When Judy Willis left the practice of neurology to teach elementary school students she had a mission. She knew about a part of the brain most of us have never heard of, how it affects learning, and determines whether kids act out or zone out in class. She would apply that knowledge.
In fact, if we know about this brain switching station, we can change our lives. It is a big promise, but Willis works to spread the word, as an international speaker and writer of books on learning and the brain.
Judy Willis, then Allerhand, was among the first women to graduate from Williams College, in 1971. But we start her story earlier.
One day, while in the second grade, she announced to her mother that she wanted to be a teacher. “Teachers are amazing,” her mother responded, “but did you know you could also be a doctor?” No, she replied. “Boys are doctors; girls are nurses.” Her mother corrected her, and at that moment, she decided to be a doctor.
Willis attributes her confidence and strong will to her parents' care. “Even though they had not gone to college themselves, they showed confidence in me, directly and indirectly.”
In high school, she had high test scores, but a guidance counselor suggested only two nearby colleges, she lived in Oceanside, Long Island. A fellow student suggested they go to visit a private counselor.
“I told him I had heard of a place called the University of Michigan.” He recommended the Seven Sisters, a term she had not heard of, but learned they were a group of liberal arts colleges founded to give women comparable educations to that of prestigious schools not admitting women. She went to one of the seven, Vassar.
During her sophomore year, she heard about an experiment, an exchange program that included Vassar and Williams. She signed up to go to Williams in September, 1969.
Williams trustees had recently voted to admit women, beginning in 1971. But the benefit of this earlier experiment was that these women already knew how college worked, said Lisa Conathan, head of the Special Collections at Williams Libraries.
Willis majored in biology. “My first love at Williams was, indeed, the electron microscope,” she said. She was thrilled at the chance to see parts of the brain in such detail.
When it was time to go back to Vassar, she protested, along with a group of other women in the exchange group. Willis was allowed to stay.
She also met her second love at Williams, one of her squash partners. He proposed to her: If he got into the same medical school as she, would she marry him? They chose UCLA.
After their neurology residencies, they started a private practice together in Santa Barbara.
In her practice, she began to see a dramatic increase in certain patients, children referred by teachers who thought they might have Tourette’s Syndrome, petit mal seizures or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They were acting out or zoning out in school.
Willis would evaluate them and determine that their problems were often not neurological. But she was puzzled.
“My kids had gone to the public schools,” she said. She asked a few teachers she knew; they invited her to come and observe.
“Classroom after classroom, I remembered from my kids; being in them was so different. There were kids that looked really zoned out, kids running around, fidgety, and kids who seemed to be having outbursts.”
Teachers said new curriculum standards had put them under pressure to get through required information.
“The result was much more drill and kill, lecturing, drill sheets, homework," Willis said. "They weren’t even sitting in the little table groups in first grade. They weren’t doing collaborative things; they weren’t hatching chicks. Their curiosity could not be fulfilled.”
But what could she do? “It’s not going to help anybody for me to sit on my neurologist perch and say, 'No, it’s not neurology.'”
“Maybe if I could help them [students] learn what they need to learn in a shorter period of time, they could bring back the things that made school so great for me, for teachers. Shorten the time it takes to do this memorizing and bring back the cool stuff.”
So, she went back to school, got a master’s in education, and became a teacher of second and then fifth grade, and finally, middle school math.
A neurologist teacher
This is where we come to that switching station, the amygdala. She explained: “I understood that for mammals in the wild — and humans — when the stress level gets high enough, the amygdala, this switching station, blocks input from getting to the prefrontal cortex, which is where long-term memory needs to go to be constructed.”
In fact, when a person is under stress, the switching station closes the gate in both directions. If stressed or bored, the student cannot learn, and neither can he or she communicate what they already know.
“It wasn’t hard to find out what the big stressors were for the most affected kids, and I started personalizing, talking to them. What were their interests. Getting them engaged through their strengths and doing a lot of group work where they could be the expert. My classroom was a place where they were safe.”
“If they came in stressed, I wouldn’t accelerate it. I wouldn’t call on them randomly. There would be no need for the brain’s programmed response -- fight, freeze, flight, act-out, zone-out.”
She taught children about their own brains, and she helped them tune into their emotional states. She pointed out what happens inside the brain during learning. “I would show them scans and they’d start asking questions.”
The brain can always learn. “They first have to know that their brain has limitless potential, with neuroplasticity, and that their zoning out or getting frustrated, that is the brain protecting them when it is in a state of stress. We talk about ways they can decrease stress in the amygdala, through mindfulness, visualization. They know they can build the brain networks they want.”
She talks about a video game model. “Why are video gamers so avidly playing, so they miss meals and skip homework and sleep? Well, it’s the dopamine reward system. In a video game, you start at level one. If you don’t know the stuff, you take as long as you want mastering level one. The player recognizes it as a challenge, but it’s achievable, with practice.”
In this model, instead of getting frustrated, they learn from feedback, because “the dopamine system gives bursts of dopamine, which causes pleasure, motivation, attention, memory, and intrinsic satisfaction.”
Berkshire Community College math professor Annette Guertin wanted her students to hear what Judy Willis was saying. She started the BCC Math Oral History project to introduce students to such experts as Willis, who was the first interviewee, to meet “math people” not typically thought of as math people — artists, athletes — and to see math anxiety as something that could be dealt with.
Guertin says there is an added piece to the story with math. A person may have had a bad experience in a math class and avoid math altogether. That avoidance limits their educational and career options.
“Everyone can learn; everyone can do math,” Guertin said.
Recently, at Williams College, Conathan and her colleagues developed focused sub projects for their oral history collection, including the first women graduates. And so, Willis' interviews will be included in two local collections. Meanwhile, recordings of her talks and books are everywhere. One of them, "Research Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning," is cowritten with her daughter, Malana Willis, who graduated from Williams in 2000. Maybe, someday, there will be an oral history project on second-generation Williams women.