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”.