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.

“Moral beauty and mathematical beauty and aesthetic beauty show up similarly in the brain’s activity.” We know now that the cortex, or outer portion of the brain where most of our high-level thinking occurs, develops networks of neurons that run deep into the limbic system. This replaces an earlier “tripartite” model of the brain, and reveals how much we still have to learn about how the brain works. On a content level, it’s comforting to know, as Mary Helen said, that poets have had it right for thousands of years; we can literally feel it inside ourselves when we think about what’s happening outside in the world.

“Meaningful learning always involves emotion.” The brain’s networks for emotion and memory both run through the amygdala, a subcortical brain structure. So emotions can both help us access memories, as well as steer how we think. Even more importantly, emotions don’t get in the way of thinking, they are are literally tied to our thoughts. This reinforces another long-held philosophical belief: when children make meaningful emotional connections to the content and skills we are teaching, it leads to longer-lasting and deeper learning.

“Earlier is not always better when it comes to learning.” The emotional context of a child, teacher and class vary day-to-day and even within a day. Similarly, a child’s ability is literally different day to day, but skill growth isn’t a linear progression straight up a ladder. This means that as a teacher is setting the context for the day, we must allow the context to be dynamic and responsive to the children’s changing skills.

“Don’t try to meet the needs of 20 kids; teach them to meet their own needs and then honor their choices to do so.” As adults, we need to give children tools, and time to practice those tools, so that they become independent. Our teachers’ goals should not be to become a one-person show who engages and supports each child individually; children must learn to adapt to different contexts. At the same time, children need to learn how they fit into a group, and how their choices impact others, and then be allowed to make the choice to become self-sufficient.

Mary Helen touched on many other interesting topics, including the impact of social media on developing brains, how compassion and empathy activate the brain area that consumes the most energy, why learning to read is an unnatural evolutionary action, how the brain grows and prunes neural cells over a lifetime, and how mental and emotional stress lead to physical illness, among other areas.  For more on Mary Helen’s work, you may be interested in watching Nova’s School of the Future program; her lab is featured at the 1:29 mark.

Here’s to our lifetime of learning,

Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School