Three Days of Deep Learning that Made my Brain Hurt!

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Learning & the Brain: The Science of How We Learn: Engaging Memory, Motivation, Mindsets, Making and Mastery conference in San Francisco. It was three days of intense learning and I was only able to attend a small fraction of what was offered. The sessions were organized on variations of themes such as:

  • The Science of Learning
  • Mindsets and Motivation
  • Inquiry
  • Design Thinking and Maker Education
  • Resilience, Self-Regulation, Parenting

Keynotes were like marathons with four speakers in a row on two of the days based on these themes:

  • The Science of How We Learn
  • Engaging Motivation, Curiosity & Exploration

I have included below my sketchnotes from each of the sessions and keynotes I attended as well as thoughts or questions I had after hearing each speaker.


Dean of the Stanford Graduation School of Education

Daniel F Schwartz

The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them

Schwartz talked about learning frailties and the side-affects in educational research. He encouraged design thinking as part of the learning process as it encourages constructive criticism and multiple responses to a single problem.

Currently our systems support risk aversion, premature discovery and the seeking of praise. He challenges us that learning is more like biology but we want it to be like physics.

This made me think a lot about the importance of learning skills and work habits and that we must ensure that these skills are taught intentionally. When he said, “build 3 instead of 1” it made me think about the scene in the movie, Contact, with Jodie Foster:

Of course, he was talking about the importance of trial and error and not getting too connected to the one idea we feel we have perfected therefore closing ourselves off to deep inquiry and new learning.


Director, Melbourne Education Research Institute: Graduate School of Education

John A. C. Hattie

The strongest message I heard from Hattie was don’t test kids, measure our impact. This was not a surprise for me as I have read much of his work and he was my reason for attending the conference in the first place. It is something for us to truly and deeply consider though. It makes me think of the famous JFK quote from his inauguration in 1961, “…ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In much the same way, we must think of assessment as the measure of our success as educators in meeting the needs of our learners. This is as true of our adult learners as it is for our young learners.

Hattie’s meta-synthesis of how we learn might be surprising to those who rely on traditional teaching methods but for those who know his work, it is affirming. He cautions us though that using all of those strategies above the >0.40 need to be used strategically and intentionally which his team refers to as the Kenny Rogers Model as you need to “know when to hold em’, know when to fold em’”. You get the picture….

He also draws our attention to the fact that we spend a whole lot of time measuring achievement but we don’t measure how we learn. I would argue that when we look at the strategies above the >0.40 line or below it for that matter, we often don’t know how to implement them well. Consider how we question, how we involve parents, how we implement cooperative learning — each of these strategies is complex, nuanced, and when practiced, inconsistent from classroom to classroom. What does it mean to question effectively? In Ontario it could mean this from 2011, this from 2012 or this one also from 2012.


Professor of Cognitive Science, Department of Psychology and The Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario

Daniel Ansari

Ansari challenged our thinking as educators and assumptions we make in our decisions to support struggling students. He debunked the myths of right/left brain as well as the infamous learning styles theories. At the same time, he insists that cognitive neuroscientists must collaborate with educators to bring about more accurate practices informed by research.

He suggested that as educators, we often have a deficit hypothesis for children’s behaviours and actions, such as the mirror writing we see as children develop their literacy skills. He explains that most things do not change their status when they face right or left…a cow will always be a cow but somehow if a child writes her name backwards, we assume she has a deficit — perhaps a learning disability. He explains that this is actually a natural phenomenon as children’s brains develop.


Professor of Education, School of Education in the Departments of Psychology, Linguistics and Cognitive Science, University of Delaware

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff

Golinkoff stresses the importance of play based learning for children. She quoted the Ontario Full Day Kindergarten as an example of excellence in early learning. She highlighted the importance of adaptability as a skill — the ability to see problems from multiple angles with different solutions — as essential to our children growing up now. Teaching and learning based on the Industrial Revolution a hundred years ago no longer prepares our children for their working lives as adults.

She reminds us that the need for play is not only at school but at home as well. She took a poll of those in the room and asked us which play was most effective for language development and adaptability and I was surprised by how few raised their hands for guided play. Guided play can create deeper scenarios to support our children in more and more complex learning that we co-design with them.

My favourite moment was at the end when she said, “During direct instruction, the child just sits like a latke!” and then clarified that a latke was in fact a potato pancake. It made me laugh hearing that comparison but at that moment, the Lemony Snicket book, The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. That latke certainly didn’t just lie there! It’s a book worth reading about a latke who is frustrated by the lack of understanding the world has about who he is and what the story of Chanukah is as it is often compared to Christmas and has absolutely nothing to do with it. That latke didn’t take anything lying down!

Ultimately, her message was that adults are necessary in supporting children’s learning but we really need to make space to learn from them. What are they wondering about? What will push their thinking to a deeper level? How can we support the growth from “on my own” to “building it together”?


Education and Technology Specialist, Adjunct Professor, University of Pennsylvania

AJ Juliani

Juliani took us through The Launch Cycle which is included in his book, co authored by John Spencer, Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student.

He told us about his own learning cycle as a new teacher and his frustration at not being able to engage his students as he wanted to. This was when he decided to create time for what he called passion projects — the 20% time famous from Google and from there he moved into Design Thinking as a primary strategy for learning with his students.

I had purchased the book and was excited to see my friend, spicylearning, Royan Lee, had was included as one of the endorsements for the book! That’s all I needed to see that it was worth the purchase!

Juliani reminds us that failure prompts growth with this mantra that “every mistake is another iteration closer to success” by encouraging us to create a board in our classrooms with the title, My Epic Failures, and to be brave enough to add our own failures to the board and not just our students.


Postdoctoral Research Fellow working with Angela Duckworth, Character Lab, University of Pennsylvania and Former Research with Carol Dweck, Stanford University

Kyla Haimovitz

As a former researcher with Carol Dweck, I was not surprised by her messaging but with so many misunderstandings about this research, I was interested to hear it directly from the source. She talked a lot about messages we give our children, whether as parents or educators, about their abilities.

Like so much of what we do with children in our lives, our impact is far stronger based on actions rather than words. No matter what we say, if our actions relay a sense of worry, then our children will worry.

She also challenged us to consider how we praise our children. Do we focus on what they have created or do we ask questions about their process? We need to have learning oriented responses to our children. My daughter, Rachel, has often commented on how many of her friends hide marks from their parents because they get into so much trouble for poor performance. The first time she brought me a low mark was when she started in the extended French program in grade seven. She was so distraught at this low mark and I reminded her that she was new to French and the geography in French and that if she got all high marks then what did she go there to learn anyway? I know myself that poor performance strikes enough shame in us that she certainly didn’t need it from me.


Fellow at Stanford University and Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Amsterdam

Eddie Brummelmann

Eddie had a witty sense of humour that made his presentation incredibly enjoyable. He prides himself on his directness of language such as how we build narcissism in our children. He talked about the relationship between unique child names and the level of narcissism in our children. I couldn’t help but think of Gwyneth Paltrow and her daughter, Apple.

His research also cautions parents from giving praise that is comparative. There isn’t a limit to success or achievement and when we compare our children to others — be it peers or likely more often, to siblings, we create a situation that is detrimental to children’s growth.

I was fascinated to learn that when parents believe their children have low self-esteem and their default response is to offer inflated praise, the child knows this and in turn, has lower self-esteem. It reminds me of the imposter syndrome. When parents tell their children something that they know not to be true, it does not build them up but tears them further down.

In the end, Brummelmann suggests that the best way to support our children as they grow is simply, warmth which he defines as affection, interest and shared joy.


Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education, College of Education, University of Oregon

Yong Zhao

Zhao was disruptive in his approach. It was incredibly refreshing and I imagine, quite liberating for the many Americans in the audience when he told us, in no uncertainty, that test scores do not matter. He suggested that Canadians have a much stronger approach to learning and then asked, “Is there anyone from Ontario in the room?” One person said, “WOO!” but it wasn’t me. He then said that Ontario is the only province that is still hung up on test scores and that British Columbia and Alberta are doing great things.

I have long felt that way about our provincial testing though as a school administrator I know that I must consider them but I am baffled how three days of testing at the elementary level somehow indicates a more profound understanding of our children than a full year of instruction and assessment with a skilled teacher.

Another challenge he raised was the belief that this ideal of Closing the Gap in achievement somehow represents a commitment to equity. We know that the testing is biased and actually widens the gap. In jurisdictions where a school’s value is determined by test scores, we have more impact on real estate values than we do on our children’s achievement levels.

He warns us that “education was created to suppress diversity” and that we need to define success as the commitment to “support each person to become unique” and that “when we talk about ‘closing the gap’ what we are really doing is narrowing variability!”

Ultimately, it is our job to help children grow into who they need to be.


Early Childhood Expert; Certified PreK-2 Teacher, Former Faculty Member, Yale Child Study Centre, Yale University

Erika Christakis

Erika began her talk with a picture of thanksgiving turkey made from a hand…you know the ones…with the construction paper hand cut out and feathers stuck to the fingers and it is meant to resemble a turkey? It really is no different than any other pre-fabricated art project that hangs on the walls of many schools, particularly in the primary years. You see the same thing twenty to thirty times repeated coloured in differently but essentially the same thing and definitely not art. She then contrasts that image with a picture of red paint plastered on a page and she tells us of the conversation she had with that child where she simply asked, “Can you tell me about your picture?” The child, in kindergarten, proceeded to tell her that it was a painting of dinosaur meat. He wanted the dinosaur to have something to eat so it wouldn’t become extinct because there wasn’t enough food for it. He explained that he learned about dinosaurs from palaeontologists.

What creativity do we stifle when we don’t give children the opportunity to play, create and explore? What are our displays in our classrooms? Are they interactive? Age appropriate? Co-created with our students?

She talked about how we have sanitized the habitats of our youngest learners and she refers to the physical habitats such as indoor and outdoor spaces for learning, the language habitat whereby we limit their ability to speak, share thoughts orally, have deep conversations where we ask questions to spark language development and finally, the emotional habitat where we avoid emotions and behaviours. In the last one she gave the example of how many teachers avoid outdoor play because of the effort to get all the children dressed for the weather outside.

From Christakis’ presentation: Early writing samples of English, Arabic and Hebrew in that order.

One of the images that Christakis posted was of three early writing samples from children. She asked the participants to guess the languages. I easily saw English, Arabic and then Hebrew. The woman next to me looked at me like I was strange for knowing. I was struck by how many clues our children show us that they are learning, observing, testing and taking risks. We simply have to open our eyes!


Educational Consultant, Faculty Member in the Understanding by Design Cadre, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Allison G Zmuda

Zmuda began her talk with the question, “Where is the joy in school?” and reminded us the “creativity gets schooled out of kids”. We see decreased engagement beginning in grade one. Again, this was not a surprise to me. She polled the audience and most people raised their hand when she got to middle school but as an elementary educator, I know that grade one is when it happens. The moment the children have to sit at desks, do their spelling tests and fill in worksheets.

I was so blessed to work in a school where the grade one team continued with inquiry based learning for their students but most grade one classrooms filled with rote learning.

Zmuda, like so many others at this conference, praised design thinking, which is linked to inquiry based learning. The design process begins with empathy. Imagine that? If what we design for our children in our classrooms began with empathy for his or her needs, passions, and interests? How different would learning be for our children?

She also challenges us to reconsider what we believe engagement looks like. Many educators would say that when children are “attending to the task” they are engaged but what if that task is filling in worksheets? answering 100 math questions that test the same concept? don‘t require any dialogue at all? Is that engagement or is that compliance?


Associate Professor, Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts: Cognitive Science and Developmental Psychology, Sonoma State University

Wendy L Ostroff

Ostroff’s talk gave us numbers to tie to the disengagement highlighted by Zmuda before her. She tells us that preschools ask approximately 144 questions in an hour which drops to 3–5 an hour in kindergarten and down to nothing once students are in grade 3. She highlights these numbers to remind us how we shut down curiosity in our classrooms and as a result, deep learning.

Think about the structures we have in place to limit questions. We put on hats and to signal to the children that we are busy. We tell them not to interrupt when we are reading aloud. We show frustration when we have explained something and they don’t get it. This does not encourage deep questions or curiosity.

This is not to criticize educators. I did these things too. When you have a forty-minute block to teach a math concept and ensure the homework is assigned so that you can get to the next group of students, parameters have to be set. But what if we got rid of those constraints?

She challenges us to rethink the structures in our schools that limit curiosity. She explains that when time is a constraint, children and adults alike tend to take on the simpler task so that it can be complete rather than committing to a deeper inquiry. One of the examples she gives is the possibility that exists with improv. Improv begs the actor to say yes, model divergent thinking and to activate openness. After hearing this, I decided to purchase a book that has been sitting on my Amazon wishlist for a while…

Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration. I imagine it will be a great resource for the teams I support as well the courses I teach but more on that when I actually use it!

Ostroff’s message was emphatic. Children need time to:

  • play
  • wonder and wander
  • have guided inquiry

And teachers have to:

  • allow without knowing
  • transform curiosity into inquiry

As I attend conferences for my professional learning, I find those conferences that bring in another profession and show the intersection between that profession or area of expertise and education spark much deeper learning for me. This one, reassured me that my intuition as both an educator and a parent can be proven by brain science.

The importance of play, empathy, shared joy and inquiry all resonated throughout the conference.

Equally emphasized was the ineffectiveness of testing, inflated praise, closing the gap strategies, and that engagement drops much sooner than what people assume is adolescence.

Wanting to end with an improv attitude of “YES, AND” rather than, “YA, BUT” I will say that I was left hopeful, reassured and energized to apply the learning and share it with anyone willing to listen (or read). We need to empathize with the children in our care and work to help them become the people they are meant to be by nurturing passions, interests and skills by creating environments that emphasize curiosity, creativity and wonder — not just in our kindergarten classes but all the way through into post secondary education. That’s when we will see what is truly possible.


Originally published on Medium on February 27, 2017.

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