In a new age of information, rapid innovation, and globalization, how can we prepare our children to compete? Once the envy of the world, American schools are now in trouble. Test scores show our kids lag far behind their peers from other industrialized countries, and as the divide between rich and poor grows wider, the goal of getting all kids ready for college and the workforce gets harder by the day. How can the latest research help us fix education in America? Can the science of learning—including new insights from neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators—reveal how kids’ brains work and tell us which techniques are most likely to engage and inspire growing minds? What role should technology play in the classroom? Teachers, students, parents, and scientists take center stage as NOVA explores a new vision for the “School of the Future.”
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School of the Future
PBS Airdate: September 14, 2016
NARRATOR: Children: our most valuable resource; in a rapidly changing world, how are we preparing them for the future?
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND (Learning Policy Institute Stanford University): Our kids are going to have to work with knowledge that hasn't been discovered yet, on technologies that haven't been invented yet.
NARRATOR: How can schools today help students of all backgrounds meet the challenges of tomorrow?
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: Inequality in the United States is our Achilles' heel.
SAL KHAN (Khan Academy): We want a world where, regardless of where you are born, you have got an equal shot.
NARRATOR: Can science help us find a way to give all children an equal shot?
PAMELA CANTOR (Turnaround for Children): We shouldn't be asking kids to beat the odds. We should be using science to change the odds.
NARRATOR: Today's researchers are peering into the brain, trying to unlock the secrets of how children learn.
JOANNA CHRISTODOULOU: (MGH Institute of Health Professions): Reading is not a skill that the brain is wired to do.
KEN MCFARLANE (Marcus' Father): What does that say?
MARY CARSKADON (Brown University): We're trying to get to the point where I can say that this is the magic that will really help enhance school performance.
NARRATOR: Can their discoveries help educators transform our schools?
ERIC PAKULAK (University of Oregon): It is possible to change the brains of children in ways that can level the playing field.
BHARAT MEDIRATTA: (AltSchool): Individual children who think differently, who learn differently or are on different paths, can now get the thing that works best for them.
NARRATOR: The stakes couldn't be higher.
DAN MCGARRY (Upper Darby School District): Public education, K-to-12, is not a terminal degree. It's the beginning of the rest of your life.
NARRATOR: School of the Future, right now, on NOVA.
When freshman Omar Gaytan skateboards to school, he's careful to take the same route and wear the right colors.
OMAR GAYTAN (East Palo Alto Academy): In the streets, the main thing you've got to worry about, violence, gangs. It's not as violent as it used to be, but, like, there's still gang presence. If they do something to you, you're expected to retaliate.
NARRATOR: Across the freeway, Cole McFaul, a senior at one of California's top-ranked high schools, raises a different kind of worry.
COLE MCFAUL (Henry M. Gunn High School): I think some people at our school do feel a need to succeed, and they push themselves really hard. There's, like, this mentality that, "Oh, my gosh, I need to do well. I need to work super hard."
NARRATOR: This is Silicon Valley, the home of Apple, Google and Facebook. It is also home to two very different communities, separated only by a freeway.
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: In these two cities, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, life is entirely different. The resources for children are entirely different, the schools are entirely different, the opportunities are entirely different.
DENISE HERRMANN (Henry M. Gunn High School): We have students who really want to succeed, and if success means learning in a certain path, they're going to really be ultra-focused on that.
AMIKA GUILLAUME (East Palo Alto Academy): We have a lot of students who are helping to pay the rent, not just adding a little bit here and there, but literally paying the rent.
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: All over the country, you can find these contrasts. Inequality in the United States is our Achilles' heel.
NARRATOR: Every year, across the country, millions of children participate in a public education system built on a promise that all students deserve an equal opportunity to learn, regardless of ZIP code. But for many students, a long history of inequity has left that promise unfulfilled.
NEWS CLIP: The numbers are going in the wrong direction.
NEWS CLIP: The United States is nowhere near the top of the list.
NEWS CLIP: Students from Asia to Europe outperform Americans on tests.
NARRATOR: Every five years, students from around the world take a unique test that consistently shows Americans ranking well below their peers from other industrialized nations.
But that is not the whole story.
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: In fact, part of the American public education system is doing pretty well. We actually rank first in the world in reading in schools that serve fewer than 10 percent of kids in poverty.
NEWS CLIP: America has a child poverty rate nearly double that of countries like Canada and Germany, who outperform the United States.
CLAUDE STEELE (University of California, Berkeley): High performing nations on PISA scores have very tiny percentages of their kids in poverty. We just have a much steeper slope in this society to climb.
RUSSLYN ALI (XQ Institute): If you're designing a system that ensures that poor kids and kids of color are going to get less of everything that we know matters most in public education, then you have a civil rights quagmire.
NARRATOR: In spite of increased attention on education, in some states, nearly one third of low-income students never finish high school.
RUSSLYN ALI: Let's be clear, the achievement gap is caused by the opportunity gap. It hobbles far too many of our young people.
NARRATOR: While the opportunity gap in America is deep-seated, can our schools do a better job in closing the achievement gap? How can they best serve all students? Can the science of learning help more children reach their potential?
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG (University of Southern California): To really make optimal use of your educational opportunities, kids need to feel engaged. And the neural data are giving us new insights into the mechanics of that process.
NARRATOR: Can new technologies provide more individualized instruction?
BHARAT MEDIRATTA: A child's education should be centered around the way that that child can receive the best education to help them grow.
NARRATOR: How can we transform our one-size-fits-all education model to prepare students for an unpredictable future?
TODD ROSE (Harvard Graduate School of Education): For the first time in our history, we have an economy for which the only thing that's certain is uncertainty and change, and so what we have to prepare people for is adaptability.
NARRATOR: Teachers, students, parents and scientists all across the country take center stage as they explore innovative approaches to education and a new vision for the school of the future.
What does a child need to become a successful student? Most experts agree that developing certain skills early on is essential.
PAM CANTOR: There are a set of skills that all children need to be learners: they need to be able to pay attention, to concentrate, to focus for long periods of time.
NARRATOR: But some conditions, including growing up in poverty, can hinder the development of these skills.
PAM CANTOR: Within low-income households comes risks around learning. And we have a huge number of children who are being exposed to stresses that actually cause them to come into kindergarten not ready for learning. There are gaps that will persist over time.
NARRATOR: At the University of Oregon's Brain Development Lab, neuroscientist Eric Pakulak and his team are looking for ways to help children overcome these gaps. To do this, they study how our brains learn to pay attention and focus from an early age.
ERIC PAKULAK: When you're paying attention, your brain is essentially turning up the volume on what I'm saying, and also suppressing the distracting information that's going on around you. That's a very powerful skill for young children. It's part of self-regulation, which involves your ability to use your brain to control your body, to focus attention, to suppress distracting information.
NARRATOR: They studied preschool-age students and found that the ability to focus can closely align with socioeconomic status.
ERIC PAKULAK: If you're growing up in an environment that's very chaotic, that's not very predictable, that in some cases could even potentially be dangerous, it's actually to your benefit, in that environment, to not suppress distracting information to the same degree as other children. And so, what is potentially a large benefit in that environment could then not be such a benefit when the child is moving into a school environment, where those abilities are very important.
NARRATOR: To better understand how a child's experience outside of the classroom can impact school readiness, they began their research in the home.
CRYSTAL RULLI (Mother of Celi and Javier): Morning, Celi. You got your clothes all picked out for school today?
NARRATOR: In Eugene, Oregon, Crystal Rulli begins her day like most parents, by getting her children off to school.
CRYSTAL RULLI: When you're all done, we can go get ready.
JAVIER: I got a shirt and some pants. All I need is socks and the shoes.
CRYSTAL RULLI: Perfect.
NARRATOR: But she has the added challenge of being a single mom to three kids, two of them under the age of eight.
The youngest, five-year-old Araceli, is getting ready for school at the local Head Start, a federally-funded education program that serves low-income families.
CRYSTAL RULLI: How do you want to wear it today? Should we put it in a ponytail or a braid?
ARACELI: Two ponytails.
CRYSTAL RULLI: Two ponytails?
NARRATOR: This mother-daughter exchange may seem unremarkable, but Crystal is practicing parenting techniques meant to reduce stress and heighten focus in day-to-day interactions.
CRYSTAL RULLI: There you go all done. You're good to go.
You did a lot of these on your chart today. Can you tell me which ones you did? Those two? What's this one?
ARACELI: Wake up.
CRYSTAL RULLI: We woke up. Do you want a sticker for that one? You do? Do you want me to pick it, or do you want to pick it?
Grab it and stick it on there, however you want.
NARRATOR: She gives Araceli concrete choices and rewards her for making decisions.
CRYSTAL RULLI: Good job. All right!
Go see teacher Stephanie. Yeah. Tell her about your morning.
NARRATOR: Crystal and Araceli are part of a study at the University of Oregon, where researchers are working with Head Start of Lane County on techniques that help children learn to focus. What they do at home is amplified by what takes place in the classroom.
The goal is to see if this program leads to better learning outcomes for preschoolers.
SAMANTHA (Head Start of Lane County, Oregon): If you're not listening to the directions, can we play our games? No, 'cause you won't know what to do.
ERIC PAKULAK: Children at this age are starting to focus their attention for longer periods of time.
SAMANTHA: All right, Dr. Distraction. Focus!
ERIC PAKULAK: And they're starting to develop the ability to ignore the distracting information. These are sort of foundational skills that can be of great benefit to the child going into the school environment. And then, some evidence even suggests longer lasting effects, into adulthood.
NARRATOR: In one activity, called "Dr. Distraction," students must walk along a ribbon while carrying an object on a spoon…
SAMANTHA: You'll be the best Dr. Distraction there is!
NARRATOR: …without being distracted by the commotion that surrounds them.
ERIC PAKULAK: This is a really important period in brain development for very young children. Targeting these vulnerable brain systems at this particular point in development might, essentially, help strengthen the architecture of the brain, and provide an important platform for these children moving forward.
SAMANTHA: Nice job, Araceli! I'll take your frog. You give that brain a kiss.
NARRATOR: Some of these children make regular visits to the Brain Development Lab at the University of Oregon, so the team can measure any impact of the focus training.
KANDYCE KELLEY (Brain Development Lab, University of Oregon): All right, here we go, into the Brain Room!
KANDYCE KELLEY: Now we're going to put your hat on.
NARRATOR: Five-year-old Sawyer is being fitted with an E.E.G. cap that measures the electrical activity in his brain.
KANDYCE KELLEY: What do you think? You look like an astronaut, maybe? Maybe a deep-sea diver?
KANDYCE KELLEY: Astronaut, that's a good one.
NARRATOR: An electroencephalogram, or E.E.G., picks ups wave patterns generated by brain cells communicating with one another through electrical impulses. Occurring within milliseconds of a stimulus, these impulses make E.E.G. a fairly reliable way for scientists to gauge a person's response to a particular event.
KEIRA LENEMAN (Brain Development Lab, University of Oregon): All right, let's get on our throne. Here we go. Okay, hop on up.
NARRATOR: Sawyer is going to listen to some stories, to test his ability to focus his attention.
KEIRA LENEMAN: Okay, ready to watch some stories?
Okay, here we go.
NARRATOR: Sawyer is told to focus on a story about a dog, called No Roses for Harry! that's playing from a speaker on his left side, while pictures from the book are shown on the screen in front of him.
NARRATOR: Soon, another story, called I Love You, Blue Kangaroo! begins playing from a speaker on his right side.
KANDYCE KELLEY: The mastoids look good.
NARRATOR: Sawyer is told to ignore the second story and only focus on the first, the one about the dog.
Soon, intermittent noises begin playing from both speakers. These sounds trigger an immediate response in Sawyer's brain, and help Pakulak identify which story Sawyer is more focused on.
ERIC PAKULAK: Things happen very fast in the brain. We can look at whether there's a larger brain response to something that you're paying attention to, compared to the brain response to something that you're not paying attention to.
NARRATOR: The stakes here are high. Pakulak is trying to figure out if the interventions might make a difference.
ERIC PAKULAK: This is a powerful technique for studying the brains of young children, because we're able to actually look at outcomes in terms of brain function. With our new techniques, we're really able to document the vulnerability of the brain to the pernicious effects of early adversity.
NARRATOR: While the pre-schoolers are tested in the lab and instructed in the classroom during the day, their parents head to the school at night.
ERIC PAKULAK: The other parallel line of research that we did was looking at how working closely with parents might improve these outcomes for children.
NARRATOR: This is where Crystal comes to learn strategies to reduce stress at home and encourage her kids to pay attention to what she is saying.
ERIC PAKULAK: There's a long history of evidence about the effects of positive parenting and getting parents more involved.
SCOTT KLEIN (Brain Development Lab, University of Oregon): Would anyone like to share any experiences that they had trying it out? Yeah? Sure, go ahead.
CRYSTAL RULLI: I have two younger children. They're just, they're really into the whole idea of it and getting rewarded with little stickers.
SCOTT KLEIN: So, they're doing it on their own with…
CRYSTAL RULLI: They're kind of competing a little bit. And they're just coming to me as they do it, and then they're like, "Okay, I brushed my teeth," you know? "Can I get my sticker?"
SCOTT KLEIN: So, it's kind of flipped the script? Instead of you chasing them around, they're chasing you around, and they're paying attention to you. It's not "wah, wah, wah." It's moving away from that and actually giving them a reason to tune in to your words.
ERIC PAKULAK: We were able to document reductions in parenting stress in these parents. They were reporting better social skills and fewer problem behaviors in their children.
NARRATOR: But does reducing stress at home, combined with activities in the classroom, really improve a child's ability to focus?
ERIC PAKULAK: What we were able to show is that children who were randomly assigned to receive this intervention that involved working more closely with parents as well as the child attention training, that we do see that these brain systems for attention improve in children from backgrounds of poverty.
NARRATOR: This is not the only evidence that points to the value of early intervention and the role of parents in a child's education.
RUSSLYN ALI: Education is the thing that touches every single one of us, not once, but twice in our life. We go to school, and we send our kids to school. We want the best, because we know, if we give our kids the best education, that is the foundation they need to succeed in whatever life choices they choose.
NARRATOR: Many experts believe that parents are critical to helping children learn better.
ALEJANDRO GAC-ARTIGAS (Springboard Collaborative): I don't think that we'll be able to close the achievement gap without learning how to effectively engage parents. Home is where children spend 75 percent of their waking hours, and yet, our system does shockingly little to try to capture any educational value from this time.
NARRATOR: With the help of parents, Alejandro Gac-Artigas is looking to nurture a critical skill for young learners: reading.
ALEJANDRO GAC-ARTIGAS: When I became a first-grade teacher, in Philadelphia, I was bowled over by the fact that it took my kids 'til the end of November for their reading levels to finally catch up to where they had been before the summer. And when I talked to other teachers about what was going on, they all shared in this really matter-of-fact way, "That's just the summer slide," as if it were some law of nature that growing up poor, for every two steps forward you take during the year, you're going to take a step back during the summer.
NARRATOR: Studies point to a troubling trend among low-income students: their reading skills can erode dramatically during the summer months, a major contributor to the achievement gap.
ALEJANDRO GAC-ARTIGAS: I began to realize that summer learning loss is a symptom of an underlying, deeper problem, which is that parents have largely been left out of the process of educating their kids.
DANIEL (Teacher, Springboard, Oakland): So, we want to have your child read with you and alone. We need to have both things to improve the reading levels.
NARRATOR: One study found that this slide can become a gap that has fifth graders reading at a second-grade level. So Gac-Artigas founded Springboard Collaborative, a program to help parents foster better reading habits in their children. Students receive daily reading instruction for five weeks during the summer.
Additionally, their parents attend weekly workshops with them, to learn techniques for encouraging reading at home.
DANIEL: Everyone is doing an amazing job working hard, so this is just another reminder about the goals and how you can monitor that progress.
ALEJANDRO GAC-ARTIGAS: Both the teacher and the parent share a goal for the child. They both want to see the kid become a successful reader, and they have complementary skill sets to make it happen. The teacher is the expert on instruction, the parent is the expert on their own child.
NARRATOR: Ken McFarlane is the expert on his son Marcus.
KEN MCFARLANE: To send your child to school and think that they're going to magically become who you want them to be is, uh, questionable at best. So, I filled my home with books, and I thought that I would produce a reader. But that alone doesn't work. You have to put in the work to produce a reader.
NARRATOR: Marcus attends a public school in Philadelphia. And while he's not a struggling reader, his kindergarten teacher felt he wasn't living up to his potential, so she recommended Springboard Collaborative.
KEN MCFARLANE: They taught us how to make reading more interactive: asking questions prior to reading, in the middle of reading, after reading is finished. And it basically encouraged us to be more involved and encouraged him to take responsibility for himself.
What does this say?
KEN MCFARLANE: Yes.
MARCUS: I don't know what that means.
KEN MCFARLANE: It's the fall.
MARCUS: It is?
KEN MCFARLANE: The seasons.
NARRATOR: According to Springboard Collaborative, in just five weeks, its students replaced a typical three-month-reading-loss with more than a three-month-reading-gain.
ALEJANDRO GAC-ARTIGAS: Those five weeks are really intended to build some habits that a family can take and run with. I can think of no more natural way to personalize instruction than to do so with a family member. That, for me, is where the magic is. And I think it's every bit as magical for low-income kids as we know it to be in higher-income places.
LACKANA: I like reading, because…
SAMIA: I like reading a lot, because when you read something, they have different problems than yours, and when you look at other people's problems, it makes you forget your own.
LACKANA: …you can imagine about anything you want.
ESTHER: I wish I had more time for it, but I do like reading.
NARRATOR: If programs like Springboard can bolster children's literacy skills, can reading interventions impact a child's developing brain?
Neuroscientist Joanna Christodoulou is trying to find out.
JOANNA CHRISTODOULOU: First, you're learning to read, and then you're reading to learn. And so, during the earliest stages of education, in early elementary school, your job really is to learn how to read and learn how to do it well. Reading is not a skill that the brain is wired to do. Children have to orchestrate regions designed to serve other purposes and organize them in service to reading.
NARRATOR: Early reading deficits in children can lead to learning difficulties later on, so Christodoulou is studying young readers at the earliest possible stage, using magnetic resonance imaging, or M.R.I.
Christodoulou focuses on two parts of the brain involved in language.
Known as Broca's and Wernicke's areas, they're named for the scientists who discovered their functions.
JOANNA CHRISTODOULOU: Wernicke's we understand to be very important for language comprehension, and Broca's area is incredibly important for language production. And that's important even before reading onset, because when you're learning to read, you're harnessing regions that have been serving your language capacities already.
NARRATOR: Research suggests that the development of Broca's and Wernicke's depends a lot on a child's environment.
JOANNA CHRISTODOULOU: When we think about kids who are at risk, that could translate to things like, how many books are in the home or how much language does a child hear, not from a television, but from actual people?
NARRATOR: Growing up in a less advantaged household may, for some children, slow the development of areas of the brain critical to language and reading.
JOANNA CHRISTODOULOU: We looked at the structural data among struggling readers, and we found a very notable correlation between Broca's area and socioeconomic status. On average, the lower your socioeconomic status, the smaller that region.
NARRATOR: Christodoulou wants to see if early reading interventions can change the physical structure of these crucial regions of the brain. To do that, she analyzed the test scores and M.R.I. data of children who attended a six-week summer reading program like Springboard Collaborative.
She found that after the intervention, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds showed marked improvement across several reading skills, but most striking was the change in their brain structure.
JOANNA CHRISTODOULOU: Children from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds made the greatest gains in the region of Wernicke's area.
NARRATOR: These preliminary results suggest that reading interventions can positively impact brain development.
JOANNA CHRISTODOULOU: The huge benefit of being a child is that your brain is extraordinarily plastic. It's amenable to change in ways that are very distinctive and unique.
NARRATOR: The brain's ability to respond to changes in environment and behavior is called neuroplasticity.
ERIC PAKULAK: Neuroplasticity is the changeability of the brain with different kinds of experience.
NARRATOR: For educators, neuroplasticity presents both risk and reward.
ERIC PAKULAK: The metaphor that we use is neuroplasticity is a double-edged sword. The same systems that are vulnerable are also enhanceable.
NARRATOR: One factor that makes the brain vulnerable is chronic stress. This can hamper development in areas where our abilities to learn and to process emotions intersect.
PAM CANTOR: The limbic system of the developing brain is where the affective emotional life of children is shaped and where their learning brain is shaped.
NARRATOR: The limbic system includes the hippocampus, which is critical to memory, and the amygdala, the brain's emotional smoke detector. When the brain perceives a threat, the amygdala initiates a chain reaction that triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol.
With chronic stress, the amygdala becomes oversensitive and floods the body with cortisol, putting it in a state of high alert. This can disrupt the delicate chemical balance and structure of the limbic system.
PAM CANTOR: That means the children who are highly reactive to stress are easily triggered by other events in their lives.
DANA KIRTON (Fairmont Neighborhood School): Being in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, some children come in with a lot of baggage.
NARRATOR: Dana Kirton teaches fourth grade at Fairmont Neighborhood School, in the Bronx, where nearly half of the children are born into poverty, the highest rate in New York City.
DANA KIRTON: Whether it's family life or a result of the neighborhood that they live in, children carry more stress than usual. A lot of times, they're already in a defensive mode because of what has happened before the day started. It could be "I don't have the money for a class trip," "I don't have the school supplies I needed." Some children come in hungry.
NARRATOR: The disruptive nature of adversity on one child can derail learning for an entire class of students.
DANA KIRTON: If you have a child that is off task and refusing to cooperate, it could be chaos. It has the ability to become a distraction unless addressed.
Be mindful of the time; 10 minutes.
PAM CANTOR: The positive side of this story is that there actually is a prevention for this, and the prevention is the human buffer.
DANA KIRTON: You keep reading, and I like the fact that you're using the pencil. I want to really commend you on that.
PAM CANTOR: When children feel safe, when children are feeling nurtured, that adults are caring about them, there actually is another pathway.
DANA KIRTON: Is everybody with us? Is everybody on the boat?
NARRATOR: To buffer the stress her students may be experiencing outside of school, Dana makes her classroom a safe place. She and her co-teacher Kristin Robles rely on techniques aimed at creating a positive classroom environment.
KRISTIN ROBLES (Fairmont Neighborhood School): Let's turn and talk to our partner.
NARRATOR: One tool is called "turn and talk."
FEMALE STUDENT AT FAIRMONT NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOL: And then he ate the chocolate. Everything tastes like chocolate. And every time he touched everything, it turned into chocolate.
MALE STUDENT AT FAIRMONT NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOL: John Midas follows slowly with Susan.
DANA KIRTON: Children need to collaborate and they respond when they have somebody to respond with.
FEMALE STUDENT AT FAIRMONT NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOL: John was carrying a dark blue trumpet case and…
DANA KIRTON: We want everybody to feel accepted and welcomed for what they have to bring.
NARRATOR: Another technique uses praise in place of punishment.
DANA KIRTON: Thank you to those who are listening to our classmate.
We like to praise those who are on task, because the hope is that everybody wants to be praised.
Thank you to those who are quiet and waiting.
When they hear "Thank you to those…," everybody's like, "Oh, I want to be a ‘those'!" And so everybody just, kind of, falls in line.
Thank you to those who are standing in a circle.
We have to be careful how we speak to children, because you can speak life and death into a child's school life with words that you say.
KRISTIN ROBLES: Say one word that reminds you of being in fourth grade in 409 this year. Then we're going to say the name of the person that we're tossing the string to, and we're going to hold on to one end and toss it to that person.
PAM CANTOR: School readiness means you walk in the door, and what you see and feel is a joyous, safe, engaged, positive school community, where every single message that children get is that they are capable of great things.
DANA KIRTON: People will say, "You're a teacher? Oh, god bless you!" And I say, "Yes, thank you, but god bless my children," because my children are putting in the hard work. I'm just showing them. My children are taking it, and they're running with it, and so don't give up.
VIVIAN GADSDEN (University of Pennsylvania): This idea that there's one pathway is very small-minded, narrow-minded. There are these multiple pathways. Some of them are laden with barriers, and others are fairly seamless. We have to figure out how to make them more seamless for all children. It takes really being concerned about the whole child.
NARRATOR: Part of focusing on the whole child is understanding that even when children are ready to learn, they may not have the necessary tools to learn effectively.
MARK MCDANIEL (Washington University in St. Louis): We would never throw a child into the deep end of a swimming pool and say, "Swim." We wouldn't do that. But in education, that's exactly what we do. We throw the kid into the classroom, and we say, "Learn!"
NARRATOR: Are there proven techniques for teaching all kids not just what to learn, but how to learn better?
PATRICE BAIN (Columbia Middle School): I have some really bright students who couldn't tell me what we had done a month ago. They could copy. They could copy really well, but if you asked an essential question, they wouldn't know how to answer.
So, our essential question for this chapter is: What transformations occurred during the Middle Ages that led to an Age of Enlightenment? How can we answer this question?
NARRATOR: Patrice Bain, a history teacher in Illinois, wants her students to remember everything she teaches them. So, she asks them to think about an essential question, and she tests them every day.
PATRICE BAIN: I just take whatever we did the day before, I put it in a basket, I pull five things out. It makes the students so accountable for their learning. They have to retrieve this information.
Number one: what is the term for a grand church?
NARRATOR: This is no high-stakes test that students often dread. This is a mini-quiz. Bain will not record their scores.
PATRICE BAIN: And number five: what was the term for the journey and battle to take control of Jerusalem?
NARRATOR: These quizzes prompt students to fetch the information from memory. Known as "active retrieval," the process has been shown to strengthen long-term retention.
MARK MCDANIEL: We should be trying to retrieve the information, getting it out of memory rather than trying to cram it into memory. It turns out that retrieval practice is extremely effective for creating robust memories.
NARRATOR: After decades of studying teaching techniques, cognitive psychologists Roddy Roediger and Mark McDaniel researched their learning strategies at Columbia Middle School.
MARK MCDANIEL: We were interested in whether or not practicing retrieving—that's what you do when you take a test—could actually be an effective learning technique.
NARRATOR: Patrice Bain's classroom was one of their laboratories. In their studies at Columbia Middle School, Roediger and McDaniel found that integrating daily, low-stakes quizzes to promote active retrieval improved outcomes for students.
PATRICE BAIN: How can we answer this question?
MALE STUDENT AT COLUMBIA MIDDLE SCHOOL: People got infected with the Bubonic Plague
MALE STUDENT AT COLUMBIA MIDDLE SCHOOL: The plague helped to end Feudalism
MARK MCDANIEL: The results clearly showed, over and over again, that material that was quizzed was remembered better on the exams in class.
PATRICE BAIN: Are we making any connections?
MARK MCDANIEL: In fact, students were improving up to a grade level, coming up from a B-type performance to A-type performance on material that had been quizzed.
PATRICE BAIN: Let's see. Garen, what is feudalism?
GAREN (Student at Columbia Middle School): A form of governing the, um…
RODDY ROEDIGER (Washington University in St. Louis): One problem we've had is people trying to make learning easy. They don't want the kids to fail. They want the kids to succeed. But you also want the child to learn accurately and pick up the correct information.
GAREN: Somebody help me.
PATRICE BAIN: There we go. It's okay to ask for help. That's how we learn.
RODDY ROEDIGER: And to do that, challenge is good.
PATRICE BAIN: Hand up on this one. What did the Normans do?
NARRATOR: Low- or no-cost strategies that work, even when learning gets hard, have proven especially useful in communities like Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. Budget cuts here meant big changes for the district's public schools.
DAN MCGARRY: Programs were starting to be cut from the public schools in this area, and people started to move away. You're taking those resources away from kids who need it. It then makes its way into student achievement issues for a school district, and that led to all these problems.
NARRATOR: Among the hardest hit in the Upper Darby district was Beverly Hills Middle School. In 2011, it was struggling to meet the state's many standardized testing requirements and was labeled a failing school.
Principal Kelley Simone rules the hallways here.
KELLEY SIMONE (Beverly Hills Middle School): We're trying to meet the needs of all kids with less. We had to do something.
NARRATOR: Over 60 languages of origin are spoken here, and most students qualify for a free or reduced lunch.
KELLEY SIMONE: We can't just say, "Oh, well, pack it up and go." We still have to teach children and educate children every day.
DAN MCGARRY: Where there's poverty and where there's heartache and there's hardships, unfortunately there are kids who come into school that are needy. I wanted to figure out how can we improve some of the climate and culture—things that we were dealing with.
NARRATOR: The district took a gamble and called a former schoolteacher.
Now a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth is trying to figure out what makes people stick with it through the hard times.
ANGELA DUCKWORTH (University of Pennsylvania): When I was a teacher, many of my students were not doing as well as I wanted them to do. And for me, the gap between what I thought they could intellectually handle and what they were actually doing is what drove me to study the psychology of effort. What is the psychology of staying with things and not giving up on them, as so many of my students did?
NARRATOR: So, Duckworth studied a number of success-driven groups, including West Point cadets, C.E.O.s and college students. Her measure is a test in which people rate their likelihood for not giving up when times get tough. She calls this trait "grit."
Subjects noted how strongly they identified with statements such as, "New projects and ideas sometimes distract me from previous ones," or, "Setbacks discourage me."
She found that even more than I.Q., grit was a strong predictor of success.
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: Some people might think, "Well, I.Q. is genetic, character is learned," but, really, both I.Q. and character are both genetic and learned. So that's the kind of messy answer to the nature-nurture question.
NARRATOR: With Duckworth's help, the district established its character education program. In addition to the standard curriculum, teachers now carve out time for grit.
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: It is really not easy to take an insight from research and just, you know, make it real in the classroom.
NARRATOR: Goal-setting and perseverance lie at the heart of these lessons.
MARY BYRNES (Beverly Hills Middle School): When you get knocked down, you get back up, next time you do it even better.
NARRATOR: In one exercise, students in Mary Byrnes' sixth-grade language arts class are challenged to write a few lines about a unique food they enjoy.
MARY BYRNES: All right, quick share-out, what you have so far. Ready, set, go. Quick share-out, guys.
FEMALE STUDENT (Beverly Hills Middle School): "My favorite food is spicy Indian food. I love the smell and taste of the exotic spices. I can't choose just one dish."
MARY BYRNES: Great. Great try.
NARRATOR: Then, they must rewrite those sentences and make them better.
MARY BYRNES: Now, I want to smell it, I want to taste it, I want to know how it looks. Ready, set, choose. Challenge, guys.
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: To get better in any skill is to challenge yourself to do what you couldn't do before, to concentrate, to get feedback, and then to do it all over again. I think for all students, the place where they learn is the place that's just a little harder, just a little more advanced than what they can do today.
MARY BYRNES: Wrap up that last sentence. Turn to your partner. Turn. Hurry up!
FEMALE STUDENT (Beverly Hills Middle School): My favorite delicacy is hot, spicy Indian food. I love eating the delicious curry folded with soft, fluffy white rice. I especially love the exotic smell and flavor of the spice blends.
MARY BYRNES: Awesome! How many people like their work better, after you went back in there and improved it? How many people saw the growth? Although it took more time, how many people say it was worth it? So, you want to remember that: how you felt after you met the challenge, after you set your mind to giving it your absolute best.
NARRATOR: Grit is not a solution for all struggling students, especially those faced with challenges beyond their control, but it can encourage some children to keep at it.
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: I think grit is this intuition that things are going to be hard, and you're going to want to give up, because you are frustrated, because you are disappointed, because you are discouraged; but in that moment, you're going to stick to it and not give up, and you're going to keep doing it over a long period.
NARRATOR: Since introducing Grit into classroom instruction, teachers and administrators at Beverly Hills Middle School have seen firsthand how attitude impacts academic performance.
DAN MCGARRY: Public education, K-to-12, is not a terminal degree. It's the beginning of the rest of your life. It's about kids setting a goal for what they want to achieve and who they want to be in life. That will increase student achievement. And I believe that's not a huge cost financially, it's a cost of time.
NARRATOR: Teaching skills that nurture positive personal qualities is having a resurgence, but as an educational practice, it's nothing new.
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: It was Martin Luther King, many decades ago, who said that the goal of a true education is intelligence plus character. So, it's not just in the last few years that we're having this epiphany.
CAROL DWECK (Stanford University): It was the 1960s, 1970s. We were coming out of an era of behaviorism, when you could only talk about behavior. You could not talk about what was in the head or what someone felt. That was considered unscientific.
We were putting that behind us, and we were rushing into the head with great eagerness. It was an era now called the "cognitive revolution" that said we can never understand human behavior without studying human thought and human emotion.
NARRATOR: Carol Dweck is a psychologist whose early research formed one of character education's more popular theories: growth mindset.
CAROL DWECK: What I found was that children think in different ways about their intelligence. Some believe it's just this fixed trait, "I have a certain amount and that's it." But we saw that other kids believed that their basic talents and abilities could be cultivated. They took on the challenges. They applied the effort. That's a growth mindset. We've shown repeatedly that teaching kids the growth mindset really helps their achievement over time.
SAL KHAN: We want a world where, regardless of where you are born, you have got an equal shot as anyone else.
NARRATOR: Helping children by convincing them that they can learn is a strategy that education entrepreneur Sal Khan has also adopted.
SAL KHAN: In order for someone to really reach their potential, they have to believe in themselves. I saw that firsthand with Nadia.
NARRATOR: Nadia is Khan's cousin, who, at 12 years old, lacked confidence in her learning abilities.
SAL KHAN: Nadia was having trouble in math; because of that, they were putting her into a slower math class. I was like, "Look, if you're up for it, let's get on the phone every day, and I want to work with you." And she agreed.
NARRATOR: Ultimately, Khan designed math tutorials for his cousin that he shared with her on YouTube. Soon, not only did Nadia improve in math, but her attitude, or mindset, changed, as well.
SAL KHAN: The same young Nadia, at 12-years-old, who thought that she did not have the capability to understand unit conversion, two years later was taking calculus at the local university. That was Exhibit A for me of, "Wow, a lot of this is mindset, and a lot of this is your perception of yourself."
NARRATOR: Inspired by his niece, Khan established a not-for-profit, online tutorial service. Over a decade old, Khan Academy has more than 38-million registered users worldwide. Lessons range from math to organic chemistry and world history. But now, they're experimenting with something new.
Khan wants students to keep trying when they're struggling.
KHAN ACADEMY GROWTH MINDSET CHALLENGES VIDEO: A growth mindset is where you think of your brain as something you can grow. You can expand, stretch and build it up.
SAL KHAN: We've worked with the research labs to start putting mini-growth-mindset-interventions in Khan Academy.
NARRATOR: They've launched an international competition that teaches math and encourages effort in the process.
The State of Idaho is among the competitors.
SAL KHAN: We're now doing a whole virtual and physical challenge with communities that are all about building mindset. We call it "Learn Storm."
SAL KHAN: All the people you admire in sports, in media, and business, they've all failed more times than you realize, but what differentiated them is that they got back up and they kept going. And so, that's where Learn Storm came from.
NARRATOR: Learn Storm is a competition, built for someone like J.T. More agile with video games than he is with math, the Idaho middle schooler is often discouraged when he gets an answer wrong.
SAL KHAN: There's such a stigma with getting something wrong. That's failure. I mean the word failure, literally. It feels bad. Like, cortisol starts getting put into your system as soon as you even hear the word "failure" and "F." I have dreams where I see an F, still!
SAL KHAN: When you're trying to understand something that's a little intimidating, maybe a little complex, it's stressful to have someone else waiting for you to understand it: "Hey, look. See why Y is equal to negative 8?" "Yeah, I understand it."
You just feel pressure, and you don't want to waste the other person's time. You don't want them to judge you.
NARRATOR: When his father leaves, the Khan tutorial helps J.T. work through a tough problem. A hint appears on screen, telling him how to change his strategy. An additional prompt encourages him to try again.
Once he's correctly answered all the questions in the series, J.T. moves on to the next level of difficulty and gets energy points for his effort. This point total goes towards his overall performance in the Learn Storm challenge.
SAL KHAN: Hopefully, that starts to deprogram some of this, "Failure is bad. Don't step out of your comfort zone. Stick to what you know," fixed mindset thinking.
NARRATOR: With Learn Storm, students are not only rewarded for getting it right, but for trying, an encouragement tool that's part gaming strategy and part cognitive science.
SAL KHAN: If I had one single hope, it's that any participant in Learn Storm, their mindset towards learning has changed: "I got a couple of questions wrong, and I went home, and I reviewed those questions, and, now, I got it right." That's the type of impact we hope to see. I think the cognitive science and the tech are only going to become more and more symbiotic.
CAROL DWECK: The intersection of technology and psychology is a wonderful intersection. We want children to engage joyfully in a learning process. Will they stick to it? Will they find it enjoyable? So we care about these things too, not just the final outcome.
NARRATOR: Designed more than a hundred years ago, our school system needed to prepare a workforce for a factory-based, industrialized economy, but that one-size-fits-all approach to education often doesn't work for students of varying interests and abilities. How can a school system, built for mass education, be redesigned to meet the needs of individual students?
After World War II, the U.S. Air Force faced a similar challenge, when it transitioned to jet-powered aviation.
TODD ROSE: Planes are going faster, they're more powerful…all kinds of technology now, and they're having just a heck of a time with pilot performance.
NARRATOR: Test flights of newly designed fighter jets were crashing at an alarming rate.
TODD ROSE: For generations, the dominant military design philosophy was that if you had to create one thing, your best bet was to actually design for an average-sized person.
NARRATOR: When a young researcher figured out that there was no such thing as an average-sized-pilot, he determined that the problem was not pilot error, but one of design. So, instead of trying to find pilots to fit their planes, the Air Force began building planes to fit their pilots. The simple solution? Something commonly seen in automobiles today: adjustable seats and steering.
TODD ROSE: It's a recognition that average-based industrial systems have failed. So, when I think of the parallel to education, I think, we will see pretty big gains just from shifting toward individuals and away from averages.
NARRATOR: To create a more adjustable school system, that adapts to the needs of millions of children, education entrepreneur Max Ventilla is relying on digital technology.
MAX VENTILLA (AltSchool): One of the key hallmarks of a 21st century profession is that you are using digital technologies to build on your own capabilities. We can all have the same Legos®, and we can create an infinite number of different arrangements that each satisfy our own individual need. For me, this phrase "mass customization" is the goal.
COURTNEY REYNOLDS (AltSchool): Can you tell me more about that, that superimposed layer?
NARRATOR: Called AltSchool, this experiment in customizable learning environments is taking place in a small, private network of one-room schoolhouses.
BHARAT MEDIRATTA: It's not a lab in the form that we're performing experiments. It's a lab in the form of us trying to understand how to build the best-quality education every single day in that classroom.
NARRATOR: Nearly everything here is done on computers. By working closely with software engineers, teachers can alter the programs to suit the needs of each child.
BHARAT MEDIRATTA: When you get a device now, that device has a settings icon. When you click on that settings icon, there's all kinds of things that you can change to customize it for yourself. Now we can provide customization at scale, and that, in an education environment, means that individual children who think differently, who learn differently or are on different paths, can now get the thing that works best for them, for the particular goal they're trying to achieve.
NARRATOR: At this AltSchool, in Palo Alto, Courtney Reynolds is teaching a math lesson about ratios to a mixed-aged group of students.
NARRATOR: After the group lesson, students will put their new knowledge about ratios to work on building scale models of a living space or dive deeper into the subject through personalized lesson plans called "playlists."
BHARAT MEDIRATTA: Think of your playlist as your textbook, but instead of it being every child gets the same textbook, each child gets their own textbook that is composed of different chapters.
JUAN MARTIN (AltSchool Student): Well, right now, I have this playlist about being mindful of my scale.
BHARAT MEDIRATTA: Maybe there's, like, a chapter that's on math, but there's five different levels of math, so maybe you get Level Three math, maybe you get Level Five math.
JUAN MARTIN: When I click the "I'm Done" button, I send it to my teacher, so my teacher receives it.
NARRATOR: With students working independently, Courtney has time to see who needs help, like student Juan Martin, who is struggling to find the right ratio for his scale model.
BHARAT MEDIRATTA: Now, you don't teach these 35 students all the same curriculum. You teach these 35 students the thing that helps them with their core skills and lines up with their passions. In this model, the educator moves a little bit away from being a direct teacher, and more towards being an education facilitator.
NARRATOR: When Juan Martin realizes that one inch on his model can represent five feet at full scale, it all comes together.
BHARAT MEDIRATTA: We're not trying to reduce educator time. We're trying to improve the value of their time.
NARRATOR: While most schools cannot afford this level of customization, the hope is that as technology becomes cheaper, this model can be scaled up and adapted for all children.
TODD ROSE: It's really important to realize that technology is not a solution; it is a tool, just like my pencil is a tool. So it's really about how we choose to use this new tool at our disposal. But digital technologies now give us the power and the flexibility to create customizable environments at scale without spending more money.
NARRATOR: Even though digital technology is a familiar presence in the lives of today's students, its long-term impact on their learning is still unknown. But one thing is certain: the generation of students entering high school today is the first born into a world where they can literally hold a computer in their hands from cradle to grave.
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: Human beings are learning organizations. That's what we do from the first moment we are on the earth.
NARRATOR: Children's natural quest to learn meets new and unique challenges as they move into high school.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: As kids move into adolescence, they're engaging with their friendships, their engaging with their community, and they want to feel like they're part of something.
NARRATOR: The physical, emotional and social changes of adolescence pose new challenges and offer great opportunities.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: They're trying to figure out, "Who am I?" Not just, "What do I do and what can I do?" But, "What kind of person am I, and how do my actions show that?"
NARRATOR: Many educators see this as an important way to engage students in learning, by making it more relevant to their lives. That's the intention behind East Palo Alto Academy, a charter school that opened its doors in 2001, the same year that Omar Gaytan was born.
OMAR GAYTAN: Originally, my family is from Michoacan, Mexico. What brought my dad over here, was, you know, the search for money. My dad never even finished the fourth grade, but he still wants me to make it to college.
NARRATOR: Since 1975, this city has been without a traditional public high school and has struggled with crime and violence.
AMIKA GUILLAUME: One of our biggest challenges is how do you get someone college-ready if their parents have never gone to high school?
NARRATOR: Admission to East Palo Alto Academy is first come, first served. With just over 300 students, it's an attractive alternative to the neighboring town's high school with a much larger student body.
AMIKA GUILLAUME: A school like ours needs to exist, because there are students who get overwhelmed by being one of 600 other freshmen. When you have over 89 percent of your students qualify for free and reduced lunch, over 75 percent of your students are learning English, and over 50 percent of your students qualify as homeless, you inevitably have students who are going to have challenges when it comes to being ready to learn.
Class: What problems can arise when we seek revenge?
NARRATOR: Teachers here take a different approach.
AMIKA GUILLAUME: We do very much culturally responsive instruction, so we don't use your typical textbook. We're going to take from everything and create a curriculum that is engaging for our students.
NARRATOR: Restorative Justice Class is one example. Here, students learn to write and speak openly about issues relevant to their lives and community.
ANDY ROBINSON (East Palo Alto Academy): Omar, speak on it. How do we see cycles in gangs?
OMAR GAYTAN: Say, like, a rival gang shoots you. Your homies are going to get, like, payback to avenge you. So it just keeps going, like, back and forth.
ANDY ROBINSON: So it's a never-ending cycle, right?
NARRATOR: They're graded on essays, presentations and class participation.
ANDY ROBINSON: And the question in all of those cycles is, "Who's going to have the guts to break it?"
MAKAILAH PERKINS (East Palo Alto Academy): Culturally responsive instruction is a way to say to a student, "I recognize that you have these assets, these academic assets, these social assets that I want to feed, because this is what's going on in our society right now, and this is how it applies to you. Figure out what your place is."
AMIKA GUILLAUME: This concept is important for a school like ours, because it's a way to show that teaching and learning happens everywhere, not just in an academic setting, but as human relations.
NARRATOR: As a way to inspire students and keep them engaged in the classroom, they're encouraged to pursue their passions outside of school. Impressed by Omar's writing skills, one of his teachers pushed him to start a hip-hop club.
OMAR GAYTAN: Hip-hop gives me a voice, a way to, like, express my thoughts freely.
DEREK ANG (East Palo Alto Academy): What's up? You guys ready?
So, all these other channels, we're going to leave these down 'cause we don't really need them.
OMAR GAYTAN: Which was the ones, um…
Rap could be about anything, could be about living here. It could be about living here, it could be about the struggle, coming from the ghetto. Rap could be like my diary, you know?
DEREK ANG: What comes to your mind? What, what message, or what, what's the main…if you had to sum this up?
OMAR GAYTAN: Motivation is the message.
DEREK ANG: Motivation.
All right, I think that's a cool title.
NARRATOR: As with any extracurricular activity, hip-hop club can be both benefit and distraction.
MAKAILAH PERKINS: Omar, can I check in with you please? I wanted to talk a little about your grades.
NARRATOR: When his grades start to slip, Omar's adviser Makailah Perkins wants to know why and to make sure that he understands what's at stake.
MAKAILAH PERKINS: So, you went from As and Bs to what we have here. You have A in English, an A in R.J., an A-plus in imaging. You have a what in Biology?
OMAR GAYTAN: A D.
MAKAILAH PERKINS: A D. How did you go from an A-plus to a D-plus in Bio?
As an advisor, my role is to listen first, and then take what students tell me and help them design their own academic path. And sometimes saying, "No, no, no, I hear you, but you think you can be here, but I know you can be here."
So can you get into college with a D in Bio?
OMAR GAYTAN: No. It has to be a C or more.
MAKAILAH PERKINS: Mmhmm, so what are you going to do about that D?
OMAR GAYTAN: Raise it up, try to.
NARRATOR: Academic advisory here is not a voluntary conference. It's a required, four-year class with regular check-ins to keep students on track toward their education goals.
MAKAILAH PERKINS: Is English a challenging class?
OMAR GAYTAN: Somewhat.
MAKAILAH PERKINS: So, if you can get an A-plus in a challenging class, that tells me that, what? What could you get in Bio?
OMAR GAYTAN: An A.
Them holding me up to a high standard, like, that makes me feel good. That means that they, like, believe I can do it. So, if they believe I can do it, that means I could do it, you know?
MAKAILAH PERKINS: Every second that I'm with a kid, I have the opportunity to be a light in their life. So it's a lot of encouragement, it's a lot of advocacy, it's a lot of cheerleading.
AMIKA GUILLAUME: Sixty-five percent of our students' parents did not go to high school, so you need to be that pushy parent who's going to help them through this system. They need to be given this very powerful combination of high expectations with an incredible amount of love, support and understanding to push them up. Sometimes pull them up.
NARRATOR: During the 1990s, while East Palo Alto's crime rate was soaring, Silicon Valley was booming. Across the freeway, Palo Alto's median household income rose to more than twice the national average. Students here can choose between two elite public high schools.
CLAUDE STEELE: Everybody's hyper-performing and comes from a really advantaged background. The kings of Silicon Valley live there. You get a very intense pressure.
CLAUDE STEELE: A set of test scores and grades that might make you a hero in another school, you just wonder if you can make it.
NARRATOR: Cole McFaul goes to Henry Gunn High School.
COLE MCFAUL: I like to think of myself as a good student. I do student government, president of the Chinese Culture Club. I may not look like it, but I'm a fourth Chinese. I also do Model United Nations. I'm also big into basketball. Trying to manage all of that, with the studying, leads to stress.
DENISE HERRMANN: We have almost 2,000 students, and of the 2,000, over 90 percent of them go on to four-year colleges. So, we have a very academically focused community.
COLE MCFAUL: Maybe it's from your parents, maybe it's from your friends, maybe it's from your teachers pushing you. You just work late hours into the night. It's probably really unhealthy for me.
NARRATOR: Widely known for student achievement, Gunn High School was forced to confront the dark side of intense academic expectations.
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: It's very important to put social-emotional and academic learning on the table together and work productively at all of that at once. When we ignore how children feel, how they are learning to be in the world and interact, we imperil them in a number of ways.
COLE MCFAUL: He was the guy on the basketball team that would just have a smile on his face and just be laughing all the time. Cam was his name. He was one of my close friends. I'd been Facebook-chatting him the night before at, like, 10 o'clock. I, like, walked into my A.P. U.S. History class when I heard the news. And somebody said, like, "Cam committed suicide." And I was like, "What? Like, that can't be right at all." Like, I've never cried so hard. I definitely went through the denial phase, for like, the next couple days. I was like, "Damn!" So, yeah.
DENISE HERRMANN: One of our former students died by suicide, and two months later one of our current students died by suicide, and a month and a half later, a third student died by suicide. Um, and it was a pretty tumultuous time on our campus.
NARRATOR: Suicide is among the leading causes of death for teens. Since 2009, Gunn High School has experienced eight suicides, more than half of them occurring within one school year.
DENISE HERRMANN: There definitely was a culture of blame in the community. The sense was that there was a culture of academic competition. And our high school or the academic stress may have been one of the root causes.
COLE MCFAUL: I think definitely some people at our school do feel sort of a need to succeed, and they push themselves really hard. I just looked at the situation. I was like, "This shouldn't be happening. Something has to change."
NARRATOR: In response, Cole teamed up with his friend and classmate Chloe Sorensen to launch a wellness committee.
CHLOE SORENSON (Henry M. Gunn High School): One of the things that Cole and I were talking about, when we were creating this position, is, kind of, having someone to coordinate all of these different initiatives and these efforts that we have on campus.
NARRATOR: Alongside teachers, health practitioners and administrators, they're working to change the school culture at Gunn by reducing student stress and improving emotional health.
COLE MCFAUL: Gunn now offers Adolescent Counseling Service, and that's, like, pretty much, a psychologist that you can go to and talk about whatever you need to talk about.
NARRATOR: In addition to counseling services for students, among the many changes at Gunn High School was a new bell schedule.
DENISE HERRMANN: We really tried to invest in students having a little downtime between their focused learning experiences. So, we went with a block schedule. Students have fewer classes per day. We extended lunch, we extended the passing periods. Pretty much every possible decision that I make about this school, I make through the lens of, "Is this going to contribute to student well-being?"
NARRATOR: One of the biggest changes was getting rid of an optional, early morning class that had some students arriving as early as 7:20 a.m.
DENISE HERRMANN: That decision was in response to a lot of pressure from the professionals who know about sleep and mental health. Many of the pediatricians who work with our students understand that they aren't getting enough sleep.
MARY CARSKADON: There's just a litany of things that go south, if you haven't had adequate sleep. The most scary thing is depression and the start of these mental health issues. Kids who are sleeping less have more suicidal ideation.
NARRATOR: In adolescence, sleep can become a matter of life and death. Why? And can anything be done about it?
MARY CARSKADON: We have this system, there, where biology is pushing this way, the school district is pushing this way, and sleep is getting pushed out.
NARRATOR: During adolescence, hormones cause dramatic changes in a teenager's sleep cycle. Their body's internal clock, or circadian rhythm, shifts, causing them to fall asleep later at night. If they have to get up early for school, they're chronically sleep-deprived.
One solution is to make school start-times later, like Gunn High School did. But for most school districts, tinkering with bus schedules and after-school activities is a tricky proposition.
MARY CARSKADON: My concern has become, what do we do when school districts can't change the start time? Is there a way that we can we move that window for sleep?
NARRATOR: At Brown University's Bradley Sleep and Chronobiology Lab, Mary Carskadon spends her waking hours studying sleep.
She and her team are trying to manipulate the circadian rhythm of teens to better suit the traditional school day. They found the key lies in harnessing a major driver of the sleep-wake cycle: light.
All the light we see is processed by light-sensitive cells in the retina. Most help our vision, but a few send messages to our brain's biological clock. Normally, when it gets dark, this clock signals the pineal gland to release melatonin, a hormone that tells the brain that it's nighttime.
MARY CARSKADON: Some people call it the hormone of darkness, or even more fun, the "vampire hormone," because the melatonin is produced in the biological night. So when the melatonin rises, it opens the gate for us to go to sleep.
NARRATOR: As morning approaches, melatonin secretion subsides, and we awaken.
Carskadon's first task is to find out which wavelength, or color of light has the greatest impact on the release of melatonin.
To do that, subjects sit in front of various types of light, well into the night, while researchers monitor the melatonin levels in their saliva.
MARY CARSKADON: Our whole goal was to find what's the best signal that can crush the melatonin. Turned out that the one that seemed to work the best was the brightest in the blue spectrum. So, that's the light that we're expecting will suppress melatonin the most during this protocol.
NARRATOR: What they found is that prolonged morning exposure to intense blue-enhanced light helped kids wake up and be more alert. This in turn could help shift their circadian clock so they fall asleep earlier at night.
MARY CARSKADON: The vision of this is that we can go into schools with a recommendation to build-in changeable lighting, so they can have a prescription that's not the same all day long.
We're trying to get to the point where I can say, as a behavioral scientist, that this is the magic that will really help enhance school performance. Learning should be a joy, not a torture.
NARRATOR: Both students and experts agree that providing a more rewarding school experience can inspire better learning, particularly in high school. But how to do that varies, depending on the community and the student.
CLAUDE STEELE: In order to thrive in school, academically, before the skills are presented, you need to have some sense that you're valued in that community and that people in that community see a future for you.
NARRATOR: But feeling valued can be a challenge, especially for students born outside of the United States. With our rising immigrant population, it is estimated that by the year 2055, no single racial or ethnic group will make up a majority.
CLAUDE STEELE: We all have these social identities, and all of them have negative stereotypes. It imposes a huge psychological burden on a person to function in an important situation, where they could be seen in terms of one of these negative stereotypes about their group. If you're a member of such a group and you're in a school, your progress is going to be affected by that.
NARRATOR: As a Muslim refugee from war-torn Iraq, Murtada Mahmood is often the target of such stereotypes.
MURTADA MAHMOOD (KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate): When we walk, like, my sisters wearing hijab, some people will just stare at us for I don't know what reason.
NARRATOR: He and his family fled to the United States, by way of Syria, in 2013.
MURTADA MAHMOOD: I would see bombings and shootings. One day, I woke up and we just packed our stuff and left. It was our country, but it wasn't good to live there.
NARRATOR: They arrived in Lynn, a U.N. refugee relocation site in Massachusetts. More than 15,000 people, from around the world, have been resettled in the state, since 2009.
With these newcomers, the number of students learning English in local schools has grown steadily. Since the loss of their father, Murtada and his sisters help their mother improve her language skills.
MURTADA MAHMOOD'S MOTHER: Today, I went to the gym. And we trained on the…what's that thing's name?
MURTADA MAHMOOD: Treadmill.
MURTADA MAHMOOD'S MOTHER: You should be speak with me English, in the home.
MURTADA MAHMOOD'S SISTER: It's like, when we go outside…
MURTADA MAHMOOD'S MOTHER: I want to learn. Must be, must be.
NARRATOR: When Murtada first arrived, he attended a public school, where he was separated in a class for English language learners.
MURTADA MAHMOOD: When I first came, I would speak broken English. I would go to class, and I was the only Iraqi kid there. The teachers, they all spoke Spanish. The teachers sometimes will translate for them to Spanish, and I would just sit in the corner.
NARRATOR: For high school, Murtada switched to KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate.
Instead of separating English language learners, this charter school includes them in regular classes.
RENE ALDERETE (KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate): One of the biggest gaps that may happen is English language learners may feel like they're separated or they're not taken seriously.
NARRATOR: As head of KIPP Lynn's English as a Second Language program, Rene Alderete supports students like Murtada in their classes.
RENE ALDERETE: Making sure that the students are included in the general education classroom eliminates from them a feeling of isolation.
NARRATOR: By including English language learners in regular classes, KIPP impacts their self-image and raises expectations, as well.
RENE ALDERETE: The students are aware that, "Oh, what is expected of everyone is expected of me, too."
RENE ALDERETE: The idea of "college and my career, and what am I doing after high school, that is something that is expected of me, too."
NARRATOR: KIPP students are expected to go to college, so Murtada is required to take a special two-year prep course. Now a junior, he's practicing how to tell his personal story on college applications.
MURTADA MAHMOOD: I was put in mainstream classes, and that helped me, because I could listen to other people, like, when they were talking to me. As the year went on, my English level went up.
MURTADA MAHMOOD: That made me work more on myself, because I want to also talk, have my voice.
RENE ALDERETE: High expectations will drive students to make sure they meet their college and career goals, but with the high expectations also comes support and the building of character.
MURTADA MAHMOOD: My father, he always forgets about what's bad, he was thinking about what's next. And that's what I also like to do. I always forget the past and just think how to improve what's coming next.
CLAUDE STEELE: What our schools need to do is build a community in that school that really conveys to every kid in it a sense of belonging and having a real central role in this society, the whole thing is open to them…that: "It's really open to you, and here's the route."
NARRATOR: As adolescents seek their place in the world, their need to be part of a group takes on greater significance. Many educators wonder if this teen yearning can be leveraged to engage learning.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: Adolescents, in school, really need opportunities to connect their skills to who they are as a person. And to do that, they need to be in a place where they feel like they belong.
NARRATOR: Since her days as a teacher, University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang has been interested in knowing how emotions factor into learning.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: I quickly realized that there was very, very little known about the kind of stuff that we really care about in education, like how people become inspired. How do we become interested in things? How do we build curiosity? And how can we support that process?
NARRATOR: In trying to identify which parts of the brain are involved in the deepest and most meaningful learning, Immordino-Yang works with teens from troubled neighborhoods.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: These are kids who see a lot of crime, they see a lot of dangerous things, they see a lot of poverty, and we wanted to understand, "How do they make meaning of that world around them?"
NARRATOR: First, she gets them emotionally engaged in a topic, by showing them videos about people struggling to overcome adversity.
NARRATOR: For adolescents, these types of stories can trigger moments of deep reflection.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: They come back from those kind of reflective moments with this heightened appreciation of the meaning of the story, and what it applies to in their own life, what it means for the nature of the world more broadly.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: And whereas we've known that, for a long time, in education, the neural data are giving us new insights into the mechanics of that process.
NARRATOR: To find out which brain regions are harnessed during reflective emotion, Immordino-Yang monitors the students' brain activity as they re-watch the emotional videos in an f.M.R.I. scanner.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: So, we're looking at the movement of the blood flow in her brain, as she's watching these stories and where in her brain is becoming more and less active, as she's experiencing these emotions.
NARRATOR: She found that the reflective thinking caused by these emotional videos triggers widespread activity throughout the brain.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: The most high-level brain-states that people experience in the scanner don't just activate high-level cortical systems. They also activate lower-level structures of the brain that are involved in regulating and monitoring your consciousness and your survival.
NARRATOR: Immordino-Yang believes that the reason why learning and emotion seem so intimately connected is because complex emotions, like admiration, can activate basic brain functions, like those regulating breathing and heart rate.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: We think that the reason that humans' values and belief systems and ideals are such powerful motivators is, literally, that they're hooking themselves into biomechanical machinery that is evolved to keep us alive, over time.
So, emotions are a critical piece of learning, always. Meaningful learning, learning that really matters to you, that changes who you are and that endures over time, always has an emotional component.
NARRATOR: Her research shows that engaging students on an emotional level makes for more powerful learning experiences. And she's not alone. Some schools are trying to design curriculum that harnesses the power of emotion, especially in communities where students face adversity.
KHANDACE MITCHELL (The Workshop School): When I was going to my old school, it was a lot of chaos going on, a lot of violence, gun crimes. Seeing someone pull out a gun, that's kind of traumatic. If I see something like that, it's like jeopardizing my safety, my life. It was hard to approach the learning well.
NARRATOR: Khandace Mitchell struggled in middle school, often overwhelmed by the stressful conditions in her Philadelphia neighborhood.
KHANDACE MITCHELL: Some girl had a problem with me. I don't know why. She brought a whole crowd with her. I tried to leave out the crowd, but people kept pushing me back in. She hit me, and then everything is just a blur from there. I don't like hurting people, but the way she hit me, I had to. I got suspended.
SIMON HAUGER (The Workshop School): The narrative of "work hard, get a good education, you'll have access to a great future" doesn't ring true in many urban situations. A lot of students don't see the importance of test grades and the work feels meaningless.
NARRATOR: To engage students on an emotional level, some schools are building curriculum centered around projects kids care about. That's the principal idea behind The Workshop School, which serves kids from some of Philadelphia's toughest neighborhoods.
KHANDACE MITCHELL: What shape makes a star?
NARRATOR: In this public school, traditional subjects, such as science and geometry, are taught through hands-on projects.
SIMON HAUGER: Often the tension in project-based learning is to make sure that there's rigorous learning. When project-based learning is working well, students are engaged in solving real-world problems, creating projects that have some real tangible outcome. So, the work mimics more what we do in real life.
NARRATOR: In science class, Khandace and her lab partner, Andreia, are working on a project about the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan.
NARRATOR: The goal is to work toward a solution and build lead-removing water filters. To accomplish that, they'll have to use their knowledge of chemistry and engineering. But first, they have to create a presentation explaining why Flint's crisis matters to their community.
SIMON HAUGER: If you're starting to think about designing your own projects, that begs the question, well, what kind of problems are you passionate about, and what things do you really want to solve and research and learn about?
KHANDACE MITCHELL: I did hear a little bit about Flint, but I didn't really know it was that serious. Like, kids are dealing with this. It made me more aware of what I'm putting in my body.
If something like this happened in Philadelphia, would we come together as a community like the people in Flint did?
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO YANG: Children need to have the freedom and the support and the resources to be able to deep-dive into topics that interest them, so that they learn what it feels like to really explore and understand something.
NARRATOR: Exploring something of interest provided Khandace with an emotional connection that changed her attitude toward learning.
KHANDACE MITCHELL: When I was getting ready for my old school, I'd all of a sudden have a panic attack or something like that, because I was scared to go to school, because of how bad the drama was. Now, when I wake up, I'm like, "What do I have to do when I get to school? Who am I ready to see?"
KHANDACE MITCHELL: My experience at The Workshop School is different. I started being excited about what I could do.
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: In communities where there's a lot of trauma, these small, personalized schools that enable teachers to create a curriculum that is meaningful to kids, that helps them figure out how to solve the problems they see in their community, are more successful, because they meet the needs of the students that they're seeking to serve.
NARRATOR: In addition to engaging students, can project-based learning help prepare them for an unpredictable future?
TODD ROSE: The truth is the shelf life for any skillset in this economy is unbelievably short. If we don't prepare people with self-knowledge and agency, we're never going to be able to meet the needs of our modern-day economy.
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: Our kids are going to have to work with knowledge that hasn't been discovered yet, on technologies that haven't been invented yet, solving problems we haven't been able to solve.
NARRATOR: For high school senior Madison Pickett, who throws strikes as easily as she gets straight As, learning through projects provides lifelong lessons.
MADISON PICKETT (Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy): Life throws you problems that you have to work through. Things don't work. You need to solve them, figure out how they work.
NARRATOR: The scholar-athlete acquired this philosophy on and off the field, as part of a unique four-year program. It combines science, technology, engineering and math, and culminates with a senior project.
MADISON PICKETT: I went in not knowing what engineering was, just knowing it had something to do with math and science. I was a still kind of confused, because this is something I'd see in, like, a garage.
AMIR ABO-SHAEER (Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy): Our world is becoming more and more technological, and we're relying on and interacting more and more with technology to do our jobs. What we do need is people that are educated in the way technology works.
NARRATOR: But, unfortunately, not everyone is encouraged to pursue careers in technology. According to a 2014 study, only three percent of female high school students reported any interest in engineering, compared to thirty-one percent of their male counterparts.
SAL KHAN: You have all this productivity, all this wealth being created from this information revolution that we're in, but who participates in it?
NARRATOR: When physics teacher Amir Abo-Shaeer launched the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy in his California school, he wanted to address another form of inequality: the gender gap in science and engineering.
AMIR ABO-SHAEER: I can't have 14-year-old girls and their parents and their families deciding at this age to start shutting doors on these girls' career future. The first thing is just making it accessible.
NARRATOR: Abo-Shaeer raises private money for this project-based public school program. He also added art courses and actively recruited female students. Their enrollment jumped from ten to fifty percent, in five years.
AMIR ABO-SHAEER: It's this whole idea of mirrors rather than windows. You want the audience to look at the person they see and see themselves, as opposed to looking through a window and seeing an opportunity that someone else is taking advantage of. We are basically saying, "We're going to present this so anybody can see themselves do that."
NARRATOR: With 41 boys and 41 girls, this year's senior class is getting ready for the 2016 Maker Faire competition. Their entry is a series of 13 interactive games, each demonstrating a different physics principle. They call it The Physics Arcade.
Madison's team is building a game based on volume, density and momentum, but not all the parts are working.
MADISON PICKETT: Normally, in a classroom, you get a problem and you just solve it. And normally, you're using the equation the teacher already gave you. Whereas here, okay, you have this problem, you can use math, but what equation or what solution do you need to find?
Okay, this is my problem. I need this solution, so how can I get there mathematically?
NARRATOR: In addition to carrying a full load of other core subjects, Academy students must meet all the math and physics requirements of a science and engineering program. And then put that knowledge into practice.
AMIR ABO-SHAEER: Our goal is to, basically, provide students with an educational experience that satisfies the traditional requirements they would need to graduate in a unique and disruptive way. What I think attaches the kids to it is the fact that they know it's a real thing. There are real stakes. We're going to a competition.
NARRATOR: With the competition just weeks away, time is not on their side. The show must go on.
After months of preparation, Madison and her classmates are set to display their Physics Arcade at Maker Faire, in San Mateo, California, even though it's incomplete.
MADISON PICKETT: We've been in the program for four years, and we've all been waiting for the Maker Faire.
NARRATOR: Instead of letting audiences play with the games, students will have to explain how the games are intended to work.
MADISON PICKETT: Because we had the deadline, a bunch of us would skip class to go into engineering to work on our project. We all wanted to see where this project would take us.
AMIR ABO-SHAEER: It's hard to scope a project that finishes at the end of the school year. If we were a company, we could just slip the schedule and release the project a month late, you know? It doesn't matter. We're not. We're school, and we're all trying to do education here. It's not even about the product. Focus on the process, not on the product.
MADISON PICKETT: Today was crazy to hear people say, "I can't…you're high school students? You're so mature. And you've done all this, and you're only a senior in high school?" And we're like, "Yeah, we are!" All this positive feedback made us realize what we've done, and even though we never finished fully, we've still done so much this past year.
NARRATOR: The students from Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy did not go home empty-handed. They won five awards, including Best in Class.
As one of the best in her class, Madison will embark on a new engineering adventure after graduation: she'll be attending M.I.T.
MADISON PICKETT: By solving real-life problems, rather than just sitting in a classroom, I'm a better problem-solver now. Having all this backup in engineering will definitely help me, and I'll hopefully have a step ahead.
BOY ON RED BACKGROUND: The school of the future will be kids riding hoverboards in the hallways.
GIRL ON A PINK BACKGROUND: Okay, so we're going to have flying iPads and flying phones and flying computers.
MALE TEEN ON BLUE BACKGROUND: It'd be open. It'd be fun.
GIRL ON A PINK BACKGROUND: I don't imagine it having many books, just, like, online everything.
BOY 2 ON RED BACKGROUND: Like, there won't be teachers anymore.
GIRL ON YELLOW BACKGROUND: It'd have to be really clean.
MALE TEEN ON GREEN BACKGROUND: The school of the future would have to transition to more of a hands-on learning experience.
COLE MCFAUL: I'm a senior, I'm not even an adult yet. And so, I don't remember anything from my Bio class in freshman year. Um, and so, I think, like, the academic stuff is not as important as, uh, like, teaching students how to take care of themselves and how to be happy.
I think if you teach kids how to be happy and how to manage their life, they'll be successful. For mental health, we need to be given those tools.
MINDFULNESS TEACHER (Henry M. Gunn High School): We constantly learn how to fill our minds with new information but when do we actually learn to how empty it and make some space…
NARRATOR: In an effort to reduce academic stress, Gunn High School is trying mindfulness training as part of its physical education program.
MINDFULNESS TEACHER: Breathe out, hold, breathe in.
COLE MCFAUL: Out of all this that happened to our school, the one good thing that happened was that culture of checking in: "How you doing? How you doing? How you doing?" And then not just saying, "I'm okay," or, "I'm good," but, like, actually caring about, like, how are you actually doing?
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: When social and emotional learning is actually being fostered, the kids have the tools to center and calm themselves, to be a good member of the school community and a contributing member of the broader community. All of those things together allowed us to create a very different educational experience that has proved to be much more successful.
AMIKA GUILLAUME: Whether you have everything or whether you have nothing, if you don't envision your future, you're not going to work for it. You're not going to try to protect it. You're not going to fight for it. You're not going to live, frankly, live for it.
OMAR GAYTAN: Hey, pass me my notebook.
DEREK ANG: All right. All right.
OMAR GAYTAN: Biology got hard. That's when my advisor stepped in, my teachers stepped in. They were like, "It's going to get harder," so I've got to get better.
(Rapping) You can accomplish anything with dedication and hard work.
NARRATOR: With intervention and support, Omar maintained his G.P.A. and continues running the hip-hop club.
OMAR GAYTAN: (Rapping) Dedication and hard work.
DEREK ANG: How do you feel about trying to do that one more time?
OMAR GAYTAN: Let's do it.
OMAR GAYTAN'S CLASSMATE: All right.
MAKAILAH PERKINS: I think being a freshman boy really just took a toll on him. How hard is it to be 14 years old and to get great grades and to have friends and to be a leader and to stay there? That's really hard.
AMIKA GUILLAUME: We're all in the business of taking care of kids, as educators, as parents, and, hopefully, as human beings. No matter where you live, there is a teenager who wants to know that they matter to someone.
DEREK ANG: This is a good start.
CLAUDE STEELE: Our schools need to build a sense of community in that students have to feel that they belong, not only in their community, but that they belong in society, that they're going to be major contributors in society. That's what a school of the future has to do.
RUSSLYNN ALI: The school of the future will engage young people and always refine itself to meet them where they are and get them to where they need to be in order to have a successful life and fulfill their dreams.
PAM CANTOR: The school of the future must address the impact of adversity on children's development.
SAL KAHN: The school of the future must recognize that human beings want to learn, and if you give them an environment where it's safe to fail, safe to learn, safe to collaborate, you find joy in it.
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: The school of the future will be more individualized, and more experimental for all of the people in it, as they learn to innovate together.
TODD ROSE: The school of the future must be able to meet every kid where they're at and give them what they need to be successful.
AMIR ABO-SHAEER: The school of the future must continually innovate and iterate.
DANA KIRTON: It has to be less about the business of school and more about the relationship with the child.
MAX VENTILLA: …and become something that is much more interwoven with people's real lives.
VIVIAN GADSDEN: It's going to need to be attentive to the whole child.
ALEJANDRO GAC-ARTIGAS: The school of the future will extend far beyond the four walls of the classroom.
SAL KHAN: It's going to be mixed age. It's going to have students learning at their own pace. I think the school of the future is going to be a happy place.
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Phil Bertelsen PRODUCED BY Phil Bertelsen and Jane Teeling DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY Jason Longo EDITED BY Geoff Gruetzmacher
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A NOVA Production by Ark Media in association with Realization Pictures for WGBH Boston.
© 2016 WGBH Educational Foundation
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This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.
Original funding for this program was provided by Cancer Treatment Centers of America, the David H. Koch Fund for Science, American Graduate, Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
IMAGE: Image credit: (classroom) © WGBH Educational Foundation
- Amir Abo-Shaeer, Rene Alderete, Russlynn Ali, Patrice Bain, Pamela Cantor, Mary Carskadon, Joanna Christodoulou, Linda Darling-Hammond, Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck, Alejandro Gac-Artigas, Vivian Gadsden, Omar Gaytan, Amika Guillaume, Simon Hauger, Denise Herrmann, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Sal Khan, Dana Kirton, Murtada Mahmood, Mark McDaniel, Ken McFarlane, Cole McFaul, Dan McGarry, Bharat Mediratta, Khandace Mitchell, Eric Pakulak, Makailah Perkins, Madison Pickett, Roddy Roediger, Todd Rose, Kelley Simone, Claude Steele, Max Ventilla