Pamela Cantor, M.D.: The Future of Smart — Using Science to Imagine a New Purpose and Design for Education
Pamela Cantor, M.D.: The Future of Smart—Using Science to Imagine a New Purpose and Design for Education
Special episode of The 180: Pamela Cantor, M.D., Founder and Senior Science Advisor of Turnaround for Children, was a featured guest on a new podcast called The Future of Smart from Grantmakers for Education. Dr. Cantor spoke with Grantmakers’ Chief Program Officer, Ulcca Joshi Hansen, about new research in youth and adolescent development and what it means for creating learning contexts that truly support and nurture the whole child. It was an outstanding conversation — and we’re thrilled to bring it you here in a re-broadcast.
Narrator: The Future of Smart, a project of Grantmakers for Education will explore ideas at the intersection of education, equity, and philanthropy that point us towards a radical re-envisioning of our education system. We’ll hear from those working at the edge of what’s possible and explore what it means to support transformative change for young people and their communities.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: Hello everyone and welcome to The Future of Smart podcast, a project of Grantmakers for Education. My name is Ulcca Joshi Hansen, chief program officer of EdFunders, author of the book The Future of Smart and your host.
Today’s episode rounds out the first section of the podcast in which I’ve introduced three main building blocks we’ll need if we’re going to truly transform education in this country and not just keep tinkering with a system that was never intended to serve all young people equally. In episode two, we heard from Annie Murphy Paul about some of the most profound misconceptions we have about how our brains function and perceive the world, then Josie Green and Jonathan Santos Silva joined us in episode three to explore two very different worldviews.
On the one hand, the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview, a more abstract mechanistic way of engaging in the world that now dominates in America, and on the other, a holistic indigenous worldview which guided most cultures around the world before the enlightenment and taught people to see themselves as interdependent parts of a living system.
This second worldview represents a way of experiencing the world that we can all tap into, one that’s deeply familiar but that many of us have lost touch with or been taught to ignore. Today we’re going to dispel some myths about human development and growth and learn why efforts to improve education in America will not succeed until they acknowledge how people actually grow and learn.
This means acknowledging how important deep relationships are in setting the stage for learning and designing curricula experiences and methods for assessment that reflect the jagged irregular progress of normal human development. The Cartesian-Newtonian worldview that emerged in Europe about 500 years ago spread across the world through colonization.
In the process, it gave birth to many of the unequal, social economic and political systems we’re now trying to fix. Many of us galvanized by the pandemic and the country’s racial reckoning. This worldview also brought about the project of mass education in Europe during the early 1800s and with it, the industrial model of education that would be used as the template for America’s public education system a century later.
This system paid no attention whatsoever to the developmental needs of children, including the different needs they have at various stages. It was entirely focused on inputs and outputs, ranking and productivity. This is still the dominant system in America today. We still sort students by age, focus on grade level standards and expect kids to learn according to standardized curricula that don’t reflect the diversity of individual developmental trajectories and learning needs.
As my guest today Dr. Pam Cantor reminds us, academic development is inextricable from human development. If we’re going to design an education system that nurtures and supports human development, we need to understand how human development actually happens. We need to think deeply about the kinds of experiences, settings, and interactions that allow young people to grow according to their own strengths and potential rather than forcing them down narrow channels lined with assessments and stigma.
Dr. Cantor has spent years studying what young people need to thrive. She translates the science of learning and development in ways that make them more accessible to educators, policy makers, and families. Her work is an important resource as we seek to rebuild a more equitable education system. For too long, we’ve pointed to gaps in achievement between groups of children and blamed low standards, faulty accountability systems, ineffective teachers, or insufficiently rigorous lessons.
This episode challenges all that and follows up on an observation made by Annie Murphy Paul in episode two, by showing how achievement gaps are more than anything the result of kids growing up and learning in radically different context. If we actually want every young person to meet their potential, we need to focus far more on the kind of educational experience we create for each learner, far more than even whole child efforts do today.
Instead of re-imagining context, most of our efforts to improve education have simply bolted interventions and programs onto the conventional Cartesian-Newtonian system. The problems and inequities of that designer so profound that bolt-on fixes just end up weighing the work down until interventions and initiatives collapse under their own weight. We’re left with exhausted educators, hollow academic standards and students more stressed out and disengaged than ever before.
So instead of bolting on interventions, Pam suggests that we develop settings or contexts that are actually grounded in the science of learning and development. In the future of smart parlance, we’ll call these human centered liberatory approaches since they reflect what human beings need to thrive and are aimed at liberating each child’s potential.
Lucky for us, there are models of human centered liberatory programs to learn from even today. Some were developed during the late 1800s and early 1900s as a response to the industrial model in Europe, Montessori, Waldorf, Krishna Murthy, and the precursors to expeditionary learning and United World Colleges just to name a few. Others developed in the US throughout the 20th century and some of these have found a place for themselves within the public education landscape today.
Programs like Big Picture Learning, the Native American Community Academy, Expeditionary Learning and High Tech High networks along with one-off programs like High School for Recording Arts, Avalon School and the Iowa BIG program. Join me and Pam Cantor as we explore why these kinds of programs are especially aligned with what we know about human development. Pam is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, founder of Turnaround for Children, an author, and a thought leader on human potential, the science of learning and development and educational equity. Welcome Pam, it’s great to have you here today.
Dr. Pamela Cantor: It is great to be here Ulcca.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: From your perspective as a medical doctor, as someone who’s practiced, what has public education gotten wrong when it comes to education?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: So much about my training and my own work with individual children was about, am I asking the right questions? Now they’re presenting something to me often a way in which life went wrong. So what my job was was to know that I was asking the right questions about what do I need to know about them in order to be able to set them on a healthy course, whether that course had to do with learning or emotional development, any dimension of their life, it begins with, are you asking the right questions?
And when I moved from medicine to education, one of the things that was most striking to me is that we weren’t asking the right questions because we weren’t working from a knowledge of human development, the development of the brain, learning science, we weren’t using that knowledge.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: So what would the right questions be to your mind?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: I think we’d have to go back to the beginning of the 20th century to understand a bit about how we got here and then how it could be different. So there were false assumptions, there were myths about development that led to the design of the education system we have, and there was enormous racism. So you combine racism and a lack of knowledge and you begin to understand how we got the system that we have.
So what I mean by that is that we believe that genes were the drivers of who we become, including our intelligence. We thought that talent was distributed as a bell curve and now we know that the bell curve is a fallacy. We know that talent is everywhere and kids find multiple pathways, often jagged pathways to become who they become.
We believe that a factory model with lots of memorization was a good and efficient way to learn. And most of all, we believed that the potential of a young person was knowable in advance and now we know that we will never see the potential of a young person if we don’t design a context for development that reveals it.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: That’s really beautiful and resonates with what we’ve heard with past guests who I think say that in other approaches to education, the assumption is that every child is born with potential and that the work of education is to draw forth and to help them thrive. So what does it mean to thrive? What do young human beings need to thrive?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: So I want to give you a picture. I’ve read and seen many definitions of thriving, but one of the things that is often missing is that thriving is actually not a state. Thriving is about a dynamic process where the fit between the developmental context a child is growing up in and that child or young adult, it’s about the fit between the two.
So sometimes I hear people talk about the fish and the lake and the qualities of each. There are people who know that we continuously measure fish and we measure fish without regard to the context in which the fish are living. So by definition, that measurement is unfair.
What we want people to understand about the fish in the lake is that they are in a dynamic relationship to one another. And there can be parts of the lake that are good and nutritious for growing fish and there can be parts of a lake that are not, and the results will not be the same. So what’s important about this are the implications for measurement. We have to measure both.
What I want our viewers to understand is that there is a dynamic ongoing interaction between context and young person and that fit or lack of fit determines whether a young person can thrive so that if we were designing contexts with the idea that the pathways to thriving are various so our design of context has to allow for that kind of variation, then we will have more kids experiencing the environments in their life from the perspective of this place is right for me, I belong here. This place understands me and what I need.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: You talk about belonging. You talk about young people walking in and feeling like this is a space where they can be. And relationship is such a central part of that. And this is where words are challenging because we are hearing a lot of talk about the importance of relationships.
In interviews I have with educators, with parents, everyone says that they have relationships with students. There’s no one who would say they don’t. And yet we’re seeing an epidemic of loneliness and unwellness among young people. It was emerging well before the pandemic. So we can’t only point to that. What’s unique about the kinds of relationships that fuel healthy development and learning?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: So I do know that many of us feel like we know what a relationship is, or we know how to have a relationship with a young person. I question that. Relationships actually are biologically mediated. So when we speak about a relationship that is attuned, bidirectional, filled with trust, we’re actually talking about something that happens to kids and adults that is powerful enough to release one of the most powerful hormones that we have in the human body. It’s a hormone called oxytocin.
And oxytocin has many, many functions in the brain. One of them is that it is our antidote to stress. Oxytocin and times of incredible stress is able to reduce the impact of cortisol. So this idea that a relationship between two people is powerful enough to release a hormone that then has powerful effects on the brain is what we mean when we say relationships are central to all development and learning. But that’s really not the end of the story.
The other thing that oxytocin does is it stimulates neurons to fire and to connect with other neurons. So this idea of relationships are central to how children build complex skills, because complex skills are about neurons firing and connecting to other neurons in different parts of the brain. So nothing about this knowledge, Ulcca, nothing about this knowledge is the way our education system was designed.
Think about the classroom at the beginning of the 20th century, think about a teacher in the front of the room lecturing, think about those 35 kids sitting in rows and whether or not they were known or not known. Today we know that relationships that release this kind of hormonal drive in the brain have very, very, very powerful effects. So if you think about the pandemic and you think about the question you raised at the top, the question was about why so much loneliness.
Well, what is the thing that the pandemic did? It said to us that in order to be physically safe, we had to be physically distant from likely some of the most important relationships in our lives. And for adolescents for whom social connectedness is the most important thing in their development, this age group and we read it every day in the newspapers is suffering mightily. And they are suffering mightily because they do not have the biology of relationships and they don’t have the relationships that are so central to their healthy development.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: I remember reading a study about grandmothers on a bench. I believe it was in Zimbabwe. And I thought that study was such an interesting example of the power of what you just said of relationship of having someone sit, listen, know. But they basically found that in an area where there weren’t a lot of trained sociologists, psychologists, they took grandmothers and put them on a bench in the center of town and people would come over time and sit with the grandmother and tell her stories and she would listen.
And they found that mental health increased simply as a result of that intervention, which is not to say that there’s not still a need for trained professionals. But I thought the findings of that were so indicative of what I think we find in schools like alternative school pathways where students point first and foremost to the relationships they have with adults as what allowed them to then go on and thrive.
Dr. Pamela Cantor: Oh, good. Can I build on the point that you just made?
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: Of course.
Dr. Pamela Cantor: Yes. So another thing that I don’t think is common knowledge is that emotional wellness and mental illness exist on a continuum. They are an arc. And wellness right now is being challenged by many of the things we’ve been talking about already. So the more that you apply stress to a well system, the more that system starts to become fray.
It’s a little bit like in sports when you think about an elbow or a shoulder or a hip, and you keep working it and keep working it, and eventually it gets frayed and you can get injured. Well, the brain is also a target of stress. And unremitting stress to a young person’s developing brain can actually cause that child to move on the arc from wellness toward illness.
And in fact, relationships and the presence of oxytocin and protective environments can move young people back toward wellness. So a lot of the manifestations that we are seeing in the news, suicide attempts, ER visits, anxiety, depression, all of these things, we have moved kids on this arc toward greater and greater stress related symptoms of unwellness.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: In our field, the term whole child I think has been used as a shorthand as people have kind of wanted to try and address the needs of young people in holistic ways. But in your new book, Whole-Child Development, Learning, and Thriving, you and your co-authors suggest that we haven’t gotten whole child quite right. So what would it mean for us to build a system that really attended to the whole child in the ways that I think you’ve been pointing at in this conversation so far?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: So we have five components for whole child design. First, not surprisingly, the primacy of relationships, relationships between kids and kids and kids and adults. Second, environments characterized by safety. Children cannot learn when they don’t feel physically, emotionally, and identity safe and environments characterized by belonging.
Rich instructional experiences, again, we said it before, not relying on factory models, memorization, but a way of learning and different ways of learning that play into the variation that we know is true of all learning. And then 21st century skills. Many people use the term SEL, we don’t. 21st century skills are a much broader set of skills that prepare all children for learning work in life.
The building blocks for learning model was our beginning point, it’s encompassing of SEL, but goes farther. And the fifth component are integrated supports, all the supports that kids need on the emotional side, the physical health side, and learning supports that kids need in order to be able to thrive.
So what we’re saying is that the really essential task here is to have environments that integrate across these five elements, and that is the biggest challenge. But I can tell you that every environment that we elevated and this playbook is filled with videos and tools and resources and examples, every single one that we elevated integrated across five elements, and the kids had outsized gains at all levels, meaning elementary, middle, and high school.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: In my work, I talk about the efforts to bolt on some of the five that you pointed at versus really designing, starting with relationship and then designing in an integrated way to kind of have all of those together. And I think for our audience, a lot of whom are funders and policy makers, that distinction is really important because there’s only so far, it feels like we can go when it’s just seen as an individual initiative or intervention, as opposed to built into the fabric and design in the way that I think EL and High Tech High and High Line have done. So thank you for that.
Dr. Pamela Cantor: Ulcca let me mention one other thing because I loved your examples of bolted on versus design. And your listeners may say, “But we don’t have the luxury to redesign. Our districts are a little bit more like a house that needs a renovation than they are a brand new house that we get to build together.” I think the answer is we have to do both.
We have to aim at the north star of integration. The starting points are going to be different. A lot of the work that Linda at LPI is doing right now that we at Turnaround are doing are actually developing some rubrics that enable schools wherever they’re starting from to move toward the integrated north star. I think yes, organizations like Transcend work with entities where you have much more freedom to design something new. Both are necessary, we have to do both.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: I so appreciate you saying that. This is such a huge thing we are trying to do to shift a system that was built to do one thing to do something else. And I think we often get stuck in these either or binaries that we have to do one versus the other. And I think for all of us to start thinking about the both and is important and it feels as though you would choose slightly different interventions in the short term if you were aiming towards the north star of whole child.
I want to talk for a moment about jaggedness because you’ve used that term a couple of times and the individual nature of developmental pathways. What factors influence a young person’s pathway and what are the implications for how we think about education?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: This is such an important and a huge subject. I want our listeners to think about their own lives and think about whether their way of growing up and learning something was a straight line. Was it that they started where they started and let’s say they were learning to play a sport and they got coaching and training, was their progress a straight line?
And we know that it isn’t, that it is filled with bursts and plateaus. So the line of development of a skill, we already know is a jagged line. But it actually gets more interesting than that and goes back to the conversation we had about driving and context. And that is that all kinds of different potentialities exist in us and we don’t know what they are.
So if we say, how do I know that I am going to be a pianist, I’m going to be a tennis player, I’m going to be a runner? Well, we have to be introduced to the experience of that. And then we start to understand what some of our capabilities are. If I asked you, are we introducing all our kids to experiences that enable them to discover their strengths, their assets, and their needs, the answer would be no. Many kids do not have those opportunities.
Then some kids are given the opportunity to learn and train more deeply in something and other capabilities emerge, I’m talking about the fit between context and young person, and all of a sudden deeper skills emerge. And this young person may in fact look talented, but talent was grown. Talent didn’t just start as a state that that child had. Talent emerged from a young person that had a developmentally jagged profile.
That person was put in a nurturing context and discovered more and more about their strengths, their assets, their needs. So this is one of the most potentially revolutionary human development principles because what it says is that we are all people who have various potentialities and capabilities and what is going to cause us to know what they are, are the ways in which contexts are designed to reveal them.
This is 180 degrees from the way in which our learning environments were created. So the change that we’re talking about, if we accept that we are all varied in our potentialities and we will come to know ourselves because of the context that we are exposed to, then what I would say is let’s focus on the design of context that respects developmental variation and lets the talents and skills emerge in kids that are there.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: There is so much I want to dig into so I’ll start somewhere and we’ll see where we go. I mean, the first is just in what you said the image that came to my mind was this idea of learning as doing, not learning as this cognitive approach so that young people are put in a context where they literally get to try things out, not just read about them, not just kind of encounter them in short snippets through a curriculum.
But there’s a way in which we have so privileged knowledge acquisition as opposed to the doing and being in the world which EL Education for example spends so much time on and with. Does that seem right to you, that one of the things we have to shift is how we think about what counts as knowledge, what counts as learning, what is important in the way that we do that?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: One of my favorite scholars and educators is Zaretta Hammond. And she is the author of one of my favorite books, Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain. She talks about chewing and she said kids have to chew to learn. They have to chew material in a very, very active way in order to grow their brains and grow their capabilities. And here’s the other thing.
We know that the wiring of the brain for cognitive development, social development and emotional development, they’re all interwoven. So in fact, one of the worst things that you can do with kids is to think of learning as pure cognition and that you are going to pour lessons into that brain but not let kids chew, not let them work with material in active ways that then trigger all kinds of incredible multidimensional growth, growth and content knowledge, but also growth and skills, and the skills that are critical for learning how to learn.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: I think though that when we look back at our reform efforts over the last 20, 25 years, there’s been a push towards standardization and kind of taking out some of the humanness of education because we recognized that there was implicit bias and structural racism that kind of got in the way of all students having access. And so we have tried in our standards to say let’s make sure all kids get exposure to everything. And by necessity because we only have them for a certain period of time, it means we can’t go deep.
And you’ve been pointing at this idea of individualization because if a student discovers, this is who I am, this is where my potential is and how I want to choose to grow into it, it becomes very individualized. What would you say to funders and policy makers who are struggling with this tension because of our shared desire for all students to be given opportunities?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: So in the land of measurement, I would recommend that every person listening to this podcast read the book, The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, which blows up the theory of the bell curve and explains to all of us that there really is only one kind of measurement that will be free of bias and stereotype and everything else, and that is the ability to measure young people as individuals from whatever is their starting point, and by doing that, to enable us to see growth over time.
Now every one of your listeners knows that if they came to me as a doctor and I drew their blood, the test result they’re going to get back is what their white cell count is. And the way we know what a normal white cell count is is from giant population studies, and that’s what gives us the range of what normal is. So we’re not comparing you to another student sitting in a class where the context of your health and lives are totally different.
Everything in medicine around measurement has to be personalized first, it has to be about you. So there is no such thing as getting racism bias and stereotype out of measurement until we stop comparing kids to other kids. And that’s what we’re doing. That’s what standardized measurement is. We are comparing kids against norms that are not them, as opposed to measuring them.
So of the things that I’ve been talking about today that are revolutionary that all grow out of the principle of jaggedness, jaggedness says we have to build a context for learning where variation is the norm. And in that context for learning, we have to measure so we can see individual growth over time. Those are the two biggest things that have to change.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: The medical example is such a good one. I went in for my annual checkup and my blood pressure was a little bit high. It was 127 over something, but normally my blood pressure is 105 over something. And so I had an interesting conversation with the doctor to say, “Actually this may not seem high on average, but for me it is. And so what’s going on and how do I kind of deal with that?” So I do love that example. Who do you think-
Dr. Pamela Cantor: That is a perfect example because you were comparing you to you.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: Right.
Dr. Pamela Cantor: And not to any kind of population norm, it was just you to you. And that’s what really good doctors do. They watch you and how you change over time. And that’s what drives what I talked about in the first minute of this podcast, which is how you asked the right questions. And the right question was the one you asked, why is my blood pressure higher today? And that will drive your doctor to get to the right answer.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: I will make sure to compliment her next time I see her. Who do you think is doing the most kind of important cutting edge work in this idea of trying to shift how we measure, shift how we build systems of measurement and accountability that reflect jaggedness?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: So measurement and accountability are two different things. So measurement, the work that Richard Lerner has done, he is at his lab at Tufts University and the whole body of work behind him, which includes Todd Rose and the principal of jaggedness, all of these things. But he represents the scholarship within personalized measurement.
And what we should be doing at least for formative measurement is building on and using more and more techniques that enable us to see individual growth over time. And I will tell you as somebody who has now talked to many, many technology experts on this, we have all that we need today to be able to do this, it’s just the will to do it.
So the first is personalized measurement Richard Lerner technology. But I want to bring up a second subject because you use the word accountability. If I’m the mom of an African American boy in a not very good school, I am not only interested in my individual child’s measurement because if his measurement is meant is lower than what I would want to be true because I have big aspirations for him, and if that measurement is lower than middle class or affluent white kids, I do care about comparison.
But I care about it because it’s unfair. I care about it because his numbers are reflecting the context he is learning in and I want that to change. So group measurement does have a value because it forces us to see the injustices that exist today. There are no accidents here.
I mean, if we were to compare kids growing up in environments that are not supporting their learning, their variation, their jaggedness and kids who are growing up in environments that are, we’re going to see big differences in measurement. But those big differences should say to us, what is the social justice issue here? Because we want just like that parent wants for her son, she wants everything that’s possible for him.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: Again, I love the both and. So often it’s we’re going to do this or not and it’s you can do both. But what you were talking about about the large scale assessment is it’s used as part of a process to dig further and to do something as opposed to an end in itself, which unfortunately I think-
Dr. Pamela Cantor: Just like your doctor.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: Yes, exactly. Exactly. It’s all going to go back to my doctor. Pam, I want to go back a little bit to human development and stages because we know that there are stages when young people are more sensitive to both positive and negative contexts and influences. And over the last decade or two, I think there’s been growing awareness of the importance of early childhood, so birth to four or five.
But I know you have a particular interest in the promise of adolescence. So can you tell us more about that period specifically? And I have two teenage boys, so I am a rapt audience at this moment. I mean, I have been, but still…
Dr. Pamela Cantor: Yes. I admit to you up front this is my favorite group. When I was a practicing child psychiatrist, these were the kids that I wanted to work with. But I want our listeners to understand the time period we’re talking about when we use the word adolescence. It is age 12 to 25, 12 to 25.
So let’s think about that. That is middle school, it’s high school, it’s college and it’s first job. And all of that is under the umbrella of what we call adolescence. So this is a very, very complex subject and it is one where we all have a front row seat in one of the most thrilling periods of human life. The reason it is so thrilling is because the brain gets remodeled then. There is actually a set of biologic processes that are timed.
We’re aware, most of us are aware puberty and the angst of puberty and all of those kinds of things, but those are just examples of the remodeling that is happening in the bodies and minds of this age group. So you think about when those teenagers of yours were eight years old and the age that they are now. At eight, could you have talked to them about things like cause and effect and judgment about what to do in a given situation?
You try having that conversation with an eight year old or a six year old, you can’t because their brains have not developed to be able to reason in those kinds of ways. But you can have those with kids that are in this particular age range because of this profound remodeling that is going on in an adolescent brain.
So some of these things that happen, we’ve talked about, talked about remodeling, talked about the focus on relationships that is just profound, but there are other things where adolescents crave, novelty, they crave what’s new. But not just because it’s new, it’s this is where creativity is born passion is born, what do I want to do with the rest of my life is born in adolescence.
So if we’re looking at adolescence the way I’m talking about it, have we designed schools for these beings? Their schools, you walk into them, they look the same as the classrooms of a 10 year old. So we haven’t designed to take advantage of something where these young people are the powerhouse of future generations and where we to put them in environments that unlock their identities, their interests, their passions, their energies.
We don’t even let them have more sleep and every study of adolescence talks about that they need more sleep. So there are so many things that we ignore in the biology and psychology of this period and the unbelievable cognitive development that goes on. So if ever there was an age group that is asking us to completely redesign based on human development principles, this is it.
I sometimes have thought that adolescents get a little bit of a bad rap on the subject of risk, because in my experience, the interest was not in danger, but the interest was in exploration of trying something out. This is the time period where that does happen. And the consequence of trying something out is not a kind of learning that you want to deprive them of. I mean, good judgment sometimes requires bad judgment.
And this is very tough on parents, but the more you prevent exploration, in many ways, the more you prevent the acquisition of good judgment, good reasoning, good ability to understand cause and effect. So be it what’s asked of parents and teachers is calibration and scaffolding, but that permits this exploration to happen.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: What is your sense of how much educators and adults know about what you’ve been speaking about and what would they need to be learning about? How would we think differently about preparing adults to be educators if we were centering the ideas in this conversation?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: There are some district leaders that I know and work with now who tell me that what they wish is that every single teacher, every person who touches the life of a child has a background in human development, that human development becomes the core of teacher development or counselor development and that anyone working in a school or a community based program would have this as core to what they are learning.
The thing that I am so struck by because I came from a different profession is that in the first few years of medical school, there’s a body of knowledge you’re taught and you know that what you’re being given is the alphabet that is going to then let you understand the kinds of things that you’re going to see when it’s just you and a patient like you and your doctor, and you will know to ask the right question and you will know how to get the right solutions for that person.
So what I understand about teacher development and my colleague Linda Darling-Hammond is really the expert in this. But from what I understand, that body of knowledge grounded in human development, the development of the brain and learning science is not core to becoming a teacher. Then if you do want to be a teacher that specializes in children of certain ages, that you’re given the opportunity to dig deeper in those developmental periods and the impact on learning.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: I know you’re a colleague of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang who’s doing fascinating research on middle to later adolescence. What do you see is the relevance of Mary Helen’s work to this conversation about the kinds of learning experiences that make a difference for students of that age?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: There are two really important things that I’d like to elevate about her work. One is her understanding that a young person’s growth depends on whether experiences are relevant and important to them, that this experience of something that’s happening has meaning to me, that’s the type of experience that is going to develop a brain. It’s going to develop ethics. It’s going to develop character.
So Mary Helen’s work very often focuses on those networks in the brain that are activated when a child or a young adult really cares about something and something really engages them. And then what she’s interested in is how does that experience show up later in the life of a young person, in their judgment, in new situations, in their belief about their future or the future of the world. So meaning making and what meaning making is on a biological level is crucial that Mary Helen has helped us to understand.
The other thing that I find really interesting, this is more in her books, she talks about this default network. And this default network is deep in the brain and it’s this network that connects all kinds of different brain structures. But one of the things she talks about is that a lot of our education is focused on the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs attention and concentration.
And if we keep testing kids, getting kids to memorize, doing all of this stuff where they have to activate that part of the brain, it turns out that this deeper part of the brain can’t grow. And that deeper part of the brain is where insight synthesis of experience, meaning of experience is happening.
So then I thought to myself, oh my God, we’ve created an education system that is test based, that is constantly driving home to kids this preparation for testing, the hyper focus, the memorization, all of those things. Whereas Mary Helen is saying that there are networks in the brain that will be starved of an ability to develop that are really important to who a person becomes if all we do is test them and cause them to have to hyper focus.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: I got to hear Mary Helen talking to middle school students and I remember the students were so excited about a few facts. The first was that that part of the brain consumes the same number of calories as an equal part of your thigh muscle in the middle of running a marathon. It’s incredibly active and strong.
The second was that it’s things like daydreaming, things like just letting your mind not think about anything and letting things connect in random ways, that is what helps develop that. And the third was that the kind of meaning making that you and she are talking about is what predicts students’ success more than IQ, more than anything else. Over time, it’s what predicts who they will become, which is just fascinating.
Dr. Pamela Cantor: So remember a little while ago, we were talking about if we were going to design for adolescent development the idea that we would create time for adolescents to daydream, but we would know that by removing requirements, I can just hear the arguments against that. Oh my God they’re not going to get into this college, they won’t pass the SATs, all of this. But if we really were to pay attention to development, then we would design something very different for this age group.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: And the factor I hear in here is time. What do we take off our plates in education to make room for this? Because deep, meaningful learning, daydreaming, making connections, failing and then trying again, those take time. What are your thoughts on that? What do we take away to make room for this?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: If we actually decided that we were going pay attention and design environments for variation relationships, the whole child design principles I was talking about before, I think a lot of things that occupy time would go away. I don’t think that teachers have to do everything. I think that kids have to do more. And you can make an experience be something where the balance of effort is not in what the teacher is doing. It’s your success is determined by what the student is doing.
But the more we continue to pile on to kids and teachers that are teaching them, do we have evidence that it’s getting to the result that we would want? So I would put our emphasis, not as much on the kids as on designing context for development. If we do that, we are going to look at things in the context our kids are currently experiencing that are actually doing harm, or certainly not doing good for them.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: If you had to advise funders, and I know you do, to really keep in mind two or three things that are about getting to this north star so lots of people have the immediate portfolios that they need to invest in, but what would you advise them to be thinking about or investing in to help get us towards this real whole child developmentally aligned approach to education?
Dr. Pamela Cantor: The two biggest things by far are funding things that eliminate the versus, the either, or, and to go after comprehensive environments, comprehensive approaches. When I tell you that every environment that gets outsized outcomes and benefits to kids is a comprehensive developmental environment, we are still spending enormous amounts of money on environments that aren’t that.
So why don’t we stop doing that and instead incentivize our districts or our networks to go after environments that can be demonstrated to take a comprehensive approach to student development that honor variation? This cuts against one of the biggest barriers, and that is that the incentive structure in our country is still based on that standardized test score.
Teachers’ jobs believe that their jobs are on the line because of that standardized test score. So the other thing other than comprehensive design that I would focus on as an investor, as a funder is really going after a change in our measurement systems. One is formative measurement at the individual student level. And even if we can’t change the laws around standardized accountability, we would have at least an ability to see a comparison between what measurement looks like when you measure individuals versus when you measure groups.
But I think that now is a time that we could go after the kind of standardized accountability that is getting in the way of teachers doing great work. One of the things that I am hoping is a takeaway from this is a very, very different way of thinking about what human potential is. Because the takeaway is that we don’t know what is in that little embryo, that little being, but biologically, everything that little being is going to need to become a whole person is actually there.
So our job as not always perfect parents and not always perfect teachers is still to use everything we know about human development and learning to create the context that allows that dynamic relationship between that little being and context to emerge. Then we’re going to know what’s inside because we will have provided everything that we know to enable it to emerge. That’s what human potential is. And every single child deserves it, deserves that experience.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: It was so great to have you with us today, Pam. Thank you for your time and your wisdom. Really appreciate it.
Dr. Pamela Cantor: Thank you, thank you so much.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen: Thanks for listening. The Future of Smart Podcast is a project of Grantmakers for Education and is made possible through the support of our generous member sponsors. If you like the podcast, please follow or subscribe and follow us on social media. You can find links to resources related to today’s episode in the show notes, more episodes and events can be found at edfunders.org. To learn more about The Future of Smart, visit ulcca.com, U-L-C-C-A .com.