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Neuroscientist explains how to stimulate youn -

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One of the world's leading neurologists, Dr Judy Willis, says educational engagement with children
in the early years pays off.

Transcript

EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Educational engagement with children in those first years pays off
according to one of the world's leading neurologists, Dr Judy Willis. Dr Willis is a scientist and
former teacher who has written six books about applying the mind, the brain and educational
research in the classroom. Dr Willis joined us from Santa Barbara.

Judy Willis, thank you very much for being there.

DR JUDY WILLIS, NEUROLOGIST: It is my pleasure and honour.

EMMA ALBERICI: You practised as a neurologist for 15 years before changing tack and becoming a
school teacher. What was it that you wanted to bring to the classroom?

DR JUDY WILLIS: Well, I hoped that I could make a change in what I was seeing as a doctor in my
office. I was seeing kids referred to me for what were believed to be neurologic conditions at a
greater rate than ever before. I had been in practice already for 15 years, but so many kids
suddenly were being sent to me for what teachers thought were attention disorders, behaviour
problems.

And that's when I found out that the schooling had changed, and now I know that it's happened all
over the world; that as new information grew, it was shoved in the curriculum and these kids were
responding to being asked to memorise so many facts with stress. And their stress response was what
the brain is supposed to do when it is under stress, you act out, you zone out, the way animals
flight, fight, freeze.

So my hope if I became a teacher, knowing what I know about the brain, that my students, 30 kids a
year, I would be aware that nobody wants to act badly. They're responding to stress and I could
help them do things to reduce the stress, and school wouldn't become wouldn't become so onerous.
The joy would come back to learning. But it's wonderful how neuroscience shows us, guides us in
ways to help kids learn more effectively.

EMMA ALBERICI: Given what we know about a child's brain and its development, how early should
education start?

DR JUDY WILLIS: The earlier the better in terms of parents talking with their children, making eye
contact, giving them experiences, because the brain is setting up patterns from the time it's born,
organising the world into patterns and categories. And it's those that get stored as networks in
the brain, so later in school and in life, new information, if it doesn't find anything in the
brain to link up with, to code with, it doesn't really stay.

So the more experiences and words that they hear as babies and growing up, when they get to school,
it's like a puzzle, the pieces know where to fit. And if there are problems with parents or the
home situation, then having an outside opportunity like a preschool or a day care centre with
people who will provide that stimulation is the next best thing.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now, in Australia we're about to introduce a system that intends to provide
universal access for four-year-olds to preschool. Is that early enough do you think? Because of
course, in many parts of Europe they're offering free state funded preschool 15 hours a week at the
age of three.

DR JUDY WILLIS: Well, again, as an alternative to parents, who already have good bonds ... and
because certainly the bond of love and affection and trust and one-on-one is ideal with parents,
but if that can't be the situation - so if parents can't provide the mental manipulation and
stimulation and encouragement - then starting at four is better than at five, and starting at three
is better than four.

The earlier the brain experiences the opportunity to hear words, to develop patterns of what's
familiar, what goes together, the better ... the more efficiently it will learn later and the more
comfortable it will be with the academic setting. So as long as it is a loving place where the
child feels they can explore, and natural curiosity is encouraged, not regimented, but there's a
real sense of trust, the right climate at four is great to be maybe necessary for kids who don't
have the right home environment.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now, there is some research that says good quality preschool education, those who
have access and opportunity for that sort of environment, end up achieving better at university.
How are the two related?

DR JUDY WILLIS: The brain is very plastic and the more we start building those categories of
structures, those neuronal networks and patterns the better. However, once they're in place, even
if there's a delay and a catch up, the kids may not have equal educational experiences once they
get to school. They may not have the same attendance as other classmates. But the background that
they've constructed, the brain that they've built, with early experiences, will be there and can be
picked up on in later years. Whether the delay is until college or high school, that's unfortunate,
but at least that net, that network, is there.

EMMA ALBERICI: In Australia we've had a lot of focus in the last few years on education, and
particularly though, on funding for education and more specifically on funding things like
buildings and new halls and so on. Is that necessarily always the correlation that you have to have
more money, or is it more about a focus on teaching and how children learn?

DR JUDY WILLIS: What's most important to a child is the sense that they are safe and can experiment
and can be curious and will be taken care of in a learning environment. So whether the building
looks nice or whether it has a lot of art in the room, it's lovely. But if a child feels "I'm in a
place where I can explore, try things out, say things that I think could be right, but it is all
right to make mistakes," in that type of learning environment with the trust it can build, that's
going to cause the most positive brain changes.

But we now know, because we have scanners that show what the brain is doing, how the brain is
responding during stress, during pleasure, during fear, and we see that during stress the
structures getting hyper metabolic, not letting flow to the higher brain - yet, when kids have
experienced how to help themselves de-stress or suddenly when somebody comes into the room whom
they trust, we can see the metabolic activity start decreasing in this area and we see flow go back
again into the higher brain, and behaviour have an input from the reflective brain. So, people make
the difference, trust makes the difference. Kids understanding their brain and understanding when
they're acting out and zoning out, it is not their voluntary choice. It is what the brain does when
it perceives stress.

EMMA ALBERICI: I think you've mentioned before in your writings that a lot of this is also down to
an obsession with testing. Now children are tested throughout their academic lives here now. What's
your view of the value of such tests in terms of improving outcomes?

DR JUDY WILLIS: Ideally a test should be to give the teacher, the administration, evidence about
how well student are learning something so that adjustments can be made, improvements can be made
in the way either in the books they're using or they way it's taught, so that learning can be more
successful. Those types of written tests should not be used to judge how good the teacher or how
good the student is. It should be a way of "Ok, this is the information we have back, let's see
what we need to change".

But instead - and please don't go there Australia - but instead the system we have in the US is the
results on these tests that the kids take, reflect directly the amount of funding schools get. So
the unfortunate switch comes and the pressure is teach for the test, not use the test to inform
teaching. So, you're in a good place. You haven't made the funding of a school dependent on the
test scores. So, you can still use those tests for feedback, but certainly let the kids know that
they are not a test score. And tests only measure what the tests ask, they don't measure how much
else the child knows that isn't asked. So formal tests like those bubble tests with the multiple
choice questions are fine it if it's going to change the curriculum or teaching. They're not a good
way to assess the wisdom that a child has learned.

EMMA ALBERICI: The best countries in the world as far as academic achievements are concerned, what
are they doing right that other countries aren't?

DR JUDY WILLIS: If I teach you how to multiply seven times 14, that's a big number. If you memorise
what that is, that's a little fact, but the only time your brain will dig into that, activate that
memory, is when it is asked what is seven times 14. In these other countries they dedicate a lot of
time to problem solving, to discovering. So if you discovered on your own - maybe you would be
doing it with little manipulatives and blocks, maybe you would be doing it by making a skit about
seven and 14 - if you were to discover what seven and 14, seven times 14 is because you did things
to learn it, now you have much more than a memory. It is like fishing pole versus a fish. You have
the ability to extrapolate, to transfer knowledge, so you'll be able to, when higher numbers come
up, you'll be able to take what you learned because you discovered what seven times 14 was. You
didn't just memorise it. Your brain is so different.

A person who learns by discovery has not just the information activated in a little network circuit
when they remember it, while we're scanning their brains we see connections all over their brains
while they're thinking of that multiplication. And what's wonderful, these are the time
multi-hemisphere connections that light up during the "aha!" moment in a child and an adult when
they've gone beyond, when they've improvised, when they've innovated, when they've taken what they
know and applied it to something they never applied to it before. And you can't do that with
learning rote facts that are on a test. You only do that building understandings and concepts. They
will be the creative and innovative kids now who will be the 21st century leaders.

EMMA ALBERICI: What you're saying, in essence, is that it's about the way we teach and they way
children learn rather than where money is allocated and so on.

DR JUDY WILLIS: Just think of a child's curiosity, right? When you give a child a big present and
it's in the box, a little child. They love the box, right? They have this wonderful imagination and
curiosity. They can take things all over their imagination, which literally means the information
is stimulating lots of places in their brain. That's the type of brain preparation that's great for
school and it's great for life.

So that child who got a big box, didn't get a very expensive present or fancy classroom, they got
someone who encouraged them to explore and be curious, and supported them and played with them.
Turns out block play, and kids using their imagination and playing with blocks collaboratively with
another classmate, that turns out to be one of the greatest things. We have to start ... it's sad,
but there's a whole study about how to get kids to play, how to teach play. And when you and I were
kids, no one had to teach us how to play. But since it's been pulled out, it needs to be reinstated
and some people need instructions.

EMMA ALBERICI: Thank you so much Judy Willis for your time this evening.

DR JUDY WILLIS: My pleasure.