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Melina Uncapher: Neuroscientist is connecting the science of learning to education practice

By Julie Randles
March 18, 2018
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It’s a given that an assistant professor in the department of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), a woman who leads the Science of Learning research network funded by National Science Foundation and is executive director of the Institute for Applied Neuroscience nonprofit has smarts. 

But Melina Uncapher, Ph.D., is more than brainy. She’s using her expertise to reimagine how neuroscience can aid educators and guide teaching practice.

Her 17-year focus has been on diving into how executive function/cognitive control contributes to academic achievement, and while she’s typically studied this in college students, she now focuses on the relatively understudied age group of middle childhood (8-12-year-olds). In plain English, that means she studies how the brain functions. She then partners with educators to help them apply these insights in classrooms around the country.

Mobile technology developed by Adam Gazzaley, Ph.D., executive director; Joaquin Anguera, Ph.D., director of clinical program; and Roger Anguera, director of technology program, at UCSF’s Neuroscape translational neuroscience center allows Uncapher to take her scientific studies out of the lab and into classrooms.

“Knowing how the brain works is important for education, but understanding what neurotransmitters are doing at the synapse may not be,” she told EdSurge in 2017. “There is some fundamental utility, but I don’t think it will save us.”

Instead, it’s the application she’s striving for. For instance, in some neighborhoods, a student may have to walk through a dangerous part of town to get to school. “His brain is highly tuned to external threat,” she says. “You can try to teach as much as you want, but if he is monitoring [his environment for threats], he might not be encoding what you’re saying.”

That’s why Design Tech High School, a charter school in California’s Bay Area, turned to Uncapher when drawing up its design thinking curriculum for students. They wanted a firm grasp on what makes their students tick.

Uncapher and the school co-created a “learning engineering institute” for educators. Today, the educators consider themselves “learning engineers” who apply brain research and design thinking to affect student outcomes.

Uncapher sees learning engineering as a new way to build research-practice partnerships. With this in mind, she co-founded and is CEO of a nonprofit that arms educators and students with practical tools based on learning science, and more recently has been working with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to build a learning engineering ecosystem with Bay Area educators, researchers and developers (of curriculum and edtech). 

But her connection to education runs even deeper. She co-chaired a National Academy of Sciences conference on children and technology, and sits on the board of the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. She’s also affiliated with Stanford University’s psychology department and is a MacArthur Scholar.
In addition to education, Uncapher also applies her lab findings to technology, investigating whether technology and media are associated with cognitive and neural differences.

Uncapher’s work has been highlighted in the New York Times and by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Her outreach work includes serving as a script supervisor on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “The Brain with David Eagleman,” and as scientific adviser on an award-winning short film about the brain titled “The Love Competition.”

ISTE sat down with Uncapher to discuss learning science and her learning engineering mindset.

As a leading scientist in a STEM field, what advice do you have for teachers who are trying to help young women and young students of color aim for a STEM career?

I think the topic of women and students of color in STEM fields is one of the most compelling topics of our day for so many reasons. Why it’s so compelling is captured by a wonderful comment from the Dalai Lama who said that the world will be saved by the Western woman.

I certainly wouldn’t confine this to the Western woman, because the data show us that diversity – whether women, students of color, or many other demographic factors – up-levels the thinking and success of a group. There are so many misconceptions about minorities’ abilities in STEM; it’s time we become the generation to do away with them.

One of the most shocking misconceptions is the much-touted disparity between girls and boys in math performance. This is no longer true. In fact, three major reports (meta-analyses) of over 10 million kids in 70 countries have shown that the gender difference in math performance has all but disappeared.

The countries that do still show gender differences are those that have higher levels of gender inequality, such as in opportunities for leadership. Indeed, even simply reminding a girl of her “girl-ness” before she takes a math exam can plummet her performance significantly.

This tells us a couple of really important things. First, that abilities in STEM are not inherently different between genders or races, but rather that our mindsets about our abilities are the important thing. As educators, we need to understand that our own attitudes and beliefs about girls and students of color can dramatically affect their ability to perform. We need to be vigilant about our own biases and how they may be affecting our students.

For instance, how many times have you heard or said, “I’m just not a math person?” Have you ever said, “I’m just not a reading person?” Probably not. It’s these cultural messages that tell our girls and kids of color what they need to be vigilant about, which can eat up their attention and leave them less available to perform the math test.

Some people feel uncomfortable with the notion that a scientist is studying the brain function of children in school. They may feel it’s unsafe or not in the best interest of the child. How do you respond to those concerns?

I absolutely hear these concerns and respect them deeply, because the brain is at the heart of who we are and how we show up in the world. We are intimately connected to our brains. In fact, whenever I put an adult in the scanner (an MRI), they inevitably emerge from the scan with a nervous smile saying, “Could you see what I was thinking?”

I want to assure you that this is not the case. We don’t see little thought bubbles coming out of your brain; instead we see which parts are active at certain times. It’s a bit like seeing which employees in a company are more active during certain times of the year. If an employee is most active during tax season, then perhaps she is an accountant and not the company chef.

The important point here is that the reason people can be sensitive about researchers studying brain function in kids is because they fear it being used as a way to pigeon-hole kids and keep them from achieving their full potential. People tend to think that brain data are “ground truth” and if the ground truth tells you that a kid is performing poorly in one area, they don’t have an “inherent” ability in that area.

But the truth is that our brain changes with experience, and neuroscientists are trying to figure out which experiences have more profound changes on the brain so we can support teachers, parents and kids with designing the most effective learning experiences.

The lab can feel far removed from the classroom. Watching neurons fire in real time in a lab sounds amazing, but how do we make that kind of research relevant to educators?

I actually think that much of what neuroscience tells us has limited usefulness in theclassroom, but don’t tell my colleagues I said this – they’ll kick me out of the club! In fact, I never discuss neurotransmitters or neurons firing in my work with educators, but instead discuss how an understanding of how the brain learns can help them in their practice.

As an example, if we know that a very specific structure in the brain – the hippocampus  – is perhaps the most important structure for learning and we also know that there are things that make the hippocampus work better, like sleep and aerobic exercise, then we can use this to help design our learning experiences.

If we know that sleeping after learning actually solidifies the learning of the day and that putting a bit of sleep between learning and testing can be beneficial, this could change how we structure learning and testing schedules.

Likewise, if we know that aerobic exercise before learning could actually make the brain more “plastic” and available to learn, what if we put PE before math class? Would that make it easier for kids to learn math? These are all questions we can (and should) test based on an understanding of how the brain learns.

The learning process is not only about how we learn and retrieve information. What does brain science tell us about how other factors impact our ability to learn?

As University of Virginia psychology professor Dan Willingham beautifully puts it, “Learning is the residue of experience.” What this means technically is that the learning process consists of three stages: First we record information into memory (encoding), then that information is stored in memory (consolidation), and the ultimate expression of learning is that the right information is retrieved at the right time (retrieval).

So, yes, this means there are many factors that occur at each of these three stages that can influence learning. If we know what these factors are, we can leverage them to build more optimal learning environments for everyone.

For instance, things that optimize the encoding stage are things that allow your brain to “turn up the signal” and give the hippocampus more signal to store in memory, like if the to-be-learned material is meaningful, self-relevant or has some social orientation.

Things that can optimize the consolidation stage are sleep, exercise and time. Things that can optimize the retrieval stage are good retrieval cues and building multiple routes to the memory via retrieval practice.

In addition, there are many factors that can influence learning, like the will to learn and the skill to learn (motivation and current ability), persistence through struggle (grit), the ability to try new to strategies to learn, peer influence and so many more.

You’ve studied the relationships between media use and the teen brain. What’s one thing teachers and parents might be surprised by?

The thing that surprises most parents and teachers, and delights most teens, is that playing action video games can actually develop core brain abilities, although there are some key caveats to this.

This is work led by other researchers, including Daphne Bavelier, Ph.D., and C. Shawn Green, Ph.D., and shows that playing action video games (typically first- and third-person shooter games) can have some positive effects on brain and cognition.

Besides building hand-eye coordination and other physical abilities, these games can also build executive functioning or core cognitive capacities including attention and pattern recognition.

Unfortunately, most of these games also include violence, which is not good for teen brains to be exposed to. So there’s a big effort to build new games that include the good parts that build executive functioning without the bad parts like violence and anti-social messaging.

Are there topics or experiences you think should be included in teacher education programs today that would help educators understand how learning happens and would aid them in teaching students about how they learn?

There’s an entire field of learning science that could empower educators with principles of how students learn, and there’s a powerful and growing movement to bring the science of learning into education practice. I think this is a great and necessary first step, but I also believe we need to respect the wisdom of the educator and also ask, “What should researchers know about how students learn in the real world?” and perhaps more importantly, “What are problems of practice that learning scientists should be studying?”

When we move away from simply trying to throw scientific findings over the fence and hope that our over-worked and under-resourced educators will pick them up and make programs and tools out of these scientific principles, we’ll start a different conversation.

This needs to be a bidirectional and mutually respectful dialogue between researchers and educators. Every scientific discipline that’s made an impact in the real world has done so not through its scientists, but through its engineers who understand the science. Once we engage deeply with the practitioners in a human-centered design process to co-create solutions to grand challenges, then we’ll be on the right track.

This may actually require a new discipline or job description in what some of us are calling “learning engineering.” How I describe learning engineering is, how do we take the principles from science of learning, the processes of engineering or user-centered design (design thinking) and the platforms of technology and social infrastructures to engineer solutions to grand challenges in education? And how do we do this in a way that respects the wisdom of the educator along with the insights of research?

It’s such an exciting new field and we’re just building it. But to do it, we need to hear from educators who’d be interested in helping us build this new movement!

You’re currently studying how multitasking with media influences cognition, and we know students are big media multitaskers. Tell us about that research and what you’re finding.

We, and others, are studying the minds and brains of people who multitask with multiple media streams at once – like talking on the phone while working on the computer. It’s important to note that we’re not talking about multitasking in general, but instead multitasking with media.

There may be something special about multitasking with media, particularly social media, but we’re still trying to figure this out. Essentially, what we’ve found is that people who media multitask are worse on almost every measure they’ve been tested on, and we think it may all stem from a different ability to sustain their attention.

When people hear these findings, they often jump to the conclusion that all this media multitasking is causing changes in our ability to pay attention, but I want to stress that it could just as easily be that people with different attention abilities tend to multitask with media more often.

To start to get to the answer to this question, we’re now running a large-scale study in kids, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, to see which comes first: the increased media use or the cognitive changes? This should give us some insight into whether media use is in fact changing our brains, which it may not be.

You’ve trained educators at many schools in the learning sciences, covering topics like intrinsic motivation, growth mindset, metacognition and retrieval practice. How can schools use research-based practices to change instruction models?

This is again where learning engineering is so powerful. If we start to use the promising principles from the science of learning and design education innovations around them, we now have a process we can use to begin to identify what works in our local contexts for whom, when and where. And this is meant to be used by every educator, so everyone can be an education innovator.

In this way, we can co-create solutions for our local district, schools, classrooms and individual students. We can use the user-centered design process to create models, implement and evaluate what parts are working and iterate new models rapidly.

We think this will not only allow research-based practices to inform and innovate instruction models, but will also advance the science by encouraging practice-informed research.

When you train educators, you often debunk common learning science myths – like that idea of learning styles or right-brain/left-brain thinking styles. What are some of the most common learning science myths that continue to be repeated? What’s the one new FACT you wish educators knew?  

Some of the most common myths of learning, or neuromyths, found by my colleagues, believed by educators around the globe and found in my own research with thousands of U.S. educators are exactly what you point to (in order of prevalence).

The myth that we learn best if taught in our preferred learning style; instead, it may be better to think of learning strategies and how they relate to the topic to be learned. The myth that we are left- or right-brain dominant; instead we use 100 percent of our brains, 100 percent of the time. The myth that specific exercises increase left/right brain integration; instead the brain is always integrated across left and right sides. The myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains. Again, we use 100 percent of our brains 100 percent of the time.

There are real consequences to belie-ing these misconceptions that can result in students shutting down to learning opportunities that don’t align to their beliefs. For example, if I believe I’m a visual learner, I will (falsely) believe I can’t learn anything that’s conveyed auditorily or kinesthetically.

Regarding one new fact, because I study and discuss executive functioning and learning, I often hear educators say, “Oh, that kid has no executive functioning.” I’d love for us to change the conversation so we all appreciate that every kid (and adult, for that matter) has executive functioning, but they just may not be directing it to the thing you want them to be learning.

Another misconception that’s important to address is that we always try to make learning easy for students, when in fact we need the brain to be more active and engaged in order to form deeper, richer, longer-lasting memories. This is why we promote the idea of “desirable difficulties” or “productive struggle” in students. A bit of struggle engages the brain more and then the hippocampus has more to encode into memory, which produces a longer-lasting memory.

Do you ever get tired of thinking about the brain?

How could I? The brain is our last frontier and our greatest mystery. And we now have sophisticated tools to peer inside the living human brain as it’s thinking!
As a friend said to me before I scanned her brain for the first time, “The brain is at the heart of who we are as humans. And yet who gets to meet their own brain?”
It’s my hope that every single student gets to be introduced to this three pounds of flesh that operates every thought, hope and dream, and holds the mystery of their humanity.

What if we could unlock human potential by simply introducing kids to their brain and giving them the confidence that they can grow their brain to be anything they set their mind/brain to?

It’s then our responsibility as educators to remove the barriers to that success and empower them with the skills and environments to succeed.

Julie Phillips Randles is a freelance writer and editor with 30 years of experience writing about education policy, leadership, curriculum and edtech.