George Lucas Educational Foundation

Big Thinkers: Judy Willis on the Science of Learning

The noted neurologist turned educator talks about the science of boredom, how to get students' attention, and the most important lessons for 21st-century learning. 
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Big Thinkers: Judy Willis on the Science of Learning (Transcript)

Judy Willis: Hi, I'm Judy Willis and I am a neurologist. I've been a neurologist for 15 years and after the 15 years my patient practice really changed. I started getting so many referrals for kids whose teachers thought they had ADD, obsessive compulsive disorder, staring spells, seizures petit mal epilepsy, and the increase was huge and yet the kids had no greater incidence of it. And I saw the notes were coming from the school so I visited the schools. I'd look in the classrooms and I saw kids who indeed were playing with everything they could find, staring out the window, coloring on someone's chair or book.

The problem was that the way they were being taught was lectured. There were kids sitting in rows in first grade just listening to the information or filling out worksheets. And I know the brain goes into a state of stress from boredom. So it was my idea that I'd go to school, get a teaching credential, become a teacher and I did it for the past ten years I taught second grade, fifth grade, and seventh grade, and applied what I know about the brain to the classroom and found that just making subtle, easy changes that anyone could do got kids back in the state of voluntary behavior and they learned easily, and they were successful. Their mindsets changed.

There's a part of the brain that is an emotional filter. It's called the amygdala, it's part of the limbic system. And what information comes into the brain it will go someplace in the brain, but this switching station in the amygdala determines where it's going to go in the brain. So you have information coming in and the metabolic state of this amygdala, how hyperactive it is, how much it's processing how much energy it's using will determine where it conducts information.

So if a person is in a state of stress, the amygdala gets highly active. When that happens the switching station sends everything that's coming in to the lower 80 percent of the brain. That's the part of the brain that's the animal brain, the reactive, involuntary brain. The only behavior that comes out of there is a fight-flight-freeze which is great for animals because if they are in some state of stress, they shouldn't be processing and evaluating it. But we have the same system and it doesn't work well for us because it turns out boredom, when we do neuroscanning of someone in a bored state, that shows their amygdala in the same hyperactive state that other stresses such as hearing an alarm or things that in the wild you'd want to watch out for.

So we need to keep that switching station in a state of low stress. And boredom, fear, concern about their language differences, fear of reading, test taking, those things turn the amygdala into a big "STOP" sign. The question of attention is one the teachers are curious about. There's a part of the brain that decides pretty on a low level what information gets our attention. And the way it works is exactly the same in humans as it is in animals. It's the very first place that information enters the brain. So what do animals need in the wild to let in? What sensory input? What's changed in their environment?

So if there is something new in the classroom, a new picture, a great bulletin board, something that's interesting, something that captures their curiosity. So when you're walking backwards before you do negative numbers; that is so interesting! The kids want to know why, so thinking about getting attention means getting their curiosity so they want to know what you have to teach.

So how do you get students to focus their attention? You've gotten it in, they're curious, but how do you get them to focus on something that's particularly important? If you want students to pay particular attention, have a signal just the way animals respond to signals. What I do is if it's particularly important I'd love to say "Pay attention" but I know it won't get through, I'll take a hat and put it on. If I want to say "This is even really, really, really important" I'll take the hat, the cap, and put it on sideways.

The other one I'll use is color. I'll have three different colors pens, pencils, or whiteboard chalk. So when I hear something that they say or I'm writing down or saying something that I want to say "This is important, pay attention!" I can't say it, but I can use the color. So if it's important, if it's like level-one important, I will pick up my green which means all of them get to pick up their green so it's novelty, it's change, it's color, and it's emphasized and that's how they know it's important so they'll write it in green. I'll write it in green, they'll write it in green. And it goes up if it's more important. If I want to say "Pay lots of attention" then I'll use the yellow, and super, super attention, I'll use the red. So they are engaged. They are involved and they're participating and they have some way to focus in their notes.

It's really important now that we know about these filters to make sure that the classroom is a safe environment, that children feel safe socially, emotionally, and safe to participate academically. We know only the person who thinks, learns. If you don't participate the brain doesn't get to use its great prediction and memory apparatus which has to do with the neuroplasticity of learning.

But there's one particular requirement: you must participate. You must make a prediction. You must basically answer the question. Everybody in the class needs to answer every question that's asked, but the biggest fear students have, the number one fear: making a mistake in front of others. So we know they need to do it, but they're scared. Simply remove the barrier.

The barrier is they don't want to make mistake in front of the class. They're fine making a mistake if it's private and they're going to get help. So using whiteboards, individual whiteboards, individual erasable pads, something where a question is asked or something curious is there and they get to predict why it's there, and then when they have something they think is a good response they hold it up, you acknowledge it, and they put it down. No one else sees it, they're comfortable participating, and they're ready to learn the answer, because otherwise if they made a mistake, their brain is totally into the reactive mode.

Fifty percent, it's predicted of the facts that we are teaching them now will have been modified to some degree by the time they leave. So is it great to know a lot of facts? I guess for a test but what's even greater is application. So what will be wonderful, what will be perfect in a perfect world, children will enter the twenty-first century, the opportunities and the challenge with more than just the facts but with the tools to apply them.

The toolkit is executive function; it's in the prefrontal cortex, that higher brain, that thinking brain, the memory-building brain, the emotionally analytical brain. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to mature. The myelination that gets stronger and stronger, the networks that take hold. That happens at the greatest rate ever in someone's life between about ages 8 and 16 and it continues on at a pretty good rate until 25 and it never stops. That's the ability to change our brains.

So in the twenty-first century there are going to be problems that we don't even know exist. There are going to be opportunities that we don't even know exist, so what will they need? What tool will they need? The executive functions: judgment, critical analysis, having kids go to websites that you pick out and determine is this accurate? How do we know that this is true? Can we find another website that says the opposite and how do we know if that's true? So knowing how to evaluate whether a history book is from a perspective that's biased or not, those characteristics, the twenty-first century mind needs and the way to do that best in school is to give kids the opportunities to exercise those muscles, to build the functions of long-term goal planning, risk assessment, evaluation, critical analysis, problem solving. That's the best training for the twenty-first century world.

We have some concern, parents, teachers, have a lot- some concerns of the amount of time kids play on the computer, play with their video games. What is it that's happening in a video game in the brain and how does that turn into a classroom model? First of all the video game, you enter it at level one but where do you start playing the game for real? If you can do what's at level one on a ten-level videogame, you go right to level two. If you can do the task at level two without any effort you just do it, you go right to level three. Let's say at level three there's a task that you don't really know how to do. Then you're at your achievable challenge level. Whereas if it made you stay at level one for two hours or you're in the classroom and you already know how to multiply five times five and yet the class is doing repetition of that drill, first of all your brain is going to get into a stress state, and there's not going to be any interest. The brain knows that. There's no fun in it because there's no prediction, there's no reward. Here we go. Then the brain has entered at its achievable challenge level. That's perfect.

What else does a videogame do? It gives you feedback. It gives you incremental progress feedback so along the way in a classroom your feedback might be the test at the end of the week. In a video game you see what's happening with your effort, with your trial and error. You're getting corrective feedback at a time you really want it because you want to achieve the challenge that's right there, and you pay attention to the feedback. You use it. No one else is seeing you make mistakes so you're not in a risk state so you're attentive, you want to know what's there to be learned.

Now the best part of it is you put in the effort, they see their score going up, they get to level four. And what's waiting for them at level four? No prizes, no money, no people coming out and hugging them giving them five; harder work. What did they get? Harder work!

That should be the classroom model and we can do it. In a classroom thinking about what level is appropriate for each child, what is their achievable challenge level and doing as much as you can to differentiate so they're in groups at that level and showing them their incremental progress toward a goal throughout the learning period. Looking at their work in group work or at their paper while they're doing it. Looking at their whiteboard responses, showing them progress. It's intrinsic reinforcement that's going to get the dopamine. I'm not giving them candy. It's their recognizing "Ah! I got it!" That's the- it lights up the brain.

Get Video
Embed Code Embed Help

You are welcome to embed this video, download it for personal use, or use it in a presentation for a conference, class, workshop, or free online course, so long as a prominent credit or link back to Edutopia is included. If you'd like more detailed information about Edutopia's allowed usages, please see the Licenses section of our Terms of Use.


Video Credits


  • Lora Ma-Fukuda


  • Zachary Fink


  • Doug Keely

Video Programming Producer:

  • Mariko Nobori
  • © 2011
  • The George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • All rights reserved.

You can learn more about what Judy Willis is doing on her website,, and be sure to tune in regularly to see what she's writing in her blog for Edutopia.

For more on brain-based learning, visit Edutopia's Brain Based Learning Resource Roundup or download our classroom guide, Six Strategies for Brain-Based Learning.

Video Chapters:

  • Meet Judy Willis, Neurologist Turned Educator (starts at 00:05)
  • The Science of Boredom (starts at 01:25)
  • Creating Curiosity in the Classroom (starts at 03:00)
  • Focusing Students' Attention in the Classroom (starts at 03:53)
  • The Importance of Creating a Safe Environment (starts at 05:15)
  • Preparing Students for the 21st Century (starts at 06:48)
  • Lessons Learned from Video Games (starts at 08:41)

Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Rhonda's picture
Sixth grade science teacher


What changes did you make? Inquiring minds what to know!


Jessica's picture
First Grade teacher from San Antonio, Texas

Should I follow the brain rules by John Medina help?

Margaret Sullivan Brannon's picture
Margaret Sullivan Brannon
Teacher Librarian in a North Carolina elementary school

I found this interview very interesting. It gave me some practical ways to implement what I had already intuited.
Our schools are data-driven--all focused toward doing well on the End of Grade Tests and making AYP. I truly believe that if we teach in effective, engaging ways the test scores will reflect that because the students will be able to translate their learning from the hands-on, cooperative situation to the test-taking situation. But educators and administrators need to be convinced. Is there any supporting data on how these strategies affect achievement scores?

Gokhan's picture
IT Teacher, Creative Drama Leader, Learner

I think, creativity is the most important thing that we develop in the class.

Ginnie's picture
Elementary Technology Teacher

This needs to be a part of teacher education. Educators keep using similar strategies and never really fundamentally changing how we teach students. Too often we teach as we were taught. It's not working.

Christina Luce's picture
Christina Luce
Sixth grade teacher from Liverpool, New York

Providing a motivating and engaging learning environment is critical. This past year I had the opportunity to pilot KEEN 5X Embodied Learning. The five core cognitive-kinesthetic exercises that make up KEEN 5X are remarkably versatile and easy to adapt to any lesson, and are great fun to do. After my initial training in early June, 2011 I was amazed at what I saw transpiring in my own classroom! Students I'd spent most of the year trying to engage were eager to participate and to demonstrate what they had learned. My most reluctant participants were suddenly taking leadership roles in their groups. It energized my students in such a way that disengagement or disruptive behavior disappeared; my students were learning with passion and joy! They were better able to recall material, deepen their understanding, and perhaps more importantly construct meaning from it. I would encourage you to take the time to check it out, and take advantage of the FREE online BETA test.

Dina Johnson's picture
Dina Johnson
parent of 15 ds

Judy, would you be willing to come to our home and tutor me and my son? PLEASE?!?!
He is fallingn further and futher behind and I have NO idea how to get him interested in catching up and moving forward... His self esteem is low, as is mine... we really need some serious help here please.
Thank you!

Elaine's picture
Grandparent of a high school student in Maryland

I am lost in trying to motivate my grandchild to share when there is difficulty and to ask for help. I am not sure how to help, but help is needed. I don't want to turn the child off further. Grades are consistently going up and down each quarter. Are there reasonably priced academic video games available that can help bridge concept gaps in mathematics and critical thinking?

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.