The Minimalist Educator Podcast

Episode 023: Imagine! Brain Science in Education! with Julia Skolnik

February 13, 2024 Tammy Musiowsky-Borneman
The Minimalist Educator Podcast
Episode 023: Imagine! Brain Science in Education! with Julia Skolnik
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Are you ready to revolutionize the way you think about education? Tune in as we sit down with Julia Skolnick, the brain-science whizz and founder of Professional Learning Partnerships. She fervently advocates for integrating brain science into our teaching and leadership methods to revolutionize K-12 education. Julia’s mission to bridge the gap between research and practice in education is truly eye-opening. She highlights the adverse effects of standardized tests on students, teachers, and parents and how the 'less is more' philosophy can positively influence teaching and learning.

Sit tight as we flip the script, discussing the often ignored systems and processes in education. We take a critical look at the idea of specialization for teachers and how overwhelming administrative tasks can obstruct their main roles. An interesting chat on the significance of values and learner profiles in schools ensues, emphasizing their role as a guiding framework for decision-making, rather than just an accessory. Our experiences as educators in International Baccalaureate (IB) schools, incorporating the learner profile into our teaching and planning processes, offer practical insights into this approach. This episode prompts educators to constantly rethink and assess their systems and priorities to create a more impactful and meaningful learning experience for students. So gear up for this knowledge-packed episode that promises to leave you with much to ponder.

Julia Skolnik, MSEd is the CEO & Founder of Professional Learning Partnerships (PLP), which is an organization dedicated to transforming learning and leadership using brain science through long-term partnerships with K-12 school districts. Building upon over 20 years of experience working in schools, research laboratories, and museums, Julia founded PLP to empower educators and leaders to leverage brain science as a tool for meaningfully transforming learning, leadership, and culture in K-12 schools. As CEO & Founder, she creates the overarching vision for PLP, designs innovative and research-based professional learning programs, and cultivates sustained partnerships with a growing network of school districts across the U.S.

Julia wrote a guest blog post on our website: Less is More

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Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Minimalist Educator Podcast, a podcast about paring down to refocus on the purpose and priorities in our roles with co-hosts and co-authors of the Minimalist Teacher Book, Tammy Musiowsky-Borneman and Christine Arnold.

Speaker 2:

Today we speak with Julia Skolnick about how we can translate brain science into our practice as educators. Her pared down pointer is starting with building trust as a leader or educator. Julia Skolnick, MS Ed, is the CEO and founder of Professional Learning Partnerships, PLP, which is an organization dedicated to transforming learning and leadership using brain science through long-term partnership with K-12 school districts. Building upon over 20 years of experience working in schools, research laboratories and museums, Julia founded PLP to empower educators and leaders to leverage brain science as a tool for meaningfully transforming learning, leadership and culture in K-12 schools. A CEO and founder should create the overarching vision for PLP, designs innovative and research-based professional learning programs and cultivate sustained partnerships with a growing network of school districts across the US.

Speaker 3:

Hello everyone and welcome to this week's episode of the Minimalist Educator Podcast. This week, our guest is Julia Skolnick of Professional Learning Partnerships. Welcome, julia. Hey, thanks for having me. We're excited to have you here today because we have some really aligned ideas and thoughts about how to approach teaching and learning. I think we're going to have a good little geek out session, talking about the science behind the thoughts of subtraction and going with a less-as-more approach. Can you talk a little bit about, maybe first of all, the things that you do with Professional Learning Partnerships?

Speaker 4:

Yeah, absolutely. I lead an organization called Professional Learning Partnerships, or PLP for short, and we partner with school districts around the country to prioritize brain science and education. We aim to transform learning and leadership by empowering educators to both understand and apply brain science to be able to make more impactful decisions in K-12 schools. So partnerships look really different, and sometimes we're training administrator teams and sometimes it's new teachers or we have a think tank innovator program where we bring solutions minded teacher leaders together. So it's a lot of different forms that it takes, but that goal of prioritizing brain science and education is top of mind.

Speaker 3:

And where or how did you become interested in this?

Speaker 4:

Yeah. So my story kind of goes all the way back to my training as a elementary educator. Being in college, I went to Brandeis University outside of Boston, and half my course work is education and learning how to be a teacher and the other half is psychology and cognitive science and learning about the brain and learning and memory and all of that, and hardly ever did those two paths cross. I think there was one developmental site class, but in all of my experience about education we were not talking about the brain, we were not talking about how learning works, and even in my student teaching I just had so many more questions than I had answers about how to do this really well. What's the evidence behind really effective education.

Speaker 4:

So my career has taken a lot of time to think about how to do so. My career has taken an unusual path. I've worked in research and in memory labs, learning science labs, I've worked in museums, I've worked in classrooms and all the while kind of living between these two worlds of research and practice and education. And that is, I think, the sweet spot in my passion area is helping educators get the best from the research world but saving them as much time and pain as possible, because it can be a painful process trying to sort through all the research that's out there. So that's the place I like to live in between.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, there does seem to be a little bit of a gap between the science, the research, and then what's happening in our classrooms, doesn't there? So yeah, I'm glad you're doing that work for us, julia.

Speaker 4:

Thank you. And to add on to the gap, there's a lot of misinformation and bad science and, in all good intentions, the education field latches on sometimes to trends without the evidence behind it, and so it's kind of like a gap plus misalignment on top of that, which makes it extra challenging.

Speaker 2:

Yeah for sure, which actually I was just thinking. Do you have something that you see happening repeatedly frequently in schools that you're like we got to stop, don't do that anymore? Is there something that comes to mind? Probably a whole bunch.

Speaker 4:

There's a laundry list of those things, but one kind of institutional thing I was just listening to Hidden Potential by Adam Grant and kind of has international lens on education, and I think one of the things that really plagues us in America is this intense testing culture and the assessment, the performance, how a lot of our success is gauged in those scores, and so if we could just throw out standardized testing of all kinds, I know we'd see intrinsic motivation boosts, teachers could take a breath, parents could take a breath, students could take a breath and it would be just much more fun and enjoyable as opposed to this heightened pressure in needing to perform. So I know that's a lofty goal, but that one I think is such a pain point in US education, not just US either, I don't think.

Speaker 2:

I think it's unfortunately a little bit more global.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, totally. I wonder about the cultural perception of them. It seems to be out of whack right now here. But I agree with you. I think it's that need to assess achievement. When it becomes an obstacle to achievement, then it's kind of backfiring.

Speaker 3:

Right, yeah, it's unfortunate. Can we talk a little bit about because Christine and I in our book talk about decluttering and less being better for people in general right, just going through the processes of reducing the things around us, the things that take up cognitive space, and so can you give us a little insight in the science behind the lesses? Kind of that less is more thinking.

Speaker 4:

Totally. What I love about the philosophy to it really is interdisciplinary. There's lots of supporting research that I think you could pull in, so I have a few examples, but I'm sure there's way more than beyond what we could talk about. But one of the ones that I'm thinking about really relates to attention, which we know is the first step in learning for our brain's memory processes. Whatever you're paying attention to is really where the learning is going to begin on a neurobiological level, and attention is so fragile in a lot of ways, and the more we overload cognitively something like cognitive load theory we can quickly get overwhelmed and overloaded, and it takes so much longer to get back to a healthy headspace that the more we have overwhelming us, overloading us whether it's emotionally, cognitively that's going to damage our ability to pay attention and learn and also kind of go where we need to go, as far as struggling and rebounding and being resilient. If there's too much happening for us, it just slows down the whole process. So I think that's one of the pieces that I see for sure.

Speaker 2:

And that feels really relevant for our students, but also for the adults in the building as well.

Speaker 4:

Oh my gosh, absolutely. And I think too, the other science piece like that was more of the cognitive side. The emotional side is the feeling of safety.

Speaker 4:

So do you feel regulated enough to accomplish what's in front of you. And so if the amount of work you have to do as an adult or as a student feels like a threat which I would agree with you, christine, I think it does feel like a threat for us as adults Then you get into that survival mode, your fight flight or freeze mode. Your amygdala is signaling out to your brain and sending cortisol stress hormones all around. That's not a healthy brain space to live in either to do high quality work. So I think you know when I tie brain science into the less is more. Having an achievable amount of work in front of you or a space that allows your brain to feel calm and regulated and not overwhelmed, that's where we get the best quality and your brain is more available for learning and creativity, higher order thinking, when you have space to actually think.

Speaker 3:

Yes, absolutely. When you're working with teachers and administrators, what are some of the protocols or like learning engagements that you engage your participants in? To really kind of bring that point to front of mind?

Speaker 4:

The idea that less is more.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, or like focusing attention on certain things, on the things that we really should be focusing on.

Speaker 4:

For sure. So two things come to mind. The first is I try to have our professional learning step way back and look at education from a big picture instead of a small picture. When we're talking about brain science, it's so global to all humans, it applies to the way kindergartners think, it applies to the way a new teacher or a veteran teacher thinks, or superintendent. So we're really talking big picture about these truths about how our brains work, what is true, what is not.

Speaker 4:

You know, thinking about myths like learning styles or right brain, left brain, or that we only use 10% of our brain, and just kind of shaking their core knowledge about learning and the brain so that it makes us look really differently at the small decisions that we have in front of us as leaders.

Speaker 4:

Like, oh, if you use 100% of your brain every day, how might I need to rethink, you know, the way that we're categorizing students in our school or the way I'm looking at this veteran teacher who refuses to make change in their practice if their brains can learn new things their entire life long.

Speaker 4:

So focusing on some of these global truths about learning I think helps kind of just reel ourselves in as to what really matters or what is true in learning. And then the other research that I've been bringing into my work more is the science of subtraction, which comes from Dr Lighty Klotz, who's at University of Virginia, and what I find so fascinating about his research is he shows the biological and sociological reasons as to why our default mode is to add and that we think we're solving problems by adding, and that feels natural. Our brain gets a kick of dopamine when we add, like there's all these reinforcers, and so even showing leaders the science of the fact that our brains don't naturally subtract is a helpful way to get into this conversation. To say you're in this state of add, add, add. Science tells us you might benefit from taking some things off the plate. What could those things be? And so that brings up some healthy debate as well about what things we're holding on to just for sake of holding on to them and not because they're educationally valuable anymore.

Speaker 2:

We've got a section in the book about with the urgent important matrix, and so we encourage people to really think about their priorities, about what's most urgent, what's most important, and help them get that off their plate. But we come across a lot of educators who are like everything's important and everything's urgent. So do you have any tips or ideas for people like that, who are feeling in that mode that everything's urgent and important?

Speaker 4:

Yes, I can totally empathize with that state of mind because I think pressure from others makes you feel as though it's all urgent and you're going to get complaints. You're going to get in trouble if you don't meet every request with a high level of urgency. But the truth is not. Everything can be urgent. It's just not true. And it is an urgent. So really helping people wind back that belief system that you're only human, you only have a certain number of hours in the day. Either you can spend the whole day frustrated and anxious about trying to do all those things where you can pick a few and do them really well and feel better at the end of the day. So forcing people uncomfortably to prioritize and even to think through the consequences of not following through on some of those quote unquote urgent things, like what will actually be the consequence if you do this in three days instead of today?

Speaker 1:

Is anyone going to?

Speaker 4:

notice Right, like we work it up in our minds that the whole world's going to fall apart. But if you actually think it all the way through and then you think, well, which is the one that other people are relying on, or there really are domino effects if I don't follow through with these, that can be a helpful way to say, oh well, maybe it's just in my mind, it's not actually. I don't have evidence that it's urgent.

Speaker 3:

When you put it that way, that's such a valuable point because that's something I would often say to my students. You know, when something seemed like a really big deal, like you can't find the pencil or there's no pencils left, or like so and so took my whatever, and my question to them was often like, is this going to change your life? And when they would say no, like it was almost like an instant diffuser. Right, so like, if we ask ourselves that same question, is this going to change anybody's life but my own? Like my own kind of irrational expectation of myself? Right, we put these expectations on ourselves that are just like very lofty.

Speaker 3:

Yes, there's a lot of things to do, but, honestly, does it matter to anybody else but us? Right, like certain, we might have certain systems that we think are being helpful, but then realize, actually, this is impeding me from really focusing on what I need to do, so I'm going to ditch that. So one of the things that I focus on at our school is like quality of curriculum over like all the things, like really focusing on like I got to teach all these standards, and so this kind of that idea makes me think of like quality is just so much more important than doing all the things, because memory research to support that.

Speaker 4:

To me, like everything you're talking about, memory, shallow memories don't stick. So if you're trying to cram in a bunch of curriculum and you're like, oh look, how much we did, and even they might have tested fine, I always ask that you know? Provocative question Well, what if you gave the test two to three months later? And chances are, if you're skimming the curriculum, they're going to forget a lot of it because it's not tapping long term memory. But what you're talking about when you prioritize higher quality curriculum, that's going to lead to longer term memories and it's going to be more effective learning, for sure.

Speaker 4:

Another thing I was thinking about too, when you're saying, like these systems that we might have overlooked, that also makes me think of when we are really entrenched or automated in processes. We're not aware of them anymore, so we can't even kind of critically judge them with an objective state of mind. It's just a habit and we're not even aware that we're doing it. So sometimes having someone else be able to assess and say, is that system really serving you anymore, we may need an outside person to help us do that, because we're too close to it. We don't realize it might not be working for us anymore.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, I've been through that a few times, as you know.

Speaker 2:

Did, oh yeah.

Speaker 4:

Oh my God.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, and just you know, just really thinking about it, you do really have to step back and talk to other people about is this really serving us or are we just doing it because, right, it is a habit and it's something that we've always done, and those are some of those things that we can take off teachers plates or our own plates. We don't have to keep doing those things just because we've always done them. If they're not useful, right, it's just another thing that adds to the mental fatigue and the it over. It overwhelms us and we just don't need to have those things.

Speaker 4:

No, and it makes me think too I know we've talked in the past about that time-chunking strategy that if you do similar things at the same time, your brain is already in the flow of doing that kind of thing, so it's less starting and stopping. I think you can also extrapolate that to specialization for teams. Like you're saying for teachers what can you take off their plate so they can really specialize in the thing that not only they're really good at, but maybe they're also really passionate about, which then fuels their intrinsic motivation and they get more quality out of what they're doing? But one of those things I see happening in schools now is teachers getting overburdened with a lot of administrative tasks and having to do data entry or review the data, and the more directions were stretched in, the less effective we can be at our true specialty, I think.

Speaker 2:

Just going back a moment to the curriculum that we were talking about. You know a lot of schools these days. We have outcomes or standards that we're working towards, but schools often have a set of values, or this is what we want our learners to be like, or this. You know those sorts of profiles. What do you think about people who feel like those values, those learner profiles, are an add-on there, an extra Versus, like we really need to focus on the content and the knowledge and the skills. What would you, what's your take on that sort of thing?

Speaker 4:

Mmm. What I do like about those profile and portrait programs is that they are there's, I think, supposed to be a vetting system for decisions, values, content that are Adopted by a school district, because it aligns with the values or what the outcomes are that a district wants for their students. So I'm hoping it would never be something extra. It should be kind of the process for how to decide what you do, when you do it, how you do it. So, for example, one of the school districts I work with here in Pennsylvania area is Unionville, chad's Ford School District, and I partnered with them I mean, all their district came up with the portrait but I was sort of a facilitator and partner to help extrapolate ideas from the community and help them synthesize.

Speaker 4:

And A lot of the qualities that they talked about were lifelong learning of teachers, really embodying curiosity, prioritizing character and success of students in a multitude of different ways. So those should not be extra things that are added to the plate of a teacher, but when faced with competing priorities, I guess to be able to look at that portrait and say, well, we really care about lifelong learning and Curiosity and character building. So even if we don't get an A from the start. It's more about the process, it's more about the experience, so I would hope that those things would be a way to clarify how to spend your time when you're sorting through the way that the school day happens things like that. Can I ask you a question, or is that, of course, you?

Speaker 1:

can't.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, I was gonna say what do you both think about the portrait and the the profile work? How do you see that in your work, layering within your minimalist perspective?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, well, I'm a PYP coordinator, academic coordinator at my school, and so the learner profile is at the core of everything that we're doing and Really, we want to be thinking about that alongside the skill of each lesson. That would be. My hope is that, you know, while we're working on map reading skills, we're also learning how to be knowledgeable or be communicators or collaborators and things like that. So that would be. My dream is that we're always bringing those two elements together at the same time. That's that's what I'd love to see, and really build those, those skills that are gonna serve the students for the rest of their lives.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, same take and coming from that I be, you know, teaching in the I be as well At our school. We have Four community pillars, so kind of those learner profile and then skills too, that we want to explicitly teach students within our content. So in our planning process we are focusing not just on our Unit content but also like how are we gonna teach our students so that we can embed these skills within it and make sure we're developing you know, developing communicators and collaborators and critical thinkers. So we do really keep that front of mind as well, because we know that they're more than just knowing what Pangea is. So, you know, we want them to be able to come away with the skills that they need to if they want to know more about it, you know that they can go and do that. So, yeah, yeah, it's a part. It's a part, it feels natural, right, it doesn't ever seem like an extra thing. I.

Speaker 4:

No, and it sounds like it's the why behind your what. So if, whatever content you're choosing, there's a purpose behind it which is to be critical thinker or be collaborative or whatever it might be, which again is more motivating for students, I think, when they're always asking well, why do we need to learn this? Those pillars and those profiles seem like that's the reason why and it will benefit them later in life.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, yeah, thanks for that question. Yeah, totally, as we bring our episode to a close, julia, we always time flies.

Speaker 1:

I know we've done some we're having.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, we're having good conversations, but at the end of an episode we always ask our guests for a pair down pointer. So just a tip or two that helps you kind of focus on. It might be something in your personal life or professional life that helps you just really focus on the things that you need to focus on.

Speaker 4:

So this is for my own practice, or what I teach other educators. Whatever you want to share. There's two that come to mind. That's not very paired down, though I want to pick one just to really subtract here.

Speaker 4:

So in my work at PLP we have what we call the six gears for learning and leadership framework, which, tammy, I know you saw way back in its very earliest iterations. But these are six elements from neuroscience, cognitive science, educational, psychology that to me are really paramount in being an effective leader or educator. And the one gear that kind of kicks off the whole sequence is trust.

Speaker 4:

And so when I think about effective learning and leadership, what the research suggests is if you have to start anywhere, it's starting about, it's starting with building trusting relationships with the people that you're engaging with, because trust is almost like a on off switch for safety in the brain. The brain is trying to assess can I be safe with you? If I can be safe with you, I can take risks, I can stretch, I can learn, and if you're not safe, then I'm going to guard myself and I'm not really going to push myself beyond where I am. So I think that science behind trust is such an important marker of where to begin in a learning or leadership relationship. Get to know people, build relationships with them. Put yourself out there first by being vulnerable or taking a risk, so people then meet you where you are. I think trust is one of those key places to just keep in mind in this field of education, that our brains need it in order to do the work we're expecting of people.

Speaker 3:

Thank you, Julia. That's a really powerful point. Thank you so much for being a guest today Again. Really, it was such a great conversation. Could keep talking about these things for a really long time. So thanks again for being with us today.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, thanks for the opportunity. It was great.

Speaker 2:

Today's episode was brought to you by Professional Learning Partnerships. Professional Learning Partnerships empower educators to transform learning leadership and culture in school districts by leveraging key ideas from brain science, so that all students can thrive. Find out more at learningpartnershipsorg.

Speaker 1:

Be sure to join Tammy and Christine and guests for more episodes of the minimalist educator podcast. They would love to hear about your journey with minimalism. Connect with them at PlanZPLS on Twitter or Instagram. The music for the podcast has been written and performed by Gaia Moretti. Thank you.

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