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When Experts Attack!

Culture shapes how our brains learn (transcript)

Jan 22, 2024

BRENDAN LYNCH, HOST:  We live in a time where nothing is true. An era where reality and hoax look the same on the internet. Whoa, wait a second. There are people who actually know what they're talking about — dangerous people. We call them experts. We're giving these experts a megaphone to drop some truth bombs. If you can handle the truth. I'm Brendan Lynch, and I'm the host of “When Experts Attack!.” We used to think you could teach math to a student in the American Midwest just the same as you'd instruct a student on the other side of the world. But Michael Orosco, professor of educational psychology at the University of Kansas, says culture shapes how our brains learn. New culturally responsive studies in neuroscience show working memory, executive function and other cognitive functions all are influenced by how we grew up, where we were raised and the language we speak. Along the way, Orosco tells “When Experts Attack!” correspondent Mike Krings about teaching math to English learners, why U.S. schools and teachers are ill-equipped to reach diverse learners and ways he and his colleagues are working to better understand how culture and the brain work together.




MIKE KRINGS, CORRESPONDENT: Michael Orosco, welcome to the “When Experts Attack!” podcast. Thanks for joining us.


MICHAEL OROSCO: Nice meeting you, Mike. Good to be here.


MIKE KRINGS: You do a lot of research into educational neuroscience, how the brain learns, how English learners learn, specifically, especially in topics like reading and math. So we're going to talk about a lot of those sorts of things today. But I want to ask you, start off with English learners. What sort of challenges do those these students have that we might not think about?


MICHAEL OROSCO: Something to think about might be just the fact that I work with the federal definition of English learners and that bilingual or dual language learners were actually taken out of one of the most important aspects to cognitive development — their native language. But because of the school districts that I work in, we work with the term “English learner.” And so really, the challenge is, is that these children come to school prepared to learn, but our school system isn't equipped to do deal with their type of learning needs, the teaching needs, they need to be receiving.


MIKE KRINGS: As I mentioned, you look a lot at math, reading and writing. But we don't often think of math and reading as linked. Why it is important to understand the link for English learners?


MICHAEL OROSCO: If you go back to what I was just talking about — that when we look at English learners in the schools — I would have to say that the majority, let's say more than 90% of the kids in here in the United States who are English learners, receive some type of English-only instruction. Well, when you connect math and reading, math and reading is very language-heavy. Imagine you and I are trying to learn math in Russian. Could you imagine trying to learn in the language that you're not quite familiar with, and then trying to learn it with an academic setting? This is why you have to combine both, integrate both the reading, the language and the math. Then I look at problem-solving within these kids, which is a more abstract form of thinking. So math is very-language heavy. We used to think that math was universal. That was a common stereotype. But now the research has shown that math is very specific to your culture, to your native language. And if we're taking away the native language, it becomes more challenging learning in the second language without the first language.


MIKE KRINGS: That's not just for word problems or anything, because that's for math general. So it's not like saying, “ Johnny has three of something and you take away two…”


MICHAEL OROSCO: Think about what you just said: “Johnny had something in you take away three.” That's very phonemic. But it's phonemic relevant to the language you're speaking, which is English. That's that phonological loop we look at and working memory. These kids having to learn the phonological loop. Their brains are having to process this in a second language, but without being able to borrow or use the first language.


MIKE KRINGS: I'm glad you mentioned working memory, because that's something I wanted to ask you about. That's one of the cognitive functions that you study. What is the role that plays in learning to read and write? And how does it affect that specific type of learning?


MICHAEL: I'm going to give you an example. First, contextualized with you, you have a high working memory efficiency, and I'll tell you why. Every time I publish an article or I send you an article to process, we do an interview. Well, this is something new to you. For example, a month ago there was something come out on bilingual cognitive writing that we published in a really good journal paper. I did an experiment. So you and I were doing the interview, you're asking me questions, I have to give you this information, you have to hold this information — which is abstract — and then you have to think about it after we get done with the interview and then put it on paper and pencil. That's your working memory. Working memory is your mental workspace. With children, working memory becomes vital because we use working memory to learn. It gives us the ability to comprehend. It's your mental workspace that allows you to hold information, then begin the process and manipulate that information so you can begin to transfer it into long-term memory, which essentially becomes comprehension.


MIKE KRINGS: Many people, myself included, are what you could call math-averse. You know, we’re not crazy about doing math and get a little uncomfortable or anxious when it comes to that. When we're talking about English learners, or some of this population of students that you work with a lot, what kind of additional stresses and challenges are there for the students, when they or the teachers struggle with math.


MICHAEL OROSCO: I'll give you an example. I do a lot of classroom observations. On any given day, let's say the elementary school classroom does 50 minutes of math. We might do with these kids maybe 12 to 15 minutes of problem-solving because the problem-solving takes a lot more teaching and it's a heavier cognitive load on the brain. If you have teachers who have a math phobia — we find that a lot of our teachers grew up with that math phobia, math anxiety — and then they go on to be teachers. Can you imagine what happens in the classroom? That's really the biggest challenges in classrooms: trying to equip our teachers to become better instructors of problem-solving, and math.


MIKE KRINGS: I imagine this happens a lot with elementary teachers who are teaching a wide variety (of subjects), not like a high school or college teacher who's honed in on it?.


MICHAEL OROSCO: Well, that's one of the challenges our elementary teachers have. I was an elementary school teacher, and on any given day, how many subjects do I have to touch on — four or five? Well, if you think about neuroplasticity and how we can get good at something by practice, if you don't give these teachers enough professional development and enough practice relevant to the math, and then they go out and try to perform it, you can see where the anxiety and motivation happens with all kids, especially English learners who are having to learn in a second language and not in their first one.


MIKE KRINGS: Speaking of your research, you're also the director and founder — is that Is that right? — of the Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Neuroscience? First of all, what is educational neuroscience? And then, why is that important for that concept to be culturally responsive?


MICHAEL OROSCO: One of the reason this has come about is that as I sat in classrooms — and I usually sit in the teachers lounges writing up my notes after observing teachers — and every now and then I would start to have conversations that we're having now, with teachers. This could be in any classroom, elementary classroom, they would talk about the study. “How's the study going?” And then I would get comments like, “Dr. Orosco, I don't understand this working memory. Why are you guys looking at working memory? What is executive functioning? What is controlled attention? Why do we need to be looking at this? Why didn't I get this type of training? And then now I'm working with second language learners, I don't understand this idea of why we need to be more culturally responsive.” I've had these conversations not only with teachers. The last conversation I had was with an assistant superintendent who had close to 500,000 kids in Southern California. She was assistant superintendent over instruction and learning, same idea. “Dr. Orosco, I don't get this. We're testing these kids. We're doing these evidence-based practices. We're doing response intervention, these multi-support systems. I realize it's brain-based, but I can’t make the connection.” So the idea with Culturally Responsive Educational Neuroscience is to begin to fuse what we're learning about the brain, what components are impacted by learning and then by the environment. You can't separate development and culture. Your culture, your development — you can't separate that. If you think about with a lot of our kids, especially our 5 million kids in the system that are English learners, we take a big aspect out of that is we take out their native language. Then as we continue to evolve with neuroscience until it begins to make it back into our field, I have a worry that we're just going to teach it from a monolithic English, white development perspective. We have to begin to paint a picture in our educators’ minds that as they go out, we're beginning to learn about neuroscience, about brain development. But then we also need to look at how our environment and how culture can impact this development.


MIKE KRINGS: You're starting to address this question I was going to ask now. You said before that there's a gap in many practitioners’ understanding of how the brain learns. Could you tell a little bit more about what that gap is? Is it just culture or is there a little bit more to it? And then, how can we address that?


MICHAEL OROSCO: It starts here in higher ed. Ninety percent of all social science research: What population is this done on?


MIKE KRINGS: Probably with college students.


MICHAEL OROSCO: And then what racial demographic?


MICHAEL KRINGS: Probably largely white students.


MICHAEL OROSCO: So that's the problem. As we develop evidence-based practices, the strategies we develop are on what population? Those white, predominately English-speaking. But when we do research on public schools, a lot of our interventions and strategies in the last 20 years have been developed on one population: Not English learners, but English dominant, white students. We make the assumption what is going to work for this population…. And that's where the challenge has been. Also, it's a higher ed thing that we have to begin to have this discussion we're having today. OK, we're going to use these practices in schools, but they may not necessarily work right now. Or we need to begin to differentiate these practices and see how they can work for this population in a second language apart from their native language. But then as I just told you, your culture is very important to development. While a big part of culture is its language. If you're taking away the native language from these children, what are we doing to their development or their cognition?


MIKE KRINGS: Oh, that's a good question.


MICHAEL OROSCO: I'm talking about seeing how this plays out in schools. It's been going on for decades, and this isn’t a silent minority. It's a big part of our school systems. You have about 5 million kids who are learning English as a second language.


MIKE KRINGS: That's across the country, right?


MICHAEL OROSCO: Yeah. Kansas is a prime example that has a growing ELL population. Historically, we see the southwest. I get calls from Tennessee. Texas has over 1 million English learners. So you see, this isn’t just isn't a demographic trend in one area. It's throughout the United States anymore.


MIKE KRINGS: So it seems like it's almost a certainty that every teacher who works in a school system, public or otherwise, is probably going to work with English language.


MICHAEL OROSCO: If you're a public school teacher. The demographics right now is 51% minority, 49%, white in public education. Anymore, some of these are larger urban areas that are predominantly English language learners with about 80% of the population being Hispanic. So it's the fastest growing demographic in public education.


MIKE KRINGS: At the center that we mentioned earlier, some of the students there can take what's called the “mind brain education certificate.” So what is it that they're learning in that certificate program? And then how can that extend to their teaching and beyond?


MICHAEL OROSCO: This actually turned out to be much bigger now. When I developed this certificate, one course was on human development and other courses on psychology, theories of psychology. The third course is on behavioral neuroscience. We're actually teaching the anatomy of the brain, but then we began to connect, contextualize it with environmental experiences to see how that part of the brain may be impacted. For example, an area that we're beginning to look at is the limbic system. The limbic system is emotional. It's our motivation. You have the newer theories being emerged, like Carol Dweck at Stanford. She has growth in mindset. So that's the Behavioral Neuroscience course. And then I added a neuroscience of motivation because we're learning that you have to have motivation in order to drive yourself and want to learn. And then the fifth course is the elective in the spring on executive functioning. We're using the term executive function heavily. However, the way I developed when I was thinking about this, I want it because we have to look at studies longitudinally. How is this impacting this child? In my case, I'm using the example you've seen my research on bilingual working memory. How has this been impacting these experiences these kids are having at the elementary, how that might that be impacting them over the lifespan. So the way I've developed this is how these courses develop over the lifespan. This certificate rolled out two years ago. I'm also beginning to pick up now students from other departments — speech and language, architecture, places like that, who are interested in this because it might help their field move forward. I'm also picking up KU employees. For example, I have one employee who lost her father to Alzheimer's who’s interested in brain development. The certificate that originally was tailored for educators, school psychologist, counseling psychologists — that area — is now is becoming much bigger.



MIKE KRINGS: What I was thinking when you were telling me earlier is that different cultures, there's obviously not a one-size-fits-all for education or just about anything. But it seems like this approach really could be applicable across many different areas.



MICHAEL OROSCO: Think about it this way: When I developed the cultural responsive teaching center, culture was a central development, but I also give examples outside of my experience. For example, once one student opened up to me  ­­— they were brought up in the Appalachians, very poor. They were white. He asked me, “Do I have a cultural, Dr. O?” I said, “Yeah, you do. You have to think about how your culture being brought up in poverty in the Appalachian Mountains, how that impacted your development.” You see what I'm showing you? How did that impact is he opened up. He talked about it in some papers, about just growing up poor, how that impacted his memory development and things like that. We all have a culture, and that culture is developmental. How does that culture and developmental environment impact our development?


MIKE KRINGS: I see. So it goes far beyond just learning a second language, too. This is just understanding differences from one human being to another.


MICHAEL OROSCO: Yeah, it's educational neuroscience. But this certificate — the way I wanted to develop — was to reach us over the lifespan and make us all realize that we have a culture even though in schools, what I see the predominantly of the research, the type of interventions and practices we use are coming from predominantly English, white dominant perspective. That impacts my field that I look at. But for these courses, I realized I wanted to have some type of collaboration and a larger group of students coming from different departments so we could have a better conversation. And so we do we get into these conversations about just how the environment can impact our neurological development. Thus, that’s why we're moving into this field — educational neuroscience or culturally responsive educational neuroscience.


MIKE KRINGS: That kind of addresses the question I want to ask next. is that just beyond language, you know, why is considering culture in education such a vital component?


MICHAEL OROSCO: Because your culture is your development, your home environment. How you're brought up. You know, if you look at the example of the poor Appalachian white (student), how would you be programmed to learn? What were the behaviors you experienced at home that may have not matched or meshed with what the school is wanting you to do? Culture is really the behaviors, and it's the script that's been given to you on how to live life. Well, if you grew up living life in your environment, or your behaviors, that is very impactful on how you're going to be able to learn in schools. If school instruction or practices don't necessarily align with what you're learning at home, you're going to have a misalignment.


MIKE KRINGS: One of the questions we often ask on our podcasts here is what we're getting wrong or what we don't understand about a certain topic. So I was just kind of curious: What do you most hope to understand or learn about how the brain learns in your work with educational neuroscience?


MICHAEL OROSCO: The biggest challenge right now, as we map out better technology to map out the brain — and we're learning so much within the last 10 years — is how the environment shapes that and then begin to train future teachers, future doctorates with that type of lens. So when they go out and do their research, they can begin to conceptualize brain development, but then look at how their environment is impacting brain development. One thing that I want to point out that this is just a new area in education. In a sense, education is a democracy. It's an experiment. We don't know how much this information can really help us, but this is the direction that some of us and other experts like myself believe that we need to be going. Like last month, you had Jamie Basham on, and Jamie was talking about artificial intelligence and about how AI is going to impact brain development. And then think about how AI is going to go into our classrooms. So how is that I am going to impact our teachers and our students? And what is that going to do to their brain development? That's why we need to bring this into our sphere. That’s really what I'm trying to do right now is help students, help people who take these courses, just to pick something up conceptually so when they go out and do their work, they can begin to apply it. All this started with just simple conversations like we're having now in the lounge. I began to realize I had teachers and special ed teachers, administrators begin to ask me, “Doctor, I don't know what working memory is. We test it, we assess it, but nobody's ever given me any code coursework on where's this in the brain. We're using executive functioning, what do we mean by executive functioning? I'll finish there, Mike.


MIKE KRINGS: So we all could stand to benefit from learning more about how our brain works.


MICHAEL OROSCO: Oh, yeah, if you'd like to talk about this all day, we can. We're learning so much. Really the one thing in the human development course as I teach it through the lifespan, we're learning how to take care of ourselves. One lady who took my course was in her 70s, and she was worried about getting dementia, Alzheimer's, because her husband had gotten it. I said, “Look, I'm not an expert in Alzheimer's, I'm not an M.D., but I know right now we can't cure it.” And she says, “Is there anything, any courses you'd offer that you could help me on this?” And I said, “I offer a human development course through the lifespan,” I said. I covered that specific topic as we got to the topic of aging. Also, I can give you examples how we do prevention. Really, a lot of the educational neuroscience research over the lifespan is beginning to look at prevention, how to improve our well-being, how to improve our mental capacity, how to offset this idea of dementia or Alzheimer's. And I joke with people. I use the term “sin,” Mike, and I'll finish up with this the term sin. I'm not talking about the Las Vegas-type of sin. S-I-N. t's the S-E-N. Sleep, exercise, nutrition. If you do that constantly over the lifespan, you're probably you might be one of those that hits the blue zone.


MIKE KRINGS: Alright, so in this case, it might workout in our favor. Thank you so much, Michael, Orosco. It’s a pleasure as always talking with you. Thanks for joining us.


MIKCHEL OROSCO: And likewise, Mike, thanks for all the great work you do press, the press and everything. It's my pleasure.


HOST: We've come to the end of this glorious episode of “When Experts Attack!.” If you like what you hear, subscribe to our humble podcast and tell a friend about us. We'd love to know what you think. So if you have questions, comments or ideas for future episodes, let us know about it. You can reach us just drop a line to We're a co-production of the University of Kansas News Service and Kansas Public Radio. Music was provided by Sack of Thunder. Until next time, this is Brendan Lynch, signing off.




Transcribed by and edited for clarity and accuracy.