In part 2 of this 4-part interview, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain author Zaretta Hammond breaks down the neuroscience behind student learning.
– Welcome to another PLtogether Lounge Talk. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena, the video observation platform for teacher professional learning. Today, we’re talking with Zaretta Hammond. She is the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain and she’s also a former high school writing teacher. Zaretta, thanks so much for joining us.
– Thanks for having me.
– Well, the book title is Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain. So I think we need to talk about the brain while we’re talking. Oftentimes you described the brain as the hardware and we need to be thinking about the software to install to make the brain work better. So that makes sense from a logical perspective, but like, what does that mean when you really translate that to a classroom and students and their learning?
– Yeah, here’s the thing, when we think about culturally responsive teaching it really has a lot of intersectionality with neuroscience, both social neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience. Because our emotions are part of cognition, right? How we feel about our learning helps us stay connected to it. So the thing that I wanted people to really get is that the brain already comes with this hardware, and the hardware then is programmed from zero to seven with our contextualized experiences within our community. And that means culture then as a software that helps organize all the new information we take and organize and store in our brains. So while it’s like a computer, the information, the software has been installed when you get that computer in the classroom. So you’re not installing it. What you’re doing is leveraging it to actually help it take in more information. And what I wanted teachers to really understand is the way in which culture is part of the software. And not in the sense of just kind of superficial, food, fabric, festivals. And if I dangle that in front of kids they’re gonna feel more motivated, but in a deeper cognitive sense, meaning all new knowledge, right? The content we’re teaching in classrooms has to be coupled with existing background knowledge. And then we have to kind of mix it together. Like those ice cream stores, you go in and you pick your ice cream and then you pick the candy or the cookie crumbs or whatever, and they take it to the cold don’t and they mix it. They don’t stab at it for a few seconds. They literally get two paddles and maybe for a minute or two, they’re mixing it. Well, that is what we do when we are turning inert information to usable knowledge. Now, to do that, you have to know how the brain actually is processing information. I call that information processing. And that is rooted in cognitive neuroscience. What we have a tendency to do is to disconnect culturally responsive teaching from cognition and instruction. We think it’s just a relational thing. And we do, we wanna humanize relationships in the sense that the only the learner learns. The student is a unit of change. You can’t put knowledge in the student’s head. They literally have to take it in, play with it, mix it around, struggle productively with it a little bit, right? Rubbing complex things together. And that process does a couple of things, right? Just like weightlifting, our muscles grow stronger because we’re lifting heavier things but we can’t start with heavier things. We actually have to start with some of the smaller weights but the stretching has to happen over time. So what I wanted to people to really understand is this wonderfully beautiful part of culturally responsive teaching that gets largely ignored. We just wanna make it relational. We just wanna make it motivational. The three areas that I think are so important because the computer, right, our beautiful brain computer only works when these other brain chemicals are in process. So cortisol, we don’t want too much because that will literally shut your program down, right? The prefrontal cortex. But there are two other brain chemicals that are really good to employ. And one is dopamine. It is the yummiest thing, the brain likes and it is employed when we do hard things. And it’s employed by the brain to encourage you to do that hard thing again and actually give you a little bit of a reward for that. So the question I always ask teachers is where are you making sure students are getting a dopamine hit, right? Because they’re in, they’re gonna want to actually do hard things versus a pedagogy of compliant, do it because I said so. No brain ever learned that way. People can comply, but that information is not going to be sticky, right? It won’t go into our long-term memory and be usable knowledge. The third one is the oxytocin. We are social learning animals. We’d love to learn together. One of the things that I think has been really challenging about culturally responsive teaching is people have kind of set the response to that in terms of instruction is just more group work. And I think that is a serious undervaluing of the instructional potential of culturally responsive teaching when we understand the brain science. So social learning is having kids do hard things as a result of being in a group and talking, project-based learning, maker education integrated arts, all of these have some of those elements while they’re not culturally responsive that those things can be integrated in a way that is culturally responsive, contextualized learning, decolonizing some of the content, having students literally use some of their collectivist learning frames and lenses, not just group work. So the brain science behind culturally responsive teaching we need to give it a, a little more attention and a few more props because I think it is the way in which we tie together the humanizing of relationships so that the student becomes that unit of change. The teacher becomes the personal coach of their or the personal trainer of their cognition. And in partnership, what I call in the book an alliance, they are actually able to move and accelerate learning. It’s a beautiful algorithm when you really understand how it works.
– You said something at the beginning, kind of leading us into understanding the basics of the neuroscience which I wanna kind of draw out again. It was this recognition that the software that the students will have for how they learn is not something that will be changed by the teachers. That because so often teachers think, I need to teach my students how to take good notes, right? It’s all about like helping the students learn of course, but it’s this outcome that’s a you’re gonna change the way that the student is by giving them better note taking skills. But I think kind of one of the big ideas I heard there right at the beginning was this is programming, as you said, it’s the software that the students arrive with to the classroom. So you shouldn’t be spending an effort to change it. You should be spending effort to understand it. And in some ways maximize how that student, each individual student and a community of students will be able to learn more efficiently, more effectively, whatever kind of adverbs you wanna attach to it.
– I think that is so true, right? It’s the idea that it’s not so much that we don’t wanna teach study skills or note taking skills but what we want to continue to help students grow in learning how to learn skills. That is the equity equation, right? Study skills, note taking. Those are important, but they’re not the game changer. The game changer is helping the student actually learn how to learn new content more effectively, so it’s sticky, so that they can retrieve it. So within moves into their background knowledge and that background knowledge is what makes us able to carry more of cognitive load. So that when we go into the next grade up or into, we’re learning another discipline, we actually have connections. We are already feel like we know a little something about it and the brain relaxes and it goes more toward the dopamine than the cortisol. So the idea isn’t that, oh, we can’t change students. It’s that, how do we start to understand the schema that they come in with? How do we actually leverage that fact that parents are first teachers and have been teaching their students? And when students are coming from a different cultural orientation than you’re coming from. If you’re coming out of an individualistic culture and students are coming out of a collectivist culture, what are the principles of learning out of a collectivist culture? So the more that we aspire to be culturally responsive educators, we have to have that bicultural lens so that we are understanding that. And so that we then can create those opportunities for instruction that leverage that for the students. So we’re not trying to teach them new skills alone, we’re teaching them new skills to learn their discipline. We’re teaching them, learn how to learn as they’re moving forward, but we’re also doing it in a way that allows them to maximize the current schema they have, the current wiring in their brain for learning information. Here’s the thing I wanna remind us, the brain is a learning machine. We don’t have to teach it how to learn. We can help enhance its ability to learn quicker. And that’s what I mean by improving information processing. All brains have it, all brains do it. Some do it in a very unique way. That’s where we have neuro diversity, right? Different brains are wired differently. We don’t need to try and learn kind of every different culture, or I need to kind of help this student individually. We can start to see that their patterns of students, groups of students, types of students that come, that have a shared way of learning, that we can introduce as part of the ecosystem of our classroom and normalize it, not other it.
– Well, Zaretta I think the next place we need to go is talking about examining ourselves but we’re gonna take a short break and come back to talk about that. If you are finding this part of the conversation somewhere out, there shared by your colleague, shared on social media, make sure to head to PLtogether.org for the rest of the conversation with Zaretta as well as many others. Zaretta thanks so much for being part of PL Together.
– Thank you for having me.