Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Dr. Bror Saxberg on Learning Science & School Reform

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This week on “The Learning Curve,” co-hosts Gerard Robinson and Cara Candal talk with Dr. Bror Saxberg, MD, Vice President of Learning Science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Dr. Saxberg describes his groundbreaking work in the area of learning science and understanding how “working memory” and “long-term memory” can help improve academic excellence and equity. He reviews what we now know from cognitive science and brain research that, if taken to scale, would likely help drive better student outcomes, and surveys some of the schools that apply this research most effectively to instructional reforms. Finally, Dr. Saxberg offers thoughts on the uses and limits of technology in American education reform, and whether school districts and schools are spending their resources on technology effectively enough to improve student achievement.

Stories of the Week: In Philadelphia, as the city prepares for a transit system strike that could disrupt in-person learning for 60,000 students and 20,000 school system employees, district leaders are looking to online education as a temporary solution. Wisconsin is seeing a rise in efforts to recall school board members, with 11 attempts in 2021, as a result of academic decline, COVID response, and some contentious curriculum content.


Dr. Bror Saxberg, MD, is Vice President of Learning Science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. In his role, Saxberg is responsible for CZI’s thinking about how to apply learning science results at scale to real-world learning environments. Bror works closely with the Summit Public Schools team to guide learning science research and applications in Summit Schools and the Summit Learning Program. Saxberg most recently served as Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan, Inc. Saxberg received an Honors BA in Mathematics and a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Washington, and an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, and an MD from Harvard Medical School.


Next episode: The next episode will air on Wednesday, November 3rd with guest, Pastor Robert Soto, a Lipan Apache tribal religious leader and an award-winning feather dancer, who has successfully upheld his Native American cultural heritage and religious liberties in federal courts.

Tweet of the Week

News Links:

Philadelphia School District braces for a possible SEPTA strike by considering online learning

In Wisconsin, recall efforts add to pressure on school boards in the wake of COVID-19

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Pleaae excuse typos.

[00:00:00] Cara Candal: Well, Gerard Robinson, we are back with another edition of the learning curve. And last week I was all excited because I had become this Fairweather baseball fan, and now are pretty excited because boy, the red Sox did not, despite those beautiful grand slam data, pull it out in the end. So now I am back to just not watching baseball.

[00:00:23] How about you?

[00:00:24] Gerard Robinson (GR): I did not watch it. I heard a lot of my friends, , were pretty excited about the outcome. I have friends in Houston, so they’re loving it up. And so it, Jamie, but the folks in Boston are not happy campers, but you know, to thought two months ago, they, be this far. It’s a win.

[00:00:40] Cara: Let’s be clear. So, Bostonians usually just base Staters in general, usually. Very sorry guys, but I’m just gonna say the truth, like a very grumpy bunch of people. When I first moved here from the Midwest, I would like wave at people in my morning jog and they would look at me like, Going to hurt them.

[00:00:55] So, I mean, we’re, that’s sort of how we are anyway. So we’re used to it, we need something to [00:01:00] be a little bit angry about it’s dark and cold and all in all of the things, Gerard, but okay. Listeners and we have to tell you that you’re going to notice Gerard sounds a little bit different today because of.

[00:01:09] he’s out and about. He’s a busy guy. So he’s coming to us, from somewhere on the road. Gerard, I’m hoping that your travels are going really well. we’re going to get to a pretty cool guest today. , Bruce expert, MD of the Chan Zuckerberg initiative. We’re gonna talk about brain science and education and learning and all of these great things.

[00:01:29] But Gerard, I want to get to my story of the week because my story of the. Feels like, it’s about just the theme of the decade and the theme of our summer in that is it really comes down , to infrastructure, how dependent some of us are on crumbling infrastructure and how dependent, some school kids actually are , on things like, school buses, which we’ve talked about a little bit, but also just public transportation to get them to school.

[00:01:55] So, the news this week in Philadelphia news, you know, Philadelphia. [00:02:00] And in fact, all of the public school students and teachers in the school district are preparing for a possible strike. It’s called SEPTA in Philadelphia, and this is the city buses, the subways, the trolleys, all of the modes of transportation that people use to get around the city.

[00:02:15] they’re threatening a strike now, Gerard, nearly 60,000 students in the city of Philadelphia use public transportation to get to school. So this is a really, really big deal. And I got to say, public transportation is such a big, thing that we’re talking about this country. I know here in Boston, am lately more afraid of, , getting an, a train derailment on the MBTA in Boston than I am of catching COVID on the mat, because that’s about the state of art infrastructure.

[00:02:43] But in Philadelphia, you’ve just got folks who are going on are threatening to strike, because of the things that people strike about, you know, overwork and lack of pay. And we all know that. Systems are stressed right now with a lack of people to work. But what does that mean for the kids? And what does that mean [00:03:00] for the school districts?

[00:03:01] In some sense, juror, the straight gives me a little bit of hope because this school district is in fact talking about pivoting to online learning. So taking some of the lessons that we’ve learned from the pandemic that in fact, Kids can learn online and we have systems and structures in place.

[00:03:17] we’ve talked about on this show, what happens if there’s a hurricane, can we pivot to online learning? Yes, we can. A big snowstorm. Yes, we can. Well, this can include transportation strikes. So if indeed this does happen and we don’t know that it will because the union hasn’t voted on it yet and they need to let’s hope that the Philadelphia public school.

[00:03:36] Can pivot to online learning and do all that they can to keep students learning after so much loss learning. there’s of course we have to mention. Poses a problem for parents who are going to go to work and are going to be at work, probably despite the strike and will now have childcare needs. So let’s fingers crossed.

[00:03:52] Hope it doesn’t come to that. But I was heartened to see that there is a potential solution at play. Should this strike [00:04:00] happen? So that’s my story of the week Gerard infrastructure week infrastructure month or summer, as we should say, I’m sure in the future, we’ll be talking about the infrastructure package that everybody’s eagerly awaiting, but what’s on your.

[00:04:12] Gerard: We’ve talked about Philadelphia a couple of times on our show, the first time it had to do with the lack of bandwidth for some students. And so the school system put together a set of buses and had hotspots, but they also made sure that students received computers now were possibly seen students impacted Nothing that has to do with the school system per se, but strikes. So hopefully they worked that out and yes, I’m glad that, , the online learning is an option because without it you’d have a lot of families, as you mentioned, who are going to find themselves in trouble, so that’s going to be pretty tough.

[00:04:48] My story is a little different. It comes from. Uh, state I used to live in, and this one is in about a strike, but it’s about a possible, we call a school board members. [00:05:00] So Wisconsin is not a state with a very few school systems. In fact, it’s a state with 421. Well, during the 20 20, 20, 21 school year, you’ve actually had 11 districts in the state say that they’re going to recall people and only one.

[00:05:19] In fact, it’s actually qualified through the petition process to get enough signatures, to put it on the ballot. And that’s the MEK wan, uh, Thiensville school district, you know, right outside of Milwaukee. And the reason they’re doing it is twofold. Number one, parents say that the way the school system responded to the fandom, it wasn’t great.

[00:05:39] Others say is because of critical race theory, maybe something in the middle. What’s unique about this. And this is according to, one of our, scholars at the university of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, Michael, for. I used to work with many years ago when I was in Milwaukee, he said that going back to 2010, [00:06:00] when the teachers and others were making a real big push to, we call, the sitting governor at the time that from that point, moving forward, people have begun to use the recall as either a threat or a lever to pull.

[00:06:14] And so, although of the 11 only one qualified. And 10 of the other districts, guess what some of the school board members actually resigned and some people stepped in to take their place or to run for the seat. So it’s an interesting time in Wisconsin, because as you know, we have some challenges here in Northern Virginia, in terms of school, board, parent relations, but in Wisconsin, I guess what some people say, let’s just recall , whether it’s really critical race theory, whether it’s really the pandemic.

[00:06:43] I think it may be more of that than former, but this is a really interesting time. And as my court said, this, isn’t how we often practice democracy, but it’s something that people are beginning to do right now. What are your thoughts?

[00:06:57] Cara: Oh, , well, , as a school board [00:07:00] member myself, like for current former, I’ve been a couple of school boards.

[00:07:04] non-public school district boards that will say always charter and private school boards. it is a terrible time to be a school board member. And on the one hand it’s, I observed. that parents seem to be much more active for a variety of reasons at school board meetings, which is a positive, because I got to tell you I’ve unfortunately sat through and viewed online, you know, school board meetings where like I was the only parent present or there was barely anybody there.

[00:07:31] but, the way. So many citizens are engaging with school boards right now. whether it’s around critical race theory, concerns about critical race theory or something else seems to be uncivil. we’ve been reading a lot in the news about, and I’m not saying. Or uncivil there is probably a majority who are going and trying to be productive speak their piece.

[00:07:52] But, the ones that make the news are those , who are not behaving very civilly. it’s a scary time and I think it’s indicative, you know, school parts have [00:08:00] become this just battleground as of late. we always want more parent involvement in our schools.

[00:08:05] We always want more parent input, especially in our public schools where. Well, let’s just face it. Parents have less control, right? , , , there are a lot of structures and bureaucracies in place that dictate, what curriculum going gonna look like and what outcomes are gonna look like, et cetera.

[00:08:19] And so it can understand on the one hand, white parents, , want to exercise their voice, but don’t know to exercise it in this way to use a recall. And as, as you’ve noted, not how democracy, usually works. it’s really interesting. And I wonder Gerard half the time, if, when folks are voting for school board, They actually even study what these candidates claim to do. We’ve got school, board elections going on in community. And I see signs that say, you know, I support excellence in education, for example. And my first question in my mind is always, what does that mean to you? So I wish that citizens, I hope that on the one hand.

[00:08:54] Engages parents and citizens more in their local schools and what schools are doing. But man, do I wish we could [00:09:00] have, much more civil conversation and behave in much more democratic ways around what it means to participate in the process that is, governing our public school district.

[00:09:09] So, TBD, I don’t think this is the last time we’re going to be talking about school boards on the learning curve. well, okay, Gerard, , this is cool. I think this is a guest that you have talked about at least to me having on the show for some time. And we are going to be talking with Dr.

[00:09:26] Brewer, sax, Berg MD. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the first medical doctor we’ve talked to on the show. It could very well be. and he is the vice president of learning science at the Chan Zuckerberg. Initiative. So lots of great questions, great conversation coming up after this with Dr. Sachs Berg. you and I will back after this little musical.[00:10:00]

[00:10:26] Learning curve listeners. We are back with Breuer, sax, Berg. He is the vice president of learning science at the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative in his role sacks. For CZI is thinking about how to apply learning science results at scale to real-world learning environments for our works closely with the summit public schools team to guide learning science research and applications in summit schools and the summit learning program, sax Berg most recently served as chief learning officer at Kaplan, Inc.

[00:10:54] And he received an honors BA in mathematics and a BS in electrical engineering from the university of Washington [00:11:00] and an ma in mathematics from Oxford universe. As well as a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT and an MD from Harvard medical school, a very accomplished human being.

[00:11:11] Dr. Saxberg, thanks so much for being with us on the learning curve.

[00:11:15] Bror: Thanks so much for asking me. Yeah,

[00:11:18] Cara: we’re excited. Okay. So this is, I can’t tell you how many books I have on my shelf about brain science and education as an ed policy person said, but it’s such a quickly changing and evolving field and what we understand about how the brain works and how, kids and even adults learn.

[00:11:35] it’s just fascinating stuff. So we’re going to hear a little bit about the work that you’ve done. CZI, especially within learning science and understanding how working memory and long-term memory can help improve academic excellence and equity, not something that I think most people think about that learning science and memory science can help us understand how we sort of close gaps.[00:12:00]

[00:12:00] So can you talk a little bit about what we know from cognitive science that if we scaled it would really help K to 12 education reform. drive towards evidence-based student

[00:12:11] Bror: achievement. I’d be happy to I’ll start where in a sense, we all want to end with learning and learners, which is.

[00:12:20] What is expertise? How do human expert minds actually have their expertise, if you will encode it or embedded. And what cognitive psychologists have found is that when you look at somebody who is an expert, who is really good at what they do, who’s spent more than 10 years at work , in a field and, and has become just very good at what they do.

[00:12:42] What you find is that something like 70 or 80%. Of the decision-making that they do comes from what is called long-term memory. In other words, it is like instinctual, tacit. It’s become so native to [00:13:00] them that they see patterns and they don’t even realize that there’s another alternative to it. So if you look at it like a chess master, when they look at a book.

[00:13:09] They will instantly see your queen is a threat. Now I’m a complete Duffer as in like literally not good chess. Like what is this horse do? can’t keep track of what is going on, even with one piece, but a chess master can instantly grasp that weight. There’s that queen is under risk and can keep going from there.

[00:13:29] And this is true. All kinds of different experts have things that are so. Deeply practice that they become part of long-term memory. So the difference between working memory and long-term memory is that working memory is the part of our minds. That is the verbal part is kind of where our verbal self lives.

[00:13:48] So if you’re listening to me and I started talking in a high squeaky voice, you’re thinking, this is a very strange man there, he got on the podcast and you’d be right. But that internal monologue of yours, that saying, who is this guy is [00:14:00] happening in your workplace. The working memory is also the part that handles new, complicated things.

[00:14:05] Things you have no familiarity with. It’s where a lot of creative stuff happens. It is actually quite slow and you can’t have very many things at once going on in your working memory that you quickly get confused and stuff just falls out the side. however, As you practice and get better at things.

[00:14:24] And when you’re doing something new, the practice is part of the working memory. It’s doing new things, working memory draws on what’s already in long-term memory and then combines it with new things. And then you practice, you get feedback, you gradually add new things to long-term memory. So I’ll give you, , an example from, when I was teaching my daughter to drive, a number of years ago.

[00:14:46] So the first time we get out of. Right. And she’s kind of ambidextrous. So it’s kind of like the brakes on the left, the brakes on the left. It’s like, there’s tears and chaos and that’s just me. Right? And so she’s not able to [00:15:00] think of anything except how does the steering wheel work?

[00:15:03] There’s no room at all in there right now, you know, fast forward, six months, nine months later. And she is like many of the rest of us She was able to drive to school. You could sit next to her. She drove to the mall or something, and she would have a conversation about her day and what was going on and what she’s doing.

[00:15:21] While driving perfectly well. And so driving is one of those things where it becomes part of our long-term memory. And many of your listeners may have had the following experience, which is telling when you think about it, You start out at place a and then you get to thinking about your life and what’s going on at work and all this, and you look up and you’ve gone to place B instead, I usually end up at a Starbucks, you know, frequently under caffeinated, right?

[00:15:47] Cara: Yeah.

[00:15:48] Bror: There you go. And you laugh. I can’t believe I did that again. And you drive off, you don’t think about it. Well, let’s pause for a second. Who drove that car? took a ton and a half of [00:16:00] metal, 20, 30 miles an hour, 50 miles an hour for many minutes at a time, if you were thinking about vacation or problems at work or other things, right.

[00:16:11] And this is in fact, the characteristic of all expert minds that. Things decisions that may be over an extended period of time. Even like driving where working memory doesn’t even have to pay attention, that there are decision processes already in long-term memory that make all kinds of complicated decisions driving this complicated.

[00:16:31] Right. And it’s totally learned we didn’t evolve to drive. We had to learn. So in a sense, one of the questions that is often a bit unanswered or not clearly answered is when we’re talking about our students is huh, which are the things that we need students to have in long-term memory. And which are the things that are always going to be a wrestled between working memory and long-term memory.

[00:16:55] So for example, writing without spelling mistakes, It’s [00:17:00] something you can actually pretty much embed in long-term memory over time. I mean, some of us harder, and sometimes there are still some mistakes that we step in, but you can end up in a place where when you’re typing or when you’re writing, you’re not thinking about every single word and what is the spelling and all that it just sort of is happening, straight through.

[00:17:17] But if you’re trying to write a persuasive note to your boss, you will never be able to do that and plan your family vacation at the same. Because working memory is going to be occupied with, how do I talk to my boss? What is the key point I’m trying to make? Is that too angry, a tone, et cetera, et cetera.

[00:17:36] And so often exercise of expertise is this collaboration between working memory as the flexible problem solving part of our mind and in the long-term memory, which has a whole range. Pasadena and skills and noticings and patterns and things that then you can get drawn into working memory and executed potentially very quickly by long-term memory.

[00:17:58] when. so that’s kind of [00:18:00] that relationship. So when we’re thinking about learning, whether it’s in math or history, or in English language arts, or in sciences, we should, if we were our best selves and Quicken designers ask, what do we need kids to have in longterm memory? And then design the learning environment to have enough practice and feedback to get it there because you need a lot of it.

[00:18:18] You can’t just do one and done to get it into long-term memory. And what are those things that are not needed to be in long-term memory, but can rather be either looked up or frankly are complex problem solving things that you just need to try a few times and exercise, but each time it will be something new , for working.

[00:18:34] Now actually, , if you let me, I’d like to pull back from what I’ve just described as the cognitive architecture of, expertise and learning and talk about wider architecture of learning and even expertise. And that’s when you start talking about the whole learner experience, it.

[00:18:53] It’s not enough to only design for kids cognition. So if you’re designing for kids condition, [00:19:00] you’d like to know what does this child already have in long-term memory? How can I draw on that and have them wrestle with new things and working memory, but not too many because working memory is narrow. It can’t take too much stuff.

[00:19:11] Right. So that’s designing for. You also need to think about several other things. One thing is motivation. Why should a child start persist and put in mental effort? And in fact, that’s motivation. There’s a lot of cognitive scientists think about it. You’ll notice that the term liking doesn’t appear in that list because if you study.

[00:19:34] Persist and putting mental effort, you will change your mind if it’s a well-designed living environment. Just like if you go to the gym and you do a well-designed physical exercise routine, you don’t have to like that. But if you start persistent putting physical effort, Muscles will change. So the same thing is true with well-designed, learning environments.

[00:19:53] Well, so a very good, scientists, which are Clark, did a scan of many different traditions of research into [00:20:00] motivation, behavioral psychology, behavioral economics, cognitive psychology, social psychology, and he came out with simple. Four-part framework that you can use as for design purposes or even to use with people, you know, in your family, which is there seem to be four main things that go wrong with motivation, starting persistent and putting in that effort.

[00:20:20] One thing that goes wrong is you don’t see the point. You don’t see the value of what you’re doing or how you’re trying to do it or learn it. And so that’s like a dancer in an algebra. Why am I here? I want to think about Swan lake. Why would I care about this stuff there? You need to find a way to connect what the new thing is, what that challenge is with things that they are interested in.

[00:20:41] So maybe it’s problems about a dance foundation. How do you fund it? How do you let money grow over time? And that turns into algebra and off you go. Second thing that goes wrong, quite different is you just don’t think you can do. So I’m another dancer in the same algebra class. might not even think algebra is important, [00:21:00] but I can’t do math.

[00:21:01] I’m no good at math. Well, they’re talking about how important it is. Just makes you more miserable, right? What you need is something different. You need, stories of other people, just like you, who thought they couldn’t do it? Who did master? You need ways to help the person back up. Just things they can master or have mastered that are similar and then show them how to walk forward and so forth.

[00:21:22] So that’s the second way it goes wrong. The third way motivation fails is if you blame something in your environment and just say, well, I can’t do it because so classic would be, my teacher hates me, so that’s why I can’t do this. Or, I don’t have any space in which to do this work, or I don’t have bandwidth to do this work.

[00:21:41] And the favorite among professionals as well as students and others is I don’t have time. I don’t have time to do this, so I don’t start. I don’t persist. I don’t put in mental effort because the thing that’s in my way is out of my control. Well, that’s where the right answer. Is to sit down and demonstrate none of these things [00:22:00] may be in your control.

[00:22:01] Let’s look at your schedule. Let’s find a space for you. Let’s figure out where can you be, where there is bandwidth let’s change teachers or alter the media you’re using to learn from. that problem solving with the student helps model. Now you can control this. So that’s the thing. The last thing that goes wrong is frankly the hardest to get right or to fix.

[00:22:22] And that is negative emotional states. If you’re angry, if you’re scared, if you’re upset or it’s really hard to start persistent, put a mental effort into some kind of challenging learning environment. And that is as complicated results, it sounds like it could be just a good conversation. Might be helpful all the way out to professional services at some stage.

[00:22:42] And especially, after the pandemic and lots of stress in home. All kinds of people, including our teachers may find themselves in these negative emotional states, which will then get in the way of them trying to do things in new ways. The final thing I’ll say, sorry to stretch away back out is to say.

[00:22:59] There [00:23:00] are other factors as well that get in the way things like your physical and mental wellbeing, that’s related to the negative emotional states. But it’s more than that. It turns out there’s research from 20 years ago, that if you are under hydrated, your math problem solving performance goes down by like 20% or something like that.

[00:23:17] And you don’t even realize that’s the problem. That’s the interesting thing about how our minds work is our minds are not terribly good at diagnosing what’s in our way for learning. So. if you are sleep deprived, that also affects your ability to think and to learn and solve problems.

[00:23:33] And, things around social and emotional skills, do you know how to work with the other kids or other people, if you have never done that before, that becomes a burden in working memory, because you’re not sure what to say and how to say it. You’re not sure who should be doing what.

[00:23:48] And so now suddenly your working memory is flood. Issues and questions about the other people and how I relate to them compared to another student who may be very familiar with these kids or people in their learning [00:24:00] group and who may have done this a lot, and so know exactly how to slot in. And so they have long-term memory skills attached to social and emotional, , connections, and then identity issues, whether it’s racial identity or even identity issues around the academics.

[00:24:14] I’m just not a math person. I’m just not a writing person. Those are the things that will am getting your way as well. And so you really have to think about a whole multi-dimensional set of pieces and each of them actually has input into what’s going on and how to help that comes from cognitive and development science.

[00:24:31] GR: Bror, I have a question for you cause you’ve actually piqued my interest as this work relates to policy. So for the last 30 years, we struggled with more stupid achievement in math and science based upon what you know about learning science, what lessons came up, policymakers, schools of ed and educators learn to try to close performance gap.

[00:24:51] Bror: this is a rich and complicated question. And as often happens when you’re trying to do evidence-based design work, you [00:25:00] first look to see, are we asking the correct question because awesome. The problems begin by trying to answer the wrong question or an irrelevant question. , so one of the questions is.

[00:25:12] what is our goal for our students is our problem that the test scores of students are too low. Or is it that they can’t do any math or they can’t write, or they can’t read and interpret what they’re reading. So, depending on how you’re thinking about what the problem is, you could be guided and this sometimes happens to very instrumental solutions.

[00:25:33] I’m just trying to listen. Math scores by hook or by crook or, you know, reading scores by hook or by crook. And you don’t pay attention to some of those issues of motivation or identity that I mentioned that in fact, you may pick up techniques that lift a score, but that actually ruined the kids’ enjoyment of mathematics or writing or literature forever.

[00:25:54] And that is not a win. So the first step is just trying to define your goals. The [00:26:00] second thing that’s important is what I talked about earlier, which is many educators get this. And they use language like meet kids where they are. And this links to that cognitive science notion of you want to draw on what is already in long-term memory.

[00:26:15] And depending on the kid’s own personal context, their culture, their home, their community, you may have kids with very different things in their longterm. And so you really want your teachers and your materials to be able to adjust and match, especially for hard things to where the kids are as they come in.

[00:26:35] And this relates not just to their skill levels, where they are, but it also leads to what is familiar to them. There’s some really fascinating research where if you give American kids baseball problems and then cricket problems that use the same mathematics, the kids do much worse than the cricket problem.

[00:26:55] Because the context is totally alien and confusing. What the heck is a wicked? Why [00:27:00] do we care? Where does it live? the result is working. Memory gets taken up with the mysterious stuff in there, and therefore it gets in the way of them actually solving the problem. So thinking through context of students, what is familiar to them and then building from there forward would be, you know, is really an essential part of this.

[00:27:19] , and then I think these notions. making sure that our teachers, we understand have a growth mindset, this notion that, no matter where the kids are as they come in, you cannot predict where they will be in five years or 10 years, because practice and feedback environments, if they’re well-designed, we’ll move them from wherever they are.

[00:27:40] To new places that are exciting for them, exciting for their community, and lead them forward. And so having teachers who are curious about kids’ backgrounds, who are curious about, what have they seen before, what are they able to do and draw on that Zen really signals to the kids as well.

[00:27:57] Okay. this is somebody who’s really caring and thinking about [00:28:00] this with me that I really want to, participate in perform. and then finding that sense of belonging. It turns out there’s great research about schools and this is going to be as true for, you know, math or science or English or any of that.

[00:28:11] That if kids have even one adult in a school that they have a close relationship with, it changes very much how they relate to school, how they engage, and a sense of I belong in this place. And that turns out to be critical. You’ve got to get the cart and the horse the right way around here. there’s actually great example out of hurricane Harvey.

[00:28:31] the Nottingham school district, and many other Houston schools were just hammered by Harvey right at the start of the school year. But the Nottingham school district after the four week reconstruction, they spent two more weeks with students coming to the school, focused solely on making everyone feel like they belong in this place, listening to each other’s stories and challenges, the teachers as well, describing what they had gone through in Harvey.

[00:28:56] And then. They did again at school year. So if you think about it, they lost six [00:29:00] weeks out of their school year, which would, you know, it was a panic inducing idea for any school superintendent or principal. In fact, and I actually looked it up. they got better state test score results that year than they had the year before.

[00:29:15] And the reason arguably is they took care of belonging. And are you in the right place, right from the get-go. And then they were able to invest the attention, the working memory, , and the motivation generated in part by that sense of belonging throughout the rest of the year. And they did really.

[00:29:32] Cara: am taking so much away, from what you’re saying, not only personally, I’m going to go with, I might’ve been under hydrated and sleep deprived through most of my high school.

[00:29:41] I did very poorly in math and I’m going to make sure my children are very well-hydrated every day, it also, as somebody who’s spent a lot of time with teacher training, it’s very interesting to me that I think some of the concepts you have named that come out. Science, as you’re saying growth mindset, thinking about context, which I [00:30:00] would frame as somebody who also used to work in large scale assessment, we would talk about that in terms of bias, right?

[00:30:05] Is, are these test questions by, well, what that really means is like, if students don’t have context, often think of it as a cultural thing, but I hadn’t thought of it as your brain sort of going haywire and , your working memory, not being able to focus on the right things. This is all fascinating.

[00:30:19] Idea though that I think , so much in education reform, we maybe use these terms, not realizing that they are in fact rooted in empirical evidence. but then if you’re out with you’re also talking about is creating the right learning environments for students on all of these different levels.

[00:30:38] And one thing that comes to mind is our increased. Reliance mean, especially in the past year and a half forced reminds really on technology, sometimes educational technology and sometimes other technologies. Can you talk a little bit about as we advance our knowledge of how the brain works with regard to education, what role, if any, does technology play either [00:31:00] like liquid or the risks and benefits and in how should we be leveraging it for advanced effort to help students.

[00:31:06] Bror: I’d be glad to talk about that. It’s actually a really interesting question. , we’ve gotten to a state now in our society where we no longer ask or pencils good for learning or not.

[00:31:17] And the reason we don’t ask that is because we know that’s not actually a great question. What are you doing with the pen? And actually the same thing is true for all kinds of technologies books, you can argue, even a teacher is in a sense, the form of technology, you know, the ultimate of artificial intelligence is of course human intelligence, right?

[00:31:37] So the HII in the room, right. And Richard Clark was an extremely good cognitive scientist. I mentioned before, even an article in, I think it was the late seventies, early eighties where what he stated was the. Technology does nothing for learning what technology of any kind does, but especially, you know, computers and things like that.

[00:31:58] What technology does is it [00:32:00] takes any learning approach and can make it more affordable, more, reliable, more available, more data, right. But it will take a terrible learning approach and do that too. I mean, imagine for a second, , all of you are listening, your worst ever high school teacher or college professor.

[00:32:19] I mean your worst one right now, thanks to, the old days that person could only damage the hopes and dreams of in college. Maybe a few thousand students a year. But because of the glories of technology and the web, that same teacher can destroy the hopes and dreams of millions of students around the globe, 24 7.

[00:32:43] Right. And it’s like, no. So the technology is not the problem. So the way to think about this is first ass. Do you know what the learning environment is for your students now? Because sometimes people think they know, and then when you go into a class or observe closely or even use videotape, you [00:33:00] discover it’s not happening the way we thought it was.

[00:33:02] So what is happening now then say, what does evidence suggest we should do better across those multiple dimensions? I laid out not just the academic, but the non-academic summit. And then you ask the question. Aha. If those are the better ways of doing this, how can technology make those better ways of doing it more affordable, more reliable, more available, and more data rich.

[00:33:25] And that’s how you can start to use technology to really help. Students and teachers, because think about what I said earlier, that we want to make it be context sensitive. You want students let’s say, who are learning to write, you want them yes. To have ambitious goals for their narrative structure and then persuasive abilities and their figurative language.

[00:33:44] But you would also like them to start with topics they’ve already mastered. So, , they know what they want to say, and they understand all the underpinnings. They just have to wrestle with the hard work of structuring for an audience and all of this. Right. Well, to have. A different writing prompt for many different subgroups in a, in a [00:34:00] classroom.

[00:34:00] My goodness that, you know, that’s really hard for the teachers to engage in and to grade and mark and all this. But technology may be able to help by providing access to many others who could mark or grade those essays, or potentially eventually even using some, , natural language processing to give them.

[00:34:18] But again, the important thing is you started by saying, we’re going to make the context be as familiar to the student as possible so that their working memory is focused on how do I make a persuasive argument? Not on what the heck is a sailing record. And why would I care? so that’s how I think about technology.

[00:34:38] I think technology has a lot of great opportunities to help things like simulations, for example, to allow students to work inside increasingly realistic environments, practice and feedback with increasingly noisy situations. Before they actually have to get out in the real world and do it. They can actually practice it for themselves.

[00:34:59] These are [00:35:00] powerful things to try. As long as you do the architecture in a way that, , is aligned with how a human commission works and also benefits the motivation of a learner to actually.

[00:35:12] Cara: So , in the really short time that we left, I have what I realize is an unfair question that I’d like to ask you.

[00:35:19] I feel like I’ve learned so much in this like 27 minutes that we’ve had together. my working memory will not retain at all. so what grade I have to go back and listen, but if you, had you know, I’m really interested about implications. For teachers and implications for education reformers.

[00:35:37] And you’ve given us a lot of wonderful information about what we need to know about how the brain works in order to inform how we educate. But if you, I guess I’m asking you to prioritize in a sense, if you had, your 32nd elevator pitch , with the world’s most average. What would you say to that teacher?

[00:35:56] about like, if there was one thing you could do within [00:36:00] your practice or change about your practice tomorrow, is there something you would prioritize? What would you tell that person

[00:36:06] Bror: there’s a couple of things. One is I would want to encourage them to put a sense of belonging first. To not be afraid of investing time at the beginning of the school year, beginning of your experience with the students, making each student feel like I hear you, I want to know your story.

[00:36:24] Tell me your story. And the teacher should tell his or her story too, so that there is a sense of being seen as a human. That then can get moving into the interactions and the plans and the lessons going forward. That’s one thing I would say the second thing I would say is definitely shift the more production by students and less talking by the team.

[00:36:47] So teachers in our country particularly are used to explain things to students. Let me show you et cetera. And you really have to get comfortable with allowing students minds, to wrestle with things and [00:37:00] to wait them out. As opposed to quickly stepping in to give an answer or a guide. Learning is hard.

[00:37:06] Working memory is slow. And so it needs to process and try again. And so you need to give the students a chance to think, to write, to make mistakes, give feedback, or have students give each other feedback and you have to train them how to do that and then have them do it again so that they have to incorporate the feedback and what they do.

[00:37:26] And it’s, it’s amazing how different a learning experience it is for a mine when they’re. Production mode most of the time, instead of just listening, just listening it’s we know this it’s so easy to tune out and say it out, but when you’re producing, you’re really exercising what you know, and it also shows what don’t, you know, in a way that you can then come back to, to say, no, I need to know more about this.

[00:37:50] Cause I didn’t get that right. And off you go from there. So those are a couple of things I’d probably put at the top of that.

[00:37:56] Cara: I love it. And I have to say that the elevator’s probably already arrived at his [00:38:00] floor, but if I were that teacher, I would get off the elevator with you so that I could listen to exactly

[00:38:05] Bror: what you

[00:38:07] Cara: just said.

[00:38:08] Fascinating. And I know our listeners probably going to want more. , but Dr. Burse expert, thank you so much for taking this time with us today. And hopefully maybe we’ll have to have you back again for a part two, because we have many questions that we just didn’t have time to get to thank you.

[00:38:25] Thank you for your time and for your excellent work.

[00:38:27] Bror: I’m more than happy to help. Thank you very much for asking me.[00:39:00]

[00:39:04] Cara: Wow listeners after that, just fascinating. my mind sort of blown interview. We are going to close it out with a mind blowing statistic. Actually, our tweet of the week, this week is from Nick Murray. Nick Murray more than 5,000 main children began to homeschool in 2021. This is up 75% from 20 20, 70 5% from 2020 more than 50 districts, at least doubled their counts.

[00:39:30] The average district loss, , about 80% more students to homeschooling as of March 31st, 2021. This is. Pretty amazing stuff. It is in probably if we had our friend Karen McDonald on, she might call it a homeschool revolution. And as we have talked about. On the learning curve before, parents from all walks of life, homeschooling their kids, and we are going to see more and more of it.

[00:39:56] I think we need to see more and more policy reforms and [00:40:00] mechanisms to let parents do that. Using the public health. that should be there. So as they choose the best form of education for their kids and listeners, we will be back as we are next week, no matter where in the world we are coming to you from next week’s episode, next week’s guest.

[00:40:19] We’re going to be speaking with pastor Robert Soto. He is a Lipan Apache tribal religious leader, and an award-winning feather dance. Awesome. I am very excited to hear about that. And he has successfully upheld his native American cultural heritage and religious liberties in the federal courts.

[00:40:38] Excited to hear all about that until next week, stay safe. Good luck to the Astros in the world series. I think I know we’ve got at least few of you who are going to be watching very closely and looking forward to being back with you all again soon.

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