ideally suited to the couple's goals. They enrolled together in the fall of 2015 as part of the program's first cohort. 

"We were looking for a different perspective on education. High Performance Learning really struck us as being what we wanted to do because we have a lot of freedom in our school to teach the way we want to," Erin says.

The cohort at Carlow helps to enrich the experience, too, providing a place to discuss new ideas with peers and address the challenges of being pioneers in education. 

"It's not your typical online program. Being in Pittsburgh, I’m able to come down to campus and meet with professors. The professors have just been amazing," Joshua says.

As Carlow students, the Brim-Simpsons identify with both learners and leaders. They use the term scholar-practitioner to describe themselves.

"We're looking to be a catalyst for a shift in education. You can't be a hypocrite. You have to wholly buy into the idea," Joshua adds. 

Perhaps the couple's biggest move is yet to come. One day, they aspire to start their own school together. In the meantime, they strive to apply ingenuity as they teach, and as they learn. 

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