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26 minutes | Feb 11, 2020
Navigating Literacy Development During Adolescence
What factors contribute to the development of literacy skills in adolescence? On this episode of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Critical Window podcast, Dr. Medha Tare breaks down what research on the science of adolescent learning says about the development of literacy skills during adolescence, and how educators can support this development. Tare is a senior research scientist for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise, where she leads the synthesis of research on the cognitive, social-emotional, and student background factors that affect K-12 learning. Specifically, Tare studies the factors that affect how children and adults acquire new skills and knowledge including individual differences, learning environment, and the medium through which they learn. She shares these factors and how Digital Promise’s Learning Variability Project helps students, parents, and educators navigate literacy development on Critical Window. What is Learner Variability? “Recognizing learner variability is something many teachers have tried to do for decades,” explains Tare on Critical Window. “It’s understanding in a whole-child way a students’ challenges and strengths and then tailoring instruction to meet each learner’s needs.” What does this look like in practice? Tare shares an example: “One learner may struggle with working memory, their ability to hold information in mind and kind of manipulate it. But is this challenge a learning difference, or is it because they’re getting too little sleep? Maybe they’re taking care of younger siblings while their single mom works the night shift. So research supports both assumptions and we also show strategies for working with students in both situations.” Learner Variability vs. Learning Styles There is a difference between learner variability and what many know as “learning styles.” Research does not support the existence of learning styles, or “the idea that learners have a particular modality like visual or auditory where they learn best,” explains Tare. Instead, learner variability is steeped in research of factors that matter in learning. “These could be students’ attention abilities, how much exercise they’re getting, the safety of their neighborhood, and building block skills such as background knowledge,” says Tare. “We know that these factors interact with each other, so we know that greater physical fitness can improve attention and focus in the classroom.” Why Does Learner Variability Matter for Adolescents? There are specific learner factors that predict successful literacy outcomes, including argumentative reasoning, disciplinary literacy, and critical literacy, explains Tare. “Those are skills that are developing and really coming online for adolescents at this age.” But, there are also other factors at play for adolescents, including identity exploration, cultural lenses, and changes in motivation. “Students are now using those foundational reading and writing skills that they developed in elementary and middle school to build knowledge and then write and read authentic text and write for authentic audiences and purposes that are meaningful to them, that motivate them,” says Tare. To learn more, listen to full episode of Critical Window below. RESOURCES FROM DIGITAL PROMISE: Adolescent Literacy Learner Model: https://lvp.digitalpromiseglobal.org/content-area/literacy-7-12 Learner Variability Project: https://digitalpromise.org/initiative/learner-variability-project/ Designing for Learner Variability: Examining the Impact of Research-based Edtech in the Classroom: http://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/lvp-examiningimpact.pdf Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple Music, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. <br /> Expand Transcript Collapse Transcript [Music] Hans Herman: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policy makers, and communities. This week on Critical Window, we’re learning about what the science of adolescent learning tells us about the development of literacy skills during adolescence and how educators can support this development. Dr. Medha Tare is a senior research scientist for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise where she leads the synthesis of research on the cognitive, social-emotional, and student background factors that affect K-12 learning. With the goal of increasing educators’ and product developers’ understanding of learner variability. Medha studies the factors that affect how children and adults acquire new skills and knowledge including individual differences, learning environment, and the medium through which they learn. She’s published her research in The Journal of Cognition and Development, Language, Learning, and Technology and in numerous technical reports and presentations for non-academic audiences. Medha holds a BA from Rutgers University and a PhD in psychology from the University of Michigan. Welcome to the show, Medha. Medha Tare: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Hans Herman: So let’s start by talking about Digital Promise. For those not familiar, could you provide an overview of Digital Promise’s history and its core programs? Medha Tare: Sure. Digital Promise is an independent, bipartisan non-profit that was authorized by congress in 2008. Our primary mission is to accelerate innovation in education. So, our work is at the intersection of educators, researchers, and entrepreneurs to work together to tackle some of education’s biggest challenges. Primarily, we work to connect people and ideas through networks, we conduct research on learning science and technology, and we look to share stories that inspire action. Ultimately, we want to see that all learners have equitable access to powerful learning opportunities that are authentic, collaborative, and inquisitive. Hans Herman: That’s a lot of different stuff you guys work on. [laughs] So, Digital Promise, as you mentioned in there, you have a suite of work related to the learning sciences. Can you first share how Digital Promise defines “learning sciences” and explain why the organization is interested in this space? Medha Tare: Yeah, definitely. At Digital Promise, we consider learning sciences to be interdisciplinary. So, including research from psychology, education, sociology, cognitive science, disciplines that may not normally talk to each other. We don’t only focus on how people learn but also the resources and supports that enable learning and also how to design learning environments and instruction that help students reach their potential. One of our goals is to move this research out from behind the walls of academic journals and into the hands of those working up close in classrooms in schools so that it can be used. Hans Herman: Thank you. And what are the projects and specific programs at Digital Promise related to the learning sciences? Medha Tare: So all of our projects and programs are steeped in learning sciences. We really want to make research come alive in various learning environments and support practitioners and ed-tech developers who are looking for ways to apply the research in the classroom. So one example is Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools. It’s a premiere network of 114 districts nationwide. Many of the school leaders are interested in learning sciences topics such as social-emotional learning, real-world learning, and learner variability. One thing that Digital Promise does is to facilitate cohorts of district leaders from across the country, help them dig deep into these topics together, and then share out their successes and challenges. Hans Herman: And today we’re here to talk about one project in particular, the Learner Variability Project. Could you start by telling us what the Learner Variability Project is and tell us about the history and goals of the project? Medha Tare: Recognizing learner variability is something many teachers have tried to do for decades. So, it’s understanding in a whole-child way a students’ challenges and strengths and then tailoring instruction to meet each learner’s needs. The reason we say it’s whole-child is because it recognizes how learners variate in their academic skills, their cognitive abilities, social-emotional states, and their personal backgrounds. All of this is what research says has an impact on learning. In order to facilitate this understanding, we look at what the research says. One learner may struggle with working memory, their ability to hold information in mind and kind of manipulate it. But is this challenge a learning difference, or is it because they’re getting too little sleep? Maybe they’re taking care of younger siblings while their single mom works the night shift. So research supports both assumptions and we also show strategies for working with students in both situations. Hans Herman: So you mentioned the whole child. You mentioned social-emotional learning. I think sometimes in discussions around this area in the science of learning or the learning sciences, people who aren’t familiar can hear all these different terms and it seems like what you’re saying is the Learner Variability Project draws on these different areas and is connected to them, they’re not necessarily competing. Is that the case? Medha Tare: Absolutely. So we consider “whole child” kind of the umbrella term. Then, within that, we highlight factors that cover a lot of these topics that educators are interested in. So, emotion, motivation, stereotype threat, then trauma that students have experienced. So a lot of the initiatives that people are talking about that you would consider to be whole child, we try to make them concrete and show you the research behind what are the factors that actually create the whole child. And then another thing I wanted to be clear about and to add on is that when we talk about learner variability, we’re not talking about learning styles. Current research does not support that learning styles exist, the idea that learners have a particular modality like visual or auditory where they learn best. Instead, learner variability is steeped in the research that shows the factors that we know matter in learning. These could be students’ attention abilities, how much exercise they’re getting, the safety of their neighborhood, and building block skills such as background knowledge. We know that these factors interact with each other. So we know that greater physical fitness can improve attention and focus in the classroom. Our tool shows how these connect. In our website, the Learning Ability Navigator — which is free and open-source for anyone to use — we show those connections and also what educators can do to support the variability of each student. Hans Herman: Great, thank you for clarifying how those all relate with each other. And you started explaining this, could you explain more how the Learner Variability Project is constructed and what type of content people can expect to find there? Medha Tare: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve mentioned our categories. Things like social-emotional learning, and cognitive learning, and student background where researchers have studied all of these different variations that can affect students’ outcomes. Many times, these research areas are siloed where people studying cognitive development don’t consider social-emotional components and vice versa. So we’re showing how all these factors connect and that’s also an area that’s ripe for new research as well. What we do is we curate those factors. We also show the research-based strategies that can support students with different strengths and needs and we provide resources such as videos to get practitioners started using the strategies in their classrooms. I’ll note that we added workspaces to our website so people can curate their own workspaces and share with collaborators. Ultimately, the goal is to support practitioners and also educational technology developers to design educational experiences that meet the needs of diverse learners. Hans Herman: Which researchers have helped you all guide the development of the Learner Variability Project? Medha Tare: We have an overall board for the project. That’s a wonderful group of advisors who range from researchers, thought-leaders, educators, district administrators, ed-tech product developers. One is Kelisa Wing who’s a 2017 State Teacher of the Year. She’s written several books about equity in schools. Then, each learner model — we now have them from Pre-K to high school for math and literacy — has its own advisory board made up of research in the content area for the grade range. These are researchers who studied the development of adolescent reading and writing skills in the most recent model and how they interact with motivation, social relationships, and identity. One of the advisors, for example, is Steve Graham who is a national expert on the development of writing skills and how they affect reading comprehension. Hans Herman: People, when they’re on the website, they can see the names of these folks who helped you build this? They can learn more about them and their work? Medha Tare: Yeah, absolutely. We have the names of the advisory board members on each model that shows who was involved in the process. They often were reviewing some of the content that we generated, giving suggestions, or helping in other ways. Hans Herman: Can you quickly tell us all the different models that you’ve already developed as part of the project? Medha Tare: Absolutely. We started off with reading Pre-K to third grade. Now we also have literacy for grades four through six and the adolescent literacy that we just launched. Similarly, we have math for grades Pre-K to two, grades three to six, and seven to nine. So that goes up into high school and algebra. We divided those up based on where the literature was. So how do researchers group those age ranges for developments that are happening in terms of cognitive skills and academic skills. Then, also, of course, all these different social developments as well. Hans Herman: You just referenced your newest model that we’re going to talk more about now, a literacy model for grades seven through twelve. Can you guide us through the development of that specific model and what it looks like? Medha Tare: Absolutely. This was a great experience developing this model. I learned so much in diving into the research. What we do is we start with an initial scan of the literature, we read summary reports of empirical research to get a sense of the major developments in the topic area. In this case, your reports on the science of adolescent learning were really helpful for setting the stage. I read all of them; I’m a big fan. [laughs] Hans Herman: Thank you. We appreciate the positive feedback. Medha Tare: Yeah. Then, our advisors, they help us draft the set of learner factors that we know predict successful literacy outcomes. We added some key components to this model including argumentative reasoning, disciplinary literacy, and critical literacy. Those are skills that are developing and really coming online for adolescents at this age. Then the advisors also help us refine existing factors. For example, Allan Wigfield is at the University of Maryland. He’s an expert on motivation. He helped us update our framing of academic motivation. Rather than a traditional model describing intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as two, mutually-exclusive types, the current thinking is that oftentimes both are at play when students are working toward a goal. A student might not be intrinsically motivated to write a particular essay, but they might understand how doing that relates to a longer-term goal that they have. Because our process is iterative, we can continually refine our content to reflect this complexity. We were able to do that with the motivation factor. Hans Herman: You mentioned that our reports helped you out, which like I said, we’re very happy and excited to hear that. Could you just say what specifically you were drawing from them and how they were helpful with you developing your work in this model and perhaps others? Medha Tare: Yeah, absolutely. The reports just really helped frame out in particular the cognitive and social-emotional background pieces of the work. We were focusing on developing the literacy factors that were the skills that were coming online. But your reports focus on identity, they focus on culture, they focus on physical development. All of those different pieces gave us a starting point for looking at the empirical research. I read them, I was looking at the references you guys had, and then went from there to build out each individual factor that we have in our model. And, of course, you have a wonderful advisory board as well. There’s some overlap in your advisory and our advisory. I think there was a lot of great synergy there. Hans Herman: What are the core themes the model tells us about the development of literacy skills in adolescence? Medha Tare: One of the major themes is that students are now using those foundational reading and writing skills that they developed in elementary and middle school to build knowledge and then write and read authentic text and write for authentic audiences and purposes that are meaningful to them, that motivate them. We know from your previous reports this is key for engaging adolescents. They’re also learning the conventions of literature, science, history, and other disciplines and how to use those conventions so they can work at a higher level. The key developments in things like meta-cognition — those cognitive skills — that is what is allowing students to think about their reading comprehension. To say “Oh, I didn’t understand that passage; I’m going to go back and re-read” or to use planning strategies when they’re writing. Hans Herman: And we like to emphasize this a lot here in adolescence — you were talking about it — it’s this unique period of development where you’re still seeing changes in the brain. You talked about the meta-cognitive skills that are developing. Literacy skills are affected by this ongoing neuro-development that’s taking place, correct? Medha Tare: Absolutely. We see working memory skills, reasoning skills, meta-cognition is a huge one. That’s really allowing students to get to the next level in their ability to think critically, and create arguments, and persuade others, and understand and empathize with others as well. Hans Herman: How important — and can you give some examples of this — how important is cultural and historical responsiveness in adolescent literacy? Medha Tare: It’s huge. Identity, of course, is a major component of adolescent development. As students are understanding facets of their own identity in relation to the outside world, the diversity of the literature they’re assigned and discussions that are happening around these texts can play a major role in them understanding more about themselves and the academic content. We hosted a webinar recently that you can still watch a recording of with one of our advisors, Gholdy Muhammad at Georgia State University. She presented on how to bring students’ identity, personal histories, and socio-political, and historical events into the classroom. For example, she writes about black literary societies of the 1800s and how students should know about their academic legacies. In her new book she also presents sample lesson plans and sets of texts to guide teachers in creating these kinds of lessons. We also had a wonderful national board-certified high school English teacher, Sarah Ballard on the webinar. She shared her experience teaching primary black students in Mississippi. One movement she embraces is teaching living poets. Students can study works by contemporary writers who come from backgrounds similar to them. I thought both of their presentations were amazing. They both talked about how building relationships with students and making space for conversations about race, identity, and other topics was critical. Hans Herman: Do we do a good job currently — in your opinion — applying some of these themes already in our classrooms in our literacy development for adolescents? Are we considering their neurodevelopment? Are we considering their identity, and culture, and historical ramifications of the communities they come from? Or, are we not really considering these things? Medha Tare: I think we could do a lot better. I think a lot of teachers have good intentions in that area, but have not necessarily been trained on how to manage those kinds of conversations in the classroom. That’s why building some knowledge for teachers and presenting them with examples can go a long way. Hans Herman: One of the comments you made to me when we were preparing for this conversation was that the model moves beyond the traditional, old school, English literacy class and that it uses background knowledge to think critically about bias and power. Could you elaborate more on what this model does? Medha Tare: Yeah and I think this relates to the question you just asked about what we could do better and how can we help provide those strategies to educators as well. What we’ve found is that adolescents really need to be engaging with a variety of texts to be able to compare them and then question the sources, consider issues of power and bias and disparities in society. This is the idea of critical literacy where students are building inquiry skills, they’re building reflection skills, that allow them to look at text through a socio-cultural lens. Some of the strategies that we feature on our website include layering different texts and even multimedia content such as videos to trigger this kind of reflection. Another strategy that I love is having students produce counter-texts. They are explicitly prompted to consider non-dominant or marginalized viewpoints that might have been missing from original documents that they read. Students can give voice to these perspectives, challenge stereotypes or flawed historical accounts. I think these are the kinds of history and English classes that I think a lot of us wish we had. They’re skills that can be taken beyond the classroom. Hans Herman: I’m hearing all this wonderful, theoretical, and research-based content that you’ve all put together and you’re referencing. Can you share some explicit examples of places where you’ve seen this model work and successfully applied? Medha Tare: Yeah, that’s a great question. Our work is not just to curate and share the research. We have active partnerships with ed-tech products and school districts to build their awareness and understanding of learner variability and how they can design for it. One of the districts we work with, they provided an example for us of a story where a young girl was probably in first or second grade. She was having a lot of trouble with reading seemingly. They brought the teacher, the parents, and the school counselor in. They looked at our website together. They showed how the teachers thought it was a decoding issue — this was early reading so that’s a major focus. They said, “We tried a lot of different strategies but none of them seem to work.” Then they showed how decoding and reading skills are related to emotion. The parents mentioned that she has a lot of anxiety reading in front of other people. That might be where it was coming from where she couldn’t read in class, it was really an emotion issue. That was one example where using the site and laying out the whole-child framework actually triggered a conversation where people realized that there was more than just the basic skills that are playing into what’s happening in the classroom. You asked about other ways that we’re applying the work. We’re in the process of building out PD toolkits for teachers. We want teachers to be able to have a practical way of actually using the content that we have on our website. One example is a Lesson Reflection Guide that our Practitioner Partnerships Director has just created. Really just taking your typical lesson plan and then using our site to gauge “Am I considering all of these different factors that are affecting how students learn? Are there ways for students to collaborate and be social in my lesson? Are there ways that I’m touching on culturally relevant content? Are there ways that I’m supporting students who have had adverse experiences?” You don’t have to do everything in every lesson; that’s not possible. But, just to keep that in mind as you’re going through and building out your curriculum. We haven’t yet done a lot of work with the adolescent literacy model because it just launched about a month ago. But with one of our previous literacy and reading models, we worked with a non-profit literacy platform called ReadWorks where we supported their efforts to infuse research-based features on their platform. A recent efficacy study that we conducted showed that 92 percent of students use the features that were added to support different needs. I’ll give one example. Teachers told us that they had students with lower reading comprehension skills in their classroom including students with autism. They used an audio feature where they could listen along to an article on ReadWorks. That meant that students didn’t miss out on building critical background knowledge skills and they could also participate in classroom discussions because they had access to the content. That’s one example where we showed how audio features could be a research-based way to access content for a more broader audience of students. Hans Herman: That’s really exciting. And I’m sure — like you said — if people visit your site and look at the other models, they’ll find examples of where this has been successfully applied. As time goes on for this model, there will be more of those examples. How can teachers use this model and apply the findings in their own coursework? Do they have to start from scratch with just this model, or can they incorporate in with what they’re already doing? Medha Tare: Yeah. Teachers will recognize many of the strategies that we highlight. But they can learn more about the research behind them and how they support different learner factors. Teachers can use the information here, weave it into programs in practices that they’re already implementing. As we mentioned earlier, we address whole-child topics, culturally-responsive teaching, other initiatives that schools are engaging in, and LVN can also be aligned with state standards. Hans Herman: What do school leaders, superintendents, and principals learn from this work that you’re doing? What really is their role in applying the science of adolescent learning to literacy development? Medha Tare: We want people to know that the research matters. We emphasize that we need to teach the whole child. That means weaving social-emotional learning into academics. We also want people to know that it’s doable, that they can incorporate this work into their district initiatives. We know from our work with districts that teachers must be supported primarily through professional development that’s based on what the current science shows is key for whole-child learning. Actually, our latest national survey shows that 90 percent of public school teachers say they lack the support to focus on students’ individual learner variability. We know that this professional development and support from administrators is a critical piece of the puzzle. As part of our project, we’re also building out some of those PD tools. Hans Herman: What do you see is the next steps for implementing large-scale policies and practices that align with the findings of this model and support implementation in schools and classrooms? Medha Tare: We would love to see federal and state policies recognize learner variability and its evidence-based, whole-child framework. Also to see how our free tool can help teachers, colleges, and professional development programs support teachers and build that base through their own education programs so that they can then meet the needs of each learner and help students reach their potential in schools and beyond. Hans Herman: For those interested in connecting more with the Learner Variability Project, what are the resources and opportunities they can find to connect? Medha Tare: That’s a great question. We have a lot going on and a lot of different resources. The Learner Variability Navigator website that I mentioned is LVP.digitalpromiseglobal.org. That’s where you can go to see the factors and strategies that I was mentioning. We have reports also on the research we conduct and also thought papers on what we consider learner variability to be. On EdWeb we have a community on personalized learning for learner variability where we have the archives of the webinar I referenced as well as many others on particularly culturally-responsive teaching and math and literacy topics as well. We are always looking for people to partner with; school districts and practitioners who are interested in implementing these practices and also products. We actually have RPs for products to work with us to do those assessments and help them infuse their work with more research. Hans Herman: This is some really exciting work that you all have put together and I’m really happy that we were able to have you here today. Thank you for your time. Our guest is Medha Tare. She is a senior research scientist for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise where she leads the synthesis of research on the cognitive, social-emotional, and student-background factors that affect K-12 learning with the goal of increasing educators’ and product developers’ understanding of learner variability. Thank you again so much being here. Medha Tare: Thank you for having me. It was really a pleasure. Robyn Harper: Thank you for listening to Critical Window, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast on how the research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the work of school leaders. Tell your colleagues, friends and families about Critical Window and please subscribe on iTunes to Stitcher to make sure you catch future episodes. This podcast was produced by Aharone Charnoff, Hans Hermann, and Robin Harper. To learn more about the science of adolescent learning visit all4ed.org/SAL. [End of Audio] </p></p>
43 minutes | Dec 16, 2019
Death and Disability Rates Jump Dramatically During the Teen Years—Here’s Why
Too often people think stereotypically about the period of adolescence as a time of vulnerability, risks, and problems. You may even be guilty of this. How often have you participated in or overheard conversations between parents that sound something like “my daughter is headed to middle school next year” and the response is “yikes, good luck!”? But the reality is that adolescence is the healthiest period of the lifespan, explains Professor Ronald Dahl, MD, a pediatrician and developmental scientist, on the latest episode of our Critical Window podcast. “Almost everything you can measure—if you go from elementary school across adolescence into early adulthood—gets better,” says Dahl. “Strength, speed, reaction time, reasoning abilities, cognitive skills, immune function, resistance to cold, heat, hunger, dehydration, and most types of injuries.” This sounds like good news, but we also know that “the overall death and disability rates jump 200 to 300 percent between elementary school and early adulthood.” Dahl explains that those jumps don’t come from “mysterious medical illnesses.” Instead, such increases result from teens still learning how to control behavior and regulate emotion. Therefore, we see “increasing rates of accident, suicide, homicide, depression, alcohol and substance use, violence, reckless behaviors, eating disorders, sexually transmitted diseases, health problems related to risky behaviors broadly, [and] worsening obesity.” Dahl calls this the “health paradox of adolescence.” In this episode of Critical Window, Dahl breaks down stereotypes and popular assumptions about adolescent health and focuses on the opportunities to support positive development and shape the future of young people. Here are some takeaways: Adolescent brains do what they are supposed to do. “Adolescent brains are very well adapted to the tasks and challenges of adolescence,” says Dahl. “They’re focusing and prioritizing learning about their complex social world and their place in it as an individual.” Dahl gives an example of how understanding this shift in priorities can shape learning environments. “If it’s a way to increase [their] social world, adolescents will master the learning very rapidly. If they’re being told that they need to learn something because it’s going to help them sometime in the future, then their brains may not look like they work very well. But it’s not because something’s wrong with their brain.” Adolescents are passionate. “We’re doing a disservice to the brain if we think that it’s all about rational thought,” says Dahl. The adolescent brain is figuring out what matters and what doesn’t matter and is establishing heartfelt goals and priorities that can lead to positive impact, especially when given proper support. “Feelings can be smart, wise feelings,” says Dahl. “We can have passions for good causes and purposes that guide our value systems, and shaping these systems are as important as shaping the ability for the thinking brain to suppress emotions.” Adolescents aren’t “just being impulsive.” Increasingly, adolescents seek sensation, something that Dahl describes as “having an appetite for, an inclination for excitement, arousal, novelty, bursts of unusual experiences and feelings.” This isn’t “just being impulsive.” This is what drives kids to learn and explore. “A huge number of kids are bored more than 50 percent of the time when they’re peeking in their sensation-seeking,” explains Dahl. “Sitting in a desk being told what is important often doesn’t tap into biological shifts.” To learn more from Dahl, listen to full episode of Critical Window below. Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple Music, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. <br /> Expand Transcript Collapse Transcript [Music] Hans Hermann: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and communities. Hans Hermann: In this installment of Critical Window, we present a conversation with Professor Ronald Dahl, MD. Dr. Dahl is a pediatrician and developmental scientist. He is committed to interdisciplinary team research with the long-term goal of improving the lives of children and adolescents. His research covers topics such as basic studies of neurobiological and psychological development. It also includes clinical studies in pediatrics and child psychiatry. Dr. Dahl’s research considers the social, family, and cultural contexts that shape neuro-behavioral development. While conducting this impressive body of research, Dr. Dahl serves as a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition, he is the director of the Institute of Human Development and director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent, both also at UC Berkeley. A few months ago, we sat down with Dr. Dahl to discuss his research on the topic of adolescent neurodevelopment and what the current research might mean for schools, teaching, and learning. Our interest in adolescent brain development is driven by our focus on closing long-standing achievement gaps for traditionally underserved high school students. Hans Hermann: Dr. Dahl, thanks very much for being with us today and for your work in the field of adolescent brain research. I’ll start off by asking if you can share with our viewers information about your latest research and what it tells us about adolescents and their neurodevelopment. Ronald Dahl: Thank you. A key part of what we are understanding about adolescence is that it’s a perfect storm of interacting levels of change. That is, it’s not simply changes in brain development. It’s a time of rapid physical growth. The second fastest growth of the lifespan. Only infants grow more quickly. It’s a time that there’s activation of new drives and motivations. It’s a time that there are sex-specific changes in faces and voices and body characteristics. It’s the face that kids are seeing when the mirror’s changing as they go through puberty. The faces of their friends are changing. It’s a time when they have changes in sleep and their _____ regulation, metabolic changes and a wide array of cognitive and emotional changes. And most importantly profound changes in social motivation, social context and social roles. The reason I’m emphasizing these issues of dynamic changes across levels is that each level we look at, whether it’s the deep biology and molecular changes, behavioral changes, the neurodevelopmental changes that I’m gonna talk about a lot, changes in peers, family, school, culture, technology and media, that those changes are inherently causing changes at other levels. As the brain changes, the interest in peers and in the selection of peers is influenced by those brain changes as individuals interact with different peers than the media and technology they use changes. But then the experiences of technology and media are then changing the brain. If I put double arrows across every level you wouldn’t be able to read the words. But if we don’t understand these interactions then we can’t understand the spirals. And then of course another important to mention that often doesn’t get discussed about puberty and adolescence, and I love this quote, is figuring out to relate to the world and yourself as a suddenly and mystifyingly sexual being. And these dynamics that stir up and churn strong emotions and strong feelings and these interactions are important to understand because they set the stage for these spirals. As things start to go badly they unravel and affect other levels of the systems. Now we have focused in the traditional research in this area on what I call the dark side of this, that these rapid interactions, these multiple levels of bidirectional interactions that are actively sculpting these developing neural systems create vulnerabilities. Because these interactions are happening quickly and interacting across these levels, this sets the stage for what a lot of people stereotype adolescence as this time of vulnerability and problems. And it’s what I would call the dark side of this spiral. And it’s clearly true. It’s part of what we call the health paradox of adolescence. And it’s a paradox because on one hand adolescence is the healthiest period of the lifespan. Almost everything you can measure, if you go from elementary school across adolescence into early adult gets better. Strength, speed, reaction time, reasoning abilities, cognitive skills, immune function, resistance to cold, heat, hunger, dehydration and most types of injuries. And yet overall death and disability rates jump 200 to 300 percent between elementary school and early adulthood. And of course these aren’t mysterious medical illnesses. These are problems with the control of behavior and emotion. It’s increasing rates of accident, suicide, homicide, depression, alcohol and substance use, violence, reckless behaviors, eating disorders, sexually transmitted diseases, health problems related to risky behaviors broadly, worsening obesity. And in addition to the measurable levels of death and disability this is a time when patterns of behavior are instantiated that have long-term consequences across the lifespan. The most striking example is smoking. If you look at people who are gonna develop emphysema and heart disease and lung cancer in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, almost every one of them will have begun smoking at adolescence between ages 10 to 20. So if we’re gonna focus on the trajectory to these health problems we need to understand that adolescence is the key inflection point for many, many, many outcomes. But what is equally important and less understood because it’s been more difficult to study, for everything we’ve said about these dynamic interactions across systems that create negative spirals creates opportunities for positive spirals. This is a time of rapid changes that create opportunities for learning, for exploration, for acquiring skills, habits, for shaping intrinsic motivations, heartfelt goals and passions. These are unique opportunities for social, emotional and motivational learning that shape deep feelings that are having enduring effects, as well as habits and patterns of behavior. We need to understand that the opportunity to scaffold and support and nudge positive developmental spirals is equally important and equally impactful and from an educational perspective, perhaps the most important challenge in using the science. The first place I want to start with this work, particularly the work over the past several years not only in my lab in our center but in a number of labs around the world is to push back against what I think is a non-helpful myth that adolescence behaved the way they do and that these negative vulnerabilities emerge because their brains aren’t working well, that they’re broken, that they’re missing part of their prefrontal cortex. These metaphors don’t fit the science and they don’t serve understanding adolescence. Adolescence prefrontal cortex work very well when they’re motivated to do something, when they’re engaged, when they have passions. They can recruit their prefrontal cortex quite well. Adolescent brains are very well adapted to the tasks and challenges of adolescence. They direct their attention and salience and what they will react to to their social world, to learn about the complex social world and their place in it as an individual. They are tuned to that and reacting to that in ways that can override their cognitive abilities. But that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with their brains. They’re doing what the adolescent brain should do. They’re focusing and prioritizing learning about their complex social world. And if you want a simple example about adolescent brains, let me pose this question. If there was a new technology that emerged or an ability to do something as tedious as text messaging and you wanted to compare who was gonna master this more quickly, an adolescent brain or an adult brain, I can tell you where most of you would place our bets. If it’s a way to increase your social world adolescence will master the learning very rapidly. If they’re being told that they need to learn something because it’s gonna help them sometime in the future then their brains may not look like they work very well. But it’s not because something’s wrong with their brain. And I think this is an important point to highlight that these shifts in priorities for attention and learning as we’ll talk about later, we shouldn’t think about as an adequacy or somehow we should wait until their brains are more mature. This is a key time for positive learning and that these patterns of experience are really calibrating the social and emotional valuing systems in the brain that generate feelings about what matters and what doesn’t matter. These heartfelt goals and priorities are being shaped by these experiences in ways that can have positive impact. We’re doing a disservice to the brain if we think that it’s all about rational thought. Feelings can be smart, wise feelings. We can have passions for good causes and purposes that guide our value systems and shaping these systems are as important as shaping the ability for the thinking brain to suppress emotions. That’s a far too simplistic understanding of what it means to become mature or wise. Now a colleague and I did a meta-analysis back in 2011 and we published in 2012 of all the functional brain imaging studies at that time in adolescence. And we showed evidence that a simple model of an immature prefrontal cortex did not fit the data very well at all. As a part of that paper that we published we highlighted that there was really strong evidence for changes in the emotional and social processing systems in the brain when puberty began that created increased sensitivity of certain kinds of rewards and strong feelings and self-conscious emotions. And those systems interact with the thinking-planning brain in ways that can derail them. I’m sorry, and this is important to understand, I don’t have to go over all the details of the model, but when puberty begins it affects subsets of systems and circuits in the brain that are involved in processing social and emotional input and sensitizes that. That recruits parts of the thinking-planning brain in flexible ways. That can lead the way to negative spirals across the mid to late adolescence if those priorities begin to be aimed at risky behaviors and dangerous behaviors and drugs and alcohol. But in the same way if those priorities become aimed at positive passions for long-term goals, for adapting and mastering challenges and feeling admired for those very positive things in one’s life, those spirals can become very positive and for most adolescents they are. Most adolescents get through this period quite well, getting along with their teachers and their parents and have good friends and do wonderful thing and are idealistic and can contribute to the world. We need to understand that these positive spirals are at least as important if not more important than the negative spirals. Hans Hermann: I’m hearing that your research shows that adolescence is far more complex than had been previously thought. Given, as you say, that adolescence is not a period of impaired functioning, but rather a normal developmental stage for teenagers, what age do you define as its beginning and at what age does it end? Ronald Dahl: First of all, adolescence is not being a teenager. It actually starts before being 13 or 14 because puberty happens early and has been happening earlier. So it’s from the beginning of this rapid physical changes of puberty. And when does adolescence end? Well, that’s a difficult thing to define biologically. It is when you take on adult roles and responsibilities. That’s a long period of time that is often from ages 9, 10 or 11 when puberty is starting, and in the mid-20’s lots of people are still living with their parents and having a hard time feeling like they’re adults. So it’s helpful to consider three general windows. I’m gonna talk a lot about the transition into adolescence, the onset of puberty as the most dynamic period that creates probably new plasticity and specialized learning in the brain. That early inflection point is often ignored because we think of adolescence as teenagers that are 15 to 19 with problems. But if we want to do positive scaffolding of the most important inflection point, we may want to focus earlier in this 10 to 14 period as they’re just ramping into puberty. Now that’s not to diminish the importance of mid to late adolescence. This period from 15 to 19 is when the spiraling is gonna continue. If you’re on a negative trajectory it can really plummet into even worse patterns and positive trajectories can really build. So we want to think about the 15 to 19-year-olds as an important window of development as well. And then finally, there’s increasing evidence that this transition into adulthood is one of the most vulnerable times. Finding that first job, the key relationships, the patterns of stable life feeling like there are economic opportunities to succeed as an adult. So that’s an important transition as well. But the science is different in terms of what hints we get about opportunities and vulnerabilities in these windows. So it’s good to think not just of adolescence as everyone from 8 to 28, but rather windows of development and the developmental processes biologically and developmental processes socially that create these opportunities and these challenges. Hans Hermann: So, adolescence starts earlier than we think and it isn’t a negative or broken aspect of social and brain development. Instead, it’s a normal period where the brain is developing and individuals are, through these spirals you talk about, developing the skills, cognitive abilities, and experiences that will take them into eventual adulthood. What activities, then, does the onset of puberty guide young people towards? Ronald Dahl: Puberty causes an increase in the attraction of novelty, exploration and trying to figure out about the world and who you are in the world. That’s true across a lot of species. If animals didn’t have this tendency to explore, why would they leave their safe burrows and nests and go out into the world as an individual? This has been studied across a lot of species, this tendency that puberty and sexual maturation to have a tendency to explore and seek autonomy. There’s also an increase in sensation-seeking. Sensation-seeking isn’t just being impulsive. Sensation-seeking is having an appetite for, an inclination for excitement, arousal, novelty, bursts of unusual experiences and feelings. Now that’s not true for every child and there are plenty of kids who are sensation-seeking when they’re three and four and five and as adults. But the tendency to become more sensation-seeking goes up at puberty. Even anxious, shy kids tend to get a bit bolder. And kids that are already pretty bold tend to get a lot bolder. And if you look at the data about boredom in school, it maps on really well. David Yeager had a wonderful analysis of a big population data on boredom in school and in seventh and eighth grade is when boredom in school peaks. A huge number of kids are bored more than 50 percent of the time when they’re peeking in their sensation-seeking. They want to learn and explore. Sitting in a desk being told what is important often doesn’t tap into these biological shifts. The second thing that we know deeply is that as these pubertal hormones go up the motivational salience of being admired and respected increases. Of course kids like to be admired. Of course adults like to be admired. Status-seeking is a human characteristic. And as kids go through puberty, boys and girls, as these hormones go up the relative importance of being admired and respected and figuring out how to get more social status is intensified and we have to understand this as a spurt in the system that creates vulnerabilities and opportunities. The science is fascinating. We’re really trying to take apart the complexity and understand some of the components of the hormones and the brain systems, but the principles about education and learning I think are beginning to be clear even with lack of details and some of the mechanisms. And that is this is a period of plasticity from learning. The brain is trying to promote certain kinds of social learning that have been quite adaptive for most of human history. This isn’t a bad period. This is a good period that with positive learning can have a very, very positive impact. Hans Hermann: This speaks to many new developments in education. In many instances we are seeing a proliferation of maker spaces and non-traditional class set ups where children can be self-directed and get deeply into collaboration and problem solving. I think this addresses the boredom issue you just raised, but can you also talk about physical development and what we know about an adolescent’s drive for admiration or approval? Ronald Dahl: What you see, starting at about 11 in the girls and starting about 12 in the boys is a big spurt in height. Now this isn’t being a certain age. It’s not some mystery of what’s happening that suddenly growth accelerates. We know exactly what happens. This is puberty. And if you go through puberty at 11 versus 13 the growth spurt’s gonna happen at a different time. This is not a subtle change. If you’re in the house of an individual going through this you suddenly find you can’t keep them in shoes, clothes or food in the refrigerator. This is a profound change in a very simple physical process. The point here is that of course something like malnutrition or a disease could affect growth at any point across this entire interval. But think about if that happened in the first year of life or if it happened just as you’re starting puberty. Its total impact is gonna be much larger. This is an analogy for other processes that are harder to measure. When we say kids always are harder to measure. When we say kids always are sensitive to admiration, they’re always sensitive to whether they’re feeling respected and admired, that could be true, or that kids seek status or they have sensation-seeking. But in the same way that height increases we think there’s certain kinds of feelings, tendencies and learning that also accelerate in an analogous way. We also know that the hormones that cause this growth spurt happen at puberty. It’s testosterone and growth hormone and other hormones suddenly surge. That’s what makes the body go up. Those same hormones affect the brain. They affect dopamine systems in the brain that are involved in reward processing and learning. They affect social and affective sensitivities to being respected and admired and they incline motivation to pay more attention to peers and other admired adults that they have a natural inclination to pay attention to and learn about. This shift, it’s called this reorientation of social and emotional information processing streams. It shifts attention and motivation more naturally to pay attention to social roles, peers, potential romantic partners, social hierarchies, certainly interest in sexual and romantic behavior and this intense focus on one’s self. Who am I? Where do I fit in? Where do I not fit in? These tendencies are very healthy processes and they create opportunities and vulnerabilities. One of the drivers – this isn’t the most important part of the story, but it is a very important part, is for example the hormone testosterone in both boys and in girls. These levels of hormones are high in the first year of life. They go down to very low levels and at the beginning of puberty they go up. And as they go up they, and they go up earlier in girls even though they don’t go up as high in girls, and they affect the same neural systems – most of the same neural systems that they do in boys. And they sensitize individuals to what kinds of behaviors are being admired. And they’re gonna do more of those behaviors. This is important to understand not because the biology’s driving the behavior, because the biology sensitizes learning about social context. Hans Hermann: That’s really interesting. It’s not just about admiration or respect socially. There’s a neurological and hormonal component that is driving the behavior. Is this interaction well understood? What are its effects on adolescent behavior? Ronald Dahl: But if you look at the circuits that are involved in emotion and motivation and a feeling base of motivation, what you feel motivated to do, those systems involve another part of the striatum and those seem to have a more quadratic shift with age. That is as puberty kicks in they shoot up and then come back down. And the interactions between these circuits, how our feelings interact with our cognition and our behavior is being shaped by one system being shifted at puberty. What does that mean? I think what it means is that as puberty kicks in it creates what I’ve often referred to as igniting passions in the developing brain. It creates profound changes and romantic interests and motivation and the intensity of emotion. It increases sensation-seeking and it sensitizes the brain to pay attention to goal-directed behaviors related to status. And it’s also an opportunity to shape motivational learning. And when I say motivational learning here it’s not about making yourself do something because the goal comes later. It’s not about reading literature because you want to get an A in your AP English class and get into a good college. It’s about falling in love with literature so that you hide under the covers and read all night. It’s about these feeling-based aspects of wanting, liking and desiring particular kinds of goals. It’s about heart-felt goals, values and priorities. It’s like when kids fall in love with a sport and you’d have to keep them from practicing, shooting the basketball or kicking the soccer ball. It’s about falling in love with poetry that kids will spend all of the time available writing and reading poetry or playing a particular instrument or being engaged in making the world a better place or falling in love with a particular religion. This capacity for intense motivational alignment with certain kinds of activities is shaped strongly by this period of time. To summarize the practical aspects of this work, I think we’re increasingly understanding that early adolescence, this period of 10 to 14, the onset of puberty is a period for adjusting motivations and early identity. Adjusting motivations can also be disengagement. Depression rates increase at the same time kids have these igniting passions. But it’s a time also to adjust motivations to a particular kinds of goals and activities. This is a time of intense romantic and sexual feelings and confusion for a lot of young people. Finding a path to acceptance, belonging, respect and autonomy is naturally facilitated by these changes. Kids’ sensitivity to what do I do to feel admired and valued, how do I contribute in ways that makes me feel valued, expanded, enlarged in some way that’s not just about myself. It’s about being part of and connected to something larger than myself. Kids are seeking meaning and purpose. They’re seeking ways to feel enlarged that can be very healthy and yet this urgency to get these hard feelings is also a risky time to get these feelings in cheap ways that can give you short-term versions of these feelings and that’s part of the risk for the negative spirals. These changes are also interacting with other adolescent domains – the risk-taking, the novelty-seeking and increased fear and emotional reactivity. But together they’re shaping high intensity motivational learning. I’m gonna finish by giving one of my favorite examples that I think really captures key elements of this and that is that adolescence, particularly after the onset of puberty, is a time that the brain is capable of transformational changes in motivation. And the most striking example of that is literally falling in love. Pre-pubertal kids develop crushes but they don’t exchange a hundred words and two kisses and be willing to die for each other and destroy their families and feel like the Universe had always intended for them to be together. Now that’s not an absurd comedy of Shakespeare. It’s the most successful tragedy in Western Literature. And there’s a reason Shakespeare made Juliet 13. There’s this understanding across cultures that this capacity to hijack every motivation with just a few intense experiences is facilitated in this window of time. But this capacity for sudden transformational changes and motivation is not simply literally falling in love. This is also a metaphor. It’s a time kids can fall in love with literature, dance, music, a particular religion or philosophy, the idealistic ambition to make the world a better place with math, science, social justice. It is a vulnerable time when these motives can be hijacked for negative things and it’s also a vulnerable time for withdrawal and disconnection from any passion. It’s a time when kids become more apathetic, bored and depressed. But that doesn’t mean the model’s wrong. It is quite consistent with this idea of rapid adjustments that can spiral down as well as spiral up. And the developmental science motivation is at a really early stage. Hans Hermann: Hmm. Is there any emerging research to help educators better address these turbulent opportunities in the lives of their adolescent students? Even though it’s at an early stage we want to help practitioners point their students towards positive spirals and good engagement while avoiding depression and apathy. Our research indicates that the more positively involved and engaged a student is, the more likely she or he will be to graduate high school and go on to be college and career ready. Ronald Dahl: So one of the things we’re trying to emphasize is adding a bit more precision into the understanding developmental processes. But it’s not just being an age or a grade level that – and to emphasize the positive aspects of the science rather than the negative. It’s interesting if you look at parents and other adults’ response to infants and toddlers, infants and toddlers are a huge amount of work and stressful, but there’s this sense of wonder and joy of watching infants and toddlers explore. The emotion when you’re dealing with kids going into adolescence tends to be different. Why? Why isn’t it as wonderful to watch the awkward exploration and emotional raw struggles? This tendency to problematize youth because they become more threatening. Because their power looks more threatening to us than toddlers. And I think that if we can help to refocus, this is a window of opportunity as a time of learning and that a lot of these struggles to push against adult efforts to control and steer what they’re doing is a healthy part of what they’re doing. And I think the second part of that is that the more precisely we can understand particularly important early windows – when I was initially doing a lot of this work and we would talk about trying to understand the deeper science relevant to things like depression or substance use and we would talk about 10 to 14, they’d say wait a minute. Why do you want to study them? These are problems that occur in 15 to 19-year-olds. And I would as a developmentalist say yes. What didn’t I make clear in our model? Yes, we need to treat people with lung cancer in their 60’s and 70’s. But ultimately we need to stop them from smoking. But I think in similar ways the early roots of these patterns of behavior are gonna be more modifiable, especially at the population level and at the education level. Of course kids are gonna get into severe problems and need different kinds of interventions later in adolescence. But I think focusing on investing. It’s just like we’ve globally invested in infants and young children around the world and had a huge impact in really inspiring ways. I think there’s opportunities to invest in that early adolescent period to help especially kids that are struggling and disadvantaged and don’t have a lot of ways to feel admired, have ways to feel respected and their autonomy can feel more threatening to people. Creating ways for them to explore and find their own path to be admired and supporting those in really valuable ways early I think is a part of this. Hans Hermann: You’re talking about the importance of engagement: of making students part of their learning process, of giving them agency so that they can have chances both to get this feeling of respect and accomplishment, and also to be engaged in their interests. We at All4Ed ascribe to deeper learning outcomes. We want every child to finish high school with core content knowledge, with the ability to think critically, with the ability to solve problems, and with the ability to be agents of their own learning going forward. That only occurs through a different pedagogy than has traditionally been implemented. Could you talk a little bit about the joining of physical development to neural development, as it pertains to student engagement? Ronald Dahl: That’s a great, totally on-point question. I think that’s exactly the area that I see as the greatest potential in the following ways. At some level discovery learning and personalized learning is going to enhance learning at any point in lifespan. But the principles you just talked about, engaging young people in ways that make them feel like they have control and autonomy, and it resonates with what feels important and salient to them is intensified at this period of puberty. Those principles, which may be true in general, become ever more important. And so highlighting and prioritizing those issues to an even greater extent – we’ve learned this in a number of areas of even public health or behavior change with kids. Giving them good information about healthy eating or exercise or anti-bullying, if those messages at the process of giving that message somehow makes them feel diminished, makes them feel like they’re being talked down to, or that adults are trying to tell them they don’t know what’s best for themselves, they need to listen to adult advice, that feeling of being diminished or disrespected will completely offset good information from well-meaning people. It resonates with what you’re talking about in terms of pedagogy and learning. Helping kids discover what’s true for themselves and scaffolding that for good reasons, but giving them more autonomy, their natural attraction to want to be interested in each other and social relationships. Working in groups. Creative approaches to having social interaction and the energizing of social interactions, working together in teams on projects. Again, lots of people have been talking about this long before we knew the neuroscience. But the degree to which that becomes even more important right in this window of time. Rather than going against the grain and making kids sit at their desk, and whether it’s with technology or a book and solve problems, that helps one set of skills. But if it’s going against the grain of their natural motivations, they’re incredibly bored and feel like I don’t belong here. This doesn’t feel salient in my life. The degree to which we go against the grain of those natural motivations versus aren’t there ways to master the same cognitive skills and ways that are going with the grain of having kids work in groups. Having them do some mixture of competition and cooperation, of teams of peoples trying to solve problems. And relating the problems increasingly to things that feel salient, what really matters in their lives and helping them feel connected in their own identities to those issues that they care about. So again, these principles resonate with what teachers have known, and yet this added emphasis that right in that window, and I think there are some really nice studies that show that even light touch interventions, that seventh grade period when so many kids are falling off the trajectory, that make them feel valued and challenged in positive ways can totally change their trajectory. So I think the principles that you’re emphasizing broadly are strongly resonant with the science and the science would suggest that the importance is even greater in that window Hans Hermann: That’s good to know. Now, of course, biology doesn’t know that technology is also affecting adolescent development. Today’s students are so plugged in. They use their devices for everything. Most schools now allow devices in class because they see that the benefits of access to information far outweigh the detriments brought on by technology. Yet the danger is there. Social media can be a great source of interaction for adolescents but there can be very negative ramifications. Firstly, adolescent students simply spend too much time on their phones and tablets. But they also can engage in very dangerous behaviors on line. What does your research have to say about this? Ronald Dahl: If kids have one set of experiences in school and their sense of self or agency or feeling admired outside of school, and their experiences through technology are very, very powerful and different, the rapid intense changes in how children and adolescents interact with the world through technology. We all know it, we all see it in our daily lives, and yet it’s happening so fast that it’s almost blurring I think our perspective. We were talking about tablets have only existed since 2010. They’re so part of our life – the smartphones. We so quickly just think of these things as normal. And the virtual reality, the augmented reality, the capacity for compelling experiences. And then of course, as many people have pointed out, how many of the kids who have trouble having the self-discipline to do even an hour of homework a week will spend 40 hours a week earning status in their video games. These dimensions of learning and social experience and how rapidly they’re changing and how savvy some of these approaches are at capturing motivation for kids are really, really important things to be considered in relation to this. Because I think rather than – there’s a tendency to either be dystopian or utopian. There are people that think that this technology revolution is going to save the world and do unbelievable things for education in kids, and there are people who think it’s gonna ruin the world and ruin kids’ experiences. And of course there’s a lot of reasons to believe it’s somewhere in the middle that there are going to be good and bad ways technology can impact human lives and how do we engage these changes as policy-makers caring about kids’ education and experience? And how do we promote versions of technology? We’re not gonna stop it. I think it’s become clear, not just to the U.S. but around the world, the rate of change of technologies is happening and the kids are the early adopters. And they are two or three steps ahead of their parents in most of the areas of new technology really fast. And so it’s happening. And finding positive ways to incorporate the technology revolution I think is a huge component of this. Hans Hermann: So I want to continue to pursue this technology question before we wrap up. We didn’t really talk about the social media component of technology. Kids are always online in their social network of choice. How can we think about adolescent use of technology in socially positive ways? Ronald Dahl: When the use of technology enhances social interaction when it’s the basis for parents and children interacting with each other or children interacting with each other in ways that are scaffolded and promote other kinds of learning, technology can be a very positive. And when technology is a distraction from the social world and way to isolate, and mainly be entertained in easy entertainment ways, which is a lot of educational apps are much more in that category, I think that principle emerges over and over again. And so whether you’re talking about virtual reality, there are versions of virtual reality or augmented reality that can bring people together. I mean I don’t want to say anything good or bad about Pokémon Go, but I know people who met their neighbors for the first time because they were out capturing – I mean I think the capacity. Not that that’s the answer, but I think there is a capacity for these technologies to promote social interactions and to have parents in the same way that a parent reading a book or watching a TV show with their child, talking about the issues that come up, is very different than kids doing those things alone. I think this is even more amplified with technology. And so I think that the evidence that this creates opportunities for kids working together with the technology on a project and do some augmented reality version where they have real objects and the technology, so that it’s not about immersing in the technology that isolates you from other people but rather it’s a tool that promotes social interaction that helps you learn. Hans Hermann: So it really is about engagement. Ronald Dahl: Let me give you one example where in terms of the adolescents I think the data – most of the data that people is worried it’s destroying kids’ abilities to interact have not been supported or there’s not a lot of concern. But there is one place where there’s already enough data that we can flag as a concern and that is sleep deprivation and light schedules. The data, the meta-analysis was recently done and putting together data from a few different sources, it’s not simply that the technology’s keeping them up. It’s one of those spirals. It’s at the time the brain expects it to be dark, you’ve got light getting into the brain telling it that it’s light. You’ve got all this emotional arousal, you’ve got excitement, you’ve got mastery challenges, you’ve got kids sleeping with their phone to get the text message about the important social information in the middle of the night. But then the later and later schedule, the catch-up sleep on the wrong phase of the cycle, sleeping in really late on the weekends, this becomes a spiral. And then the kids are irritable and sleep deprived and they use more stimulus. It’s a set of spirals and technology has amplified that spiral. And having kids use technology at night is clearly a concern. It doesn’t mean technology’s bad, but it may mean that having an electronic curfew or having a period of time that technology is turned off could be a very, very important part of the puzzle. Hans Hermann: Wow. So, it’s about adult engagement and getting adolescents to adopt good habits as well. There really is a lot to unpack here. This conversation has been fascinating, and I want to thank Dr. Ron Dahl for joining us. Dr. Dahl is a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, the Director of the Institute of Human Development, and the Director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent, also at UC Berkeley. He is a well-renowned developmental scientist committed to interdisciplinary team research with a long-term goal of improving the lives of children and adolescence. Dr. Dahl, thank you so much. Robyn Harper: Thank you for listening to Critical Window, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast on how the research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the work of school leaders. Tell your colleagues, friends and families about Critical Window and please subscribe on iTunes to Stitcher to make sure you catch future episodes. This podcast was produced by Aharone Charnoff, Hans Hermann, and Robin Harper. To learn more about the science of adolescent learning visit all4ed.org/SAL.
32 minutes | Oct 8, 2019
Lessons in Equity from Gifted Programs
Gifted programs are structured to cultivate and maximize the strengths of an individual. Through enriching instruction and engaging curriculum, students in gifted education are put on a path to achieve their full potential. But shouldn’t these ideals be applied to all students? In New York City, a panel appointed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio thinks so. It has proposed eliminating the city’s gifted and talented programs, which largely enroll White and Asian American students, in favor of an approach that reduces inequality and segregation that is often perpetuated by gifted programs. “Simply put, there are better ways to educate advanced learners than most of the current ‘Screened’ and Gifted and Talented programs, which segregate students by race and socioeconomic status,” the panel wrote in a report to de Blasio. “Today they have become proxies for separating students who can and should have opportunities to learn together.” In a new episode of our Critical Window podcast, Dr. Yvette Jackson, adjunct professor at Teacher’s College at Columbia University and a senior scholar at the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, shares her knowledge about gifted and talented programs, what they tell us about how we structure our education system, and what we can learn from these programs. We learn quickly that Dr. Jackson, who previously was the director of Gifted Programs for the New York City Board of Education, doesn’t like the term “gifted” or other terms frequently used to label students. We asked her about this term and others that have been used to categorize students in the United States and what these words convey about students. Dr. Jackson: One [term], like you said, is gifted. The other term would be low-achieving, the other term would be subgroup, the other term would be minority, disabled, we can go on and on…I think those are enough, though, because immediately you get an image of you’re either talking about those who have intellectual capacity when you label them as gifted, or those who, when you say low achieving, the expectation is there is nothing about them that could be termed in a high achievement world because they’re low achieving. Dr. Jackson then compared terms used for muscle development to child achievement to emphasize how terms change the way we go about addressing underachieving students. Dr. Jackson: If you say that you have weak muscles, that’s very different than saying you have underdeveloped muscles. Underdeveloped means if you just worked out with the right program, right strategies, and that’s what I’m saying also for these terms. That children are not low achievers, they could be underachieving. They could be in situations where there are cognitive misfirings because of what they’re in but they’re not low achieving because that then puts the onus on the child. The issue is the onus is on us as the pedagogues to bring forward what the child innately has to offer. But before you think Dr. Jackson is talking badly about the effectiveness of gifted programs, she’s not. In fact, she’s saying that there are a lot of things that we can learn from gifted programs that we should apply to the education of all students, such as: 1. Believe that all students have the potential to achieve at high levels. This is a key foundation of gifted programs, explains Dr. Jackson. Students are brought into gifted programs because they are believed to have the potential to get to the next level. While in these programs, they often have access to a more expansive curriculum reflective of what is going on in the world, says Dr. Jackson. But these opportunities should be available to all students to develop their strengths and help them grow academically. 2. Pair teachers from gifted programs with those not in gifted programs. Schools can create professional development opportunities that involve teachers from gifted programs learning from teachers who are not in the gifted program. What types of strategies are the gifted teachers using to elicit high performance and higher-level thinking from their students? 3. Adopt opportunities and experiences offered in gifted programs. At the district level, explore the experiences and opportunities that are being offered to students in gifted programs, advises Dr. Jackson. How can we expand these chances to engage in field trips to ensure more kids are excited for school? What local resources, including businesses, museums, and after-school opportunities are available to give more students exposure and connect their learning to the real world? Listen to more from Dr. Jackson in the episode below. And if you’d like to hear even more from Dr. Jackson, check out another podcast episode with her on the pedagogy of confidence, or teaching with the transformative belief that all students have the potential to achieve at high levels. Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple Music, Stitcher or wherever you find podcasts. <br /> Expand Transcript Collapse Transcript [Music] Interviewer: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers and communities. On our last episode of Critical Window we sat down with Dr. Yvette Jackson to learn about her work on the pedagogy of confidence, which is teaching with the transformative belief that all students have the potential to achieve at high levels. Today, we are back with Dr. Jackson to learn about gifted and talented programs, what they tell us about how we structure our education system and what we can learn from these programs. Dr. Yvette Jackson is an international renowned individual, recognized for her work in assessing the learning potential of disenfranchised urban students. He applies her experience in neuroscience, gifted education literacy and the cognitive mediation theory to develop integrative processes that engage and elicit high intellectual performances from underachieving students. She is the author of many books including a book we spoke about previously, The Pedagogy of Confidence. Welcome back to the show, Dr. Jackson. Yvette Jackson: Thank you. Interviewer: You talk about, in your work, the importance of terms and how terms have been used to control and categorize students. Before we get into the term gifted, what are some terms that have been used to categorize students in the US education system? Yvette Jackson: One, like you said, is gifted. The other term would be low achieving, the other term would be subgroup, the other term would be minority, disabled, we can go on and on, culturally different. I think those are enough, though, because immediately you get an image of you’re either talking about those who have intellectual capacity when you label them as gifted, or those who, when you say low achieving, the expectation is there is nothing about them that could be termed in a high achievement world because they’re low achieving. In other words, it’s more like when you think about muscles. If you say that you have weak muscles, that’s very different than saying you have underdeveloped muscles. Underdeveloped means if you just worked out with the right program, right strategies, and that’s what I’m saying also for these terms. That children are not low achievers, they could be underachieving. They could be in situations where there are cognitive misfirings because of what they’re in but they’re not low achieving because that then puts the onus on the child. The issue is the onus is on us as the pedagogues to bring forward what the child innately has to offer. Interviewer: So the term we’re focusing on today is gifted and you use this term gifted land, which is one of my favorite terms of yours. Could you describe to folks, and you did this in our last conversation, describe what gifted land is. Yvette Jackson: Gifted land is where students are identified because they have high scores academically. Now, I’m gonna put that parenthetically because when the government started creating gifted programs – and I shouldn’t say – they didn’t create the programs, they were giving funding sources that then could be used for gifted programs. They really weren’t just talking about academic. They said you could be academically gifted, intellectually gifted, you could be creatively gifted, you could be gifted in the performing arts. They even had a line originally for gifted in physical ability, like sports. And what started happening when districts started applying for money for their Little League baseball team because there was giftedness associated with this physical sports ability, that’s when the government said, uh-oh, wait a second, we’ve got to bring that definition out. They even had gifted in leadership as one of the terms. But then they were saying how do we really show that? That’s more a developmental kind of a situation. But I said that to say that based on these categories of gifted it really got narrowed down to academically or intellectually gifted, and I even put that in air quotes. You couldn’t see me but that’s what I was doing. Because if you’re saying intellectually gifted, are you saying you’re just basing that on a Stanford Binet IQ test? If that’s what you’re saying there’s so much more that goes into intellectual development or that can be seen about intellectual development that a Stanford Binet test just doesn’t even catch. So, in the, I guess, evolution of gifted programs in the country, originally they were thought to be important because this was back in the 1950s when we were competing with Russia around Sputnik and the space program, and there was a time where it looked like Russia was going to beat us and that’s when people were saying – the feds were saying, wait a second, let’s start identifying those minds that look like, based on test scores, that they had the possibility of making contributions to our program in some way or that we’d be getting them ready to make contributions. That was when they came out with this whole funding stream that was called gifted funding. Then they started saying, well, so what, now you have the money, what are some examples of the kinds of strategies or practices that we believe cultivate, build on the strengths of an individual. Things like enrichment, things like – we even call them now project-based learning, but investigating real-life problems. Putting students very early on in internships. Getting them out there in terms of being in laboratory situations. In other words, how do you enrich the experience so much that they start manifesting even more of their strength. That became the goal of gifted education. And yet when you look at that – and they were saying, well, the gifted child is going to be the child who is going to make the contribution to society and everybody else is going to be a consumer. They said wait a second, but if you are saying only 3 percent of population are gifted those are the only ones – and by the way, I have to add, there was no science that was done connecting 3 to 5 percent as these are the numbers we come up with that really stand for how much we can expect gifted. No, that was – they came up with those numbers for funding, that you could only ask for 3 to 5 percent of the budget to be allocated for that kind of focus, so. Interviewer: That was gonna be one of my questions that I was gonna ask, is how do we even decide who is in these programs, who is gifted? And it sounds like in some sense, it’s arbitrary. Yvette Jackson: It is, and the interesting thing about it is, first of all, people originally looked at two different kinds of testing, as I said, a Stanford Binet IQ test, which, when they were originally developed that was not – Binet did not develop that for gifted programs. It was really to look at the kind of thinking but also where needs could be. But then what wound up happening is because the emphasis was on trying to look at the high end of this, they said, okay, Stanford Binet is something we have in our fingertips. This was in the 1940s and that became the testing of choice. The issue becomes if you are on the other hand saying that you’re going to have gifted programs that focus on creativity, performing arts, leadership, a Stanford Binet is never going to give you data about that. That’s why it becomes arbitrary. And many people will say their gifted program does just that, it looks at all different kinds of facets of giftedness, and yet, in actuality, it’s really about academic gifted, or the term meaning who is at the top end of a Standardized Achievement Test, becomes arbitrary when there is a misalignment between the testing they’re using and what you’re saying the goal is for the program. Then the other thing that became an issue was people realized, wait a second, the kind of testing questions that are on something like the Stanford Binet are very cultural. They are normed against a particular cultural group. Now, if that’s the case you are leaving out a lot of a population. So that’s when people started saying, well, wait, you need to have more than a test as the way we’re going to identify. So that became arbitrary. Do we say now we’re going to look at the top 10 percent? Do we say, well, we have to make sure that we have a second language learners in there? We have to make sure whatever it is to reflect the population. Now, that’s obviously a really important consideration. Who is your population? But when you go around the country and still see in a particular – in districts that there are certain children who are in the gifted program and those who are not in the gifted program and you can look at it ethnically, easily. So it does become arbitrary. Interviewer: You were a teacher of gifted – in gifted programs, correct? Yvette Jackson: Not really. Interviewer: No. Yvette Jackson: I was a teacher – well, let me say it this way. The answer is technically yes, because the principal of the school I was in, for one year, wanted to start what she was calling a gifted program. What I was, though, was I had students, as I mentioned earlier, that I labeled as all of them being gifted, so these are gifted classes. This is my words to them in how I believed in it. But then I did study gifted education and became the director of Gifted Programs for New York City Board of Education. So it was really more about how I took initially that one year of gifted land and said, wait, philosophically, how do we change it? Which was a surprise to many in New York City ’cause they had some very traditional gifted programs that eliminated or didn’t reflect the demographics of New York City and I was saying, wait a second, we can come in and talk about gifted education for all and then start identifying based on the way students respond to access. Interviewer: So what is the difference for those who may not be familiar with how teachers are instructing and assessing students when they’re in a gifted program versus a traditional classroom environment? Yvette Jackson: Right. Well, here you have, if you start identifying students and you say, well, they’re in a top 5 percent, right, they are 95th percentile or whatever. Teachers immediately believe what goes with that then are the kind of engaging activities that are going to get them to be more creative as a result of it. That are going to get them to feel like they’re challenged. That are going to get them to feel that their particular strengths are really being addressed. So the strategies teachers use are reflective of a belief in high levels of potential. So the kinds of things students then get exposed to beside the enrichment is even more expansive curriculum that’s more reflective of what’s going on in the world now. How that can be connected to different kinds of career opportunities. How we can look at these students as having more agency within a school. That’s what’s happening when you’re labeled as gifted. And what we are saying is, in fact, those things should be for everybody. Will you then see once students have exposure – and that’s why my work was very much affiliated with Joe Renzulli’s school-wide enrichment, because his whole premise was when you enrich a child’s experience, give them high levels of exposure, you are going to find more and more strengths develop, which means you should constantly be assessing to see how students are responding to new levels of exposure. That does not happen, it happens in gifted land but it doesn’t happen anywhere else. It’s really the choices that are made to keep these students highly engaged. Interviewer: I can imagine some people listening might say that only – the students that are being selected have the academic foundation to be able to – the reading, the writing, the communication, the mathematic skills to successfully engage in the rigorous coursework you’re talking about. And they might say that a student first needs to be remediated before they can partake in such a program. Is there a level of truth to that statement in your opinion? Yvette Jackson: The answer is no, and I say that because we’re talking about high levels of thinking. Reading and writing are tools. Yes, they’re important tools but the levels of thinking, being able to synthesize, evaluate, think creatively, think in terms of analogies, think in terms of syllogisms, all children can do that. Babies do analogies. This is like this, just like that’s like that. They’re constantly doing –. Even if they don’t have the language yet or the reading background. There is a real difference of, you know, thinking at high levels, plus you can think at high levels and show your high level thinking pictorially, you could – symbolically, you can show it graphically. And that’s why when I talked about Reuven Feuerstein, his assessment process looked at using other than just verbal kinds of assessment. Because you can think, like I said, at these high levels without having all of the language that reading really requires. Now, are there levels of higher levels of thinking and reading that are important? Sure, I just went through some of them that are really important, but the point is don’t think that children are not thinking at high levels just because they’re not reading at high levels. So given that, how do we assess how they’re thinking using these different modalities, and then how do we, at the same time, introduce the kind of content in reading that’s going to engage them so much that they will take to the reading and read more and more? Because what makes a reader a good reader is what kind of exposure, their background knowledge that connects them in terms of making meaning. But the other is the desire to read. The more you read, and I don’t care what you’re reading about, if you’re reading about baseball, if you’re reading about dance, the more you read, you’re building the skills that are reading skills. So don’t compare them as the same thing. There is an overlap but don’t think because the child’s not reading at high level they are not thinking also at really high levels. Interviewer: And let me just add to that comment. We were talking earlier about Dr. James Paul Gee, and he has some excellent work around, in video games in literacy, and he talks about how video games engage students in a way to read at a higher level than they would necessarily in a classroom environment. So there’s other research in different areas that speaks to what you were talking about. Yvette Jackson: Absolutely. And the other thing, going back to James Gee’s work is, when you say, well, what is it that students really need to engage their learning? One is they want to be awakened. They want to be woke, you know. They want to be so turned on that they then get engaged. After they get engaged, they want challenge. They want real challenge but they want to feel that the challenge they’re being presented with, they already have some of the background tools. They want feedback and they want time to reflect. That is the recipe that video games are built on, exactly that. And there are students who wiz through those because that is the recipe that they get put through. So my question back to teachers, when they say, well, we don’t have – you know, some of our students just aren’t motivated. I say, what do you do to engage them? See, because we are all born with the desire to be engaged, that’s how you come out of the womb. That’s why when you are in a crib somebody puts all those different toys around you and on top of you. That’s why when a baby is 2 years old and gets out of the crib you better plug up everything. Because the baby wants to be engaged and so do adolescents, they all do. The issue is when you hold that engagement back and you are just doing things that are disconnected or saying you’ve got to do this ’cause it’s being on the test, that’s not engaging. Interviewer: So then back to school and learning environments, what does the research show when you engage previously underachieving students in gifted program coursework without having any type of prior remediation? What starts to happen? Yvette Jackson: Well, let’s, again, distinguish between a gifted program and gifted education, ’cause a gifted program can mean that there are certain expectations that these students have had access to before they got into that program. So just taking students into a gifted program that requires that student had had some kind of immersion, certain kinds of background experiences, and you put them in those programs but then don’t give them the support, the immersion to catch up with that, then it looks like, see, they couldn’t do it. But if you’re talking about gifted education that says we are going to give them exposure, we’re going to give them high levels of thinking, we are going to give them many opportunities to apply their thinking to real-life experiences, which is Joe Renzulli’s Enrichment Triad model, then what you’re saying is you will see students develop into that. Jean Piaget was a cognitive psychologist and he always used to say two things, one is high level thinking requires high level activities. When you are remediating, which again is a misnomer because that means that students were exposed to begin with and then didn’t get it, many of the students were not exposed to it so when you are mediating the experiences through that kind of exposure, high levels of work, the opportunity, you see a warp drive in the kind of growth that they have, even when the students are coming from an underperforming level. Because what happens? They walk into an experience where they’re being totally engaged, that they’re given the kinds of supports needed. And let me just say this, as having been the director of Gifted Programs, there are many students who are put into schools that have traditionally been considered really high level. I’m talking specifically now, even about private schools or some of the specialized schools in New York or other places, but especially private schools. Where it is assumed that the student got into that school because they’re high functioning, and yet it’s in those same schools where they have enormous kinds of support programs. They have after-school programs for kids to build their skills Those are some of the same schools that go to some of these private after-school organizations to build –. These are kids who often also get extended time in taking a test because their parents have been able to say, oh, if they got more time and they go to a psychologist that says yeah, they have a little learning issue. Well, that’s interesting that they’re in this school that has been broadcasted as this is for exceptionally high learning functioning students. Interviewer: So we talk about it in the other conversation you joined us with around The Pedagogy of Confidence. What is it that gifted programs then are doing – we talked about how they’re structured. What is it that they’re doing around The Pedagogy of Confidence, around these ideas that you talk about in that book, around neuroscience to really engage students and make them learn in a better way than we traditionally do in normal classroom environments? Yvette Jackson: I’m glad you asked that because the first thing I want to say is, for those in gifted land, who are in gifted programs, don’t think that I am talking badly about a gifted program because I’m not. I’m saying there are so many things we can learn about the pedagogy that always elicits high levels of thinking. That’s what we can learn from those gifted programs. So what I’m saying is these are the kinds of programs that are pushing forward this idea of strength building, but believing when the students walk in that they have particular strengths, that’s one of the best parts about a gifted program, is that people believe in the potential of the students. So when you go around and you see some of these programs you say I can believe not only in what they’re doing but how do I transport what they’re doing in these programs to make it more accessible for others. And there is a place for students who are thinking on the same levels exactly to have time to be able to commune that way. But what we’re also saying that the bigger picture is, how do you make sure that you’re giving the same kinds of offerings, not the same exact offering but types, exposure, like I was talking about before, all the things that come under enrichment, opportunities, those kinds of things to all students. And as they are going through that, as we learned in gifted land, students go into gifted programs and get dumber. They keep getting intensely active and engaged and that’s what we want for all students. Interviewer: And as we talked about, there is not just the results but also the neuroscientific background that says this works. Yvette Jackson: Right, exactly. It says it’s worked which is why they do work, and you can go and see some of the most stimulating things happen in these programs. And all I am saying is how do you offer that same kind of pedagogy to everybody and then start identifying student responses to that pedagogy so that then you can build on the strengths that they are then manifesting. Interviewer: All of this work really reminds me of a quote that I saw the other day, and I’m paraphrasing from Michelle Obama, and she was talking about speaking to a counselor at her high school about wanting to apply to Princeton and how this counselor said she essentially wasn’t Princeton material. And she has a quote in her new memoire Becoming, where she says failure is a feeling before failure is an outcome. And again, I’m paraphrasing. But this idea that – and she resisted what this counselor said and still applied to Princeton and got in. That quote really stood out to me as we were discussing today everything about gifted programs and our lens around certain students. Yvette Jackson: Three things come to my mind right now. What it makes me think of is, first of all, all parents, whomever they are, whatever socioeconomic level they’re from, send their children to school, to kindergarten, telling them you’re gonna go to school to learn. They believe that. They believe they’re going to learn. And then for so many students, because of the kind of testing that goes on, certain expectations, by first grade they don’t believe they’re going to learn anymore. They’ve had this feeling of failure. It hasn’t been that pronounced yet, like Michelle was saying in her book, but they have a feeling. There is a malaise that goes into them that then they feel I can’t – I am not a good learner. Then the outcome comes where it’s self-fulfilling. They’re not learning as well. They think it’s them but it really becomes what they get exposed to. The other is that idea that she talks about in terms of fear. There is a quote that we talk about that fear could be the acronym that stands for false evidence appearing real. Now, there are all ways to look at that. You could look at somebody’s test scores and at a particular time they don’t seem to be doing as well. Does that mean that they are not good learners? You can look at it like people have these misconceptions about students of color, especially when you’re talking about the achievement gap, and the false evidence is, ah, we have these students of color, they must be “gap kids.” That is false evidence that all of the sudden you get this remedial attitude about these students and it’s not real. It isn’t based on something real. So what is real? What is real is when you are assessing students in the middle of learning experiences when they have been exposed. When they have been given the kinds of cognitive tools, strategies, to help them think at different levels. And then you see how they grow using those cognitive tools. That’s real. The other pieces, the data points that don’t have a child behind them or people don’t see the child behind them have no idea what’s going on and are very restricted is false evidence. Interviewer: What do gifted programs tell us about how we’ve built our education system and how we view different types of students, particularly historically underserved students? Yvette Jackson: Great question. Gifted programs, and let me say it this way. The experience or I should say access to gifted programs is what we have learned that it’s exclusionary. That what we’re believing is that a very small part of the population is equipped to move into higher levels of work. That’s one of the things that gifted programs are showing us, we have to be exclusionary, that’s just to prove the point that there is exceptionality here. That is false. But the other thing that gifted programs are showing us, that when you get the kinds of things that engage students, they learn more profoundly, the develop new strengths that didn’t even have anything to do with the academic test scores. That these are students who are then saying I am going to be expected to go the next level. I’m expected to go to college. I’m just – this is the expectation. We’re learning that from gifted education, gifted programs. And so now, again, how do we take that and say it shouldn’t be exclusionary. If you’re really talking about differentiation then we believe that you expose kids, give them support and you should see different strengths coming up and then you group kids by those strengths based on when they come in. But that’s what we have learned. We have learned that right now in this country it’s still considered exclusionary and second, that when you do have the kinds of program or I should say the content and the exposure that’s in it, you get very deep application and the students are engaged in learning more profoundly. Interviewer: So then let’s finish up talking about how do we expand these programs to other students to expand and bring them to gifted land? Everybody comes to gifted land now. Yvette Jackson: One way we expand it is by doing professional development where you have teachers who are not considered to be teachers in the gifted program, learning from teachers who are in the gifted program. What are those strategies? What’s the kind of pedagogy you use? What are the kinds of experience that we can, like I said, transport from there? So one is in teacher professional development. The other is to really look from the district level and say the kinds of experiences that we’re going to offer, we’re going to make available for everybody in different ways. Again, what does that mean? If we’re saying high levels of exposure, the exposure doesn’t have to be identical but it has to be where schema, where frames of references are expanding and students are getting excited about being in school. So you have the professional development, you have the opportunities that go across the district. You also engage the community more, and what do I mean by that? In the community there are all kinds of business resources, science resources. I don’t care what the community is, there are resources, museums, after-school opportunities, all kinds of things that can be brought into or connected to the schools so that students get more exposure. Another thing, though, that I would say, especially on the secondary level, a way to expand the kind of thinking where we’re trying to elicit high levels of performance in application within, let’s say, the disciplines is in having teachers who are secondary teachers go through their own internships. Meaning so many teachers who are teachers of a discipline, mathematics, have never really worked in that discipline. They got a degree in the discipline and then they became a teacher but a math teacher maybe never worked with an architect or didn’t do something for a tax firm or something like that. And so what I’m saying is, within the community there are those opportunities to have these teachers, who then would understand or be exposed much more to the kinds of activities, project-based learning that’s real-life because they’re used within a career that they could then bring back that kind of – the things that they’ve learned through that internship for everybody. I am really into that and you know, there was a man who, for a short while, was super intent and in Seattle and he had been a general in the Army, and he came in saying what we’re going to do as part of PD is have all of our secondary teachers go through different kind of internships. Unfortunately, he died pretty quickly, but my point is that kind of thinking, having teachers more exposed to the applications of high level thinking within the domain, then you have teachers working and thinking like experts within the field and you bring that back and you – it permeates throughout a program. Interviewer: Well, I want to thank you again for joining us for a second conversation on this topic. It’s a pleasure having you here with us. Again, our guest is Dr. Yvette Jackson. She is currently an adjunct professor at Teachers College at Columbia University and a senior scholar at National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. She is the author of many books including Pedagogy of Confidence and her upcoming book, Mindfulness Practices. Yvette Jackson: Thank you. Interviewer: Thank you. Robyn Harper: Thank you for listening to Critical Window, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast on how the research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the work of school leaders. Tell your colleagues, friends and families about Critical Window and please subscribe on iTunes to Stitcher to make sure you catch future episodes. This podcast was produced by Aharone Charnoff, Hans Hermann, and Robin Harper. To learn more about the science of adolescent learning visit all4ed.org/SAL.
37 minutes | Jul 9, 2019
How Sports and Coaching Influence Social Emotional Learning in Young People
Sports provide a place for young people to grow, learn, and enhance their physical skills, but, with the help of good coaches, they will learn more than how to throw a pitch or perfect a layup. On this episode of Critical Window (audio link below) a podcast by the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), Jennifer Brown Lerner, deputy director for Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, explores how sports and coaching influence the social, emotional, and academic development of students, and what educators and coaches can learn from one another. Building Student Agency on the Field “While sports might be a unique arena, it’s part of a broad array of places in which young people learn, grow, and develop,” explains Brown Lerner. “There’s unbelievable opportunity to think about sports as a place in which young people can take ownership of their own learning.” Into early adolescence, students have “a unique opportunity for voice and choice on the sports field that they don’t have in the classroom,” says Brown Lerner. This space, outside of the traditional learning environment, “is really allowing them to come into their own.” Sports as the “Ultimate Performance Assessment” “You could view sports as the ultimate performance assessment,” says Brown Lerner. “Every game, every practice is really an opportunity for young people to put on display a core set of physical skills and social-emotional skills that they’re learning.” Not only are players demonstrating their skills, they are also receiving real-time responses of their performance. “There’s instantaneous feedback right there, a win or a loss.” Coaches as Role Models Coaches play a significant role in modeling the skills they hope to see exemplified by their players. “Sports are a critical space in which [kids] get to both see modeled, and practice, this core set of competencies across the social, emotional, and cognitive domains,” explains Brown Lerner. “It’s a really important opportunity in which young people can get, and create, a continuous feedback loop with their coaches and with other athletes.” A large part of this learning opportunity is dependent on relationships between coaches and their players. “One thing that great coaches do is really focus in on that individual relationship with each player,” explains Brown Lerner. “They also create a space and environment and a culture that honors the relationship that other players have with each other.” What Can Teachers Learn from Coaches, and Vice Versa? “If we truly believe that learning happens in relationships, we need to give all educators in the classroom, and on the sports field, the time, the tools, and the opportunity to cultivate the fire and passion within each student, which only happens when you have the opportunity to build a relationship,” says Brown Lerner. “There’s a real opportunity to build a bridge between what educators do really well in terms of planning and articulating for young people, and how coaches create relationships and environments which are truly young people centered.” With this combined effort, “we can just see an explosion of growth of these core skills across all the places and spaces young people learn.” Listen to more from Brown Lerner in the episode below. Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple Music, Stitcher or wherever you find podcasts. To learn more about the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, visit: https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/sports-society/ <br /> Expand Transcript Collapse Transcript Hans Hermann: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and communities. This week on Critical Window we’re learning how sports and coaching influence the social, emotional, and academic development of students, and what educators and coaches can learn from one another. Our guest today is Jennifer Brown Lerner. She’s the deputy director for Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program where she’s responsible for strategy, management, and community work. Previously she was the assistant director for policy and partnership for the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development where she managed the policy subcommittee and the Partners Collaborative. Prior to Aspen Jennifer served as the deputy director of the American Youth Policy Forum. She also worked as a classroom teacher, a coach, and a communications officer. Jennifer received her bachelor’s from the University of Pennsylvania and her master’s from Teachers College, Columbia University. Welcome to the show, Jennifer. J. Brown Lerner: Thanks, Hans. Glad to be here. Hans Hermann: So let’s start by talking about your work at Aspen’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. Throughout this conversation, for those listening, we’ll be referring to the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development as SEAD, or the Commission for short. So for those not familiar, could you provide an overview of Aspen’s history and programs as well as the work, the research base, and the participants in the SEAD Commission? J. Brown Lerner: So the Commission was a policy initiative of the Aspen Institute, which is a well-recognized convening organization driven by values-based leadership. The Commission was comprised of 25 prominent voices across education, business, philanthropy, military, and the government, and it had six advisory bodies which were critical to developing its final recommendations, and those six advisory bodies included research scientists, educators, young people, parents, our partners, and our funders. And so to understand the Commission’s work I think it’s really important to start where the Commission started, and the first thing that they did was spend a lot of time with each of their advisory bodies, and the one that became the foundation for where the recommendations stand and how they move forward were the research scientists. So to understand the research scientists advising the Commission, you need to understand that they tapped voices not just from traditional education research but from neuroscience, from psychology, from biology, from sociology, from history, a real range of academicians and researchers who grounded the Commission in a couple of foundational learnings which were essential for how the Commission shaped and framed its final recommendation and its communication to the broader field. The first and the point that I think stands in front of all of the other things that we heard was we need to get away from this confusing terminology that exists in the space around social-emotional learning or social-emotional and academic development, and really understand a couple of pretty simple things about learning. First, learning is social and emotional and cognitive, and what that means is that there are three categories of foundational skills which are essential to learning, whether it be academic learning, whether it be on-the-job learning, whether it be learning at home. These are the elements that are just foundational to learning, and I’m just going to take a minute to go through those ’cause I think they’re critical to this conversation. So the first is around cognitive skills and competencies, and these are the underlying ability to pay attention, to stay focused, to plan, to organize, to goal set, and to solve problems. The second is social interpersonal skills. This is about your relationships with people. This is about how you read social cues, navigate social situations, how you negotiate conflict, and how you work on a team. And the final category around emotional skills and competencies is not only how you regulate and manage your own emotions, but how you cope with frustration, how you deal with stress, and how you demonstrate respect and empathy for others and have the ability to take their perspective as well. So if these are our foundational skills, there’s a couple of other things that are also really critical to understand. One, these skills develop over time and can be taught and learned. This idea of that they are caught and taught is really important. We need to think about that. Learning happens in relationships, and this is a really critical point, that all of these skills happen based upon a young person’s relationship with their environment, with their educators, or with their peers. And then finally we have some research to demonstrate that social, emotional, and cognitive development, or an emphasis on social, emotional, cognitive development, can offset some of the impacts of trauma. Hans Hermann: So then what did the SEAD Commission tell us about the impact of social-emotional learning on the development of youth and their academic performance? J. Brown Lerner: Yeah, so I think the Commission put forth a really important theory of change that focuses on how learning settings impact a student’s experience and then move us towards a broader set of desired student outcomes. When we think about learning settings we, one, we have to think about all of the places and spaces that young people grow and develop, and I’m looking forward to talking about all those places with you later on. We need to think about in those places in which young people learn and relationship, do they feel safe, supported, and feel like they belong? Are they being explicitly taught the core skills which we know are foundational to learning, in addition to the critical academic content that we want them to master? And do they have opportunities to practice those skills or demonstrate mastery of those skills, both their social-emotional-cognitive and academic skills. When we create learning settings that are, address these three elements, we see a different type of student experience, one in which young people are able to take more leadership roles, where they’re able to take more ownership in their learning, and obviously also see more engagement in their own learning. And finally because they are more engaged, more willing, more ready to learn, we’re seeing improvement in outcomes across four domains. We’re seeing improvement in academic outcomes both in K-12 as well as in higher education in terms of increased number of students prepared to be successful in higher education. We are seeing easier ability for young people to transition into careers because they have more of those core workforce ready or employer desired skills. And then finally, and most critical at this point in time, we are seeing young people that are more willing, more engaged, and more desire to participate in both community life and civic life, and that makes me hopeful for our country moving forward. Hans Hermann: Thank you. So you mentioned earlier that the Commission had a youth advisory group. J. Brown Lerner: Yep. Hans Hermann: What did that youth advisory group convey about their social-emotional development? J. Brown Lerner: We were really lucky in that we had a group of about 20 young people that served as advisors to the commissioners, and they were very generous with their time and their personal stories. And what they did in the process of the Commission is articulate what they called a call to action, what they needed from their learning environments in order to be successful. And I’m just gonna read their four critical points ’cause I think they’re well said, and in the voices of the young people that were involved with the Commission. We need schools to be safe with a strong sense of community. We need to learn and be evaluated as whole students and whole people. We need our teachers and educators to know us and understand us. We need our families and communities to be embraced as partners in our learning. I think those four statements are really simple, but I think really reflect what young people want out of their learning experience and are really guideposts for how we can shape youth centered, youth driven learning experiences. Hans Hermann: Yeah, simple but powerful. Really – J. Brown Lerner: Absolutely. Hans Hermann: – gets to the point about what they want, and I think it’s a message for all the adults in the room to listen more to the young people and hear what they would like out of their learning experience. J. Brown Lerner: Yeah. Hans Hermann: So as you know, at All4Ed we focus on the developmental period of adolescence. Were there some findings that the SEAD Commission had regarding adolescent aged students that were different compared to other age groups? J. Brown Lerner: I’m not the expert on in any way, shape, or form, but am really thrilled that our set of advising research scientists began some of this really hard work, and so as part of the effort of the Commission they did articulate a developmental progression of the skills and the social, emotional, and cognitive categories, and they demonstrated what they look like or what are the most critical skills to be developed in different age bands. And so one thing that you can notice in the progression towards adolescence is the critical role that identity plays in the development of these skills, and so both a young person’s own sense of self and the identity that one believes others perceive you to have. I think the interplay of this idea of how you view yourself and how you think the world is viewing you is really critical to how young people think about their own set of skills at, particularly in this phase of adolescence. Hans Hermann: And that bears out in what we’ve put together, too, in our work, that identity, as you said, is this critical domain for adolescent – and not that identity development isn’t happening throughout the lifespan, but it is really happening in that period for a variety of reasons. I don’t know if you wanted to add something to that. J. Brown Lerner: No, I think that’s right. I mean obviously at all points of time you sort of do have a sense of self, but I think what we’re seeing is at this point in adolescence is that this acute awareness of sense of self that is both internal and external, how you view yourself and how you perceive to be viewed by the world, really shapes how you interact with the environment that you’re in, and that environment involves not only your peers but adults in a variety of different roles within your family, within your community, and how that impacts your overall ability for learning is really critical. And we mentioned trauma earlier, and where do those – where is the interplay of trauma and identity in this adolescent phase of life that we probably, that we know we haven’t fully explored yet, I think is a really interesting area for future research. Hans Hermann: Absolutely. Here we have a report coming out of the Alliance that talks a lot about this issue of identity development in adolescence, so if you’re interested you can go to our site and learn more about that when that comes out, and you also can go obviously to the Commission, their resources, to learn more about this issue. So the SEAD Commission has ended, so you’re no longer there and you’re now working with Aspen Sports & Society Program. Could you just explain what the Sports & Society Program does, what they focus on, and what about their work intrigued you and led you to join their team following the end of the SEAD Commission? J. Brown Lerner: The Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program is about a five-year-old program at the Aspen Institute. It launched with focus and emphasis on reimagining youth sports, particularly the experience of young people age 12 and under in this country. Our founding executive director really felt like we had lost the ability for true play in young people and that our sports culture had become obsessed with winning, and so the program launched with an effort to listen to communities across the country and find out what they felt like were the critical actions that can be taken to ensure that all young people have access to high-quality sports opportunities as a mechanism to build thriving communities. And so the program launched an initiative called Project Play, which is eight plays for eight sectors, which are eight really big ideas focused on eight very different sectors that have impact over youth sports. And our job as the Sports & Society Program is really to compel others to action, to think about what are these really big ideas and how do we build tools and resources and provide the information and tell the great stories of what’s going on so that we can truly increase opportunities for access to high-quality sports. Why did I want to do this? Well, first and foremost I’m a mom of two active boys who are embracing one of our really big ideas around sports sampling, and both of my kids are multi-sport athletes which is exhausting as a parent but super exciting to see. Each of my kids now in, as fourth and fifth graders, are on separate teams which of course makes for a lot more carpool, but really has given them this unbelievable opportunity for them to grow and develop, to interact with young people in our neighborhood as well as across the whole city, and I really see sports as a place that my own children have been given an opportunity to be successful, but also to fail effectively. And so when I think about social, emotional, and academic development, I really think about sports as this critical space in which they get to both see modeled and practice this core set of competencies across the social, emotional, and cognitive domains in a way in which they actually are in charge. Yeah, the coach is telling them what to do, but as they’re entering the upper elementary years and really sort of into early adolescence they have a unique opportunity for voice and choice on the sports field that they don’t have in the classroom that is really allowing them to come into their own. But I would be remiss if I didn’t take this time to plug the joint project that the Commission and the Sports & Society Program did. We together worked on a project that dove deep into the research around the role that coaches play in developing social-emotional skills, and we produced a great publication called Calls for Coaches which lists seven calls for coaches along with very specific practices that coaches can adopt to create the culture and environment for the development of social-emotional skills. Hans Hermann: Sounds like a great resource. J. Brown Lerner: It’s a fabulous resource and I encourage you all to download it from the Aspen Institute website. And the best part of the resource is, is the back page is a tear-off for coaches to put on their clipboard or keep in their practice bag of all of the practices, and so it’s a real how-to guide of small things that you can do at the beginning of each practice, at the beginning of each game, or at the end of the season, just at different points across the lifespan of a sports team to really be more intentional about the development of social-emotional skills. Hans Hermann: You were talking about this idea of sports being this other place for this development of social, emotional, cognitive skills. I find oftentimes when I’m talking to folks about students’ learning development that the conversation is really limited to what’s happening in the schoolhouse. So how does your work in the Sports & Society Program push us to reconsider how other spaces outside of the schoolhouse influence youth development? J. Brown Lerner: Yeah. So that’s a really great question, and so the first thing I would say is that I’m really lucky in that one of the cornerstones of the Commission was really expanding this idea of where and when learning happens. And so the Commission heard early on from all of its advisory groups that if we were narrow minded and thinking that learning only happens in classrooms in schools that we were missing this incredible opportunity for alignment around the critical skills that are essential to how learning happens. And so the Commission came out with a fabulous graphic which puts young people and their families at the center, because we have to think about families as the first learning experience and first educators for every young person, but also named all the places and spaces that learning happens, those formal spaces within schools and those informal spaces within schools, but then how those informal spaces within schools bleed into all of these extracurricular and supplemental and other places in which young people grow and develop. And so while sports might be a unique arena, it’s part of a broad array of places in which young people learn, grow, and develop, and it has its own language and culture that is unique, but I think in this sense of the foundational skills for how learning happens that we’re going to see over time more alignment between all of those places. And so I mean I think the other thing to think about is the dynamic between sports and education in classrooms as well. You could view sports as the ultimate performance assessment. Every game, every practice is really an opportunity for young people to put on display a core set of physical skills, physical as well as social-emotional skills that they’re learning, and there’s instantaneous feedback right there, a win or a loss. But I also think it’s a really important opportunity in which young people can get, create a continuous feedback loop with their coaches, with other athletes, to really think about how do we in the process begin to make adjustments to what we’re doing, which is what we’re hoping they’d also in the classroom. And so I think there’s unbelievable opportunity to think about sports as a place in which young people can take ownership of their own learning, but also what can we learn from the practices of coaches to inform what educators do, a topic I hope we’ll talk about in a little bit. Hans Hermann: Which we will. And so then why are sports an appropriate place to be talking about social-emotional learning and development? J. Brown Lerner: Yeah, so, Hans, this is my favorite question to throw back at you, and I shared what I think my own children are getting out of sports, but I’m going to make an assumption that perhaps at one point in time that you were part of a team. Hans Hermann: I did, yeah. And so you’re asking me why I think it’s important. J. Brown Lerner: Yeah, so I mean talk, think about back to your own sports experience and share a little bit about that and share what you got out of it, and then maybe we can – Hans Hermann: Yeah, I mean absolutely. I think a lot of people who have played sports probably can relate to this, but it’s, especially when you get older and you’re in your middle school, high school years, it’s a place where you find a lot of close friends. Then you also find adult mentors. So one in particular I think of, I had a soccer coach when I was in middle school named Jim Shrote who just was one of these, just these people I looked up to. Like the way he carried himself, the way he interacted with us. He treated us like adults and he created this environment where we respected one another and we worked hard for one another and we were willing to kind of put the time and effort in to be the best version of ourselves. So it was – and he just was an excellent role model and he continued to be somebody throughout my life and into college and beyond that I look to as like somebody who really was able to just be a leader of people, and also just to kind of be the type of person I would want to be when I’m working with other folks, whether they’re younger or older. So certainly that, and then there are other coaches I had throughout, whether it was in track and field, in cross country later on, but certainly I can – in everything that you’re talking about, yeah, I can relate to in different ways, and I’ve thought back to my own experiences. So definitely something that it seems appropriate to be talking about this topic there because it’s a space where you are learning how to just work with people and how to be successful in that regard. J. Brown Lerner: Yeah, and I mean I think this is why we’ve separated all these places and spaces that kids, young people learn, grow, and develop is silly. You gained so much from your own experience on the soccer field, and you mentioned other teams that you were part of. We really need to blend and sort of bleed into the ideas and the culture that was created in all of these places in which young people, as you just articulated, feel supported, encouraged, and can continue to experiment with their leadership and their sense of self. This dichotomy of sports versus school seems like the antithesis to this idea of social, emotional and academic development as the foundation for how we learn. Hans Hermann: So then let’s talk a little bit about what we’ve – throughout the conversation has been brought up about adult role models. We know adolescence is a period – talking again about this focus that we have at the Alliance in adolescence – it’s a period of changing social dynamics and there’s an increased prevalence of peer relationships. What is the importance then of having adult role models like coaches in an adolescent’s life? J. Brown Lerner: I think, Hans, you did an incredible job of articulating that before when you described one of your, the coaches that had the most impact on your life. I mean this was a person who modeled behavior that you too wanted to carry through in your life, not only as a young athlete but as a student, as a future employee. And so I think that there’s a different dynamic with the coach-athlete relationship than there is with a student-teacher relationship. John Urschel, who is a former NFL player who is now a PhD student in mathematics, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on May 11th, said math teachers should be more like football coaches. I mean really talked about how he had a dream of earning a scholarship to a Big Ten school to play football, even though he was a scrawny 220 pounds and played on the offensive line. He said that his football coaches were the ones that really encouraged and supported him. They spent the extra hours making videos with him or watching video with him or filling out applications. And he did, for those of you that don’t know his story, he did get a scholarship to Penn State. He majored in mathematics. He played for the Ravens for about three seasons, and subsequently has gone back and is a PhD candidate. But what he’s saying is that he never had a math teacher in high school that encouraged him to explore math or to see math as the, his pathway to greatness the way that his football coaches did. And so what does that say about the dynamic between educators and their students? That they are, they don’t feel compelled to encourage young people to follow their dreams. And I don’t say this in any way to be derogatory towards educators ’cause I think they are facing unbelievable demands and pressure to get students to perform, but if we truly believe that learning happens in relationships I think that we need to give all educators in the classroom, on the sports field, the time, the tools, and the opportunity to cultivate the fire and passion within each student, which only happens when you have the opportunity to build a relationship. Hans Hermann: Do historically underserved students, and for those listening when I’m talking about historically underserved students I’m talking about low-income students or students of color, do they have the same opportunities as their peers to be involved in sports and have access to good coaching? J. Brown Lerner: Yeah, so this is a great question and I think it’s tied up in a couple of issues that I hope we have a little bit of time to discuss but maybe are a whole other podcast. So first in terms of this access issue, we don’t have great data in terms of the sports facilities that are available nationally. We’ve got some really great and interesting data around participation rates, and one thing or one troubling trend that we are seeing right now is that for girls in rural and urban areas, which often can be considered under resources, we’re seeing a decline in participation. And this is not the same for suburban girls, which we can make some assumptions about the access that they have to facilities, but I think the decline in participation in sports is linked overall to we’re seeing a decrease in support for, overall for supplemental activities, whether it be decrease in investment in after school, in arts, in STEM opportunities. I think that’s a trend that we have. I also think that there’s two other points that I want to put out there that are related in terms of access in underserved communities that are worth exploring, and perhaps not today but just food for thought for listeners. First, sports are often seen as a ticket to higher education for young people, particularly young people from low-income families, that this is their only – low, I would say low and middle-income families – that this is their only opportunity to access higher education. And so I think that there’s, particularly in this moment, and we’re seeing massive admission scandals and concerns about impacts on student athletes, we need to have a serious conversation about whether or not sports is the only access to true financial aid in higher education. The second issue is around availability of sports. I think that there’s a set of sports which are often referred to as elite sports which are not available at every school, and what does this mean for young people from low resource communities? Does this make sense? Is this the right way to go? Or should we be thinking about equal access to all sports for all kids, and what should the parameters be around what are all sports? Is it every sport that’s in the Olympics? Is it the national sport of any country or any community? I think these are the things that we have to think about and struggle with when we think about increasing access to high-quality sports. Hans Hermann: And could you clarify for a moment, when you said elite sports earlier, what do you mean? Can you give a couple of examples? J. Brown Lerner: Yeah, so I think people often refer to swimming as an elite sport because the access to a pool or a pool that you can train in isn’t available to everyone. But then you could also think about sports which are unique to certain climates or certain areas, for example bobsled. You know, ironically there are a significant number of bobsledders from the state of Florida, but that is because they often recruit track and field athletes to join bobsled training teams. So I think particularly space intensive sports are often viewed as elite sports because it’s hard to get access to those spaces. You know, a single field that can have multi use for baseball, for soccer, for football, for track and field means that there are more sports available, but courts or pools or equipment-heavy sports like bobsled are examples of can often be viewed as elite sports. Hans Hermann: So you mentioned in a previous conversation that we had that effective teaching and coaching are grounded in the same science, and you started talking about that just now and throughout this conversation. You mentioned as we were talking that there’s a disconnect, though, in the language that coaches and educators use to talk about their work. Could you elaborate on what you mean by this disconnect and this idea of using the same science, and then how you and your team at Aspen are working to bridge this communication gap between coaches and educators? J. Brown Lerner: Yeah, so this is a great question, and it really goes back to the piece that the Commission jointly wrote with the Sports & Society Program, and when we put this framework out here which focused on the social, emotional and cognitive skills as foundational to learning, that made a ton of sense to me coming from the K-12 education space. We got a lot of blank stares when we shared it with coaches. Yeah, they really appreciated the practices, but this framework that we built around these foundational skills, they sort of, their eyes just glazed over. I mean I think they – you know, I think we often time feel siloed in K-12 education or education more generally around the terminology we use. You often see a disconnect between the language that educators use when they communicate with parents and that they aren’t a hundred percent sure what they’re talking about. No different here in sports and education. Interestingly, our framework made a ton of sense to school-based coaches, but for community-based coaches the idea of social, emotional and cognitive skills sort of was like well beyond anything that they had known. They said, “Oh, I went to this training and they said I have to develop character.” Or, “Oh, I have to develop purpose-driven athletes.” And in reality is, is we’re all talking about the same thing. We just cannot have any consensus around naming what these specific skills are, but at its core we’re really trying to give young people the skills, knowledge, and ability that they need to interact with others, regulate their own emotions, and pay attention and set goals. And so I think we’re, when we get into more specific skills we see more alignment between coaches and educators, but a lot of our wonky terminology that is unique to the K-12 space doesn’t resonate in other spaces. Hans Hermann: So you’ve talked about it throughout the conversation, but let’s wrap a bow on this idea of what teachers can learn from coaches, and then what coaches can learn from teachers about building strong social, emotional, and academic skills in their players and students. J. Brown Lerner: Yeah, so I think I’m gonna hark back on this point that I’ve said throughout the conversation. I think at the core of learning is the relationship, and one thing that great coaches do is really focus in on that individual relationship with each player, and they also create a space and environment and a culture that honors the relationship that others have with – other players have with each other. I don’t think that teachers have the ability, the time, the space to focus in on that in their classrooms because they have so many different demands, but I would argue that that is the most critical piece that they need to do. In the Commission we were lucky enough to visit tons of classrooms across the country, and one of the things that still strikes me is that we were sitting down with an educator from Boston, I think, who said to us, “My job is to teach students math. I have no way in which I can teach them math if I don’t spend the first two weeks building a relationship and building the culture that I want in my classroom. I never once open a textbook. I never ask them to do a worksheet. I spend two weeks just on that.” All of his students had gone on to be very successful, many of them taking AP courses, and great scores on standardized tests. I think what we need to take away from the sports space is how critical that relationship is to success, but similarly I think that educators do an incredible job of naming the skills that they want students to develop and that’s not a strength of coaches. And so I think there’s a real opportunity to build a bridge between what educators do really well in terms of planning and articulating for young people, and how coaches create relationships and environments which are truly young people centered, and then we can just see an explosion of growth of these core skills across all the places and spaces young people learn. Hans Hermann: So then what is the role of school leaders, superintendents and principals, in this work that you’re doing? Do they have a role in providing these type of sports experience to students or creating this collaboration? What should they be doing? J. Brown Lerner: Yeah, so that’s a great question, and first and foremost I think everybody has a role. Right? Like we all have a role no matter who we are in creating places that – or creating all of the places and spaces which young people grow and develop. But principals and district leaders in particular I think have a couple of critical roles. One, they are decision makers at the district and school level in terms of where resources are spent and they can’t assume that exclusively pouring resources into the classroom at the expense of all the supplemental opportunities, sports included, is a great idea. So they have to be brave in continuing to allow for resources. It doesn’t necessarily have to be dollars. They could think about partnership that move folks in that direction. But I also think that as school leaders and district leaders, that they truly are the leaders of the culture and so they too have to articulate this prioritization of all of the places and spaces in which young people learn. I mean I think about as an athlete myself how – particularly a high school athlete, how cool I thought it was when the principal showed up at any one of my games, and I think it’s small things like that. Or classrooms teachers showing up. I mean this is supporting young people in all the places that they grow and develop. Hans Hermann: So then what do you see – and this will be our last question today. What do you see as the next steps for implementing large-scale policies and practices that bolster students’ access to effective sports programs and continue to integrate these programs into the schoolhouse? J. Brown Lerner: Yeah, so this is a really great question and I think that there’s a lot of real interesting opportunities that are happening. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services is currently leading the development of the National Youth Sports Strategy, and so this is the strategy at the federal level that really will articulate what the federal government can do to ensure more access to high-quality opportunities for sport. And they’ve had their first listening session, and they will have a draft out sometime this summer. So for any of your listeners that are in – that care about this, encourage you to comment on the forthcoming draft. In addition, Tom Farrey, the executive director of the Aspen Sports & Society Program, published a piece in the New York Times about two weeks ago that described Norway’s Children’s Right to Sport, which is a commitment that that country has made around increasing access to sports opportunities. It’s both a financial commitment and a human capital commitment, which has been now aligned with Norway’s unbelievable sweep of medals at the Winter Olympics. But is there a role for the federal government or state and local governments to make a commitment to young people that they will have access to high-quality sports opportunities, and what does that commitment look like, is a really interesting discussion for us to be having as a country right now. Hans Hermann: Thank you so much for our conversation today. I really enjoyed it. Our guest is Jennifer Brown Lerner. She is the deputy director for the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program where she’s responsible for the strategy, management, and community work. Thank you so much. J. Brown Lerner: Thank you. [Music playing] Announcer: Thank you for listening to Critical Window, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast on how the research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the work of school leaders. Tell your colleagues, friends, and families about Critical Window, and please subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher to make sure you catch future episodes. This podcast was produced by Aharon Charnov, Hans Hermann, and Robin Harper. To learn more about the science of adolescent learning visit all4ed.org/sal. [End of Audio]
45 minutes | Jun 3, 2019
Believing All Students Can Learn
When you step into your classroom each day, do you believe that all your students can succeed? Does this belief shape how you teach and engage your students in learning? On this episode of Critical Window (listen below) a podcast by the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), we spoke with Dr. Yvette Jackson, adjunct professor at Teacher’s College at Columbia University and senior scholar at the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, about her concept of the “pedagogy of confidence.” Dr. Jackson, who has a book titled after this concept, is internationally recognized for her work applying neuroscience, gifted education, literacy, and cognitive mediation theory to elicit high intellectual performances from under-achieving and historically underserved students. A core concept of Dr. Jackson’s work is based on the idea that teachers should teach from a place of confidence in every students’ ability to learn, regardless of background or zip code. “When you have confidence about the potential of students, you help to push them to the outskirts, the limits of their mind,” explains Dr. Jackson on Critical Window. In this strategy, “learning becomes something that pulls [a student’s] potential to the next level.” What are the core ideas behind the “pedagogy of confidence,” and how can educators use this style of pedagogy to support adolescent learning? Here are six key strategies from Dr. Jackson: 1.Identify and activate student strengths. Instruction should help students believe “I can do this.” Teaching to students’ strengths helps them become more confident in their abilities and empowers them to perform better, all while establishing a growth mindset. 2. Focus on high intellectual performance. High intellectual performance should be the target for all students, not only those who have been identified for gifted and talented programs. Teach with the knowledge that all students are highly capable. 3. Build on existing skills and knowledge. Look at what students need to progress in their learning. What type of background knowledge do they need to have as a baseline and what additional skills do they need to build to succeed at the next level? 4. Situate learning in students’ lives. Are students seeing a connection between what you’re teaching and what’s happening in the world? Focus on issues and events happening in the world around them and incorporate those trends into the learning experience. 5. Acknowledge the impact of culture. Culture impacts the learning process and is a fundamental building block for students; however, it also can hold children back, even in school. If the school culture doesn’t represent the culture of the students, then you’re going to get all kinds of dysfunction. 6. Assess growth in every learning experience. Make every learning experience an opportunity for assessing growth. Receiving feedback on their performance and areas of growth helps students feel confident that they can progress in their learning. Listen to more from Dr. Jackson in the episode below. Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple Music, Stitcher or wherever you find podcasts. Featured Image by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action. <br /> Expand Transcript Collapse Transcript [Music] Hans Hermann: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence, and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and communities. This week on Critical Window, we’re learning about the Pedagogy of Confidence and how educators use it to support adolescent learning. Our guest today is Dr. Yvette Jackson. She’s internationally-recognized for her work at assessing the learning potential of disenfranchised urban students. She applies her experience in neuroscience, gifted education, literacy, and the cognitive mediation theory to develop integrative processes that engage and elicit high intellectual performances from under-achieving students. She’s the author of many books, including her book on our topic today: The Pedagogy of Confidence. Dr. Jackson currently is an adjunct professor at Teacher’s College at Columbia University and a senior scholar at the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. She previously was a visiting scholar for the Panasonic Foundation, and a consultant for the Brazilian Department of Education. She’s also been a visiting lecturer at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, Columbia University, and Stanford University, and has served as a member of ASCD’s Differentiated Instruction Cadre. Welcome to the show, Dr. Yvette Jackson. Dr. Yvette Jackson: Thank you very much. Hans Hermann: Before we dive into our conversation, I’d appreciate if you’d take a moment just to describe for those listening, the concept of the Pedagogy of Confidence. Dr. Yvette Jackson: Okay. Well, it all started with my own experience in being able to work with the same group of children for three years, and getting more and more confident about the intellectual ability they had by watching them grow through that time. And realizing that when you have confidence about the potential of students, you help to push them to the outskirts, the limits of their mind. And what goes with that is a pedagogy, the art of your work and instruction that helps students feel, I can do this. Then they become more confident. And so I went into this work to show that when you take this kind of pedagogy, a lot of which I borrowed from gifted education because in gifted ed, they believe that students are coming to you with a lot of potential, they have confidence in those students. And so I wanted to prove that same point that regardless of the child, regardless of where they are from, if you had this kind of gifted education mentality, you will walk and be more confident; the students will pick that up, and all of a sudden, learning becomes something that pulls their potential to the next level. Hans Hermann: So then you started to describe what the Pedagogy of Confidence is. Are there some key components of it that people should be aware or? Dr. Yvette Jackson: The first key component is what I call the high operational practices. And those are practices that I called from research, again, a lot from gifted land that said what are the kinds of things that move intelligence? The first is identifying and activating student strengths. Right. We know that we do that in gifted land, but we don’t do that anywhere else. And the question is why? In a Pedagogy of Confidence, we do. Building relationships, that a lot of people understand. But what they don’t realize that I’m not just talking about social-emotional relationships, but students also want to know what does what I am learning, what is the relationship to me, as an individual, to my role, to my life from one subject to the next? They need to have those ideas. The other one is the idea of focusing on high intellectual performance. Again, in gifted land, that’s what they think. And in a Pedagogy of Confidence, high intellectual performance should be the target for everybody. Then there’s the idea of enrichment. Once again, what do you do to cultivate the frames of references of students so they have strong ischemia, so they have been exposed to things that will peak not only their existing interests but maybe create more interests. Then there’s the idea of prerequisite, including prerequisites in the learning. You know, it’s really interesting because I started as an early childhood teacher, and they always talk about readiness skills. What do you do to prime the brain for learning? And then you don’t have here, prerequisites here again until college. You know, you have to take a prerequisite course. And all in the middle, I am saying in order to move kids to the next level, what are the prerequisites? What’s the kind of background knowledge they need to have? What are the kinds of skill-building they never to have? And the two last ones that are still part of the high operational practices is how do you situate learning in the lives of kids? How do they see the connection between what you’re teaching and what’s happening in the world? What are the issues that are going on in the world? What are the trends? How come we’re not talking about that? We want them to leave us and be able to thrive and flourish, but we don’t talk about that. And the last is, we call it, student voice, but it really should be called student agency. So that’s a main component. The other two components I would talk about is the impact of culture, the idea on the learning process. Culture language and cognition, and how they become the real fundamental ischemia-buildings for students, but they can also be the kinds of things that can hold children back even in school. If the school culture doesn’t represent the culture of the students, then you’re going to get all kinds of dysfunction. So that becomes another part. And the last part of the pedagogy of confidence is making every learning experience an opportunity for assessing a learning growth, and giving students the feedback on that learning growth so they’ll go to the next level. Hans Hermann: You’ve already mentioned it a couple times in different parts of your answers, but what was your journey to this concept and to writing this book? How did you get to this place? Dr. Yvette Jackson: Well, my journey started as, like you said, as I had in teaching, teaching the same group of children for three years in a row, and just seeing, firsthand, the kind of learning growth and obvious high intelligence that these students have, which wetted me, first, to the belief that all children have high ability. But then in the school that I was working in, there was a psychologist who was telling me that he didn’t believe that everybody had the same potential. That, in fact, in this school, there were no gifted children. So, now, I felt I had to write a book, not at that time because I didn’t write it. This was many years ago. But I just knew that during my journey, I was going to have to put the kind of knowledge, the epistemology behind my work that would lead me to defend what I was saying about not only these children, but all kinds of children. Then I got into deeper studies about gifted education, literally. And during that time, I also met my teacher, whose name is was Reuven Feuerstein. And Reuven was a cognitive psychologist who really taught me that there was a science to the belief and this idea of unfettered type of possibilities in the mind of children. And I started studying with him. What was so incredible that was he is known for his work, especially, with students who have down’s syndrome. And his whole comment was if we can work with these children to bring out such high levels of work, there’s not an excuse for that for any other child. And that is where he kind of dared me to put the rest of the research behind what I was saying and what he was exposing to show its applicability, especially for students of color. Hans Hermann: You mention him often in your book… Dr. Yvette Jackson: Yes, I do. Hans Hermann: …as a source of inspiration. Dr. Yvette Jackson: Absolutely. Hans Hermann: And it seems that Dr. Feuerstein not only was a source of inspiration, but he embodied many of the principles of the Pedagogy of Confidence and how he worked with you as a young scholar. So if you could talk – you’ve already spoke about him a little bit, talk a bit about how he did that, and also were there other individuals that served as sources of inspiration as you were putting this all together? Dr. Yvette Jackson: Yeah. How he really did that, the interesting thing about his work was he started, as I said, as a cognitive psychologist who was in charge of assessing the learning potential of children who were coming out of WWII, specifically Jewish children, who had been either in concentration camps, lost their parents, or whatever. And he came up with a learning potential assessment device that actually said that you cannot test students without actually introducing them to the cognitive tools or the content that would allow you to assess how they’re taking this information in and being able to apply it. So his whole work was around what he used to call a test learning test situation. But, really, it was starting with an assessment of where children are in their cognitive background in terms of their training, introducing new higher levels of those cognitive functions to students, meaning adding analogies, adding things like syllogisms, similes, and metaphors into the learning process because then you could assess how students were making meaning. And then you would assess them again to see how far they had come. And when I was watching his work, really with students, like I said, either who had down’s syndrome or not, who had other kinds of cognitive impairments, I would see, in one setting with him – one sitting, I should say; in one sitting with him, how it seemed like miracles were happening. All of a sudden, students were talking at a higher register because he was introducing new language while he was assessing the language that was connected to the content or to the type of thinking. And I was mystified. I really was. And I said, all right, I have to try to do this within my work, and of course, I still had him in my life so I could go back to him and say am I approaching this the right way? How do you get more enrichment? That led me, also, to when you were saying who were some other people who impacted me, a man named Joseph Renzulli, who is out of Storrs, Connecticut, who had come up with something that was called a schoolwide enrichment program. And Joe’s belief was that when you take students and expose them to high levels of content that challenged them and gave them the tools they need but really put them in opportunities for moving this kind of information into real life experiences, then you would see incredible growth. So, now, I had this one man, Reuven Feuerstein, I had Joe Renzulli. My third teacher, who was actually a best friend of Reuven Feuerstein’s, another cognitive psychologist, whose name was Asa Hilliard. Asa’s work took Reuven’s ideas, but added a frame of what is the impact of culture on cognition, very much like Vygotsky, but really using a culture from more of an ethnic perspective, meaning looking at African-American students or other students of color. But they were very impactful. In terms of women, who affected me, Linda Darling-Hammond’s work. She was at Stanford for a very long time. But she was always bringing forward the idea of how do you look at the data, but not data just being numbers, but identifying student’s strengths, identifying how they’re thinking from a cultural perspective as part of data. And last is a Barbara Sizemore, who is very well-known for just this belief in changing schools to look at potential of students as being so important. The last one I’m going to add in my journey, though, is James Comer. A lot of people know James’ work. He was an EL, and he was one of the people who really talked about the need for community schools that had all the services students would need to be supported right there in the institution. So all of those people together are part of what is behind a Pedagogy of Confidence. Hans Hermann: A central component of the Pedagogy of Confidence is this intersection between environment, culture, and the brain. Dr. Yvette Jackson: Right. Hans Hermann: Could you take a moment, before we dive into that intersection between culture and the brain, could you take a moment to describe what you mean by culture, and how culture and environment relate to one another as terms? Dr. Yvette Jackson: Sure. Absolutely. Well, culture, for me, is whatever is meaning and relevant to an individual. Culture does not come in a color. Culture comes in how people take in interactions in their lives that become so powerful that they’re usually associated with the group with whom they’ve grown up, or their families, religious institutions. But that is not the end of culture. Culture is then whatever else you bring into that frame that has become so meaningful and relevant, that it affects how you see the world. That is really critical. And, again, that’s not even something that I’ve made up. It’s very much Lev Vygotsky talked about this in the last century, the importance of looking at how culture affects not only our language, but how we’re making meaning. Where environment comes into that is culture is directly related to an environmental situation. So my culture, if it’s things that are relevant and meaningful or have impacted me, very much get affected by the environment within, or within which either I grew up either outside of a school. And this is where we get more specific, or what’s happening inside of a school that means that environment, the kinds of experiences that I am having, how they can affect me on a cognitive level, meaning how I’m making meaning or how it’s holding me back from learning. Then I learned from a neuroscience perspective that there is a real deal about how those experiences can affect either neurotransmitters in my body that really – in my brain, I should say, that are affecting the neural connectivity, or those could be stressors that are coming from my environment that are now neuro-inhibitors. They are depressing my learning. They are adding this vicious cycle of habitual behavior that could really be impacting my academic performance. So the culture can be the culture in a school. It can be very positive, like an oasis, where I see that I belong and that I fit in, or it can be very negative that, in fact, is inhibiting how I grow. Hans Hermann: And you started to get to there, and that’s where I wanted to go next, which is it’s not necessarily intuitive to people how the environment, especially culture, shapes the brain. So could you describe it in, detail, what that looks like, how culture is shaping the brain? Dr. Yvette Jackson: Right. Well, culture – because I mentioned that culture affects how you’re making meaning, the way that you make meaning, the way that you your brain makes connections, literally affects the synaptic wiring or the wiring across neurons. So another words, if I’m working with information that I am familiar with, and my environment happens to be a place where I am not in stress. It’s an environment where I am feeling comfortable. And there are things called endorphins and neurotransmitters that are helping the connectivity in my brain. Then the structure of my brain, really meaning the connection across neurons becomes fitted in a particular way and particular patterns, literal neuron patterns, or being constructed. The reverse could happen. I could be in a situation where there’s so much stress, as I was talking about before, that it breaks down the connectivity across the neurons, which means there’s a whole different structure to how my brain is working. And I really mean that a neurological basis and how the neurons are not firing across themselves. Which means if I looked at those neurons in my brain through an MRI, I would see, in stress, a different structure, and especially if it’s perpetual stress like post-traumatic stress disorder I’m looking at adverse childhood experiences. There are lesions that can actually form up across the layers of the neural connections that are going to affect how I’m thinking and then how I’m seeing the world. So literal lesions are going to affect how the brain looks. Hans Hermann: Would you say – its accurate for me to say then that the neuropathways are formed by cultural experiences and create almost an architecture for the brains that serves as a foundation of learning then throughout our lives. Dr. Yvette Jackson: Absolutely. And that’s a really good way of describing it. So when you look at different cultures and the way they transmit information to their young children can vary in a lot of different ways. Sometimes, the culture is a much more visual culture, meaning that it’s more about observation. Sometimes, the culture in terms of the transmission, is more through narrative, through story, through ideas like that that cause certain images to come into the mind of students. Then there are cultures that are just totally verbal. It’s all about just how you give directions how you’re moving a child to be pushed to boundaries or held back from boundaries. All of those things are culturally transmitted meaning they are seen in their values and different kinds of traditions, the activities of the engage their children in, that are really going to affect that how children are not only making meaning, but how they are showing the impact in terms of the actions that they’re taking. Hans Hermann: So some researchers talk about cultural mismatches in schools. Dr. Yvette Jackson: Yes. Hans Hermann: So, now, we’ll take it the school environment. And they’re talking about this idea that a student’s culture doesn’t necessarily match the culture of the school or a background. Your book specifically focuses on African-American age adolescent students, although I do want to emphasize that the ideas that you put out in the book are for all students not just African-American adolescent students. Dr. Yvette Jackson: Absolutely. Absolutely. Hans Hermann: I do want to ask, though, how does being a low income student or student of color, or any type of historically-underserved student lead to cultural mismatches in schools. And then beyond that, do all students experience cultural mismatch in school to some extent? Dr. Yvette Jackson: Very good question. Well, let’s start with looking at it in terms of ethnically. I’m not gonna say that racially because, first of all, the whole idea of race is such a social construct. That’s for your next podcast, we’ll talk about that. [Laughter]. But, ethnically, and I say that because you can be a person of color and your ancestry is really Jamaican, as it opposed to it being from Georgia, very different kind of cultural experiences that they have. But the problem in the United States is when regardless of what your ethnic background is, you’re looked at as a person of color, and especially if you have some African dissent, you know, they will look at, well, this person looks like they are of African dissent and so they all must have the same cultural background, and that’s not true at all. But the question is where is the mismatch? And the mismatch is often if I’m defining culture as being what’s really relevant and meaningful to me, how I making meaning in the world, and I go into a school where teachers are using experiences or talking about information from just their perspective, then what happens is there’s this mismatch so I can’t literally make the same connections that I could if somebody was using more of the experiences that I had. Now, notice, I keep saying experiences. So you can just pick up a book and say I’m going to now read about African-American kids, and now I’ve learned. No, because again, here you go, we have different kinds of cultural experiences. What I’m talking about is how a student shares those things that are meaningful and relevant. So in a classroom where a teacher really wants to do a cultural match, all they have to do is really elicit from the students when they’re introducing new concepts, what do these concepts mean to you? Where else do you see them in your life? What kind of connections can you make around this concept? Is there anything else this concept reminds you of? Just me listening into that allows me to get into the cultural head of students. When I don’t do that, then there is a cognitive misfire because my brain is trying to look for the file folder that it has that says, oh yeah, I got this. I can relate. So I’ll give you an example. So I was working in a particular city and they were trying to do this thing about African-American males, and they were bringing boys of color into work. And tried to – they were eliciting from the boys what is that you would like teachers to I know about what is important to learning for you? And it was so interesting. I won’t go in through the whole story. But one of the little boys in the group, and I should shouldn’t say little because their adolescents, so you have to get the image. They’re not four year olds. We’re talking about 12 to 13 adolescents. And he said well I wish my teachers would know that sometimes they have to go slower for me because we don’t get it as quickly. And I was so disturbed sitting there because that’s not the issue at all. It’s not that they are not capable of getting it quickly. What the child was experiencing as one of the only children of color in the room was that the teacher wasn’t making connections that were pivotal for this child. So it’s not that they need to go slower. What the teachers needed was the strategies that would elicit those kinds of connections from the student. So, again, if you don’t have it, it looks like they’re not getting it. But it’s not because structurally their brain is impaired. It’s because, cognitively, they’re looking for the connections that allow them to make meaning in the way that processes much more deeply. Hans Hermann: So when students experience a cultural mismatch in their learning, and you started talking about this a little bit in response, what’s happening in their brain? And when there isn’t a mismatch, when there’s a match, what is happening in there brain? Dr. Yvette Jackson: So let’s start with the match. Okay. What’s happening there brain is, as I was saying earlier, is they already have ischemia. They are background that allows to make the connection to not only think more deeply about what’s going on, but then to even do things like forecast further, to look at things more critically because there’s this match between experience and what exists in their brain as background. So now they have a deeper foundation for moving to deeper levels of thinking. When those kinds of connections cannot be made, then what happens is, first of all, the brain actually goes into stress. Which means when you’re going into stress, cortisol gets put out your body because your brain is saying I don’t get this. I don’t get this. Why don’t I get it? Is it because I’m dumb or is –? The brain is never thinking, well, it’s not me, it’s a teacher. You know, the brain is saying I need to have these connections. I’m not finding them so I’m not going to make the kind of higher levels of thinking, let’s say, in terms of, as I was talking about earlier. I’m not gonna make the mental analogies. I’m not going to be able to find the kinds of pushes that allow me to then forecast, as I said before, and comprehend more deeply. So, again, it looks like there’s a cognitive impairment that’s going on because the connections are not being made. And impairment is just that what they were given to use as data, as information, as content, just didn’t connect for them. Hans Hermann: At All4Ed, we focus on the developmental period of adolescence. You talk about, specifically, about adolescent culture and your book. What is the difference between adolescent culture and culture as we’ve been talking about it so far? Dr. Yvette Jackson: Well, one of the biggest differences, adolescent cultures goes totally across ethnic lines. It goes across ethnic lines, across not only ethnic lines, but if you look at it across-country. You know, in other words, you can pick up something that is geared on adolescents, whether it’s clothing, a show, a song, and it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, the children who are adolescents can relate to it. Why? Because they’re looking for things that engage them. They’re looking for the idea of challenge. They’re looking for a certain kind of feedback. They’re looking for connections, as I said earlier, that is so profound that they look for those experiences that bring them together that way. That happens to really adolescent. Now, the interesting thing about it it’s not only adolescents. But in adolescent, they are really thriving or I should say striving to try and find the kind of relational experiences is that allow them to fit and make them feel that they belong, that they fit in. That’s really, really important to adolescents. We really all feel that but they live it. And when the reasons they live it like that is because during adolescence, their bodies really crave a neuron transmitter that’s called oxytocin. That, your body lets off when you are feeling like you’re in a strong relational kind of a situation. We all kind of love that oxytocin, but they really crave it. So when they say we really want to work in cooperative groups, they’re not kidding. What they don’t understand is that’s because there’s a neurobiological connection to that. So what I’m saying to you is that in adolescent culture, The idea of relationship is both cognitive and it’s physiological. It’s social, emotional; it’s all those things connected. So an adolescent like I said, craves to be with other adolescents. And a good example as an adolescent cannot walk around without being in a posse. They got to be with four or five other students or other children, right. That is a cultural thing that is really reserved for adolescents. And, you know, in other kinds of cultural experiences, is about traditions and rituals, the thing is, the interactions that an individual has grown up through that has affected them. But, again, they’re not craving it the same way as adolescents crave to be together. Hans Hermann: So you talk about as far as the Pedagogy of Confidence, as it relates to adolescents, these ideas of mediated cognitive formal connections and relationships with teachers. And these are two contingent factors on adolescent engagement. Can you take a moment describe what each of these are, and then why they’re so critical to adolescents? And you start to talk about a second ago, especially with relationships. Dr. Yvette Jackson: Right. Well mediation is the interaction between a child and another adult, or an adult. It doesn’t have to be a parent. It could be a teacher. But where that person is purposely setting up experiences that can help a child work through the thinking that they might have to go through, but by helping them be able to isolate a problem, to be able to use visual transport. Help them use their brain to figure out images that we’re going to move them forward. Help them connect ideas they’re trying to teach to some personal kinds of experiences. That’s what a mediator does. So a mediator is an intervener. A mediator becomes between the child has to learn, the stimulus, and how they process information. The thing about mediation is always interactionally and it’s very purposefully. But mediation doesn’t only have to be verbal. Mediation can be by example. Students are always watching an adult, especially adolescents. Even though they might not be even be conscious what they are picking up. But a mediator is very intentional about if this is where a student is, this is where I want them to be able to say, I get it; I’m going to pick out all those kinds of connections experience that are going to give students the frame of reference to make that connection. That’s what I mediator does. How does a teacher become a mediator in a classroom? It’s going through and thinking about if I’m going to teach this new content what some background experience I have to give to these students that put some on the same playing field by having that background experience? So to give you an example. Something like that like an electronic field trip. You’re teaching something on social studies and it’s going to be you’re studying Paris, that’s going to be because you’re going to be looking at the continents, and Europe, and you’re going to go to France. Before I introduce that, I could take students literally into France or an electronic filed trip that will give them the ideas of what does it look like in Paris, What does it look like in France? What are the different geographic areas? In other words, I’m giving them – I’m building their ischemia. So as a teacher, before I teach something new, what is going to need to be introduced that will help students say I got this. I can make a connection to it. What are the kinds of higher levels of thinking that they might need to go through the experience I’m about to give him? Is it more where it’s going to be categorical thinking? Will they have to do more in terms of, as I mentioned earlier, the idea of forecasting or isolating problem? I do that all before the new content comes in so that students can be familiar with the skills and have some frame of reference before something new is introduced to them. That is what a teacher there who is mediational will do to get students ready. Hans Hermann: I’d like to dive into a specific topic that you talk about in the book around adolescents, which is autonomy. Particularly, you have two examples in there, a punishment, and you talk about voice. You use punishment as example of how we misdiagnosis adolescent behavior and then we react to it. Can you walk us through that? Dr. Yvette Jackson: Right. Well let’s start, usually when we talk about behavior, we talk about some discipline that then is going to be enacted as a result of some behavior that is isn’t considered the way we do things here. The problem is that in so many experiences, see, adolescents are at a point where they are thinking at high levels of reasoning Except sometimes the reasoning is making them question authority because what they’re either being asked to do, or expected, or how they’re being expected to ask – act, I should say, doesn’t reflect what they’re seeing authority doing. So now with the discipline, the teachers are saying I’m going to discipline you because you did XYZ, or speaking loudly in the class. And then you go in the halls, and you’ve got teachers who are yelling to students, or yelling to each other, that kind of thing. Now, you’re saying, wait a second, the disciplinary actions to the student is so negative. And the student is saying this is not fair because their reasoning is saying that’s not what I’m saying. And they’re trying to infer why are the teacher saying I should be acting one way; they’re acting another way. They’re not being authentic with me. They’re not making it so that I can really feel that what they’re expecting, I’ve been led to get that same reality in my life because I see them doing the same kinds of things. It’s that kind of thing. So that becomes a really critical piece. The other is why not include students then much more on discussing discipline, in the sense that discipline is about order; making order so things can be safe. If that’s the case, kids want to be safe. They like order. They really do like order. But they need to feel that the order makes sense and that the order is mimicked across the school send them up to whoever the adults are in school. So that’s why I talk about this idea of a discipline, especially with adolescents, and especially adolescents of color who are saying, Wait a second, this is not fair. And they were articulate that. And, all the sudden, because they said it’s not fair, guess what? Go to the office. Go out. I’m dismissing you. So discipline becomes a real issue. The other issue, I forgot exactly how you stated this part of that. It was discipline and –? Hans Hermann: And student voice. Dr. Yvette Jackson: And student voice, which goes together because I just said it’s very interesting. If you’re going to cultivate students to feel it they can have voice, then you, first of all, have to be ready to hear their voice and they have to feel that they can hear their voice in a safe space. That you’re not going to then be punishing them because they said this is not fair, what you’re telling them. But the other thing that I mean by student voice is just not how they articulate. It’s really giving the students the opportunity to make decisions in school, to help meet with teachers and have a relational conversations about how we live in this school, the kind of rituals we put to practice. How we communicate in a way that shows that we belong together. That’s voice where teachers and students or co-learning. I have been in school where teachers and students work on projects together, not just peer-to-peer projects, the teachers are doing part of the project the students are doing the other part of the projects. They come together and really put this work as a collaborative piece. That’s a whole level, a different level, of how we are communing our cultural relationship within a school. Hans Hermann: You are talking about amplifying student voice within the decision-making process, and that’s a big topic today in education. So my question for you is, and I think you used the term agency earlier, is voice enough? And I think the examples you were giving go beyond voice. Dr. Yvette Jackson: Absolutely. Hans Hermann: But I guess is voice enough and in adolescents, especially, should we be talking more about agency? Dr. Yvette Jackson: We should be talking about agency. And when I first wrote this book, I have been working with an organization. It’s called National Urban Alliance. And we were just trying to come up with titles for the work, we were really looking at it in terms of where do you start? You start by allowing students to give their perceptions about things vocally, and surveys, in conversation. That’s why it started with voice, but it really should be about agency because, so what, they have voice. Now what? And how do they develop to see their voice is going to matter? Well, they have to be in authentic situations where they’re asked their opinion. Their opinions then get used to make decisions about the school, about the functioning of it, about what’s being learned, about how they learn together, I go on and on. But that’s agency. So, first, you hear their perceptions. That would be a voice, but the purpose is agency and get students to self-determination and to see you are so valued that you have a space in making a contribution here. Hans Hermann: So you’ve given many examples throughout the conversation about how teachers can – in the book, you call them Islands of Confidence, where they’re enacting in the Pedagogy of Confidence in their classroom. What I want to take in now is how can these Islands of Confidence that teachers are creating the expanded school-wise or district-wide? What should school leaders, superintendents and principals be doing to create what I might call an archipelago or a continent of confidence Dr. Yvette Jackson: That was good. That was good. First of all, it all starts with a vision meaning the superintendent has to be very clear on what is your vision for the students because the vision is totally reflective of belief, right? Whatever your vision is, it’s based on your philosophy or your belief. But for a superintendent, it’s saying because we have this vision and philosophy, I have certain expectations that the way curriculum is written, the way instruction goes, the way we include families, the way that we include students in terms of agency, all should be reflective of this vision statement. So I would say the superintendents, go back and look at your vision statements. Are they vision statements that exude belief in the innate ability of all students? If they don’t, if they really say things even like we believe in equity and excellence. How come it’s not equity through excellence? How come is it’s not excellent through equity? The idea of putting excellence in equity as two sides means that one is not the other but they are parallel tracks. And I am saying that is part of the problem because people will say, well, there’s excellence here, but then, oh, that’s right, there’s also equity. No, in a vision statement, we talk about that idea that we go for excellence by having this kind of equitable understanding that all students have is kind of innate potential. Now, what that has to happen with superintendents, based on that as being the vision, let’s look at language that we use. Let’s look at the way that we write literature that gets transmitted through the district. Literature goes to parents. How students are given disciplinary actions. The other is how do we set up the experiences that are either enriching or the opposite? In other words, with this vision of innate potential, I’ll give you an example. So there’s one particular school district that a superintendent really is committed to equity. He or she has changed the vision statement. And then the summer comes, and it’s time for summer school. All the kids that – I’m talking adolescents, all the kids that are going to go to a summer program go into the same building. The bell rings, all the kids who are now going to be in remediation, usually they’ve identified kids for remediation because there have been these kind of mismatches and then students really don’t need remediation because they never got access to begin with. But all these kids are going in one direction in the high school, and the other students are getting real enrichment. They’re going to do drama. They’re going to –. My issue is through the lens of our superintendent, that practice, the way I just described it, does not reflect the vision of belief or this vision that all students have. How comes everybody is not going to enrichment? And, yeah, there might be some other kind of supports that are needed, but you don’t do that kind of a separation. So I would say the superintendents, let’s look at the practices that you have going on in this school that are practices of belief. Where are the practices of disbelief? And how do you bring adolescents to the table to get their perceptions about these practices? How that starts getting this about equity. And the last thing I’ll say is let’s look at assessment. Does the type of assessment you’re using, I’m not talking about the federal assessments or the state assessments, I’m talking about how are students access within my school? Is it really part of the learning experience or is it the traditional way that just is another mismatch with them? That’s what I would say as a beginning part. You could do a whole podcast and just what do you tell superintendents. And there are many superintendents out there that are doing phenomenal work and using these visions as a way to change the architecture and culture of their district Hans Hermann: So then the last question we have for you today is what do you see the next steps for implementing large-scale policies and practices, and infuse the Pedagogy of Confidence throughout the US education system? Dr. Yvette Jackson: That is such a great question because what do I see? I see possibilities. When I say that I mean the government is the one that comes out with its own vision. What are we going to be focusing on as a country? So as a country, I’m saying, we have incredible potential. We have students with all kinds of strengths. The next level of policy is how does the government come out and say because we want to be the best out there, we’re going to put forward this opportunity that really means the kind of enriching experiences that we would usually give when we’re only labeling gifted. And what I’m saying is they have a different philosophy about the way we educate and bring forward the belief in the potential of our students. So where do I see do I see – do I see that that’s happening tomorrow in the government? Absolutely not. But I think the more that we realize, as a country, that our best resource is our children. And there’s all kinds of things happening in the world. If we’re going to stay ahead to really lead, we’ve gotta change how are presenting our ideas about our children. Hans Hermann: Thank you so much for joining me today. It was a pleasure having you. Dr. Yvette Jackson: Thank you for having me. Hans Hermann: Our guest is Dr. Yvette Jackson, who is currently an adjunct professor at Teachers College at Columbia University and a senior scholar at the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. She is the author of many books, including the Pedagogy of Confidence, which we spoke about today. And she had an upcoming book. You can catch more of her thoughts on education and everything else that we talked about today. It’s called mindfulness practice. If you also enjoyed this, you can check out our webinar we recently had with Dr. Jackson highlighting a third report that came out from the Alliance For Excellent education on this same topic and same issues. Thank you, again, for joining us. Dr. Yvette Jackson: Thank you very much for having me. Recording: Thank you for listening to Critical Window, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast on how the research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the work of school leaders. Tell your colleagues, friends and families about Critical Window and please subscribe on iTunes to Stitcher to make sure you catch future episodes. This podcast was produced by Aharone Charnoff, Hans Hermann, and Robin Harper. To learn more about the science of adolescent learning visit all4ed.org/SAL.
32 minutes | Feb 26, 2019
Exploring Racial and Ethnic Identity Development During Adolescence
There’s no question that our country is diversifying. By 2030, immigration will overtake births as the dominant driver of population growth. Soon, there will be a majority-minority population in the United States, meaning that not a single ethnic or racial group will make up over 50 percent of the population. Students of color already make up the majority of K-12 students. How is this shift changing school environments and student learning? To answer this question, Critical Window, a podcast by the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), turned to Dr. Joanna Lee Williams, associate professor in the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia. Dr. Williams researches race and ethnicity as social contexts for youth development. “Adolescence is a critical time for thinking about racial and ethnic group membership,” explained Dr. Williams. “During this time, young people’s cognitive abilities start to grow and develop in ways that allow them to think more abstractly about the world and their experiences in it…this often becomes a time when young people begin exploring this ‘who am I’ question in general.” Listen as Williams explores how racial and ethnic identity development impacts students and their learning environments, and how educators can support students in their identity development, on this episode of Critical Window. Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple Music, Stitcher or wherever you find podcasts. <br /> Expand Transcript Collapse Transcript Hans Hermann: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers and communities. This week on Critical Window we’re learning about racial and ethnic identity development during adolescence and how educators can support students in their identity development. Dr. Joanna Lee Williams is an associate professor in the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia and is affiliated with Youth-Nex, the U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development and previously served as the director of research for Young Women Leaders Program, a mentoring program for middle school girls. She is also an affiliate of the Curry School News Center for Race and Public Education in the South. Dr. Williams’ research interests focus on race and ethnicity as social contexts for youth development. Specifically, her work examines ethnic identity as a form of positive youth development in the face of discrimination and other stressors and ethnic identity in relation to youths’ beliefs and behaviors. She has also applied interests in understanding diversity, peer relations and positive outcomes in youth development programs. In 2014, Dr. Williams was one of five scholars in the country to be awarded the William T. Grant Foundation Award for a five-year study for the benefits and challenges of ethnic diversity in middle schools and Dr. Williams received her Ph.D. in 2008 in Developmental Psychology from Temple University. Welcome to the show, Dr. Williams. Joanna Lee Williams: Thank you for having me. Hans Hermann: Before we start, I just want to reference a couple of numbers for folks. We’re in a country that has a changing level of diversity and especially as we see in our schools and our younger populations. By 2030, immigration is gonna overtake births as the dominant driver of population growth. And we’re gonna see, very soon, that we’ll have a majority minority population in the United States, meaning that there will not be a single group over 50 percent of the population in the United States, different ethnic or racial group. This is all important to understand for our educators ’cause that means our classrooms are gonna be changing which is why today’s topic that we’re gonna get into, Racial and Ethnic Identities, is really important for people to be aware of and talking about how hit impacts student learning and school environments. So I first wanted to start off by having you define what racial and ethnic identity are, how these may be different, and then also just talk about identity itself, maybe, and how you define it in your field. Joanna Lee Williams: Sure. So I’ll start with identity, which is essentially our beliefs about who we are and the values and other behaviors that go along with that. So it’s often an answer to the question who am I. For young people there are related questions like how do I see myself, how do other people see me or where do fit in. So we all have our own personal identity that encompasses this range of self-beliefs and attitudes and behaviors. Racial or ethnic identity is more specific. It reflects how a person understands themselves a member of a racial or ethnic group. I am going to use – probably you’ll hear me use the term ethnic racial identity to encompass kind of this broader construct because sometimes people will use racial labels and other people use ethnic labels when they’re talking about their identity. But regardless of the label, ethnic racial identity is multidimensional. In part, it’s about like the content of the beliefs that you have about what it means to be a member of your group but it’s also about the process of how those beliefs develop and change over time. Hans Hermann: So as you know, at All 4 Ed we focus on the developmental period of adolescence. How, then, does ethnic and racial identity development compare in adolescence to other age demographics? Joanna Lee Williams: So adolescence is a really important time for thinking about racial and ethnic group membership. During this time, young people’s cognitive abilities start to grow and develop in ways that allow them to think more abstractly about the world and their experiences in it. So this often becomes a time when young people begin exploring this who am I kind of question in general. While younger children may understand their racial or ethnic group membership in very concrete terms, so things related to like the foods that I eat or maybe the physical appearance that I have, adolescents can reflect on more abstract or collective aspects of their group. They can think about history and sort of, you know, how they’re viewed by other people. So adolescence really tends to be that time when young people start considering what it means to be a member of their group and how race or ethnicity fits into their overall identity. This doesn’t necessarily mean that race or ethnicity is salient to every adolescent. A lot of that depends on personal experience, it depends on, you know, messages from families, peers in schools. But when it is salient an adolescent can reflect on what it means to them and a sense of connection or pride in one’s group is often common during adolescence. Hans Hermann: And if you don’t mind, just for folks as they’re listening, when we’re – and it may be obvious to some, but racial and ethnic identity groups, what are some examples just so people are aware of when you’re talking about those, what they should be having in mind? Joanna Lee Williams: Sure. So we might think about a racial group label as something like black or African-American. An ethnic group label within the sort of black diaspora might be something like Jamaican-American. So there’s a lot of labels that young people and adults, as well, might use. We have, in the United States, a limited number of racial categories. Those tend to be the kinds of boxes that you see when you’re filling out a form. And then lots more ethnic labels that may relate to country of origin or a particular cultural heritage. So when I’m talking about an ethnic group membership, usually – you know, it depends on how the individual defines themselves. It might be a panned ethnic label like Hispanic or Latinx, or it might be very specific like Puerto Rican or Dominican or something like that. Hans Hermann: All right, thank you. So you started hinting at this in the previous question that you answered about cognitive changes that are happening in adolescents. What are the physical changes, social changes and the things that are happening in their brain during adolescents that affect this ethnic and racial development? Joanna Lee Williams: Okay. So we know the onset of puberty brings about important changes in the adolescent brain. I should say we know that although it’s really based on kind of relatively recent science. But we know now that some of the hormonal changes that happen with the onset of puberty also relate to changes that happen in the adolescent brain. And adolescents start becoming more attuned to social information. So young people might pay more attention to messages about what it means to be a member of their racial or ethnic group. Feedback from peers becomes especially salient during this time. Adolescents are starting to negotiate their identity in the context of peer relationships, often in school, and they have to kind of figure out, how do I balance what I’m hearing maybe from family members or other adults with, you know, what I’m seeing or hearing from my friends in school or the messages I’m getting from media or teachers. As they start beginning to explore their ethnic and racial identity and being more attuned to social feedback, young people might start to be more aware of stereotypical messages about their group which might be positive or negative. They also, themselves, this is something that is normative in adolescents, may rely on stereotypes when interacting with others and that’s also related to some of the neurobiological changes going on. So there’s really strong connections between the physical changes that are happening and the social, emotional and cognitive ones as well. This is going to be important for all aspects of identity but when you think about the content of messages you might be aware of or more attuned to as it relates to race or ethnicity that has some implications for how you start to make meaning of that part of your identity. Hans Hermann: So before we sat down and started recording this, we were talking a little bit about how you got involved in this research, and I’d like to take the time now for you to share that with folks, about why you got interested in research in ethnic and racial identity development, particularly in adolescents. Joanna Lee Williams: Okay. So this is a personal story. I don’t often share it but it is something that I reflect back on, and I’ll start by describing my own racial identity. So I identify both as black and biracial. I grew up with an African-American father and a white mother. And when I was in sixth grade, I remember having an experience where an African-American peer of mine confronted me as we were sort of socializing in a classroom setting and asked me this question, are you black or are you white? And in my sixth grade mind I had this very sort of rational response internally at first, like, well, you’ve known me since kindergarten, you know my parents, so you know, I’m both, like both in terms of my heritage. But I knew that wasn’t what he was asking me. He was asking me essentially about, you know, my allegiance to social groups and racial groups in our school. The school that I attended at the time was probably about 30 percent black and about 60 percent white. I didn’t have really the sort of language or the – you know, enough cognitive development to kind of make sense of this but I had enough social savviness to know that his question was intentional. And then at that point I actually started thinking a lot more about my social interactions with peers along racial or ethnic lines. So that – it caused me to think a lot about kind of my place and where I fit in. I don’t know that I dwelled on it for a long time but it was certainly one of those moments that when I started to learn more about racial and ethnic identity, in terms of, you know, psychological research and I had experiences in college where I was given opportunities to better understand what my identity meant to me, I looked back on that experience and realized it was one of those pivotal encounters that sort of was an early moment of starting to think about what race meant for me personally. Hans Hermann: So that’s a, I think, a powerful story, and thank you for sharing that. As you said, you don’t share it often so we really appreciate – I think folks listening will appreciate hearing that. So you alluded to this in your story itself. Adolescence is a period defined by changing social dynamics and there is an increased importance for peer relationships. So how should we be thinking about changing peer relationships in the context of developing racial and ethnic identities? Joanna Lee Williams: So, one of my favorite books is called Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Tatum. She is a well-known scholar and she’s president emeritus of Spellman College. And her title is based on the observation that in racially diverse middle schools, much like the one that I went to, there is often a tendency for youth to seek out same race peers. And so you walk into a cafeteria and you might see kids who are sorting themselves along racial and ethnic lines. So part of the answer to the question that she raises in the title, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, has a lot to do with racial and ethnic identity development. As kids start engaging in the process of exploring their identity, during this time, as I said before, when social information from peers becomes really salient they may find a sense of what we call identity safety when they’re around same race peers, other kids who they feel have had similar experiences to them. So it’s a normative part of the identity development process. It’s often necessary in settings where kids feel like maybe, you know, they’re being stigmatized in negative ways and that they can find sort of a safe space with same race or same ethnic peers. There is evidence that as young people start becoming more grounded in their ethnic racial identity development they are then better able to navigate cross-racial friendships. So oftentimes if you follow kids from, like, the start of middle school through the end of high school you see some shifts in the social landscape around race. Different settings, like sports and extracurriculars, help to change those dynamics a bit as well. Importantly, there’s benefits both to have same race friendships as well as cross-race friendships. So schools should really find ways to try and support both and help students understand the value of both kinds. Hans Hermann: So a question that – is racial and ethnic identity significant only for students of color –? And that may sound awkward to say but it’s an interesting question. Is this a type of development we’re seeing in all students? Joanna Lee Williams: Right. So, I think it’s a complex question but it’s an important question. On the one hand, any youth, regardless of their racial label, may feel a strong sense of connection to some aspect of their cultural heritage. So we can all think of the cultural or ethnic labels of our ancestors and we may feel connected to those. So in that way there’s some maybe almost generic aspect of feeling like, oh, I have pride in being, say, Irish-American or something like that. But when it comes to race the story can be a little bit different, particularly in the context of the United States and given the history of sort of how racial groups came to be. Being white is often used as a synonym for being sort of typical or normal, so in their day-to-day experiences white youth might not see race as being very salient. There’s not a lot of messages being conveyed in their day-to-day interactions that prompt them to think about their race, whereas for youth of color the same is not true. Oftentimes they are getting messages from the people around them that, you know, they’re seeing through the lens of race or ethnicity and they start seeing themselves in that way for that reason. So on the research side, in my field as a developmental scientist, I would say broadly speaking research on identity really, in a large way, for white youth has focused on aspects of like individual identity, so how you see yourself as a person, whereas for youth of color it’s often focused on race or ethnicity. So we haven’t studied youth from different backgrounds in quite the same way. There are some models of racial identity development for white individuals that focus a lot on how you become sort of conscious of what it means to be white in a racially hierarchical society and those kinds of models really are about – a little more about racial consciousness than maybe about cultural pride. So it’s not quite the same as what we know about and understand in terms of racial or ethnic identity for youth of color. That body of literature suggests really positive correlates of having a strong sense of yourself in terms of your race or ethnicity. It’s positively related to academic outcomes, to social and emotional well-being and even to physical health and that’s a pretty robust literature. Hans Hermann: And I guess speaking from personal experience that I think that type of like consciousness, it is – as a white male, it’s a different type of experience than what I hear from my peers, other people of color about their experience growing up. So I think what you said rang very true to me, personally. So what does positive ethnic and racial identity development look like and how does it impact students’ well-being? And you started hinting at that in your previous answers. Joanna Lee Williams: Yeah. Hans Hermann: And then their ability to learn? Joanna Lee Williams: Sure. So a young person with a positive ethnic or racial identity feels good about their group membership and understands how it fits into their overall identity. So it’s, you know, cohesive rather than something separate to how they define themselves. Of course, I don’t want to minimize this, there is a great deal of diversity in how a youth might express their ethnic or racial identity and their sort of ideological commitments and how they think members of their group should or should not act. But a sense of pride and having a sense of integration into a greater sense of self are I think these key ingredients that we think of when we think about a positive ethnic or racial identity. As I mentioned before, there is a lot of evidence showing that this is associated with positive academic outcomes, but I think the mechanisms – there are probably multiple reasons why. So for some students, academic success is tied to how they define their racial or ethnic group, so being successful goes hand in hand with being say a member of X or Y group. For other youth, it may be that ethnic group membership is a source of price. So a young person might strive or feel motivated to do well as a way of honoring the legacy of their group. And then still for other youth, particularly if they’re encountering negative stereotypes about their group in school, having that sort of cultural wealth to draw upon may give them some protection or buffering in the face of discrimination that allows them to be more resilient in terms of academics. Hans Hermann: So you’re affiliated with Youth-Nex, as we mentioned in the intro. It’s a U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. Could you tell us more about the start of Youth-Nex and the type of work that it undertakes? Joanna Lee Williams: Sure. So Youth-Nex started about ten years ago under the leadership of my colleague Patrick Tolan. The goal of the center has always been about using research to try to reframe deficit oriented narratives about adolescents. So we have stereotypes about adolescents. We think they’re moody, they’re rebellious, you know what I’m talking about, they’re prone to take risks and make poor decisions. So the collection of researchers affiliated with Youth-Nex believe that this narrative really undervalues adolescents and their incredible potential. We take a positive youth development perspective which means that we believe that all youth have the capacity to thrive and that they’re more likely to thrive when they’re in the context of supportive relationships and settings that really meet them where they are and meet their developmental needs. And while it’s certainly true that there are these neurobiological changes and other changes that make teens more sensitive to rewards and more prone to risk, that’s something that we can reframe as an opportunity rather than as a deficit. So youth have this tremendous capacity for being creative and being innovative and making contributions to society, and our responsibility, therefore, is to create the settings where they can flourish rather than limiting our focus to kind of keeping them out of trouble. So I want to mention that last year my colleague, Nancy Deutsch took over as director of Youth-Nex and she is leading some new initiatives through the center, including one on reimaging middle school, which I am excited to be a part of. So essentially, we’re taking what we know about the science of early adolescent development, so kids who are maybe like 12, 13, 14 years old and what we know about positive and supportive school settings and trying to really re-envision what a middle school could look like if it were designed specifically to support young people’s great capacity to learn, grow and to lead. So I’m excited to see where that goes. Hans Hermann: That sounds exciting, it really does. Reimaging middle – you hear a lot about reimaging high schools but reimaging middle schools, that’s something we probably should be considering as well. Is there an aspect to that work that focuses specifically on students of color or on different demographic groups within adolescents or is it more of a broad initiative? Joanna Lee Williams: Well, it’s a broad initiative although I have a working paper that I wrote on early adolescent development and as part of writing that working paper we were asked to consider issues of equity in this. So beyond the kind of science of early adolescent development, how do issues of equity play a role in what we know. And so looking at what’s happening in early adolescents, everything that I mentioned before, like young people are aware of things that are unfair and they start to become aware in middle school of disparities that exist. They often don’t know how to make sense of them but having an awareness that, hmm, people – myself or people like me don’t seem to be treated the same way as other kids. You see that reflected – starting to get reflected in how kids behave in school and whether or not they feel their school is supporting them or it’s a trusting environment for them. And so it’s a time where because of what we know developmentally about youths’ abilities to think and observe, then we need to kind of be focusing in on how these environments can make sure that they’re not conveying those kinds of messages. Hans Hermann: So this is all a very complex issue and at times, for students and for their families, for individuals it can be a traumatic or uncomfortable topic for schools to deal with. How should educators navigate this process of understanding and learning about issues of race and ethnicity, especially when a lot of this is happening outside of the school experience of a student? Joanna Lee Williams: Yeah. So, no student ever comes to school devoid of learning and experiences from their life outside of school. All kids come and bring – you know, they’re whole people and they bring their outside experiences with them to school. And I think educators should get a lot of credit for the work that they do to support young people as whole people and not just as learners of specific academic knowledge. When it comes to race and ethnicity it doesn’t necessarily have to be traumatic or uncomfortable. So I think first, educators should not assume that race or ethnicity is a salient part of how youth identifies themselves. It could be for some but not for others so that’s important. Second, just like with any academic content, students may have learned misinformation or stereotypes about racial or ethnic groups. So there is an opportunity to correct misinformation in the context of schools for all kids and we can do that through offering inclusive curricula that show, you know, the complexities of people. Third, I think many youth, what they bring with them as it relates to race or ethnicity is a sense of pride in and connection to their group and schools can be a place to nourish that because we know it’s really beneficial. And last, there will certainly be students who have experienced race related trauma or conflict. As most educators know, when a student is experiencing trauma it can be extremely difficult to learn and focus on the academic task at hand. So resources to support the student emotionally and psychologically which often come through school counselors are essential in that regard. Hans Hermann: And you started getting towards this in your response just now, but then how can teachers support, in their classroom specifically and then in other places in the school building, students as they’re developing a positive racial and ethnic identity? Joanna Lee Williams: So, I think many schools have a long way to go in terms of meeting students’ needs as it relates to ethnic and racial identity. While it’s often unintentional, schools may implicitly, sometimes explicitly, convey messages about what being successful looks like, and historically, youth from racial and ethnic minoritized backgrounds are not the ones associated with those depictions of success. So educators have to be more open in how they define what success looks like and should, individually constantly reflect on how they interact with students from different racial or ethnic backgrounds so they can be aware of potential biases. I also think that we need to go a lot further in building inclusive curricula and examining the messages we currently send about race as part of the learning experience. So I’m gonna talk a little bit about my research that I’ve been doing recently. So one of my research projects, we’ve been interviewing some middle school students, again. We asked seventh graders last spring what they had learned about race in school. Many of them said nothing, you know, it’s not something that we talk about. They explained that, you know, the school doesn’t really talk about race so I haven’t learned anything, that’s what some kids said. Other kids shared, and this was more frequent, the single place where race came up academically was in history class but what they were learning in their classes were these basically one-dimensional and often negative narratives about broad racial groups. So, for example, kids commonly said what they learned about African-Americans was slavery or that they used to be treated poorly but things are better now. They learned that Native Americans had their lands taken away and were killed. They learned about Asian-Americans being forced to build railroads and then forced out of the country or that they were put into internment camps. They learned virtually nothing about Hispanic or Latinx Americans. And embedded in all of these historical events they learned that white people were the conquerors, the enslavers, the leaders or the innovators. So I think it’s important, given that this is what seventh graders were telling us, this was their understanding of race as they had learned it in school, we need to ask ourselves what can any kid take away from these overly simplified narratives as they’re developing their ethnic and racial identity, how should they make meaning of it? It’s sort of – you know, on the one hand it’s just academic content but it’s also giving them some information that they’re using to kind of inform how they understand race because they’re not having conversations about race in other spaces. So I think questions like what does it mean when a black student says that their knowledge of blackness is limited to what they learned about slavery. We’ve had kids say that to us, you know, what does being black mean to you and they’ll say well, I think about slavery and that sort of thing, or what should white students take away from the history of colonization or slavery as they’re starting to think about, you know, what being white means. So I don’t think we’ve found a way yet of giving kids the language to talk about or understand or make meaning of race or racial identity in schools. But kids are making meaning all the time on their own. So they’re interpreting their social experiences and their academic experiences and they’re drawing conclusions on their own. Of course, they may have parents who are helping to kind of mediate some of the messages that they’re receiving and that’s really critical. But in schools and when they don’t have that external support that can just reinforce stereotypes and sort of reproduce racial hierarchies. So I think we have a great opportunity to help socialize young people to understand the role of race both at a kind of societal level and also as part of their individual experience, ’cause it operates in these two different ways. And we have to better support educators so that they can scaffold this learning effectively. Hans Hermann: A robust answer with a lot of great things that people should be thinking about and I hope people will listen back again over it and take down notes ’cause I think you had a lot of excellent suggestions as to how to create a school climate as a teacher and the things you can do in your classroom. So then let’s extend it to school leaders, superintendents and principals, what can they be doing to create effective support systems in their schools and districts for students to support this development of racial and ethnic identity? Joanna Lee Williams: Sure. So, in diverse schools in particular, but really in all schools, school leaders can create opportunities for students to engage in racial or ethnic affinity groups, just for those students who might find them beneficial and again, not all students will. So that means if you’ve got a diverse school with kids from multiple backgrounds, having opportunity for kids who share a similar background to be, you know, part of a club or a discussion group or something like that, that’s potentially facilitated by an adult could just allow them to go into this identity safe space where they can talk about common experiences and to normalize that so that the message that the rest of the school takes away isn’t that, oh, these kids are segregating themselves or they’re doing something secret. If it’s sort of normalized it’s something that everybody has an opportunity to participate in if they choose to do so. I think school leaders need to reflect on the kinds of messages that may be implicit in their building that may unintentionally connect success or excellence to only certain kinds of students. And then I think to the extent that they have the capacity, providing their teachers with the resources, skills and practice to engage students in conversations related to race or ethnicity as they arise, giving teachers access to kind of inclusive curricular materials that center different perspectives, they don’t just show different people but they center different perspectives, and helping teachers with professional development so they can employ pedagogy that’s responsive to students’ experiences. I think all of those, and, you know, for leaders to send the message that this is something we value, I think, is a good starting place. Hans Hermann: Yeah. And there are excellent examples around the country. I was recently in California, Oakland Unified High School where they do a great job of the school leadership doing exactly what you’re talking about. I think something else that comes to mind is – it seemed to be basic things, just like as you talked many times about role modeling and the type of posters and who is in the posters, is it only white role models, is it showing people of different backgrounds and different ethnic and racial groups, and also just what the staff itself looks like, that’s definitely something that’s in the power of superintendent and principals. So, again, excellent suggestions. So then what do you see as the next steps for implementing large-scale policies and practices that support student development in racial and ethnic identity? Joanna Lee Williams: Well, I think we can think about teacher education programs as a place to build capacity for this. So the training of future educators and school leaders should be explicit in how it prepares them to support students in terms of developing racial or ethnic identity. So on the one hand this means giving them adequate grounding in child and adolescent development so they know what to expect and what kinds of conversations may be appropriate. And also specific skills for supporting conversations about race or culture so that if something comes up in class, it may not be the intention of the content, a teacher is prepared to respond without getting flustered. So in the moments if you’re not prepared and a student asks something and you’re thrown off, you may shut down the conversation or I’ve heard accounts from students where they get disciplined. It’s sort of they’re being, you know, sort of disruptive and the teacher shuts it all down. Policies, of course, that help to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of the educator workforce I think are really critical. You mentioned at the beginning that the student population is changing and really the student population now in public schools, I think we are close to if we haven’t already reached that tipping point of being just a majority diverse school population, but the teacher workforce has not shifted in the same ways. And I think valuing educators more genuinely in the United States. Resources to say that we value our teachers are sorely needed. And then finally, I think we can’t have this conversation without bringing youth themselves to the table. So going back to my core kind of belief in adolescents and their great capacity, young people have always been leaders in racial justice movements and they can speak better than anyone else about what it would look like to feel supported in the development of their racial and ethnic identity. So think an important next step would be to ask young people about their own experiences and their own needs. Hans Hermann: So I think that last point about youth leadership is an excellent one and that’s where we’re gonna end it. Our guest today is Dr. Joanna Lee Williams, associate professor in the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia, faculty affiliate with Youth-Nex and previously associate director of research for the Young Women Leaders Program. You can follow her at Williams Joanna L that’s at W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S J-O-A-N-N-A-L on Twitter. Thank you again for joining us today. It was great having you on Critical Window. Joanna Lee Williams: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Recording: Thank you for listening to Critical Window, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast on how the research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the work of school leaders. Tell your colleagues, friends and families about Critical Window and please subscribe on iTunes to Stitcher to make sure you catch future episodes. This podcast was produced by Aharone Charnoff, Hans Hermann, and Robin Harper. To learn more about the science of adolescent learning visit all4ed.org/SAL.
30 minutes | Jan 30, 2019
How the Opioid Crisis Is Affecting Students
The opioid crisis is shaking the nation and greatly impacting young people. In just one year, 42,000 people died of drug overdoses involving opioids. That same year, 2016, 38,000 individuals died in car crashes or car-related injuries. There’s no question that this epidemic is affecting families, communities, and schools across the country. How can educators help support students impacted by the crisis? To help answer this question, Critical Window, a podcast by the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), turned to Dr. David Patterson Silver Wolf. As a professor at the Brown School at Washington University, in St. Louis, Dr. Patterson Silver Wolf teaches substance abuse courses and works to bring science and research to addiction services. He has over fifteen years of experience providing clinical services in the substance abuse disorder treatment field. This issue is also incredibly personal for Dr. Patterson Silver Wolf, who shares the story of his own experience dealing with substance abuse – from childhood into his twenties – on this episode. “I would look out on the world, and everybody looked good but me,” he recalls thinking as a young child. “I would compare my internal turmoil to people’s external life, and think, ‘Boy, everybody looks like they’re doing okay but me.’” Listen to his story of triumph and learn how to support students experiencing similar hardships on this episode of Critical Window. Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple Music, Stitcher or wherever you find podcasts. <br /> Expand Transcript Collapse Transcript Hans Hermann: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence, and what these changes mean for educators, policy makers, and communities. This week on Critical Window, we’re learning more about the opioid crisis, how it affects adolescent students, and how educators can support students impacted by the crisis. Dr. David Patterson Silver Wolf is professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. A faculty scholar in the Washington University Institute for Public Health, and a faculty affiliate for the Center for Violence and Injury Prevention. At the Brown School, he teaches substance abuse courses, serves on training faculty, and chairs the American Indian and Alaska Native concentration in the Master of Social Work program. He’s the director of the Community Academic Partnership on Addiction, which works with several St. Louis based organizations to bring science to addiction services. Dr. Patterson Silver Wolf has over 15 years of experience providing clinical services in the substance abuse disorder treatment field. He investigates how empirically support interventions are implemented in community-based services and factors that improve underrepresented minority college students, academic success, and American-Indian and Alaskan Native health and wellness, particularly issues related to college retention. He was recently appointed to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicines Committee on Medication Assisted Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder. Welcome to the show, Dr. Patterson Silver Wolf. David Patterson: Thank you. Hans Hermann: I would like to set the stage before we get into questions. While the opioid epidemic has received a great deal of press coverage and has been repeatedly called out as a top priority of both the Obama and Trump administrations, I think it’s good to revisit some facts and figures to appreciate the scale of this issue. According to a 2014 report, “A Nation in Pain,” the US consumes approximately 80 percent of the world’s prescription opioid drugs, while making up only 5 percent of the world’s population. The CDC, the Center for Disease Control, said that nearly two-thirds, 42,000 or 66 percent, obviously, of drug overdoses in 2016 involved prescription opioids, illicit opioids, or both, which was an increase from 27 percent in 2015. In comparison to those 42,000 deaths, 38,000 individuals die in car crashes or car-related injuries in 2016. According to the CDC, opioid overdoses continue to rise in 2016 to 2017 by 30 percent, across 45 states, and it’s been estimated that this opioid-related cost exceeds $78 billion for the US economy. So, needless to say, this is a crisis, and a growing one. Could you explain how we got to this point as a nation? David Patterson: Right, thank you. So, the latest numbers of ODs are about 70,000, so we’re about 70,000, and continuing. I think how we got to this problem depends on who you ask, and let me just say I’m here speaking as myself, not behalf of any other person or community. So, I would say it’s a few issues. One, pharmaceutical companies have a big responsibility in this epidemic, and if you’ve watched 60 Minutes or the news, you’ll see that pharmaceutical companies pumped out a lot of opioids into our communities. There was, just on 60 Minutes last night, there was, again, they reported a small town in West Virginia had millions of pills shipped to that one small town that had a few thousand people who lived there. And so, pharmaceutical companies have responsibility, but also, prescribers. And how do you deal with people who say that they have pain? And a lot of times, doctors are in a position to either tell their customers, and that’s how they see patients now, as customers, they went to a rating of how satisfied are you as a physician? And so, are you gonna upset your customer or are you gonna do something for them that would keep them coming back? And so, when patients or customers say that they have pain, obviously, the next move is to prescribe medication. There’s other people who say the responsibility lies with those who take the medication, and in some sense, that could be true. But these are very addictive medications, and so, there’s a lot of data that show once you start taking these medications, it changes your brain, and you quickly become addicted to these. Hans Hermann: This epidemic is impacting individuals, families, schools, communities across the nation, as you said. Are there areas of the country or specific demographic groups that are more at risk of substance abuse, specifically use of opioids? If so, where, and whom? David Patterson: I would say large amounts of people who express pain, obviously, are prescribed opioids, and they become addicted to them. Not all of them, but a lot of them do. But I would say ground zero for America’s addiction is West Virginia. They have more ODs than any other state in our country, but nobody’s immune to this. There used to be this idea that back several years ago that this was an urban problem by minority folks. Now, we’ve seen on the news that young, non-minorities are dying from this crisis, this epidemic, and so, it’s spread across our communities to where anybody could really be impacted by this. But a lot of older age folks are high risk. And obviously, minority communities, underserved communities are high risk for this problem. Hans Hermann: You’ve personally dealt with substance abuse from early on in your childhood and into your 20s. Could you take a moment to share your story for those who aren’t familiar? David Patterson: Sure. There’s still some hesitation about me, or anybody else, sharing loudly that they’re a person in recovery. There’s still a lot of stigma around it, and even me now, I’m saying reaching 60, and a tenured professor, there’s still some reluctance to talk about this part of my life. And so, I could say I grew up in a home with a father that was an alcoholic, and very violent, and you grow up, speaking for me personally, you grow up in a home like that, you have these issues, you try to figure out why these things happen to me, what’s wrong with me? I always felt like I was a square peg in a round hole. I would look out on the world, and everybody looked good but me, and I would compare my internal turmoil to people’s external life, and think, “Boy, everybody looks like they’re doing okay but me.” And so, it’s easy to be talked into trying different, what we would consider medications, to make myself feel better, or the same, or to fit in. And so, I was taught very young on how to drink alcohol. I was allowed to smoke cigarettes, and so it was – I don’t wanna say it was a predetermined path, but it made my path a lot of easier to continue to take risk with other drugs. And before too long, I was taking medications. I had prescription drugs, I was smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, and it just led to a life where I couldn’t imagine my life with or without alcohol or drugs. And so, I eventually went to treatment. I was 26, I went the old-fashioned way. I was forced to go, and was allowed to – with a very structured program, allowed to find my path into recovery. Hans Hermann: Well, thank you for sharing, we really appreciate you being open and I’m sure other folks who may or may not be able to relate, but I think it says a lot that you’re able to be open about that, and we appreciate it, again. You started getting into how you eventually overcame your substance abuse issues. What other individuals or support systems helped you do that? David Patterson: For me, and I think for a lot of people, I had to reinvent myself. It was hard for me to be a different person, continuing to do the same things that I’d always done. And so, there’s a saying that says, “If you want to change who you are, the first thing you have to change is your thinking.” You can’t be a different person thinking the same things. And so, in order to change my thinking, I had to get around different people that had different thought processes than what led me to a life of alcohol and drug use. And so, I needed a different community, a sober community, folks that could teach me how to do typical things, how to go through my life without reaching back, and reaching for certain medications, and trying to live life on life’s terms, which is hard to do. Life is pretty tough. And so, people need certain medications even to get through life. A lot of times, I’ll wake up in the morning, and think, “I need coffee.” The simple thing is coffee. And so, it took a number of, I would say, months and years to clean up the wreckage of my past, and learn how to live life in an honest and honorable way. And this was an opportunity for me to reconnect with my culture, as well. When I was young and drinking, I didn’t care much about my people or what they did, or who they came from, or who they are, or what they believed. But it was after I got clean and sober that I was able to make a full circle, and begin to learn from my uncle and my people who we are, and what we stood for. Hans Hermann: And again, just for those who aren’t familiar, your people, you’re referring to – I’ll let you speak on it, of course. David Patterson: Sure, so Native American, American Indian. And so, my folks are both Irish and Native, and so, I knew a whole lot about the Irish way of life, and it took me a number of years just to understand my Native culture. Hans Hermann: Looking back on that time in your life, and beyond that, how did all these experience shape your views on the challenges with the opioid abuse and substance abuse, particularly in adolescence, ’cause much of this was taking place during your adolescence, and the challenges our nation faces with this crisis. David Patterson: It’s complex. It’s a huge challenge, especially in adolescence, when you’re trying to figure things out. I have teenage boys now who have never seen me drunk or on drugs, and they understand the addiction and all of those things. And still, even with that, they’re trying to find their way, who they are. Young people who might come from homes where there’s alcohol, or drugs, or violence, and those kind of things are trying to do the same things that I was trying to do. And unfortunately, I think oftentimes, there’s a path to where alcohol and drugs, it worked for me, and for young adults, it’s like, “This changed me, this makes me feel better.” And so, that’s easy to continue to rely on. And I think with just America, we’re used to having pills pitched at us to solve our problems. We’re one of two countries that allow pharmaceutical companies to pitch right to us with commercials. And if you’ve ever watched these commercials about all these medications, they go through these side effects that if you listened to ’em, they’re shocking. But the commercial has people walking dogs, and on beaches, where it distracts you from those side effects. And so, we’re used to saying, “Hey, go ask your doctor what pills are available to fix this thing in you.” And I think that’s hard to stop for us. Hans Hermann: I do want to say, I think your story is not only incredible, again, thank you for sharing – it’s really inspiring, and it demonstrates what we know about the science of adolescent learning. Adolescence is a time where young people have immense potential, and there’s a great deal of change happening in both the body and the brain, which really makes it a time of opportunity and risk. But your story shows that a lot can still be determined in the trajectory of a young person’s life, and that we should never give up supporting them, no matter what challenges they face during that period. As you know on this podcast, the Alliance for Excellence in Education, we focus on the developmental period of adolescence. So, how does substance abuse, and specifically, opioid abuse, during adolescence, compare to other age demographics? David Patterson: I would say on the developing brain, addiction/substance use disorder, the term is substance use disorder, it is a brain illness, it is a brain disease. And so, opioids changes your brain, just like alcohol. And it can change it permanently. There’s some changes in the brain that can never come back to originally how Mother Nature intended it. So, for opioids, let me say, alcohol is still the number one killer of Americans. It kills more people than drugs combined. And for, young folks, for adolescents, most of the time, it’s tobacco and alcohol that’s first tried. And I don’t want to say they’re gateway drugs or anything is a gateway drug, but I would just stop to say that most substance that are used in adolescence is tobacco and alcohol. And trying to do all the things that adolescents need to do, go to school, be on time, study, all those certain things, it is a barrier to those things of success. Hans Hermann: And you started answering this, then are there other ways that we should be aware of how opioids are affecting their physical health, or their development, their brain development, their ability to learn? David Patterson: I think our schools are overwhelmed, teachers are overwhelmed, and I think in a lot of states, we’ve removed social workers from schools, we’ve removed a lot of things from schools that we would think would be healthy. I would say any school that is aware that a young person is in a home where there’s known alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, drug substance use disorder, violence, those are high risk, should be a trigger for something for young people to live in those types of homes, is risky. And it’s not so much that the adolescent has an alcohol or drug problem. A lot of times, it’s their social environment that should be assessed. And then, if there is alcohol or drug use, then the appropriate diagnosis, if there is one, or treatment, needs to be thought about. Hans Hermann: I would love for you to dive a little bit more into what you were just talking about. It was a nice segue into the next question I was gonna ask, which is that the opioid crisis and any substance abuse isn’t just limited to students who are users, but also students who have parents, or guardians, siblings, family members, or friends who are users themselves. So, how does it, having an opioid user or a substance abuse user in their social circle, what type of impact does that have on a student’s life? David Patterson: Just an example, you probably might do this, too. I’ve watched these videos where the father or the mom are off at war, and they show these videos where they surprise a young person with their mom coming home, and how emotional and how relieved young people are to see their loved ones. With 72,000 people a year OD’ing or dying, along with OD’ing, to see their loved ones in jeopardy of harm has a great impact on young people. Oftentimes, they don’t know how to express that, and so, these stressors and young folks not knowing how to verbalize those things, it’s difficult to broach that, or to figure out which one of these kids in this middle school building are in need of our help, and it’s very difficult in a community where there’s harm to one, it affects everybody. And so, if there is an OD or if there’s a substance use disorder in somebody’s house, you can’t watch the news without realizing that this leads to a disastrous ending, and young people are scared. I was always scared for my dad, although I didn’t appreciate what he did to our family, there was still this nervousness hat it was gonna end badly. Hans Hermann: So, you’re the director of the Community Academic Partnership on Addiction, we mentioned that earlier. It’s CAPA for short. Could you just tell us a little bit more about CAPA and the type of work that it undertakes? David Patterson: Sure, so I have some research, and my research is about how to bring science and data and technology to frontline, community-based treatment facilities, substance use disorder treatment facilities. And so, in order to carry out my research agenda, I need partners. And so, not only do academic folks need community partners; community partners need academic folks. And so, when I arrived at Washington University in St. Louis in 2012, when I was hired there, the first thing I did was basically just googled addiction treatment in St. Louis, and luckily, I landed on a program. It’s Bridgeway Behavioral Health at the time. And I met the CEO there, who – Mike Morrison, who is a person in recovery, he was a heroin addict, and he’s been in long-term recovery, and he and I hit it off. And so, we strategically went around to different treatment facilities, and we thought, “We need a whole continuum of care, from detox, all the way, the long term care and the space to figure out how to best leverage science, technology, and those sort of things to up our game, to really up the treatment game.” And this was really early in the opioid epidemic. So, we worked together, and we both have resources, and we share those, and I teach in those communities, so social workers go to those communities, and I hold classes there. And we also provide research on what’s the best treatment. If they have a special case, we try to help those folks out. Hans Hermann: Great. And are there other organizations or partnerships that are making strong headway around these issues of the opioid epidemic or substance abuse that people should be aware of? David Patterson: I think so. There’s an effort now to create this system of care. So, from emergency rooms, to hospitals, to community-based practice, to housing, they’re all trying to figure out how to work together, and not just work in these silos, which is hard to do, because we fund things in silos. And so, it’s a very difficult thing, because they all have their own electronic health record systems, and so, they work independently and trying to figure out how to work across is a challenge, but it’s part of the effort CAPA tries to do, and I think other communities are trying to figure that out, as well. Hans Hermann: You mentioned earlier that this is an incredibly complex issue, and for schools, this is a complex issue to deal with. How should educators start navigating the process of understanding and learning about opioid related issues that their students are dealing with, oftentimes, with these issues happening outside of school? David Patterson: Again, it’s a challenge, and we’re asking educators to deal with things socially. And so, you would have folks who would say educators need to educate, and if there is a problem, they need to refer to the appropriate folks. But oftentimes, insurance, there’s the resources that are needed oftentimes are not available. There has to be this – and I’m gonna do a prevention plug for my prevention folks, is that there has to be this effort. We have in the past years, from – we’ve lowered tobacco use, pretty much everybody uses a seatbelt. And all this was done through messaging and prevention. And unfortunately, not a lot of dollars goes towards prevention. Not just students who are high risk, but just regular students. And so, we didn’t talk about this, but there was just an $8 billion bill signed by the President, Congress came out that deal specifically with opioids. It’s a nice start, but HIV and AIDs, we spend about $24 billion a year for that. And I’m not saying it’s a drop in the bucket, but we need a whole lot more money and resources if we’re gonna be serious about this, and we’re gonna have to do real prevention in our schools. Unfortunately things like DARE, everybody knows about DARE, it’s nice for police, but we don’t have police come in and talk about other medical illnesses. I don’t know why we have police come in and talk about substance use disorder. It sends a bad message that this must be bad, because cops are in here talking to us about alcohol and drugs. But also, it hasn’t been proven by science to be effective. I think we need to be smarter with our prevention money. Hans Hermann: How can teachers support, specifically teachers, in their classroom and then throughout the school building, beyond the classroom, a student who faces these issues, opioid related issues, either from their own use or again, from the use of a family member or friend? David Patterson: So, if they become aware of that, obviously, there needs to be the space where this young person can talk about it, where they feel safe talking about it. I was trained not to share my family’s experiences with anybody outside the family. And so, I really had to trust somebody to talk about what was going on in my household. And oftentimes, it was not a teacher. And so, but there are positions in schools that are not teaching positions. Social workers or whatever they might call them, that there has to be this connection. And there has to be – we talk about being Carl Rogers, of being empathetic, genuine, those non-judgmental – as soon as I sniffed out somebody was gonna judge me, I was done. And so, I think a lot of young folks will see that, too, so there has to be somebody in their life or in that building that can be approachable. Hans Hermann: How can school leaders, superintendents, and principals, create effective support systems in their schools and districts for students who are dealing with these issues? David Patterson: I think talking about it, not ignoring what’s going on in our communities. It’s hard for anybody in our community not to be impacted by what’s going on with the opioids. It’s so widespread. So, just creating spaces where young people can speak and talk, and not ’cause what’s not talked about is an indication that there’s some stigma related to that. So, just being open about that, and being aware of what’s going on, and if there is a death or something that happens, to have these wraparound services for young folks, so they can deal with those. Hans Hermann: And for those who, when you say around wraparound services, what are some examples of what a school might be implementing to enact some of those? David Patterson: Experienced social worker who knows community resources that if there are things outside of the school that the school’s not providing that they’re aware of where they can send folks to. I would say just resource experience. Hans Hermann: What do you see – you started to mention this, you mentioned the amount of money that’s been invested recently by Congress, and by the administration. What do you see as the next steps for implementing large scale policies, and educational practices, or school practices that will support students who are affected by the use of opioids, and again, the use of opioids in their family and friends? David Patterson: I would say, just like we’ve done with seatbelt, with smoking, it has to be these large campaigns of prevention. It’s gonna cost billions of dollars. What’s important to us as Americans, we fund. And again, if you’ve watched – the reason I keep bringing up 60 Minutes, there was an episode on that last night, to where there’s an attorney that led a tobacco settlement. And he indicates that there could be hundreds of billions of dollars that’s gonna come from pharmaceutical companies that pay for the damage that they’ve done. I’m not saying it, I’m repeating what he said. And that these dollars have to go down to prevention at the level of young people, from kindergarten on, in order to address this. It has to start with our young folks. Hans Hermann: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you again for sharing your story, and I think it sounds like we’re starting to make those first steps of awareness, talking about it, and funding it, but we have a long way to go. Again, our guest is Dr. David Patterson Silver Wolf. He’s a professor at Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, a faculty scholar in Washington University Institute for Public Health, a faculty affiliate in the Center for Violence and Injury Prevention, and Director of the Community Academic Partnership on Addiction. It was great to have you here on Critical Window. Thank you so much for chatting with us today. David Patterson: Thank you.
29 minutes | Jan 10, 2019
Critical Window: The Impact of Trauma on Student Learning
Feeling frustrated that your lesson plan isn’t resonating with your students? Before you throw it out, you should know that there may be more going on with your students than meets the eye. For students to learn, they must feel safe, engaged, connected, and supported in their classrooms and schools. But experiences like chronic stress or trauma from exposure to violence can have a tremendous impact on students’ ability to learn. Students that have been through at least four adverse childhood experiences, such as emotional abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, living with a drug-addicted family member, losing a parent to divorce or death, were 32 times more likely to have learning and behavior issues in school. Michael Lamb, executive director of the Washington, DC office of Turnaround for Children, shared this and other staggering data points on this episode of Critical Window, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast exploring the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence. The episode dives into how students experience trauma, the impact it has on mental health and learning, and what educators can do to create an environment that effectively supports students affected by trauma. Breaking Down the Science of Trauma What happens inside a child’s brain when they encounter a traumatic experience? The amygdala, the area of the brain that acts as a “smoke signal” when individuals experience a stressful situation, takes over to activate a fight or flight response throughout the body. When this area is in charge, the other parts of the brain that manage learning and memory, including attention, self-regulation, executive function, etc., are inhibited. Lamb explains the importance of this natural human response to threats: it helps individuals react to potentially dangerous situations, and not spend time determining whether a threat is real or not. “It’s wonderful if you’re in the forest and you see a bear and you need to act,” says Lamb. “It’s terrible in a classroom or a hallway.” “You could have a wonderful lesson plan as a teacher, you could have really great, engaging content, but if that child is feeling stress…then that long-term memory won’t actually take root,” says Lamb. It’s not just about making the classroom a safe space with caring adult that students trust. The whole school must be involved to create a positive learning environment. “If a classroom felt like a safe, predictable place, but then the hallways were very chaotic, the cafeteria or the playground became a place where students were re-triggered…the rest of the day would be really difficult for learning to take root,” says Lamb. So, how can educators and school leaders create classroom communities that are calm, safe, and predictable, while also building positive school climate? Listen to this episode of Critical Window to find out. Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple Music, Stitcher or wherever you find podcasts. Featured Image by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action. <br /> Expand Transcript Collapse Transcript Hans Hermann: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers and communities. Robyn Harper: This week on Critical Window, we’re learning more about trauma, the impact it can have on the mental health and learning of students and what educators can do to create an environment that effectively supports students affected by trauma. Hans Hermann: Our guest today is Michael Lamb. Mike is the Executive Director of the Washington, DC office of Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization that translates scientific research into tools, practices and systems for educators to help all students thrive, particularly children who have been impacted by adversity. Mike leads network and school partnerships as well as development and stakeholder engagement. Before Turnaround, Mike worked at the US Department of Education during the Obama administration, and prior to that, spent time teaching seventh and eighth grade students in Chicago. Mike is also currently involved in several groups and task force focused on mental health and trauma-informed schools here in DC. Welcome to the show, Mike. Michael Lamb: Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be here. Hans Hermann: And we’re really glad to have you with us today. Robyn Harper: Absolutely. Hans Hermann: So we’re gonna just jump right into it. At Turnaround for Children, which for those listening, Turnaround is shorthand for that, how do you define trauma and what are examples of traumatic experiences that students may have? Michael Lamb: Yeah, it’s a great question to start off with. We ground ourselves in the research that has been done for decades on adverse childhood experiences in particular. So 20 years ago or so, there was a major study done to try and identify what is the primary impact of the adverse experiences that children go through. And Kaiser led the study, and what they found was it had nothing to do with the child themselves, their personality, how they were born or anything like that. It was primarily to do with the experiences that they had as children, and that meant emotional abuse, emotional neglect, sexual abuse, living with a drug-addicted family member, losing a parent to divorce or death. It was those kinds of experiences that children went through that ended up becoming traumatic if they were unbuffered, if they did not have a relationship with a trusted adult that helped them buffer those experiences. And the impact of those experience is tremendous. So if you’ve had just four of the ten experiences that they identified in that original study, you’re 32 times more likely to have learning and behavior problems in school. That’s not 32 percent; that’s 32 times more likely. But it also affects health as well, so you’re 10 to 12 times greater risk for attempted suicide or intravenous drug use, and many of the leading causes of death are correlated with four or more ACEs. And fully 20 years can be taken off your life if you’ve had six or more of those ten ACEs. So this has really profound impacts on the lives of students if these experiences are unbuffered and if they do not feel like those experiences can be supported and mitigated through. Hans Hermann: If that doesn’t lay out for people how important of a subject this is, I don’t know what else could. It really shows the importance of addressing and being knowledgeable about trauma and traumatic experiences. So the history of Turnaround is rooted in the tragic and traumatic events of 9/11 and really helping students in New York City cope with the aftermath of what took place. Could you just tell us a little bit more about the beginning of Turnaround? Michael Lamb: Absolutely. So Dr. Pam Cantor is our founder, and she was a child psychiatrist focusing on the impact of trauma for the children that she worked with. And what she would always say is that she could never change the experiences that children were going through. She couldn’t stop the divorce that was happening in their lives, she couldn’t stop the abuse that they had gone through. What she could help them with was how to move forward, how to develop skills and mindsets and approaches that would help them actually be able to go through those experiences and become resilient on the other side. So right after 9/11, the City of New York was becoming concerned about the impact of trauma in their schools, and they convened a task force to try and figure out what will be the impact here. And the task force believed that the biggest impact would be right around Ground Zero. This was where the towers fell down tragically, this was where a lot of people saw those events, and so they thought that that was gonna be the place where trauma was living the most. But because they did the study for the entirety of New York City, what they ended up finding was that the biggest impact of trauma, the biggest impact of trauma, the biggest lasting impact of trauma was in the areas of deepest poverty throughout New York City. Because for the children in those neighborhoods, this was not a one-off experience where the traumatic event happened and then it was over. For them, it was every day, and that was something that the school system hadn’t really been thinking about. It wasn’t something that principals and teachers and social workers were constantly planning around, and it was an eye-opening experience for Pam. And so she decided to found Turnaround for Children to try and do something about that. Hans Hermann: Yeah, and I think that that segues well into our next question and other questions we’ll have throughout this conversation that that point that they really discovered that all these experiences that students were having around the city and living in certain conditions were having just as much, if not more, effect on their learning. So in addition to events as we were talking about with widespread impact like 9/11, students, as you were saying, may experience trauma in their communities, schools or even their homes. So how then has the mission and work of Turnaround evolved once this came more to light to support all students who have experienced trauma? Michael Lamb: Well, I think when we first started, Pam was most connected with the work around student – supporting students through mental health services and interventions. And so early on, we were primarily concerned with connecting students with that mental health therapeutic intervention. And over time, Pam and our organization learned that if you had great therapeutic and clinical services for students and they went back to a classroom where the teacher was really frustrated, didn’t feel like they had the tools to manage the classroom, was exacerbating and sometimes re-triggering and re-traumatizing students who were in their classroom, then you needed to do something to help teachers actually develop their toolkit. And so we developed teacher training and resources to support teachers in creating a classroom community that was calm, safe and predictable. Over time, through that work, we learned that you needed to actually have a whole school that did that well. That if a classroom felt like a safe, predictable place but then the hallways were very chaotic, that the cafeteria or the playground became a place where students were re-triggered and their amygdalas became locked in fight, flight or freeze, and the hippocampus, which is in charge of learning and memory, wasn’t available, and the prefrontal cortex couldn’t self-regulate, then the rest of the day would be really difficult for learning to take root. And so we developed our leadership capacity building, and that really framed the work that we’re doing now. Our mission right now is to translate the brain science that undergirds all of this work into tools, practices, systems that school leaders can use in particular. And so our partnerships in DC and New York and around the country are really focused on arming school leaders with the tools, systems and practices that they can then own and build the capacity of their school staff to really manage all these issues well. And so that is how we’ve evolved over time. We’re increasingly working at the district systems level as well, so this year we’re doing a training series with all the instructional superintendents in DCPS just on brain science. So they get to be learners even though they manage 100 schools. They’re getting to learn this brain science and think about the leverage points and the tools at their level that could help create the conditions for school leaders to actually do this work well. Hans Hermann: That’s fantastic that you’re doing those trainings, and as we’ve talked about before, you know, at All4Ed, that’s something that obviously aligning the science of how people learn and brain research and how we’re actually teaching and learning in classrooms is so important, and so it’s wonderful to hear you’re all doing such great work there. Robyn Harper: Absolutely. And on that note, while I’m sure our listeners are a bit more familiar with the emotional impacts that trauma can have, you mentioned in previous answers already that connection to learning. Could you elaborate a bit more on how trauma can affect students’ mental health and consequently their ability to learn in the classroom? Michael Lamb: Absolutely. So I mentioned that data point earlier. For students that had been through at least four adverse childhood experiences, they were 32 times more likely to have learning and behavior issues in school. And that’s a data point that has real, hard science underneath it. And what that looks like is for students who have experienced lots of adversity, they often can become locked in fight, flight or freeze because of the biological mechanism of stress called cortisol. And so cortisol can flood the brain and the body in moments of stress. We’ve all experienced it. It could be a moment where you feel like you’re lost your child at the grocery store and that split second your heart starts beating fast, your palms get sweaty, hair stands up on the back of your neck, it’s a moment for you, you know. We’ve all had those kinds of moments. But for children that have been through multiple experience of adversity and trauma, that isn’t just one moment. That is how they’re going about their whole day. For them, their brain doesn’t need to differentiate between what is a real threat and a not-so-real threat anymore. The threat feels so constant that they’re always gonna be hypervigilant, and that’s the way that they’re going around the day. And so for them, their amygdala is in charge, and that’s the smoke signal to the brain that remembers all of our traumatic experiences, and it says basically I’m in charge. So the other parts of the brain that are in charge of learning and memory, like the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of attention, self-regulation, executive function, those kinds of things, are actually inhibited when the amygdala takes over. Because we don’t wanna be able to figure out whether a threat is a real threat or not, we wanna be able to react in moments where we’re feeling under duress. So it’s a wonderful human healthy response that we have. And it’s wonderful if you’re in the forest and you see a bear and you need to act. It’s terrible in a classroom or a hallway. And so it can get in the way because of your reactivity, but that hippocampus, which is in charge of learning and memory, if it’s inhibited, you could have a wonderful lesson plan as a teacher, you could have really great, engaging content, but if that child is feeling stress and if the amygdala is in charge, then that long-term memory won’t actually take root, so that’s the science behind all of this work that leads to some of those challenges. But the science tells a really optimistic story because one of the core principles of the science of learning and development is that the brain is malleable, and this means that the brain can always grow, can always develop, can always have new neural pathways created. And so the brain science tells us that really positive, optimistic story that really is grounded in resilience. Robyn Harper: That’s great. And it’s really interesting to hear you say that because here at All4Ed, we focus primarily on supporting adolescent learning and development because we recognize that, on one hand, adolescence is a very stressful time and it impacts the ability of middle and high school students to learn. At the same time, adolescence presents this great period of opportunity in terms of that malleability that you just spoke of. So for our own purposes, what unique or specific considerations should educators make when thinking about trauma and its impact on mental health and learning for adolescents? Michael Lamb: That’s a great question. You know, a lot of focus has been on the importance of the early learning years, zero to three, zero to five. This is my mother’s work for her whole career, so I am a big fan of that. But I think the other part that people often miss is the importance of those adolescent years, which is another hugely impactful time on brain development. And so there’s enormous amount of change that can happen during those adolescent years, and I think too often the narrative can be that, oh, if a student is in high school, it’s already too late to intervene, already too late to support that child, and that’s not at all what the brain science tells us. The reality is that the brain continues to develop not just through five years old, not just through adolescence, but actually through your late-20s. And so that development actually is in terms of physical size, but also in terms of all of the new neural pathways that happen when brains develop, and so it’s a hugely important moment for children. And our building block framework spells out a lot of the foundational skills and mindsets that children need, and a few of the ones that are particularly helpful for adolescents is that sense of relevance and that sense of belonging, that they need to feel like what I’m working on really means something to me, that I’m starting to be aware of the long-term life I wanna live, and I’m starting to see issues of fairness, issues of justice, issues of equity, and I’m starting to question this world that I kind of always accepted. And so it’s enormous opportunity to be able to shape the developing brain of adolescence, and too often it’s kind of seen as the end stage of education when the brain science tells us that it is an enormous moment for malleability and for that continuum, which is another principle of the science of learning and development for the continuum of learning to really happen. Robyn Harper: Right, and it’s important to recognize that students are entering into the classroom not just facing experiences that could affect them, whether traumatically or adversely in the classroom like, you know, interactions with peers or interactions with certain educators or adults in the school building, but they’re bringing in experiences that they’ve had outside of the school and educators and leaders have to be prepared to support them through those experiences that they might not even be familiar with. How do we support educators in navigating that kinda tricky spot for supporting students who’ve experienced trauma or have been exposed to trauma in their homes, in their communities or, you know, via the media once they get into the classroom? Michael Lamb: Yeah, that’s a wonderful question, and that’s often front of mind for all of the educators that we’re working with because they’re becoming more and more aware of the challenges and traumatic experiences that children face outside of school. And so a few of the things that are core to talk about with this question are, number one, that the brain is malleable, meaning the experiences that they have in school can continue to shape the brain even when there’s experiences that are really challenging for students that happen outside the school. So that’s the first important point to remember. The second thing is that the question that educators often ask is what’s wrong with this child when they’re acting out, when they’re having behavior challenges, when they’re clearly struggling. They often say what’s wrong with this child. And we think that the question should be what happened to this child. And increasingly, what assets does that child have that can actually promote their healing and their resilience? And so those are the types of classroom relationships and communities that need to be built once you begin with the premise of the impact of trauma, adversity and stress on children. And so we lean into all that science and we train educators on all of that so that they can really understand what might be going on in the lives of children. And so relational trust is one of our most important strategies that we talk about because the research says that trust is actually the antidote to stress. What that means is that if you’re a child and you have lots of experiences with adults that are not necessarily positive or adults aren’t necessarily following through, they aren’t being a buffer for you, but you have that one teacher that can have that great relationship with you, and then maybe you have that thought that not all adults are trustworthy but this one is. And then what if you have another teacher that next year that has a wonderful, trusting, connected relationship with you, and another and another and another, and soon, as a child, you’re able to see the telltale signs of an adult that’s trustworthy and one that’s not. And that’s the type of learning and that’s the type of belief that we think children should be walking around with. Hans Hermann: That’s fascinating ’cause we also – we had another podcast before this where we talked about the relationship, the importance of the relationship between teachers and students and the positive impacts. We had – our guest was Dr. Kathryn Wentzel from University of Maryland, so what you’re speaking of was very much in line with what she talked about as well. Robyn Harper: Absolutely. So what types of trauma are historically underserved students more likely to experience and why is that? Michael Lamb: Yeah, so I think many of the incidents of trauma that I mentioned earlier are really impactful and profound. Sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, having a drug-addicted family member, all of those are those ACEs that we talked about. And the question that I think we think about is so what do we do about those instances of trauma in schools. And while there might be schools that have lots of students that have those traumatic experiences, unfortunately schools are doing not enough to actually mitigate and buffer those experiences that children go through. And we are concerned that not enough schools are actually making their classrooms calm, safe, predictable places where relationships are deep and connections are there. And so one of the strategies that we focus most on is called a 2 by 10. It’s a very simple strategy that any teacher could use. Essentially you spend two minutes of uninterrupted time just listening to a child for ten straight days to build that attachment, to build that connection. That can be a foundational building block for children in general. It’s also a foundational building block for learning, and so that is a core attachment that can really help students who are experiencing a lot of that trauma. And unfortunately, many schools that need that most do that less. Hans Hermann: So – and I also wanna point out there was a quote earlier. You said – I think it was instead of thinking about what’s wrong with the child versus what happened to them, and I really – I wanted to call that out ’cause I thought that was a great way to be thinking about trauma. It’s not like there’s something wrong with them. It’s what happened and then what can we do to support them. Turnaround recently released a new framework for comprehensive student development called “The Building Blocks for Learning.” If you haven’t read the report, you should go and check it out on their site. It’s excellent. Tell us more about the process that you undertook, or Turnaround undertook to develop this framework and what are the key messages that emerged as you were developing this framework and it was completed? Michael Lamb: Yeah, so there were a couple things that we thought about when we were developing it. Number one, we wanted to merge all of the research of the science of adversity, the science of learning, the science of student performance all together so that this was an integrated approach to what that science told us. So that was the first part. The other part is that there had to be evidence that these were malleable skills and mindsets. So you’ll notice on that framework that grit isn’t one of the building blocks, for example. There’s not a ton of evidence that grit can be malleable. A lotta people think of it as a personality trait, whereas resilience, there’s evidence that that can actually be developed within somebody. So that was another principle that we were looking at when we went out there. The other one was that it had to be connected to academic development and that there was evidence that these things could be developed in an academic setting because that’s what school is. And so those were the principles that we thought about when we developed the building blocks framework. And for us, there’s a developmental continuum there that starts off with many of the foundational skills and mindsets such as attachment, stress management, self-regulation going up to sense of relevance, mindset, belonging, those types of things, all the way up to curiosity, tenacity, civic identity, self-direction being the top ones. And so for us, oftentimes schools are really, really good at thinking about that ideal goal. They talk about the need for curiosity and self-direction and resilience and tenacity, and they think those are things that we really want somebody to leave with. But what they don’t think about is we may actually be on the hook for developing the earlier building blocks that not all students walk in the door with. So we may actually need to develop a sense of attachment. We may actually need to develop a sense of belonging, a sense of relevance, stress management skills, self-regulation skills so that students can actually ultimately show the version of themselves that has those higher level skills and mindsets. And that’s a new thought for many educators to think about, but if you are coming in the door knowing what the science tells us about the need to develop those skills and mindsets and we’re aware of the adversity and the skill development that may not be there for all students, it’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-do. Hans Hermann: Where does trauma fit into the framework? How can the framework be used to support students who have experienced trauma? Michael Lamb: Well, adversity, stress and trauma is a barrier to developing those skills and mindsets. So it is kind of an undergirding truth that you have to reconcile when you’re thinking about all of those skills and building blocks. And for a child that’s experienced adversity and trauma, stress management, for example, might be even more important for them because they’re living with lots of stress. And so as an educator, that might be something that you have to think much more about for children that have been through trauma and adversity than for children who haven’t had a number of ACEs, for example. Robyn Harper: So we talked a little bit about what teachers and educators can do in their classroom. I’m curious about what school leaders, district leaders such as superintendents and principals, what are some examples of that they can do at a more systems level to support their districts and schools in supporting students who’ve been exposed to or have experienced trauma? Michael Lamb: Absolutely. One of the things that DC Public Schools has done, for example, is to say out loud that we believe in the integration of social, emotional and academic development. They have a Deputy Chancellor for SEAD. They also have said out loud that social and emotional development is on par with academic development. They’ve created measures to be able to do that and they’ve invested heavily in the training and development of school leaders and district leaders in understanding what that means for them. And so that’s a starting point. That’s a place that you need to begin. I think too often in the education reform movement, district leaders, school leaders thought of their mission as just academic skill development, rigor, high expectations academically. And the brain science tells us that all of these things are integrated, that the same brain that’s wrestling with what four times six is is the same brain that’s thinking about what happened last night, is the same brain that’s thinking about whether I trust the teacher that’s in front of me so that I can take risks in challenging problems to be able to potentially fail. So a lotta people talk about having a growth mindset and high expectations, but if you don’t have a classroom community that supports children when they take that risk, that risk might not feel like a thing that they wanna do. So there’s all sorts of things that district leaders, school leaders and educators can do, and a part of our training series is arming school leaders with the systems, practices and strategies that they can use to create that calm, predictable, safe environment for students but also for adults. We often don’t remember that adults have been through adverse experiences themselves. Sometimes they haven’t wrestled with that, and so that is a huge thing that a lot of our principals are working on now is how do we support the adults that are experiencing these incidents as well. Hans Hermann: So we only have one more question and then we’re gonna wrap up. I do wanna ask before we get there, where can people find resources, maybe on your side or somewhere else, if you wanna really quickly just say where they should go, teachers or school leaders. Michael Lamb: Yes, absolutely. So our web site is TurnaroundUSA.org, and we have all sorts of science on there, and that’s where I would love for folks to start. We have our building blocks framework, we have the science of learning and development, which is a huge combination of research that we put together, that Pam really led, our founder really led a number of organizations to do, and so that’s a great place to start. We have a lot of stories and anecdotes and strategies from the schools that we work with, and so I think that’s a great resource for people to start with. Hans Hermann: Thank you. So the last question here, based on your experience, Turnaround’s research, you worked at the US Department of Education, we talked about in your intro, what do you think are some next steps for large-scale policies or practices that we can begin at a state or federal level to support students who’ve experienced trauma and to support their mental health. Michael Lamb: Yeah, so I think ESSA began the process of calling out school culture, non-cognitive skills as being important, so that opened up the conversation. But we have so much more room to grow, and that’s around the research and implementing practices that are grounded in that research, but that’s also in our mindset and how we think about all this work. There was an amazing study that was done a few years ago in a major urban district that started with their early warning indicators, and they identified high-risk students and low-risk students. And what they found was high-risk students that had strong social and emotional skills scored the same academically on math and reading tests as low-risk students. And that meant that if you had the social and emotional skills necessary or learning to take place, then you would be able to score the same. And so a lotta people think of high-risk as being the experiences that children have gone through, but studies like that and the research that we talk about says that the riskiest thing might be a school that isn’t building those social and emotional skills along with academics. And so I think it’s about the mindset that we all take on as education reformers, and I’m really heartened by the growing focus on social and emotional skill development integrating with academics and the impact of trauma, adversity and stress. We’re hearing that more and more and we’re hearing people thirsty for it, but we’re also seeing them merge this with a broader understanding of how learning and development happens. Hans Hermann: Thank you so much for joining us today. Robyn Harper: Yes, thank you. Hans Hermann: Our guest is Michael Lamb, Executive Director of the Washington, DC, office for Turnaround for Children, where he leads network and school partnerships as well as the development and stakeholder engagement efforts. It was great having you here on Critical Window. Thank you again for chatting with us today. Michael Lamb: Thank you so much for having me. Robyn Harper: Thank you for listening to Critical Window. The Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast on how the research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the work of school leaders. Tell your colleagues, friends and families about Critical Window and please subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher to make sure you catch future episodes. This podcast was produced by Aharon Charnov, Hans Hermann and Robyn Harper. To learn more about the science of adolescent learning, visit all4ed.org/sal.
28 minutes | Nov 20, 2018
Critical Window: When Students Trust Their Teachers
As a professor of human development in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland, College Park, Dr. Kathryn Wentzel researches the nature of teacher-student relationships and how these relationships predict young adolescents’ goal pursuit, prosocial behavior, and academic performance. On this episode of All4Ed’s podcast, Critical Window, Wentzel walks through the process of building positive student-teacher relationships and how it affects student engagement and learning. In the below excerpts from the episode, Wentzel explains that teachers can… Capitalize on Collaboration “The more [teachers] are tuned in to the peer relationships in their classrooms, the better able they are to create a classroom climate where [students] can interact with their peers but also engage in good instructional activities. So the challenge is to enable students to interact with each other but also in structured contexts where they’re able to learn.” Act as a Safe Haven for Adolescents “During middle school and high school, teachers have the ability to create safe environments for students, physically safe environments as well as emotionally safe. And this is very important for adolescents because, as supportive and friendly as peers can be, they can also be mean spirited. They can also create a lot of stress. And so, teachers need to continue to be there as a safe haven for adolescents.” Model Good Relationships When a trusting relationship exists between students and their teachers, “students are willing to engage in things that the teachers would like them to.” “A positive relationship also allows teachers to model good relationships with others, and so these social and emotional skills are very valuable for kids to learn and to demonstrate with each other.” This results in positive social behavior in the classroom, including “being helpful, cooperating, sharing, being nice to each other, and engaging in positive social exchanges with others.” Create an Engaging Classroom “If a student feels that a teacher cares about them, is going to be supportive of them as an individual, they’re more likely to listen to the teacher, to engage in what the teacher wants them to. It [will] create a very calm, but at least an engaging classroom climate which allows everyone to learn more and better. It just creates a better climate for everybody to engage in the process of learning. And so there are academic benefits as well. Kids are more engaged and motivated to learn academically.” To learn more about how to build positive relationships between teachers and students, listen to the full episode of Critical Window below. Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple Music, Stitcher or wherever you find podcasts. Featured Image by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action. <br /> Expand Transcript Collapse Transcript Robyn Harper: How can positive relationships between teachers and students help to keep students more engaged in the classroom? This week on Critical Window we’re looking at how positive relationships can be a crucial tool for teachers and how education leaders need to take a key role in developing the structures that help teachers create and foster these relationships, especially when it comes to adolescent students. Hans Herman: We have a great guest today whose work focuses on the nature of teacher-student relationships and how they predict young adolescent goal pursuits, social behavior, and academic performance. Kathryn Wentzel is a professor of human development in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She researches the nature of teacher-student relationships and how these relationships predict young adolescents’ goal pursuit, prosocial behavior, and academic performance. Kathryn has served as an editor of journals and handbooks in her field and is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Educational Research Association. She is currently an American Educational Research Association Congressional Fellow for 2017-2018, where she uses her research expertise to inform policy in Congress. Welcome to the show, Kathryn. Kathryn Wentzel: Thank you so much. I’m very glad to be here. Robyn Harper: Great. So, teachers and parents often notice that children entering their adolescent years start to focus more on their friends, their social circles, and their pursuits outside of school. Also, we know that there’s a noted decline in students’ motivation and achievement in school during adolescence. Is it true to say that many adolescent students are not as motivated to do schoolwork and be in school itself? Do adolescent motivations often lie elsewhere? Kathryn Wentzel: I think that we often have a stereotype about adolescent students, that they don’t want to go to school, that they’re highly unmotivated, and I think there are truths and untruths in that stereotype. I think, yes, adolescents are less motivated simply because they have more things to do. There are more distractions, and so they have to divide up their time across multiple goals and things that they want to spend their time doing. On the other hand, I think they do like to go to school, for the most part. Their friends are there. There are lots of social opportunities in school for them to pursue. And many adolescents are serious, by the time at least they get into high school, about what they’re going to do as adults, and so they start to focus more on their work, their career goals, or whatever it is they want to do. So I don’t think they totally discount school. Robyn Harper: Definitely good to know. Hans Herman: I’m curious, then, what are the specific changes that are taking place in an adolescent’s life that explain why there is this shift. And you started to mention some of those, but what are they? Kathryn Wentzel: Sure. There are lots of changes for adolescents, and I think that’s one reason why we don’t understand them probably as well as younger children. There are environmental changes as they move into middle school and then from middle school to high school. Adult expectations are that they become more independent and self-regulating. At school, classrooms and the school plant itself becomes more impersonal, so they don’t have those social supports ready to help them. There’s less oversight and opportunities to get in trouble as kids get older. There are also cognitive changes, so students move into the stage of formal operations. They’re more able to think abstractly and play with ideas. This also is related to identity development, so they’re more able to take on different personas and identities, and that’s part of the adolescent experience, is trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be. So that’s a big change that I think drives who they are and what they do in school. Their teacher’s role becomes more focused on learning and instruction. So as elementary school students, quite often teachers provide more emotional support sometimes and they’re friends with younger kids, or try to be friends. But adolescents see teachers more as having a role of being their teacher and instructor, and so that becomes a narrower role for teachers. And then there’s ongoing brain development. We probably understand this least with respect to at least schooling. But what happens is that adolescents become more and more prone to risk taking. This can be good as well as bad. It’s good in the sense that it feeds into their identity exploration, so they’re willing to take personal risks with who they are. But then they look to the peer group for more security and safety, and a peer group also offers more opportunities for risk taking and getting into trouble. And so it’s a time of flux and kids are generally, I think, excited about this, but it’s also a scary time. And so the risks come with both positives and negatives. Robyn Harper: You mentioned in an earlier answer that school is where adolescents’ friends are, and now I’m hearing again their peers offer this greater opportunity for risk taking, both positive and negative. So if the center of the adolescent’s social world, let’s say, is their peers, what does that mean for their teachers and the other adults in their life? You talked about how the teacher’s role is shifting from that of mentor and friend in the elementary years to more instructor in the adolescent years. So are the abilities of adults to support and motivate adolescent students drastically diminished because of these changes? Robyn Harper: I think they have to change. So I think just as adolescents are faced with new challenges, I think adults need to recognize these challenges and perhaps change the way they interact with adolescents. I think it’s very important especially for teachers to acknowledge the importance of peers and use that to their advantage. And so what we are beginning to understand is that teachers vary in their ability to understand adolescents’ friendships with each other and their ability to get along with each other. And the more they are tuned in to the peer relationships in their classrooms, the better able they are to create a classroom climate where they can interact with their peers but also engage in good instructional activities. So the challenge is to enable students to interact with each other but also in structured contexts where they’re able to learn. I think the other piece of this – you know, I talked about teachers as having more of an instructional role, but during middle school and high school, teachers also have the ability to create safe environments for students, physically safe environments as well as emotionally safe. And this is very important for adolescents because, as supportive and friendly as peers can be, they can also be mean spirited. They can also create a lot of stress. And so teachers need to continue to be there as a safe haven for adolescents. Hans Herman: So then how is our understanding of the importance and the ramifications of building positive and supportive relationships between teachers and adolescent students evolved over the past several decades? Is this something we’ve just known for a long time this is important and take for granted, or is this something we’ve been learning? Kathryn Wentzel: I think it’s something we’ve been learning. I think the research focus began probably several decades – [clears throat] excuse me – it began probably several decades ago, focusing on young children as they made the transition from the home to school or from childcare to kindergarten. And people were worried that working with teachers rather than being with parents was gonna be detrimental to students. And so the focus then became, well, what is the nature of teacher-students relationships in very young children and does that facilitate learning. And I think as these kids have grown up over the years, researchers have followed the age groups, and so I think now we’ve reached the adolescence of research as well as a focus on adolescents themselves. And so, in recent years, people have become more and more focused on middle school and high school students, with the realization that, in many ways, teacher-students relationships are as or more important during those years than for elementary aged students. People are beginning to develop some really good interventions, especially coming out of University of Virginia, working with teachers on one-on-one relationships with their students as well as how to improve classroom climates. Hans Herman: So you started talking about interventions in that last question, and I’m curious if you could explain more about the academic and other benefits for building positive relationships between adolescent students and teachers, and what are the outcomes that come from building these relationships. Kathryn Wentzel: Sure. I think there are two different sets of outcomes, but they are very interrelated, the first being social. So, building positive relationships with students provides students with a sense of social security and safety. It builds trust, so students are willing to engage in things that the teachers would like them to. A positive relationship also allows teachers to model good relationships with others, and so these social and emotional skills are very valuable for kids to learn and to demonstrate with each other. And then the outcome: the social outcomes are positive classroom behavior, being helpful, cooperating, sharing, being nice to each other, and engaging in positive social exchanges with others. Because that happens, there are also academic benefits. If a student feels that a teacher cares about them, is going to be supportive of them as an individual, they’re more likely to listen to the teacher, to engage in what the teacher wants them to. It’s gonna create a very, hopefully, calm, but at least an engaging classroom climate which allows everyone to learn more and better. It just creates a better climate for everybody to engage in the process of learning. And so there are academic benefits as well. Kids are more engaged and motivated to learn academically. Robyn Harper: For the practitioners listening in, can we take a moment to describe what these supportive adolescent-teacher relationships actually look like and the common roadblocks, if you will, that are detrimental to fostering those sorts of relationships? Kathryn Wentzel: Sure. I think, as I mentioned earlier, building a supportive relationship is really all about building trust with the individual. And I think there are a couple of things that teachers can do to facilitate that. One is providing emotional support and demonstrating to a student that they care about them as an individual. This can be as simple as making sure you know their name, saying hello to them when they enter the classroom. If they see that something is a little bit off today, asking if there’s anything they can do to help, but just showing genuine concern for them as an individual. Another thing that’s very important is for teachers to be very clear in their communications with adolescents about what they expect them to do, what’s gonna happen if they don’t do what’s expected, what they value, so that a very definite structure is established in the classroom for interactions and communications. It’s also very important to provide help. So if you ask a student to do something academically, you need to be there to help them do it if they don’t have the skills to develop. And, finally, create a physically safe environment, and that’s on the minds of everybody these days. But whatever teachers can do to make students feel safe from bullying or any other kind of physical dangers in the classroom, that’s very important. This is often tied, especially with adolescents, it’s tied to issues of discipline and teachers’ responses to bad behavior. And so, quite often, adolescents try to test boundaries. Right? They question authority. They have different ideas about what they can and cannot do, what kinds of choices they should make. And so teachers need to be more flexible in response to misbehavior and rather than immediately enforce punishment, to come up with creative ways to be more proactive about what it is that you’re supposed to be doing. How can we resolve a conflict? How can we promote more positive interactions and social behavior in the classroom? And so people these days are talking a lot about social and emotional learning, restorative justice practices in the classroom, and so I think it’s important for teachers to be cognizant of those things to work with their students. Hans Herman: So what I’m almost hearing from you is that there should be a focus on positive, more rewarding type of behavior and relationship between the teacher than maybe a negative and punishment that might not work as well with adolescents? Kathryn Wentzel: Absolutely. Absolutely. And adolescents like to feel as if they have choices, and if a teacher works with an adolescent to work through a problem, to resolve a conflict, hopefully the teacher comes up with a positive solution that’s good for her or him, but also give the adolescents a chance to contribute to that discussion and to have some say in what the outcome is going to be. Hans Herman: We’re curious to understand more about how this process happens, building positive relationships. Is it something that’s only done during academic hours? What other context should teachers be considering in the students’ lives outside of classroom and school building as there are looking to build positive relationships with their students? Kathryn Wentzel: Sure. High school teachers especially do spend a lot of time or have the opportunity to spend a lot of time with students outside of school with extracurricular activities. Whether it’s sports or theater or music, teachers do stay around and work with kids after school. They’re very motivated to engage on many levels. But I think a very important thing we don’t think about often is teacher-students’ relationships with students’ parents. If teachers can develop positive interactions and communications with their parents, they provide a good model for how relationships should work. They demonstrate, hopefully, that the parents trust the teachers and that there is communication going on between the two, and show that the teachers are there also when parents might not be able to provide some safe environments for kids when things are happening outside of school, that they are a safe haven that they can go to. But I think developing relationships with parents is extremely important for kids this age for teachers to do. Robyn Harper: So does this conversation, does the approach change regarding how teachers can foster these really positive relationships with their students when we consider the needs and challenges faced by historically underserved students, such as students of color or low income students? Kathryn Wentzel: We know much less about those students, but some of the things that we’re finding I think are very important to consider. One is that quite often students of color or from low SES backgrounds quite often have different definitions of what a caring or supportive teacher is. Quite often they mention teachers who are more emotionally supportive or who are there for them socially as being more important than perhaps your average white middle-class student. And so I think that’s important to take into account. Regardless of those characteristics, it’s also important to remember that any student who comes from a stressful background, who’s living in circumstances – whether it’s community, family environments – that put the child at risk, if they come to school hungry, if there are just a number of stressors in their background, that teachers can play a very important role, again, in establishing a positive, trusting relationship and providing that child with a very safe environment to come to at the beginning of the day. So I think that’s also important. And, again, going back to the parent issue, often there’s a mismatch between parent values, teacher values, or school values, and it’s important for teachers to understand that mismatch but also work even harder to establish relationships with parents so that those things can be discussed and understood and that the student sees that conflicts can be resolved to make them more comfortable. Hans Herman: Do you mind maybe just explaining – and I know you did to some extent in that answer – but more of, when you say mismatch, what that exactly – what all is entailed in that mismatch? Kathryn Wentzel: Sure. There are a couple of things that we have studied. Quite often there is a mismatch in values, especially in terms of how teachers should interact with students. There are differences in values over discipline, how students should be disciplined. Quite often there’s just a mismatch in terms of expectations about what students should be doing not only in school but at home, issues over homework, issues over how much time children should be spending on school-related things. Some parents simply don’t understand, especially if they’re new to this country or if they had bad experiences in schools themselves. They don’t understand or ignore those things that might facilitate their own children doing well. And so, again, that mismatch makes it more of a challenge for educators – it should not just be teachers, but school administrators – to work on these issues, to bring families into the school, to encourage parent involvement, and to help them understand how to best help their children. Robyn Harper: So you brought up school leaders, such as superintendents and principals. Let’s speak a bit more specifically about how they can support teachers in building these relationships both for more privileged populations of students as well as historically underserved students. How can they help build these relationships and create school environments that motivate middle and high school students? Kathryn Wentzel: I think that there are some exciting projects going on right now to enhance the ability of school leaders to do these kinds of things. So there are programs being developed around social and emotional learning, around trauma-informed care, around restorative justice, so that school leaders understand how these issues play out in the school, the need for them to be supportive of teachers to learn how to use these skills, to train them in these skills, and to create a school environment where teachers have the professional development for these things, but also to send a message to students that these are things that are valued throughout the school community and not just by one teacher. So I think it’s important that we train school leaders in these kinds of issues and social supports, engage school counselors in this process and allow them to work with teachers, and to just come on board with the realization that schools are social communities – and I think most school leaders understand this – and to look for ways to make it as supportive a community as possible. Hans Herman: We’ve gone through this whole conversation without talking about what you’re doing right now, which is we mentioned at the very beginning you’re working as an AERA Congressional Fellow in Congress. Would you mind explaining what that all entails, briefly? And then we’d like to learn more about what you’ve been doing there. Kathryn Wentzel: Absolutely. So the Congressional Fellowship is through the American Educational Research Association and sponsored by AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And as Fellows, we are placed in Congressional offices, both in the House and in the Senate, pretty much how to learn how legislation is drafted, developed, introduced into Congress. I’m working in the House this year. And so we’re there really to engage in the entire process, to learn how it works. Each office I think is very different, and so it’s sort of interesting and exciting to see how this all comes together. It’s a very political and dramatic year to be on the Hill. And so we’re privy to the issues that come up on a day-to-day basis, how people talk through issues, political issues, legislative issues, and probably most importantly from a researcher’s perspective, how evidence – Hans Herman: If you had to say what your greatest learning has been, or your greatest learnings being in this experience, what were there? Kathryn Wentzel: Yeah. I think, well, I was totally surprised at the process of decision making and really how much of what goes on is based on fundamental values. I think that, as researchers, we often believe that everything we do has real practical and political importance. My apologies to my fellow researchers. But quite often I think we don’t think about the political or the policy implications. And I think one thing that I’ve really learned this year is that we need to stop sometimes and say, “Well, okay, how can this be used?” And quite often, I think what I have found is that some of the basic questions that we assume have been answered and that perhaps are part of our value systems haven’t been answered and the evidence really isn’t there. So I think sometimes we have to go back and really think about, well, do we know about what kinds of discipline are best? Do we know about how teachers define good discipline or good behavior? Do we know how students define good discipline or good behavior? And some of those basic questions we just don’t have the answers to, but we assume that we do. So I guess my biggest takeaway is we still have a lot of work to do, and we have to open channels of communication with policy makers on the Hill as well. Robyn Harper: Absolutely. As the Alliance continues their work in the science of adolescent learning, we definitely become a part of that conversation that isn’t as clean as many think it is. It’s that, you know, I hate to use the word “negotiation,” but it almost is between what we know from evidence how decisions are being made and how it’s actually applied in the classroom. And it is certainly a challenge, but I think not only ourselves, but other organizations, are definitely taking on that mantle as they try to help the education space align as closely as possible to the evidence that we know, as well as support researchers in figuring out those questions that we still need answered. Kathryn Wentzel: Absolutely. Robyn Harper: So it’s really interesting to hear that it’s even evident on the Hill. Kathryn Wentzel: I think I would suggest more researchers need to spend some time on the Hill and more people on the Hill need to spend more time in classrooms. It works both ways. Robyn Harper: Definitely. No argument there. Hans Herman: I’m curious then, now that – and you’re finishing this experiences in August. Correct? Kathryn Wentzel: Yes. Hans Herman: So what are your plans now as you return back to University of Maryland? What’s happening next for you? Kathryn Wentzel: So I am returning to the University of Maryland. I’m looking forward to beginning work on my own research again. This is my area: teacher-student relationships, and so thinking about how to support teachers more in their efforts to develop positive relationships. I think we have started some good intervention programs, but to listen to both sides of the equation, both students and teachers, and how they define positive climates and what we can do to facilitate that. I think that’s very important. And also how to develop programs that promote prosocial behavior, socially responsible behavior. There’s been a lot of interest and work on civic engagement, and I’ve become more and more interested in that and how schools and classrooms can become mini-communities that we can create to help students develop a better sense of civic involvement and civic engagement. Robyn Harper: We are all definitely looking forward to what your research brings next to the table, and we really want to thank you for all of your time this week. Again, our guest for this episode of Critical Window is Kathryn Wentzel, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently an American Educational Research Associate Congressional Fellow for the 2017-2018 period, where she uses her expertise on student-teacher relationships and adolescent motivation and achievement to inform policy. Thank you so much for joining us. Kathryn Wentzel: You’re welcome, and thank you for having me. It’s been fun.
30 minutes | Oct 24, 2018
Critical Window: Navigating Student Activism in an Era of Parkland
March for Our Lives. DREAMers. Black Lives Matter. Young people are lifting up their voices and demanding a seat at the table to discuss issues of immigration, gun violence, and inequality that permeate their lives. These are problems that students carry from their homes to their schools each day. As an educator or school leader, student activism may lead to difficult questions. Should you support your students when they stand up for change? What if your beliefs differ from theirs, or you have trouble relating to their experiences? If you want to support them, what’s an appropriate way to do so? To answer to these questions, All4Ed spoke to Ben Kirshner, professor of the learning sciences and human development at the University of Colorado, Boulder and author of Youth Activism in an Era of Education Equality. As a guest on All4Ed’s new podcast, Critical Window, Kirshner shared three key points to address student voice and navigate student activism. Lead with Empathy Handling student participation in protests and walkouts is a complex issue that is entwined with safety and liability concerns. But there are ways that adults in the school building can support students without losing facetime or harming the learning process, explains Kirshner. “If students are feeling like there’s an issue that really affects them and they care about it, it affects their daily lives, and a teacher is not showing any empathy with that, or, at least a willingness to listen and hear what that issue is and, maybe, show solidarity with their students, then, all the facetime in the world isn’t going be helpful for that learning relationship,” Kirshner says. Leading with empathy is key. “I think it’s important that school leaders, teachers, faculty try to understand where students are coming from. They’re not required to agree with them, in my view; but, if they show an effort to listen and take them seriously as people who are interpreting their world and have mature ideas about the world, then, I think that goes a long way.” Create an Infrastructure That Supports Student Voice “One way to support student learning and voice is to think about how a student council, student advisory group could actually have some input into substantive issues that the school is facing,” says Kirshner. This moves beyond the benefit of providing students with leadership opportunities and enables them to create change in their schools. “Frankly… [that] will help [principals and superintendents] develop practices and policies that are really responsive to young people’s lived experiences,” Kirshner explains. Make Learning Relevant to Students’ Interests “Think about how civic learning and voice and agency can be integrated into the academic curriculum,” Kirshner posits. What would that look like? Take English class as an example. If some of the goals of the class are for students to improve their reading ability, understand the difference between evidence and opinion, and learn to write or speak persuasively, then have students do their own research about issues that matter to them and develop policy proposals on what they’ve learned, Kirshner explains. “You could call that participatory action research,” he says. “From the perspective of a learning scientist, like myself, [this] is actually really consistent with what we know to be high-quality, deeper learning.” Listen to the full episode below. Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple Music, Stitcher or wherever you find podcasts. <br /> Expand Transcript Collapse Transcript Robyn Harper: This week on Critical Window, we’re taking a closer look at what research says about student agency and activism and what it means for our middle and high school students learning. Hans Hermann: I’ve got to say, Robyn, I’m so excited for this topic. Robyn Harper: Me too. I’ve been seeing topics like this all over the news and I’m really excited about the guest that we have Hans Hermann: Ben Kirshner is a professor of the learning sciences and human development at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the faculty director of CU Engage Community Based Learning and Research. He’s the author of many papers and a few books including Youth Activism in an Era of Education Equality. His work centers on how young people, especially those from marginalized communities learn to exercise collective political agency and how they interpret their sociopolitical context. Welcome to the show, Ben. Ben Kirshner: Thanks, ______. I’m really excited to be here. Hans Hermann: As we were preparing for the show, we realized that a lot of the terms thrown out in this space might confuse people, researchers from student activism use a variety of them. If you could just unpack these terms for us and clarify if they’re the same thing or different, that’d be very helpful. Ben Kirshner: That’s a good place to start. rather than define each of those terms, which I’m afraid might be a little dry and uninteresting, I’m just gonna introduce a few key questions that I try to ask when I’m learning for the first time about a particular activity, again, or initiative. A key distinction that I think matters is to try to understand who is the sponsor or the host for this effort or program. So, often, for example, we’ll see that student voice gets associated more with school-sponsored activities to try to promote student input into decision-making at the school level; whereas, oftentimes, youth organizing is associated outside of school with community organizations, but I think sometimes those terms can get used differently. There’s another question I will often ask which is who’s participating or leading—and/or leading the effort? I often find that college student versus high school student programs, they’re substantively very different, so I think that’s an important distinction. Is the program really centered on and/or led by experiences of youth of color or, perhaps, LGBTQ youth? Or, does it aspire to a more colorblind orientation? Or, maybe, it’s even restricted to a certain population of students like student athletes or straight-A students. So, those are the questions, who participates and who’s experiences are really defining the agenda. That’s the second distinction. And I just have one last distinction that I want to share with the listeners: towards what ends is this effort going? What’s the purpose? What’s the goal? There’s a distinction often made between opportunities for young people to be civically engaged that are primarily focused on maintaining our institutions, so it means participating in existing systems and learning how to participate in those systems. Very important. Or is it oriented towards issues of equity or justice and encouraging young people to think about how they might change institutions or systems to really address or realize broader goals of the United States or of issues of fairness and inclusion and social justice. Robyn Harper: As I think about what’s been happening with students in response to things like DACA, which is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, for listeners who aren’t familiar with that acronym; and, also, the response by students to the tragedy Parkland, recently. Could you talk us through using those key questions as a frame? How we can wrap those examples into the context? Ben Kirshner: The effort to, both, create DACA and, then, fight to maintain DACA came out of the immigrant rights movement and that movement has been—was intergenerational in many ways, so it included parents and grandparents and adults and young people. There’s some really terrific research showing the ways in which youth efforts and youth leaders worked in an interdependent and collaborative way with some of the existing policy organizations. The Undocumented and Unafraid movement really tried to lift up a broad range of experiences within undocumented students and also really did more direct action that was occupying offices of Senator McCain, for example. Which I would very much characterize as a form of activism that was really centered on the experience of young people, many of whom are from Mexico and Central America, but also, many from the Continent of Africa, from Europe, from East Asia, who were fighting to become recognized as part of this country because they grew up here. On one hand the DACA effort is working with existing government channels to recognize and legalize the status of young people who grew up in this country even if their parents came here in an undocumented way. So, in that sense, they’re working within our existing structures, but, then, they’re also challenging those structures, too, and how we think about borders and the arbitrariness of borders to some extent. So, in the case of Parkland, I think those students felt like the status quo response was not satisfying to them around the issue of gun violence and they did not necessarily feel that the typical channels that they might have to address those ideas could be met by just by talking to their teachers or raising the issue with their principal; so, I would very much think of this as a form of activism, particularly because it involved galvanizing statewide and national movement. According to my sources, that particular school district and school had a really lively and thriving set of opportunities for students to get skilled at civic participation, so there was a strong debate club infrastructure and debate classes. There was a strong theater program; so, these students I believe there was a strong gay-straight alliance in that district. So, these are all experiences that young people were ready, or if not ready, at least had a lot of practice in the skills of working with others, getting their ideas out there, and communicating in a concise way. I think most of us who follow it closely are seeing an effort by the Parkland students— and with some cajoling and with some encouragement from young people of color, both in Parkland and in other places, like Chicago, to really draw attention to the ways in which gun violence and police violence have been an issue with young people growing up in high-poverty communities in particular especially Black youth and Latino youth long before this Parkland case. So, what I’m seeing is some efforts to have some alliances being built that are really insuring that some of these longstanding issues are getting addressed, as well, and that youth of color have been trying to raise awareness about this issue are also becoming kind of center stage. So, what I think what we’re seeing is efforts to build coalitions that I think is really exciting. Hans Hermann: The point you bring up there is really important talking about the types of systems that were already in place in Parkland that helped lift the—make this an easier transition, maybe, for these students to become activists at a national stage because of the type of environment and support they already had in their local school district and community. Hans Hermann: In your book, you talk about looking for your first job in San Francisco in 1993, You, eventually, got involved in a program called Youth in Action and the local YMCA in the Mission District, which is a predominately Latino district and you talk about different types of engagement and empowerment that the organizations offered—for teenagers. Could you explain a little bit more about what you were seeing there? Ben Kirshner: I was was just out of college in my 20s and looking for a job that would pay me to with youth. I wasn’t ready to try and be a classroom teacher and there was a kind of, an ecosystem—[Break in audio]—a few different kinds of community-based or nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area at the time that did work with youth. Back in the early 1990s there was a strong federal push for programs that would be preventative in that way around particular behaviors, but it was really about either preventing or intervening in a behavior rather than promoting a broader sense of development. Over the last 20 years, that approach, although still existing, has been displaced by the positive youth development movement which is generally been a very good thing. Positive youth development is an orientation that you’re probably familiar with, but generally tries to take a strength or an asset-based approach to working with young people and, also, tries to create opportunities for youth that are holistic and that really promote development broadly speaking—relationships, civic engagement, leadership, self-understanding, because as Karen Pittman famously said, “Problem-free is not fully prepared.” So, rather than just focus on eradicating problems, let’s really talk about preparation, thriving, human development. Model was the kind of program I was working in at the time which was the San Francisco Conservation Corps Youth and Action Program, and young people were also learning work skills. We were out there in different parts of San Francisco doing projects in teams of 12 to beautify parks, to create video documentaries about environmental issues. it was a good model of leadership-focused youth development. There’s a third example which I wrote about in the book that really challenged some of my assumptions in positive ways, which was around the corner from our office—literally, around the corner on 22nd Street was a small office that a group called Youth Making a Change worked out of that was part of a broader organization called Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. In that organization, young people and adults were really working in partnership to actually have youth be part of devising policy solutions affecting systems in the city. So, rather than clean a park here, clean a park there, there was a campaign that youth were actively leading to really create more city budget allocations to support youth development opportunity for all youth across the city. Again, that’s kind of a systems approach and this was really centered particularly on youth of color in some of the neighborhoods in South San Francisco and Southeast San Francisco. That is sometimes described as youth organizing, or it can also be described as social justice youth development and that’s what I as seeing, and that’s one among several things that really motivated me to eventually go back and do research about different kinds of developmental settings for young people. Hans Hermann: I’ve been thinking about what this actually means to be a superintendent or principal or teacher. Are you just supposed to disregard the formal learning environment and just let students go leave and support causes that are important to them? if we’re just letting them walk out and do protests, are we wasting opportunities for them to learn about important subjects like mathematics or literature or biology? Ben Kirshner: We’ve been talking about a broad landscape of types of student voice, student activism, and organizing, one of which is walkouts and protests, but it’s not reduced to that. If one is a superintendent or working in a school district or leading a school, I think there’s several different ways to support youth civic development and political participation and some of them are more proactive than reactive. I really want to encourage our superintendents and districts and school leaders to really rethink what student council means. Different schools in different districts have different histories of how they think about student government and student council. I do know that there’s some good research showing that in schools with fewer resources, schools in low income communities tended to not have bylaws for their student council, unlike some of their more affluent peers; but, more importantly, often the issues they worked on tended to be more social like planning a prom or making sure they’re responsible for the yearbook or doing other kinds of fundraising. Those are all really important leadership kinds of experiences; but, I think, one way to support student learning and voice is to think about how a student council, student advisory group could actually have some input into substantive issues that the school is facing. Frankly, I think that’s gonna be helpful to a principal and a superintendent, because it will help them develop practices and policies that are really responsive to young people’s lived experiences. Second example— is to think about how civic learning and voice and agency can be integrated into the academic curriculum. It’s actually, in my view, not that hard. It’s only hard in so far as we’ve created some systems that make it hard, but actually, from the perspective of a learning scientist, like myself, is actually really consistent with what we know to be high-quality, deeper learning. To give you an example, a literacy class, doesn’t have to be a civics class. It’s a literacy class and some of the goals for middle school students or high school students involve improving their ability to read texts, particularly, now with some of the common core shifts, non-fiction texts, really understanding the differences between evidence and opinion, learning how to write persuasively is a form of literacy, certainly, speaking persuasively is a form of literacy and expressing your ideas. Those kinds of literacy skills and knowledge can really be learned through when young people are doing their own research about issues that they care about and, then, developing policy proposals based on what they learned. That’s a second example and I would call that—you could call that action civics or you could call that participatory action research. Let’s get to your third example: protests and walkouts. One way you posed it is, you could imagine a someone who works in schools or superintendent feeling like, “Our mission is to teach academic content and this is undermining that or a distraction from that.” From my point of view, students missing a little bit of facetime a couple times a year or even three or four times a year, doesn’t strike a death blow to the learning process, Facetime, in and of itself, may not be as helpful if there’s not a sense of trust or a sense of caring that the student feels with that teacher or with that figure of authority and I think, frankly, if students are feeling like there’s an issue that really affects them and they care about it, it affects their daily lives, and a teacher is not showing any empathy with that, or, at least a willingness to listen and hear what that issue is and, maybe, show solidarity with their students, then, all the facetime in the world isn’t gonna be helpful for that learning relationship because often more and more we understand the importance of those relationships to really foster and environment where young people want to learn. There’s a legitimate concern that some principals may have just around liability and safety, and I won’t get into all those details; but, I get that it’s a complicated thing and I understand why—I do think it’s a complex position that superintendents and principals are put in. I think it’s important that school leaders, teachers, faculty try to understand where students are coming from. They’re not required to agree with them, in my view; but, if they show an effort to listen and take them seriously as people who are interpreting their world and have mature ideas about the world, then, I think that goes a long way. Robyn Harper: It’s good to know that there’s some promising evidence leading—and it’s a very strong theory of learning representing this work. How would you say that this is most relevant to adolescent learners as opposed to the entire K-12 and even higher ed learning space? Ben Kirshner: I often find myself in rooms where I’m challenging the notion that there’s something unique about youth. On one hand, sometimes we, as educators, we, as scholars, overstate what’s unique about adolescence as a period of time. Sometimes, we overstate it in ways that justifies the way we have set up schools as places where teenagers are set apart from younger children and/or set apart from adults, and that becomes a vicious circle or cycle that reproduces itself. Part of me thinks it’s really important that we challenge conversations or discourses that act as though adolescence is this naturally really unique and strange and terrible time period, On the other hand, there are things going on in these years, whether produced through our institutions or produced by biology that are important to account for and can allow me to answer your question about what’s special about adolescence with regard to these issues of activism. I think, I’ll point to two ideas there. The first is that developmentally, I do think it’s fair to say that as young people are transitioning from childhood years— That is a time when our brains are developing in such a way that we’re more capable of complex abstractions and asking questions—moral questions about our lives, questions about fairness and justice, seeing contradictions that we might be experiencing. “Hey. They’re telling me that America is the land for everybody and the land of opportunity and I grew up here, but I’m not allowed to go to college. This is a contradiction and I need to think about this more.” That kind of interpretive process is accelerated in the teenage years and particularly for youth who might be experiencing those contradictions. “Hey. I go to a place where they say I’m loved, but I think I’m gay and they tell me that if I say I’m gay, I’m gonna be cast out of this community.” So, these experiences of contradiction intersecting with identity and trying to figure out who you belong to and where you fit in, is really accentuated during these years. That’s one reason why these opportunities are really important. We need to create spaces in our schools that kids can talk about these things. There is a second way that I do—I think there’s quite a lot of synergy to the brain science. There’s quite a bit of some synergy or overlap or consistency between what we’re learning about the brain in terms of its plasticity and its adaptability in the ways in which in the teen years in particular its development is very experience dependent. Those kind of ideas and the kinds of arguments I want to make and my colleagues want to make for youth to have these rich civic experience. Earlier in my career, I was talking about some of my research on youth activism and there was a colleague who had read some of the research on the brain. He said, “I guess, you haven’t read the brain research, ‘cause it’s telling me that the brain is not fully mature until the mid-20s, so how can you say that youth should have opportunities to give input about decisions and participate if their brains aren’t mature?” And, I think that’s a misreading of the literature and I also think you could easily flip it, as well, because my interpretation of the literature is that because of the plasticity of the brain and the ways it’s experience-dependent, we really need young people to have opportunities to practice these kinds of skills, whether it long-term thinking or strategic thinking, collaborating with their peers, dealing with open-ended questions and problems versus giving scripted answers, taking risks, taking risks in the public square— seeing risk-taking as a asset versus as a problem; so, for all those reasons, again, I think there’s a lot of consistency there. One of the things Jay Giedd said, was, “the brain is this amazingly adaptive organ and when we talk about the teen brain, it will be whatever we want it to be as a society.” That tells me, if we want young people to be—have a voice, be agentic, be integrated into their communities, feel a sense of community, they’ll adapt to that and they’ll learn how to do that, but the only way that’ll happen is if we provide those experiences, or, at least, don’t get in the way when they seek out those experiences. Hans Hermann: How would you say that research changes or what it says about different student groups, particularly, historically underserved student groups, such as students of color or students from low-income families—what student activism means for them or what your research has said Ben Kirshner: I look to work by scholars. Shawn Genright has done really good work in this area ______ Andrade has done terrific work in this area. Scholars like Maria Torre in New York City. The work that I’m persuaded by says, if you’re growing up in a system or social context that sends messages to you that you’re not valuable, that you’re disposable, it sends those messages in different ways. It tolerates police murder of black boys. It tolerates a school that might be really decrepit and have deteriorating facilities next to beautiful fields and schools in neighboring suburban communities. It tolerates closing down neighborhood schools that your parents went to and that you always thought was a place that you wanted to go and, then, telling you to go to other places that might be less welcoming. My response to the issue of culture or identity or lived experience is that if we want to develop schools as places of belonging and healing and trust, then those kinds of experiences that youth might have coming around different kinds of identities and different kinds of living experiences need to be not taboo. They need to be part of that connection that a teacher or a youth worker is forming with that student and not kept apart from it. The opportunity for conversations with each other, for building community, where you can witness to each other’s experiences and make sense of the world together—it doesn’t mean we all have to agree. It does not mean being indoctrinated into one world view, but a place to really talk through these things that are affecting you directly. I think that’s a really important first step and that might turn into different kinds of activism. It might turn into different kinds of voice. It might take other kinds of shape, as well. That’s an important message I want to underscore is that activism ought to be accompanied by opportunities for reflection, critical self-reflection, critical reflection about the world, and without that who knows what it is; but, it’s not necessarily developmental or educational. Robyn Harper: The United States is still struggling with the recruitment and retention of teachers coming from—teachers of color, teachers coming from low-income communities—basically, teachers that might share the experiences of the students that we’re talking about. Knowing this, how can a wide range of teachers, whether they’re teachers that share these experiences or teachers that they’ve never experienced it until it might be brought up in the classroom. How do we support the teachers and leaders in those spaces in building those trusting relationships? Ben Kirshner: I think there’s good work happening in this area around teacher education and what that looks like. There’s scholars trying to build pathways to teaching so that more teachers coming into the profession through life experience understand the kinds of life experiences of their students, I would like listeners to gain the impression that one can do this kind of education, this kind of critical, reflective, and agency-centered education in all kinds of contexts. It can take place in a more affluent, suburban school. It can take place in a rural community. White, young people growing up in the rural U.S., who might be traveling to get to a regional high school, there’s challenges that they’re facing in their everyday lives; and I can imagine inquiry in a class, whether it’s a math class or literacy class or et cetera, could be a space to explore these ideas and develop their ability to inquire about issues, understand how to reason with evidence, and, also, speak up about their experiences. So, although, this conversation largely, ’cause it’s where some of the greatest challenges exist and the greatest injustices exist, this conversation in the book is very much youth of color and that’s a lot of my own research, I want to underscore that I think some of these opportunities for agency and voice and critical inquiry are one’s that I would advocate in any kind of school context or district. Robyn Harper: To your point benefits all students when it happens. It’s not just a benefit to the historically underserved populations, but having these broader conversation—it supports positive development and positive inquiry, positive thought and deep discussion in all students and I appreciate you bringing that up. Hans Hermann: So, going back as a superintendent, as a teacher, or principal, how should you be thinking about creating spaces that lead to young people’s activism, leads to empowering them, while at the same time, not leading it yourself, because, ultimately, that might be a little bit of a paradox, Ben Kirshner: First of all, I think that oftentimes we can overstate the kind of significance of, say the social category of student and the social category of teacher; and some of the best, in my view, some of the best student voice work that happens in schools is more collaborative; using metaphors of partnership; it’s more intergenerational. How can there be a team of teachers and students who are working together to address an issue that the school is facing and is there a way that the teachers can have some training to really listen and take the students seriously as colleagues—not in a way that’s condescending, but actually taking them seriously, while also acknowledging they’re learning some of these skills. Those are the kinds of learning environments that are so valuable. —I think, the role of a superintendent or a school district leader is to take those young people seriously and ask them questions and not be hostile, but also, not be condescending. Those are the two responses that I often see. I do think there is a really important role often for a more experienced person. It could be a slightly older youth, could be same age, but with more experience, or it could be a teacher to kind of lend some guidance. How do you structure an open-ended challenge like this? How do you turn it into actionable steps? How do you frame your message for different kinds of audiences? So, I do think there are some skills that are important to learn and, oftentimes, more experienced people can help young people learn that; and, that doesn’t undermine in any way the authenticity of the activism, if there’s some guidance involved. Hans Hermann: you mentioned to us that you’re launching a new product with some of your colleague around this work. Ben Kirshner: One we’re calling Transformative Student Voice and I’m working with several colleagues around the country to develop a national learning community around how to work with school districts, superintendents, schools, to support what we’re describing as transformative student voice. So, that shift from old school student council as planning prom to a new approach to student council as student government that’s centered on issues of equity and really making sure the experiences of marginalized students in a school—can be defined in many ways—have—are part of that process. So, that’s one that we’re calling Transformative Student Voice. We’re also developing, here, at CU Engage a project called the Research Hub for Youth Organizing and Education Policy, and that, unlike the Transformative Student Voice, which is very focused on partnerships with formal school systems, this second one is more focused on partnerships with community-based organizing groups and really thinking about how research and curriculum can support their work and the learning of their participants, but also, the effectiveness of their campaigns. Robyn Harper: Thank you so much for all of the work that you do and for taking the time to come and talk to us about youth activism, student agency and relationships and trust and the importance of those for the entire system, both in and out of school. Ben Kirshner: Thank you. It’s been a great conversation. I love this opportunity to get out there and talk about these ideas.
31 minutes | Oct 1, 2018
Critical Window: Uncovering the Secret Life of the Teenage Brain
If you regularly interact with adolescents, whether as a parent, educator, or community member, you’ve likely noticed that there are factors that set teens apart from children of other ages. But did you know that adolescence is the second most active time of neurodevelopment in a human’s life? By better understanding what’s going on developmentally with adolescent students, educators can create learning environments that capitalize on the unique opportunities that adolescence offers. For some practical advice on the subject, I looked across the pond to speak with Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, PhD, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London and author of Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. The following are edited excerpts from our discussion, but I encourage you to listen to the full conversation below on Critical Window, a new podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education. Critical Window highlights how research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the practice of school and district leaders. "Adolescence Isn't an Aberration" Bob Wise: You open your book with a chapter, "Adolescence Isn't an Aberration." In that chapter you state that adolescence is a unique stage of human development…Could you explain why? Sarah Jayne-Blakemore: Some people have argued that adolescence is a recent invention and it doesn't really exist as a biological period of development, but actually there's really good reason to think of adolescence as a unique period of biological and psychological and social development. You see increases in risk taking and impulsivity and changes in social behavior for this age group across species, culture, and history. “No Such Thing as an Average Adolescent” Bob Wise: There are different stages of adolescent development, the physical process is occurring as well as other individual differences. What does this mean for the educator? Sarah Jayne-Blakemore: I think educators themselves know all about individual differences. They work with adolescents every day of their lives and they know there's no such thing as an average adolescent, there's no such thing as an average teenager, every teenager is different and that's absolutely what we're finding in the neuroscience in the psychological research, that although you can look at averages, it's probably more meaningful to think about differences between individuals within adolescence. That might have translational and real-world implications into different teaching strategies for different types of adolescence, but we're nowhere near there yet. “It’s Not Too Late to Intervene in Adolescence” Bob Wise: You write that "education policy tends to emphasize the importance of early childhood intervention…however this emphasis on early interventions is at odds with the findings that the human brain continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence and into early adulthood.” Are we suggesting that the way we often think about interventions is wrong? Could you elaborate further on how you think education leaders and policy makers might think about decisions about interventions? For many years there has been this emphasis in education policy or economics that the first three or five years is most critical to intervene. But the problem with that is that you can't just intervene in the first three years of life. You can't just try to help children, say those from low socioeconomic groups, in the first three years of life and then stop the intervention and expect them to be fine from then on. If a child slips through the net early on in life, and they don't have that early intervention, that doesn't mean that it's too late to intervene in adolescence. It's not. The evidence from brain research suggests that in fact the brain continues to develop very substantially during adolescence and provides an important window of opportu...
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