Learning and the Brain Conference – Professional Development Notes

Jonnie Cardinale, 1st Grade

The 5 M’s were the name of the game at this years ‘Learning and the Brain’ conference; Memory, Motivation, Mindsets, Making, and Mastery were the topics of discussion and educators were offered a plethora of neuroscience research on the science of how we learn.

The days of thinking that people are born either smart or not, are over. Current research shows that the more a person uses their brain, the stronger it gets.

Inside of the cerebral cortex are billions of tiny nerve cells called neurons, which connect to other cells in a complicated network. When a person learns new things, these tiny connections multiply and grow. The more they grow, the deeper our neural pathways become. This is neuroplasticity.

In Eduardo Brecino’s workshop ‘Learning vs. Performing for Learning Mindset Success’, he talked of the importance of neuroplasticity in the distinctions between learning and performing. The effects on mindsets in these two zones are crucial to how a child perceives risk taking and learning outcomes.

The Learning Zone is a place where improvement is the goal and mistakes are expected. Activities are deliberately designed to foster deepened understanding and the focus is on what we don’t know yet. It is a place where children reflect and practice.

The Performance Zone is the place where the goal is to do as best as we can and where mistakes are avoided. Activities are designed for the execution of acquired knowledge and the focus is on what we have mastered. It is a place where children apply their learning.

As educators, we need to ensure that children are spending most of their time in the Learning Zone so that they can attain a confident growth mindset. Mindsets are about perceptions and on how we view failure. Fixed mindsets lead to helplessness and growth mindsets lead to agency. A growth mindset views efforts positively, and responds to setbacks with persistence and resilience.

While sitting in the audience, I felt my own synapses firing and neural pathways deepening. In this moment, I was my student, learning something new and feeling twangs of scary astonishment. How nice it was to be encouraged to take risks and to make mistakes! I left feeling even more inspired to be the best teacher I can be; and by best, I mean: modeling mistake making, being resilient when failing, and demonstrating lifelong learning for my students.

Jennifer Woodruff, 1st Grade

The presentations at this year’s Learning and the Brain Conference validated that Gateway School is living up to its vision of offering educational experiences rooted in evolving research. Many of Gateway’s current practices and recent initiatives were discussed at the conference as being researched-based best practices. Current brain research shows that offering longer blocks of time to delve into topics is effective in creating engaged learners.  This research supports Gateway’s redesigned schedule that allows for longer blocks of time.  Additionally, allowing time for play, questioning, experimentation and exploration has been shown by research to encourage creative, successful students.  This research supports the school’s brain breaks, discovery center, emphasis on project-based learning and playful approach to curriculum.

In addition, research shows that teachers who continue to learn, and discuss their learning struggles, successes and failures, model and encourage a growth mindset and an environment of deep engagement. All these practices are ones that are seen daily at Gateway.

In addition to validating what we do at Gateway, I am now able to offer a research-based explanation of letter/number reversal and word/sentence mirror writing rather than offering an explanation based on anecdotal evidence. Daniel Ansari, in his address, described an experiment that gave evidence that the brain is wired to recognize objects from any orientation at a young age.  Letters, numbers and words are an exception to the “orientation rule.”  Children need to learn that unlike a tiger, which is the same from any orientation (direction of viewing, whether rightside up, upside down, or from the side), the letters b and a d are not the same.  This is accomplished by uncoupling the neural pathways that generalize the “orientation rule” and forming new neural pathways that indicate letters, numbers, words and indeed sentences, are orientation dependent.

Ana Pena, Spanish Grades K-5

I was so excited to once again attend the Brain Conference in San Francisco this last weekend. Since I have returned to teaching Kindergarten for the first time in almost 20 years, I wanted to know what I could learn from this conference to support my student’s learning and to understand their world.

One keynote speaker, early childhood expert Erika Christakis titled her talk “The Science Of Being Little: The Power of Play, Creativity, and Exploration in Young Children”. She gave alarming statistics on early childhood educational programs that have become too academic resulting in stressed children who lack the joy of learning and who are doing poorly. She presented evidence for the  importance of play in the early years and how we as adults need to change our lenses to view play as a child’s way of learning.

Christakis suggested that we must learn to identify the learning that is going on during “play.” For example, when a child is building with his peers and has made a fort, what learning is going on?  The children are employing their imagination, creativity, problem-solving skills, engineering, using their language skills  as they describe what they have made and using their social skills to engage with each other constructively. So much in just playing with blocks!  She called for a return to a learning environment at home and school that better reflects children’s developmental needs. Let child have time to explore instead of going from one structured after-school class to another. Let them engage their imagination and get bored, because boredom can be a friend to the imagination. We just need to give our children time to fully engage in an activity and believe in their intelligence. We may need to coach them at the beginning, but with practice it will bear fruit.

As she spoke, I was reminded of our kindergarten students, who are allowed to play with mud, sand, water, and build fairy gardens with natural items from their environment. All that learning going on!  Just yesterday I was invited to see a new house/casa for a snail. The children planned what needed to be placed in the environment and were careful to use plants and flowers that were not plucked, naming their home and hypothesizing what will become of the snail.

As their Spanish teacher, I have decided to engage in their play and honor their way of learning and making meaning of their world.

Kaia Huseby, 3rd Grade

This year’s conference on Learning & the Brain was entitled “The Science of How We Learn: Engaging Memory, Motivation, Mindsets, Making, and Mastery.” I traveled with four other Gateway teachers to attend this exciting three-day conference in San Francisco.  The speakers were all experts from the fields of psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience; they were eager to speak with educators to share the implications of their findings for the classroom.

I found one presentation particularly illuminating: “Learning by Thinking, Questioning, and Explaining.” Tania Lombrozo, a professor at UC Berkeley, shared her research on the ways in which genuinely new insights can come about through the process of thinking out loud and explaining one’s thoughts to others. While we already place great emphasis on articulating thoughts and communicating with others here at Gateway, Lombrozo’s talk inspired me to plan more “explaining time” into lessons – not for me to explain things to students, but for students to explain their thinking to partners or to the whole group. In her research, Lombrozo found that prompting people (both children and adults) to explain their thinking aloud helped them to recognize the gaps in their knowledge and then be motivated to dig deeper. She argued that explaining can help learners to go beyond the obvious and prepare them for future learning. If, in the process of explaining a general pattern or underlying principle, people notice inconsistencies, they will want to dig deeper because they are unsatisfied with their first ideas. Knowing how to explain one’s ideas takes practice and support, however; this is something we can help children to learn both at school and at home.

Krissie Olson, Discovery Center Specialist

I was fortunate to attend the Learning and the Brain Conference this year as we considered the topic “The Science of How We Learn”. Especially compelling to me as the Discovery Center teacher was the track of sessions exploring Making, Design Thinking and Hands-on Learning. With each new speaker and workshop, my reflection was framed in the context of how the new information and research I was hearing could impact the students and the program in the Disco.

Stanford Assistant Professor and FabLearn founder Paulo Blikstein spoke at the conference of three frontiers of Making in Education: integrating making into the classroom; finding real world solutions and applications; and conducting research using neuroscience methodologies to better understand the effects of making on learning. He also reminded us that “Children are not hackers and still need support to learn the tools and techniques involved in making.”

Susie Wise, Director of the k-12 Lab and Stanford’s d.school, spoke during her session about empathy as a crucial component of Design Thinking and Making. Whether it be appreciating the difficulty of moving water that 14th century Italians had or how the fictional book character Stuart Little could integrate into a modern day classroom, Wise underscored that understanding someone else’s worlds and hidden needs helps all inventors, designers and thinkers better achieve their goals. We also participated in a rapid prototyping activity to emphasize the idea that a Bias Towards Action, or action-oriented behavior, plays a crucial role in maker activities and challenges.

Reflecting back on all the lessons I’ve taken away from the conference, I’ve been able to look with a fresh perspective on curriculum that already seems “set” but still requires revision. I appreciate that Gateway offers an agile environment in which to pivot and grow in my instruction and will leave you with a sweet quote I heard at the conference: “Every child in our classroom is someone else’s whole world”.

School Day Tours

April 12th 9-11am. RSVP HERE. Prospective families are invited to our Open House  to learn about and explore all the ways children thrive with our innovative learning techniques. Talk with our teachers, visit our cutting edge makers’ space, our prolific Life Lab, and listen to our budding musicians. You will also meet students, parents and our Head of School.  Hands-on activities.

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”

Is it dessert, or is it the main course?

Dear Gateway Families,

Consider this scenario: a teacher introduces a topic in class and talks about it in depth, has students read some texts and watch a video to learn more, gives a few worksheets to reinforce content memorization, leads class discussions to drive critical thinking about the ideas, and then asks students to show what they’ve learned by creating a poster.

Now consider another scenario: a teacher introduces a powerful question to the class, helps children learn about the topic through a variety of resources, asks them to think about it in the context of the real world, includes student voices in selecting the form of a project, helps students reflect on their understanding of the issues, guides them through a process of feedback and revision, and then has students present their project to a public audience.

Continue reading “Is it dessert, or is it the main course?”

Assemble for Gateway

The Gateway Families Association held a community fundraiser event called “Assemble for Gateway” where 20% of all restaurant sales for the evening was donated back to Gateway. Thank you to Gateway parent Kendra Baker, owner of Assembly Restaurant, for organizing this family friendly fundraiser!

Compassionate Citizenship at Gateway

Zachary RobertsDear Gateway families,

Our community was stirring this morning.  Last night our nation chose a new president and other officials in the most divisive election in memory. Yet the peaceful transition of power between administrations has already begun and will see us into the new year. Our democracy is strong and will survive our divisions.

Our job as a school is to build a community of compassion and citizenship, and so throughout our school, today our faculty chose to strengthen classroom communities. We took time for activities in which students built relationships and understanding with each other. In some classes, teachers and students discussed what respect means, breaking it down to what it is, who gets, and why to give it, while emphasizing that using a critical lens and holding our elected officials accountable is not the same as being disrespectful or uncivil. Others used the opportunity to talk about losing with grace, and gave children the space to share personal experiences when they have tried really hard for something, and then haven’t gotten it — because in life, we all have times when we lose and must confront failure, and it’s how we recover that matters.

Our school mission to raise children to be compassionate scholars and citizens has never been more important. Our children will follow and pattern after the way we speak about the election and the way we manage ourselves.  We have a powerful opportunity to teach wisdom, grace and respect in the days to come. Our values of integrity, critical thinking, communication, compassion and the courage to promote a just society will continue to lead us. Our children will be strengthened as smart, decent, loving and responsible people, and they will see that in the face of challenge, the right response is to roll up our sleeves, see each other with empathy, and carry ourselves with kindness and integrity.



Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School

Gateway Families’ Association Update

img_1323Dear Gateway Community,

I hope you are having a wonderful fall so far!

I’d like to give you an update on your Gateway Families’ Association (GFA). Everyone in our Gateway community is a member, including you!

Our GFA’s primary goals are to build community through school-wide events and to serve as a means of communication for parents with the administration and the Board of Trustees. We also love to support our school and our staff as much as we can, and to that end we fund and staff all of the events we offer, and we organize staff gifts and treat days.

I wanted to share some news with you about why we decided not to hold Fall Festival this year. Last year we took a step back and re-assessed our mission, commitment and goals to Gateway. We heard back from parents that they were feeling a bit over-extended with volunteering efforts last year. It is our responsibility to listen to our GFA members and to do the best that we can to address requests and concerns. And because Fall Festival requires the most amount of volunteer time from families and staff, we decided that we needed to take a break from the event this year. Don’t worry, if you’d like to bring Fall Festival back, there is still a possibility for next year. If you are interested in chairing Fall Festival, or participating in other ways, please let me know. I’m happy to hear from you.

Continue reading “Gateway Families’ Association Update”