Saturday, February 25, 2012

Learning and the Brain

After a very long week finishing Bill 33 consultations for Semester 2, hosting a parent information meeting, helping coach the Senior Boys Basketball team in the playoffs, supervising a school dance and initiating the course programming for next year's timetable, it is finally time for me to reflect on an opportunity from the week before.  I had the chance to go with friend/colleague Bert Wiens (@bewiens) to the annual Learning and the Brain conference at the Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill in scenic San Francisco.  
The Fairmont Hotel
The conference opened on Thursday morning with an optional pre-conference, and I attended a workshop on Teaching Wisdom, led by Dr. Kevin Washburn. The session was thought-provoking and discussed the idea of teaching "Creative Thinking" rather than content.  Below is a video that was shown to prompt conversation.  Dr. Washburn talked about the need for educators to teach the "basics" in order to give students the skills needed, and then the freedom to develop their own technique and the choices to develop their creativity.  He touched on the importance of self-direction in learners and moved into the concept of helping students develop "wisdom".  He listed eight capacities commonly seen in "wise" people: Self-regulation, Valuing, Morality, Compassion, Humility, Altruism, Emotional Regulation and Dealing with Uncertainty.  It was an interesting dialogue that made me think about what more our schools should be doing to help build these skills, recognizing that each of them requires time to develop. 

Thursday afternoon then kicked off the main conference, with the focus of keynote speakers being the brain science behind educating happy, healthy, moral and self-regulated learners.  Many of the speakers were Neuro-scientists, Psychologists and Medical professionals and admittedly, several of the sessions left me wanting more.  I found some of the presenters a little dry and too technical regarding the biology of the brain and the chemical rationale for certain behaviors.  There were, however, some excellent links to understanding why certain teaching strategies are more effective in connecting with the adolescent brain.  The two most dynamic and engaging speakers were Dr. David Walsh and Dr. Yong Zhao.

Dr. Walsh is a renowned Parenting and Education professor from Minnesota who has been seen on television talking about how self-regulated children have a better chance of success in school (he reproduced the famous Marshmallow test-see below).  I saw three sessions led by Dr. Walsh and was impressed by each one.  In The Brain Goes to School, Dr. Walsh talked about GABA as a brain relaxer that needs to be released in order for someone to be ready to learn.  He explained that GABA will be present  when people feel comfortable and connected to others, and be absent or low when the brain is on alert for threat or danger.  He also talked about dopamine and the appropriate level of challenge.  Tasks that are too easy or too difficult will result in the brain not getting the release of dopamine it needs for appropriate engagement.  Dr. Walsh also mentioned the importance of sleep, the value of exercise and some tips for how to effectively use praise.  His humorous storytelling ability and the connections to working with adolescents made the session extremely valuable.

His second session, Why Do They Act That Way?, looked at the delayed development of the Prefrontal cortex.  Dr. Walsh noted that by about 12 years of age, the brain is close to full-size, but the development of the brain and the links between neurons continues until the mid-to-late 20's.  Much of this explains the risk-taking and emotionally-charged behaviour seen in many adolescents.  Dr. Walsh commented that adults use the prefrontal cortex to read emotions, while adolescents use the amygdala, which often results in over-emotional reactions. 

In his third session, Say Yes to No, Dr. Walsh talked about the challenge of teaching self-control to children when today's culture promotes concepts like MORE, FAST, EASY and FUN.  As indicated in the video below, he stressed the importance in setting boundaries and having clear expectations for children which helps them develop the ability to say no to themselves.  He also mentioned that ability to self-regulate is a greater predictor of success, happiness and popularity than is IQ.  Dr. Walsh provided great insights into the challenges and purposes of parenting and teaching adolescents.
Dr. Zhao also gave an extremely humorous and engaging presentation on What Defines a High Quality Education?  A professor at the University of Oregon, Dr. Zhao hails from a small farming community in China and he spoke about the high PISA rankings that China (specifically Shanghai) has scored while the United States languishes at a significantly lower ranking.  He asked some very pointed questions about the infatuation the American media has with these results and thinks that too much value is being placed on them.  He spoke candidly about the differences between the Chinese and American education systems, noting that higher tests scores do not necessarily mean a better education.  Dr. Zhao indicated that Americans have long been concerned about being "poor test-takers", often finishing below Russia, then Japan, now Finland and China in International rankings.  He then compared the system in the United States to that in China and stated that he felt Americans embraced creative thought, cultivated entrepreneurship, and promoted self-confidence and risk-taking.  His experience in the Chinese system found that students were given less opportunity to develop self-confidence, they were told to respect and not question authority and they were asked to conform, thus reducing the development of innovative and creative thoughts and ideas.  He stated that despite the high success rates on PISA tests, the Chinese were calling for education reform, attempting to change the mindset to "Invent a job, not Find a job".  He raised some very important questions, and reminded us all to ask the question, "What makes a successful education?" 

Aside from the experience of the conference, I was blown away by the city of San Francisco.  I had not been as an adult and with the weather ideal (16-18 degrees and sunny every day... quite a welcomed change from what I had become used to in Vancouver), we took any opportunity we had to tour the city.  The Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, the Embarcadero, Union Square, Alcatraz, the cable cars and so many others sights to see.  It was easy to see why so many people from around the world rave about the scenery.  Living in Vancouver, I usually find myself returning home from travel commenting on how there is no place in the world more beautiful than the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.  San Francisco is the first place I have been where the comparison between Vancouver and another locale caused me to pause for a moment.
The Cable Cars
The Golden Gate Bridge
It was a welcomed respite from the hectic schedule I have been keeping at work.  It allowed me to think and reflect and it reaffirmed much of what we are already doing with our education practices in British Columbia.  As we continue to look for new and better ways of going about our work, I am confident that we can change the perception that some students have that school is a place like this....