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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

09.06.17 Notes from Cognitive Scientist Nathan Wallis’ Presentation on the Brain

Recently I was in New Zealand doing training for coaches at New Zealand Rugby, the organization that supports the growth of the national game from youth to elite levels, including the national team, the All Blacks.

The All Blacks—you know this if you are a rugby fan—are the best rugby team in the world.  Drawing from a poulation of just five million people NZ has produced a team that has been dominant for decades over nations 10x their size.

To maintain this advantage coaches have a healthy obsession with studying learning, knowledge and coaching. I suppose that’s what I was doing there.

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Nathan Wallis

But the speaker before me was a case in point- Nathan Wallis, one of New Zealand’s leading cognitive psychologists. He went deep into brain structure and function. It was fascinating stuff and the coaches were rapt in their attention–clear-as-beer that understanding the brain and how it worked was part of their job if they wanted to get more out of players. I was pretty locked in too and filled my notebook with insights from Wallis’ presentation.  I’ve passed along a few of his key points here because they are generally useful to educators–and parents–and because there were specific applications I wanted to share to teaching techniques–especially What to Do and Positive Framing –that I thought would be helpful

1. Wallis: “The 1990’s were the decade of the brain. We learned as much about the brain then as in the previous 300 years.”

And presumably we’ve kept learning at that rate or faster. Though Wallis observed that ideas developed by cognitive science usually took decades to seep into national awareness. But still I think this is a key point. So much of what we believe about learning is based on theories from before 1990 and since then cognitive science has engendered a revolution in what we know. We have learned hundreds of times more about our brains in the past 25 years than in all the years before that. It’s time to get serious about differentiating the ‘high theory’ of pre-1990 ideas (they aren’t all bad but many widely accepted ones deserve keen skepticism) from the findings since which are based on cognitive science.

2. Wallis presented this table of the weight of the human brain over time:

Age Brain Weight
Newborn 350 grams
3 Year old 1,200 grams
Adult 1,400 grams

Conclusion: There is exponential brain growth during first 1000 days of life. Wallis: “In the first 1000 days the brain is interpreting the data to figure out how smart it needs to be, what kind of brain it’s going to need to be in life.”  It’s born under-developed (compared to other mammals) so it can go through this period of programming and structuring in response to its context.

“This is the most influential period. We invest most of our resources societally in trying to develop brains in high school; trying to develop them in the first thousand days would be money much better spent.” (In  particular he proposes more money for paid maternal or paternal leave).

“The younger the student the more profound your impact will be because the brain is more profoundly in the midst of development.”

3. Wallis: “Words spoken by the primary caregiver to a baby in the first year or so of its life are an outstanding predictor of long term cognitive outcomes.”

“They have no idea what you are saying. What words you use are irrelevant. But babies are born to have a deep attachment to a single caregiver. Words from other sources don’t count as much. Hearing recorded words stimulates only localized parts of the brain. But hearing words combined with facial expression and human interaction lights up the brain. All of it. Face to face complex social interactions light up the brain and cause it to develop. It’s language in the context of a complex social interaction that matters.”

I found this observation especially relevant because I have a working hypothesis that high tech interventions that seem like they would work often lack something. Students engage in them passively. They seem to me to have not only a limited effect but a disparate impact.  Learners who are the farthest behind get the least out of them.  And to some degree Wallis’ observation explains why. It’s the complex interactions of human beings in language that cause cognitive growth–at least in babies but is it possibly also true in older learners. It just struck me as an oft sold but (based on what I see on the ground) probably ambitious dream that we are going to remediate the least prepared learners by parking them in front of software. I could be wrong. But Wallis observation gave me some grounding for my skepticism about technology and learning and I think this is borne out by data about the efficacy of online learning tools, especially for remedial learners who sometimes need to both learn things but also catch up in terms of overall cognitive architecture– their memory is poor; their associations are slow, etc. Human interactions may be necessary for that sort of broader cognitive development.

4. Wallis: “Cognitive Training is proven to be the most productive learning strategy.”

Cognitive training, as Wallis describes it, is pretty similar to What To Do –it’s describing very clear simple actions someone can take to solve a problem. It is relentless focus on the solution in concrete terms. “When we say ‘Don’t do X,’ 25% of their brain [by this Wallis appears to mean the parietal lobe, rather than 25% of thinking capacity] is picturing X so it can process that idea. It has to picture doing it to understand it. So to some degree it drives X into memory and there’s now more chance they will do it.”

This is obviously hugely important as it provides a cognitive explanation for why What To Do is so critical, both for directions and corrections in class but also often for feedback.  “Try this.”  Boom. Simple clear articulation of a solution.

(but you can only do cognitive training when someone is listening)

4. There are four brains

Wallis described the four functional levels of the brain, which developed evolutionarily over time and have discrete areas of function

  • Brain stem—Focuses on survival
  • Cerebellum—Focuses on movement
  • Limbic system—Controls emotion
  • Frontal cortex—Controls rational thinking
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Calm, Focused and (Presumably) Ready to Learn

The brain stem. It is focused on breathing and eating and other basic elements of survival. If it does not perceive itself to be ‘safe’ it short circuits all other learning functions. First thing that needs to happen in the learning environment is calming of the brain stem so it knows—feels—that it is safe.

“In the adolescent brain rational thinking is not always ‘on’ but emotional thinking is. This is why teens are impulsive. Cortex is under development. We ask, ‘What were you thinking’ but we should really be asking, “What were you feeling?’  Their limbic system without the cortex can react strangely.”

His advice: “Smile more. Your neutral face can look angry to them. They are saying this to their parents every night: Why are you mad at me. And the parents are thinking. I’m not mad at you. Why do you say that. And it’s because they perceive facial expressions differently.”

How to be successful in teaching (according to Wallis):

  • Calm the brain stem (ensure perception of safety)
  • Validate emotions (all it takes is “I understand that you may be feeling x.” or “I appreciate that you have done Y”… there’s a huge Positive Framing connection here)
  • Begin cognitive training

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4 Responses to “Notes from Cognitive Scientist Nathan Wallis’ Presentation on the Brain”

  1. September 8, 2017 at 8:46 am

    Doug, what do you think Nathan is meaning by cognitive training? I am aware that one context for this term is interventions designed to train specific cognitive functions rather the domain specific teaching (eg. computer software to train working memory) which have had very mixed results so far. Interesting that you were here in NZ where I teach. Next time you come, could you visit our school and give a talk? Nathan spoke a few years back at our school and all staff enjoyed it.



  2. September 20, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    I too would appreciate a bit of clarity on what is meant by “begin cognitive training.” What are a few activities and strategies that lend themselves to cognitive training? How can cognitive training inform pedagogy, particularly at the crucial formative years?

    • September 20, 2017 at 4:08 pm

      Yeah, i agree. these are great questions. I didn’t get the chance to talk to Nathan afterwards but will try to follow up and see what i can find out. -DL

  3. September 25, 2017 at 12:23 am

    I teach high school psychology and feel like it should be required for all of our students, as well as a bigger part of our PD for teachers. I am curious what other Teach Like a Champion strategies would be psychology-related. I can see both Piaget and Vygotsky in Teach Like a Champion. When I think of cognitive training, I imagine training our brains to remember better (like computers).

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