Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What New Brain Research Tells Us About How Children Learn: An Interview with Dr. Judy Willis, Part 1

By Sam Piha

Dr. Judy Willis
Judy Willis is a leading thinker on how to apply new brain research to better promote children's learning. Below is part 1 of an interview with Dr. Willis. Check out her video on Edutopia, which we aired at the How Kids Learn conference.

Q: Can you briefly tell us about your background and current career in education, and why you made this change?

A: The school experience started changing about 12 years ago with over-stuffing of the curriculum – more and more wrote facts for children to memorize starting in first grade. Many more children were referred to my office by teachers who thought they might have neurological conditions. 

It turned out what looked like ADHD, OCD, and staring spell “petit mal” epilepsy were not the problems. These children’s brains were going into survival mode from the stress of boredom and frustration. I investigated the potential source of this huge jump in referrals. The kids, when I evaluated them, usually didn't have any of these conditions. 

The cause, as I observed was in the change in classrooms where the pressure to pack too much information into students’ brains was changing the part of the brain in which children were processing information and emotions. In the stress state, input does not reach the highest, reflective and cognitive brain (prefrontal cortex) where it needs to go to become memory. Stress diverts flow to the lower “reactive” brain where the outputs are limited to the same type of responses of other mammals when they are stressed: fight, flight, and freeze. In the classroom these same involuntary reactions to stress were the reasons students appeared to be “acting out” or “zoning out”. 

I believed my background as a neurologist and neuroscientist could help me teach students so they could acquire the required material in memory, but do so with the joy and positive connections to learning that would reduce the damage they were experiencing from chronic school-related stress.

I went back to the university, earned my teaching credential and masters in education, and for 10 years taught elementary and middle school. I now teach educators and parents throughout the world, and write books about using brain research to guide parenting and teaching strategies. 

Q: Is there any advice, based on your understanding of the new brain research, that you would give to out-of-school time workers?

A: The knowledge gained from brain research, when applied to learning, can energize and enliven students’ minds, improve memory, focus, organization, and goal setting. Strategies that incorporate brain-based learning research include building upon children’s natural curiosity with discovery and investigations to sustain their inherent love of learning. 

The school years are critical times in a children’s development of self and relationships to the world. This is when educators need to give children opportunities to gain access to a new compendium of tools they will need to understand and participate successfully in the world. This approach to teaching enriches children’s classroom experiences, keeps alive their natural curiosity, and cultivates their enthusiasm for life-long learning.  

New information is being discovered and disseminated at a phenomenal rate. It is predicted that 50% of facts children are memorizing today will no longer be fully accurate or complete in the near future. Children need to know how to evaluate sources of accurate information and then to use critical analysis to assess the veracity/bias and current/potential uses of new information. 

Students need to have school experiences to prepare them to analyze information as it becomes available, adapt flexibly when what were believed to be facts are revised, and to collaborate with other experts on a global playing field. These qualities require educational experience that not only build knowledge but also tolerance, judgment, critical analysis, evaluation of source validity, risk assessment, goal-planning, ability to articulate their ideas clearly, and cognitive flexibility, including willingness to consider alternative perspectives. 

To build the capacity for creativity and innovation, students need opportunities to make decisions and deal with choices and uncertainty, rather than be given the answers or told what is right. This starts when children are young and receptive to taking on challenges, but still knowing teachers are there for support, feedback, and to encourage their revisions.

With these higher cognitive opportunities to build the neural networks of cognition and reflection, curiosity is promoted. Students' brains are attentive because they learn to focus attention on and evaluate information to satisfy their curiosity. This makes school a natural progression of childhood curiosity and builds not only a positive attitude toward school, but promotes the neural construction of thinking and innovation.

With the support and experiences of top summer and after school learning, smiles can replace groans and eye-rolls. This is when the correlations of neuroscience to education return to children the joys of learning. Children’s brains will have the capacities to achieve their highest potentials as they inherit the challenges and opportunities of their 21st century.


Dr. Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist in Santa Barbara, California, has combined her 15 years as a practicing adult and child neurologist with her teacher education training and years of classroom experience. After five years teaching at Santa Barbara Middle School, and ten years of classroom teaching all together, this year Dr. Willis reluctantly left teaching middle school students and dedicated herself full-time to teaching educators. With an adjunct faculty position at the University of California, Santa Barbara graduate school of education, Dr. Willis travels nationally and internationally giving presentations, workshops, and consulting while continuing to write books for parents and educators.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Welcome to California's Summer Matters Initiative

By Sam Piha

Summer is an important time for learning. Summer youth programs enjoy flexibility with access to the community resources which makes alignment with the Learning in Afterschool & Summer principles a natural fit. The Partnership for Children and Youth recently launched their statewide Summer Matters Initiative, that is the focus of our interview with Executive Director, Jennifer Peck. 

Jennifer Peck
Q: Can you briefly describe the statewide Summer Matters initiative that you recently launched in San Francisco? 

A: Summer Matters is a statewide campaign with the goal of increasing access to high quality summer learning opportunities in California.  The Campaign has several components:  Building awareness amongst policy makers and the public about why summer learning is so critical for all students; Building models of high quality summer learning that complement the best of after school learning programs; Developing and advocating for policies at the local and state level that support summer learning opportunities, particularly for low-income students.

Q: Why did the Partnership decide to focus on this issue? 

A: Summer learning loss is a phenomenon we’ve known about for 100 years.  But more recent research has linked summer learning loss to the achievement gap, and the information is truly stunning.  Low-income students who lack educationally enriching opportunities in the summer are losing significant ground in their learning, and fall further and further behind each summer, resulting in a significantly larger achievement gap.  It’s become clear that educational equity won’t be possible unless we address summer learning loss.  

Q: The California legislature allocates a large sum of money each year for afterschool programs. Is there funding support for these programs to continue operations after the school year ends? 

A: A small portion of our After School Education and Safety and 21st Century Community Learning Centers dollars are dedicated to summer programming, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to meeting the need.  Senate Bill 429, championed by Superintendent Torlakson and approved last year, provides more flexibility in these summer supplemental dollars which is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to identify resources for summer programming.  Ultimately, we believe that our after school dollars should be designed to offer structured, engaging learning opportunities all year long, with seamless and aligned staffing, relationships, curriculum and goals.  While summer should look and feel different from even school-year after school programs, there should be continuity of effort.

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson launches Summer Matters 

Q: The Learning in Afterschool & Summer project is promoting 5 key learning principles that we believe are important for formal and informal summer learning: learning activities should be active, collaborative, meaningful, support mastery, and expand the horizons of participants. Do you agree that these are relevant to those who design summer learning experiences? If so, why? 

A: Absolutely!  Summer offers more time to bring these principles to life.  With a 6 to 8 hour day – free from the requirements of the school or even after school environment – summer allows staff and youth to collaborate more completely.  Staff and youth  can work together to expand on topics and activities that are particularly interesting to young people, and they can flex the program schedule to ensure that youth gain skills and knowledge through a variety of interactions.  This varied and deep engagement is hard to find in more traditional learning environments, but, as the LIAS movement has clearly demonstrate, is well-suited to summer and critical to young people’s long-term interest and success in learning.

Q: How can youth advocates and program leaders follow new developments in California regarding summer learning opportunities? 

A: The Summer Matters Campaign needs partners and advocates up and down the state.  We have developed information pieces, messaging, and public awareness and advocacy tools we want to share.  The best ways to get engaged and follow developments are to visit the Campaign website, and to sign up for the Partnership’s e-newsletter click here.

Jennifer Peck was a founding staff member of the Partnership For Children and Youth in 2001 and became its Executive Director in 2003. Jennifer leads a coalition of California organizations advocating for new federal policies to improve the effectiveness of after-school and summer-learning programs. She was also one of our speakers at the How Kids Learn Conference in January 2012. Jennifer was recently honored by the Afterschool Alliance as an Afterschool Champion at the Nation's Capital.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Real Afterschool Programs that Reflect the LIAS Principles

By Sam Piha

Sam Piha
We were recently contacted by an afterschool leader who exclaimed "I love the LIAS learning principles, but can you give me some real life program examples that would make them more real?" We responded by asking program leaders to submit examples of program components that they felt nicely represented the LIAS principles. We have now assembled them in a published paper entitled, Afterschool Programs That Reflect the Learning in Afterschool & Summer Learning Principles. We are also planning, in partnership with Change Agent Productions, to develop a video of program practices that are well-aligned with these same learning principles.

Teen CERT (Community Emergency Response Team),
a component of Club Timberwolf at Julian Jr. High School

We welcome your comments on this paper. We are currently looking for examples that come from summer programs. If you wish to submit a component from your summer youth program, you can do so using a Survey Monkey form

ALSO: We want to call your attention to some important new resources - 
  • A webinar entitled Expanding Science Learning Opportunities During Out-of-School Time, which is being presented on June 20, 2012 from 10:30am - 12:00pm PST. Click here for more information.
  • A new website entitled A Time to Succeed, which serves as a source of information for those interested in expanded learning efforts.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Big Deal about Badges

Corey Newhouse

By Guest Blogger, Corey Newhouse from Public Profit

Learning in Afterschool & Summer blog readers with a background in scouting or a Foursquare account are already familiar with digital badges; they are a small emblem representing a specific skill or achievement, including from everything from sewing and fishing (scouts) to checking in at your local coffee shop every day (Foursquare).

These are examples of the “gamification” of activities ranging from finishing an online puzzle to completing a community service project. Exciting new research suggests that games are good at engaging and motivating people, two essential components of learning. (Check out this TED Talk for more.)

Digital badges are catching on in afterschool and summer, too, and for good reason:
  • Digital badges are flexible. They can be issued for both small and large accomplishments in any kind of setting.
  • Digital badges create a clear path to mastery. Badges are designed to build on one another, earners complete successively more complex or challenging tasks to earn harder-to-get badges.
  • Digital badges are information rich. Digital badges have “baked in” information about who issued the badge, what the badge holder had to do, and the level of mastery associated with the badge. 
  • Digital badges are youth friendly. Badges are ubiquitous in the online gaming community and in social media. Your kids are likely already earning them now.
  • Digital badges are portable. Earners can display their badges on their web page, social media profiles, resumes… anywhere they want to show that they’ve done and learned.

I believe that digital badges can do a lot for afterschool and summer programs. Trainers could issue badges to staff members who successfully complete training series or demonstrate on-the-job skills. Youth could earn badges for completing an in-depth project or for working in their community. Program staff could use badges to reward kids’ consistent attendance or contributions to the group.

No matter what the specifics, digital badges are a well-defined, public way to name  and acknowledge the accomplishments of youth and adults. That’s where the value in badges lies.

For more information:
The Digital Media Learning Badge Competition, sponsored by the MacArthur and Mozilla Foundation, has funded about 20 digital badge projects, most of which are focused on out-of-school time programs. 

These projects – among others – are funneling into the Open Badges Infrastructure, the emerging hub for hundreds of badge projects around the world.

Corey Newhouse is Public Profit’s Founder and Principal. Ms. Newhouse has a wide range of experience in evaluating programs that serve children and families. Ms. Newhouse earned her Bachelor’s degree from Columbia College and her Master’s degree from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

Prior to founding Public Profit, Corey managed the evaluation division of Hatchuel Tabernik and Associates (HTA) where she was responsible for managing and performing dozens of youth service organization evaluation contracts totaling more than $1 million annually. Subsequent to her work at HTA, Ms. Newhouse was a Senior Policy Associate at Children Now where she was responsible for the development and publication of several widely released research reports.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Taking Another Look at Extended Learning Time

By Sam Piha

We interviewed over twenty afterschool leaders across California to hear their views on the current status of afterschool in the state and on what they see as important issues in the decade ahead. We will share some of the themes that came out of these interviews in this blog and in future posts. These interviews included leaders from large-scale afterschool providers, those involved in advocacy and policy work, Regional Lead staff, technical assistance providers, private foundations currently supporting afterschool programs, the leader of a large urban school district, a leading evaluator and researcher, and a leader in the new California Department of Education, After School Division. 

Several California afterschool leaders spoke of the growing conversation around extended learning time (ELT). It is important to be clear on the terms surrounding this issue. Some are promoting the idea of "extended learning opportunities" (ELO) . We interpret this phrase to refer to formal and informal learning opportunities that young people have access to outside of the formal classroom. This includes afterschool programs, summer youth programs, and programs offered by community institutions such as museums and libraries. What distinguishes these opportunities is that participation is voluntary, with many young people not involved for one reason or another.

We use "extended learning time" to refer to the efforts by school leaders to increase the "seat time" that students are in the classroom. This is being accomplished in many different ways: shortening recess and/or lunch time, lengthening the school day, and/or lengthening the school year. ELT interventions are generally applied to all students.

Some proponents have suggested the integration of community-based providers into this lengthened school day. This would fold in what we think of as afterschool program learning into the classroom. In many ELT models, there is no discussion of changing how teachers teach and students learn. In these models, research has shown little change in student learning. In other words, adding time for learning doesn't improve student outcomes unless schools change how they use this time. 

In California, which provides afterschool programs in over 4,000 schools, we are already greatly increasing extended learning opportunities. However, these opportunities are voluntary in nature so how will the idea of extended learning time or lengthening the school day impact our state system of afterschool programs? Is ELT right for California? And does it pose a threat or opportunity to the afterschool movement? We would suggest that this answer is different for states that do not have extensive or stable funding for afterschool programs - unlike California. We would also stress that afterschool programs need to improve the consistency of quality learning opportunities being offered. We believe that aligning programs with the Learning in Afterschool & Summer learning principles would be an important start. What do you think?

To learn more, see a recent publication entitled Off the Clock: What More Time Can (and Can't) Do for School Turnarounds and follow the conversation being sponsored by the Afterschool Alliance

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