San Francisco: Neuroscience and Technology in Education

San Francisco, California
October 26-28, 2012

At the Roundtable’s Fall meeting on the educational implications of neuroscience and emerging developments in technology, the insights arrived rapid-fire, one after the other:

  • Miami University’s Amishi Jha quoted philosopher William James. “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.” And, she added, “The ability to multi-task is a myth.”

    Amishi Jha, Miami University

  • “Going to school today” said the Apple Corporation’s Stephanie Hamilton, “is like getting on a plane. You’re expected to sit down, face forward, strap yourself in, and turn off all electronic equipment!”
  • Medical students are not competitive with each other, according to neurological scientist Dan Siegel, M.D. of UCLA. They collaborate to compete against death. Students should not be competing with each other either, he suggested, but collaborating to solve the challenges of the world. Then he introduced the Roundtable to his “hand model” of the brain.
  • When asked about their greatest moments, no teacher responds, “When I examined the spreadsheet, I saw a pattern emerge,” quipped Mark Gross, CEO of School Loop. Inevitably most of them report on a student who returned and said, “Your class made a big difference in my life.” That’s why big data systems are useful, said Gross. They can help reduce dropouts.
  • The value of programs such as Mindset, said 6th-grade teacher Evonne Lockhart, is that it encourages students in the “belief that you can learn what you set your mind to. You can make your brain grow.”

Rounded out with panels on technology and what these approaches mean in classrooms, along with the contributions of William Liu and Cole Borgia, Lockhart’s sixth-graders from Saratoga Union schools, the meeting ended with a discussion concluding that adults learn best when interested in new things, teachers learn best when motivated to help students, and students learn best when encouraged to see the possibilities in their lives. Perhaps we need to think of a new four “R’s” as essential outcomes of education: relevance, relationships, resilience, and reflection.

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness
Amishi Jha described a well-funded research program at Miami University, Florida, focusing on the basic neural mechanisms of attention and working memory, both self-evidently important in both classroom management and learning. Much of the impetus for this work rested on William James’ insight into “wandering attention” cited at the outset. Wandering attention, she said, can be seen in scans of the brain. Today’s neuroscientists, in fact, can actually identify regions of the brain in which certain types of cognitive activities develop (left). Mindfulness she defined as “a mental mode characterized by present moment experience without conceptual elaboration or emotional reactivity.” It is “about holding steady in the present,” not worrying about the past or “visualizing catastrophes in your future.”

Mind wandering, Jha reported, tends to be about worry. It is, in fact, the default mode of the brain, as attention and working memory are “hijacked by pre-occupation with self.” The default network is REST: Rapid, Ever present, Self Related, Thinking. It can be tamed via medication, psychotherapy, computer-based training, and also mindfulness-based training. Research indicates it seems to help reduce stress in a variety of situations. In health, it seems to improve the quality of life for people with chronic pain, HIV, Cancer, and psoriasis. Stress related to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and ADHA has been ameliorated with mindfulness training. And it helps improve a number of relationships—in marriages, between parents and children, and in the workplace.

The default mode of mind wandering is not entirely negative, she emphasized. Experiencing off-task thoughts during an ongoing task has both positive and negative aspects:

It is possible both to reduce self-related preoccupation through mindfulness training and increase the capacity of working memory capacity, concluded Jha. Educators should consider more training in contemplation and mindfulness education. And they can start by understanding that “the ability to multi-task is a myth. Switching from one task to another exhausts the human capacity to focus because the brain can only do one thing at a time.”

The “Embodied Brain”
Dan Siegel aims to provide a scientifically grounded, integrated view of human develop-ment to promote the growth of vibrant lives and healthy minds. He focuses on interpersonal neurobiology and an approach known as “mindsight,” and describes an “embodied brain” as the foundation of the approach. The embodied brain is made up of what most of us think of as the brain in the skull, plus the spinal cord and a “spider web of interconnected neurons throughout the body.”

Using his hand as a model for the brain, Siegel led the Roundtable through the different areas of the brain and the functions they govern.

A brief overview of Siegel describing his hand model to parents:

The following hardly does justice to the detailed presentation from Dr. Siegel, but he started with a simple request. He asked the audience to hold up their open hands and think of the wrist as the spinal cord and the heel of the hand as the brain stem. Then he said, “Bend your thumb across the palm of your hand and fold your four fingers over the thumb.” The thumb rep-resents the limbic region of the brain, protected deep within the skull. Within that broad model of the brain, he described the following functions:

  • The spinal cord is the neural cord providing head-to-body connections.
  • The brain stem governs independent, unconscious bodily functions – whether you are awake, or bleed, or breathe. It also governs fight/flight/freeze responses to stress.
  • The limbic area, on top of the brain stem governs motivation, emotion, appraisal of meaning and value (is something worth paying attention to?) implicit memory (e.g., fear of dogs), and attention and awareness (what’s required for deep learning), and attachment (the four “S’s”: safe, seen, soothed and secure).

    Dan Siegel demonstrates the hand model

  • The cortex, on top of the limbic area, is an incredibly complicated, layered, wrinkled mass of neural tissue.The frontal lobe (the middle knuckles of the fingers) is the executive function, governing intentionality and decision-making (based on the information it obtains from the other lobes). The rear (occipital) lobe at the back of the hand is the visual cortex and irresponsible foresight. The parietal lobe (on top) manages sensory information and spatial recognition. And the temporal lobe (the fingertips) processes external auditory stimuli and assists people understand and form speech.

Each of these portions of the brain is awash with a network of neurons that help organize the central nervous system, Siegel emphasized. In the amazing instrument for learning that is the human brain, the cortex and limbic system fire off up to 100 billion neurons, making trillions of synaptic connections instantaneously throughout the body and the “embodied brain.”

Implications for Education. Embedded in each of these stages are many implications for learning. The neural core is mostly unformed at conception so stress in utero (e.g., drugs or alcohol), seemingly embedded in the limbic or brain stem regions. Substance abuse “plays havoc” with the normal development of neurons, said Siegel, and “there is now some evidence that stress influences brain development.” The effects can be transmitted from generation to generation, apparently: Children and grandchildren of slaves or Holocaust and famine survivors demonstrate “epigenetic molecules” that seemed to pass traumatic memories on genetically.

The limbic area obviously governs important learning functions involving motivation, emotion, paying attention, and the like. Children and adults can be educated to focus more and to extend the amount of time between emotion and action (e.g., anger and striking out). It is here also that families and schools need to pay attention to the four “S’s”: safe, seen, soothed, and secure. Patterns of relationships with parents and schools shape how our minds work, reported Siegel. In the limbic area, he said, there is the reactive state of “no” – which leads to fighting, fleeing, freezing, or collapsing and induces shame and fear in young people. But there is also the receptive state of “yes,” which encourages young people to learn, grow, and take risks.

The prefrontal cortex is key to learning. It’s here that intentionality and focus develop. Beyond that it is the area in which the most important outcomes of education are developed: reflection, relationships, and resilience.

Taxi Dog

The cast of Taxi Dog

See that green sheet behind the actor amazed at the behavior of the puppet in front of him? The green sheet is one of the technological secrets of “Taxi Dog,” on online program for small children that follows a dog and his taxi driver owner around the streets of New York. All of the action scenes are shot in front of a green screen so that the streets and landscapes of Gotham can be superimposed on the green background.

This vivid demonstration was part of what was made available to the Roundtable by the Taxi Dog crew during the Fall meeting. Brought to life by cutting edge technology and innovative production processes, The Adventures of Taxi Dog is a unique program that encourages children to experience new things, see new places, make new friends, and help others. It provides lovable characters and heart-warming comedy through a clever synthesis of live puppetry and computer graphics.

Technical director Amy Wright described Taxi Dog as an effort to foster three new “R’s”: relationships, reflection, and resilience. Through a sequence of classroom activities tied to the individual programs, children follow a SAFE program — Sequenced, Active, Focused, and Explicit. Developing their own programs, shooting their own video, and using storyboards, stu-dents can go back and forth between video and storyboards. In addition to promoting Social Emotional Learning (SEL), noted Wright, the classroom activities encourage planning, repetition so that practice makes perfect, multiple shots to eliminate mistakes, and a sense of perseverance and resilience promoted by students’ new understanding of just how difficult it is to do just about anything really well.

Promise and Possibilities of Technology

Where are we with technology and where’s it headed in the future? There were answers aplenty during the Fall meeting, first from Taxi Dog, and then from Stephanie Hamilton, Senior Manager, IT and Learning Technologies, Apple education, and then from a separate panel in-volving Scott Smith, Mooresville schools, North Carolina; Terri Bourdon, Virginia Polytechnic University; and Diane Smalley, Saratoga Union schools, California.

Stephanie Hamilton, Apple

Insights from Apple. Harking back to a message first heard by the Roundtable in 2009 from Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s global vice president for education, Hamilton insisted that technology has to be about changing school culture, not equipment. Technology is ubiquitous and mobile, she noted, anticipating that by 2020 there will be 10 billion mobile platforms worldwide. Children today are already more comfortable with these mobile platforms than many adults, she smiled. To children is the natural way of learning. “It’s only technology if it was in-vented after you were born. For children, it’s just always been there.”

Business models in schools are not helpful, she noted. They tend to be revenue driven, focused on productivity, and network centric. In schools, what is required, she said, is technology that is learning driven, focused on classrooms, and user-centric. “The big takeaways from our experience are these: Centrally controlled school technology cannot work; it has to be teacher-controlled. It should serve learning, not dictate curriculum. And bandwidth needs to be driven into classrooms, not into the central office.”

The sense at Apple, she reported, is that in ascending order of importance, students want the following from schools: Work with interactive technologies. Teachers who serve as mentors. Learning that is interesting. More choice in what they are studying. And most important, real and relevant work. Going to school, she quipped shouldn’t be like getting on an airplane, where “you’re expected to sit down, face forward, strap yourself in, and turn off all electronic equipment!”

The old factory model worked, she acknowledged, in a factory age. Because information was scarce, printed, and filtered, schools had to rely on teachers as experts. But today information is digital and ubiquitous, democratized through devices such as Wikipedia, free, and open through open courseware and exploding (1.2billion terabytes of information exist today and it is anticipated that by 2020 there will be 35 billion terabytes). In this new situation, she quoted Seymour Papert (MIT mathematician and pioneer in artificial intelligence), the “role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather that provide ready-made knowledge.”

Scott Hamilton, Mooreseville School District

What’s Happening in Schools?
A fascinating panel from schools and higher education highlighted that there’s much more going on with technology in today’s schools than casual observers understand.

  • Scott Hamilton. The poverty rate in Mooresville NC schools is 40%. In an effort to transform learning and improve school culture, the district set out to close the digital divide. Today, 500 teachers have a MacBook and 4,000 students from fourth to twelfth grade have a MacBook Air they can take home with them, available 24/7. Combined with a ubiquitous wireless infrastructure, the district has seen impressive improvements. The proportion of students meeting state proficiency benchmarks has climbed in six years to 92% (4th grade), 88% (middle school); and 91% (high school), from 74%, 73%, and 68% respectively, although Mooresville ranks in the bottom 15 of 150 districts statewide. The costs? $1.25 per day, per child.
  • Terri Bourdon. At Virginia Tech, reported Bourdon, 7,000 students are now taught nine courses, with on-demand help available more than 60 hours a week, at the Math Emporium, a converted department store that essentially houses all beginning math programs for the university. Students study on their own 24/7, and during the 60 hours that help is available, graduate students and faculty walk the floor responding to signals for help. Much of the work can be done remotely; students are required to visit the Emporium only for proctored quizzes and tests. Despite that, she reported, the place is packed from 10:00 am to 10:00 pm daily.
  • Diane Smalley. Saratoga Union, like every district in California, is struggling with massive funding cuts. A pre-K to 5th-grade district, Saratoga has to grow without money, in a district located in Silicon Valley with very high achieving students and no additional money for professional development. “We want to be a ‘yes’ district,” noted Smalley. “If teachers want the technology, we want to provide it.” But perversely given its location and the high performance levels of its students, many teachers wonder why they have to change. “In a nutshell,” she concluded, “what’s important for students is for administrators to be committed to improving the human capacity of the teachers in the district.”

Big Data: Improving Completion through Technology and Social Media

Steven Ladd, Elk Grove School District

At Elk Grove Schools, a K-12 system enrolling 66,000, educators have “granular data on each student. It provides a traffic light dashboard of stop/warning/go,” reported superintendent Steven Ladd, Co-Chair of the Roundtable. Armed with a stimulus grant of $1 million to reduce the number of dropouts and improve graduation rates, Elk Grove went shopping for a partner that could provide “free early warning software to identify at-risk students. We wanted in research-based and capable of supporting interventions strategies.” As the state begins to roll out OnTrack, developed by School Loop, Ladd described the effort as “Facebook meets state data.”

Mark Gross, School Loop

Mark Gross, CEO of School Loop, described a system that each day pushes !.5 million emails showing a dashboard of stop/warning/go to every teacher, along with information on which ten students are trending downward and which ten are improving. “When I ask teachers about their greatest moments, none of them say to me, ‘When I examined the spreadsheet, I saw a pattern emerge,’ ” joked Gross. “They talk about students who returned and said, ‘Your class made a big difference in my life.’ ” So, data, he said, isn’t useful to teachers if it’s a bunch of numbers. Much more useful is a color-coded system of green, yellow, and red, that immediately tells the teacher who’s on track, who’s got some problems, and who’s in real trouble. “What we wanted to create was an interactive social media effort so that all the adults around these kids, teachers, counselors, social workers, and principals could see what was happening and comment in real time on what was being done about it,” said Gross. The system, in effect, informs a professional learning community with all the data it needs to make decisions: grades, assessment results, behavioral evaluations, attendance records and the like, while permitting these adults to report on the strategies they are pursuing to help students in trouble. This is all free to education professionals; parents do not have access to it.

What does a superintendent see? He or she sees a similar dashboard by school. The performance of students is summed up for each school, which in turn is summed up to provide a picture of district performance. “School Loop doesn’t make decisions about the targets,” noted Gross. “You determine the target passage rates. You determine goals. But once you’ve done that, we can create the district dashboard.”

It’s a new system. Just being launched in Elk Grove and it has been up and running for three weeks in Washington, D.C. Shortly it will be serving 4,000 schools in 30 states. But Gross is optimistic that it can make a difference. “Code can change culture,” he insisted. “If we’re going to personalize learning, we can start by personalizing support systems and getting to know students. If you start out to change culture, you’ve given yourself a horrific challenge. But if you start to change support systems, cultural change can be a by product.”

Saratoga School District

How Does This Work in our Districts?
What does a program embodying some of these concepts look like in schools? A series of Saratoga Union presentations from parents (Cynthia Miller), teachers (Laurie Marshall & Vicki Andary of Foothill Elementary), and administrators (Diane Smalley and Lane Weiss) filled in the gap. Saratoga has implemented the MindUp program developed by the Hawn Foundation. They described classrooms in which students had a better understanding of their emotions and how to practice exercises to keep their minds from wandering.

Perhaps even more impressive, in an exercise designed by health teacher Evonne Lockhart, students in a video were able to describe and model how alcohol and drugs impaired their cognitive functions, acting out how the brains neurons, synapses, and receptors send signals around the body. In short these students were able to describe how their minds and bodies work. “If you want

Evonne Lockhart, Saratoga

students who are focused, calm, and self-regulated, what’s not to like?” asked Weiss rhetorically.

Thinking it Through
After nearly two full days of demanding presentations, Roundtable member Claire Sheff Kohn, who had helped plan the meeting, pulled some of the disparate threads together. She noted that she was struck by two competing themes over the course of the weekend. On one hand, the emphasis on mindfulness, mind wandering, memory and attention implied a great need to slow things down. On the other, technology, with its constant state of stimulation and rapid change emphasizes the need for a very fast pace. How do we reconcile these contradictions?

As the discussion developed the group reached the conclusion that in today’s fast-paced world an emphasis on mindfulness is even more appropriate in the effort to keep both students and adults on an even keel. “How,” asked Sheff Kohn, “do we get from where we are now to what we want for our students?” The response that came back amounted to a conclusion that in most of today’s districts there are too many initiatives. “We can’t do 35 things well at once,” said one superintendent. “If we want to bring these ideas into our districts, if we want to slow down in order to go fast, we need to be strategic. We shouldn’t bring mindfulness concepts into our districts if it’s just going to be another project.”

But that seemed to be the point. As Sheff-Kohn concluded, adults learn best when inter-ested in new things, teachers learn best when motivated to help students, and students learn best when encouraged to see the possibilities in their lives. Perhaps, she said, in being strategic we need to think of a new four “R’s” as essential outcomes of education: relevance, relationships, resilience, and reflection.

Nothing any adult said in the room could have driven home the value of these approaches better than the presentations from Saratoga students Cole Borgia and William. Asked to describe what they liked about MindUp, these two students, with impressive aplomb, described being able to focus on their studies, control their emotions, and make friends with classmates while sharing rewarding experiences with them. Their little talk drew a well-deserved standing ovation. As Lane Weiss had put it: “If you want students who are focused, calm, and self-regulated, what’s not to like?”

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