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Episode 16: Neuroscience & the Classroom – Making Connections

Today, we have a special episode, an excerpt from Annenberg Learner series, Neuroscience & the Classroom: Making Connections – a video course designed to familiarize K-12 educators with current neuroscience research that could be used in the classroom. The following episode highlights exciting developments in the field of neuroscience leading to new understandings of how the brain works and provides insights into brain function that can be harnessed by teachers for use in their own classrooms to address their own particular challenges.  

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Mind, Brain, and Education [01:35] 

Paul B. Yellin: I’m an associate professor of pediatrics at NYU School of Medicine, and I direct a center called the Yellin Center for Mind, Brain and Education. 

Narrator: Mind, Brain and Education (MBE) integrates the work of clinicians, neuroscientists, and educators.  

Paul B. Yellin: What we were hoping for is creating language, vocabulary, shared conversations where we can help each other move forward in helping children. We are understanding through research about brain development that there is a wide range of normal variation in different children’s brains, that there is something called neuroplasticity, which means people’s brains are changing all the time; even over the course of a classroom lesson, it seems, we’re making new brain cells. That, therefore, how people’s brains work and how different brains work differently affects how people learn. We make educators feel inadequate if kids aren’t getting good grades or kids are not passing all the end-of-your examinations, instead of really looking at what the statistics show, which we know that something like nationally, 38% of high school graduates are reading at a twelfth-grade level, that as much as 20% of normal children are going to have difficulty learning, no matter how you teach them. And so that, I think helping teachers understand that when children are not successful, it doesn’t mean that they’re doing a bad job, and that there’s information out there that can help them understand the children in the classroom and help them really be more successful. A common question that we do get is, “Is this the latest fad?” 

You know, last year it was whole language and now this year it’s brains. Well, I guess the argument that we would have to make is that it’s hard to imagine brains not being part of education in the future. And, you know, as I speak to young educators, what I hear from them is that they’re hungry for understanding about how learning happens, and that a lot of their education is really focused on, sort of, curriculum and the details of math and how it’s taught; but understanding how children learn is something that is going to empower them, and that isn’t just a new fad.  

Narrator: Many educators feel they are unequal partners in a vertical collaboration. MBE is a horizontal collaboration of equal partners.  

Paul B. Yellin: There is a natural perception when a clinician or a scientist walks in the room that there’s this hierarchy, or that the expert or the academician is telling you how to do my job. And I think that we need to move past that; I think the notion of Mind, Brain, and Education is to be equal partners. The important issues that affect how children learn don’t live in any one discipline. And that traditionally, we’ve all been out here alone as pediatricians, or as educators, or as mental health professionals, or as researchers, and Mind, Brain, and Education addresses, or attempts to address, the fact that really there needs to be a conversation across disciplines, and that as that conversation happens, first of all, we all have a lot to learn from each other, and, more importantly, we can all be more effective in how we do our jobs.  

Emotion and Cognition: A Neuroscientist’s Perspective [05:28] 

Narrator: In Atherton, California, teachers from Sacred Heart Preparatory and neighboring schools attended a presentation by Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang about the connection between emotion and cognition and how it affects education.  

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang: In fact, I don’t even like to think of emotion and cognition as separate things. They’re really – there’s thinking and thinking has an emotional aspect and it has a cognitive aspect. And you can analyze one aspect or the other and kind of ignore one for now, but real thinking is never divorced from emotion, it’s always got the two things together.  

Narrator: Mary Helen invited the teachers to participate in a dialogue about the relevance of research on emotion and cognition to teaching practices.  

Teacher: So, students, adolescents, they’re very emotional when it comes to everything. Do you think that’s a hindrance or help when it comes to us trying to teach them using their emotions? Is that a help or a hindrance? 

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang: How could you make emotions a help? They need to be encouraged to be able to marshal their mind into an emotional space that’s relevant to the current context. That’s where the best emotional thinking happens. And so, the fact that they have strong emotions is helpful because once you get there, they can get so enthusiastic or so engaged, and so connected to the material, if that’s facilitated for them, if they get into it. But if they don’t, they can be, by the same token, extraordinarily distracted, extraordinarily frustrated, and extraordinarily unwilling to mentally move into that space. It’s a double-edged sword. Yeah, it’s a double-edged sword.  

Narrator: After the talk, teachers met in small groups to discuss specific challenges within the classroom.  

Teacher: Are you saying that the emotions that we see adolescents going through about the zits on their faces, etc, that we consider irrelevant, aren’t necessarily irrelevant?  

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang: Oh, no! They’re very relevant!  

Narrator: Mary Hellen suggested possible solutions based on the neurological link between emotion and learning.  

Teacher: One of the things we all face on a daily, weekly basis is the emphasis on the high-stakes testing. And we have to teach to the test with the pacing guide, etc., sometimes not in a way that facilitates learning for our students or creates joy in our lives. And there’s also a horrendous amount of tension, both from the students and the teachers as this comes up. Can you give us some suggestions to find positive ways to deal with this? Because we can’t ignore it.  

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang: No, you cannot; it’s a big problem. So, at the highest level, which isn’t the immediate answer, but we have to think about ways to make tests better. But that’s not the answer you’re looking for; you need to know what to do. And so, here’s what I would suggest, it’s kind of mutiny from the bottom up, you know, so to speak, let’s just color it from a little bit at a time. And that is that, we should think about the tests as testing not what a kid knows in general, but what a kid knows in a particular context. And so, we need to understand tests, not as obstacles, but as giving us information about one aspect of children’s learning, and that is, what can they do with this kind of material in a testing situation. But then how do you teach so that you can actually have the kids do well on the test, because you need to, otherwise you’re accountable, right? I still think that if you do something where you’re actually, it might take longer at the beginning, upfront, but rather than telling them it, let them learn it, let them discover it, let them extract it from a cleverly orchestrated context that allows them to discover it themselves, or to measure it themselves, then once you’ve got that, you can use that and extract out from that the sort of the concrete, discrete things that they’re going to need for a test later. The bottom line is, you have to have faith in yourself and in your students that if they understand the material deeply, they’ll be able to transfer that knowledge into a test-taking situation, and then you also have to save a little bit of time to actually let them practice doing that. Because transferring the knowledge into the test-taking situation is a piece of test-taking skill, and that’s where you need to actually practice taking a test, because otherwise if you’ve not seen one before, then you’re figuring out, not just your knowledge but how to take a test at the same time.  

Teacher: I know that in our western culture the emotions tend to get a, philosophically, a pretty low-grade status. And the goal of the philosophical meditation is to become more rational. 

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang: That’s right, which means take away your emotion.  

Teacher: Right, and so, this is more of a comment, but it’s fascinating that what we’re suggesting is somewhat the opposite – that we need to bring thought to bear on emotion and to feel the right things at the right time. And so, the goal is maybe to get them more emotional in proper ways.  

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang: More personally connected to the meaning of it, exactly. So, it’s not an accident that the first book on the neurobiology of emotion by Antonio Damasio, who is one of my mentors, was called Descarte’s Error, exactly for that reason. And now just to add a little more evidence to what you noticed, exactly right. We now have very good evidence from patients with brain damage, just happen to have brain damage, in regions of the brain that are involved in basically feeling the physiology of an emotion and connecting that to your high-level thinking and planning into the future. And what happens with these people is that they are still very smart, but they make terrible decisions, and they become psychopathic. They’re actually amoral people, who can’t live on their own, and it’s not only that their decision-making is – their decision making is supremely rational. They weigh the consequences and the risks, in a kind of a rational way, and then they pick the one that’s best. But they’re insensitive to the kind of emotional implications of particular choices that the rest of us are very sensitive to. They don’t get that kind of queasiness saying, “this might be a little…” you know, this has got very high stakes, and it could lead to very good outcomes, so you might want to pick it, but you might also want to consider the bad thing that could happen. And what happens is they end up burning themselves out in all ways, not just in emotional and social ways but in terms of rational decisions; they make bad business decisions, they lose all their money, they gamble, they cheat on their wives, they do all these kinds of things that ruin their lives because they are insensitive to the long-term emotional implications of a bad decision now. That just teaches you, teaches us, about the role of, sort of, praise and punishment and social acceptance and social evaluation and group membership and culture in the development of moral and social thinking, which is absolutely emotional as well as cognitive, and rationality divorced from emotion is very bad for us. It ruins our lives in all sorts of ways. Exactly. The original Kantian philosophers had it wrong in that sense.  

Teacher: I teach in the middle school, and the one thing that is pervasive with middle school are emotions and I teach science, and in the 8th grade it’s chemistry. And right now, it’s so frustrating because they don’t understand, and to try and get these points across to them sometimes it’s very difficult. So, I try and break it down into very simple terms, but then you have these kids who their frustration actually shuts them off – how do you get them without doing the one-on-one, touchy-feely, you know, just – unfortunately don’t have time in a day to really get into that with them, how do you get around that? How do you start, because I can understand, I can go through the empathy process with them, I totally understand their frustration, but it’s almost like, how do we get them past that? What do we have to do in order to make them move through that?  

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang: That’s a great question. So, what you’re basically describing is the emotion of frustration – the cognitive aspects of the emotion of frustration are to shut down alternative avenues of thought, right? You just want to end and get out of there. That is the cognitive aspect of that emotion. So, it’s a piece of the frustration emotion that you’re seeing. In order to get around that, what you need to do, and I can’t tell you how to do this, you know your kids, your curriculum, but what you need to do, I think, is find a way that you can design an experience for those kids, a context for those kids to learn something where they are engaging it from the bottom up, and they discover what it is you need them to know. Rather than you telling them from the top, which is leading them to frustration, because they’re coming from such a different place that they can’t get to where you’re coming from, and then they’re missing you, and then because they’re adolescents and they don’t regulate their emotion well and reflect on it, especially in that moment, then the piece of the emotion, that’s cognitive, which is the shutting off, starts to happen, and then you’re really done. If you can find a way to engage them from the bottom up so that they actually are facilitated, unbeknownst to them, if they engage with this experiment in the way that it’s meant, and they’re really thinking about it, they can’t help but to discover what it is you wanted them to understand anyway. It can help hugely to get them around it, and then you can come back and teach it the other way, too, but now they’ve got something to hook it to. And that can help a lot.  

Peer Mentoring [15:12] 

Hallie Cohen: One, two, let’s try it, go.  

Narrator: After taking a workshop on neuroscience and education, music teacher Hallie Cohen recognized that she needed to find a way to make playing instruments more emotionally relevant for her students. She also understood that learning does not happen in a vacuum, but in a social context.  

Hallie Cohen: The thing that’s really important is building a community of learners. It was reinforced that kids really will learn more from each other in some ways then actually from the instructor and I said, “okay, how do I use this?” 

Melissa, work with Scheherazade; Phoebe, you’re going to work with Nathan.  

Narrator: Hallie began providing lots of opportunities for her students to make music socially. She created structured time for peer mentoring, where older students helped teach her younger students.  

Student: One, two, ready, go. You’re playing one extra note, so it’s just, “Give me a break today, yo, I need a break.” Yeah, it’s good, it’s just the same thing.  

Narrator: Peer mentoring helps the students become emotionally engaged. The older mentors get validation and appreciation for their work, and the younger students, since they look up to the older ones, become more focused.  

Hallie Cohen: They’re more confident. They got this support by more experienced players, and it’s always been my experience that when there is an older peer mentor working with the younger students that they get it a lot faster than if I was just, like you know, hounding them. For some reason, even as the peer mentor is doing the same thing that I would do, they get it a lot quicker in that situation.  

Student: The last note, the ‘E’, it’s a fourteenth-note. But, so, we’re rushing it a little bit though. You know that train-track thing, that means you stop all sound and then you begin.  

Hallie Cohen: Kids like to know that they’re going to be heard and that what they are saying is important and valuable. That is fundamental to all this. Yay, good!  

Dynamic Skill Development [18:02] 

Narrator: Piaget’s classic conservation experiment illustrates how young pre-operational learners can’t distinguish the same amount of liquid put in two differently sized containers. 

Dr. Kurt Fischer: If it’s taller and that’s what they’re focusing on, then they say the taller one is more. If it’s more flat out, wide, you know, it looks like a big pancake, and that looks like more, then they’ll say, “The low one is more.” 

Whatever they happen to focus on is what they choose as more.  

Narrator: But as learners experience and engage with the world, they reach a certain developmental moment when they start to recognize the amounts of liquid as equivalent. These moments when learners make large leaps in understanding is what interests Dr. Kurt Fisher, the director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard University.  

Dr. Kurt Fischer: We could see these times when a child was creating new knowledge, a new way of thinking. For example, a child would say, “Oh, there’s more in the tall one.” And then he would say, “Oh! Wait a minute, Hmm…boy that’s hard. I got to think about that. I think maybe they’re the same, but I’m not sure.”  

So, you see, the child is getting an insight and starting to work on it, but they still have to get it consolidated. That’s the beginning of a new way of thinking about amount.  

Narrator: Dr. Fisher has been studying the emergence of new skills, or jumps in learning with a combination of re-examining 100 years of cognitive developmental research, his own novel interview research, and EEG studies. He found rapid jumps in performance at certain ages when students were performing under optimal conditions.  

Dr. Kurt Fischer: We got the idea that, “Well, we can look for rapid changes in kind of thinking.”  

So, we then went through a bunch of data, and we created some new studies where we would actually look for the sudden surge in a new kind of thinking. We found that we could actually measure that numerically.  

Narrator: Researching thousands of students in numerous subjects led Kurt to develop Dynamic Skill Theory. One of the key components of this model is universal developmental levels. This scale, which starts at three to six months and goes well into adulthood, can be used to measure where student’s thinking lies developmentally on almost any concept.  

Dr. Kurt Fischer: We’ve collected a bunch of evidence now that shows that the same scale works in every domain we’ve looked at. We have documented that in many different ways. One of the most important ones is to look for times of reorganization of knowledge, evidence that people are reorganizing their minds, are thinking in a different way, are building a new kind of knowledge. Those times of reconstruction co-occur at common ages and at common points in learning sequences.  

Narrator: The scale starts in infancy with motor actions, then builds to more complex representations, and finally to advanced abstractions.  

Dr. Kurt Fischer: Infants are focusing on actions and perceptions and how they work together. We call that sensorimotor action. So, how do I look at something? How do I grasp something? Those actions then get put together to create what we call representations. Toddlers can create a representation of a mother, a representation of a self, a representation of a ball, and they build that representation out of their action systems. Once they’ve got representations, they create more and more complicated representations, moving from single representations to connections between representations, to complicated connections between representations. That leads them to build another new entity for understanding, which we call an abstraction. They move from understanding the President, for example, as the boss of everybody, which is a concrete representation, to understanding the President as a role in the government. The President is the chief executive. That’s an abstraction. Each level is a reorganization of what’s gone on before, moving on to a more sophisticated kind of thinking and problem-solving than we were able to do earlier.  

Narrator: In these cognitive developmental jumps, Kurt came up with a remarkable surprise. He discovered a close connection between the growth cycles in his scale and EEG results that were measuring neural activity in the cortex of the brain.  

Dr. Kurt Fischer: So, as a child is developing in infancy and childhood, on into adolescence, for each of the levels that we see in skill, there’s a growth pattern in the brain that we see, where the growth of networks moves around the brain systematically. The most extensive evidence involves EEG, or the electroencephalogram electrical waves in the brain. We see correlations between waveforms in different brain regions that show that there’s a surge in connections. It seems to start with growth being maximal from front to back, and then it moves over into the right hemisphere, then more into the left hemisphere, and then starts over again. So that cycle of brain growth correlates with cognitive growth, with the emergence of a new level in the child’s or adolescent’s development.  

This is one of the places that neuroscience and education come together just beautifully. Neuroscience has shown us that in order to reshape the brain, experience can reshape the brain, but it only does it when we are actively doing things. In a world in which we’re manipulating objects in a certain way, that changes the way our brain works. Neuroscience has shown us that this active experience will reshape the brain. Passive experience where animal is just exposed to something, does not reshape the brain. The brain is only reshaped when we actively work on the objects that we’re experiencing anew. Students frequently memorize what they need to learn and don’t really understand it. One of my friends has a daughter who went off to college and called him crying after her first physics exam, saying, “Dad, I don’t understand physics.” 

His response was, “But, what do you mean? You got an A in high school physics.” 

She said, “But I didn’t understand it. I still don’t understand it. How do these things relate to each other? How do I do an explanation in physics?”  

So, a whole lot of times people memorize in order to get by, and they have a little bit of an understanding here and a little bit of an understanding there, but they don’t really get how it all works together. So, in a classroom we as teachers are constantly trying to help our students to figure out where they need to go in their own learning. One of the major roles for a teacher is to help students to figure out how to direct their own learning. For each level that a child goes through, they need to be engaged in mastering particular skills, particular tasks in particular contexts, and actively manipulating concepts, the representations, the abstractions, in order to reorganize their own mind, to reorganize their own brain so that they can move to a higher level of understanding.  

Emotional Connections in Math and Science [27:20] 

Gary Scott: My name is Gary Scott. I’m with the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. My research is on the emotional connections that I think have to be developed to math and science content knowledge in order to sustain interest in the joy of learning in mathematics and science. I think it’s time that we make a strong case from the neuroscience perspective, how important that is to students’ persistence and enjoyment in learning mathematics and science.  

Do I have to pay more money here with this representation or this representation?  

Student: They’re the same.  

Gary Scott: Why?  

I immediately tried to come into classrooms and work with kids at a very early age to find out ways that we could provide evidence that we think that that’s the case, and creative ways that they could implement what we think are the kinds of approaches that will actually foster that emotional connection. We also are going to try to measure that using some neuroscience methods to establish a case of a difference in the brain functioning as a result of tapping into kids’ inherent creativity. Neuroscience is going to provide us hard, scientific evidence that many of us have suspected and only just hoped we were right about it. Without that kind of hard scientific evidence, a lot of education becomes “he said, she said” and trends and fads and whatnot. When we have hard evidence from the world of neuroscience about how learning occurs and what affects learning, we can be very confident in the kinds of approaches that foster those deep neural connections that we have long suspected to be the case.  

Students Think for Themselves [29:12] 

LaNelle Harvey: My name is LaNelle Harvey. We’re at 93rd Street School in South Central Los Angeles. I really believe in trying to help the kids to be thinkers. Why are you choosing answers you’re choosing? Why are you choosing strategies that you’re choosing? Not thinking about the right or the wrong answer, but thinking about why and what leads me to that answer. So, someone who thinks he thinks it’s wrong; what is your evidence?  

Student: He let Kunta Kinte free because he knew that slavery was bad and he should have freedom.  

LaNelle Harvey: Okay, anybody else agree with that? Disagree with that? I’m trying to wean them off of me, challenge each other. I say, “Oh, you all agree with that answer.” 

Everybody’s quiet. “No, no.” Say something. So, it’s trying to engage them in discussion, which is actually, it’s the learning style of African Americans and Latinos. Anyway, having to discuss, we discuss, we discuss, we come to a conclusion.  

“How many agree with number eleven? Raise your hands if you agree with number eleven.” 

Now I’m doing Socratic seminar in math, where the kids have to get into a small circle and share their answers and start challenging each other and coming up with mathematical, logical thinking for their answers. It’s not just one and one is two; sometimes I’ll say, “What if I say it’s three? Prove to me it’s two; how do you know it’s two?” 

In the process of defending their answers, either they’re going to decide, “Oh, maybe it’s not two; maybe it’s something else,” or it’s going to strengthen their thinking. So, it’s questioning techniques. Remember, and this ties over into your reading passages, why you choose the answers you choose. I had the kids read Jack and the Beanstalk and I said, “The question we’re going to discuss the next day, “Is Jack a good guy or a bad guy?” Because traditionally, we have learned, “Oh, he’s a good guy; this kid went and killed the giant and da-di-da-di-da.”  

So, the kids just discuss it and I was shocked by how deep the kids got into Jack and the Beanstalk. They were arguing he’s a bad guy, he killed this giant. The giant didn’t come down to their land, he went up to the giant’s land and he killed this giant. He was stealing from him. Some kids say, “Well, he’s trying to help his mother to survive.”  

They really got into a lot of discussion and what ended up, we started writing a play; they wanted to put Jack and the giant’s wife on trial for conspiracy to commit murder. And we started writing the play.  

Any test they throw at you is going to seem “easy” if you are prepared, and the way you prepare is by coming to school, paying attention, asking questions, discussing things, doing your homework. The way I’m to prepare you is by providing the environment in which you can do this. I think the dropout rate here is because these kids, they experience bad experiences in school; the dropout rate in high school in this area is 70%. We need to change that. I did a study here at the school with two groups of students; one using problem-based learning and one using rote learning. My students did better in all the academic areas of school; they outdid the other fifth graders at that time. I’m just convinced just through experiences, reading – I’m just convinced that it is the best way to go.  

Neuroscience & the Classroom: Making Connections

A video course designed to familiarize K-12 teachers with current neuroscience research that they can apply in their own classrooms.