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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia Webinar: How the Brain Learns Best

Strategies to Make Learning Stick
Related Tags: All Grades

Grace: This Spring Webinar is the second of our four professional development webinars hosted exclusively for our members each year. These interactive events are designed to connect our members with leaders in education reform, and they'll allow you to directly ask questions and learn from each other and from experts in the field. So for today, brain research is a ballooning field with big implications for education. But it's also a very young field. And we don't know enough about many aspects of the brain to come to clear conclusions. We explain some of what brain research tells us about multiple intelligences in our last issue of Edutopia Magazine, which you can see right here on your screen. And you can find that story along with-- which does include quotes and tips from today's speaker, Dr. Judy Willis-- here on edutopia.org. We'll also have a post-webinar discussion page on our website, where you'll find links to many of our previous stories from Edutopia about learning and the brain. Today, Judy's going to take us deeper into this subject, into the mechanics of brain research and education. She'll explain some practical strategies based in neuroscience that we can use in the classroom. And this discussion is only the beginning. We're going to continue the conversation in the pages of Edutopia Magazine with further coverage this fall. And on that discussion page, which we'll provide you a link to at the end of the webinar. So our speaker today, Dr. Judy Willis, is a middle school teacher who holds an MD and had her own neurology practice before becoming an educator. She speaks nationally and internationally on brain research in education, and has written five books on the subject, including research based strategies to ignite student learning. It's my pleasure to introduce Dr. Judy Willis. Judy, are you with us? Okay, if you can give us just one moment to make sure that Judy is online. We'll be right there.

Judy: Hi, this is Judy Willis.

Grace: Hi, Judy. You're good to go.

Judy: And I'm happy to be joining you on the webinar today in Edutopia, and I'm delighted to see how many of you are interested in learning about the connections between neuroscience and learning. I'll take you through strategies, and I'll take you through neuroscience. I'll take you even into the neuroscience on neuro-imaging. And I promise to connect you with some positive strategies to use in the classroom, although this is just a brief introduction, a lot more to come. For example, when you think about the brain and how the child learns as in a classroom, one part of it is what information gets into the student's brain? There's so much around us. What gets in? And where does it go when it does get in? The other thing we'll talk about is how to encourage the information to travel to the parts of the brain that are reflective instead of reactive. And you'll be seeing more of that. The other final reason we'll be evaluating the neuroscience of learning is to see how we can connect with students to help them increase their ability, not only to learn information but to retain what they learn and to be able to use it in other factors and in other ways.

What you see here are four neuro images of four different brains. And it's a conglomerate of a number of studies. But the main thing to notice is the metabolic activity, the most brain activity is in the neuro image on the bottom right, where it says, "Thinking about words." And that's where the activity is in the prefrontal cortex. That's the front of the brain. All the brains are facing to your left, and these are side views. The only place in the brain where conscious activity goes on, decision-making, memory storage, in terms of conscious memories, the only place where that happens significantly is in this prefrontal cortex. So as you see the other areas lit up in the other brains, hearing words, seeing words, speaking words, those are all below consciousness. Those are simple responses. But in the thinking about words there's actual cognition, thinking, active mentation, thinking about things going on. And that's why it's so important to realize that there are pathways from the time there's information in the environment-- environmental sounds, sights, touches-- to get that information into this thinking conscious part of the brain is the journey that I'll be taking you on.

The journey begins at the lowest part of the brain, the brain stem. What you see or hear doesn't directly go into the cortex where all the neurons are. Everything that you see, hear, touch, move first has to cycle back in, and in the back door to the brain, through something called the reticular activating system. This is the very first filter in the brain that determines what information gets in. For example, there's billions of bits of information around us all the time from different sounds, colors, lights, intensities of colors, intensities of sounds, shadows. Billions of bits of information every second. The brain is not capable of handling that. So the brain-- in the brain stem, this first filter, the reticular activating system, is in charge of determining what 2,000 bits of information get access to the brain. And that's an unconscious decision.

So how can we be sure as educators, parents that what we need a student to hear, or to see, or to pay attention to is going to be one of those 2,000 bits of information? Well, it turns out the reticular activating system in humans is pretty much the same as it is in animals, and has been for millions of years. It's basically there to let in the information that will allow the animal and species to survive. And one of the most effective ways of assessing information for survival value is to see what's new, what's changed, what's different. So when a student is in a classroom, the first thing a student, just like a little fox would be noticing, is what's changed, and what's different.

That is the possibility of getting into the RAS. But now what we'll find out is what of the information that gets in, where does it go? What happens is the RAS, this first filter, gives preference, as I said, to novelty, something that's changed. But it gives highest preference to something that's changed that is perceived as a possible threat. Unconsciously. But if it's a new sound, a new smell-- whether it's a fox or a rabbit or a wolf or a baby-- the first information that will get priority is anything that's potentially dangerous. Now once the RAS perceives danger, everything that comes in is sent to that same unconscious reactive brain, not to the thinking brain. So in the classroom what this means is basically try thinking about students, or your child, as a little fox. When a fox comes out of its den in the morning, the first thing it will do, unconsciously, is see what's changed, smell what's changed. Take that in, the RAS will first assess whether it's threatening, dangerous. Then if not, it will start letting in information about something that's new and different, or all the things that are new and different that it can fit, that could possibly result in pleasure. An immediate goal. The children in the classroom are just like the fox. They give priority first to anything that's stressful or dangerous, then to something that's new, interesting curiosity-provoking.

So let's introduce you to your RAS. Take a minute, or a few seconds and read this aloud to yourself. Now go back and look at it. And did you notice that the word "the" was there twice? Good for you if you did. But good for your RAS if you didn't. Because the RAS is looking for important-- it's making a value judgment, it's picking out things that are new and important, relying on old patterns, and helping the brain be efficient, so that in the efficient brain it didn't see the second "the" because even though it was there, it was there to be taken into your brain, it wasn't-- it didn't make it to the prefrontal cortex, because it wasn't important, it wasn't novel, it wasn't a new word. So for example, if the students are in the classroom, just like that fox, the most important thing to getting information in, is that it's not going to be threatening. Only once the animal or child is not in the survival mode, because we reduced stress, only at that point, can the input get through the RAS into the more thinking brain. That's why we do things in class like morning rituals, morning jobs. Having a song that we sing. And in upper grades, doing a specific activity. Students have some expectation of what's going to happen, and they know that the classroom is a safe place, because you enforce the rules that are there.

So once the survival needs are taken care of, then the exciting novelty, change, curiosity-- the things that we can do now to get the information through this RAS are to bring about the things that would stimulate that curiosity, strangeness, novelty, surprise, as long as there's no threat. And here's where you can have a great time discovering what to do that will be novel and interesting and curious to get those students in the door. What can you do to-- color is one of the things that does it. Wearing costumes, playing music, playing-- having a song playing that the students will somehow during the classroom try to figure out what that song has to do with the lesson. These are going to get their attention on the information you want them to focus on. What about advertising? We know that that's powerful influence that captures our attention. So when you're in advance of a lesson that's coming up, a lesson that may not be one that students will gravitate to, won't be excited about for its own novelty, you can advertise it. A few weeks before a lesson that I give, for example, in centrifugal force, I'd advertise-- and I have done this with a big butcher block paper that says, "In a few weeks The Force will be with you." And when I first did it, it was "Star Wars" time. A little while later, a few days later, I flipped the butcher block paper around and wrote, "In a week, you will have The Force." Now the students are all curious. They're wondering. It's new. It's novel. And they're ready to be engaged. So the day before when I say, "Tomorrow The Force will be with you," their eyes are open, their ears are open, and their RAS is open. It's novel, they're curious. Then they'll be paying attention to the lesson, because they want to know. They have a positive immediate goal. They've been primed by advertising. I might put up a picture of somebody with a broken arm, or a fractured arm, and eventually as they start guessing, when they finally come into the lesson-- most students don't really love on fractions, they'll either be excited, "I guessed it! I guessed it!" or they'll be curious, "Oh, now I see! That's what it meant," and their RAS will be open.

So in review, to get that RAS to care, to let in the information students need, because we need them to learn it to have the RAS care, it has to be stimulating, interesting, connect with their personal goals. Then it can get through that first filter. For example, take a look at this picture. Anytime you get a novel picture, like in your email, or you see a picture, think about how it would evoke curiosity in the classroom. This is a startling picture. It's beautiful, dynamic. Now if you think for a second, how could you relate to this to a lesson you're going to be teaching in the next few days? Okay, I bet you thought of something. If not, come back later and look at it again. But I've heard examples at different presentations I've given, for example, passing a law. Just because we have a law, there's a lot of groundwork that goes on before then. Or a lesson in ratio and proportion. Or a lesson in looking at things superficially, or looking at things deeply. So look at these great images, and use that to get the RAS to pay attention to what you're going to teach.

Okay, we've got things through the RAS, great. Our information came in with those 2,000 bits. Now there's that next filter, the amygdala. It's part of the limbic system. Sometimes called the affective filter deep inside the brain, one on each side. The information that comes through the RAS has to go through this amygdala before it can reach the prefrontal cortex, which you can see on the left. However, the amygdala is not just a place where it passes through. It also is a conductor. It will send information once again to that reactive, unconscious brain. If there's stress, if there's anxiety, if there's even unhappiness, it's more subtle than the RAS. If the student is uncomfortable, nervous, concerned, frustrated, bored, the amygdala can shunt it to that non-thinking brain. But if the environment is positive, if there's interest, if it's relative to the student, the student's feeling good, then the RAS can pass that information through into the memory regions as well as to the prefrontal cortex. So what can we do about that? what can we do to see that the information goes through the amygdala to that thinking brain? Once again, if there's stress, then the input's going to go reactive. And this reactive brain has three choices. It's not even a choice. Automatically, this unconscious reactive brain, if that's where it goes, has three behaviors: fight, flight and freeze. And we'll see more about that in a minute. But if the student is in a state of relaxed alertness, interested, curious, then the information will go through to the prefrontal cortex, which is the reflective brain.

Now here's something interesting. One of the reasons that I changed careers from neurology to teaching was because I got so many referrals to these diagnoses you see here: ADHD; oppositional-defiant; staring spells, that would called seizures; OCD. And this started happening about ten years ago, and it was astonishing to me why I was getting all these referrals when I evaluated these children, and they really didn't have any higher percentage of these problems than previously. Well, think about it, if there's a state of stress, non-engagement, boredom, frustration, the amygdala is doing the right thing in terms of what it's programmed to do. It's taking the information that's happening in the classroom, shunting it into what you see the green area, the lower brain, where that's the three choices. So if the student is acting oppositional-defiant, that's probably the fight mode. And if they're ADHD and jiggling the change in their pocket, and doing things, wandering around the room, that would be the flight mode. And if they're not talking to anybody, staring straight ahead, and you think they might be having a petit mal seizure, they might be in the freeze mode. So it's not really they're intentionally not paying attention, or misbehaving, it's just that in the absence of an engaging, stimulating, interesting relevant activity, this is where the information goes. So the amygdala will respond, will let things through to the conscious brain if they're interesting, relevant or seem pleasurable. Same as an animal's.

So what can we do in the classroom? We talked about advertising. But think of the amygdala as a place that's judging here, me and now. When you're teaching that lesson, would a very fairly simple conductor in the brain feel, and make the interpretation that the information you're sharing-- will the student think that the information has something that they should care about right now, right here, for me. Because if it doesn't, the likelihood of frustration, zoning out, being bored, and losing that reach-- not reaching the higher conscious brain is a high possibility. So think, here, me and now. So what are some things that we can do that make the lesson a here, me and now? We'll get to those as soon as I convince of some of the neuroscience. Remember I said that stress will send information into the non-thinking reactive fight, flight, freeze brain. Well, in some of these experiments, what did they do to stress or frighten or make the students that are tested anxious? They don't send tigers into the room. They simply showed them in many of the studies, images of faces. The faces on the top are shown to the students who were in the group that are called the stress group. And the series of smiling happy faces, like the man in the lower picture are the ones that are shown to the students in the non-stress group. So basically, the stress that they're exposed to before a memory task is simply unpleasant grumpy faces, or happy faces. That's it. So realize how, when you see the results, realize that that's the stress. What the activity is while they're in the scanner, while their brains are being evaluated, the activity they're given is to look at a list of ten words. And then they're told that after they see the ten words for a minute or two, they're going to see a list of fifty words. And every time they see one of the original ten words in the list of fifty words, they'll click a little button that's in their hand, and it'll be recorded.

Well, here's the amazing amygdala. The group that was Group A, the ones that saw the happy faces, while both of these scans were taking while they were remembering, while they were seeing the fifty words, and trying to put the clicker down when one of the words was familiar. So Group A, you see the yellow areas. Well, the yellow areas, which are yellow on the left are the same ones in the B picture. The amygdala is red in the B picture. The B picture is the stress state. In those students, in those people being scanned, you see the amygdala all red, highly metabolic. But unlike the picture on the left, the ones who were not stressed, in the positive state, you actually see the metabolism, you see the neural activity going right from the amygdala into the prefrontal cortex. So the student, the subjects and the positive emotional state here in scans-- this is a sketch of the scans-- in the scans we could actually see the brain sending activity, the amygdala is conducting it, to the thinking reflective brain. Whereas, in the stressed state, the information is blocked. It's not going to the prefrontal cortex, and the information when they're tested, when we look at the analysis, how many of the words that they recognize, the students in the stress state recognize 25 percent fewer of the words. And that was all the stress was. Those faces. So now, hopefully, I've demonstrated just one of the studies that shows how the brain reacts to the stress.

Now what are the stresses that-- other stresses besides the grumpy faces that puts students into this reactive state? They're not horrible things. They're fear of being wrong, embarrassed to read aloud, concerned about cliques and bullying. But two really big ones are frustration with difficult material-- if what you're teaching is-- they just don't understand it; or boredom from lack of stimulation because what you're teaching is something they've already learned. So it's very difficult. It's like the three bears. How're you going to get something just right, because no matter what lesson you're teaching, even in a homogenous math class, there'll be students who catch on right away; there'll be students who need a lot more explaining through multi-sensory exposures; and there'll be a few students in the middle, who are just right with you. So how can we prevent the frustration or the boredom from turning the RAS into that stressed state? What can we do so that the amygdala doesn't block flow to the prefrontal cortex? Because as you see here, once again, when there's that state of fear, anger or sadness, any of those things with stress, you'll get the freeze with sadness, you'll get the fight with anger, you'll get the fear will cause the fight, flight and freeze. Yet, when there's happiness, there's the information getting to the prefrontal cortex.

So what can we do about this? What are our strategies? How can we know? Well, we can know that they're bored or frustrated probably because they'll be showing those behaviors: the fight, flight or freeze. But here's a way to prevent it. Personalizing. What we can do for the here, me and now, and to decrease the amount of boredom or frustration, is to personalize every ten minutes. And I'll tell you what I mean by that. Frequent feedback, we know from lots of studies is incredibly important for, not only students paying attention, but for them learning. But we can't get every student to give us an answer to every question. But with a 99 cent whiteboard and a marker, if you ask questions every few minutes, that the students write it down on the whiteboard, hold it up, put it down, so they're not embarrassed about being wrong. You see it. they put it down. Then within ten or fifteen minutes, you've asked enough questions, you've seen enough of the whiteboard responses, you know two things. You know several things, but one of the two things relevant here is, you know the students who caught on immediately, who got every question right. And you know the students who are getting every question wrong. And you know the students who are about in the middle. Need to hear a little bit more. You can continue with the regular lesson for them. But here's where you decrease the stress. You give the individual personalization. Because now you know who needs it. so after you've seen about ten minutes-- after you've done this, about ten minutes of lessons, you've gotten the feedback, seen who needs your help, that's when you can personalize. At that point, you go to the students-- and you can do this within two or three minutes, once they know the process. You go to the students who are getting bored, because they know exactly-- they even know where you're going to go next. You can tell because of their feedback answers. Those students, you go over to them, call them by name, and tell them to look up on the board or in their book, well, you have these challenge questions. How to relate what they're learning to a subject that they're learning in another class, or that they learned in a previous book, or how to think about how it relates to the real world. You already prepared a list of higher cognitive discussion questions, and you can pair people up. Two or three students can pair up. And so the people who are frustrated now can pair up, can discuss things, or can write about it. But they don't have to stay with the next ten to fifteen minutes of the lesson as you're doing it, so they won't be frustrated, and their brains will stay open.

What about the students who got everything wrong, and really are going to be losing it, because they're going to be so frustrated, they don't even think they'll be able to understand anything, and not by choice, they're going to shunt the information into that reactive brain? For those students, if they seriously are missing out on it, and you know that they're not going to get what happens in the next part of the lesson, they again, though, because you've done this before, it's time to tell them, "Okay, I see you're having trouble with this. I know you can get it. But you're going to need more time. And I'd love to work with you on it," and you have a set time when you do that. But what you've done is you've told them that they can still let that information in during the next segment of the lesson, because they know you don't expect them to hold up their whiteboards and get all the right answers. They know because, again, you've discussed this with them as a regular process, that they're in a state where if they just stay there and let the information flow through them, flow by them, if they let the words come in, they don't shut down, they don't act out, then they know from experience that it'll give them a little more familiarity. So when you get to work with them in more depth, they'll have actually heard it. They've stimulated some parts of their brain on the topic, and they still hang there with you during the next part of the lesson, because they know their expectations are just to listen, let it flow through them, and you'll go into more detail later. And they're not going fight, flight, freeze. They're not going to be behavioral problems because they're not stressed.

The people in the middle. Perfect. They're just going to stay with you because they're in the right spot. But what are they doing during these two or three minutes, again, you have a number of activities they're used to. But for example, they can pair-share. They can look through the notes that they took, compare them to people at their table, or someone next to them, and fill in details. Or they can also discuss questions that you've set up in advance. So as long you prepare for what you'll do during these two or three minute breaks, it really won't slow down your day, because during this time, you'll be personalizing, open up their brain filters, and the lesson will go so much more smoothly, because they'll be keeping their filters open, information will be traveling into the prefrontal cortex where real thinking and memory takes place, and you won't have the same behavior problems that are the normal brain reaction to stress: fight, flight and freeze.

Now here's another way to personalize that's also fun, and a positive way to get kids to pay attention. I mean, I teach seventh grade math. And really there's very little students would rather be doing that wouldn't have a higher preference than coming and doing algebra. But how do we personalize so that, first of all, the information gets in? Well, we can call it Kid Watching. Over the first few weeks of school, have a clipboard with you with the students name, and when things come up about them, like Mark here, at one point mentions he likes soccer; another point he might be talking about the pizza for lunch, that he loves pizza day; and he may talk about his dog, Rex. Just scribble these down on a clipboard. And a few days later when you have time, you have an index card for each student. And you fill in the little bits of information that you've acquired about them. But within a few weeks, you'll have an index card for all your students. You can later add to it. But then, during the lesson, during the next day's lesson, you pull three of the index cards. And whatever you're teaching or explaining, in any subject, you use narratives, you use examples, you compare characters in books to students in the class. Or you say, "what if." But this time, instead of it being a random name, or just one of the student's names, you really make it personalized by bringing up soccer and Mark and pizza and his dog, Rex. Well, first of all, that's novel. The students aren't used to it. Their RAS is attuned, because knowing things about students in their own class, that's interesting. The math is not the high interest, but, "Oh, I didn't know that like Mark likes soccer. Oh, yeah, and he has a dog? So do I." The brain is now open and relaxed, and unstressed.

So Kid Watching makes it personalized and it becomes here, me and now. And has all of the opportunities to get through the filters into that prefrontal cortex. At which time, they'll probably need what I call a syn-naps. What happens in the brain when a neural network, a part of the brain is being used for a significant amount of time, even ten/fifteen minutes, the part of the brain that's being used starts having a depletion in the neurotransmitters. Particularly the ones that are good for memory, such as dopamine and acetylcholine. So what I do every ten/fifteen minutes, not during that same break where I'm wandering around and checking people out-- but I have a list, and you can go to my website, of syn-naps activities. You can use the same subject, but just go to a different part of the brain. Throw in some movement, throw in some activity. Take a ball that they throw from one to another and say any word or concept they remember from the lesson that you just finished. So remember the syn-naps! Well, I'll give you a syn-naps now, by letting you have a chance to have the floor, and giving you the opportunity, I would love to hear your questions. And I will look forward to responding to them.

Grace: Okay, thanks very much, Judy, for that great introduction to neuroscience...

Judy: Some of the questions, if you choose, can be about something very exciting, now, called neuroplasticity. Which means that as a neural circuit is used, as information continuously goes through a tract of memory that's been laid down, the more it's used, you could "use it or lose it," or "the cells that fire together wire together," what that means in our brains is that when we learn information, and we practice it, review it with different senses, our brain actually grows more dendrites, has more synapses, makes that network stronger. And I explain that to my students. I explain to them that when they learn and practice and study or use it someplace in a different manner, or report to me how they've used the information, that neuro-circuit is being stimulated, growing more dendrites and synapses, and it's becoming more permanent. That's when the practice makes permanent. So they understand, because we learn a little neuroscience, that they are actually are able to change their own brains. They can do neurosurgery on their own brains, because they're building the networks. And I'd love to open it up to questions now!

Grace: Thank you, Judy. And for those of you who may have joined us a little bit late, I'm Grace Rubenstein, a staff writer, multimedia producer here at Edutopia.

Judy: I'm not sure if anyone is out there.

Judy: I'll be fielding questions that you submit on your screen. You should have a question panel right there on your screen, and you can just type your question into the box. And please do include your name and your location when you submit your question, so that I can share that with Dr. Willis and the rest of you who are joining us. We do have more than 380 participants with us right now. So it's a great crowd. And I will just jump right into the questions, because we only have so much time, and we want to get through as many of them as we can. Just a reminder for those of you who came in a little bit late, Dr. Willis, who's with us, is a neurologist and a classroom teacher, and also an author of several books on the subject of brain research and learning. So, first of all, to start off, I have one of my own questions, which is, we talked a lot about stress, and the need to reduce stress in order to let students really absorb information and bring it into those parts of the brain that can reflect on it. But what about the stress that educators can't control that comes from outside the classroom? Dr. Willis, what would you recommend an educator do to try to ease some of that, and thereby enable better learning?

Judy: That's a great question, because we all know that, although, I said it quickly, yes, we have to unstress them. That yes, they do come to school with their own stresses. And as what I've found is the most effective thing to do is recognize that if one is to do-- and is stressed, look at if they're doing a fight, flight, freeze behavior. And what I do even in my middle school math class, I have a bank of computers. Under those computers I have pillows. And if a student is too stressed for me to just go over and check them out, pat them, say, "You okay?" If that doesn't-- if they're in that state of stress-- I don't have to give the same talk every time, but basically-- I say, "Why don't you go ahead and lie down on the pillows?" And just the way I say to them when they're frustrated because they don't understand a lesson, I say, "Don't worry about the details now. Let it float over you. Pick up the things-- you'll hear certain things that you can use later." Because when they're in that state, when they're in the reactive state. We can't say to a fox, "Okay, listen now, I want you to pay attention. This is important." Because if a fox is in that stressed state, it won't hear you. So recognizing that stress blocks the information from getting into the brain, the best de-stressing you can do, when you can't instantly change it, is let the student know that it's okay.

Judy: Okay, great. I'm also going to pull up right now, our recent coverage of multiple intelligences and what brain research tells us about this. So you can take a look at that. And we'll also be at the ready to reference any websites that Dr. Willis wants to point us to. I know there are certain ones that she wanted to share, because they're particularly useful to you. The next question comes from Judith Monday. And please do forgive me if I mispronounce anybody's name. But Ms. Monday is an educational consultant in Chesapeake, Virginia, and would like to know, she says, "I teach children with various special needs. Do children with certain disabilities have altered brain metabolism or structures? And do they require any unique teaching approaches apart from the ones that we've seen today?

Judy: Well, it's very good that you pulled up the multiple intelligence article, because every brain is different. And the fact that they have a disability in one part of the brain, if it's structural or chemical, doesn't necessarily mean that the rest of the brain isn't functioning. So to just assume that one disability is isolated-- just assume that in your students. For example, we used to think that if a child was autistic, that if they didn't speak, that they weren't intelligent. Well, we certainly know that that's not the case. So there are plenty of generalized conditions that, yes, that can affect every part of the brain. But what-- but there's no reason to assume that one part of the-- or this same learning process, the thing I described with the RAS and the amygdala-- that's true in animals, and it's true in children and it's true in adults. So that type of here, me and now is going to be effective to different degrees, but for everyone. But for the different types of processing, your learning preferences, and the child's learning strengths, by using their strengths, their interests to connect them with the subject, through whatever sensory or interest pathway is most effective, that will get it in the RAS. And that's why it's good to know what their different intelligences and learning strengths are. Once the information is pulled in through a strength, then the neural networks can start growing. If it grows, the network can connect, where sound is stored, where visual impulse information is stored, where the tactile, those are all stored in different parts of the brain. So if they get the information in, because they've moved and manipulated objects, then they can start building up the visual and auditory, and eventually these all connect together in the brain. So just queuing up a child who's really good at what they move to will also queue up the other areas of the brain that have the stored information by hearing and speaking and moving and seeing.

Grace: Well, that’s a really helpful way to look at people with different abilities. One of the questions that many people are actually asking right now is about a totally different class of folks, adults. For example, Joanne Troutner, who does professional development for teachers, is wondering if these same principles would apply to those teachers, the adults whom she works with in that context.

Judy: Without a doubt. When I started giving presentations several years ago, and I would be there giving all my neuroscience, and putting up slide after slide of brain images, and I wondered why my audience was kind of yawning, it struck me that what I was doing in the classroom, all these strategies, I wasn't doing with my adult audiences. Even though I know, in fact, that the RAS in an adult, and to most degrees the amygdala in the adult, behaves exactly the way it does in that fox, and in that child. So I needed to respect the way the brain works in the adults the same as it does in the child in terms of stress blocks the input to the thinking brain; boredom and tedium, and not moving, the type of things that were happening, and not participating. I was just lecturing at them. We weren't doing interactive. We weren't doing pair-share. And that was not effective teaching on my part to the adult. So, yes, what's good for the children is also critical for the adults.

Grace: Okay. We have a question from Jennifer Gingeric-- hopefully I'm pronouncing that right-- we don't know where Jennifer is from, but she has a great question. She's wondering, "Do these strategies that you're explaining become less novel over the course of the year? And do they, therefore, lost their impact?"

Judy: Okay, well, first of all, yes. Anything that you repeat does lose its interest. It does become not novel. And we certainly know that. But that's why there's variability. For a brief time the slide was up about all the different novelty things you can do. But let's say that you have a song playing. You wouldn't play the same song every day. But if you listen to the words of song, just in the car while you're driving around, you listen to the words of songs that kids would also like. You got to listen to that station. And that's the song that you have playing. And because you've looked up on the internet. You found out what the words of the song are, and you have that song playing. And they come in trying, "Oh, I like that song! And I know that she or he is playing that song because something in it has to do with what we're going to learn today." So it's a puzzle. So you may get tired of doing the same puzzle every day. But each day it's a different puzzle. And that makes it novel. And you don't even have to do songs. You can wear different costumes. You can speak in different voices. If you're going to teach negative numbers, you can walk backwards in the classroom until the students are curious, "Why is she walking backwards?" And then it's because you're going to talk about negative numbers. Or you could do events like, things that cause cognitive dissidence. And a little-- young grade, you could just-- when they come in have-- rub some balloons on yourself and stick them to the wall. Or you take an orange or a balloon that you've dropped in liquid nitrogen, and you accidentally elbow it off your desk and it smashes into pieces, because it's gone into that state of frozenness. So whatever you do-- I had a physics teacher in Harvard who got into a little red wagon, took a fire extinguisher, aimed it at the wall, and that's how he made his entrance the first day. His TA opened the door, he aimed his fire extinguisher at the wall, and he shot across the room backwards in his little red wagon. I mean, that is novel, and I'll never forget the lesson. So all the senses. It's so much fun to think about what's novel. And there are websites that you can go to. There's one-- Grace, do you have it? The one, it's a math website that even has a different puzzle of the day. When you have different websites that have something "of the day," that could be on your PowerPoint. It could be projected on your screen. This particular one is about patterning in math. But there's not only a different one each day, but it's actually even a contest. Do you have that website?

Grace: Is that the set website?

Judy: Yes.

Grace: Here you go.

Judy: So even, okay. And this is one my students discovered today. So it's interactive. It's a daily puzzle, so even that's novelty. The kids who come in and want to try it. This isn't too easy. I found myself, I could only get two of the sets. But they're seventh graders and there you go, Grace got it. So she found three that fit together. So that type of thing is novel, and it's engaging, and it's interactive. So, yes, if I wore the same costume every day, yes, I'd lose them. So good question. The novelty needs to be fresh.

Grace: Okay, we have a couple of questions here about visuals, and visualization. I'll put the two of them together for you. One of our participants here, Abby Wills, is wondering, "What part of the brain is associated with visualization? And how does visualization aid in learning?" And kind of going along with that question, let me just get to this other question here. Diane Rowen, who's a teacher in Spokane, Washington, would like to know if there are studies that you could share with us today about how the arts-- specifically visual arts-- promote recall of information?

Judy: Okay, let's start with visualization. And this has become a very popular, important research topic, because it turns out that mirror neuron research, which I can tell you about on my website, or on the blog, mirror neurons are parts of the brain that are defective, or are actually less in number in children with autism. And it has to do with visualization. But what happens in visualization? When you visualize something in detail, almost the way an athlete golfer might picture how they're going to swing, or a tennis player will visualize what they're going to do, or a runner will visualize the goal-- that same part of the brain that is doing the visualization is exactly the same part of the brain that is going to be activated during the actual act. So visualizing what the rivers of South America look like on a map, is the same as studying it. Or visualizing what it felt like when you mixed two chemicals together and got a certain reaction. Or visualizing-- anything that you visualize. So a great way for students to study is after they've learned about photosynthesis is to visualize themselves, for example, as a plant, and to imagine their leaves feeling the warm heat of the sun, and turn-- using the chlorophyll to turn the metabolic activity, to bring out energy, and to take in the carbon dioxide. All the chemical things, let them imagine that they are that plant. That visualization will remain in their memory when they think of themselves as the plant, the things they visualize will all come back as the actual knowledge. But visualizing an act or a memory as a physical thing, stimulates the neural networks, and increases that neural plasticity, increases the synapse, increases the dendrites, increases the myelin, so the memory becomes more permanent. So a wonderful thing is visualization to make it even stronger, more multi-sensory. Have students pair and share. You've just read a book, have them talk to each other, what they would imagine themselves doing if they were Tom Sawyer. And then draw a picture of what it would be like through that person's eyes. Those types of visualization, because there's positive emotion connected to it, hit right through the amygdala, and make powerful mental memories. And the research, yes, the research question was about the arts. And yes, it's one of the future books I'll be writing, and I've been collecting data on it, and it's not just touchy-feely. We now know how much-- how, first of all, we have factual data on better readers are those who have done-- have time each day to do. Not whether they're good or not. But just have time to do it. We have direct data that shows a correlation between playing musical instruments and math. It's no longer a supposition. And anybody who wants the original research can email me, and I will send you the original research documents.

Grace: And we'll be providing you that contact information at the end of this session. We have several questions coming in now about neuroplasticity. The idea of building connections between neurons that then become permanent pathways of knowledge and skill. So first of all, what does age have to do with that? How does neuroplasticity grow over time as kids get older, or even become adults? And what does that have to do with how you teach? And another piece of that question, this from Sharon, who's a teacher of special education students in Connecticut, is what about for students who have disabilities? Like for example, Sharon says, dyslexia. What would you recommend in terms of really maximizing that neuroplasticity for students like that?

Judy: Okay, while I do that, why don't we go to the website, "Neuroscience for Kids."

Grace: Okie-doke.

Judy: Because not only does it have neuroscience interesting activities for kids, but it's really one of the best websites for adults who want to know how things work in the brain. And it's interactive. For example, this site that's up here now, it's not about neuroplasticity, but you can actually in this one, you can see what a neuron does. And neurons are things that have the neuroplasticity. On this one, you can click on it, you can actually hear the sound of electricity running through a neuron in the thalamus, which is near the amygdala. And you can see-- what you see on the screen here are the electric impulses that are happening. The action potentials it's called. Because information travels from neuron to neuron as electricity. And the only time it's not is when it crosses from one dendrite-- an axon to a dendrite, these are the connections, the strings that come off of these neurons. When it jumps from one to another, there's a synapse in the middle. And at that point, the information hops onto a neurotransmitter, like dopamine, that carries it across the synapse, and then it becomes electricity on the other side. Well, with neuroplasticity, the more active, the more of what you see on the screen here, the more of this electrical stimulation that's going on in area of the brain, there are glial cells, support cells in the brain that float around, but when they see a lot of electrical activity in a certain area repeatedly, they migrate over to that part of the brain. And special glial cells called oligodendrocytes, or oligos, when they get over to that region, they actually turn their cytoplasm, they turn themselves inside-out, and they wrap themselves around these connections called axons. So they're making a coating around the axon. They're basically insulating a wire. And when you insulate a wire, not only do you not lose the electricity that would normally escape when it's not insulated, but you're also increasing the speed of conduction. So when something is practiced and rehearsed, or visualized, the more activity in that circuit, you're getting more myelin. You're also getting the stimulation is making more of these dendrites grow. When there are more dendrites connecting one neuron to another with more synapses, it's like having lots of roads to take, instead of just one road. So if all the traffic is just going on one road, it's going to be slowing down with a lot of traffic. But when you have alternative routes, then you can have information transportation more efficient. But what neuroplasticity does in terms of-- so that's how it helps everybody to remember, to make longer circuits. That's what happens when we practice a musical instrument, or driving a car, it's something that becomes almost automatic. It's because that part has been so rehearsed, and so many dendrites and synapses and so much myelin. But when there's been a damage to a part of the brain-- I used to see babies when I was an intern who had-- were born with such severe hemorrhages that there was more hemorrhage than brain at birth. And I would imagine that there was just going to be a dismal life ahead for these babies. I hadn't had much neurophysiology then. And I still remember the chairman of the department said to me, "Judy, come back here in three years and see this child in the clinic." I didn't believe him, but I came back. And indeed, still knowing, and looking at the scan, they still only had maybe a third of the parts of a brain that most people have, they were almost identical to other children. Now I wasn't doing formal testing. But here's what happens, the younger you are-- and this is the other question-- the younger you are, the more plastic your neurons are. Because there hasn't been as much maturation. There's still a lot of unmyelinated fibers, there's still tracts that have multi-potentiality. Sort of like stem cells. So the younger someone is when a part of the brain is damaged, but it happens all through our lives, If we keep trying, visualizing, moving step-wise to regain, let's say, speech; or if we've had a stroke; or in a child who has difficulty reading, keeps trying to do it, trying different ways of doing it; maybe a child who has trouble reading fluently will read-- or understanding what they read, if they read silently, because they're really a auditory learner-- if they whisper the words to themselves, so now they're not only seeing it, but they're hearing it. So if they read and whisper, they're getting it into two networks. What's happening is their brain is really looking to make the connection. The brain needs stimulation. It looks for stimulation. And it works hard to get it. So it starts growing new pathways. It'll cross over. It'll make a new-- it'll be circuitous, it may not be as fast, they may not-- someone who's had a stroke and damaged the connection to their motor speech area may not speak as quickly and as clearly, but over time with practice, even if it's just thinking of saying the word, and thinking of what it would feel like to move their mouth, that's building the neural network. And we never realized how powerful it is, but it works not only-- there are great studies of teaching people juggling and seeing what happens in the brain. But yes, anybody in any state, if they're conscious, the brain will form other routes to get the same activity done by other parts of the brain. Especially children. But yes, in adults.

Grace: Okay, well, we actually are almost out of time now. But Dr. Willis, if you could just take one minute to address a question that many, many people have brought up, it's about the testing culture assessment, "No Child Left Behind." What are the lessons we can learn? If you can just summarize briefly in one minute, to be continued on our website, from everything you've just told us, about how educators can best handle the demands of that testing, and the stresses that those place on students?

Judy: And that's-- when I say eight or nine years ago I left neurology to become a classroom teacher because of all the referrals I was getting that teachers thought the kids had OCD and ADD, well, it's actually toxic to the brain to be in a classroom where the teacher is-- they're mandated to cover a lot of curriculum in a short time that's going to be asked about on a test. The assessment will be based on rote memory. So how does a student get engaged? How do you get to their interest and their goals and make the lesson exciting and interactive if there's a sense that you have to just cram facts into them? So in that classroom, the toxic environment results in-- they may pass the test, but there's not going to be the long-term memory, and we've never had a higher dropout rate in this country than we do since we established "No Child Left Behind." To the point that it's less likely if you're in high school now, it's less likely that you'll graduate than your parents graduated. So what could we do about it other than speaking our voices, and in my case, changing careers to try to find out what I could do? Because I know the neurology, I know what strategies will be effective. For example, letting the child distress by lying down under the computers. Using the ten-minute break. Using those few minutes to reassess and give feedback. You have to be willing to take a chance. Whatever you're going to do is going to take a little time away from rote lecture. But I can promise you from the research that doing that will make your class more engaging, and therefore, the students will learn it more efficiently and effectively the first time. Because it'll get processed in the thinking part of their brain. So using these strategies, even a few of them, you'll find that the student's memory is greater, you won't have to review as much. And lo and behold, they'll do better on the test, plus they'll remain engaged with school, and find out that learning can be joyful.

Grace: Okay. Well, we are out of time now. But thank you very much, Dr. Willis, for sharing your time and your experience and wisdom with us. And think you to all of you, our members, for your great questions. If we did not get to your question, or if you want to hear more, you can go to our discussion page. You will see that URL right there at the bottom of your screen. And as promised, right above that is the link to Dr. Willis' website, where you can learn more about the work that she has done. You can also explore the subject further in our recent coverage of multiple intelligences, which we showed you earlier, and in our ongoing coverage of brain science and education. The discussion page, I will show it to you very quickly here on our website. If you'd like to continue this, Dr. Willis and I will both be checking back on this page regularly to see what questions you have, and keep on discussing this really fascinating subject. All you have to do to comment is just go to the comments right at the bottom of the page, here. And post one of your own. And we'll be looking out for your comments and responding to those. All of us here at Edutopia, thank you, our members for participating today. And we also thank you just for being a part of our organization. Your attendance and your input is always vital to us in improving what we do. Just a couple of reminders before you leave. First of all, please do send us your feedback. After this webinar concludes, you'll receive an email that directs you to a brief survey, and please take a moment to fill that out. we really do take into account what you say. Second, our next Members Only Webinar will be on June 4th. That will be about the "Digital Generation," and we'll send out an announcement in the next month with more information. You can also check back to our webinar page at edutopia.org/webinars. And finally, if you have friends and colleagues whom you think would like to be a part of these webinars and a part of Edutopia, please direct them to our membership page which is at edutopia.org/join. Thank you again for participating. And thanks for supporting Edutopia.

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Edutopia Staff

April 9, 2009: "How the Brain Learns Best: Strategies to Make Learning Stick"

Host: Grace Rubenstein, former senior producer, Edutopia

Presenter: Judy Willis, middle school teacher and neurologist and authority on learning-centered brain research and classroom strategies derived from this research

Description: Neuroscience is a complex field that educators don't often turn to for inspiration, but knowing a few basic concepts can help you plan teaching strategies that will prompt your students to be more receptive to learning. Find out how introducing a few simple techniques to your craft -- and increasing some of those you may already employ -- can encourage productive learning and actually change brain chemistry, increasing children's ability to learn (and retain) new skills and information.

Learn more at the webinar's discussion page or on our brain-based learning resource roundup page. Judy Willis now also writes a blog for Edutopia on neuro-logical learning.


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