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Learning & The Brain: Interview with Robert Sylwester

Robert SylwesterDr. Robert Sylwester is an educator of educators, having received multiple awards during his long career as a master communicator of the implications of brain science research for education and learning. He is the author of several books and many journal articles, and member of our Scientific Advisory Board. His most recent book is The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (Corwin Press, 2007). He is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon.

I am honored to interview him today.

Alvaro Fernandez: Let’s start with that eternal source of debate. What do we know about the respective roles of genes and our environment in brain development?

Robert Sylwester: Genetic and environmental factors both contribute to brain maturation. Genetics probably play a stronger role in the early years, and the environment plays a stronger role in later years. Still the mother’s (environmental) use of drugs during the pregnancy could affect the genetics of fetal brain development, and some adult illnesses, such as Huntington’s Disease, are genetically triggered.

Nature and nurture both require the significant contributions of the other in most developmental and maintenance functions. We typically think of environmental factors as things that happen to us, over which we have little control.

Can’t our own decisions have an effect in our own brain development? For example, what if I choose a career in investment banking, vs. one in journalism or teaching?

We make our own career decisions in life, and most of us make a combination of good and bad decisions, which influence our brain’s maturation.

My father was very unusual in his career trajectory in that he worked at one place throughout his entire adult life, and died three months after he retired at 91. I’ve always thought that it’s a good idea to make a change every ten years or so and do something different either within the same organization or to move to another one.

It’s just as good for organizations to have some staff turnover as it is for staff to move to new challenges. The time to leave one position for another is while you and your employer are still happy with what you’re doing. You’ll take what you learned in your prior job to your new job, and you’ll add competencies from your new job that you otherwise wouldn’t have developed.

I find that, in an emerging field like cognitive science, we need to start by clarifying the language we use. Can you define some words such as Learning, Education, Brain Development and Cognition.


LEARNING: Most organisms begin life with most or all of the processing systems and information that they need to survive. Humans are a notable exception in that an adult-size brain is significantly larger than a mother’s birth canal, so we’re born with an immature one pound brain that develops additional mass and capabilities during its 20 year post-birth developmental trajectory. Parenting, mentoring, teaching, and mass media are examples of the cultural systems that humans have developed to help young people master the knowledge and skills they need to survive and thrive in complex environments. Learning is one the main activities we do, even if we often are not aware of it.

EDUCATION: Education, like the culture it subsumes, is a conservative phenomenon. Science and technology move rapidly, but education doesn’t. So if schools often resemble the schools of 50 years ago, that should not be surprising. Parents remember their school experiences, and since they survived them, they are typically leery about educators experimenting with their children. This explains in part why schools have not incorporated many of the recent developments in neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

BRAIN DEVELOPMENT: Childhood brain development is focused on systems that allow children to recognize and remember the dynamics of environmental challenges challenges that protective adults will solve for them. Adolescent brain development is more focused on frontal lobe development, the systems that allow us to respond appropriately and autonomously to the challenges we confront.

COGNITION: Every experience will alter our brain’s organization at some level, so our brain’s processing networks continually change throughout our life. This process is called brain plasticity. For example, since my brain has adapted to my switch from a typewriter to a computer, it would now be difficult (but not impossible) for me to write again on a typewriter. Now, cognition is linked to other concepts: emotion is the processing system that tells us how important something is; attention focuses us on the important and away from the unimportant things; problem-solving determines how to respond, partly on the basis of our memory of prior related experiences; and behavior carries out the decision. The general term cognition encompasses these various processes.

You recently published a book titled The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007. Corwin Press). What advice would you give to parents and educators of adolescents?

Biological phenomena always operate within ranges. For example, leaves fall from trees in the autumn, but typically not all at once. Developmental changes similarly do not occur at the same time and at the same rate in all child and adolescent brains. And just as it’s possible for wind or temperature to alter the time when a leaf might fall, unexpected events can alter the time when an adolescent has to confront and respond to given environmental challenges.

The important thing for adults to do is to carefully observe an adolescent’s interests and abilities, and insert challenges that move maturation forward at a reasonable level. If you push too fast, you end up with a stressed out adolescent. If you do not challenge sufficiently, you end up with a bored adolescent. No magic formula exists for getting this just right. This means, for example, that we celebrate the skills of artists and athletes who function beyond typical human capacity, and we create judicial sanctions for those whose behavior does not reach culturally acceptable levels. Most human behavior is personally chosen and executed within wide ranges. We can easily observe this wide range in such phenomena as political discourse and religious belief or practice. Adolescents strive towards autonomous adulthood as they gradually discover their interests and capabilities, and what is biologically possible and culturally appropriate. They adapt their life to wherever they’re most comfortable within the marvelous sets of possible and appropriate ranges that exist.

Adolescents take risks, no doubt about that. If you want to eventually function within any range, you have to locate its outer positive and negative limits. Speed limits and other regulations provide direction, but adolescents (and adults) still tend to move towards the limits – and maybe just a smidgen beyond. Bad things can then occur. Part of learning, that each person needs to learn to self-regulate.

In short, parents and educators need to pay attention to observe where adolescent’s interests and abilities lie, and engage them with experiences that will enable them to move forward. Theorists, such as Howard Gardner, Robert Sternberg, and David Perkins have proposed that intelligence involves multiple components, and can’t be reduced to a single point on a numerical scale, as I.Q. attempts to do.

Education is still a field with many competing, fragmented, approaches. A typical tension is between movements that advocate focusing on intellectual strengths, vs. those that advocate training and shoring up weaknesses, or bottlenecks. What is your take?

The answer is probably both– but do let me know when you’ve figured out the correct balance in that issue, and I’ll contact the folks in Stockholm who give out the Nobel Prizes.

I take good note of that offer…what are the most exciting areas of brain research, and what are some resources for educators to learn about brain and refine teaching? Websites, books?

The cognitive neurosciences are currently so dynamic. It seems that an exciting new development occurs every day, and many of these new developments are reported in the mass media.

I write a monthly non-technical column on educationally significant developments in the cognitive neurosciences for the Internet journal Brain Connection. All 90 of my earlier columns are archived within the following link, so many questions of readers have probably been explored in previous columns: here. is another great resource. Both websites will link folks to other useful websites.

In terms of books, I always think an author’s most recent book is the best one to read, since it incorporates new developments that have occurred since earlier books were published. For example, I’m now reading Steven Pinker’s intriguing new book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (2007, Viking). It’s the fifth in 14 years in his series of books for general readers, and I’ve benefitted from each, and from their cumulative effect. As indicated above, my most recent book is The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy. I’m currently working on a companion book, A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture, which Corwin Press will publish in 2009.

One nice thing about committing to write a book is that I now have to stay alive or at least lucid for another year or so.

And you will be both. Robert, many thanks for your time, and see you in San Francisco next month.

Same. Always a pleasure to talk.


You may enjoy some of our previous interviews:

James Zull on the Art of Changing The Brain.

Yaakov Stern on Lifelong Learning and building a Cognitive Reserve.

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12 Responses

  1. Michelle B says:

    Very interesting and enjoyable interview!

  2. Alvaro says:

    Glad you liked it, Michelle!

  3. Laura says:

    wow, very useful…thanks!

  4. Renata says:

    Great news! you article was accepted for our Natural Science Carnival! Visit the Carnival here and don’t forget to comment, link back, spread the word!

  5. JHS says:

    THANKS for participating in this week’s Carnival of Family Life hosted by Karen at Write from Karen. The Carnival will go live on Monday, January 14, 2008, and I invite you and all of your readers to peruse all of the excellent submissions this week!

  6. Kim says:

    As a teacher I’d like to have access to professional development opportunities to learn about the adolescent brain. Suggestions?

  7. Alvaro says:

    Hello Kim, I recommend you attend the Learning & the Brain conference mentioned at the end of the interview. Another good resource is Eric Jensen’s Brain Expo.

  8. Interesting read! I was just contemplating the teen brain the other day after reading an article in a magazine. The article mentioned a study that stated that a majority of pre-industrial cultures don’t even have a word for adolesence! Could it be that this teen brain thing is a product of our culture?

  9. Alvaro says:

    Good point,…but the “adolescent” brain discussed above is not less real because of that. Our culture shapes our environment and our experiences which shape our brains, which is part of what Robert refers to at the beginning of the interview. Both nature and nature.

    It is also true that today we live around 80 years on average in developed countries, while life expectancy was around 30-40 years in pre-industrial societies…so there is room for more life stages.

  10. Sherin says:

    WOW … LOVED the article … but too professional. How about something my students could understand? hmm? Well keep up the good work … I LOVE YOUR NAME!

  11. Karmen Durán says:

    Very interesting. Enough that I get to ask you what is the career name that would study something like this. I am a teacher and love my job, but I see me going further to a masters degree to teach teachers about the learning brain development, basically the answers to why the child does this or that, or why doesn’t he do it!
    What career am I pursuing?
    I have a bachelors in ESE/VE with an endorcement in reading. Please reply, I am ready to go back to college.

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