What is Brain-Based Education?


Dear Gateway Families,

When prospective families are visiting the school, I am often asked, “how does the school integrate research into the program?”

When I talk about brain-based education based on research, I like to draw from three or four concrete examples. For example, I often explain that our faculty understand that they need to integrate movement throughout the day, because movement increases blood flow through the brain which strengthens learning, improves memory, and generates motivation. Sometimes I point out that our program makes time for play: imagination and play teaches problem solving, social skills and empathy, and requires several portions of the brain to fire in unison, including areas of emotion, memory, organization, and planning.

I might highlight that in order to strengthen long-term memory, our curriculum mixes spiral approaches and interdisciplinary experiences among the discipline-specific work, so that students experience and revisit content and skills through spacing (length of time between reviewing ideas), context (literally when and where the learning takes place), and interleaving (switching between ideas, rather than extended blocks of study).

Or I may share that research has shown that making predictions has a powerful neurological effect on children’s brains. The brain recognizes that something good or bad is about to happen, which leads to increased anticipation and motivation to do something. Students experience an increased in focus and engagement, because they want to find out if their reasoning was accurate and if their predictions came true.

Our school’s commitment to incorporate the best available research about child development and the brain into our teaching and learning is reflected in the major investment of time, money and resources we put in place in order to send half a dozen teachers to the Learning and The Brain conference in San Francisco every February. The participating teachers then return and share their learning with our entire staff at a subsequent in-service event, and together we begin working to evolve and improve our instructional practices to reflect these new insights about the brain.

We look forward to sharing this year’s learning and growth with our community in the months to come.

Warm regards,

Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School

Do we want faster Horses?

Two weeks ago we welcomed 178 special guests for our annual Grandfriends Day event. Truly, it is one of my favorite school days of the year — the beaming smiles of children and adults outshone even the glorious sunshine that day!

In my welcome to our community’s elders, I made note of the fact that many of the jobs today’s students will someday hold have not yet been invented. This is why education today must be substantially different from what they (and most likely their children) experienced in their K-8 years: our goal must be to teach children how to think. While some memorization of facts and knowledge is important (for both neurological efficiency and the development of expertise), soft skills such as curiosity, creativity, problem solving, resilience and love of learning are essential for our children to experience future academic, economic, and emotional success.

Walking through the classrooms during the day, I was struck by how joyfully our grandfriends entered into the world of our educational program. From practicing mindfulness with Ilana in the First Grade classrooms, to sipping tea with Middle School students, our grandfriends seemed to truly embrace our vision for a healthy and effective educational program, with our balanced attention to academic vigor and personal growth.

Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motors, is famously reported to have said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This quote is often used when people are discussing the nature of innovation, imagination and the capacity for change, and in fact I shared it with our Grandfriends as I talked about our hopes that our students become “creators, not just consumers”, by embracing their own empathy, creativity and agency.

Though there’s some historical doubt that he ever actually said those words, one insightful critique of Ford is that he initially adapted the assembly line to car manufacturing, but he was later unable to adapt car manufacturing to the changing needs and wants of society — which in turn resulted in his company losing its dominant market position. Food for thought, as we consider how to both teach children to be flexible and adaptive, and also to have the courage of their convictions and to act on their beliefs.

I rejoice at knowing that our staff, students and families are so often like our Grandfriend visitors were last month; ready and willing to become fully present with each other, and enter into the world of the school with open eyes and warm hearts!

Have a wonderful week,

Dr. Zachary Roberts

Head of School

Our Innovative Approach to Education


Nowadays it’s cheap and easy to stream music and video using the internet, but you probably remember making copies of albums using cassette decks, or recording TV shows on a VCR — and your glee at being able to do so. My own beloved collection of several hundred bootleg concert cassettes lingered in my garage for many years before I overcame my emotional attachment to them (and wanted the space for something else).

Some types of technology are impactful for many years (laptops) and others are not (iPods and DVD-Rs, anyone?). Unfortunately, digital technology is often conflated with innovation, or used as a simple shorthand in its place, especially in school contexts.

So what is innovation, if not technology?

A quick internet search turns up many definitions for “innovation”, but I am drawn to the one that proposes three elements: 1) new ideas that 2) create value when 3) they are implemented, whether through updates to existing systems or the creation of new ones. Some innovations are incremental, while others are radical, but all three components are essential to innovation.

I hope you can join me in marvelling at how our faculty continually integrate new innovations into our classrooms that have direct benefit to students.

One area in which we think about innovation are the outcomes for students. Krissie Olsen’s work this year teaching digital citizenship and digital literacy helps our students be prepared to navigate the complexities of the online world — a reality that did not exist when we were children. We also want students to learn to act with grace and courtesy in real life, which shows up in instances such as an author party where older students share tea and muffins with younger students while reading their original work.

Another key space where we try to innovate is in what students actually do in the classroom. Rather than simply memorize addition facts, our youngest students are asked to build their own understanding of what numbers mean and how they work — in mathematics, this is formally called “number sense” — from counting the seeds in a pumpkin to measuring the circumference of an apple. The work is meaningful to them, not rote.

Across all areas of our program, teachers help students learn agency; the capacity to take action independently, while holding awareness and purpose of the world around them. Last year’s 8th grade Humanities program culminated in the “Museum of Exclusion”, in which students worked in small groups and designed museum exhibits about marginalized peoples in American society, which they presented both on campus and at the MAH.

We apply the innovation approach to the instructional practices of faculty. We’ve begun using new types of collaborative assessments in the middle school, while teachers are now implementing literature circles and “morning blast” across upper elementary grades. We’ve built upon the school’s history of integrating art into academic projects by adding Spanish, music and Disco collaboration to classroom projects, such as the fifth grade year-end performance piece.

In the last two years, we’ve also begun innovating in the design of classroom environments. Our flexible classrooms in grades 2-4 and in the middle school are easily reconfigured for whole class discussion, small group collaboration, and individual work, while promoting student choice and health through a variety of seating options.

Beneath this all, the burgeoning field of neuroscience has been especially useful in driving our understanding of how to effectively innovate the teaching and learning that happens at Gateway. This is a far cry from goals of “college and career readiness” or “high school preparation” that don’t put students’ actual lives at the center of the academic and social program.

Though educational innovation is much more than just computers and other devices, and technology is not necessarily innovation in and of itself, technology can “add value” in some schooling circumstances across the above areas. At their best, these tools increase communication and networking, promote the faster flow of ideas, and spark creativity and imagination.

Educational innovations can present intellectual and emotional challenges to teachers and families. They need to be supported with time, energy, money and other resources to have lasting impact. At Gateway, by using innovation to add value to the child’s learning, the teacher’s instruction, and the family experience, we put students in the best position to thrive in the future.


Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School

13 Years Old is Closer to 3 than to 23

Back-to-School-Night is often used as a time to share classroom curriculum, explain routines and expectations, and make sure families see prettily completed work — all so that they are reassured that the children are learning effectively. After all, aren’t parents most interested in the academic content their children are going to be taught?

My experience is that the answer to that question is “no”.

What parents crave most of all is connection — just like children in the classroom. Research clearly shows that for adults and children alike, emotional safety and social connection come before engaged learning and a growth mindset. Wendy Mogul, psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus, speaks about this very compellingly (or go back further to Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs).

This is true even — and especially — as children enter middle school. Adolescence is a natural time of distancing and redefining by children. Parents have to learn to navigate their own feelings and experiences at the same time that their children begin developing more individualized identities. What guardians really want is to be emotionally and socially connected with the teachers, with each other, and with the ideas and values that underlie the program. They want to know that their children will be prepared for the future not just academically, but also as good people with strong character and integrity.

This year I offered four distinct pieces of advice to middle school families at Back to School Night. My hope is that all of our families engage in an ongoing conversation about our beliefs and values as families, think carefully about the parenting choices we make, and don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees when it comes to the hard work of raising children. Continue reading “13 Years Old is Closer to 3 than to 23”

Faster Isn’t Smarter: A New View on Academic Excellence

Across human history, societies have held unique and sometimes esoteric ideas about intelligence and achievement. From public speaking to writing poetry, different cultures have defined and measured academic success in a wide range of ways.

Sadly, in current American society, academic excellence is often defined in ways that reduce children to scores and grades. This is a vast oversimplification of learning, if not outright intellectual dishonesty. For this reason, a national group of highly-regarded independent high schools have created the Mastery Transcript Consortium and are attempting to end the outsized impact that grades and transcripts hold in college admissions.

So what, then, is a truly child-centered concept of academic excellence?

First, academic excellence integrates 21st century skills such as creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. A child who can independently complete tasks at a high level, but is behind on social skills or struggles to work well in groups, is not yet reaching fully-formed academic excellence. The neuroscience on this is very clear: emotions and social connection are integral to learning, and memory, emotion and long-term learning are all linked.

Second, information literacy is a crucial skill; memorization and regurgitation of bits of knowledge are at best minor markers on the path towards mastery and complexity. When students know how to find out what they do not know, evaluate the sources of that information, and integrate it into their problem solving, they become agents and scholars capable of driving their own learning. This is why students of all ages need to be conducting research, applying knowledge to solve problems, and creating original work. Just last month the Wall Street Journal published an article on effective study skills highlighting how research has revised traditional thinking on the subject. Continue reading “Faster Isn’t Smarter: A New View on Academic Excellence”

8 Ways to Set Up Your Child for Success

Dear Gateway families,

This week our faculty and staff are hard at work preparing classrooms and curriculum, and we are eager to have children return to campus on Wednesday for the new school year!

One of the topics we always discuss in depth at this time of year are the routines, expectations and practices we use to integrate children into the classroom each fall, and to set them up to succeed with the challenging academic and social work that will unfold throughout the year. Here are a few ideas for how you can support your children’s success in school through a consistent and developmentally appropriate home environment.

Getting out the door: Establish predictable morning routines with your children. Map out the morning using visuals (graphic organizers really help!), so that they understand how much time it takes them to do each step — get dressed, use the bathroom, brush teeth and hair, eat breakfast, make their lunch, get their shoes and coats on, etc. When children are included in this process they feel ownership and responsibility for their morning tasks, adults get to do less cajoling through each step, and everyone’s morning experience improves.

Fueling up: Children can be picky eaters, but having a healthy, balanced breakfast is a huge boost to their academic success and emotional stability. Who likes being hangry? No one, and it hits children especially hard. Talk through your expectations for your child’s breakfasts, offer them limited choices that meet your expectations, and include them in your shopping trips to make sure you have what you need for their mornings.

Being on time: Being a minute or two late — or more — may not be a big deal to some adults, but many children experience being late as stressful or shameful. Coming in late can also be disruptive to the teacher and the class, and the child may have missed out on important class routines or information.

Emotional grounding: Challenging mornings happen to us all, and even the best-laid plans simply don’t pan out. When you encounter one of these mornings, remember that your child needs to be emotionally connected and secure to effectively enter the complicated world of classrooms and classmates. In these situations it’s wise to slow down, breathe together, and connect with open hearts, so that your child doesn’t carry the morning’s struggle into the rest of the day.

Downtime: We provide several breaks and other opportunities for play and movement during the day, but let’s be frank: many children are often intellectually and/or emotionally tired by the end of the school day. Enriching them with after school activities is wonderful and important, but children also need downtime when they can play, read, do art, or simply daydream. Resist the urge to overschedule your child.

Screens: It’s your house and you pay the bills, so you set the rules. That being said, we have a clear viewpoint: when it comes to free choice use of screens, less is more. The neuroscience of addiction is scary, and many children have trouble putting down a device.  Computers and tablets should be used in public spaces like the dining room, not in bedrooms. And yes, you can simply say no; we got our oldest daughter a cell phone just two weeks ago, right before she began high school.

Homework: First, every child should read every night, for at least 10-20 minutes. Second, every child should help out with the work of the home — dishes, pets, laundry, etc. Third, our teachers generally follow the American Psychological Association’s recommendation of max of 10 minutes per grade per night, but sometimes a child will struggle with a particular assignment or even consistently with a specific area. If this happens, lovingly have them stop working, and email your child’s teacher to let them know and help your child problem solve.

Bedtime: Just like in the mornings, the post-dinner routine is a crucial way for your child to process and integrate their emotional and social life. As you develop your family’s evening routines, include time for talking together in a calm and intimate way, and make time to hear about the ups and downs of the day without trying to offer coaching or catastrophizing; children’s work is to off-load their feelings, and as parents, our work is to hold that space without imposing our own emotions.

The home-school partnership that exists at Gateway is one of the unique and powerful ways in which our community intentionally works to align our values and actions in support of the children. Likely you have many techniques and tips to share with our community, and we sincerely hope you make the time to connect with other parents about these and other topics. Sharing the burden and reveling in the joy of being parents is amplified in this loving community!

I look forward to seeing you at Preview Day on Tuesday from 1:30-3:30, and/or the GFA’s welcome back coffee on Wednesday morning.


Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School

A safe space for everyone.

Dear families,

In 1918, pink was the color associated with baby boys, and blue was the color associated with baby girls. It’s interesting to consider that this gendered approach to colors is exactly the opposite in today’s society (and why it unnecessarily persists), and it leads us to ask many other questions about how a dominant society has decided to define the concept of gender, both now and historically, as well as for the future of today’s children.

We hope you are able to attend the Parent education event, “Dimensions of Gender”, this coming Friday, May 5th at 9:15 in the 6th grade Humanities room, immediately following our First Friday assembly, to explore this topic in depth with a panel of administrators and faculty.

Gateway School explicitly values the courage to promote a just society, and this year our faculty and staff have committed to investigating our understandings of gender more deeply, with the guidance of Joel Baum, Senior Director of Professional Development at Gender Spectrum. We know that gender impacts every child, that transgender and gender-expansive youth face great difficulties, and that creating a gender-inclusive school creates a better learning environment for all children. Continue reading “A safe space for everyone.”

When Is It Bullying?

“What’s the difference between bullying and just being unkind?”

I get asked this question every year, in part because I teach a four part unit on bullying to our Fourth Grade students. Children in the upper elementary grades naturally undergo important developmental shifts in how they interact with their friends and classmates. The tools and strategies they used as younger children often no longer work, so they need guidance in developing new ways of having healthy and successful friendships.

The unit begins by anonymously polling students about who has been treated unkindly, who has been unkind to others, who has seen someone be unkind to another person, and similar other questions. I am proud and impressed by the children’s honesty: almost every student will privately acknowledge that not only have they had others be unkind, they have been mean as well.

Continue reading “When Is It Bullying?”

Neuroscience & Social Emotional Learning

Last Wednesday, our annual Speaker Series event brought Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at USC, to Santa Cruz. Between the afternoon in-service for the collective faculty of Gateway School, Mt Madonna School, and York School, and the evening presentation for families and the broader community held at Cabrillo College, I walked away with a head full of ideas and insights about how neuroscience can help shape our approach to education and raising children. Here are just a few of Mary Helen’s phrases I found especially meaningful.

“Embodied cognition means that the body gives the brain a platform for experiencing the world.” Because a brain exists within a specific space and culture, it is co-dependent with the biological and cultural context. This dynamic interdependency plays out in countless ways, including the manner in which we learn to experience feelings. We each have a cultural construct that helps us learn ways to process our feelings, and these varies around the world. This means we have to be reflective, aware and intentional about the norms and structures of our culture.

“Emotional and cognitive development are co-dependent.” Through fMRI and other tools, neuroscience has proven something that we have long believed to be true based on observation and theory; when a child doesn’t have a sense of emotional safety in the environment, or strong social connections with others, the child’s ability to learn is compromised. Our implementation of the RULER approach to teaching emotional intelligence reflects this understanding; we are teaching students to recognize their emotions, to empathize with the emotions of others, and to create healthy social connections. Continue reading “Neuroscience & Social Emotional Learning”

Learning in a Global Context

Dear Gateway families,

In the second half of the 20th century, the world experienced a powerful transformation towards a globalized economy and society. From shifting geopolitical boundaries and the rise of continental political organizations, to military alliances and the proliferation of multinational corporations and free trade zones, human society was more tightly bound together than ever before in an interconnected web of dependencies.

The new administration in Washington D.C. will undoubtedly have a significant impact on how our country chooses to move forward as a global leader in the years to come. This impact will reverberate around the world, and it will be felt here at home, and in independent schools too. Though our school will remain apolitical from the structure of American politics, we have some core values and essential beliefs that have risen to the top of my mind as I consider this shifting landscape.
Continue reading “Learning in a Global Context”