The School of the Future: Dr. Pamela Cantor on Trauma, the Brain and Education

Dr. Pamela Cantor outlines the School of the Future
Dr. Pamela Cantor, Founder and Senior Science Advisor of Turnaround for Children, on the School of the Future

Pamela Cantor, M.D. is Founder and Senior Science Advisor of Turnaround for Children, a science-based leading education non-profit that develops “tools and services to accelerate healthy student development and academic achievement in schools serving high concentrations of children impacted by adversity.”

Dr. Cantor recently presented her vision of the School of the Future, answering the question: How can the science of learning help us rethink the future of education?

This question is central to our society today and our future workforce tomorrow. Below is a transcript of her presentation held in New York.

Following Dr. Cantor’s presentation, CD&R Partner David Wasserman led a roundtable discussion with Dr. Cantor and Turnaround CEO Brigid Ahern.

For more with Dr. Cantor, she was a guest on our podcast, Working Capital Conversations.


Dr. Pamela Cantor: The School of the Future

Thank you all for coming tonight. I’m really looking forward to getting to know you better after the talk.

There are a lot of reasons why a person goes to medical school and becomes a doctor, but mine were really clear. I went to medical school to study trauma, how it affects the body and the mind, because I wanted to work with children who had experienced trauma and help them heal.

The reason was that I had known trauma as a child. I grew up in a neighborhood where many, many cousins lived nearby, so there were a lot of sleep overs. When I was six years old, I was sleeping at a cousin’s house and my uncle came into the bedroom where I was sleeping and sexually abused me.

Dr. Pamela Cantor on the School of the Future
Dr. Pamela Cantor, Founder and Senior Science Advisor of Turnaround for Children

I was terrified to tell my parents. He had told me that this was our special secret. But, one night I had this dream in which I saw myself dying. And, I became so frightened, and I knew I had to tell them.

When I did, they told me that I could never breathe a word of this to anybody. That our family was going to be hurt by this. They seemed incredibly mad at me. And, I thought to myself, ‘How could they be mad at me? Why aren’t they mad at him?’.

My mother was so ashamed of this that she really couldn’t care for me. And, my father seemed angry all the time. This shameful secret burrowed it’s way into every single aspect of our lives until the day they died. Literally, the day they died.

Their deaths were separated by a decade, and their last words to me were the same, “I’m sorry”.

But, I did get help from this absolutely amazing psychiatrist when I was 15 years old. He was this big man with a booming voice and a big story teller. He told me I was a pearl in an oyster, not this ugly, dirty thing that I thought I was. And, he could make me believe anything. But, it really all boiled down to one thing. I was good; when I had lived most of my life thinking that I was bad.

We know that zero to five is this very special time of a great deal of plasticity in the brain. In fact, when I was in Medical school, they said that we were done by age five. Thank God that is not true.

So, you can imagine, one day I marched into his office and I said to him, “I’m going to be a doctor”. And, he smiled at me and he said, “Of course, you are”. I thought, did he not know that I had never taken a Math or Science course? That I was an Art major? But, he had these magical powers and I was absolutely convinced that he had gotten them in Med school, so I was going to go to Med school and I was going to get them, too. Like everything else, he was the reason I wanted to go and he was the person who made me believe that I could do it.

So, Med school turns out to be this amazing Universe where mysteries are explained every single day. And, we learn that everything we are able to do is based on a set of complex mechanisms that we all have. But not just how our hearts and lungs work, how we love, how we attach, and most importantly how we feel, where things go wrong.

I expected in the first year that I was going to go there and I was going to have to learn a ton of facts about anatomy, biology, biochemistry; and I did. But, it was all about what the body does when it’s healthy.

It’s the second year of Med school that was really where the mysteries were unpacked, because this year is called ‘Pathology and Disease’, if you can imagine that. But, the amazing thing about this year, is that this is where you learn what happens when things go awry and why.

So, there were two big things that were just awesome in [medical school]. One is that doctors don’t study illness to learn about illness. They study illness to learn about health. They want to study the patterns and the variations that they see, because the next time they see that pattern, they’re going to know what to do to get somebody healthy.

I thought to myself, you mean context drives our biology and our genetics? This was completely different than what I thought.

But, this was a completely different way of looking at things, but it reminded me of the way my doctor looked at me. Not as this still broken thing. He wanted to figure out what had gone awry in my life and why, so that he could get me healthy again.

The second big thing was really completely different than I expected, because the force that causes most complex mechanisms to go awry is context. The environment, experiences and relationships of our lives.

So, I thought to myself, you mean context drives our biology and our genetics? This was completely different than what I thought. I though genes were the drivers. But, genes are chemical followers. They’re little packages of protein covered with receptors that get triggered by experience. Genes are chemical followers. It’s context that drives the expression of our genes. And, by context, I mean health, nutrition, families, schools, teachers.

Dr. Pamela Cantor outlines the School of the Future
Dr. Pamela Cantor, Founder and Senior Science Advisor of Turnaround for Children

So, right at the beginning there were these two huge things that I never expected. And, it makes more sense that, if I tell you that we all have about 25,000 genes in our genome, and in our lifetime fewer than 10 percent of those will get expressed. What determines what’s in that 10 percent? It’s context. In a nutshell, this is what defines Human life. It’s an incredible thing to think about life that way.

So, context is this all important thing, but to understand what it means, I have to talk to you about how it gets inside the body.

So, the brain is encased up here in our skulls separated from the body by the blood/brain barrier. In order to be able to understand how context gets inside, you need to understand that as mammals our brains develop after we’re born. Now, this a crucial thing to understand, that most of the development of the brain happens after birth.

If you think about babies when they’re born, they’re helpless. But then, imagine, if you were a horse and you were born, you would be walking and running on day one. But, not Human babies. The growth of Human babies is experience dependent. Their brains are astonishingly malleable, and they respond and grow in response to environment experiences and relationships.

The other things we know is that Human brains take a long time to grow. It takes longer to grow a Human brain to self-sufficiency than any other mammal in the World.

We know that zero to five is this very special time of a great deal of plasticity in the brain. In fact, when I was in Medical school, they said that we were done by age five. Thank God that is not true.

But, now we know that there are many, many other critical periods, and one of the most important critical periods for people who care about education is adolescents. It’s another critical period of great brain plasticity.

When you tie all of this together, what I’m saying, is that the brain is a dynamic living structure made up of tissue that is the most susceptible to change from experience of any tissue in the human body.

So, to understand brain development you just have to understand three things; experience dependent growth, astonishing malleability, and context.

What this means is that there is no such thing as a child developing independent of context. But, to understand how context gets inside and into the brain, I have to tell you about the limbic system.

The limbic system is the system in the brain that controls all the things that we care about. Emotion, cognition and learning. It consists of three structures. The pre-frontal cortex, which governs attention and concentration. The hippocampus, which governs memory, and the amygdala, which houses the emotional memories of our lives.

Children who have high levels of stress that is not buffered by an adult, those children can be easily triggered and they really, really struggle to focus.

These three structures are intimately cross-wired, inter-connected, and they develop together. But, the limbic system is loaded with receptors for two hormonal systems. One is our stress response system and the other is our trust/love system.

Cortisol is our stress hormone and oxytocin is our trust/love hormone. Both of these are chemical messengers that are triggered by experience. So, when you think about stress, when you think about trust/love, and you think about these hormones, that’s how context gets inside and gets into the brain.

Cortisol and the stress response is the most common naturally occurring example of negative context. When we have stress Cortisol gets released through our body and our brain, and we get that flight, fight, or freeze feeling of clammy palms, pumping chest. How many of you have ever had that feeling?

OK, that is because it’s the normal stress response. I’m sort of feeling a little bit right now. It’s intense when it happens, but it’s adaptive, because it makes you sharp and alert. It makes you focus, and it does good things for your memory.

But, children who have high levels of stress that is not buffered by an adult, those children can be easily triggered and they really, really struggle to focus.

So, Cortisol can do damage to the limbic structures, because adversity doesn’t just happen to children, it happens inside their brains and bodies through the [biological impact] of stress.

Fortunately, that’s not the whole story. There is a big upside when we talk about oxytocin. Oxytocin produces feelings of love, trust and safety. But, that’s not all. It hits the very same structures in the brain as Cortisol, but in fact it is the more powerful hormone. It can actually protect children at the level of the cell, from the effects of Cortisol.

Relationships that are consistent and positive and powerful can trigger this system, and when it does, it protects children from the damaging effects of stress, and it actually helps them become resilient to future stress. The Human relationship is the most powerful example we have of positive context.

How many of you have ever heard of the Marshmallow test? Yeah? Oh, we have a lot of people. So, the Marshmallow test took place in Stanford in the 60’s, where children in nursery school were put into a room with a Marshmallow. They were told that if you can delay eating this Marshmallow, you’re going to get a second Marshmallow. The kids that could delay greater than 20 minutes, when that day was analyzed, it was correlated with everything from high SAT scores, college acceptance, later success in work.

So, lets take a look at this video.

Yes, that child will be successful. So, let’s fast-forward to 2012. Another researcher at the University of Rochester, who had worked in a homeless shelter asked herself, ‘Would my kids, from the homeless shelter, have ever waited to eat the Marshmallow?’. She didn’t think so. So, she decided she was going to repeat the Marshmallow test, but under a different set of conditions.

She brings children into a room with a Marshmallow, but also a whole bunch of broken crayons on a desk. She says to them, ‘I’m going to come back with brand new crayons’. With half of the kids, she came back with brand new crayons. With the other half, she said, ‘Sorry, I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it’.

Then she repeated the test. So, what do you think happened? The kids where the promise is kept; not a problem. Waited, waited, waited, and they got the two Marshmallows. But, where the promise was not kept, the kids gobbled up that Marshmallow right away.

So, the message in this story is that context matters. Trust matters. This is why the effects of trauma are rarely about the nature of the event. They’re about the presence or absence of a protective buffer.

When I practiced, I had children that I worked with that I totally believed in, but I never changed what happened to them. My doctor never changed what happened to me. But, I knew that he believed in me. He helped me change the way I felt, how I surmounted [challenges], and absolutely positioned me to be successful.

So, when you think about 2001, a year in which I was practicing as a child psychiatrist, if you’d asked me back then, did I understand context? I thought I certainly did. But, it was the year of the World Trade Center attacks. And, every parent, teacher, therapist in New York was asking the same question; what was the effect of context at this scale going to be on New York City’s public school kids?

Of course, what we assumed was that the kids that would have the greatest effects would be in the schools around ground zero. But, that’s not what the data said. The data told a completely different story. The greatest effects, the greatest symptoms, were in the kids in the schools and the communities of deepest poverty.

Dr. Pamela Cantor
Dr. Pamela Cantor in New York

So, I began to visit those schools and it didn’t take long to understand what was going on. I remember walking into an Elementary school in the South Bronx, into a first grade classroom, and a teacher asked the kids to draw a drawing of what 9/11 meant to them.

This little boy, Thomas, came up to me and showed me his drawing, and it had these two little boxes in the background with smoke coming out; very small. In the foreground were two stick figure boys pointing guns at each other. He said, “I’m scared to come to school every day.” And 9-11 is very far away.

Contents for Kids is a medium. It’s local. I think that’s what sets off the fear, the stress. Captivating the systems that I’ve been talking to you about, and not surprisingly it’s most intense if kids have experienced trauma before. So, this was a personal turning point for me. I saw lots, and lots of kids who’s learning was being interfered with by the effects of stress on the learning systems of the brain.

I saw schools that were trying to do everything to increase academic performance not seeming to understand the role of stress on exactly those structures that are essential for learning, and I realized then that if we narrowly target academics, and not how children become learners in the first place. Understanding the forces that are barriers or accelerant to that process, our children aren’t going to do what we’re asking them to do.

And then if we up the academic pressure, what will happen? They’ll just fall farther and farther behind. This is one of the most misunderstood, under recognized reasons for the persistence of the achievement of that. For the things we have not yet been able to change, so this is what caused me to leave my practice and found Turn Around for Children.

And our idea was to design tools and practices, and services, that could turn any school into a positive developmental force in children lives. And to this day this is Turnaround’s notion. We have our foot in two worlds. One is in learning science, and the other is the application of that science in practice.

So, what is the science of learning and development? And how should it applied to the school of the future? To answer that question we became one of the leaders of something called The Science of Learning Development Initiative. There were six partners, it was 2016, and we had really important lead funding from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative.

Today this is an expanding coalition of hundreds of organizations that are seeking a system transformation grounded in the science of learning. So, we asked the question is there a converging science? That actually should be a foundation for a design of the school of the future for new practices. The good news is there is, and we produced a two part synthesis of that science that was published just this past year in the journal of applied developmental science, and you can download these papers.

It would be a long Saturday afternoon but, I hope you’ll take a look at them. But the papers are super clear. They call for a new design, and new practices. That are based on how learning actually happens, and how children become learners. And this new design is mapped to the way the brain develops.

It’s called whole child personalization of learning. When we speak about whole child personalization of learning what we’re talking about are all of the practices that let us know children as individuals, let them know us, and enable them to develop the skills, mindsets, and competencies that they’ll need to be successful in order to work in life.

But, this is an integrated approach. It combines deep relationships. A culture of belonging and safety. Rich instructional experiences, and the intentional development of skills, mindsets, and habits that prepare children for success. If we applied just this knowledge from the science, what would we put at the center of learning?

It would be relationships, and intentional skill development, and you could say why these two? When you think about how learning happens, think about those limited structures. Think about the skills that are vulnerable that don’t necessarily develop evenly for all kids. A focus on relationships and intentional skill development are the non negotiables. If we want to unleash the potential in all children and the acceleration of learning.

But these two things are the non negotiables that the development of any child. It’s just not the way our system was designed. And remember what we said about the human relationship. The human relationship is the engine for belief, for courage, for children identity. But it also the energy source for the brain.

We all have to know that the brain is actually one big electrical circuit. What gives it the energy that it needs to drive and grow? The energy source for the brain is the relational and emotional connections of our lives. They actually cause electrons to move. They inoculate the brain against stress, and they cause the interconnection between brain structures that enable us to do complex things like read, do a math problem, or develop skills like perseverance and resilience.

So, how many of you have seen this framework? I suspect only the hands of turnaround, but, okay. But this is called the building blocks for learning. It was the result of a piece of work done by Brooke Stafford-Brizard, who now is the head of education for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

But she was a turnaround in 2016, and we worked on looking at the literature, asking the question, how does any child develop into a learner? Because if there was a pathway like we have for reading, and we have for math, then maybe we can design schools and classrooms to intentionally develop learners.

It is organized as a developmental progression, but every single skill on this framework is malleable. It can be built, and each one of them is highly correlated with achievement. So the big aha for us in developing this framework and writing this paper is recognizing that our 20th century system was never designed to develop these skills.

It was never designed to develop the learner. It was actually designed to sort children into who got to go to college and post secondary, and good jobs, and who didn’t. And that is exactly what it does today. So think about this idea that our education system was never designed to develop learners, and today we know that if we don’t intentionally develop these skills, we will not unleash the potential in our children.

We will not have children that are ready, and prepared for the jobs of the 21st century. So let’s get practical for a moment. We’ve talked a lot about science, and usually at this point in any talk that somebody is speaking, how do you actually do this? And so I wanted to ask you a question, and then I just wanted to show you a short video clip.

How many of you have ever procrastinated? A robust sample, okay, excellent. Okay, well this video clip is part of a series that turnaround has done with George Lucas’s group Edutopia, and the series of videos have been re-released on January 15th. And in it you’re going to see a teacher who partnered with one of her students to figure out how to teach an entire class how to prevent procrastination by learning executive function skills. Let’s take a look.

[Video played]

When you think about executive functions, and we think about goals like avoiding distraction, staying on task, this is an illustration so simple of kids learning that by doing what’s hard first it actually builds energy, confidence, motivation, and the brain space to do more.

This kind of integrated practice is possible; we just never designed for it. So, the good news is that it is possible today to design the school of the future. The reasons are first we know the science. We have this mind blowing insight that context grows the brain. Triggers the expression of our genes. Harnesses the malleability of the brain, and unleashes the potential in all children.

We can use this science to disrupt the assumptions that we have about what some children are capable of. We can use this new science to design practices, and classrooms, and new whole child measurement tools. And we can use the technologies that we have today that are ubiquitous and flexible, and easy to actually free teacher time to have these kinds of experiences with their students.

And we can use this new science to scale this design for all kids. The message of the science is optimistic. Remember what we said, genes are chemical followers. This is the biological truth that content shapes the development of the brain, and the expression of our genes. Positive context overrides the negative at the level of this.

Schools and classrooms designed for positive context in the form of deep relationships, rich learning experiences, and the intentional development of skills and mindsets will drive the development of the brain, the expression of our genetic potential, and it will accelerate learning.

If we actually did this, this would become the experiential truth; that thriving is actually possible for each and every child. Thank you all so much for giving me the chance to talk to everybody.

Dr. Pamela Cantor practiced child psychiatry for nearly two decades, specializing in trauma. She founded Turnaround for Children after co-authoring a study on the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City schoolchildren. Dr. Cantor started Turnaround to help schools understand the impact of adversity on learning and to put children on a healthier developmental trajectory, so they can live the lives they choose. Today, Turnaround translates scientific research about how children develop and learn into tools and services for educators to help all students thrive — impacting more than 50,000 students during this school year.

After leading Turnaround for sixteen years as President and CEO, in 2018, Dr. Cantor transitioned to a new role as Founder and Senior Science Advisor.

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