Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What New Brain Research Tells Us About How Children Learn: An Interview with Dr. Judy Willis, Part 3

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 3 of an interview with Dr. Willis. Check out her video on Edutopia, which we aired at the How Kids Learn conference.

Q: There are those who say that when young people are participating in collaborative learning groups, they are less engaged in real learning. How would you respond to this? 
A: Collaborative group activities, unlike whole class discussions or independent work, provide the most opportunities for youth to express their ideas, questions, conclusions, and associations verbally. Jeanne Gibbs, in her book Tribes reported that in traditionally structured classes each student has about 5-10 minutes of individual time to engage in classroom academic discourse. In group work that amount of time increases dramatically. She found that youth experienced a greater level of understanding of concepts and ideas when they talked, explained, and argued about them with their group, instead of just passively listening to a lecture or reading a text. 

This is again supported by the accelerated metabolic brain activity during active constructive thinking, such as planning, gathering data, analyzing, inferring, and strategizing versus passive information acquisition. When the verbal center becomes engaged while information or a task is being learned, more neural activity travels between the left and right brain. Thus when a student describes his/her thinking verbally to the group or works on a group chart, diagram, or project, the new information becomes embedded in multiple brain sites, such as the auditory and visual memory storage areas. Now, with neuroimaging, we know that this multicentered brain communication circuitry enhances comprehension, making new material be more accessible for future use, because it is stored in redundant brain areas. 

Q: Can you give concrete examples of how this might look in a classroom setting?
A: In mathematical collaboration youth learn to test one another’s conjectures and identify valid or invalid solutions. Group members are all engaged as they discover techniques to test one member’s strategy. If it doesn’t work on repeated tries, they invalidate that strategy and try another. Youth who just “don’t get it” via a group leader’s didactic lecture benefit from the different perspective classmates with similar knowledge banks have on the subject. 

In literature and social studies youth have a small, safer place to try out ideas they might not express to the entire class. They learn that there is validity to personal interpretation and they can experiment with critical thinking in a structured small group setting, with scaffolding provided as needed via group leader prompts about what to discuss and how to run the discussion. This process empowers these youth to become more active in not only whole class discussions, but in their homework, and in speaking their opinion outside of the classroom. This is especially critical during adolescence when “fitting in” is such a strong need, that individuality can become stifled. 

Q: One of the LIAS learning principles says that learning should be active and utilize all of the senses. Do you agree with this?
A: Yes, as the neuroimaging evidence has shown, the more a student is engaged in a learning activity, especially one with multiple sensory modalities, the more parts of his/her brain are actively stimulated. When this occurs in a positive emotional setting, without stress and anxiety, the result is greater long-term, relational, and retrievable learning. 

Q: You have talked about cooperative work groups as needing to be well planned. Can you be more specific about what you mean?
A: To qualify as cooperative work, rather than individuals working in parallel in a group, youth should need each other to complete the task. Youth are expected to participate in tasks that are clearly constructed and necessary for the group’s success. The group leader should remain active as a circulating resource and when necessary, an arbitrator, but youth should be capable of carrying out their tasks without constant, direct intrusion by the group leader. Youth and not the group leader are responsible for accomplishing their tasks in the way they think best, with accountability to each other and to the group leader’s standards. Ideally there is a clear rubric for individual and group assessment and the youth and the group leader take part in the assessment process. 

Q: Can you offer us some specific guidelines to follow when developing collaborative working groups?
A: When setting up lessons for successful collaborative learning in groups, consider the following guidelines. I will expand on these and offer specific cooperative group activities (which can be found here) that emphasize each of the following five characteristics:
  • All members have opportunities and capabilities, frontloaded if necessary, such that different youth can make their own special contributions. This may require planning ways for youth with different learning/intelligence styles to make special contributions to the group task. 
  • Youth learn to respect each other as group members. Often this requires group leader demonstration with role-playing.
  • The group negotiates roles with guidance from the group leader. Designated roles can include recorder, participation monitor (someone who keeps track of who is participating such that if one member has already given three suggestions and others have not had a chance, the overly active participant is asked to give others time to present their views), creative director (if a physical product such as a poster or computer presentation is part of the project), materials director (as might be needed for science or art projects).
  • There should be more than one answer or more than one way to solve the problem or create the project.
  • The activity should be intrinsically interesting, challenging, and rewarding.


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, July 18, 2012

What New Brain Research Tells Us About How Children Learn: An Interview with Dr. Judy Willis, Part 2

By Sam Piha

Judy Willis is a leading thinker on how to apply new brain research to better promote children's learning. Below is part 2 of an interview with Dr. Willis. Check out her video on Edutopia, which we aired at the How Kids Learn conference.
Q: You make the case that collaborative learning opportunities are particularly important during adolescence. Why is this? 

A: Consider the increased comfort and enjoyment that youth have when pleasurable social interaction is incorporated into their learning experience. This is especially true during adolescence when peer group influence plays such an important developmental role in the psychosocial process of separation from parents along the road to individualization. For example, in early elementary school youth often raise up from their seats when they wave their hands enthusiastically in hopes of being called upon to answer a question. By middle school some youth consider it uncool to volunteer answers or even appear smart in class. These same youth are more willing to participate and even show enthusiasm about challenging tasks when they are engaged in learning activities with supportive cooperative groups. 

Erik Erikson’s theorized that the developmental crises of adolescence are turning points during periods of increased vulnerability and these turning points present opportunities for the development of psychosocial strength. He proposed that during these developmental stages the adolescent develops new capacities and psychosocial strengths by working through these crises. Inclusion, a sense of belonging to a group where a student feels valued, builds resiliency. Resilient adolescents have greater success, social competence, empathy, responsiveness, and communication skills. They also demonstrate greater flexibility, self-reflection, and ability to conceptualize abstractly when solving problems. 

Successfully planned group work can help to support youth during these developmental crisis opportunities by reducing the fear of failure that can cause them to avoid academic challenges. Well-structured cooperative group activities build supportive peer communities, which in turn increase self-esteem and academic performance.

Q: Youth development specialists and educators have been saying for some time that creating a positive, low stress environment enhances the opportunities for young people to learn. Is this now confirmed by recent brain research?
A: Neuroimaging and neurochemical investigation provide evidence of the brain’s response to stress as well as to pleasure and positive social interaction. Research on the amygdala reveals it to be one location of an affective filter in the brain. During the periods of the high stress or anxiety, that some youth might feel when asked to do a math problem on the board or make an oral presentation to the class, their emotional state is associated with greatly heightened metabolism (more glucose/oxygen use) flooding this “emotional” portion of the limbic system on Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies. 

When the amygdala is in this hyperexcitable anxiety-provoked state there is profound reduction in the neural activity indicative of information flow into and out of the amygdala. In the normal, relaxed state the brain receive information as sensory input (hearing, vision, etc.) into specific sensory receptive centers. From these areas, neural pathways project this information to the amygdala. In the amygdala emotional meaning may be linked to the information and connections are made with previously stored, related knowledge. The new information, now enhanced with emotional or relational data, then travels along specific neuronal circuits to the higher cognitive centers of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, where information is processed, associated, and stored for later retrieval and executive functioning. 

In MRI scans of adolescents in states of affective, emotional anxiety, when the amygdala metabolically hyperactive, the pathways that normally conduct information in and out of the amygdala show greatly reduced activity. Thus new information/learning is blocked from entering the memory banks by this metabolic blockade of the hyperactive amygdala. 

Q: How does well-designed collaborative learning help create a positive learning environment?
A: When youth participate in engaging learning activities in well-designed, supportive cooperative groups, their affective filters are not blocking the flow of knowledge. When you plan your group such that each member’s strengths have authentic importance to the ultimate success of the group’s activity, you have created a situation where individual learning styles, skills, and talents are valued and youth shine in their fortes and learn from each other in the areas where they are not as expert. They call on each other's guidance to solve pertinent and compelling problems and develop their interpersonal skills by communicating their ideas to partners. 

The brain scans of subjects learning in this type of supportive and social learning situation show facilitated passage of information from the intake areas into the memory storage regions of the brain. This is consistent with the original cognitive psychology research and theories of Steven Krashen about the affective filter - that learning associated with positive emotion is retained longer and visa versa. 

Q: Here, I’m going to apologize to our readers for getting somewhat technical, by asking you to explain in simple terms how information travels in the brain and the role of neurotransmitters. 

A: Information travels along nerve cells’ branching and communicating sprouts (axons and dendrites) as electrical impulses. However, where these sprouting arms connect to the next neuron in the circuit, the information has to travel through a gap between the end of one nerve and the beginning of the next one. In these gaps, called synapses, there are no physical structures, like the wires that connect appliances to electric outlets, along which the electric impulses can travel. 

When crossing over synaptic gaps, the information impulse must be temporarily converted from an electric one into a chemical one. Neurotransmitters are brain proteins released by the electrical impulse on one side of the synapse, to then float across the synaptic gap, carrying the information with them to stimulate the next nerve ending in the pathway. Once the neurotransmitter is taken up by the next nerve ending, the electric impulse is reactivated to travel along to the next nerve cell.
Dopamine is the chemical neurotransmitter most closely associated with attention, memory storage, comprehension, and executive function. The theory of reward-stimulated learning and other reinforcement learning theories are based on the assumption that the brain finds some states of stimulation to be more desirable than others. The brain is believed to make associations between specific cues and these desirable states or goals. Dopamine activity can be evaluated on neuroimaging.

Q: How is the release of dopamine related to learning? How is this related to collaborative learning activities? 
A: It has been found that dopamine release is increased in brain centers associated with learning and memory in response to rewards and positive experiences. Research found that the brain released more dopamine into these learning circuits when the individual was playing, laughing, exercising, and receiving acknowledgement (e.g. praise) for achievement. These frontal lobe dopamine sensitive regions are seen on neuroimaging as activated in pleasure and reward, wakefulness, and satiety. 

Many of the motivating factors that have been found to release this dopamine are intrinsic to successful cooperative or collaborative group work such as social collaboration, motivation, and expectation of success or authentic praise from peers. Because dopamine is also the neurotransmitter associated with attention, memory, learning, and executive function, it follows that when the brain releases dopamine during or in expectation of a pleasurable experience or reward, that this dopamine will be available to increase the processing of new information. That is what occurs when a young person enjoys a positive cooperative learning experience, and even when s/he anticipates participation in that type of activity sometime during the class or program.

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, July 11, 2012

Ode to Site Supervisors

The following was shared with the BOOST Conference attendees by a dear colleague, Diego Arancibia. It was also posted in the BOOST Breakfast Club Blog. With Diego's permission, we reposted it here in order that it could be shared even further. Diego's bio can be found below - Sam Piha
Ode to Site Supervisors
By Diego Arancibia
Diego Arancibia
I began to reflect on my career and realized that
my days as a site coordinator have been the most defining and empowering.
I dare say that this experience,
as a site coordinator,
prepared me for the biggest challenges of not only my career…
but my life.
So, I have written this ode,
in honor of the site coordinator...
The one who is a part time employee with a full time attitude.
The one who has survived the bullets of lock downs
and who also rose to the occasion
to help supervise 1400 students
in the midst of a teacher walk out.
The one who has had to call 911 because of broken bones...
and at the same time worried that the family didn't have insurance.
The site coordinator who realized they are,
in essence,
the bridge between
the school and
When they heard a father say
"I got the message from the school but if i left work,
I wouldn't get paid and
my family won't eat... tu sabes?"
The one who spent a sleepless night in the emergency room because of one their students laid in one of those rooms.
The one who a can name every kid in their program....
Along with their nickname.
The one who made the call to child protective services…
and even with promise of "confidentiality"....
everyone knew it was you…
even the parent.
But you still don't regret making the call,
because you took a stand for those that couldn't.
To the one who has heard of their former student being shot
or killed in a car accident.
The one who also tears up when they hear one of their students just graduated.
To the one who heard their former student,
who didn't have papers,
didn't have a dad,
and didn't do time
still joined the marines to serve "his" country
and was shipped to Iraq.
To the one who made magic happen with 200 students, $20 bucks, and a 99cent store.
The one who gave their last $10 bucks to a student
so they could go on that field trip.
The one who has survived countless site visits... and yet still has to justify the work they do.
The one that has brought in thousands of dollars if not millions because of the program they run.
Only to become the scape-goat of disconnected administrators.
The site coordinator who knows the utter excitement of finding "that staff member" who has "it"
and the shot to the gut
when you had to fire,
let go,
reassign, or
whatever term you want to use
to let a staff member know they lost their "juice".
To the site coordinator who has dealt with the stress
of trying to accomplish
in 3 hours
what others
have trouble in 8.
The site coordinator who has mopped floors, cleaned bathrooms
and was still yelled at for moving a chair in a classroom.
To the one who initially was not
from of the community
but in time
earned the trust and respect
and became part of that community.
To the site coordinator who has failed.
but failed forward
and had humility and courage
to stand up...
and triumph.
The one who goes by that saying of Admiral Grace Hopper
If it's a good idea, go ahead and do it. It is much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.
To the site coordinator who created a 3rd place... not really home, not really school...
but really like home and really like school.
To the site coordinator who has seen their front line staff be transformed.
To the site coordinators,
who in reality
are the backbone of
any program
any organization
and of this movement.
To you
I say…
Thank you.
Diego Arancibia has worked in the field of After-School for over 15 years.  His experience ranges from working with elementary, middle school and high school students at the various programmatic and administrative levels.   His innovative methods in marketing and programming has produced some of the most successful programs in the nation. Also, he has traveled across the nation training youth program advocates in consensus building, action planning, programming.  Currently, Diego is the Coordinator with ASAPconnect and lives in the Bay Area with his beautiful wife and his amazing son and daughter.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Virtual Vacation to Build Global Awareness

By Guest Blogger Susan Neufeld 

Susan Neufeld
At the Best of Out of School Time (BOOST) Conference this past April, I had the pleasure of hearing Diego Arancibia (ASAPConnect) read “Ode to Site Supervisors,” a poem that captures the complexity of youth work. In our jobs, we feel the urgency to squeeze all that we can – accountability, life skills, love, validation – into a 3 to 6 p.m. schedule that also needs to offer a healthy snack and homework help. Our urgency is motivated by a realization that we want kids to find their voice and vision now while they are quickly changing. It’s a bit like building a ship while it sails.
Only, we don’t have to worry about building the ship. The LIAS Principles – that learning is active, collaborative, meaningful, supportive of mastery, and focused on expanding horizons – remind us that kids are the captains of their own development. Our role is not to fill kids with knowledge and skills but to be a compass that offers direction, guidance, opportunities, and support to find their own way. 
Doing this is harder than it seems, particularly when most of us have a lifetime of assignment-driven schooling. Our instinct is to mimic a controlled, tightly scheduled, and rigid learning environment. But true learning is messy: it isn’t quiet or neat or easily captured in a worksheet. It is noisy, dynamic, and full of mistakes and spills and arguments. It is engaging, passionate, and so exciting that kids don’t want to go home.
Virtual Vacation Leader's Guide
In our organization, we use Virtual Vacation (VV) to help create this learning environment for kids. VV is not a curriculum but a methodology for creating vibrant learning opportunities for youth. A Virtual Vacation Leader's Guide, developed in partnership between Temescal Associates and Chris Bentivegna,  is available at this link.  It is open-ended, hands-on, affordable (!), accessible to all ages, and allows kids to freely explore their world. In VV, youth determine where they would like to travel. They can go to a country (China!), a time in history (era of dinosaurs!), or a destination (under the ocean!) to explore, learn about other cultures, develop skills, and discover new interests. The staff’s role is to guide and facilitate what the group decides to see, do, understand, or create. 
An Example
A Virtual Vacation to Japan
At one of our sites, the youth decided that they wanted to visit Japan. As part of their trip, the children learned key Japanese words, made obis out of scrap cloth, celebrated the Lotus festival, made vegetable sushi rolls, practiced Japanese calligraphy, and researched the recent tsunami. Along this journey, they practiced soft skills (working and playing well with others, communication, negotiation, decision-making, leadership) and academic skills (internet research, reading, art, math, history). They also had a chance to visit a world outside their own, building their global and cultural awareness. For our youth, who all reside in or near low-income apartment housing, Virtual Vacations gives them opportunities once reserved for middle or upper income youth. 
The Virtual Vacation approach is something I would recommend to any youth organization that seeks to engage youth in learning about the larger world. This approach weaves in a variety of academic disciplines and offers activities that bring distant people and places alive. 

Prior to her current position at The HOPE Through Housing Foundation, Ms. Neufeld served as the Collaboration Manager for Mustangs on the Move, a consortium of community-based organizations that provides after school programming to high school youth in Northwest Pasadena. She also worked for Communities Organizing Resources to Advance Learning (CORAL) Pasadena, a multi-city after school initiative launched by the Irvine Foundation, first as a program evaluator then as Associate Director. Ms. Neufeld holds a Master’s degree in Applied Developmental Psychology from Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. She currently serves on the Si Se Puede! Learning Centers Advisory Council of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, on the 2012 BOOST (Best of Out of School Time) Conference Leadership Team, and is a part of the Learning in Afterschool & Summer Work Group. 

Reed Larson’s Research on Youth Development

Source: Reed Larson, The Youth Development Experience Kate Walker By Guest Blogger Kate Walker, Extension Specialist, Youth Development, Uni...