Sign up for our newsletter

Share This Story

The 180 Podcast Aug 3, 2021

The 180 Podcast: Zaretta Hammond: How Teachers Can Become Personal Trainers of Cognitive Development


Zaretta Hammond: How Teachers Can Become Personal Trainers of Cognitive Development

Today, we continue our conversation with Zaretta Hammond.

Listen to part one here. 

In part one, Zaretta explained what it means to be a culturally responsive teacher – and why it’s necessary not only to stimulate intellectual curiosity, but also move beyond cognitive redlining and transition students to cognitive independence. 

In part two, Zaretta extends the analysis, outlining practical steps for teachers to become, ideally, personal trainers of cognitive development. And we discuss whether educators should be worried about so-called “learning loss” during the Covid-19 pandemic, or focus instead on what students may have learned away from school?

Some background: Hammond is the author of “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” and founder of the “Ready 4 Rigor” blog. She is a former English teacher and, for nearly two decades, has worked at the crux of instructional design, professional development, and achieving equity. She is particularly interested in the work teachers must do to help students become the drivers of their own learning. 

One note before we begin, an ask from me to you: If you like our 180 conversations, I’d appreciate if you’d take a moment, go to Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, and, if you’re so moved, leave a 5-star review. It’s makes a big difference in helping people find the podcast. 

Here’s part two of my conversation with Zaretta Hammond.


Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: Zaretta, thank you for joining. It’s great to see you. 

Zaretta Hammond: Yes, it’s nice to be back.

Chris Riback: Zaretta, how concerned are you around the conversation of learning loss under COVID? We all see that conversation and the assumptions that go into it. How concerned are you about that conversation?

Zaretta Hammond: I think it’s kind of par for the course in the sense that it’s been around. This is a new version of some of those other conversations that are rooted in pedagogy of compliance. But I do think it has another flavor, another edge to it that we really need to be mindful of, because what I see happening is what I saw in the early 2000s or late 1990s, when No Child Left Behind started to disaggregate data, we saw that Black and Brown children were chronically behind because of the way in which we were structuring education. And we knew, particularly around reading, we needed to accelerate.

So what we ended up doing is kind of this like double down. They’re going to get two blocks of literacy and no recess. We just go to this compliance place that is antithetical to the science of learning that even if I am needing to learn something, the fastest way for me to accelerate is to learn small chunks, master them, now put on top of that master chunk a new chunk so that we’re doing this stacking. Versus, I’m going to give you two double blocks of reading instruction and you have no time to process it. There’s no improvement in information processing skills. And you need recess for what the brain does, which we call consolidation. Meaning when you have left that learning episode, that learning encounter, your brain continues to think about, store it, process it.

So recess is actually an extension of cognitive work. So every time we’re denying a child recess, you’re actually undermining your efforts to help them level up their cognition. But this is what’s happening. And that’s my fear with the whole conversation around learning loss. I see people do that. We’re going to do extra tutoring. All this money that could go to helping teachers retool their classrooms so that they are preparing their environments, they’re getting more time to coach their students, they’re getting more time to do this retooling, is now going to go to tutoring.

Chris Riback: Yes. I know that the possibility, if not maybe probability, you might argue, that we fall into a post COVID-19 instructional plan where it becomes a pedagogy of compliance in an effort to get students caught up. That’s a real concern, isn’t it?

Zaretta Hammond: Yes. It really is. And I think it’s antithetical to districts that want to have an equity focused focus and that want to also help teachers become more culturally responsive. And when people really understand the theory of change behind those two things, how do we help kids “get caught up?” So here’s one of the things that I have been telling the leaders that I’ve been sitting with is, first acknowledge that students learn something. The brain is a learning brain and it learns something. It doesn’t stop because we’re in school. School is not the purview of learning.

And so the degree to which we’re able to anchor and twist, not bait and switch. Oh, we want to get kids in. We want them to have fun. And that we’re going to switch and double down on what looks like compliance. And all we’re going to do is shock their brains into saying, oh, this is the same old, same old. Versus being able to say, how do we leverage what you learned so that we can anchor and hook on the content, so that over time you’re building that knowledge base that you need it. You’re building the background knowledge to do it. 

And how do we extend that so that when you’re outside of school, because we don’t have enough time for all the things kids need to learn in terms of some of the content. So we need to be able to package it in a way that they can do it asynchronously. They can do it as projects they do at home or do in the community, or do as part of extended after school that doesn’t look like school. It has got to have to not look like school, and the brain will eat it up. Just like video games cannot look like learning. And the brain keeps saying, ooh, I like this. It’s secreting dopamine and oxytocin, all the things that keep the student leaning in. Talk about secret weapons. Dopamine-

Chris Riback: Yes, secret ingredient.

Zaretta Hammond: It certainly is, secret ingredient. Is that sticky, yummy, your reward for doing hard things. The question I always have for teachers and leaders is where’s the dopamine hit in your classrooms? And this positions the students to really want to be the leader of their own learning.

Chris Riback: I tell you, it makes such sense. It, instinctively and emotionally, even take away the intellectually, it feels like the type of environment that any one of us would want to learn in. I mean, isn’t that the type of environment that we all would desire? It takes work though.

Zaretta Hammond: But here’s the thing I would say, Chris, you’re absolutely right, but the pandemic showed us that when we have to, we can adapt. We can do different things. We can make asynchronous learning engaging. We can do that. And there are the best of those parts that we’re going to bring with us back to in-person learning. So why does it take a crisis to do that kind of change? And that’s really the question on the table. There are things we not only need to start doing, but as districts, we need to stop doing them.

And part of that is, that’s the hard work, because there are so many in the layers of management that are just managing the components. They’re not looking at students as the unit of change. They are not looking at teachers as personal trainers of students cognition and the catalyst for coaching students to that higher level. If they did that and understood the instructional core, then they can reverse engineer. People have talked about re-imagining.

The fact is, what ends up looking easy is actually hard. You can’t keep talking about equity and then doing these things that are sabotaging your own efforts, because it keeps us in this tension of feeling frustrated. And then communities looking like, why are you not making any progress? Do you really want to make progress? Then we start making up narratives about those kids and those families. It’s a vicious cycle. And what we don’t know how to do is just bite the bullet, understand that it’s going to get messy before it gets better, but we don’t have to stay in messy long. That’s just the reorganization.

The quick example I like to use is the caterpillar. There’s a point at which caterpillar realizes, something’s happening. It’s eating a lot. It’s getting big. It’s feeling weird. And next thing you know, it just feels like, I’m dying. The world is coming to an end. And so it builds this chrysalis as a way to kind of protect itself. And then it melts down that if you actually look inside, it is goop. And the only thing that happens is these things called imaginal cells start to activate. And the imaginal cells are what bring it back to this new configuration that we know as a butterfly. That’s where we’re at right now. We feel a little goopy.

Chris Riback: I feel that. I appreciate the guidance. And I look forward to becoming a butterfly. There’s an educator who I read some of the writing, who offered some guidance around how to do that in post pandemic school planning. Fortunately, I’m talking with that educator right now. You asked some questions recently: “How do we reimagine what teaching and learning can be as a result of the new bodies of knowledge students will bring to them? How do we avoid overcompensating, again, your question, with compliance-based practices, just because our students’ funds of knowledge do not clearly meet a standards-based learning target?” You then identified, Zaretta, three principals in particular that can, as you put it, guidepost pandemic school planning. Can you describe those three?

Zaretta Hammond: Yes. So viewing student success over multiple years really falls into what I’ve been talking about in terms of the progress principle. So the more we understand what, I think it’s James Popham talked about, is a learning progression. Meaning, how does a student move from dependent to cognitively independent? We have a tendency to just put learning targets around the content, but we don’t have standards and learning targets around improving information processing. And if we understood that, very much like, how do we over time get acclimated to the struggle of getting up that mountain on that hike? How are we going to get better? How is our aerobic system going to get better?

So think about cognition in the same way. How does cognition get better? We haven’t mapped that trajectory so that we don’t see what might be leading indicators, meaning small glimpses that the student is going in the right direction, but we don’t see it in test scores. If you’re implementing correctly, there’s an 18 to 24 month lag. And we only have this one indicator that because we’re not there in six months, we just jettison the whole thing. So I think we have to do a better job of looking at the instructional core, looking at the student as the leader of the learning, looking at the information processing and better understand how we map that trajectory for our particular kids.

The early grades, the upper elementary grades, the middle school grades and ninth and 10th grade are going to all look a little different. It’s a heavier lift, ninth and 10th grade. You have kids who are reading multiple years behind, so what is it going to take to actually get them to grade level? So you’re going to have a steeper challenge, and you have to know what that learning progression is from the day you get them. That’s one aspect of it.

Expanding students’ background knowledge. Understanding that those funds of knowledge that they have are not just a banner of a match or mismatch between standards, but that they are the hook upon which you layer new cognitive information. Learning science says, all new learning must be coupled with existing learning and new learning so that there is a mashup, there’s a chewing, and that’s what I call it. So that inert information turns into new knowledge. So teachers have to know how to do that.

Chris Riback: What are the key ingredients of the environments that you are talking about? I mean, you’re describing some of the work that would need to occur within that second grade classroom. Some of the work that would need to occur among the second, third, fourth, fifth grade teachers. But if you asked me to think of the classroom as its own system, what do those classrooms have in common?

Zaretta Hammond: Very quickly, when I’m working with folks, I call it, prepare the dojo. Meaning, have you rebalanced cultural orientation? So there’s a sense of belonging, connection, that doesn’t make kids feel alienated because they show up. They talk a certain way, or they have a certain way of being. Have you reduced or eliminated racial bullying and micro-aggressions that we don’t just laugh them off or “so-and-so was just joking?” 

White people have a really, really challenging time acknowledging when a person of color, particularly a student of color has said, this feels like a hostile environment. And hostile doesn’t mean somebody is yelling in your face. It means that it has been okay to talk negatively, to treat them poorly, to make jokes that aren’t quite funny. And that is part of it. Why? Because the brain is going to go into protective mode. When it’s in protective mode, too much cortisol. So we’ve already talked about rebalancing, eliminating those microaggressions. Now we’re talking about talk structures. Who’s talking? So if we want kids to be chewing, have you rearranged time? I have folks do a time audit. Are you arranging so that students have an extended period of time to talk? And I’m not just talking about, let’s just talk.

Teachers are the ones who are doing the talking. These changes take time. And they’re going to mean you’re going to let some stuff go, before you actually start saying, oh, now let’s do information processing. Let’s do all this wonderful stuff. Let’s do project-based learning. Let’s do maker-centered education. You cannot do that if you have not prepared the dojo.

Now you got to coach the kids. Where are you having an instructional conversation? I taught writing in the classroom. What I understood is, there was not enough red pen for me to change that student’s understanding of a run-on sentence. I had to help them help see for themselves. That meant conferencing, peer editing. I had to reimagine time to put those talks structures in. That’s not what teachers are doing. They don’t see time as the equity differentiator here. Those are just a couple of things, and it’s going to take weeks just to get those things in place. Now we got to coach students to actually know what to do when we’re in those spaces.

Chris Riback: Zaretta, you talked about not having an intellectually safe space yourself when you were a high school student. Given what you are talking about right now, given the times that we are in today, today what does an intellectually safe space look and feel like?

Zaretta Hammond: I have an online PLC. We’ve got 1,200 educators on a platform. And I take them, over the course of a semester, through the algorithm of culturally responsive practice. One of the first things we talk about is preparing the dojo. How have you made the classroom intellectually safe? Meaning, there are talk structures that allow different types of students to talk.

For example, I have been to Alaska quite a bit. So Alaska Native students, culturally they’re collectivist but very quiet in their interaction. Meaning, not super vocal, not the ones raising their hands, not talking over each other. That’s indicative of the collectivist culture of African American and folks of African descent. You see that communication pattern, participatory communication pattern. For Alaskan Native students, that is different. Intellectually safe environment for them is going to look like there is space for me to be quiet. There is not some negative connotation attached to that. 

I was talking with an educator who was Native and is also a parent, and her child was in school. She went to the parent-teacher conference. And the teacher says, “She’s a good student, but unfortunately she’s kind of quiet.” So what has frustrated them, Alaskan Native parents, is whiteness is, the connotation is that it’s problematic. So now, I’m in an environment where me showing up as my natural self is problematic. 

So one of the things I suggest of them is, “What do the talk structures look like?” So that when you use something like a protocol that has a structure, then students have their time and their space. Where do kids just get to have the opportunity to process their learning in a way that doesn’t require them to talk to everybody every 10 minutes? How do you provide wait time? 

So intellectual safety is going to be reflective of who is it that you’re trying to be responsive to, versus responsiveness as this canned thing. This is the idea of why buying culturally responsive teaching materials and canned programs is antithetical to responsiveness.

Chris Riback: Zaretta, you’ve been talking about different forms of trauma. We all have lived through a very traumatic last year, and in particular, the types of students that you are talking about have lived through even greater trauma.

Zaretta Hammond: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chris Riback: And part of that, I’m wondering, I have heard you or read you talk about The Karate Kid and that form of teaching. Is there opportunity, in your view, out of this trauma? 

Zaretta Hammond: Yes. I do, I love The Karate Kid because it’s so instructive. The old one with Ralph Macchio. Those are connected in some really interesting ways, because I do think the pandemic has been a portal. Whether it’s us looking at racial reckoning in our society, whether it’s us seeing how students really do respond. When you have students who like learning, they will continue to learn. Here’s the thing we need to understand: that is the brain’s primary directive. Learn to keep you actualizing yourself, learn to keep you safe, learn to keep connected. What is it going to be? 

So now we saw this happening. People like, “Oh, we have to scramble because we still need oxytocin to get our brains having a sense of connection.” So we scrambled as a society to find alternate ways to do the thing. And that was our brain problem-solving. So brains always will do this. So it’s a misnomer that there’s learning loss. There are just other things learned. 

So part of what we have to do is be smart to honor students. If we’re true about student voice, then we will honor: What did you learn? Even if it’s not the standard, we have to uncouple ourselves from, oh it’s a standard and a learning target. We get caught up in this educational jargon that gives us the false sense of progress. It’s the learner who learns. Our job is to just be Mr. Miyagi, and to coach the student in that learning. And if the student does not learn, then we have not taught. 

So now we are in a new situation in which we can possibly leverage some things. What did you find interesting while you were gone? So now you’re going to find something out about your students in a new way. So I do think it is actually a portal for us to begin the seeds of this re-imagining and restructuring of a new system. There are going to be things that fall away because we won’t go back. And there are going to be ways in which a lot of people are going to double down on learning loss. We see now the cottage industry of tutoring rearing its head. And now everybody’s, all kids are going to be tutored. If we think we’re just doubling down on content and now we need to tutor kids, hell, we weren’t doing a fine job beforehand. If they were two grade levels behind, we should’ve been sending boxes of inquiry things, and here’s how you learn to read.

Listen, enslaved people taught themselves to read with sticks and dirt. What’s our problem? Why are we still having this? So the idea of coming out of the pandemic, we just really have to do soul searching at a district level, at a school building level, and a classroom level. Not to think we need to hurry into pouring all this lost content back into kids. We just leverage where we are. If we want kids to accelerate their learning, we have to make sure they’re reading on grade level. We have to make sure that there’s intellectual curiosity happening. The best way to do that is to contextualize learning. What’s interesting for us to learn about that will help us meet these standards?

So I think there’s a lot of opportunity

Chris Riback: The image that’s coming into my mind right now is the word that you used at the beginning of this conversation. One of the words that you used, which is algorithm. Everything entails such an integration of inputs and time and reimagining and growth and steps back, I would imagine. And I understand why despite my best efforts to pin you down, to give me the one thing, Zaretta, you keep telling me, Chris, you’re not listening to me, Chris. It’s not one thing. It’s everything. 

Zaretta Hammond: Here’s the thing, it isn’t everything. And I’ve not said everything. So just a point of correction. I’ve actually laid out three concrete things. Time, reorganizing time, talk structures, putting into talk structures. But the minute I say that, it’s not one thing, that’s what it gets reduced to. Oh, now she said I got to do everything. I didn’t say that. I literally gave you a list of stuff to do, but what happens is educators brains get so overwhelmed, that we can’t do one thing. Do that one thing for eight weeks. It’s called the flywheel. The more I pull, the rotations will start to get their own momentum. Once you have that, start to layer in another thing.

Because here’s the thing, you wouldn’t be a year down the road anyway. What’s going to be different? What’s going to be different is, oh, your kids made no progress. Versus me stacking six weeks. Got that mastered. On top of that, now we’re going to go another six to eight weeks. Oh, look at them. Each rotation, the kids get smarter because they get more independent. They have their aha’s. That aha generates dopamine. That dopamine means they’re wanting little more productive struggle. You’re coaching them. They’re now talking and leaning in. We’re not doing this to students, we’re doing this with students.

And if you don’t see that that algorithm is necessary and every time it’s not one thing is everything, I didn’t say that. And I hope that stays in this interview because I do think that’s part of our challenge. The minute it’s not one thing, I can’t do none of that. Welcome to inequity by design. Because if you can’t do one of those things in time and then stack on another, there is no hope for any change.

Chris Riback: Do you have hope?

Zaretta Hammond: Damn sure not doing it for the money. Here’s the thing, Chris, we’re in this together. That if this information doesn’t come out and here’s the thing about it, it’s not, oh, Zaretta, made this information. I consider myself a curator of all the wonderful research that is already out there. This is what John Hattie did. But unlike John, and I have mad respect for his work. He has just pointed us in the direction. What I’m trying to do is help people operationalize what we know to be the stuff that works. That’s it. 

It’s just like, January comes, you really don’t need another diet or wellness book. You really know what you need to do. We need to get together as colleagues and comrades and allies and support each other through the hard part of this. This is why I do not believe you cannot do this work without collaborative inquiry – what Freire calls “Praxis.” Conceptual understanding, informed action and critical analysis and self-reflection. And what happens is we want the one thing, and anything that looks like design principles, we call theory and say, oh, that’s not practical. So even some parts of our conversation, what’s the thing to do? Well, sometimes the thing to do, is to understand the design principles.

What gets me going is people are looking for a plug and play or what people call the turnkey. And I really think as educators in the work, folks who are working at some point toward equity, we have to up end that thinking.

It’s not a matter of telling people they’re wrong. It’s like you have to show them why going down that path is not going to lead you where you want to go. And going down this path is actually going to do that. That’s where the research comes in. It’s the only reason I continue to do it because I do see teachers trying things. And one of the biggest challenges is districts who want a turnkey. We’re going to teach all our teachers. And then they abandoned it in a year or less.

Hopefully this interview will help people rethink that because it takes courage for people to what feels counter-intuitive in education right now. I call it, get small to go big. Go slow to go fast. When everybody just wants to go fast. Because the fact is, if I do it steady over the course of a year, my children are going to be further, but it really requires adults being like, I got you when you feel a little stressed and you got to have principals along. Because if they come in with a clipboard and they’re measuring, is there “a do now” on the board? Versus, did you make a first pancake because you tried an innovation and where are you in the process of your innovation, we know when that ends.

Chris Riback: Zaretta, thank you. Thank you for your time.

Zaretta Hammond: You’re so welcome. 

Chris Riback: That was my conversation with Zaretta Hammond. My thanks to Zaretta for joining, and you for listening. To learn more about how to transform 21st century education using 21st century science, go to I’m Chris Riback, I’ll talk with you soon.

More from Turnaround on this topic: