George Lucas Educational Foundation
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This series of blogs is to support you and your students during the transition period that will come with the CCSS. As the new testing and teaching styles promote more student independence, student-constructed learning and project-based learning, students will benefit from a powerful boost to their growing neural networks of executive functions.

However, for students and educators accustomed to more structured plans and teacher- or curriculum-directed learning, the decision-making and uncertainty can increase the amygdala’s stress level and inhibit flow to the prefrontal cortex where those networks of executive function are developing. This blog series will offer suggestions to ease the stress of transition, helping students persevere to reach the intrinsic pleasure that awaits them through meaningful choice and challenges in the classroom.

Preparing for a New Wave of Learning, Assessment and Stress

I am an advocate of the goals embodied in the CCSS -- building strong neural networks of executive functions. These networks of neuron-to-neuron connections have been an essential element of the neurological examination of patients for over 75 years. The functions of these unique neural networks were initially revealed through neurological case histories of patients with prefrontal cortex degeneration, lesions or trauma. They consequently lost their "highest" thinking skills of goal-directed behavior, judgment, emotional self-awareness, deduction, reasoning, abstraction or subsequent skillsets.

These networks directly impact intentional cognitive and emotional processing and behavioral output. Furthermore, these skillsets have become increasingly critical as we move from a factory-model labor force to a global, informational and technological labor force. Replication of knowledge and single correct responses are inadequate preparation for students entering vocations or going on to higher academic studies.

The CCSS goals support cognitive actions that are the executive functions for a global economy. We cannot let this educational goal be subverted through the challenges posed by the tests themselves or how they are used. One of our goals is understanding how we might best support students during the transition from passive memorization to actively constructing understanding and applying knowledge.

The uncertainty educators face about how best to prepare students for the changing goals and tests will be equally challenging for the students themselves. With the shift toward interpretation, communication, reasoning, and transfer of learning to novel applications, the repetition of facts is no longer the criteria for being "smart."

The contrast will be especially profound for students who were previously successful working with predictable tasks of memorization and binary "right and wrong" assessment, and could also be more problematic to the majority of students who already lost out when the arts and humanities were dropped from their curriculum.

The Impact of Stress on the Brain

From neuroimaging and correlated neurocognitive research, we've seen the impact of stress on neural processing of information and behavior output. The amygdala, deep in the network of the brain's emotionally responsive limbic system, is a prominent structure in this process. The amygdala is a switching station through which sensory input must pass to reach the prefrontal cortex (PFC) where long-term memory is constructed. When stress is high, increased metabolic activity in the amygdala limits flow to and from the PFC.

To process knowledge with the guidance of executive functions, input must reach the PFC, and output must be able to flow from the PFC to the lower brain. Stress cuts off students' access to these networks of higher-order thinking, logic, creative problem solving and analytical judgment. With any loss of higher brain control, the lower, reactive brain's involuntary outputs are in charge. The resulting behaviors are limited to the equivalent of fight/flight/freeze reactions. The student also cannot use the resources of executive functions to understand, evaluate or apply new learning. (See Understanding How the Brain Thinks.)

The New Group of High-Risk Students

We've seen students' responses to sustained frustration or increased boredom as school has become less engaging and relevant. The students who were able to persevere and succeed by following rules and procedures and by retrieving the right answer are now at risk of stress responses due to shifts in assessments.

As educators anticipated the requisite 21st century skillsets that are now the goals of the CCSS, their assessments included more interpretation of information and new ways for students to apply what they learned. These teachers have described a disturbing response by some students to open-ended test questions when they realize that rote fact memorization is no longer adequate preparation. Previous high achievers are showing fight/flight/freeze stress responses when tested with single-response questions.

For these students, who had obediently and powerfully memorized all the information they were given, the loss of predictable test questions linked to their matched answers is unfair. Despite their success at memorization, they haven't developed the conceptual understanding or cognitive flexibility needed to respond to these unpredictable questions. Their teachers describe profound emotional reactions including anger, hostility, retribution (such as false accusations of teacher misconduct) and more subtle but equally disturbing behavioral changes of withdrawn participation and effort, depression, and more sick-day absences.

There is no research available about the absolute cause or extent of this phenomenon. Perhaps the responses are so profound and unexpected that these stories are getting disproportionate attention. Nevertheless, it serves all students if we consider how to introduce the changes in information acquisition and application to make the transition less stressful.

Strategically Using How the Brain Reacts

Knowing what to expect and anticipating your students' unexpected responses will help you prepare for the unpredictable. Building executive functions and developing concept knowledge means less directed, one-solution instruction and certainty. This shifts greater responsibility to students in the learning process, calling on their executive functions for evaluation, estimation, prediction and interpretation.

After years of passivity and limited responsibility for communicating opinions and defending solutions, students will need to start formulating ideas, expressing them clearly, and defending opinions or solutions with logical and often subjective reasoning. Making mistakes and benefiting from corrective feedback will be part of any successful learning routine rather than an indication of failure. It will take effort to help students adapt to this mindset.

Memories constructed through rote repetition can strengthen due to the subsequent neuroplastic response from very specific stimuli. However, when memories are built in response to unique drills and linked to specific prompts, they are only retrieved in response to those stimuli. These isolated memory circuits that haven't been activated for other applications are not available to solve unfamiliar problems or interpret new information.

This will be new and frightening territory for many students. Even those who seem comfortable when you first introduce these new challenges early in the year can hit a wall as content and assessment take a turn toward uncertainty, requiring more intense application of their executive function.

Early Warning Signs

When students have built an identity around excelling at memorization and earning praise for grades, they may hesitate to reveal difficulties and ask for help to meet a new measure of success. They have been so comfortable parroting back information that a new demand for complexity can cause a freeze response, halting both confidence and thinking.

For these students, watch for unusual behaviors such as not doing homework, acting out in class, angry outbursts about test questions not pulled directly from class notes or text, reduced class participation, or increased absenteeism. An ideal preemptive reaction on the part of educators would be to design new instructional or assessment characteristics that parallel the macro and cognitive objectives of the CCSS.

Additionally, take time to explain that they will be building a new set of skills, and that you will be coaching them for success and not judging them for making mistakes. Share your own experiences of failure and change, as well as strategies for success.

It will be most convincing and reassuring for students when they realize that these front and center executive functions will become stronger and more effective through their engagement with and resulting development from the new approaches to learning.

In the next blog I will describe common student experiences that involve successful application of executive functions. These can help your students gain insight and perspective, thereby resisting stress and keeping neural passages flowing to and from their critical executive functions.

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chemtchr's picture

Samer, please look again at the masthead on this site. Does it say "Ed-dystopia", as you read it? Much of the site is now dedicated to facilitating the roll-out of a supposedly inevitable imposition of the common core on unwilling children and teachers. Shouldn't the community be discussing this, and taking a position one way or the other?

You say, "Common Core is their new reality." You say the "point of the Common Core in Action series [is] not to endorse CCSS but to point to specific lesson ideas and to help teachers innovate within the standards."

Dr. Willis describes "their new reality" in skin-crawling clinical detail (without endorsing it, she says). Like you, she prescribes further subservience to the "new reality", (without any scientific basis, she finally admits, and again without endorsing it).

Instead, this site should be alive with discussions of an alternative future for education, like the one it originally set out toward.

The Common Core train hasn't left the station. We're stopping it, and rolling the rollout right back again. In the meantime, parents and teachers can defend the children in our care, right here and right now. Opt them out of the tests. Let your classroom be a zone of joy and innovation OUTSIDE the nightmare zone. Save this generation, and defend their childhood.

Here are some resources:

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Hi chemtchr,

As things stand now, thousands of teachers across the country are faced with implementing the Common Core State Standards in their classrooms. Yes, there's a movement that's working to fight them, but change takes time and teachers need help till (if/when) their situation changes. That's what Edutopia is doing.

And just to be clear, Edutopia isn't opposed to talking about alternatives to Common Core. We've published alternative viewpoints. Here's an example:

We encourage conversation and debate, just like the two of us are doing right now. Discussing alternatives is one of the reasons this site was founded, but what we don't do is to take policy positions. We never have.

What we do is research and promotion of evidence-based education practices that work. And we help teachers, parents, and administrators find ways to implement those practices within the frameworks in which they operate.

I applaud your zeal. I really do. And I appreciate the opportunity to clarify Edutopia's position. If you'd like space to talk about alternatives to common core, you're welcome to create a discussion here:

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Samer, the open discussion is why many of us take the time to read this source, transcending the rhetoric & propaganda which is sadly all too common, thanks!

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture


When I was in middle school, there was a girl who had everything; looks, athletic ability, a brain the size of Texas. Her name was Aileen Alexander-- notice she even had "A"s in her name? And she was nice. And fun. You just couldn't not like her.

Me? I could fake my way to an "A" without studying if the exam was an essay exam. I'm verbal. I could also fudge through remembering information. Just takes a strong memory. But algebra? Terrified me! Still does. Gave me nightmares. Don't even like to think about it.

One day, our history teacher took our class into the auditorium and showed us a film about seeing things from different perspectives. "Never assume".. that kind of thing. After watching this film, we were assigned to write a paper with the title "The Meaning of the Universe." I thought that was cool.

I got my paper back with a "A +++" Our teacher just loved what I'd written. For the life of me, I don't remember what I said, I just thought it was a fun assignment, much more interesting than the usual blah blah. I may have even hugged Mr. Montz for making school so much fun all of a sudden!

Aileen Alexander, on the other hand, freaked out. I still remember her walking over to me and saying, in a very nervous voice "What in the world does he WANT from us? I can't do this! This is weird!"

I hate testing of any kind but must admit the ideas behind common core really appeal to me as a teacher and as a parent. In fact, some CC kind of reminds me of some of our family's conversations over dinner. But my particular brain chemistry leans so far right, I almost fall down sometimes.
I really feel for any student or teacher who are simply not built to automatically switch gears and take their brains in an entirely new direction. I still remember how trapped I felt trying just trying to get my algebra homework done.

If I'm understanding you correctly, what you're saying here is that we have to make sure our Aileen Alexanders do okay, that we respect their need for a little extra TLC and understanding when they inevitably freak.
Too bad there have to be tests. Must concur. Tests are never happy making.

MRM's picture

Dr. Willis seems to be saying, "Yes, children will be experiencing stress as they 'learn to think' in new, deeper ways because they have never done that before. But it's 'ok' because they will get over it." NO! NO! NO!

Numerous child development experts have said that the standards for the younger children are not developmentally appropriate and indicate we may be doing irreparable harm to some children. (See the work of Dr. Megan Koschnick.) The stress many young students are feeling is coming from being asked by insistent adults to think and *perform* in ways their brains are not ready for. In addition, these children don't have the metacognitive or communication skills to monitor and talk about what is upsetting them in a constructive way, so they act out or simply melt down.

Brian Farr's picture
Brian Farr
Retired teacher currently doing research into problem solving

With regard to the general theme of student reactions to these kind of instructional contexts,how right you are, but it is not just students.I was creating programs on a small scale exactly on the principles now being established in the CCSS in 1990 after the astounding findings of cognitive science in the late 1980's. 'Realistic Problems, Real Thinking,Real Tools" Was my propaganda title Part of this effort was the deliberate insertion in the problems of what I called Affective Correlates of Cognition.Where the intent was to deliberately at specific points introduce stress of all different types, with the intention of developing things like persistence, willingness to over come failure and numerous others. Because such 'skills' are essential to learning when perceived as 'struggling to understand' or undertaking complex problem solving. Well these, combined the already unconventional method of instruction, caused an almost hysterical reaction on the part of students parents board members because I was not 'teaching' from their perspective, ie helping the students by doing all the strategic thinking, and presenting information in the simplest organized 'chunks'. The most interesting thing to me was that "A" students almost consistently apart those extremely bright students became very low performers, and I know for sure that parents ended up doing many of the projects for these students. But other students blossomed.
When I passed off the programs to teachers with whom I had co-taught the programs, within a couple of years they had vaporized, those teachers, conceptually constrained by the paradigm that valued knowledge rather than the interdependence of thinking and knowledge. So they reduced effort with regard to those aspect of the programs that they neither meaningfully understood the purpose of. The concept that the instructional process was as educationally active, as the more direct introduction of content and controlled by the specific cognitive character of the problems was incomprehensible to them, Given that all such notions.were inconsistent with the consensus values, overt peer pressure was applied. When the Superintendent who had backed my 'experimentation' left to follow his dream, the principal who had watched my back was effectively demoted, when the 'old guard' swept back into power. To what extent that was due to the reaction to my efforts I am unsure.For the rest of the decade I found myself a perch from which I could snipe and could influence change, but every effort was blocked in one way or another. Until the 'old guard' became powerful enough to put me out to pasture until retirement. Until there is perceptual and conceptual change the actual impact of more progressive perceptions of education, which can never be effectively teacher proofed will fail to achieve their conception and potential

Jim Kreinbrink's picture

At this point, are educators able to share more about how end of year assessments are going? I'm wondering what the experience is for kids:
1. without access at home to technology such as tablets
2. experiencing a new format for testing that involves technology, headphones, etc.

Anyone have experiences to share?

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