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Ep. 114: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang – Emotions in Learning Matters

June 23, 2020 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 114
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 114: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang – Emotions in Learning Matters
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Full PreFrontal
Ep. 114: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang – Emotions in Learning Matters
Jun 23, 2020 Season 1 Episode 114
Sucheta Kamath

Do emotions mess up clear headed thinking? For centuries, culture and science has dismissed the value of emotions when it came to thinking about intelligence, learning, and critical thinking. This may have led to classrooms with a certain level of sterility and emotional reciprocity. Instead however, by focusing on how students feel, what emotional connections they make during their learning experiences, and how they translate that experience into a personal narrative is proving to be at the heart of transformative personal growth. 

On this episode Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, and founding director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, discusses what creates a tapestry of rewarding and engaging learning experiences for all kinds of learners. Through her work she suggests, “learning is dynamic, social and context-dependent because emotions are, and emotions form a critical piece of how, what, when and why people think, remember and learn.” 

About Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is a Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, and the founding director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education. She studies the psychological and neurobiological development of emotion and self-awareness, and connections to social, cognitive and moral development in educational settings. She uses cross-cultural, interdisciplinary studies of narratives and feelings to uncover experience-dependent neural mechanisms contributing to identity, intrinsic motivation, deep learning, and generative, creative and abstract thought. Her work has a special focus on adolescents from low-SES communities, and she involves youths from these communities as junior scientists in her work.

She has received numerous awards for her research and for her impact on education and society, among them an Honor Coin from the U.S. Army, a Commendation from the County of Los Angeles, a Cozzarelli Prize from the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences editorial board, and early career achievement awards from the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Association of Psychological Science (APS), the International Mind, Brain and Education Society (IMBES), and the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences Foundation (FABBS).

Immordino-Yang was a Spencer Foundation mid-career fellow. She served on the U.S. National Academy of Sciences committee writing How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts and Cultures https://www.nap.edu/read/24783/, and on the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development, writing: https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/the-brain-basis-for-integrated-social-emotional-and-academic-development/

Website:

Books & Articles:

Show Notes Transcript

Do emotions mess up clear headed thinking? For centuries, culture and science has dismissed the value of emotions when it came to thinking about intelligence, learning, and critical thinking. This may have led to classrooms with a certain level of sterility and emotional reciprocity. Instead however, by focusing on how students feel, what emotional connections they make during their learning experiences, and how they translate that experience into a personal narrative is proving to be at the heart of transformative personal growth. 

On this episode Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, and founding director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, discusses what creates a tapestry of rewarding and engaging learning experiences for all kinds of learners. Through her work she suggests, “learning is dynamic, social and context-dependent because emotions are, and emotions form a critical piece of how, what, when and why people think, remember and learn.” 

About Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is a Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, and the founding director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education. She studies the psychological and neurobiological development of emotion and self-awareness, and connections to social, cognitive and moral development in educational settings. She uses cross-cultural, interdisciplinary studies of narratives and feelings to uncover experience-dependent neural mechanisms contributing to identity, intrinsic motivation, deep learning, and generative, creative and abstract thought. Her work has a special focus on adolescents from low-SES communities, and she involves youths from these communities as junior scientists in her work.

She has received numerous awards for her research and for her impact on education and society, among them an Honor Coin from the U.S. Army, a Commendation from the County of Los Angeles, a Cozzarelli Prize from the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences editorial board, and early career achievement awards from the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Association of Psychological Science (APS), the International Mind, Brain and Education Society (IMBES), and the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences Foundation (FABBS).

Immordino-Yang was a Spencer Foundation mid-career fellow. She served on the U.S. National Academy of Sciences committee writing How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts and Cultures https://www.nap.edu/read/24783/, and on the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development, writing: https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/the-brain-basis-for-integrated-social-emotional-and-academic-development/

Website:

Books & Articles:

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Sucheta Kamath: Welcome to Full PreFrontal. Today, it’s going to be a great day, right, Todd?

Producer: Yes, it’s going to be a great conversation. I have been looking forward to this one very, very much so.

Sucheta: Yes. Before we bring in our guest, I was thinking, I am on a WhatsApp chat with my classmates from kindergarten to 12th grade, and in preparation for this topic, I texted them and said, hey, do you remember any learning experience for your favorite moments where you love your teachers or what she did what he did for you? It was interesting to see 20 classmates, 20 different perspectives, and one just stood out which actually spoke to my heart as well, was we used to have this Hindi teacher, she was a second language teacher and she had a beautiful voice and she would sing every word to a very unique Hindi movie song tune, so before she even would begin her class, she would sing original song of the movie. I mean, we are all movie buffs, this is pre-Internet and pre-multichannel TV, some people may not know what that life was. I remember simply associating her singing from the movie, it triggered my memory about the movie and the song she sang, the new poetry we were learning just made the emotional connection.

So, today’s guest has spent her career – she’s very young so she’s got a long ways to go – and to answer this question why students like me and interpreted this learning experience in such a personal and emotional way, so it’s my great pleasure to introduce our guest. Her name is Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, she is a professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California and the founding director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience Development, Learning and Education. She studies psychological and neurobiological development of emotions and self-awareness, and connections to social, cognitive, and moral development in educational settings. She is extremely accomplished and revered by everybody including me. She has been a former urban public school high school science teacher, she earned her doctorate from Harvard University, and then she continued with postdoctoral training in social affective neuroscience with Antonio Damasio, another one of my favorite, favorite neuroscientists in 2008, and since then, she has made remarkable contributions to these overlapping fields that she has received numerous awards, and she has written several articles, books, and conducted classes, and for the community, so with great pleasure and honor, welcome to the podcast, Mary Helen.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang: Thank you, it’s wonderful to be here, Sucheta.

Sucheta: So, as a learner and a thinker, when did you discover your own capacity as a learner and thinker? When did you fully become aware that you need to do these things for yourself in order to meet the needs or the demands on your learning?

Mary Helen: That’s an interesting question. I mean, I think I would say that doing the things for myself and becoming aware of the fact that I needed to are not the same and they happened at different times. When I was a little kid, I grew up on a farm in a rural part of Connecticut and I really didn’t like school very much, actually, which is sad, but school just really didn’t ever feel like it reflected who I was or I really never felt – or only on rare occasions, I still remember to this day and I’m grateful for it that I ever feel I am connected to what I was doing that, like I was doing actually were part of who I was or enabling me to be something that felt powerful or interesting, or sort of genuine and motivating. I really struggled to – I mean, I did well sometimes but I never really felt like I enjoyed school very much, and the older I got, the less I enjoyed it. By the time I was in sixth grade, I just stopped going.

Sucheta: Really?

Mary Helen: Yeah, so awful for me to be there. It was just really, really bad, and there was a lot of other things going on in the school at the time. So, I stopped going and luckily, my parents, especially my mom and my grandma just sort of noticed and they didn't push me. They knew I was right. They knew the traditional school that I was in was really not working well for me and they waited to see what I would do and what would happen, and supported me and luckily, my family had the ability and the financial resources to be able to put me in a different school the next year, so that really turned things around for me, but even in a really great school that I loved for a couple of years, I still got pretty restless with the sort of disconnectedness of what I felt, like I was learning and I don't know, I couldn't have said it in this way, I certainly couldn't really have conceptualized it in this way, but I just found myself searching for opportunities to kind of escape and do things. I was running the farm by that point, I was going abroad, I did part of my schooling in France, I went to Ireland, I went to rush, I was learning all these languages, I was living with families around the world. I just really kind of needed to get out and figure out what though world is about and do things. I wanted to do things and know people and learn about how people do things.

Sucheta: Wow.

Mary Helen: I was very interested in all kinds of traditional crafts and woodworking, and boatbuilding in the communities that spring up around me and how traditions are passed on and learned, and all this kind of stuff, so that's where I started from, and I would [0:05:50] but I didn't really fully loved school until I was in graduate school.

Sucheta: It's so interesting, that's why didn't say this on air but you are a true Renaissance woman. Your journey, now I have followed it from how you came about. One interesting thing I thought was what an accidental gift to the field of education and neuroscience but apparently, something happened to your hand, that's why you took up a job or got a certificate to be a science teacher and that's when you discovered this, right? So, I was curious, what happened to you was hard, it sounds like woodworking!

Mary Helen: Oh, well, yeah, I was, I was working as a cabinet maker as an apprentice. I was working in a wood shop, because I try to go to graduate school for fine woodworking basically and they told me I didn't have enough experience even though I had worked around the world on boatbuilding and various things, and they said, "If you are serious, go get a job and get some more experience," so I convinced a cabinet shop, like a high and custom  cabinetry and furniture shop in Connecticut to hire me as an apprentice for a year, so I was working there and I cut my hand at a jobsite, opening a window that was rotten, the frame of it  was rotten and it gave way when I try to open it, and so that's kind of an unromantic way to hurt yourself when you are using huge power of appointment and all types of stuff daily. But that's what happened to it, and so I needed to support myself and I thought, well, I have got a very broad basis in science because I love science as an undergraduate at Cornell, I majored in French literature, but then I started taking all of these different kinds of science, all the introductory courses in science I could fit into my schedule – a year of biology and a year of astronomy, and a year of physics and a year of anthropology, and biology, all these things and just pulling them together and so I thought I'm in a good position, actually to be able to teach science as a middle school or high school level because I have a broad-based, and the school district was really struggling to fill  positions. I convinced the Department of Education in Massachusetts to get me provisional certification after I showed them all the work that I had done in science, then I started teaching them. I was offered a full-time job teaching seventh grade when I had applied to teach a couple of different AP classes at the high school level, but they said, " This person wants to move up. Would you take a full-time job?" Oh, sure. I found myself in front of 130 kids per day suddenly in one of the most diverse school districts in the nation at that time. There were over 81 languages spoken among 1200 students, there were kids coming as refugees and as immigrants with their families and without their families from all over the world. It was during the time of the Rwanda genocide crisis and other kinds of activities around the world that were producing huge amounts of refugees, and absolutely, I was caught off guard with how fascinating I would find the interactions of those kids, as they landed in my classroom and I was interacting with them as junior scientists and trying to share with them my love of science and trying to engage them and thinking about things systematically, and observing the world around them, observing each other, and I was completely taken with the ways in which kids were using their cultural histories and their ways of knowing, and their own stories and of the things they were witnessing and feeling as a kind of platform for making sense out of the technical science content that I was engaging them in. I realized that I really had found the field I wanted to focus on. It wasn't one scientific and also anthropological and the real-world and useful, and so I was hooked. I became completely fascinated with the ways and that the kids' own meaning-making was shaping the way in which they thought about things and I decided to go back to graduate school to study that, and that's how I got into this field.

Sucheta: Well, I love your personal journey. I think I would never guess that as a child, you struggle or did not enjoy schooling because you look so curious and dynamic, and the ever so willing to challenge yourself.

Mary Helen: School felt [00:09:49] values at [00:09:52] value of curiosity and willingness to be dynamic and challenge yourself is not often what they're about, unfortunately.

Sucheta: Exactly! And the second point you also made which was beautiful, which is your mother and your grandmother, and your family understood you. They didn't push their agenda or they didn't put the square peg in the circle and say fit, fit, fit now. That was a really, really a passionate approach, so that brings me to this basic question on which I am forming this discussion is for centuries, culture and science has dismissed the value of the emotions. When it comes to thinking about intelligence, learning, and critical thinking, but you're right that learning is dynamic, social, and context-dependent because emotions are, and emotions form a critical piece of how, what, when, and why people think, remember, and learn. So, tell us why we have been so wrong for so long and how to incorporate these wonderful findings into constructing a meaningful learning experience for all students.

married: So, I think much of our approach to modern standardized schooling has come from a place of very different values, of aims, and velocity, right? It comes out of a philosophical stance that rationality rules and that rationality is distinct from emotional concerns and that emotions mess of clearheaded thinking, and what is now abundantly clear from the work of Antonio Damasio most notable, but then since then, many, many  other people, a whole field was  grown out of to understand that human beings are not rational agents and in fact, we operate in deeply cultural and context-dependent ways that reflect our own experiences of the world as we subjectively construct them, so the internal process of us interpreting and making a story out of what we witness is really the organization of our thinking, and what that means is that individual variability and the emotions that we haven't different kinds of contacts and other ways in which we interpret things and experience then, and I mean that in a kind of agentic verb, like manners – the way in which we build stories out of what happens is instrumental our learning, and  what that means is that real learning that ties into  and informs the kinds of stories we can build, although ways in which we can analyze and understand things, and of the tools that we bring through the world in order to change things to make them the way we envision that which is really what innovation and creativity, and productivity, and ethics are all about, but those are not merely given to you by institutions that provide you with an input of information and skills, but instead are rarely attempts of narrative, they are stories that you construct, dispositions of mind that you build internally and that reflect and are enriched, and are organized by the kinds of skills and experiences that you have had, and what we are finding now strikingly is that even in a longitudinal study, a five-year-long study of community adolescents from low SES backgrounds in Los Angeles, even above and beyond IQ and social economic status, we can protect kids' brain development and how happy they'll be as young adults and how fulfilled, how satisfied with their lives, what kinds of values and beliefs, not what the beliefs and values are but how firmly they hold them and how comfortable they feel with their own self and of their own relationships. We can predict those by the ways that kids engaged five years earlier with storytelling around interesting manners that they are thinking about. We talked to them about who they are, what they have witnessed in their communities, why they think crime, for example, happens in their communities, we talk to them about stories of young people from around the world, [00:13:48] and Pakistan, and ask them how she makes them feel. We talk to them about what they are learning in school and it why they think it's important or not, and which seasons they enjoy the most and why, how they think their schooling is contributing to their future as adults – a range of topics and what we find is that the ways kids talk, their disposition toward making sort of system-level broad meaning that transcends the concrete details of the current context and integrates those details into a bigger story about why and how.  Kids' propensities to do this seem to be associated with adaptive roles in their brains over time which in turn leads to good outcomes in young adulthood and all the metrics that we as a society most care about, like how happy people are and how productive they are, and how much they like their relationships and themselves. So, it really seems like education needs to shift to thinking about what people know and what they know how to do just that what kinds of stories are people constructing about the world, about themselves, about within disciplinary spaces, like what kinds of mathematical understandings and inclinations, and dispositions do they bring when they think what mathematicians or when they think like historians or like musicians, or literature writers? And as they construct those stories, they are engaging in a kind of brain network development process that sets them up actualize as a person and to be productive and ethical, and knowledgeable and creative all in one big developmental trajectory.

Sucheta: Yeah, that’s so powerful and I think again, another wonderful thing that you point out and many contemporaries who are doing similar work, the emotions serve a purpose but most importantly, in order to understand that, returning to one’s body and making that mind-body connection is really critical as well. Do you mind talking about that aspect of using that knowledge regarding how the emotions or information about how you are feeling resides in the body, and in that informs the brain and that interaction leads a more transformative were informed learning and decision-making?

Mary Helen: Well, what we’re finding – not just as with many groups across many branches of science now – are surely that the very same platforms in the brain that are involved in monitoring and regulating, and modulating physiological survival-related functioning and basic movements and sensation in the world, that those platforms in the brain are repurposed and specialized around thinking. So, we don’t have, as we have previously thought decades ago, a kind of basic set of structures, like in the brain stem and subcortical regions that are involved in managing survival, and then on top of that, we have all the [0:16:47] for text that allows us to do all the kinds of high-level thinking that we think about being associated with education and with productivity in humans sort of layered on top of each other. Instead, what we think is that the thinking and knowledge at this psychological power, gets this hunch from literally hoping it solve into and repurpose thing, and leveraging basic physiological regulatory capacities that evolutionarily are there to keep us alive that are monitoring our physiology, our internal gut and viscera rather than seeing these things as separate, what we are starting to understand is how deeply intertwined they are with each other, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of your learning is directly embodied in the physical sense. What we think also is that there is a kind of [0:17:37] – to use Damasio’s words – there’s a kind of stimulatory capacity in the mind whereby you learn to specialize networks to age, to monitor digestion and gut, and viscera, and you use those to become interested in things, to be compassionate or curious about things in ways that specialize those systems and a multipurpose of them into a new role, an intellectual role, if you will, and in a culturated role. What this means is that we are really rethinking what it means to learn and what it means to connect learning to development. It’s not about stashing away little nuts like a sparrow. It’s more about the habits of mind and the patterns of thinking that we engage with in technical domain that over time repurpose basic physiological systems can also be connected to broader patterns of knowledge building and thinking in ideas that are not relevant to the real physical body in the here and now.

Sucheta: Yeah, that’s so interesting. I guess you are talking about this basic network and there are three networks that you or people often referred to, right? Can you talk about the interconnectivity between these or interdependence of these three networks, so the executive control network, default mode network, and in the third was the salient network? Can you just tie all those three networks together, how they work? And one more question along the lines of adolescence were developing brain: how great is undergoing changes through experience but there is definite trajectory of brain development associated with growth and development, but all kinds of changes that have been during adolescence, how should educators be aware of these systems and its inter-relational dynamic nature as they consider educating kids?

Mary Helen: Well, what we’re learning about the brain is really at the biological development of the brain and the body are heavily reliant on what we call epigenetic triggers, epigenetic forces, so forces from outside the genome that tell the genes basically a set of contingency plans. They tell the genes where and how to turn on and what to do, so in other words, our very basic biology is not specified uniquely in the genes, it’s specified in a set of expected relationship and contingencies between the genes and experience, so that means that we are deeply dependent on our experience to teach our bodies and brains how to grow, and if you think this is just a metaphor, think about, for example, the really tragic case of Romanian institutionally-raised children, for example, who was studied by Chuck Nelson and Nathan Fox, and their colleagues in a major effort that resulted in the changing of international policies around institutionalizing children where [0:20:40] were brought to these institutions and left off by their biological parents for various reasons and the scientists found as many foster families as they could and placed kids randomly into foster care, and the ones that they couldn’t find families for, they kept in the institution and as they watched the groups of kids grow and compared them. There is also a group of kids raised by their biological parents, and I think as the world, we expected that kids being raised in an institution where they had enough to eat, they had been and a warm building to live in and somebody to change their diapers and each other to play with and some toys and things like that, that he might be socially different or cognitively delayed maybe or emotional eating is regulated, but let me have come to realize is that because the kids really only had a kind of rotating staff of caregivers who came through every eight hours and not a family that was constantly very invested in sort of teaching them over the long haul how to be a human, by loving them into that role, that’s what you get is 17-year-old kids who are 3 feet tall was brains are a third smaller than their peers raised in foster families.

Sucheta: Unbelievable.

Mary Helen: Yeah, I mean, they don’t properly go through puberty, they don’t fully mature, I mean, it’s like our bodies and our brains don’t know what to do in the absence of sufficient cultural learning and social relationships. This is the legacy of our evolution over time, and another example I like to talk about is the human genome project where scientists stood out and tried to map out the entire set of genes that make up a human being thinking that by doing so, we would have a whole new vantage point from which to understand disease and health, development and many different factors – aging, and if you read the two nature papers that bookend that projected, the first one basically says all that I just said and the second one basically says we’re done already. There was just far fewer genes in a human being that anyone had imagined, we have about as many as a goldfish and fewer than a rice plant. We have so few genes and then we start to realize as a field that that’s because the way in which our evolution has positioned us is not to specified in tighter and tighter ways how to develop something really complex like a human that is capable of art and politics, and ideology and calculus, but instead, it is to relax the control of genes and to make genes more at the mercy of developmental triggers from the environment, so that the humans become incredibly plastic, incredibly context-dependent for the ways in which their biological growth happens, and of course, there are cognitive groups also, so what that tells us is that there is an incredible responsibility in education to provide kids the opportunities to engage in ways that will facilitate them growing for them self, in the space of type relationships and cultural cohesion, the kinds of patterns of thinking and engaging, and feeling that result in learning and development of the sort that we know is adaptive and healthy for people and for citizens.

Sucheta: Wow. You are so passionate and I’m so glad because I think now, conversations have shifted to this content-specific learning and mastering some arbitrary facts and details without its relationship to the relationships between people and how we apply our knowledge to develop these intuitions. I’m so happy to hear that, so this is going to sound very corny but why do you so deeply care about elevating everyone’s understanding of the interplay between the neuroscientific research teaching and learning? In absence of that, what will happen or what are you afraid people are missing out on?

Mary Helen: Yeah, I mean, I think we are already living some of what will happen, right? We’ve got mental health crises among our young people at a degree never before documented. The California healthy kids survey revealed last year something like 20% across demographic lines of high school kids regularly contemplate the possibility of committing suicide.

Sucheta: That’s so sad, yes.

Mary Helen: I mean, we are really incredible as a species, and I think what it really shows to us is our vulnerability to these kinds of institutions that to really be brave and sit back and think about what are we aiming for? Why do we have schools in the first place? What is their purpose? What do we hope for for our children and our society? And then, how would we design institutions that will support people in engaging and our hopes for that? And thinking about how we enable people to truly belong and become what they are capable of being, we have to realize that what the science is unequivocally showing us and humanitarians have noticed and really great thoughtful educators for at least a century have shown us, that young people learn in the context of relationships and in the context of engaging agentically with information that feels relevant to them and what education is meant to do is really teach them how to build a sense of relevance, how to experience the world in a way that grows them as a person. We pay lip service to this sometimes in the form of lifelong learning and things like that, but often times, the structures that we have in place and that are so entrenched that we don’t even question them are directly undermining our goals and are potentially not facilitating but are harming young people, and we really need to think about how we would re-envision a system, and then how we would go about building a system that would enable all the people in it to thrive – the teachers, their families, and the students.

Sucheta: Is it something that is not simply having a little powwow or where people talk about empathy and compassion, or I’m hearing a lot of these sitting down and simply taking 10 minutes to meditate, you are talking much broader cultural dynamic shift, like a seismic shift in the way we think about educating our children, but more preparing, as you said, I love dad, preparing them to become these individuals to have a deep sense of relevance. I love that. Now, is it happening? Are you witnessing? How can teachers harness emotions so that it benefits students in their efforts to learn? What are general effective principles for learning and generalizing this new knowledge in a meaningful way?

Mary Helen: Yeah. So, I will mention here that I have a new invited paper coming out in Ed Leadership, I think in the May issue, which lays out some of these ideas and connects them to the neural data with teenagers and to education data from really amazing public schools in New York City and part of what’s called the New York Performance-Based Assessment Consortium school, so we actually have data from kids in both contexts and showing the parallel, so I think there are examples of really excellent schooling that we can learn from and that we can adapt for different contexts, but the idea is that we need to think much more seriously about how kids experience the schooling and how they are driving themselves and driving their own thinking and passion in the learning phase and how we are enabling that as a society and as a set of institutions as compared to what we are giving people to tuck away inside themselves as if we have what they need and we are going to give it to them. I like to think about education in a very different way in terms of what people are being empowered think like and to be like, and to do, and when we shift the conversation, then it really does highlight what you are talking about, which is kind of a twofold field of “social emotional learning and education.” On the one hand, there is a real need in part because of the damage that our systems have done, but also just because of the nature of human beings. There is a real need for “social emotional learning” in the sense of helping people to regulate themselves, to learn skills for interacting and for engaging with other people, for managing themselves, for persevering in the face of difficulty in these kinds of things, but I think that while those are very important, that’s the kind of trip of the iceberg, and underneath the water is like you suggested, a huge need for a movement that would reform education from a bottom up and really change and question each of the fundamental structures that we have in place around “teaching and learning,” and we imagine them in terms of the development all empowering spaces that they are really could be, so I think of this, this is like a little [0:29:54] of the Ed Leadership article that I wrote with my colleague Doug Knecht who’s the executive director at Bank Street Education Center and is really involved deeply and these education reform efforts, I think with their work is showing is that there are ways to design learning opportunities for kids and ways to facilitate learning that require a lot of training and experience, and expertise on the part of the teachers and the system, but when they are done well, they really put the ball in the kid’s work, and kids are incredibly engaged by them, they worked amazingly hard, they persist, they persevere, the spontaneously describe a feeling of relevance to them self, and they learn and progress much farther than kids in traditional system stick to under many circumstances, so I think there are models of how to do this, and a three big principles that I write about with Doug in the Ed Leadership piece, the first big thing that we should attend to in education is empowering people and attending to people’s internal narrative – what stories are people telling them self in that space around what this all means and how to understand things, and then the second is, how do we provide opportunities and materials, and entrées into information and resources, and relationships that would facilitate young people and teachers for that matter re-envisioning their narrative, and constructing ever more complex and discipline, and technically informed ways of thinking about various dimensions of the world and society, and the disciplines and it, and then the third, how do we provide the kinds of targeted and situated, and differentiated support, and access to instruction for skills and access to information that people need to be able to flesh out and fully leveraged the narratives that they can tell, so learning about the power of thinking mathematically for predicting things in the world and in the universe, and in time, and then you need to come back and say, and so I need to learn these mathematical tools in order to really engage fully with the story I’m telling myself about how the world or the universe works, and so it’s right from the story back to the need for the learning as compared to the other way around which is so often how we do it now where we start with the fractions, and then we tell them, well, trust me, someday, math is going to be relevant to your life, and kids can’t get excited that way and teachers don’t understand it either.

Sucheta: Oh, my God, I want to go to that school or that learning school, or I belong to that planet where such delivery will happen. So, if you were an advisor to the teachers of that fifth grade class or sixth grade class, what could they have done differently for you, like maybe three things that comes to mind to get you back to care and find your place in that learning system which was lost on you?

Mary Helen: Yeah, I would’ve thrived in the kind of system that the schools that we feature in the Ed Leadership article are about because they’re very project-focused but in a real way. I mean, projects can be done in a sort of thin way or in a very deep way that really promotes kids becoming curious and interested, and owning what they’re doing and driving themselves forward, and I think when we really attend to the experience of the learner and design opportunities for learner to engage with information and thinking, and content and procedures that empower them to understand fundamental things about the world – big ideas, and then to use those to change things in the world and to reinvent the world into something that they want to see happen. That is the essence of innovation and creativity, and activism, and social justice, and we really need to redesign our education systems around strategic ways to empower people to engage like that, and I think if people had done that for me, I would have thrived. Basically, what I was doing for myself on my own time by running a farm with my brothers and sisters and my parents, that we are feeding ourselves off of and we were doing all kinds of other activities where they felt relevant. You could see how what you were doing and what you were planning and imagining, and collaborating on with other people actually had really important implications for the world and for the kind of world you are going to experience and live in, and our schooling is so divorced from that so much and it’s almost as if we are afraid to give people the power to really own their own destinies, and I think we need to get past that because when we don’t empower people with the skills to think and to deeply engaged with one another and to reflect, then what happens is you get exactly the kinds of problems that we are struggling with now which is this engagement from school, depression and anxiety among our young people, and a real lack of innovation and of motivation in society, and what happens is some extraordinary kids make it happen anyway which we are seeing it right now [0:35:13].

Sucheta: Exactly, they don’t need any formal education that way, yes.

Mary Helen: They don’t need it, yeah, it’s almost as if despite their schooling, they are going ahead and building the world they want to see happen, and power to them, how amazing would it be if our schools actually enable people to do that systematically? How exciting for kids, how great for our societies and our world if we were to really focus on schools that teach young people how to use their skills for good in the world and to really engage with ideas and problems, and historical perspectives and future possible spaces in systematic collaborative ways that enable them to really rise and forward and reinvent the world in ways that will serve as all well.

Sucheta: Oh, I’m really excited about that. This information is now reaching to the masses, there is a movement, there is a little bit deeper understanding. So, this podcast, we talk a lot about executive function and its relationship to that social emotional learning, and social understanding. As we and our conversation, tell us about this idea in these new principles that you are describing, where can we insert this education about learning how to learn where there is that executive process of self-reflection, understanding of self as a learner and a thinker, capacity to strategize for self, capacity to solve problems directed towards self, and this global understanding of the minds of others, so that you build relationships, the finer aspects of skills that somehow are often left forgets to discover on their own or are embedded in the experience of learning as if by experiencing the learning opportunity, they will develop the skill. The skills will develop only by teaching those skills, right? And I don’t see that happening either. They happen in the context of math or science, but they are not learning how to manage information by creating internalized systems, it’s not a process-based experience for students that is offered unless they run into problems, then there is special effort given, but then again, it’s isolated from the – bringing it back to the context of larger learning. So, how do you suggest we addressed the executive function development in these children by developing that sense of self and that self-efficacy skills?

Mary Helen: Well, again, I think it’s best to work that the person needs to do and we can set it up for them. I think you learn it by doing it, you learn it by living it, and again, we talked some about this leadership article, but I think those teachers and those systems are designed specifically to empower young people with big problems and big ideas, and then to provide them as needed, the low level concrete support for learning the kind of building block skills that you need to be able to really think about your problem, and the kids actually, to talk about it that way, and so I think really, those kinds of self-management skills which I think executive function is a little too narrow of a term for that, but your ability to regulate yourself as a thinker and as a learner, there is exactly those skills that we see as being related to brain development and well-being over time, and they are related in our study sample to kids’ abilities to move between the concrete details, and then the proclivity or disposition to build a bigger story in your mind, to make deeper meanings, to relate it to a bigger idea or a bigger cause that is both relevant to the self and ironically transcendent of the self, and I mean, I think [0:38:45] wrote a commentary on the very first empirical paper that I had published with Antonio Damasio in 2009 on the neural correlates of admiration and compassion in the [0:38:56] National Academy of Science and he titled his commentary, Finding the Self in Self-Transcendent Emotions, and I think that’s so well-said because the idea is that we discovered – not just us, of course, but we contributed discovering the neural processes that [0:39:14] self expressly by giving people things to think about that by design transcends the self in their full scope, and we define ourselves via the attempt to relate ourselves to these bigger broad ideas that transcend our own limited sense of self and that’s where we find emotional engagement, that’s where we find curiosity and interest, and purpose, is in this kind of social orientation towards bigger ideas that are bigger than ourselves but that can be housed within and cultivated within ourselves, and what we see in young people is that the process of engaging and thinking in that way is hugely empowering and motivating, and there are examples of it in the Ed Leadership article. It leads the people to work!

Sucheta: Oh, I can’t wait to read that, yeah.

Mary Helen: Yeah, and it leads them to work really hard on the building block skills that we need them to have to be able to do stuff and no amount of understanding their purpose and the need for bridges is going to help you actually learn the engineering skills to make one that can stand up, but it’s much better to start with the purpose and the need and then go back and learn the engineering skills than to start by memorizing how pulleys and levers work with no idea what they’re for, right? And so, I think the education system has just got the order backward, and then while we neglect the big picture narrative, and we realize that kids need one, so we try to fill in with a very thin version of one, like “Just trust me, someday, you are going to need to get into college,” or something like that, which it really means very little, right? Instead like, “Just trust me. Someday, you are going to need this, so really appreciate the nature of the universe,” right? It’s a way more powerful way to think about it.

Sucheta: This reminds me of what Jonathan Haidt writes about this moral emotion of awe, I have thought a lot about this in a daily experience. How often your life experiences invoke awe, and when you have the sensation of awe, only then your understanding of self being so small, a speck in the larger context of the universe which is why we thrive and be purposeful because you know you are nothing, and your education [0:41:23].

Mary Helen: That’s right, and ironically, it’s in realizing that that you become motivated, right?

Sucheta: Exactly!

Mary Helen: Yeah.

Sucheta: I’m really grateful for even the teaching institute you have every summer where you invite people to attend one-week workshops. I highly encourage our listeners to explore those opportunities to listen and read your work, listen to you, and imbibe the principles that you’re talking about because truly, I think children will be so grateful to us if we take their biological need. We are so hung up on providing them the right amount of protein and right amount of sleep but we are not caring about their emotional fabric of their learning. I hope as we end, one last comment I was wondering if you can make is about that presence of a charismatic adult as Segal talks about, do you see a value of [0:42:10] relationship or to an individual in the learning context having an incredible meaningful kind of bond to elevate yourself for the purpose of knowing that you are accepted for who you are, having a great influence as well, right?

Mary Helen: Yeah. Well, of course, because kids grow in the space of social relationships, like literally biologically, that’s true, that’s what I was talking about before with the Romanian institutionally-raised kids who are really deprived in that way. I think that it’s because we feel safe to explore and to bounce off of or resonate with another human being’s understanding of things that we get the opportunity to begin to build these modes of thinking within ourselves; we define ourselves in terms of broader things, just like the sense of awe that you’re talking about. Kids define their sense of self in terms of other people, right? And so the loving and close, and reliable stable relationships with adults around the child provide those opportunities for kind of epigenetic triggers, if you will, that lead to both brain and social and emotional, and cognitive growth, and biological health. We grow in the space of relationships and relationships are essential to the health and development of a child, and as adults, that is our role, is to reach out to young people and provide them the stability of our maturity as a kind of doorway into holding them self together so that they can begin to think in these ways and come on board with what it means to be a full human.

Sucheta: Well, the underline and bold is stability of our maturity, so here is to our stability and maturity. Mary Helen, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Mary Helen: Yeah, let me just say a couple of things really fast [0:43:56]. You mentioned early on that I am launching a center, the Center for Affective Neuroscience Development, Learning, and Education, which is spelled CANDLE at USC, so as we start to get more and more [0:44:08], please follows us, we’ll have events and other kinds of information and papers available. This podcast will be featured there.

Sucheta: I’d love that.

Mary Helen: We’re at candle.usc.edu, so watch out for that and thank you.

Sucheta: We will add that in our show notes and link several articles that you have published that are much easier for some of those who are not familiar with scientific literature, so thank you for translating the neuroscience, making it easy and totally, totally having a phenomenal influence on my own relationship to my work, so I deeply appreciate you taking the time to come on this podcast, thank you so much.

Mary Helen: Thank you, Sucheta, it’s my pleasure.

Producer: Alright, that’s all the time we have for today. If you know of someone who might benefit from listening to today’s show – a teacher, principal, coach, parent, or student, we would be most grateful if you would kindly forward it directly to them. So, on behalf of our host, Sucheta Kamath, today’s guest, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, and all of us at EXQ, thanks for listening and we look forward to seeing you again right here next week. We will see you then.