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Engaging the Brain with Allison Posey

Welcome to Episode 19 of the ThinkUDL podcast. In this episode I talk to author Allison Posey about her book Engage the Brain: How to Design for Learning that Taps into the Power of Emotion. Allison works as a Curriculum and Design Specialist at CAST and we had the chance to record this interview just after she had given the opening session at CAST’s annual symposium on the campus of Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You might hear some background noise around us in the midst of the symposium as we sat down for a conversation about the importance of emotion in all kinds of learning. From which kind of muppet your headspace resembles, to “reflecting about reflecting” in assignment design and curriculum, and even using “magic” in order to learn what a novice brain might be thinking, Allison helps us to understand how emotion and learning are intertwined, and what we can do to help our learners remember and learn what is really important.


Link to buy Engage the Brain book (first chapter is for free!): 

Quick Reference Guide about Learning and the Brain : written for teachers, published with ASCD

CAST webpage

Allison’s Twitter handle: @AllisonAPosey

Upcoming book later this fall! Unlearning: Change your beliefs and practice with UDL, from CAST Publishing, November 2019


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[Lillian]  Welcome to Think UDL, the Universal Design for Learning podcast.  Where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind.


I’m your host, Lillian Nave, and I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding, and facilitating, but how you design and implement it, and why it even matters.


Welcome to episode 19 of the Think UDL podcast.  In this episode, I talk to author Allison Posey about her book Engage the Brain: How to Design for Learning that Taps into the Power of

Emotion.  Allison works as a curriculum and design specialist at CAST, and we had the chance

to record this interview just after she had given the opening session at CAST’s annual symposium on the campus of Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  You might hear some background noise around us in the midst of the symposium, as we sat down for a conversation about the importance of emotion in all kinds of learning.  From which kind of Muppet your headspace resembles, to reflecting about reflecting in assignment design, and even using magic in order to learn what a novice brain might be thinking, Allison helps us to understand how emotion and learning are intertwined, and what we can do to help our learners remember what is really important.  We are at CAST’s fifth annual UDL symposium:

Becoming Expert Learners, and I have with me today Allison Posey, who is the curriculum and design specialist here at CAST, and we are going to talk about her book Engage the Brain, but first, I have a question I like to ask all my guests, and first of all, welcome Allison, thank you for talking with us.


[Allison]   Thank you for having me, this is really exciting.

[Lillian]   Yeah and my first question is, what makes you a different kind of learner?


[Allison]   So I always felt like a different learner in school, and this may sound really silly, but to study I used to go into an empty classroom, and I loved it especially when I was at college because you had these big lecture halls, so I’d go in at night when it was quiet and I would draw all of my notes across the board, and then I would sit back and look at them.  So I really liked the big drawing space, I liked especially like the blackboards that moved up and down, so I could shift my note, shift my thinking, and then sometimes I would turn and actually pretend I was explaining this information to my pretend class, and maybe that’s led to the career that I have now.


[Lillian]  It could be.

[Allison]  But, being able to draw it all out so I would take my textbook take the notes, the professors or the teachers had given in k-12, and really just try to conceptualize it all together, and it helped me kind of see how things were connected.


[Lillian]   Wow, I have never heard of that, that is awesome!

[Allison]   I’m gonna say thank you.


[Lillian]   Yes, that is the right response on that, that is fantastic, you see doodlers and, you know, things like that, but to take it on the big scale is great.

[Allison]   Yeah, it did, I mean, it –the tricky part is that I really felt like I had to do it on my own, and away from everything, and I needed it to be quiet, and it didn’t always work well in the flow of the day-to-day routines and systems.


[Lillian]   Oh good.  Well, maybe we should be thinking also more of that ability.  I know there are some classrooms now, and institutions and colleges– I’ve just been on a bunch of college tours, I know you have too with our oldest both going off to college this year– but having study rooms with a whole wall that’s a whiteboard or chalkboard wall and stuff like that so I’ve definitely seen colleges picking up on that idea of being able to draw out and have a big space to conceptualize stuff.  So, you started something.


[Allison]  I will happily help infuse that into any setting.

[Lillian]   Yeah, that’s great.  So, you have the book that just came out this year called Engage the Brain, and you’ll be talking a little bit about it here at the symposium and I was hoping you could kind of give us an understanding of what you learned when you were writing this, and  what are some of the takeaways from Engage the Brain?


[Allison]   Great, yeah, so I think the tagline for the book says a lot.  So, it’s how to design for learning that taps into the power of emotion.  So, as a teacher I tended to burn out.  I just, I emotionally was drained a lot of the time, and when I went to graduate school my professor who co-founded CAST in UDL said teaching’s emotional work.  And once he said that, I felt like I was then on a mission to understand that more, because I knew learning was emotional work, teaching was emotional work, but I was raised in a system that basically told me to check those emotions at the door.  So, I’m really trying to think about how educators and learners themselves can pay more attention to their emotions for learning; that they don’t get in the way, they actually support it, but I also–I’m not a fan of, you know, passing around the feeling stick and having to share out loud your emotions.  So, what I really like about the strategies that I’ve pulled together from a number of, you know, research-based best practices, I didn’t invent any of the strategies that are in there at all.  But what I like about those strategies, is that they’re very goal-directed, they focus a lot on the theme for the conference here is expert learning, you know, what are those skills and practices that we’re trying to get to, and how can you actually leverage your emotions to get to that learning, and what do you need to do in the design of the environment to help you get there.


[Lillian]   Wow

[Allison]   So, that’s what’s in the book, and it aligns a lot with what I do at CAST, and really thinking deeply about how the design of a space, the design of the content and curriculum impact that emotion for learning.


[Lillian]  Wow, so that’s great.  So, in your book and in your presentation here, what are the ways that you are seeing how educators in any classrooms, at the college classroom and in or anything, professional development in k-12, all of that stuff, can really harness that emotion, do you have some examples?


[Allison]   Yeah, I think the tool that resonates most with folks is the SEL ruler that came out by the Yale Center for emotional intelligence, and it basically describes emotion across an x-axis of being very positive or negative, but it also describes a valence along the y-axis of how activated are you?  So, we kind of described it like an Elmo quadrant, where you’re very happy and very energetic, like, you know, delivering the opening this morning, it was good for me to be in an Elmo space.  But, you don’t want a classroom full of Elmo’s, and you don’t want to always be an Elmo.  Sometimes, there’s– so if you go to the negative, but very activated, it’s like the Oscar the Grouch space, and sometimes like if you’re looking for you know heated debate with someone, you might need to be in the Oscar the Grouch space.  Positive, but low activations, like Winnie the Pooh, and, you know, if I want to read something, or if I’m writing a friend, I might want to be in more of that Pooh Bear space.  And then there’s the negative, low energy, which is like Eeyore, and that’s sometimes– you kind of want to beware of or wary of any of the extremes, but, you know, you might want to be there when you’re settling in, or you’re going to have a serious conversation about something


[Lillian]   It might be very difficult, yeah.

[Allison]   So, what we encourage educators to do is to think about what the learning goal is, and then invite students to think about where they are.  So, let’s say I’m going to–you have to write a 750 word essay, and I’m over in the Oscar the Grouch space, that might not be my best space to do the writing, but I need to get at the writing.  So, I need to think about what is it in the environment that I need to get me into the place where I’ll do my best writing.  And on a different day, it might be a different thing.  So, it takes the burden off of trying to label me as a learner, but it helps me to be empowered to say, you know what I need right now, I need to go sit under a desk, I need the lights low, I want to put a headphone on with my music, and write–handwrite it with a pen, for example.  And if you have a classroom space where there are flexible tools, flexible furniture, you’re able to allow students to have some of those options but it’s still very goal directed.  And UDL comes in because it helps with all of those strategies. 


[Lillian]   Yeah.  So, you’re helping the learner to have these metacognitive approaches, right, thinking about their own thinking, and often that’s just not in the assignment, is it?  Right, you know, when you have write that seven hundred word essay or response, the, you know, the first part or instruction isn’t, I’ve never seen this, maybe it should think about how you feel about this assignment, and where are you?  Are you in the right space, because it matters.


[Allison]   It matters, not just in school, but that’s one of those self-regulatory skills that matter for life, too, so currently in the office, if I get into the office and I’ve been an awful traffic, and I’m in a really bad space, but I’m in a meeting with three people in a small room, they don’t need Oscar the Grouch there, I need to figure out how to get myself into a better place where I can be productive at work, too, where I can be productive with my family, too, so it really is, when we think about the purpose of school and what we’re hoping to scaffold, these kind of skills are really important, and I love your idea of let’s get it into the curriculum.


[Lillian]  Right, right, make it known, and then I have the students know that we’re making it known. 

[Allison]   Yeah, so whether you’ve had something extreme happen, or it’s just a little stress, being able to manage– figure out how to manage those emotions, in the pace of the school day, the academic day, would be a really empowering thing for students to learn.


[Lillian]  And, I know in college campuses, the big change has been in student mental health, right, and in regulating and self-regulating in the last ten years with the advent of so many cell phones, and distractions, and social media.  I have read many articles about this, and seen it, and on all those college tours I was doing this summer, that was one of the things that I asked about and other parents were asking about is, what have you seen that’s different about students now that you’re teaching than 10 years ago or 20 years ago, and I remember asking faculty about that.  And, by and large and far ahead of everything else it is the mental state really of students.  They come in very distracted, and with so much more of that outside world that’s coming in, you know, used to be you’d go away to college, and maybe you got a letter, you know, and that was like the best day, right?  You got a letter in the mail, now we’re showing our age, right?  And, a phone call– and I had to pay like 15 cents a minute to call home because I was in a different state way back then on a you know a phone with a cord, oh that’s– it is a long time ago– and but that also made it like such a we called our college like a womb with a view, its pretty much, it was a really nice campus and everything, but insulated and we don’t have that anymore, you know, our students in higher ed and you really anywhere are so connected to their friends, good and bad, to the outside world, to their parents, sometimes helicopter parents, sometimes lawnmower parents that just, you know, obliterate anything else in front of their children.  And so much is going on outside that infringes on that education or learning, that we haven’t really thought about all of that emotion that’s coming in, and we’re really– and when we don’t think about it and we don’t say anything about it, what we’re really saying is you deal with it, and I don’t care


[Allison]   Yes, and one of it– so there’s been really interesting research recently about the default mode networks in the brain, and those basically are networks that activate when we’re not paying active attention.   So, when you’re paying active attention, you can imagine probably a school scene where you’re listening, you’re thinking, you’re processing, you’re writing, but when you pause and reflect your brain kind of shifts into this mode of thinking about your own internal state, you actually start thinking about the internal state of others, more of an empathy kind of role; and, so even simple things like pausing to reflect, we’re missing that almost a lot now with cell phones that are on 24/7 and you don’t get that chance to just pause and reflect and think about your own state, and how you’re doing, and how the states of others might be doing around you.  And so we miss those really important connections I think that you were describing.


[Lillian]  Yeah.  A few years ago, I participated in a cohort at my University on service learning.  And service learning, or civic engagement– you’ll see that up around the country in higher ed– and a central part, what I learned there is a central part of the curriculum and the pedagogy of service-learning is reflection.  Like, it cannot even be called service-learning or civic engagement, if there isn’t a reflective piece, and I had never heard of that before, you know, I– it was always I thought you got a power through stuff, and emotion had nothing to do with academics at all.  But taking that service-learning course for professors and trying to implement it in my courses, I found that, that is where all of the learning happened.  All of the student learning happened in that reflective part, and changed the way I wrote assignments, so that the assignment wasn’t done– like they would have to write an assignment, and then it wasn’t counted until they did a reflection on what they learned from writing that paper or doing that assignment, and I need to do that more because not my even in the non like service-learning designated courses, but to have a pedagogy that included that reflection was totally foreign to me.  And it seems like that’s really in tune with that emotional brain.


[Allison]  Absolutely and I think of my own– when I was teaching, often I would plan the lesson right up to the last minute and you’re rushing at the end and you’re like wait don’t forget this and that last little bit was always so chaotic, that was the worst thing for the goal I had of them learning, and getting those last few nuggets probably would have been better spent pausing, reflecting, giving them a chance to even think about and process what we just did, because they’re then off to the next piece to get bombarded again, and if you follow the pace, you’ll walk in your student shoes one day, it’s pretty– or walking in educator’s shoes, we know this happens professionally as well, the pace can really be overwhelming.  And when we are bombarded by all of this social media 24/7 you know it’s just we need to do it more as a culture, at a school and personal level at all these different levels.


[Lillian]  Maybe you can help me understand this– this is a question I’ve had about that ability, how the brain like actually stores memory and information, because– I’ll tell you this story– I love travel and I love travel study and I’ve taken students abroad, and been on trips abroad where I’ve learned quite a lot, and there are times when it’s like go go go go go like, I’m art history, so we’ll go like we’re going to four museums right, and we’re going at 8 am and we’re going to be done at 10 pm, but we saw four–everything we could find in Berlin, right, and realize– and when I was a student that’s what we did– and I realized, I cannot even remember what I saw.  I mean, it was great during the moment, but I cannot– it’s like I didn’t file that stuff.  Can you tell me what happened in my brain?  You know, if you keep on going and going and going and you haven’t had that reflection, it seems that I didn’t check it in, you know?


[Allison]  We could spend a long time talking about this, but yeah we miss so much of what’s going on around us.  And oftentimes, what we pay attention to is what matters to us.  So, on those trips a lot of times you remember, you know, the person you had a crush on who were on that trip, or you saw something there that, you know, a flower from home or something that triggered usually an emotional affective connection, and that tends to be what you pay attention to in the first place, and then what you end up remembering, because you got that little shot of dopamine and when the memory gets stored, depending on if it makes it into long-term memory the sites are stored in different places than the sounds are stored in different places than the smells, so you get these little pieces of that memory, which is why you could be in a total different part of the country years later, you know, you’re back at home or something and, you know, you see something, you see that flower again and it triggers that memory of being at that Museum.  So, the way that memory is formed is very much like a lot of little pixels and little pieces.  It’s never a long– it’s never one coherent story that then goes into a spot.


[Lillian]  Yeah. Wow.  I wish our podcast listeners could see all of the various areas of the brain you’re pointing to by the way

[Allison]  I need my chalkboard.


[Lillian]  Yes, and which parts of the brain is storing each different part as she explained that answer.  So, it’s quite amazing, yeah and I– it feels like I can’t remember all of those things I want to remember, and I can imagine my students feel that way when you’ve got a lecture chock full of stuff right, and no connection, no break to say where’s that going to be in my head or how am I going to remember that, and that exists– a non-stop firehose and we can’t absorb it.


[Allison]  That’s exactly right.  The brain really is a prediction maker.  So, in any situation, it’s trying to predict how much energy its going to have to expend, because the brain is basically lazy and it doesn’t want to spend energy if it doesn’t need to.  It already hogs a lot of energy, so it will go into a new situation– it’ll kind of you know predict, do I need a lot of energy, or not?  And if you are used to– especially by higher ed– if you’re used to being in school and you know you don’t get lecture, or you don’t get the content, your brain is going to actively predict that and probably to pay attention in that way, and that’s probably what you’re going to pull from that experience.  Those expectations really drive a lot of attention and cognition, so the more– again, kind of going back to the strategy– is the more we can have a clear high-level expert goal, but then have those flexible ways to get there it might get that little affective, you know, kick of this matters to me, or I can do this, that can really shift that expectation that can make a big difference.


[Lillian]  If you are in let’s say like a biology lecture, right, and you’ve gone the first week of class and it’s the same thing, the first Monday Wednesday Friday, then the brain is expecting this next week is going to be exactly the same, I’m tuning out.  Is that what you’re saying?


[Allison]  Right, right.  Here I am, this is– yeah especially if it doesn’t have meaning, and you’re just going through the motions, why would the brain pay attention to that, it’s not a good strategy.  I’m going to pay attention to something that matters, that’s meaningful, and maybe getting an A is meaningful enough that you’re willing to pay attention and take more energy to direct attention to take notes, to talk with, you know, with people but that’s not always enough of a hook, you know, to keep students engaged.  It shouldn’t be enough of a hook I mean that’s a very low level motivator.


[Lillian]  Right right that’s more of a– yeah, the end goal, it’s gone too far away, and doesn’t help us.


[Allison]  And some kids do work well with that, like someday I want to have– and they will plan years in advance– I mean, humans are pretty impressive with the way we do that, but it can make it really hard in the day to day.


[Lillian]  Yeah.  But certainly not everybody in that classroom is going to be wired that way.  So, what do we do as educators to make sure we are really doing the best we can for all those different brains.


[Allison]  Yeah, because they are all so different. 

[Lillian]  Wow.  So, you were talking too about the difference between novice learning and expert learning.  Can you tell us a little bit more about what goes on there in the brain?


[Allison]  Yeah, so the conference this year is on expert learning, so I thought well what does an expert brain look like versus a novice brain?  And the main thing you’ll find is there’s no rule about what a novice brain looks like and what an expert brain looks like. You couldn’t put me into a scanner and say oh she’s expert at this but not at this.   But, there are some shifts that happen that I think are pretty interesting.  One is that the more expert you become for those task-relevant pieces actually there’s less activation in your brain.  So, it’s like you become more efficient.  But in that– so you’re more efficient, the connections are moving faster, they build up, but it might mean that you lose some of the flexibility that a novice might have.  So a novice is going to probably use more brain regions, they’re going to try to be making connections to what they already know, and so they might be a little more creative, or a little more able to pull connections in than an expert who gets so specialized and their brain gets so fast, so it’s interesting to think there are advantages and disadvantages to each.  One isn’t better than the other, there’s always a continuum, you’re never like BAM I’m now the expert and I can see it in my brain, and it really– variability is the rule.  I mean, your brain in an expert way is going to–on UDL let’s say it’s going to look different than my UDL brain.  And, since we already talked about the default mode network, in experts there was a really interesting and I apologize, I forget the author’s name, but there was an interesting study on race car drivers, and they found that the expert race car drivers were more in that default mode activation where they were able to self-reflect a little more and think about other’s intentions, which might give them an advantage when they’re competing because they’re able to plan, like, see, Oh Lilian is probably going to be doing this move, therefore I’m going to do this move yeah in a way that a novice isn’t able to do.


[Lillian]  I see, yeah, not see the whole plan,

[Allison]  Yeah, right, yeah because they’re so busy just thinking about, you know, what their physical pieces need to be, and maybe some of the sequences of what they need to do, whereas the experts internalize those.  They’re able to think a little more about intention and how they’re faring in their own physiology in those moments.


[Lillian]  Yeah, I’ve definitely seen that in my own life, in dealing with even in my own children, but also in students.  The idea that I have done something so many times, I think there’s only one way, or that there’s a right way.  I’m telling on myself right now, and then you get my a child my child in the kitchen who’s baking, or a student who is starting a project that I’ve done a million times, and they say well what about doing it this way and I think I never would have thought to do it like that in a million years and yeah, I guess you could.  I mean, that sounds perfectly reasonable now that I think about it, right, unless I’m impatient and don’t have time and say we’re not going to do it that way, we’re doing it my way.


[Allison]  Which often does happen in classrooms where you feel like you have all this curriculum, all this content you have to cover, this is just how we’re going to do it because it’s really efficient and you know best because you’re this expert.  So when you look–again then that we’ve been talking a lot about the importance of that reflection and that breath in that time– if we provide a little more of that, and I’m hearing, you know, imagining teachers right now being like but I can’t let go of all that content, but we really need to think about, you know, what are those goals and those outcomes that we want to have, and sometimes the most innovative creative pieces that can change a field come from novice, new ideas yes that are out of the, you know, out of the beam path.


[Lillian]  Yeah.  One of the things you introduced me to last year at this conference in your talk was the idea of magic.  And, I never heard that brought into a topic–an educational symposium, but it was brilliant I thought, too, because it was really this idea of the novice brain.  Like, if you could take away some of that– those almost blinders– like a horse has– on the way you do things, and I remember it was about, let’s say, you’re going down a river in a big raft, right, what is, you know, think of all the ways that you can be safe or make it down the river best way, and the people came up with like putting bumpers on the rocks, you know, or you know, hovering hoverboard or you know just kind of crazy things I never would have thought of, but it even though that may not have been something to put into place, it brought us to a different way of thinking about it, you know, so that almost that magic is the idea of what seems improbable to you, it could be probable to maybe somebody else looking at this situation.  Is that how you got at that?  I’m not sure.


[Allison]  Absolutely.  No, you hit it spot-on because sometimes the idea of bumpers on rocks, people are going to be like, there’s no way we’re doing that, but the idea of but we want something to be able to be bouncy might innovate the design of a new boat, or you know a different paddle, or some kind of you know inflatable to put around a human or something.  So the rocks might not be the way to go, but it could spark something that would lead to.  It’s amazing how many times in doing that exercise is and leaving the magic in there when the magic is what they state like here’s what here’s what we want to get at, we actually can think of ways to get there most of the time.  It’s really cool, it is one of my favorite– I love that you brought that up, I haven’t thought about that a long time, and I got to bring it back. 


[Lillian]  Yeah, it made me think, it did, it made me think in a different way, outside of the ways that my pathways and my brain would usually be very linear, and deductive, and static, I would say probably and I wouldn’t have– I just wouldn’t have thought in that very creative way.  So it kind of got me out of my comfort zone and in way of thinking into kind of a new novice from that.  So I– it seems that you knew a lot about the brain in order to ask that question to bring us into kind of a different way of thinking.


[Allison]  I do love thinking about the brain

[Lillian]  That’s great.  So, is there any advice you would give to instructors in thinking about emotion and the brain?  If they are keeping their students’ brains and their students’ emotion in mind, what sort of advice do you give an instructor from that?


[Allison]    A number of things come to mind, but I would say mainly to know we don’t need to label students with– when we label students we tend to set expect– that sets an expectation.  It can instill a fixed mindset about learning or how you are as a learner, and that can set an effective emotional trajectory that can be really hard to get out of.  When we shift the frame to a barrier being in the environment, all of a sudden, you can start to think about how we can get around that barrier, and that opens the door to leveraging the expertise of the educator to valuing the background of the students in the classroom, and really trying to get at that high level skill you’re not changing the goal, you’re not changing the skill, but helping them get there in a way that will transform their learning.  You know, they will take that with them outside of the classroom in amazing ways.


[Lillian]  Yeah.  Wow, that’s great.  That’s fantastic.  Well, thank you very much, Allison, for spending the time, I know you’ve got more presentations to do today, and helping out with all of this fantastic symposium here on the campus of Harvard Law School.  So we appreciate you having us here and thanks for telling us about how to engage the brain.


[Allison]  Thank you so much for having me, this is really fun.



[Lillian]  You can follow the Think UDL podcast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released, and also see transcripts and additional materials at the website.  The Think UDL podcast is made possible by College STAR, the STAR stands for supporting transition, access and retention in post-secondary settings, and the website provides free resources and instructional aids based on UDL principles.  If you’d like to know more, go to the website.  Additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University, where, if you call it Appalachian, I’ll throw an apple at you!  The music on the podcast was performed by the Odyssey Quartet, comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Folwell, and Jose Cochez.  Our sound engineer is Tanner Jones, and I am your host, Lillian Nave, thank you for joining us on the Think UDL podcast.


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