In this episode of the High Tech High Unboxed podcast, Nuvia Ruland interviews Prof. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Southern California about what she’s learned from her research into education and psychology, including. They get into why so much of her research focuses on low-income communities, why she prefers talking about “development” to talking about “learning”, the difference between genes and gene expression, and Mary Helen’s (formidable) woodworking chops.
This is a High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton. And today we’re doing something a little bit different. Nuvia Ruland is here with me. She’s actually done the interview. So, Nuvia, welcome. Thank you so much for coming. And, Nuvia what’s your job title now?
My title right now is Professional Learning Coordinator. And this is my first year in this role after eight years of teaching biology and environmental science down at High Tech High Chula Vista.
And so who did you talk to?
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang who is a neuroscientist. And she published a book a couple of years ago called Emotions Learning And The Brain. And I was introduced to this book by founder of Hi Tech High Tom Fehrenbacher.
To be precise, Tom Fehrenbacher was a founding teacher of the original High School.
So he invited me to be part of a book club, and this was the book. The book is a collection of papers that have been published by Mary Helen, and she wanted to make these papers accessible so that folks didn’t have to find them on website for academic journals and dig through all that. She wanted to consolidate them in order to have exactly what happened of having book clubs, and having groups of educators, and scientists, and practitioners reading the journals and having discussions.
What was it about the book that made you go like I need to talk to this woman?
When you read a journal, which is titled, We feel therefore we learn. The relevance of effective and social neuroscience to education. It grabs you.
I always roll the tape.
I should start by saying that I was one of those kids who didn’t really like school as a kid. I mean, I wouldn’t have said that. I was very eager to please all the adults around me, so I would have said I liked it. But actually the amount of stress, and I mean, I just never felt like I belonged or really leveraged what I was good at. So I really struggled. And by the time I was in like sixth grade in a big public middle school things just come to a head for me and I actually stopped going to school. Because it was just too distressing, and lots of bad stuff going on there for me.
And luckily I lived in a rural place in a little farm in Connecticut, in the middle of nowhere on the top of the hill where I just basically stayed home and started running the farm doing all kinds of stuff. Working on my music and my piano and other things. And my parents were able to put me because luckily they had the resources to be able to put me in a different kind of school the next year. And that made a huge, huge difference to me.
But there was never a time when I was growing up where I thought, Oh, I’d love to be a teacher. School really feels like a great place for me to be. And you know I used every opportunity I had to pretty much go out to try to experience the world. I traveled I went abroad, even as a 13-year-old, I went to France for a summer. And then, I went back when I was 15. I went to school for some months.
I went to Ireland. I went to Russia. I lived in Kenya during undergrad for eight months. I mean I just was all over the place just really engaging with people from around the world learning different languages. And in parallel, I was also really interested in building things, and in woodworking and the kinds of cultures that people have around boat building, and traditional woodworking and things like that.
So, yeah long story but I was interested in that. And I was working on that around the world too. In college, I majored in French literature, but I took all kinds of science like astronomy, biology, physics. And I also, in the course of trying all that stuff stumbled into a class on developmental psychology. It was on infant psychology, and it was Liz Bolkiah, I’ll never forget that class.
It was absolutely eye-opening to me. Because I for the first time saw that you could actually systematically study what infants quote unquote “know.” what they can do, and there are ways to get at that by looking at what they look at. What they’re surprised by. What they sulk at or on a pacifier for. To see more of that kind of stuff you can start to figure out in these really clever ways what they are thinking about.
And that completely fascinated me. And even though I didn’t go into infant development, it really sparked my interest in this kind of interdisciplinary way of thinking about how people come to be who we are. And in parallel, I had tried to get into grad school to do like high-level woodworking stuff, and they told me an experience.
Yeah, so I went and got an apprenticeship where I was working full time as a cabinetmaker in a shop. And just by chance, I’d been working there for about a year when I cut my hand at a job site opening a window on a kind of rotten window frame long story. But I had to take time away from that work because I needed to let my hand heal. And I thought, my gosh, I’m 23, and I need this for myself. What am I going to do?
And I thought, well, I wonder if I could teach science just temporarily because I have so much broad science in my background, and I love people and kids and talking to them. I’ve never really liked school, but I’ll try it. And so, I ended up getting a position in a public junior, senior high school South of Boston. And I didn’t know this at the time, but it was something like the second most diverse school district in the nation at that time.
It had something like 81 languages spoken among 1,100 students. It was incredibly diverse. And it was at a time when there were refugees and other kinds of immigrants coming from literally all over the world converging on this community. It turns out that the school district needed a new curriculum, that would be integrative science instead of just seventh-grade life science.
And they needed it to be life and geological sciences, and earth sciences and physical sciences. And it needed to coordinate with an interdisciplinary curriculum that would go all the way across the high school years from seventh grade to 12th grade. And so long story short, I much to the worry of my supervisors volunteered to write that curriculum, and work with the other sciences teachers, and basically wrote the curriculum for the district.
And had this amazing time trying out these ideas on the kids in my classes. I was thrown in with 130 something students. And I had college professors who are sending me things saying, Oh, I hear you’re teaching now. Here’s all these great resources we have from our University museum and everything. And I was like building this amazing web-like curriculum where I was really trying to engage kids and making meaning about science. And thinking about these complex scientific concepts and taking the perspective of a scientist.
And I was totally fascinated by the way in which those kids and I kind of worked together to produce a classroom community that was engaging with these scientific questions. And though school had never, and teaching had never really held a feel for me before, I became fascinated with the kind of developmental questions. And the ways in which kids from all over the world, from all kinds of refugee and immigrant situations, and families were using the scientific concepts, and ways of thinking about the world to try to make sense of their own situations. Their own identities, their own stories. What they had witnessed in their life.
And it was absolutely fascinating to me, and I realized that developmental perspective, and that lived anthropological perspective together with the scientific perspective really started to come together for me as a way in which to think about this problem domain. And I started taking classes at night at the Harvard Extension School because these are open classes I could take.
And I started taking classes in cognitive neuroscience, in language development. I was very interested in language at that time. And some nice counselor there said, you really should pursue a master’s degree in the human development program in the School of Education. And I was like, really? And so that I applied to do that, and went there to a one-year program at Harvard, thinking OK, this will be a chance for me to try out some of these ideas and learn what this feels about.
And I just fortuitously landed in the field just at the time that mind brain and education was just beginning to be a thing. It really hadn’t been named yet. It hadn’t really been founded yet. But these ideas were circling around. And I brought my love of biology, and of anthropology, and of developmental science together in that space. And really fell in love with that as a domain in which I could think about building a career that was both scientific, and also applied. In the sense that it was deeply embedded in real world problems that I thought really mattered. Like what kinds of experiences should we provide for our young people to help them become the kinds of adults and citizens that we would like for them to be able to be.
So is there something you miss about teaching in middle school?
Oh, yeah, I do. I mean, I do really miss the opportunity to really build meaning together with young people I think that’s incredibly fulfilling and exciting. But I do also teach now, and I have high school kids in my laboratory always have. As an intern positions in different kinds of capacities where they’re helping with the work, and they’re gauging in the work. They’re participants in the actual research studies. They’re in all levels.
And the way my research studies are designed, we spent a lot of time really getting to know kids, talking to kids interviewing them about the meaning that they make, the things that they’ve witnessed, and what those mean to them. And so I think I still am really deeply engaged with young people.
You mentioned that she studied people who were like mostly pretty impoverished economically in Los Angeles. And that was something that stood out to you about what she was doing. You want to talk about that?
Yeah, I was reading one of her papers and at the end of the paper she thanks two different schools Intellectual Virtues Academies, and Artesia High School. I grew up in that same area. I grew up in Paramount right next to Lakewood and Long Beach. So that surprised me when I saw it, and learning that she was interested in a group of students that are highly exposed to violence not only in the home but also in the communities.
I really started wondering why she’s focusing her work in this area and with this group of students. And so I asked her, and I was really surprised by her response.
You’re at USC, which has– is one of these wonderful private schools that is in LA, in an area that you walk one block and you really see these social, economic disparities. The scarcity for healthy food, lack of green spaces, And really living traumatic and violent experiences. And I know you’ve tapped into this community in order to study and have these conversations with the young people in this area outside of USC. Can you talked a little bit more of why this demographic has been at the center of your research?
Yeah, I mean there’s a lot of reasons. One is that I’m completely fascinated with the ways in which young people make meaning. The ways in which they interpret the things they witness and construct a sense of self in that social space. And I’m just completely inspired by the kids that I meet in the neighborhoods around USC and across the city for the ways that they interpret things. And the kinds of experiences that they bring to the world. And the kinds of inspiration that they then derive from those experiences. I just find it incredibly empowering to be part of conversations with those kids. It’s just fun.
And also I want to lift up the ingenuity that kids and their teachers bring to this social space. Because so often the narrative around low-SES neighborhoods in the inner city is that there’s a lot of bad stuff going on, and that’s for sure true. But so many people also are contributing to a really vibrant community in these spaces. And I really want to understand how that happens. And how we can facilitate young people and their teachers, and their families making their communities into the places they would dream that they could be.
And I think it’s really important that in science we have a much broader representation than has traditionally been the case around who gets to be studied, and whose development gets to be cast as the way in which we understand things happen. And try to rework the dominant views in so many literatures and in society at large around this kind of deficit model of young people’s development in these underprivileged contexts. Where for sure we’re trying to get better resources into these contexts.
But also there’s an amazing wealth of cultural knowledge and of social community that deserves to be studied, and understood as a norm. And not as kind of something that’s compared to a different kind of mainstream convenience sample being the quote unquote “optimal way to develop.” So it’s for humanitarian reasons, for societal reasons, and for scientific reasons that I am compelled to focus my work mainly on these communities.
After listening to you, I’m wondering can you finish the sentence learning is?
Let me say this I don’t think about the most important role of schools, the first and primary role of schools as promoting learning. I think of the most important primary role of schools is promoting development. Helping young people self-actualizing all the domains in which they’re capable of doing that, from scholarly and intellectual domains, to artistic and expressive domains to social and ethical domains.
And so to me learning is the small day to day engagement that we have with various patterns of thinking that over time compile to become dispositions of mind and habits of knowledge building. And that contribute to organizing how we go on to live our lives, and how we experience our lives as we’re living them. So learning is the small little opportunities to change the way you construct meaning with something or engage in a procedure such that it informs the bigger story of what you’re capable of, and how the world works.
And to me I’d rather say development is and use learning in that definition than say learning is, that’s the primary thing that I would talk about.
Yeah, so then development is?
So development is it iterative reorganizing of the ways in which a person comes to engage with the world, and construct internal meaning, and possible alternative futures, and alternative interpretations and integrations of the past. So learning fits into that because it provides the small opportunities to test, and enrich, and inform, and flesh out the development over time.
Yeah, it just kind of reminds me too of how often maybe different practices or different structures in the classroom are shared for teachers, but we don’t kind of like the neuroscience behind it of why. So kind of in that instance, maybe why do we need a pair-share? Why does the brain need a pair-share or a moment of silence before they are able to share out in the classroom?
Yeah, well, because I’ve written about this a lot, so I can point you to different papers. There’s one from 2012 called, “Rest is not idleness,” which was in perspectives on sex science. And then there’s another from 2016 and the policy implications from the brain and behavioral sciences in a special issue on education about the so-called brain’s default mode.
And what we’ve learned from hundreds and hundreds of studies in neuroscience is that the networks of brain regions that kind of talk to each other incoherent ways to build this kind of bigger meaning. And to form long-term memories, and to construct a sense of self. All these, this is what I call a critical confluence in the paper on the default mode network from 2016. And the ability to construct kind of moral and ethical interpretations.
All of the thinking that is quote unquote, “Not in the here and now.” That kind of thinking is fundamentally reliant on a network of brain regions organizing themselves into a dynamic state that is relatively incompatible with externally focused attention or task orientation. So what that means is that you don’t engage in this kind of complex narrative construction inside your mind, building memories digesting things so to speak organizing them into meaning.
At the same time as you’re listening hard to what’s going on around you, watching something that requires really attentiveness in the traditional sense, doing something that requires physical dexterity like running around in the middle of a soccer game trying not to miss the ball. And/or probably playing certain kinds of video games or other kinds of social media that are demanding that you kind of get pulled out of that inner place and into this kind of watch what’s going on around you and attend place.
And so what we hypothesize is going on is that there’s this trade in the brain between externally brain states let’s shall we say that are conducive to externally focused task orientation. Listening to other people, perceiving what’s in the world, gathering information. Methodically kind of coordinating yourself on the one hand. And tasks or rather mind states that are more, what you might call internal. What I call looking in versus looking out.
In the 2012 paper, this internal kind of meaning-making where you assimilate different things into a bigger, broader narratives that transcend time and place. That become the basis for quote unquote “conceptual understanding” or kind of construction of stories and meaning. And of a bigger picture than what is just right here right now in front of me.
And I think in education traditionally we have potentially privilege the development of the task-oriented network. The move your pencil and paper here now. The one, two, three all eyes on me at the expense of the kinds of cognitive, and emotional, and personally relevant work that goes on in this looking in mode. And what we know in brain development is that the development of one network is interdependent with the development of the other. They are balanced with each other.
So you want there to be adequate and appropriate opportunities for both. And you need, it looks like kids to have the opportunity to steer themselves agenetically in and out of these spaces. These cognitive spaces or modes because it’s through their own work of their self-regulated movement between, I think, I’ll dig in now, or gosh I better step back and think about this for a moment. That seems to be potentially what’s playing an important role in growing the brain into the organization of these networks over time.
And so kids need not just opportunities to kind of do tasks and get stuff done, and not just opportunities to step back and reflect and relax, but they also need the agency. The room for their own agency to decide, which is which. And to move themselves identically from one state to the other as they deem appropriate. And to learn over time how to decide what it’s appropriate to be in one state or the other.
And when you need to step back and reflect, and when you need to dig in and get going. And what’s the difference between the two and how do you notice? So what the brain science is really starting to point toward is the pivotal role of the power of the kids. And in growing their own brains. And rather than trying to design educational environments that move kids into and out of these states at the direction of an adult.
I was thinking about all the different myths that we have about the brain. And how there’s still have their stake in how we think about the brain as just not even an organ sometimes. It’s not even visible. And especially like there’s like a missing piece there. And so like it’s the work that you’re just describing is totally going against a myth of how the brain communicates and how it organizes, correct?
Well, so which myth are you referring to?
So the myth of how the brain develops and how it communicates or being right brain or left brain. And so I think I still hear it often like, Oh, wow like that person is really both right and left brain because they’re–
So what are almost everybody? I did a dissertation yes two kids who only had half their brain, and they’re probably some of the only people. They’re extremely rare who only have half a brain. Most of us have a whole brain, and we use it. So I mean, I think what you’re getting at is that people think about brains as being separate from people. I don’t think about the brain. I think about people. And I look at kids, and I talk to them.
And then I also study what their brains are doing when they’re engaged in these ways of thinking and making meaning and learning. And to me, these are all just different views into the same person. It’s not like you got a person and that person has a brain. We’re not brains and buckets. That’s what Kurt Fischer used to say.
And so to me I think about how many sources of information could we get into what we’re witnessing. About what people are doing. How can we think about this in the richest, most generative way possible, so that we can really start to uncover the dynamics and the contingencies of how people think and learn and develop over time.
And the individual variability in that. The role of experience and resources in that. The very pivotal role of relationships in that. And the ways in which the cognitive and affective of aspects of the learning process are steering one another over time. So I think you’re right that most of these myths are about quote unquote “the brain.” The brain does this, and the brain does that, which is just not how I think about it. I think about people do this and that.
And people have these avoidances. They have these ways of doing this and that. And so we need to engage with those ways and try to facilitate them having the opportunities to build themselves in the ways that we think are going to be helpful or good to them.
Yeah, and so I’m thinking about often when I’m reading your work, I’m often thinking about Zarreta Hammond’s work or Elena Aguilar’s work. And it just feels like neuroscience is in the air.
Yeah, that’s true.
And some of these myths are kind of evaporating. But I also– sometimes people don’t know how did we get to where we are in such a short period of time. So how has technology impacted the way that we do neuroscience? And how is neuroscience also now impacting how we even design teacher programs?
Well, so those are two very big questions. I’ll start with the second one, which is how is neuroscience impacting how we design teacher programs, which I would say is not very much. Which is too bad, and which segues us into the first question, which is how has technology really improved our understanding of child development and the role of experience? And I think there’s so much left to learn.
But what I’ve argued in many places and continue to do the work around is that what we really need to base our education system design on is the richest, most well-informed, most integrative science of human development that we can build. And in this day and age given the technologies we have that means that we would be remiss and irresponsible if we ignored the contributions of the biological evidence because they help us to differentiate among alternative possibilities for what’s going on.
They help us to make predictions and interpretations that you couldn’t otherwise have about, for example, why somebody struggling to learn to read. Or why someone else who may have experienced a certain kind of trauma is struggling to develop good executive function. We can get insights into the nature of the underlying processes that you can’t see by looking only at the behavior of the person externally.
And so in that sense, it’s imperative that we start to integrate what we’re learning from the neuroscience and the biological science, and genetics and epigenetics, and all that stuff into what teachers know how to think about. The ways in which they think about the kids in front of them. But it’s also imperative that knowledge base is truly transdisciplinary in the sense that it’s integrating various sources and levels of evidence. Including the evidence that comes from educational settings and from interactions with young people, and from teachers trained observations.
And so what I think we really need is to majorly innovate the way in which we are going about teacher pedagogical professional development. And there are great examples of this. The High Tech High being one. Where we really begin to think about what is it that we’re aiming for with educational opportunities for kids. What does a successful outcome quote unquote “look like.” What processes do we want to engage our community members in, the kids and the teachers?
And then how do we understand those processes. Their variability, their cultural situatedness, their development over-time. And then how could we then build the most advantageous kinds of supports and opportunities for those processes given the context we have. And so in order to be able to answer that incredibly hard question. The last one I just asked, how do we best design opportunities given the context we have? You need to have a broad understanding and appreciation of what those processes are that you’re trying to engage.
And I think in the past teaching has been and to this day too in too many places, it’s really focused on what do you do. Instead of first focusing on what’s the aim? What does thinking look like? How does thinking develop over-time? And then how is thinking dependent on context? And then how do we develop contexts that will promote those patterns of thinking that we think are advantageous?
And when you think in that way all of the evidence needs to be integrated into a coherent middle conversation around what is I think, and many people think, what are the most complex and dynamic and skilled jobs in the world? Which is designing educational opportunities for people. So that they learn how to develop themselves in the directions that, and the patterns, and the dispositions that we think are important for them to become healthy functioning well democratic citizens.
Yeah, and so I think of how another myth of when you’re– the other myth of that you only have a– you’re born with a set number of neurons. And once that stage of neurogenesis finishes when you’re five years old, you used to be told, hey, this is all you have, so you better use it well and not damage it. But that’s completely debunked. So when we’re thinking about adult learning, how do we leverage what we’ve learned about the adolescent brain to apply to adult learning?
Well, yeah there’s a lot of ideas in there like neurogenesis and the mechanisms of plasticity. So we could set those aside for a minute and just think about the fact that it’s now overwhelmingly been shown to be the case that brain development is occurring across the lifespan. That means that across the lifespan, a person’s brain is changing in accordance with the way in which they use it.
And the patterns of thinking and the ways in which a person has been kind of living in the world. Which, of course, is partly dependent on what kind of world we’re living in are absolutely shifting, and organizing, and iteratively changing the ways in which the brain is functioning across time. And there are particular periods of plasticity, which are really marked periods of development of the brain, where the brain is particularly reliant on experience during those time points.
And those are the obvious ones like prenatal, and birth to three, and across childhood, and across adolescence into young adulthood. And then it seems like these periods are also particularly plastic whenever there’s a major physical growth or hormonal shift in the person’s internal environment. So then you also add on periods around the transition to parenting seem to be a major period of neuroplasticity for adult development.
And so these are the periods of time. And I and I discussed this in depth review this evidence in-depth in the brain basis for integrated social, emotional and academic development. The brief that I published at the Aspen Institute, which is freely available online. But these are the time periods where education has a particularly important role to play because the brain is so open to reorganizations during that developmental period. And because the flip side of that reorganization is both the opportunity the potential but also the vulnerability.
So all of these periods in the development of a person are periods of particular vulnerability to life stress and in particular to socially constructed life stress, so dependence on relationships, and relationship building and shifting. So what I think this means for us and for our education system, and for our teachers is that we really, really need to take seriously the subjective experience of the person of the learner in the educational setting, as they perceive it. And think hard about how they feel in that setting.
Because their own interpretations feelings and habitual ways of constructing meaning about what’s going on are appearing to be really fundamental forces in their own brain development. And their own physical health. So what we’re learning is the really deep situatedness of brain development in a person’s social relationships. And the way in which a person’s own subjective sense of experience of those relationships is such a critical force in organizing their biology over time, both of the body and of the brain.
And when we think about it this way it really puts the onus back onto that interdisciplinary human developmental science I was talking about earlier. In which we really need to think with teachers and administrators and those who are responsible for orchestrating the institutional access to these kinds of experiences for young people. What it is that we need our young people to be able to think like and feel like for them to engage in optimal development.
And so often in our education systems I mean when you step back and look at it with that view in mind, I mean, there’s hardly a less conducive environment to building strong social relationships constructing personal meaning and trying on identities in a safe way. And engaging deeply in the scholarly activity of examining different ways of thinking about the world that our modern traditional middle and high schools provide. I mean they’re about as far from an appropriate developmental opportunity to engage in that kind of thinking as you could imagine.
And so you know we really need to think as a society about retrofitting the design of our institutions to fit the developmental needs of the young people. And the neuroscience is really contributing to clarity, I think, around which aspects of a person’s opportunities and experiences are really important for how those opportunities and experiences translate into the growth and success of the person. And relation and emotions are critical to that.
Yeah, and I guess that really speaks to what we’re experiencing right now. And so what do what do school leaders and teachers need to be aware of that is happening in a child’s brain during this global pandemic? Or other traumatic experiences that really are having some big implications on learning?
Well, people really need to make meaning of what’s going on. And not just the kids but the adults. We’re all trying to construct a story in our mind of what this all means. What it means for me? What it means for the people I love? What it means for my society, for my values, for my beliefs, for the way the world is going to be? And so I think we need to be thinking hard about the ways in which the opportunities we provide for our teachers and our kids are facilitating them constructing meaning around these questions.
And these are not just– I mean, in one way we need calm opportunities to kind of regulate ourselves and connect to one another. When that’s so difficult when we’re physically distanced, and that’s essential. On the other hand, we also need to connect our scholarship to these pressing issues of building meaning. And thinking about the ways in which are our academic scholarly interests can feed into our ability to solve these kinds of problems. And enrich the kinds of narratives that we can tell ourselves about how the world could work.
And this is the space of innovation and of creativity, and it’s also the space of scholarly knowledge. I mean, mathematicians and economists, and scientists, and medical professionals, and lawyers and ethicists, and every kind of work in the world right now has to come to terms with the new way in which they fit into helping out in this complex situation. And in schools, we need to think of ways that we can join kids into that conversation because that is how people feel better.
They feel better by gaining agency. They feel better by feeling like they understand something. Or if they don’t understand it, they know what it is they don’t understand, and how you would go about trying to learn it. And they sit with that lack of knowledge as a place of– in a way that is conducive to comfort. They learn how to be comfortable with not knowing, but how to build the skills and the habits of mind, and the collaborations, and the reflective stance that would help them gain control over the situation. And would also help the situation at the same time.
So I think what we need to be thinking about is that nobody likes to not understand. Nobody likes to feel uncertain. When you don’t know what’s coming next and you can’t predict things, that’s deeply unsettling. And it switches you into a mindset of fear and anxiety. And what is fear and anxiety? It’s two things. It’s a physiological state of arousal, which is exhausting. And it’s a mental state of continually trying to figure out how I’m going to escape, survive, flee, fight, freeze.
And those modes of thinking are very limited and short-term and self centered. And they don’t lend themselves to healthy development over time. And so they’re kind of firefighting measures. And so we need to start to think about how we can not just try to retrofit our old structures into this new reality of social distancing, but how we can build new structures that focus on helping young people put their skills to work in solving and understanding the problem because that will really empower them to feel agentic, to feel better, and to learn at the same time.
Awesome. I think that that’s one of the biggest questions that I’ve heard right now from colleagues of like how are we supposed to teach right now? And I think you touch on really tapping into the human experience we’re all connected in right now, and having engaging both teachers and students in making meaning together–
That’s right, yeah. And making meaning about things not just directly related to COVID, but related to the human condition. Related to science and questions, and well being, and ethics. All the stuff that touches on COVID, but also extends beyond it. And that’s what makes it so powerful feeling. For people to engage with thinking about those big ideas.
Yeah, I really feel like a lot of, and this is kind of wrapping it up, but your work seeing the work of Zarreta Hammond and Elena really makes me super hopeful of what education is going to transform into. And a lot of people are talking about using this time for reimagining. And I think your work is constantly saying that. How do we have students reimagine who they are, and build narrative of who they are.
Can you touch a little bit on just how important it is? Genes do not dictate who you are? And the importance of environment on the development of the person?
Yeah, and so this is also something I’ve written about extensively in that Aspen brief, so you can go back to it. But what we’re finding is that human beings have far fewer genes than we ever expected. The Human Genome Project showed us that. We have about as many as like a goldfish and fewer than a rice plant. But what we have a huge amount of is this quote unquote “dead space between the genes” that is filled with contingency plans.
And it’s basically sitting there waiting to be triggered by the environment, by what we call epigenetic triggers. Triggers from outside that come from experience. That come from the world. That teach the genome what kind of world it’s in and how to act. So it’s like the genes are waiting there, and hello, comes the world and says, it does this and that to the person. And then the person is ready to respond saying, Oh, if this is a dangerous world like this, then I should develop myself like that to stay safe. Or if this kind of world that I can afford to be curious and compassionate or rich.
You’re building your body and your brain around the relationships, and the emotions, and the cognitive and physical experiences that you’ve had. These things are directly impacting the ways in which the brain– the genes learn how to grow. What they’re telling them to do. And as I explained in the brief too. What we learned one of the tragic lessons that was learned by the work done with Romanian institutionally raised kids, who have food, they have buildings to live in, and toys, and beds. They have all the stuff they need. What they didn’t have was families who love them.
They had like a rotating staff of caregiver coming. Caregivers coming in every eight hours. What we find is that those kids don’t just grow up to be cognitively delayed, or socially dysregulated, or emotionally labially or something. They grow up to be 17-year-old kids who are three-feet tall. Who never fully go through puberty. Whose brains are smaller than their peers raised in foster families. I mean, our biology doesn’t simply does not know how to grow.
Our genes do not know how to grow a human in the absence of experience. Experience is what tells the genes what to do. The genes are kind of like a book, but to know what page to flip to, and which instructions to follow and how is done by the world, and the person interacting with the world. So the only time that you can fully understand the genetic propensities of an organism is when they’ve grown to know fully optimized environment.
And even then the nature of that fully optimized environment is what’s shaping the way in which those genes turn on and off. Even identical twins don’t have the same epigenome, and they diverge remarkably across the life course. They start the same, and then they get more and more different. Because our genes are actually being expressed, not just according to something that we inherit directly, but according to the experiences we have in the world.
And so, what that really tells us is that there’s a huge responsibility in education for us to enable young people’s development because the genes are not enough for the organism to know how to develop. The genes are kind of expectant of input from the world. There are a set of contingency plans. They’re not a set of plans. And those contingency plans are reliant on the experiences of the person for them to be turned on and off in the patterns that will grow the person.
So genes aren’t really that relevant when it comes to educational experience directly. What’s really relevant is the epigenetic cues. The kinds of opportunities that the people have had. And the ways in which they feel in those opportunities. And the way in which they are socially and emotionally experience those opportunities. That really is a major factor in organizing the way in which their genes get expressed.
So pretty much an effective teacher in the classroom could look like somebody that is providing experiences where students feel safe, and have these opportunities to explore and to test.
Yeah, that’s right.
And so as we wrap this up are there other folks that are doing this research? And maybe are there folks that are looking at what the brain of an effective teacher looks like?
So we’re doing that. We actually have a study which we’re hoping to involve teachers from the High Tech High School next year. Because of the COVID outbreak, we’ve had to push it to next year. But we have already 25 teachers who participated in our experiments where we’re partnering with the teachers really. With really highly effective teachers in urban environments. Urban low-SES environments. And working with them to help them show us what it is they know how to do.
What it is they think like? How they engage with kids? We’re doing in-depth observations of them in the classroom with their kids. Interacting with the kids. We’re having the kids do specially designed assignments that we work with the teacher to produce. That then get shunted to us electronically. We give them to the teacher to get feedback on from the FMRI scanner.
And we look at these really effective teachers neural development patterns. Kind of the ways in which their brains are activating when they’re giving feedback to their real students. And we talk to them about what they were thinking about. So it’s a really in-depth experiment that’s meant to characterize the kinds of social, and cognitive, and emotional work that effective teachers, especially in low-SES urban environments, engage in.
And to characterize that in more depth than it’s ever been done before, and to kind of lift it up as a really complex skillset. A way of being and knowing in the classroom that we want to showcase, and start to unpack so that we can facilitate other teachers learning about how this is done really well. So far as I know, we’re the only people who are doing something like that.
And I hope that some of your listeners will want to be involved with the study because it’s a really I think groundbreaking opportunity for us to start to look at and lift up like I said to characterize the kind of work that really excellent teaching. Especially for adolescents, which is what we’re focusing on. That really excellent teaching in these environments entails. So that we can start to unpack it and understand what are the mechanisms that are implicit, and really effective teaching that you can’t see directly maybe.
How do we shine a light on those so that people can learn about them and try to emulate them.
Mary Helen, thank you so much for your time today.
I’m so grateful to be able to connect with you. We will link the work that you mentioned in our conversation on the High Tech High website for our listeners. Once again, thank you.
This week’s episode of High Tech High Unboxed was reported by Nuvia Ruland, and edited by me, Alec Patton. Nuvia interviewed Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who’s Associate Professor of education psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Our theme music is by brother Herschelle. Thanks for listening.