Learning to “look for what’s interesting” with Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

by Joan Yenawine
March 9, 2023 — Mary Helen Immordino-Yang kicked off her session by saying she spent her elementary school years “trying to mitigate my exposure to standardized schooling… Like, how do I get out of here without anybody noticing me?”

Her conversation partner, Luthern Williams (formerly director of diversity at The Winsor School and now head of school at New Roads School) described his initial relationship to education like this: “I was a resume builder. I hated school. I was completely disengaged. My father demanded excellence, so I did it.”

Different stories to be sure, but both packed with emotion…a powerful force that eventually guided both speakers to pursue careers dedicated to making education more fulfilling and meaningful.

Despite her initial efforts to fly under the academic radar, Immordino-Yang’s love of science and fascination with the human mind drew her irresistibly to education, both as a student and a teacher. Today, she is a leading neuroscientist and human development psychologist who studies how emotion is inextricably linked to learning.

“I found my purpose in life [by] diving into an urban school district that was the second most diverse district in the nation at the time in terms of first-generation immigrants,” she recalls. “These kids were struggling to figure out, ‘Who am I?’; they were grappling with the nature of their own history, the nature of their own story.”

Her curiosity about how people answer those questions eventually led her to study the neuroscience of learning, bringing scientific research and evidence to bear on important educational questions.

As the professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, she’s harnessing her research insights to help kids and educators understand the value of pursuing their passions and making meaning from their experiences.

In her book, Emotions, Learning and the Brain, Immordino-Yang posits that “we only think deeply about things we care about.” In essence, whatever emotion we’re experiencing, that’s what we’re learning about.

“If I give you a physics problem where you have to learn [why] a bottle rolls around…[then] the emotion is about, am I going to get it right? Am I going to fail? Am I going to look stupid or am I going to be terrific? If that's what the emotion is about, then that is what you are learning about. That is what you will remember.”

However, if the emotion the question triggers is curiosity, that’s when students are motivated to think more deeply and to learn why something is the way it is. The teacher’s true role then is not to simply explain the science or the math behind a certain solution, but to prime kids to “look for what’s interesting” to them, because that’s where the human motivation to learn ultimately comes from.

However, she warns against taking a limited view of what might be interesting or relevant to someone else.

“We can't narrow relevance only to the things you have directly witnessed... Being human, we're capable of appreciating any number of realms of relevance if we are exposed to it in a way that we can appreciate how it matters internally to that system. [Teachers can] expand their horizons so they can become scientists, mathematicians, artists, politicians, and theologians. It’s boundless.”

In fact, she stresses that educators need to be aware of limiting assumptions that can actually be counterproductive to learners.

“A dangerous assumption is one that imposes limits and expectations on a kid that keeps them from actually engaging. An excellent education… [helps] people…. decide for themselves what they’re capable of doing.”

This Critical Conversation revealed, as others in the series have done, that our educational system holds the hope for a better future, as well as potentially dire consequences if we simply uphold the status quo.
“Right now,” Immordino-Yang warned, “we’re turning toward authoritarianism. I see that, in part, as a call to action for reforming school…. We need our young people to be able to think and bring…transcendent meaning to the things they witness—not just to accept and keep going. Because when you do that, what you’re really doing is building excellent sheep… That is a recipe for a humanitarian disaster.”

At The Winsor School, students are challenged to pursue their interests and curiosity is cultivated. Perhaps this is the recipe to follow to create a new generation of deep thinkers and lifelong learners.

Following each Critical Conversations event, community members will have the opportunity to reconvene for Theory Grounded in Practice dialogue and breakout discussions. Join the follow up discussion on Thursday, March 16 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time. Attendees of the Critical Conversations event are welcome to register.

Learn more about the Critical Conversations speaker series, sponsored in part by The Winsor School.