Each year, Punahou hosts a multi-day Brain Symposium for educators with a focus on learning and the brain. This winter, Punahou welcomed Dr. Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, who offered keynote addresses and breakout sessions, providing a wide range of topics specifically to support classroom teaching and curriculum development.
“Teachers, your job is the most important one in society,” Tokuhama-Espinosa, author of “Mind, Brain, and Education,” said in her keynote address to Punahou faculty and visiting teachers, including one from St. Andrews. “It’s a profession that can change society.”
Tokuhama-Espinosa is a leader in the field of the teaching philosophy that incorporates research from neuroscience and psychology. She revealed a surprising fact about the importance of metacognition and understanding how the brain works: Students’ own perception of themselves as a learner has the most influence on their learning.
Tokuhama-Espinosa has turned to neurology to explore this and other ways learning can be naturally bolstered by purposefully catering to the way the brain operates. That’s where Mind, Brain, Education Science comes into the picture.
“Do teachers know enough about the brain?” she asked the audience. While neurology-based teaching is steadily gaining traction, there’s still a way to go before it’s fully integrated into the classroom. And there are still “neuromyths,” like the concept of right-brained or left-brained, that mislead people.
She explained how better brain imagining has resulted in a clearer understanding of neuroscience and how much people’s cognitive functions vary. Since experience affects a brain’s wiring, no two brains are alike. “All new learning passes through the filter of previous experience,” she said. That means every student has a different learning experience, and brains are not equal in their ability to solve problems.
Tokuhama-Espinosa explained what can get in the way of learning. “Stress, anxiety and depression override learning,” she said. Sleep also affects learning. It’s where memories are consolidated. Rest is required for the brain to refresh itself for the following day, enabling a student to be attentive and focused. Tokuhama-Espinosa made the point that down time is just as important to learning as class time.
Tokuhama-Espinosa concluded during a breakout session, “A teacher’s job is to elevate levels of thinking, not provide answers.” She challenged teachers to respond to students’ questions with questions that encourage deeper thinking. That way a teacher can model metacognition out loud with the intention that students will learn to carry it on internally, becoming self-motivated and empowered learners.
In addition to Tokuhama-Espinosa’s presentation, Punahou faculty held workshops and hosted breakout sessions on a range of topics, including understanding how the brain learns best; resilience, perseverance and grit; differentiating instruction; and encouraging flexible problem-solving.
Another topic was about helping students find balance in their lives. “We tell students to find balance, but are we modeling that?” asked Deane Salter ’98, Academy dean. Members of that session then explored ways to intentionally incorporate restorative activities their lives.
In another session, led by Academy English Department Head Paul Hamamoto ’83, faculty discussed creative and critical thinking through a number of vehicles: cocktail party-style mingling, independent free-writing and group sentence-building, each one an example of tools teachers could use in their classrooms.
Faculty left the Brain Symposium eager to deploy what they learned after a full day of learning. The next day, Tokuhama-Espinosa turned her attention to Punahou parents. During an evening lecture, she debunked long-standing beliefs about brain functions and identified what really influences learning outcomes.
Photos by Kathleen Connelly.