Neuroscience Tells Us We Are Doing School All Wrong (Summer Series) | Tara Quigley | 10 Min Read

August 8, 2023

If you have been listening to any podcasts about educational innovation and neuroscience lately, you have probably come across the latest research from Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an associate professor of education and psychology at USC. What Dr. Immordino-Yang’s research, encapsulated in the many video interviews she has done over the past few years, and articles like these, means is that we are doing education all wrong. Because of our focus on learning objectives and content curriculum, she states that “we design school to teach kids capacities for inhibiting their own sense of self, their own sense of agency. It’s like we punish student learning and developing the skills they will need to be happy, successful adults.” At a time when we need to be developing a generation of individuals who will be able to think for themselves, act in alignment with their values, and critically determine the validity and reliability of the information they are served, this is a nearly catastrophic model to cling to. 

I want to explain some of the ways I have responded to what I have learned from Dr. Immordino-Yang, Dr. Judy Willis, Dr. Anabel Jenson, and other neuroscientists who have much to teach us about student teaching and learning. I first encountered the work of these neuroscientists about 6 years ago, and it has fundamentally changed the trajectory of how I develop my relationships with my students, how I organize my classroom, and what I teach. 

All learning is emotional. You can’t learn about anything you don’t have feelings about, say these three psychologists. I realized that I had fallen into the typical teacher pattern of delivering the content I thought was important for students and then expecting them to simply serve it back to me in the form of an assessment. But the kids weren’t engaged, they didn’t seem to care, and they weren’t using my feedback to improve performance. To paraphrase Dr. Immodino-Yang, emotions are driving students’ engagement. If they are having emotions about something, that is what they are thinking about and learning about. Consequently, if kids are worried about looking stupid, about being wrong, about their grades, about the exams, that is what they are learning about. They are learning about the systems of high-stakes testing, NOT the ideas and content. This is why the memory of the information is so short-term. Teachers need to consider what they’re targeting. What are the drivers? If you can create a classroom where the drivers are the ideas, then that is what students will learn about. Here are the lessons I learned, and what I did to address them. 

Lesson #1: All learning is emotional

I began my classroom revamp by focusing on student emotions. In my work with Six Seconds, I was struck by their stand on the centrality of social relationships to learning. In this video, Josh Freedman states, “The very parts of our brains that manage social interaction are also the structures we use in the process of learning. The implication for education: The social context IS the basis of learning.” 

When I understood the importance of emotions to our well-being and engagement, I wanted to share that information with my students. To increase emotional literacy, I put up a board in my room with 16 library card pockets, each labeled with an emoji. Each student was given a stick with their name on it to put in one of the pockets when they came to class. My sixth graders loved it. When I explained the purpose of the new board in the room, I pointed out that there are no good or bad emotions, only data to be used for a better understanding of ourselves and energy to move forward, the student’s eyes widened. I think they were genuinely surprised that I had told them it wasn’t bad to be angry, or sad. Over the next few weeks, I found the tool to be very helpful in keeping me more aware of how the children in my care were doing. If Sahana put her stick in the angry pocket, I might ask her what was going on. This would lead to a conversation that helped her to feel validated and seen. It became a feedback loop of building stronger relationships with my students and their opening up even more. I could also relate to their situations, often commenting that I was hungry as well when I saw a bunch of sticks in that pocket during the period before lunch, or late in the day. Over time, I found that I needed to make sure to provide a time for students to do this, reminding them as they came into class, but I felt that the rewards of knowing how they were feeling, and putting them in touch with their emotions was useful. 

Lesson #2: What you are feeling emotions about, you are learning about

Both my work with Six Seconds and my understanding of the work of Dr. Immordino-Yang and Dr. Willis affirmed my belief that the way I had been teaching was not working. The focus on prescribed content and subsequent homework and tests to check for the acquisition of knowledge wasn’t leading to students who were excited about learning or the big ideas of what I wanted them to understand. 

As Jessica Lahey writes in her NY Times article, To Help Students Learn, Engage the Emotions, 

“Great teachers understand that the best, most durable learning happens when content sparks interest, when it is relevant to a child’s life, and when the students form an emotional bond with either the subject at hand or the teacher in front of them. Meaningful learning happens when teachers can create an emotional connection to what might otherwise remain abstract concepts, ideas or skills.”

Ultimately, I transitioned my classroom to a project-based focus, fueled by driving questions that were engaging and interesting to the students. For example, we begin the year by asking students, “How do people share their ideas and beliefs? And explore what symbols, behaviors, and structures illustrate about ourselves and what is important to use.” Later, one of our units poses the question, “Was it fair for the Romans to call the Germanic Tribes barbarians?” directly accessing sixth-graders’ strong sense of equity and justice, and culminating in a debate. This directly connects to the latest information coming out of Dr. Immordino-Yang’s laboratory about the importance of meaning-making for the development of students’ brains. As an educator, I am committed to teaching students to be independent and critical thinkers, to be able to tackle a problem with curiosity and to find what they need to answer their own questions. I want to empower learners to make meaning of the world around them and their role in it. Following a traditional scope and sequence of curriculum based on content to be tested and assessed has no useful role in this purpose, and if I were forced to adopt it, I would lose the intrinsic motivation that drives me to commit my life to education. I often wonder if the crisis in teacher attrition right now might partly be driven by the stifling of teacher purpose in our scope and sequence-driven educational climate. 

Immordino-Yang makes the point that if students aren’t driven by curiosity or intrinsic interest in the topics they are asked to study at school, then they are, by default, driven by the emotions of fear created by our high-stakes educational equation. Might this contribute to the rising levels of teen angst and depression? Without the room to make meaning of their own lives and experiences, are we robbing them of the essential agency needed to live lives as confident and happy adults? 

Lesson #3: Stress interferes with learning. Building belonging helps.

When I first encountered Zaretta Hammond’s book, Culturally Responsive Teaching, and the Brain, it provided me with a big aha moment about my learners. After reading books like Todd Rose’s The End of Average, I was bemused by the challenges facing me about how to provide each student with the support and feedback they needed to reach their potential. Zaretta Hammond drew the line between students facing challenges based on their cultural, linguistic, or racial backgrounds and the neuroscience implications of their learning. I work hard now to build a cultural understanding of each of my students and to validate their backgrounds and who they are. Each year, I now begin our writing unit by having all students create Identity Webs based on the activity titled Affirming our Identities from Sara K. Ahmed’s excellent book, Being the Change. This is an activity that gives me a great deal of insight into my students. We follow this up with the lesson Placing Ourselves in the World: Stories of Our Names from the same book. This memoir piece centers around their name and its origin based on interviews with family members. For our students whose parents are immigrants, this has turned into a wonderful way for them to connect with their children, and it gives me great insight into the feelings of children whose names are frequently mispronounced or misspelled. 

Lesson #4: Stress and Boredom affect the brain in the same way

During the period when I was researching neuroscience and SEL, I also encountered the work of Judy Willis, a neuroscientist turned teacher. One of the most striking things I heard her say was that boredom creates the same reactions in the brain as stress, a redirection of capacity from the higher-order processing areas of the brain to the fight or flight area. In this article, she goes into depth about what this response means for teachers and education in general. 

The most frequent response now given by high school students who drop out is boredom. Students say they’re bored when they have to focus on material that’s uninteresting and/or not relevant to their lives. That’s fueling student responses similar to those of some factory assembly line workers, as students are losing the expectation of either relevance or pleasure. They feel increasingly powerless to influence their hopeless state with any mental effort or physical actions.  

A stressful bored state can prevent students from being able to access their executive functions and reflect on their situations, leading to misbehavior or disconnection from what is happening in the classroom. 

This information doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to turn your class into a carnival of fun or one in which the students run the show. They can be supported to understand the relevance of a particular skill or information that they will need for further learning, but it also means that we should think very carefully about what we ask students to do repeatedly and that we consider ways to communicate more clearly the long-term outcomes or goals that the content and activities we are requiring are communicated and understood by students. 

Lesson #5: Education must change. 

Schools need to put aside the space and time for teachers to be provided with high-quality and engaging PD that supports them in creating more learner-centered classrooms where goals and outcomes are relevant to students’ lives, clearly articulated, and repeatedly communicated. With the advent of adaptive AI, our students will be entering a markedly different world than we did when they graduate from school. We are facing significant problems at this point in history, and thus, it makes no sense to educate students about the world in which we grew up and began our careers. We need to make sure they are prepared, and one of the best ways to do that is to trust their motivations and to hand over more agency of what they are expected to learn. By providing a set of mission-aligned school-wide competencies, students can take ownership of building the knowledge, skills, and abilities that will be relevant to their lives and futures. This type of education will be markedly more engaging and urgent for students. 

Alden Blodget’s brilliant article about the need for innovation in schools speaks directly to my beliefs about the change that is needed in schools. I am the Director of a Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, after all, but until schools are brave enough to begin to transition their model and embrace trusting students, leaning into uncertainty, and focusing on a more learner-centered approach to teaching and learning, I will continue to adapt my classroom to engage students in building their SEL skills such as self-knowledge, self-management, and self-direction as well as their ability to think critically and determine what is important to them in building their lives.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Tara Quigley for Intrepid Ed News.

Tara Quigley

Tara Quigley began her teaching career in 1991 and has been at Princeton Day School for 23 years. She currently teaches sixth grade Humanities, serves as Director of Miss Fine’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and is the Middle School Technology Coordinator. She has worked for OESIS as the Director of Program Alignment, working with schools to build mission-aligned culture and program, and has served as an OESIS Network Leader for many years. Having begun her career as a Middle-School science teacher, Tara has always been interested in incorporating inquiry, questioning, and exploration in her classroom. She has also taught early-childhood science, fourth grade, and fifth and sixth grade Humanities at Princeton Day School. In order to spark more engagement and intrinsic motivation in her classes, Tara began using Design Thinking, PBL, and inquiry in her Humanities classes to encourage student agency and allow for differentiation with Competency-Based Learning for feedback and assessment. Having seen great success with this approach, Tara frequently shares her process and experiences with her colleagues at PDS, national conferences, and peer schools. In 2014, Tara was appointed to the position of Director of Miss Fine’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in which she has worked to educate and empower teachers to try new pedagogical practices and strategies, including: design thinking, PBL, Guided Inquiry Research, Visible Thinking Protocols, and teaching towards mastery of skills and competencies. In 2016, Tara received an Intrepid Innovator Award in 2020.

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