Talk by Marja Brandon at Microsoft, December 2004

An amazing talk by an amazing woman.  If only more schools could/would adopt these methods for teaching. This talk was originally posted direct to the library and has been moved to the blog. The following are notes taken from her talk given at Microsoft in December 2004.

Marja founded a school in Seattle – Seattle Girls School – because she decided the school system was failing girls and making it difficult for them to graduate in science and maths subjects.  Too many distractions led to missing crucial phases of learning – mid School years (5th – 8th grade, equivalent to junior/primary school in the UK).  By the time many get to college, their maths simply isn’t strong enough to do science.

Designed a completely original curriculum – no text books!  Based around teaching 4 core skills:

  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Problem posing and solving
  • Bold thinking – don’t think outside the box, live outside the box
  • Community connectedness – connect everything they do to the real world

Step 1: Potential

Right from the start, the girls are told that the school’s mission is to build the next generation of world leaders.  The kids sit up straight – you light up their ambition and instantly they can start to vision it.  Everyone’s scores go through the roof compared to their ‘expected’ start points.  They don’t just sit back and wait for education to flow over their heads, they participate.  They start to hold each other to that potential.  (Not talking about ‘gifted’ kids, this applies to all <– for related note, see ‘Art of Possibilities‘ where Benjamin Zander starts the by giving his students an ‘A’ grade and the year is up to them to decide how they deserve it.)

Step 2: Anti-bias mission

The school encourages as much diversity as possible (race, religion, family unit structure, abilities etc.) – when you get different kids bumping into each other, each one of those bumps is a learning opportunity.

Step 3: Apply what we now know about the brain

We have learnt more about neuro-science in the last 10 years than in the rest of our history.  There is now a giant gap between neuro-science and education.  What are we waiting for?  Traditional class day ends at 3pm – it was designed for the agriculture calendar: run home and do the chores.  Methods were based on schools for boys – right back to the Greek system when it was 4 boys to 1 teacher.  Class sizes are 30 and growing, and they’re not just boys any more.

Marja included a big disclaimer at this point: No empirical back up to support what was about to be said.  Don’t have lots of lovely research to be shown.  Seen the evidence in play – wanted to try it, apply it and see if it works… and it does!  Marja desperately wants to take this model and apply it at a public school.

The 9 Brain Rules

Marja took 9 brain rules from what we’ve learnt in neuro-science, and built the curriculum using them.  These rules are based on studies from evolutionary biology – if you don’t believe in evolution (i.e. you’re an intelligent design purist), you won’t believe this stuff…

Rule #1: Meaning before detail

If you are on the plains of the Serengeti and a giant lion is hurtling towards you, you don’t stop and count the teeth.  You think it’s going to eat you, you run first!  Lesson: figure out the bigger meaning before the detail.  This is applied to each year:

5th grade – ‘all creatures great and small’ – study what is life. Includes biodiversity, animals, organisms (hint: 5th graders + animals = good thing!)  They have chickens at the school – project ‘Chicks in the hood’.

6th grade – ‘incredible machine’ – study the individual.  They look at themselves, start looking at simple things, tools, machines, how they work… they do the body, then they do the machine, then they do the intersection between machine and body, study biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, ethics…

7th grade – ‘Seattle from the ground up’ – study the community.  Examine the whole area that is Seattle, cover geography, geology, tectonics (Seattle is in earthquake territory), forces that shape the earth, forces that shape the community.  They study governance law, constitutional law.  One of their projects is to do a mock trial at the court house down town.  Finally, they look into the future.  Their final year assignment is ‘One month to change the world’ and what they propose has to last beyond the assignment.

8th grade – ‘The world and beyond’ – the sub-theme is to prepare them for graduation to high school.  They start with an aviation theme.  Applying ‘meaning before detail’ means they start with ground school, weather school and flight school.  Every 8th grader does 2 flights in a 4-seater plane – one as co-pilot (get to do take-off, missed approach, and landing), and one as a cartographer in preparation for their mapping project.  When they get back to school, one of the labs has been built as a hangar and they build a full size kit plane (the kit was donated).  They do everything – the flight systems, physics, all the algebra that’s required for avionics, and they end up with a full size plane hanging out in the 8th grade lab.  Amazing!

Back to meaning before detail – they flew first and then they came back into the lab to study, and it all made sense.  What they were studying connected to what they were doing because they had experienced what it means to fly.  Now that’s real-world application of what you’ve learnt.

Rule #2: Every brain is different

There are lots of kids who are told they are ‘learning-disabled’.  Marja challenges that diagnosis.  Every brain is different.  Sure there are some ‘syndromes’ that can be identified, but a dyslexic child gets told they are different to ‘everyone else’ – these kids get the impression that their brain is broken.  It affects their perception about what they can achieve.

Think of the brain as like a roadmap – we all have the same high ways and major junctions, but those little side roads, they are all different… All the stuff about learning styles – kinaesthetic, visual, linear-sequential etc. – it’s not about style, it’s simply how your brain routes information, what works for you.

When you have 30 children in a classroom, you have 30 different brains with 30 different routing preferences, and then there’s the teacher’s brain as well.  As the teacher, you have to be working on a lot of different levels, and teaching in a lot of different modalities to engage all of those brains, and every one of those brains has something to offer.

Classic example:  A girl comes home from maths class and she is really frustrated ‘I just don’t get it, forget it, I hate it, I’m so dumb, I’m never doing maths again’… and they become a humanities person.  Girls have a habit of eradicating an entire subject based on one bad experience in the class room.  Boy comes home from maths class ‘Aargh! I’m so frustrated, I hate this subject’.  Now, interestingly, they don’t eliminate the subject from their curriculum, what do they do? ‘That teacher is so dumb he can’t teach his way out of a paper bag…’  It’s not as extreme as the girl’s reaction, but neither responses are healthy.

What causes these clashes?  Usually the teacher is using a modality that doesn’t work for these children.  A teacher who teaches by writing notes on the board – ‘you write this too, and then I’ll test you on what we wrote’ – won’t help someone who’s kinaesthetic (easy to spot – will fidget a lot, take things to pieces and put them back together to understand them).

One of the meta-goals for the school is teaching children to identify how they learn, what works for them and what doesn’t, and how to speak up when the method the teacher uses doesn’t work for them.

Rule #3: People are natural explorers

We did not develop, evolutionary, to sit back and be lectured at.  Back on that Serengeti plain, you explored, tested, tasted, watched, observed.  Seeing a snake with black/yellow stripes bite someone, and watching that person die, causes a mental note – avoid snakes with black/yellow stripes.  You didn’t read the book on snakes, you explored, learned and acted.

So, we didn’t develop to sit and listen all day, yet that is exactly what we expect children to do today.  And their attention span just can’t do it.  We know from brain chemistry that your brain is more alert if you are moving – just getting up and stretching will create a more focused attention state.  Research suggests we need to get the blood going every 9 minutes.  When we sit down, our body assumes sleep cycle ‘OK, rest time…’  (note: traditional school uniform in the UK is not conducive to motion or getting dirty).  This school is a project-oriented school.  Children are in groups of 9, 12, 18.  Teachers teach in grade-level teams – sometimes 1 teacher, 2 teachers… the children are constantly in motion, no lecture format (hence no text books).

Children don’t want to be told, they want to do, they want to learn for themselves.  Compare the difference: ‘I’m going to tell you how things get blown up’ versus ‘I’m going to show you how things get blown up, and then you’re going blow some things up to’.  Compare ‘We’re going to learn about planes’ versus ‘We’re going to build a plane’.

Rule #4: Sleep is important to the learning process

When you suffer from lack of sleep, it literally slows down your processing time, your attention to detail, and your recall.  This is as true for children as it is for adults.  From biology, what we now know is that children in adolescence (9th through 12th grade) go through a phase when their sleep cycle goes upside down.  They are wide-awake at 10 at night.  They can’t help it.  Telling them to just go to bed won’t make any difference.  As a result, their sleep cycle hits somewhere between 7 and 9 in the morning… the point when they are supposed to be off to school for the day…  In addition, the mid-point between sleep cycles is the worst time of day.  12 hours from the mid-point of your last sleep phase you will hit a sleep cycle again – and that usually occurs around 2pm in the afternoon.  This is the time to get up, take a walk, rest – it’s dead time for you.
Children have the exact same thing.  But we aren’t letting them rest.  They do school, they do after-school activities, they do homework, they go to bed, they get up and it starts all over.  We aren’t letting them get enough sleep.

Rule #5: Repetition is critical for memory

You need to hear it again and again and again, but within distinct cycles – just repeating something over and over again is not meaningful repetition, it has to be in critical cycles. The school’s curriculum is completely integrated.  You can’t build an

airplane without the physics and maths required.  Once they’ve built the plane, they then get to build to full-size shuttle simulators.  Their culminating event involves groups being locked in a simulator from 4pm until midnight.  Their project has been to design a complete mission to mars, and they then carry out the mission in the simulator. They’ve got it all figured out, all the tools they need, they know what’s going to happen, they’ve studied everything (clue: that requires the same maths and physics as building the airplane.)  But the teachers than throw in some problems, they’ve got a ‘red-alert’ button that can be activated, Star Trek style.  The children have one line to mission control, and when things go wrong they can’t leave. They’ve got to figure out what to do, and still complete their mission to Mars. They’ve got to apply everything they’ve learned… oh, and quadratic equations are perfect for aviation.    There comes the same maths again… that’s the kind of repetition that works.

Rule #6: We are visual learners

No matter what anyone says, 90% of the information we get is visual. Teachers have to incorporate this.  Standing and lecturing doesn’t work, you’ve got to capture the children.  When you say take out a book and open it, actually pick up the book and open it to demonstrate.  Connect with those routing modalities.

Rule #7: Focused attention states facilitate learning

You cannot maintain the same level of focus for 40 minutes.  Studies suggest that your brain can focus for 7 to 8 minutes on something, but then you need to do something different – get up and do an activity.  It’s basic brain stuff.

Rule #8: Exercise aids learning

Already been demonstrated – if you’ve been reading this for a few minutes, get up and wave your arms about.  Sit down, and you will find it easier to focus on the text…

Rule #9: Stressed brains don’t learn well

When your stress level is high, your processing and problem-solving abilities slow down, as does your memory. If you are suffering from chronic stress – serious illness, divorce etc. – those effects will debilitate your immune system.  You’ll get sick more often, your sleep cycles will be affected.  This stuff is true for children as well.   Some children are coming from places where they don’t know if they will get any sleep, food, dad just lost his job, parents divorcing, whatever… these are chronic stress events for kids.

Quote “There’s a million miles from a kid’s neuron to the blackboard’.  Children are bringing all that stuff to school and you are telling them to pay attention.  It’s a pretty loaded statement – they can’t just leave all that stuff at the door.

The 10th Brain Rule: Anti-bias

So they are the 9 brain rules.  There are also differences for boys and girls.  Different areas of the brain develop in different sequences, which is why a lot of times you’ll hear that girls are better at language development and boys are better at structure and physical stuff. What typically happens?  Each gender is encouraged to do what they are good at.  What should happen?  Don’t just play to those early strengths – give boys more opportunity to work on language and writing, give girls more opportunity to play with structure.

Sociologically we tend to follow what the brain does first and not try to influence it to develop more.  Kids get put into the boxes – girls, go sit at the art table, boys go to the building blocks area.  From a very early age, girls will be complimented for how they look, boys will be complimented for what they do.  This stuff gets fixed very early in life and introduces bias that will continue straight through school, college, work and life.  People don’t realise how embedded it is. (Side note: go watch your favourite TV show, watch the adverts – notice the gender stereotypes they are creating, targeting, confirming…)

Marja’s 10th brain rule: you have to learn anti-bias work at a very young age.  By high-school, you can still influence some but most are already set.  Middle-school is the most flexible age.  If you can build up self-esteem at that age and give children the words and confidence to not be stereo-typed, it will save them when they get to high school.  And this is just as important for boys as girls – boys who don’t fit their traditional stereotype face just the same challenges – they’ll get eaten up in the playground and risk never achieving their true individual potential.  This applies to ALL biases <– related note: try Somebodies and Nobodies by Robert W. Fuller


Every Wednesday afternoon is dedicated to the internship programme.  Internships are run as 6 week programmes – some taught on campus, off campus in the summer.  The aim is to broaden the girls’ horizons. They get to participate in craft skills, mock trials, HTML programming, code breaking, any subject where a successful person or business will participate and show the girls what it’s like to pursue a passion and succeed.  An advertising company participated and shut down their office on Wednesdays for 6 weeks – taught the children about the world of advertising, and gave them an account to work on for the project.  They had to do a storyboard and come up with a pitch in 6 weeks.  These are not mini-courses, they are intensive sessions and they breakdown those biased perceptions about what children ‘should’ do when
they grow up based on their initial ‘standing’ in life…

The Keys to better education

#1: It’s got to be connected learning.  In a typical school if, in September, you ask the 6 year olds what they are learning in Sociology, they will answer ‘we’re studying the Mayans’.  When you ask why?  ‘Because it’s chapter 1 in the book’  That’s why you hear that children lose 80% of what they learn over the Summer.  There is no connection between learning and life.  They are just studying to pass tests but they don’t know why they are studying ‘this stuff’.

#2: Applied learning:  Learning by doing.  If you watch a video showing you how to change a tyre on the car, will you really know how to do it when the time comes, 5 years later, parked up on a busy road with a flat tyre?

Everything at this school is about connected and applied learning.  The children still have to take written tests, but they also have to do the practical to.  For example, in 6th grade, the children have to answer questions on maths ratios.  Then they have to go into the lab and build a 5:1 wheel ratio.

The national anthem for middle school ‘when are we ever going to use this stuff’ never happens at this school.  They know when they are going to use what they’ve learnt – tomorrow, in the lab, building something practical from the real world…  (Marja is currently looking for someone to donate a helicopter…)

…this system has yet to be tested in state education.  Only the independent schools are allowed to do it because they can deviate from what the government dictates should be on the national curriculum (side note: the UK suffers this too).  What does that mean?  The usual trap of ‘the rich get richer…’ because many of the top independent schools provide this richer learning environment.  Marja founded this school purely through donations.  But we need to see this type of learning on a (inter)national scale, available to everyone.

If I lived in Seattle and had a daughter, I know which school I’d be fighting to get her into.


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