A Lifetime of Wanderlust Leads to a Carnegie Dissertation Award

By Dave DeFusco

Growing up, Jimmie Walker was a military brat. Before her senior year in high school, she had moved so often — seven times — that it developed into full-blown wanderlust as an adult. So when the opportunity arose to conduct a case study halfway around the world for her doctoral dissertation, she seized it.

Scant literature exists on how a neuro-education model might be interpreted and implemented in an early-childhood setting, so Walker, a mother of three and a school district administrator in Texas, asked to go to India for two weeks to collect data for her dissertation, “Brain-Targeted Early Childhood Beginnings: A Case Study in India.”

“Although I guided and encouraged the development of the project,” said Christine Eccles, a visiting assistant professor in the Mind, Brain and Teaching Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, “the initiative and sustained motivation required to see it through to its successful completion were all Jimmie’s. Her strongly independent and innovative mindset was applied throughout the design, development and implementation of the project.”

In September, Walker won the Dissertation in Practice of the Year Award sponsored by the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED). She will be honored in a ceremony at Augusta University in late October. For more information, visit the CPED website.

“I am honored and humbled to win it,” she said. “I will forever be grateful to the faculty at the School of Education, especially my doctoral committee, for pushing me to chase excellence.”

As part of her independent study, Walker examined how the learning sciences were being implemented in early-childhood education at Intellitots, a preschool serving 3- to 7-year-olds in Gurgaon, India, 18 miles south of New Delhi. She studied how the school combined teacher training, curriculum development and community building using the Brain-Targeted Teaching Model as the overarching framework for how research can inform a school’s vision and instructional practices.

She focused on how the preschool set a positive emotional climate and how that affected students’ learning. She worked with the professional staff to explore the words they used to provide feedback to young students.

“By providing specific and timely feedback directed at effort and reflection rather than final products, teachers can help students develop a growth mindset,” said Walker. “We want teachers to focus on feedback strategies that promote positive emotions so that students are more likely to commit new learning to long-term memory.”

She said Intellitots is transforming education in India by providing time for teachers to learn and plan collaboratively in developing lessons for students. “That’s empowering,” she said. “It doesn’t sound earth-shattering, but when you think about the way we structure schools, classrooms are like egg cartons. We go into our silos and close the lid.”

Intellitots is widely recognized for its groundbreaking work in the field of early-childhood education and care. After investigating several models integrating research from the brain sciences into curriculum, the preschool adopted the Brain-Targeted Teaching Model because of its emphasis on creative problem-solving, mastery of learning, the fine arts and the importance of the emotional and physical climate for learning.

Pooja Goyal, a founder of Intellitots, said they liked that Mariale Hardiman, interim dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, had been a teacher and principal, and that “the Brain-Targeted Teaching framework was authentic for classroom practice. We needed a way to translate research into the curriculum and classroom practice.”

Walker holds a certificate in Mind, Brain and Teaching from the School of Education, and has served as Eccles’ teaching assistant for the past two summers in the EdD-level course “Mind, Brain and Science of Learning.” She is the academic dean for elementary schools in the Alamo Heights Independent School District in charge of curriculum, assessment and instruction for nearly 5,000 public school students in Texas.

“Jimmie’s analysis has the potential to open additional avenues of inquiry for future doctoral students interested in the translation of theory to practice in multicultural and international settings,” said Eccles.

Before she got into the education field, Walker was an assistant buyer at a retail outlet in San Antonio. When her grandmother, a high school English teacher for over 40 years before she retired, passed away, there was such an outpouring of gratitude from former students that she decided to switch careers.

“My grandmother wasn’t the type to grab a microphone,” said Walker. “She taught in a one-room schoolhouse. She was passionate about teaching, and she made a difference in the world.”

Walker became an elementary school teacher at Stonewall Flanders Elementary School that serves 600 students from a high-poverty community in the Harlandale district of San Antonio. After teaching there for six years, she got the bug to move and took a teaching job at Escuela Campo Alegre International School in Caracas, Venezuela. While there, she met her husband and had two children.

“I used to tell my students at Stonewall Flanders that even little kids have big dreams,” she said. “I had my own big dreams, too.”

Then 9-11 happened and after six years in Venezuela, she and her family were summoned by her parents back to Texas. She became an elementary school teacher in Alamo Heights where she is now. In addition to her duties as an administrator, she formed an after-school book study that grew to 50 teachers. They read Eric Jensen and David Sousa’s works, and that led to the idea of integrating neuroscience into the curriculum and eventually her enrollment in the School of Education’s Mind, Brain Teaching certificate program.

“As a working professional, the program was manageable,” said Walker. “It was my first foray into online education. I got to know a community of people all interested in the same thing through discussion boards.”

Within a few months of finishing the certificate program, she enrolled in the online EdD program. She said no other university in the United States offered a program in neuro-education.

“I wanted to be as close to the actual research as I could,” said Walker. “I wanted to learn about my area of interest from the primary researcher, learn from the person who did the research and knew it first-hand.”

She’s now thinking of turning her dissertation into a book on early-childhood providers that would explore how research from the learning sciences could be integrated into early-childhood education and how teachers could employ it in early-childhood practices.

“What I loved about the EdD program was that I was driving what I wanted to know,” said Walker, who graduated this year with her doctorate. “The faculty provided me with resources and were there to help me talk it through.”

 

Jimmie Walker with the staff of Intellitots in Gurgaon, India.