With a sudden influx of child referrals, yet no real change in the rates of children appearing with neurological disorders, she figured the problem must lie, not with these childrens’ brains, but with the system charged with educating them. The rest, as they say, is history. Willis subsequently spent 10 years teaching elementary and then middle school students, before she reluctantly left the classroom to share her unique insights with practicing and aspiring teachers worldwide. With an adjunct faculty position at the University of California, Santa Barbara graduate school of education, Willis travels the world giving presentations, workshops, consulting and writing books for parents and educators.
Can you tell me a little about where you grew up and what you were like as a school student?
I grew up in Long Island outside of New York, but in the borough of Queens. I grew up on the other side of the tracks, my parents hadn't gone to college. It wasn’t a dangerous, bad place, but in the neighborhood it was normal not to go to college...the bar was not that high in these districts. So I was fortunate that I had a curiosity that wasn't squashed by conformity, and a desire to do something different, which was driven by something my mum said. I told my mum when I was in Second Grade I wanted to be a teacher. She said ‘teachers are great, but did you know that you could be a doctor?’. I said ‘no mum, only ... boys are doctors’. And she said ‘no I promise you that girls can be doctors’. And that flipped a switch. I started paying more attention to what things I could do to excel because as the years went on, it became clear that if that was my goal, I needed to do the best I could.
So you spent 15 years working as a neurologist, what was it that eventually inspired you to make a career change into teaching?
At one point, after about 10 years of practice, the number of kids I was being referred per month went up by three or four times ... that's when I thought something is happening beyond neurologic conditions...that's when I went to the schools and the teachers, because my daughters had gone to the public schools here and I knew the teachers. So when they invited me to see what was happening in their classes it became clear to me that these same classrooms were my girls had glitter on the walls, and chicks hatching ... the kids were now sitting at rows and either staring straight ahead zoning out, or doing worksheets. The teachers clearly weren’t to blame, they were the same awesome teachers my kids had.
That's when I investigated and found more that it was the intensely compacted curricula, even before standardised tests, that were mandated for the public schools as low down as kindergarten. So that's when I said ‘okay, this curriculum has so much memorisation, I get it. The kids are stressed out, or bored or frustrated. So of course their brains flip into survival mode’. Well if they have to memorise more than ever before, if I could help teachers know what strategies make memory more efficient and more durable, then they could bring back all of the things that my daughters had. The glitter, the chicks, field trips, going outside. I took what I knew and I said ‘I think I can offer education and these kids a preemptive intervention, if the teachers know some things about accelerating the efficient memory. But to do that, I felt it would be inappropriate for me to tell teachers what to do if I hadn’t walked in their shoes.
So to be real I became a teacher, I went to school and got my masters and credentials, and through ten years of teaching elementary and secondary school, I tried to apply and see the effectiveness of the ideas I had, for memory and other things later - executive function, emotion, stress - and as I found connections that were durable I strategised and wrote about them ... in books that teachers were able to access. But at least I felt legitimised by the fact that I was a teacher too.
What were your first few years in the classroom like, were there any regrets about leaving your medical career behind?
I imagine my experience was similar to others in than that my learning curve was steep. Behavior management! The first school where I taught, it was Second Grade and then Fifth Grade. And this school was similar to Indigenous challenged schools or socioeconomic challenged schools, funding was low. The parents were working two jobs or sometimes absent and stress was high. For the most part, 99 percent were not English speaking originally.
The climate when I came in, what they’d established, not because they were bad teachers but because of this challenge of they have to sit and memorise, was they started chipping away at the things make school alive - P.E. physical activities, art, music, dance, drama, recess, lunch was diminished, so it was not joyful.
And yet I came in thinking, ‘I have all these ideas, but then there's the mandate’, including things like being told from colleagues if you divide the class into quartiles, don’t focus on the bottom, because at this point they needed test scores. It was high stakes testing, and at the bottom you won't get as much change from the intervention. The top and even the second, they could already do fine on the standardised tests. So put an emphasis on the one quartile below the mid line. Well that was very distressing. It didn’t ever make me feel that I’d made the wrong decision, it made me realise how much I needed to learn, at the same time learn from my colleagues and share with them.
So you spent half of your teaching career in elementary school, and half in secondary school, is that right?
So here I was teaching for five years in elementary school, then I moved to secondary school, not by my personal choice. My husband Carl who is also a neurologist and was certainly supporting me through my return to teacher education, supporting our family, because teachers’ salaries aren’t neurologists’ salaries. But after five years in elementary school he said, ‘what do you think would be a hard grade to teach?’ And I was suspicious of nothing so I said, ‘oh my goodness, anything in middle school. The kids in middle school just have attitude, plus they don't really care that much about the subject and they are adolescents [with] hormones’. So then he said ‘what subject in middle school?’. I said ‘definitely math, pre-algebra. Because a lot of kids at that age have decided they can't do it and might as well not try’. So I thought he was just making conversation. I went through this whole Elizabeth Kübler-Ross stages of death, thinking, ‘he couldn't have been implying I should teach middle school!’ So it's like denial, bargaining, rotating in my brain, and then finally acceptance. ‘I think he was saying that’.
So that's when I realised it's great for me to have things to write and share in elementary. But now it's time to move on. And that's when I was most scared. Teaching kids who had attitudes and weren’t just like sweet and little, that was frightening. And then the fact that I was going to teach math and had not even learned how to use a graphing calculator ... so I spent that summer back in school learning about graphing calculators to teach math. So the experience, when I got there, was a big learning curve.
After five years in primary, five years in secondary, I was so into the kids in my middle school class I couldn’t imagine even leaving and that's when I started getting invited to other places to do presentations in different states and countries, and it was really hard to be teaching and be [doing that]. But I acknowledged to myself that if people felt that what I was sharing about neuroscience was valuable, because what I wrote in books or articles or said in Ted Talks resonated with others, and they felt it valuable enough for me to come to their place, that's when I felt very reassured that I was making an impact.
You’ve done a lot of work around motivating children and bringing the joy back into learning. What would be some of top tips for teachers on this topic?
For any person to be joyful, it really helps to be around someone else who is. So the message that teachers bring with them in a classroom, from the first time they greet kids in the morning, to the words they use throughout the day ... we as educators need to bring to our classroom our best and most joyful, comfortable selves, no matter what we’ve left behind.
Another one is to sustain a climate in the classroom where students know they’re cared for. It was first in a school in Melbourne, that to my surprise had been using one of my books as a formal guide to the structure of their school ... the first thing they had for kids coming into a room, was this chart and you walk into your classroom and you just point to or tell your teacher, which way you’re feeling. And at that moment, the teacher doesn't have to do anything, it's just the child within us all, whether they’re in high school or elementary, feeling ... ‘OK, somebody cares about how I’m feeling now’. And if some kids pick things that are particularly down and sad or angry, giving them some slack. So besides the feelings you enter the classroom with, the other one is letting students know that their feelings are recognised and cared about.
And then the final big one, if I’m only giving three, would be to keep their brains out of survival mode which blocks learning. What I mean by that is, all animals revert to a survival mode when they feel highly stressed or threatened and humans are similar, neuroscience research has shown that in high stress situations, we can see brains going from normal function to altered function, in terms of working memory. So to leave the brain in a state of stress, predominantly from boredom or frustration, really drops to the low levels of memory construction and self-regulation.
That's a long story to end up by saying, as much as teachers can recognise students, just one or two at a time, the ones that are the most zoned out, recognise them, consider how they can be brought into their Goldilocks zone of achievable challenge learning, not too boring, not too frustrating. So thinking about their brains and propelling information through memory, by helping them feel connected through interest, through strengths, through reduced fear, through you as a teacher's confidence in them that they will achieve their goals, it will be the kind of brain travel we want.
You’re big on kids overcoming the fear of making mistakes or failure, and seeing these as opportunities to learn and improve, to develop a tolerance to setbacks and build resilience? Can you tell me more about this?
How can we as teachers, deal with promoting mistakes, especially with the timetable of what you have to teach? Here is our challenge. So if a student asks a question that's from their curiosity and goes beyond the bubble of our schedule, our reflex is, ‘we can’t go there’. Or if someone says’ I don't understand’, the ideal thing is to say, ‘well what do you understand?’ and go gradually through it or syncratically through it. But again, in the interest of time and curriculum. I’ve given answers too quickly. Also we’ve not given enough challenging work for fear of frustration and not getting through it.
So here's the science that I came to the understanding of ... this is still theoretical but, pretty decent. There’s a neurotransmitter dopamine, that drives pleasure and motivation. It also, when released, increases attention, focus, pleasure, motivation, sustained and continuing effort. So when that's released in large enough quantities ... the brain response is very positive. When somebody is asked a question and they're allowed to actually make a prediction, the brain is set up to say ‘oh OK, I'm waking up here, I get to make a prediction’. Making predictions is one of the things that releases a lot of dopamine. OK so you're a teacher in a class, if you ask the question and allow all students to have either wait time or individual whiteboards or iPads to write their prediction, now this little dopamine release sack is saying ‘Oh OK, what's going to happen? I'm on duty now’. If it’s all on the one person, then the rest of the brains say, ‘there’s nothing in it for me, that person's always right’. So let everyone have the desirous experience of making a prediction ... then giving them the feedback. If the answer is incorrect and there's feedback that it was, and a correction, the memories, the information that was brought by hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex in order to make that prediction, they're still sitting around there, and if feedback is that it was wrong, the nucleus accumbens witholds some of its dopamine. So the brain doesn't like that feeling. So immediate feedback that the information prediction it made was wrong, instead of just shutting down will suck up the correct input. I don’t like to talk about the brain as an alive thing, but the response is that the wiring of the information that led to the incorrect response or prediction, is readjusted with the what the correct response. So that's the science of it.
[Another] one is to let kids know about big mistakes ... in your life, big mistakes that didn't work out and how you felt and giving them the opportunity to share their big mistakes.
...The things that I discourage are to encourage mistakes. Encourage deeper thinking. My goal isn’t to encourage mistakes, it’s to increase their comfortable feelings about cognitive flexibility, multiple possible interventions or answers.And it would be your language. Questions like, ‘what is THE answer?’, are going to shut down more possibilities. So, language such as ‘what are some possibilities?’. And then when students do participate in discussion everything is quite good, encouraging thinking beyond the facts and cognitive flexibility and mistake making by saying, ‘Okay, what else?’ whether the first answer was right or wrong, ‘what else?’.
Without dramatising it, [these] are ways to promote realities of what the 20th century is looking for in higher education and in employment, for people who can consider information, consider what they know and assess it validly but also go beyond it.
There’s been a good deal of research into how stress can block successful attention focus, emotional self-management, memory, and learning. You’ve written a piece last month for Edutopia on preparing students for the stress of high stakes tests. What are your thoughts on the place of high stakes, standardised tests in education systems?
I think that their value is much lower than their benefit, except for one possibility. Assessments - they would not be high stakes, so we'll call them standardised assessments - at any point for teachers, are valuable to see if they’re accomplishing their goal, the district or the school's goals. So that information, so that teachers can adjust what they're doing, shouldn't just be done at the end of the year because then time has gone by. But standardised testing lets a certain person shine that leaves out everybody else in terms of perfection. Standardised testing doesn't test what you know, it tests what you were guided to, or a parent told you or you chose to memorise by luck. And really wisdom is not what we know, it's what we can do with what we know. There are standardised tests that do go beyond the bubble, but the ones that are in the bubbles are a percentage of luck, a percentage of what your tutor did, or if your older brother helped you, or parents, or what life is like in your house. Those tests are not regarding what the student knows. We know what they know from different ways that they’re expressing it, from their discussions, from projects, from portfolios from how they do their homework. So truly for it to be high stakes for the student, is so unfair when they know more and they are more than the test.
The stakes for the school is a downward cycle. The school does poorly because they are a region and a district that has so many challenges, then the test will reflect that. The best teachers will not necessarily want to come, the parents will be in doubt. So public high stakes testing, notification of students and parents is, to me, the worst part of high stakes testing, and assessment should be much more individualised and [include] multiple areas, strengths and interests.
I don’t know who benefits beyond the teachers seeing some feedback. You know, med schools and colleges, do they really benefit from the parameter of grades and SATs? . The outcome of students is not related as much to that as it is to other factors. So why not let kids believe in themselves and not have to feel that they’re failures, based on how they feel during a test or their outcome on a test. There's so much more than test scores, and teachers and parents can always reassure them of that.
Your latest book, with Jay McTighe, Upgrade Your Teaching – Understanding by Design meets Neuroscience – what are you hoping educators get out of the book?
When I started connecting neuroscience with what I felt were best teaching or curriculum practices, I was guided to Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design. I knew what the brain needed in terms of what will prioritise attention, reduce stress, increase memory, increase retrieval and cognitive function. I knew those things, but ... my ideas were strategies for neuroscience not planning. So, when I found that, Jay and I met at a conference and he was interested in ‘what does neuroscience really have to say?’ Because at that point (we met 10 years ago) there were a lot of neuro-myths and neuro-cashing in, based on people claiming neuroscience.
So Jay was interested in if there's real neuroscience, I was interested because I was familiar with his design of curriculum and planning of classwork ... that’s what it took. We started writing together and doing presentations together probably eight years ago, and this book has been in the making for the last seven of those years. We really wanted to hone it into what we felt was in my case readable, and connected the dots for people the way we believe them to be.