Episode #128: Math With The Brain In Mind – An Interview with Liesl McConchie

May 10, 2021 | Podcast | 0 comments


Today we speak with Liesl McConchie! Liesl is a former math teacher with nearly 20 years of experience training school leaders and teachers across the globe. She has partnered with over 300 schools to implement the science behind what really improves achievement for all students as well as co-authored two books on brain science and learning. 

In our discussion we learn the answers to what is brain-based learning and why we need to use it in our teaching; why there’s no such thing as a motivated student or an unmotivated student; and, how to use brain science to boost student motivation.

You’ll Learn

  • What is Brain-Based Learning and why we need to use it in our teaching. 
  • Why there’s no such thing as a motivated student or an unmotivated student. 
  • How to use brain science to boost student motivation.
Start your school year off right by downloading the guide that you can save and print to share with colleagues during your next staff meeting, professional learning community meeting or just for your own reference!


Liesl McConchie: It's real tricky because the state of curiosity is not a long lasting state, it's a state, and being in a state of being, it typically only lasts seconds, maybe a handful of minutes, before a student transitions into a different state. So, when we talk about productive struggle, if they're in a state of curiosity, then that's great, but they won't stay there very long. They will naturally transition into something else. So, if a student is in a state of productive struggle, which is often defined as, let's say, state of confusion-

Jon Orr: Today we speak with Liesl McConchie, Liesl is a former math teacher with nearly 20 years of experience training school leaders and teachers across the globe. She has partnered with over 300 schools to implement the science behind what really improves achievement for all students, as well as co-authored two books on brain science and learning.

Kyle Pearce: In our discussion, we learn the answers to what is brain-based learning? And why we need to use it in our teaching? Why there's no such thing as a motivated student, or an unmotivated student? And how to use brain science to boost student motivation. Jon, I'm ready to dive in, how about you?

Jon Orr: Let's do this.

Kyle Pearce: Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast, I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr. We are from makemathmoments.com, and we are also two math teachers who together-

Kyle Pearce: ... with you, the community of Math Moment Makers who want to build and deliver problem-based math lessons, that spark curiosity-

Jon Orr: ... fuel sense-making-

Kyle Pearce: ... and ignite your teacher moves. Jon, we are getting ready to dive into a great conversation where we're going to bring in some brain science and some research to discuss what we might be able to use in our classrooms to ensure we reach more learners.

Jon Orr: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Of course, Kyle, we are ready and honored to bring on Liesl. But before we dive into that talk, we want to thank our listeners, you, wherever you are, we want you to help us out. We love to see what you're up to, what are you doing while you're listening to episodes? So, stop, and snap a pic of what you're doing right now. Are you on a run, or walking the dog? Maybe you're enjoying your morning coffee. Take a pic right now and tag us over on our Facebook page or @makemathmoments on Twitter.

Kyle Pearce: And you know what, after you're done doing that, why not go ahead and leave us a review over on Apple Podcasts. We read all of the reviews of the podcast, and right now, we want to share one of those reviews with you. This one's from Y=MX+B-

Jon Orr: I love that name.

Kyle Pearce: ... on Apple Podcasts. I don't know if that's like... Is that symbolic for a linear relationships? Maybe that's the full name there. But Y=MX+B says, "Inspiring, every podcast."

Jon Orr: "Kyle and Jon stir up new ideas through their talks. I have renewed creativity in my lessons, I feel a new freedom to learn new ways to teach my students."

Kyle Pearce: Jon, isn't this fantastic? Nothing energizes us more to keep on recording episodes of the podcast than by seeing these ratings and reviews come in. And you don't know how much it helps us to reach more math educators from around the world to ensure that they have access to high quality conversations around math education.

Jon Orr: Right. So, if you have 10 seconds, hit pause, scroll down on your podcast app and tap the five stars, and leave us a quick review, that would be the world to us... Or I guess, that would mean the world to us, is what I meant to say.

Kyle Pearce: If you want to be a Math Moment Maker hero, then take an extra two minutes to also rate us a short one to three sentence review. Again, that is so helpful, and I'm sure Math Moment Makers everywhere will thank you for it, because it will make it easier for them to find our podcast in the search engines.

Jon Orr: All right, enough from us, let's get onto our fantastic conversation with Liesl.

Kyle Pearce: Hey, there, Liesl, welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast, it is great to finally have a chance to sit down with you on the show. How are things going in your world these days? I know here it's getting chilly and it sounds like things where you are are still nice and warm.

Liesl McConchie: Yeah. Thanks for having me on the show, guys, it's really fun to be here. Things are really nice and warm in San Diego, sorry about that.

Jon Orr: That's okay, we're used to it being from Canada. So, Liesl, tell us a little bit about yourself, and our listeners, what's your role in education? And also, maybe give us a little backstory, we're always interested to dig deep there, how did you come into this role that you find yourself in?

Liesl McConchie: Sure. Yeah. Well, we're all in really unique worlds right now in 2020, so where I'm at now in 2020 is playing a couple of dual roles. So, I am an education consultant, I support schools in effective pedagogy, especially in the math world with the brain. And I have a school that I started in Denmark when I lived there, that I support, and then several other schools that I'm working with. But because it's 2020, I am also currently running a free micro-school that is a 100% outdoors... Back to the weather comment in San Diego, and that is mostly for my own children's sake. I have three small boys and wanted to see if we could work our way around this whole 2020 situation, and so opened it up to a few families in our community. And so, I am consulting and simultaneously running a small school in my backyard.

Kyle Pearce: crosstalk. Yeah, that's really interesting. We weren't planning on asking you any questions about that, because we didn't know that was going on. But before we dive into our next piece, which is a question that I'm sure you know is coming, everyone knows if they've been listening to the podcast, that's coming next, but I want to hear a little bit more about this micro-school, give us a high level understanding of what is going on there, and how can I sign up? I want to be a part of it, I can already tell.

Liesl McConchie: Well, it's a really strange situation because I tend to focus mostly in the secondary world, that's where most of my experience is... We'll get back to where I came from and the history, to today. But my kids are two, four, and six, and so I have found myself thrust into this early elementary school age situation. And so, we are 100% outdoors to keep ourselves COVID safe, and we call it the Brain Play Academy, so it is very... Being an expert in the brain and how it learns, I'm applying everything that I know.
But we're outdoors, so we're very interactive, very movement-focused, and just having a whole lot of fun with having... We have six kids at our school, and the whole purpose... I mean, I just wanted each one of my kids to have a learning buddy, because the brain is a social brain, and we're social learners, and wanted them to not have to be on screens all day by themselves. So, that was kind of the purpose of it, and just wanted to do a little bit of service at the same time. So, it's kind of like a win, give, kind of all sorts of things mixed in together.

Jon Orr: Wow.

Kyle Pearce: Fantastic.

Jon Orr: That's busy stuff. Busy stuff for sure.

Liesl McConchie: crosstalk.

Jon Orr: Yeah. So, would you mind sharing a little bit about your backstory on say, what led you into this place you find yourself in?

Liesl McConchie: Right. Sure. So, my career in education started like most people, 40 years ago, in a one room school house with no desks and no chairs, as I was playing school in my bedroom about 40 years ago. And I had this chalkboard on one whole wall in my bedroom that my mom had painted on the wall for me, and I didn't realize at the time that I was playing school in a little bit of a different way than most people played school, I was a little intense. I definitely gave homework then, I definitely had a grade book where I kept track of all of their assignments and their scores. I would even bring in all of the parents from the neighborhood, because I had the whole neighborhood involved. I'd bring the parents in for parent-teacher conferences, and just really loved being in the teacher role. And I only taught math, that's all I was good at at the time. So, that's where it started.
And then, by the time I got to third grade, that's the first time it's documented, that when I grew up, I want to be a high school math teacher. And from there, it was just a lot of research, and studying anecdotally all of my teachers through schooling of, what were they doing that felt like it was working for me, and helping my learning? And of course, stories on the other end as well. And so, I just rushed my way through schooling, because I was so excited to finally let my dreams come true, and be a high school math teacher. So, by 20 I was standing in front of high school seniors teaching Algebra 2, doing the thing when I was one or two years older than them. And that's kind of where I started, and so I taught high school math.
And then, slowly transitioned, after many years, into the consulting world, and then somehow life took me to Denmark for a while, and ended up starting a school over there. I was trying to study the Scandinavian school system, ended up creating a school over there that is doing well and thriving, and then came back here to California, my roots, and this is where I'm at doing my thing, and now running a little school in my backyard.

Jon Orr: Sounds like a very rich history that you have, and I think we all have our rich histories, but yours being... I'm sure you've learned many things along the way that we'll probably get into in this chat, but I did want to say how you played intensely school, when you were a kid. It's ringing very true for me. I have three daughters right now, and they also are playing... One in particular, playing school very intensely every day after school, has set up our living room. But it's 2020 style Liesl, we have a Seesaw accounts, and Google Classrooms running, and-

Liesl McConchie: That's awesome.

Jon Orr: ... my daughters have joined each other's Google classrooms, and they're assigning homework and giving them grades and feedback, it's quite the show here.

Liesl McConchie: That's fabulous. What a great acknowledgement of you, and your modeling, and teaching, way to go, dad.

Jon Orr: I think it's more of their teachers-

Liesl McConchie: Oh, okay.

Jon Orr: But definitely, I know that my daughter's teacher wears a vest, and she puts a vest on, and she just mimics everything that's happening in her classroom.

Liesl McConchie: Those mirror neurons at work. I love it.

Jon Orr: Yeah. It's definitely.

Kyle Pearce: That's fantastic.

Jon Orr: Yeah, definitely something to see.

Kyle Pearce: My daughter is eight and she is getting in the school spirit as well, but not quite as advanced as your daughters there, Jon. So, hopefully, she won't be too far behind.

Jon Orr: She's a couple of years behind. Yeah.

Kyle Pearce: Liesl, we want to dive into this question, this one, we're always very, very curious about, we get so many different responses to this, and really it has everything to do with the entire title, and what we're all about here on the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. And it's time for you to describe a moment from your past, and it's a math moment that you remember from your own experience. Now, I would argue, it sounds like being teacher could have been a math moment, but we want you to go into your own experience in the classroom as a student, what memory pops into your mind when we say math class?

Liesl McConchie: Oh man, that's a great question. Okay. So, the first place my mind just went to was any moment for my sixth, seventh, and eighth grade math class, I had the same teacher for three years in a row, which is so unique, it was [Mr. Dunn 00:12:13], and this man was just so passionate and on fire with math. He always wore these cream colored linen pants with these leopard print boxers underneath them, he was well past retirement age, but he had so much fire in his body, and in his bones, and in his blood for math, that we would have to sing happy birthday to Albert Einstein on his birthday.
And he was just like... The spit would just spew out of his mouth as he was just frantically showing us these things on the board. He's like, "And look at what this inaudible." And just like... Oh my goodness. It was just my first experience of like, oh my goodness, math is just... You can have so much passion, it's okay to let it show, because I had that, I felt that. And it was just this experience of like, okay, this is safe to be able to be that excited about something I really, really love.

Jon Orr: Yeah. It sounds like he's a true enthusiastic mathematician, I can imagine hair standing on top of his head, just kind of running around. Liesl-

Liesl McConchie: Exactly how he looked.

Jon Orr: That's hilarious. I always wonder this about people's math moments as they become math teachers or teachers, and that's who we talk to here on the podcast, is how do you think that teacher kind of influenced the way you teach? Or maybe they did, maybe they didn't, maybe they had a subtle influence, but usually, that memory sticks out for a reason. So, I'm wondering, what are your thoughts on that?

Liesl McConchie: I feel like he gave me like this implicit permission slip of, it's okay to break the mold, to do things differently, to let your passion show, and to toss out the idea of like, don't smile till Christmas, or anything like that, and just be your own free spirit, and that absolutely was true for me as... And is true for me as a math educator. I beat to my own drum. It's just so funny, I'm thinking about it right now, I just told you about his underwear, and I'm just thinking about myself... We're going to talk about underwear here inaudible, get ready for a minute. I just remember myself as a early teacher, young teacher, also, but this time, I wore underwear on the outside of my pants for teaching for one of my lessons, and it was like-

Jon Orr: Every day.

Liesl McConchie: No, no, no, no, not every day. It was just part of my outfit. It was the day that I would introduce order of operations. So, we would do our whole exploratory lesson, and different ways to do this, and different ways to do that, and how you get different results, and the whole day I'm wearing some men's underwear on the outside of my pants, and my students were like, "What the heck? Oh gosh, here's she goes again."

Jon Orr: I can imagine high school.

Liesl McConchie: Right. Yeah, high schoolers, right? And permission to do things differently, and to be a free spirit, and disparate students to realize like, oh yeah, hey, order matters.

Kyle Pearce: That's so cool. I was going to bring that back up, and then the conversation went on, and I'm like, "Ah, I don't know if I can circle back to the underwear." But I'm glad you did. And I've got such a... Talk about what a lasting impact that would have on students, right? When you're thinking about doing math, and like, why does it matter? Why does doing this operation over that operation first... Does it really matter? And obviously, it does, it has a big impact in math, and then also outside of math.
And going back to your moment, and this particular teacher, I just love how you were saying just how passionate he was, because it's what we bring to the subject that can influence how students feel, their disposition towards mathematics. If we come in... And it reminds me, Jon, I don't remember the quote offhand, but when Marian Small was on the podcast at the end, and she sort of said... I'm going to butcher it a little bit, but she had said, "Don't expect your students to get excited about math until you do." And it was much better said than that. But that really reminded me that, oh, my gosh, how we are in the classroom can really set up a student to love math, or to just think it's so-so, or to maybe really have a distaste for it.
So, that is so cool. I'm so happy you shared that. We've got a great look into your background, and some of the journey that you've had along your math journey here. And I know you've done a lot of work around brain-based learning, so I'm wondering if we can dive into that a little bit. So, for those who are wondering like, what do you mean by brain-based learning? I know for a lot of people... A lot of people just sort of... I'm saying naturally, but I mean through experience, they teach the way they were taught. And it's almost as if your brain wants to suggest to you that, well, if it worked for you, then we should do it this way.
But I'm guessing that some of the work that you've done with this brain-based learning is maybe suggesting some other things. Can you tell us a little bit about it? How did you get into it? And what can we learn from this work that you've been involved in?

Liesl McConchie: Right. Yeah. So, I got into it out of necessity as a teacher, who was a new teacher struggling to figure out how to get my students to best learn. Because I loved math, I was good at math, and some of my students weren't doing as well as I was hoping they were going to do, what's happening here? So, there's those long-term things, and there's just like these moments of, okay, so what's happening in their brain right now? I remember my first year teaching, there was... This is going to get a little bit heavy for a quick minute, there was a school shooting down the street, and as a brand new first year teacher, I didn't know what to do. This is in the '90s, right? This was before there were trainings about it, anything like that.
So, I just did what I thought I was supposed to do as a teacher, I just kept teaching how to solve quadratics. And surprise, surprise, guess how many times I had to reteach that lesson? Kids just weren't learning. So, there's all these moments of, okay, so what's actually happening? Why aren't they learning? So, it was out of survival, because as a new teacher, I was struggling and wanting to be good at this, and since I was a child, this is what I wanted to do, so I was passionate about, and I wanted to be good at it. And so, that's how I got into it. Okay. What was the other question?

Kyle Pearce: I guess, to help someone get a sense as to like, what have you learned? What sort of research have you leaned on? And I'm getting a sense of... Obviously, I'm hearing, or I'm extrapolating here that emotion... Students and how they're feeling, and their emotional state obviously has a big impact. And I'm guessing that that probably is connected to some of this work. What else were you exploring and researching, and what was this information?

Liesl McConchie: Yeah. So, everyone's like, "Well, what's brain-based learning? Isn't all learning brain-based?" Well, yes, it should be, right? But the unfortunate reality of the history of education is that public schools were developed hundreds of years before we really understood the human brain at all. And so, when you talk about... We just do what was done to us, and these traditions just get passed down from generation to generation of how we teach, it's just unfortunate. Sometimes I just really dream and fantasize about what schooling would be like if we had the technology 400 years ago to know the human brain, the way we do now, that we could mold and craft our education system to be more conducive to how the brain learns.
Because what happens now, so often, is that we try to force our students to learn the way that we have been taught throughout these generations, and it's just so counterintuitive and just opposite in so many ways about how the brain actually learns. I study the human brain and all facets of it, so I study the motivational systems of the brain, the attentional systems of the brain, the memory systems of the brain, the emotional systems of the brain, the physical movement systems of the brain. So, when you talk about how... We were talking about passion and excitement, and how that gets picked up on by the students, there's actual science behind that, it's called brain synchronicity. How literally our brains sync up to each other through the mirror neurons systems, and how our passion and whatever our energy state is, is literally contagious, not just from teacher to student, but also student to student.
And that's probably why, Jon, your daughter is dressing like her teacher and behaving like her teacher, because there's this... Even through... Which is so beautiful, but even through this virtual world that we're living in right now, brain synchronicity is still happening.

Jon Orr: So, I'm thinking for our listeners, and also for me right now, this is going to be new for me to kind of hear some of the science behind the brain. I think I was in the boat where I was like, "Isn't all learning brain-based learning?" But I'm wondering, Liesl, what impact or what lessons can us math teachers use in our classrooms on some of the learning that you've done? I'm wondering if you can give us a couple of tips on like, hey, I learned this about the brain, and this applies in this math class, kind of scenario.

Liesl McConchie: So, we could talk a bit about the motivational system to the brain. The thing is that most teachers do learn a lot about brain-based learning, they just learn it implicitly over 10, 15 years of painful trial and error. Whereas-

Kyle Pearce: Guilty.

Liesl McConchie: inaudible. Also, it would just be a much more efficient system not only for teachers' well-being and their stamina in this field, but especially for our students who would get a far better education if we could maybe pick up on a few things explicitly, like been trained in these things as we are entering this field. So, for the traditional math education that you and I probably experienced was very direct instruction, teacher-focused, inaudible.

Kyle Pearce: Mimicking.

Liesl McConchie: Right? Yeah. So, today we're going to learn 8.1, Solving Systems of Equation Through Graphing, and tomorrow we're going to learn 8.2, Solving Systems of Equations Through Substitution, and-

Jon Orr: That's familiar to me.

Kyle Pearce: I'm looking at this list of motivational, attentional, emotional... I'm looking at that, I'm like, "No, no, no."

Liesl McConchie: Right.

Kyle Pearce: Nothing is activating when you say, "We're going to graph tomorrow."

Liesl McConchie: Right. But don't worry, you'll get really excited when I tell you that on Wednesday, we're going to talk about 8.3, Solving Systems of Equation Through Elimination. That's going to get you going, right? No, traditional math instruction, it doesn't do anything to activate the systems of the brain that we want activated for sense-making, meaning-making, for actual learning to happen. We can create robots that mimic what we do out of compliance, but that's not real sustainable learning. And so, when you look at the motivational systems of the brain... I know you two gentlemen talk a lot about curiosity, and I just think it'd be real, real helpful for teachers to know that curiosity is actually one of the brain's hardwired motivators. It is a universal motivator that we are born with, that we die with it. It is a constant motivator.
And so, whenever a student or anyone is in a state of curiosity, what happens to their brain is just, I mean, almost magical, right? So, inaudible curiosity, it releases dopamine in the brain. And a lot of people know dopamine as like, oh, the feel good neurotransmitter, and often associated with success. When I do something right, boom, I get this hit of dopamine. I want to do that again. So, they're like, "Oh." So, so many teachers fall into this belief of like, okay, I just want students to do well to be successful, and to get to the answer quickly and fastly, because then they're going to get a hit of dopamine. But that's actually only true the first time around.
What actually happens is that more dopamine is released in the moments leading up to that moment of success, and that's where the state of curiosity comes in. What's going to happen? What's happening here? How is this going to work out? How's this going to be solved? That's when more dopamine is released, and of course, more dopamine, the better, because it activates the motivational systems, it improves learning in the hippocampus with short-term memory, all the good stuff happens when students are in a state of curiosity, it's like... I played soccer growing up, and when a young child, the first time they go and they shoot on goal, and it's that moment of the soccer ball going into the goal, it's like, "inaudible yeah." It's that rush of dopamine, it feels so good.
But when you look at the science of curiosity and dopamine, it says, "Well, after the first time you've had that experience..." For those of us who work in secondary education, or even later elementary, "It's the moments leading up to where more dopamine is released." So, from then on, the soccer player heading down the field towards the goal, that's when the dopamine is surging, because it's like, "Oh, my goodness, I might get a goal right now." Because they know what it's going to be like. And then, that's why it's great to let students be in a state of curiosity.

Kyle Pearce: And I'm hearing like... Would I be on to something when I talk about... We always explore this idea of the productive struggle, right? Where it's like, the work that leads up to the payoff, right? People talk about life as, you have to enjoy the journey, and I think I'm sort of hearing that here, we sort of take this curiosity, we get you into it, and then we're trying to create this productive struggle so that it's actually worth it, versus... I'm thinking about... Jon has presented for a number of years on this idea of the hero's journey in math class, how we typically send kids up really fast, we get them really anxious really quick, but then we save the day, we sweep in and we say, "Ah, but this is how you do it." And then, it's sort of like, "Ah, it's all gone." And we're wondering why students are sort of sitting there lethargic.
Are you seeing those connections? And I guess, what could we learn from these ideas and these examples for a teacher who's listening going like, "Okay, I'm with you, I see what you're talking about, now how do I make this happen in my classroom?"

Liesl McConchie: Right. It's real tricky because the state of curiosity is not a long lasting state, it's a state, and being in a state of being, it typically only lasts seconds, maybe a handful of minutes, before a student transitions into a different state. So, when we talk about productive struggle, if they're in a state of curiosity, then that's great, but they won't stay there very long, they will naturally transition into something else.
So, if a student is in a state of productive struggle, which is often defined as, let's say, a state of confusion, they don't know what it is, confusion is actually a positive state for learning. People sometimes think it's not a good thing, but it is, and it does, it fosters productive struggle. But if a student stays in a state of confusion too long, they will naturally transition into a different state. So, if there isn't resolution, then confusion transitions into frustration, and frustration-

Kyle Pearce: Right crosstalk.

Liesl McConchie: ... is not a positive state for learning. Exactly. And so, it goes back to, every student is unique, every brain is unique, and just being able to have those relationships with your students well enough to know what state they're in, and knowing how to manage that dance of how much support to give to each individual student based on where they're at in the moment, and what kind of support they need, and if they can handle a few more minutes of productive struggle.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. And having this conversation, I mean, I'm making so many connections myself, and I'm sort of, in my mind, playing out scenarios recently working with students, and being in classrooms, and actually delivering lessons. And I'm totally with you on that, and it brings us back to this idea that everyone tends to look at teaching mathematics as like a science, as if there's like this perfect formula when... We've been talking about this for quite some time now, that there's such an art to teaching, not just mathematics, but in general. It's almost like reading. And you referenced this earlier, where you had said it's like 15 years of trial and error where you almost naturally start to begin to notice a name for yourself, and be able to sort of pivot in the lessons a little bit more fluidly to kind of ensure that there's this learning state going on.
And I'm wondering here, and I hope I don't catch you by surprise, but why in our pre-service programs are we not spending more time? I remember taking a psychology of education or some sort of course along those lines, but either I wasn't paying attention, or it wasn't being taught, I don't remember being, I guess, made aware of how important this really is. What are your thoughts on that? And I guess, again, how do we take this? And maybe can you help point us in a direction? For those who are listening going like, "Wow, I really want to learn more about this, I really want to put this into action," where do they turn to?

Liesl McConchie: Yeah. Obviously, you won't be surprised, I'm 100% fan of there being more pre-service training in the science of learning. It is an art and it is a science, they both go together. There is the science of like, hey, curiosity is a natural motivator of the brain, let's foster more curiosity, but it's not formulaic, because there's so many different layers to it. Because although we talked about dopamine gets released in the brain, inaudible, but the art part of it is that most teachers don't know that the brain desensitizes to dopamine. And you can see this because dopamine is often referenced in conversations with drugs and drug addicts, and someone who abuses drugs regularly releases dopamine in their brain, and it feels good. They get that high, that hit, and they come back, and they want more of it. But that same dose, or that same drug doesn't cut it, they want a higher dose or a harder drug.
Well, the same is absolutely true in our classrooms, this is where the art comes in, because if we use the same routines or the same strategies to foster curiosity on the 100th day of, what do you notice? What do you wonder? Our students are going to be rolling their eyes and being like, "I wonder if you have any other tools in your tool belt besides asking me what I noticed, and what I wonder?" Because their brain is desensitizing to the dopamine in the curiosity.
So, there's just always this fluid dance of, okay, are they done with this? Do I need to try something new? Why isn't it going back to the in-service? Why is it not there? I don't know, I've got a lot of theories, but not any research on it. I mean, I have done a lot of work, and so my favorite work is being invited into in-service programs and training young teachers who have yet to establish strong neural pathways of what teaching is supposed to look like.

Jon Orr: I was going to say the same thing, we've often been invited to talk with pre-service teachers, and it is great to get in there. Just like you said, it's because you know that you can have a little bit of impact on these teachers when they haven't already taught for 15 years, and saying like, "Well, it works for me, so I'm not going to learn the next thing because I know that's..." We've said this here, high school teachers, and working with high school math teachers are some of the hardest people to change their thoughts on how to teach math, but-

Liesl McConchie: Yes.

Jon Orr: I want to kind of dive a little bit deeper into this, because I know that you've addressed this idea of, this math is boring, with some of the work that you do with school districts, or this three-part cure for why math is boring. And I think it has to do with some of this brain research you're referring to. But I'm wondering, what specifically... As teachers are listening here, it's like, what are your go-to teacher resources or moves? That's something that a teacher can go back to their class tomorrow and go, "Okay, I just listened to this podcast, and Liesl told me about this, and now I'm going to try this in my class to try to cure this math is boring phrase."

Liesl McConchie: Great. Here it is. So, here is your 45 second version of the brain's motivational system. The three universal motivators that will work for all students across all ages, across all subject areas, all cultures, everything, the three are curiosity, anticipation, and relevance. If you can tap into any one of those three, you will activate the brain's motivational systems, and we'll transport students out of the state of boredom. Math isn't boring, boredom is a state, right? So, there's no such thing as a motivated student, there's no such thing as an unmotivated student, they're just students who are in that moment in a motivated state. So, a student who's in a state of curiosity, or in a state of anticipation like, "Oh, what's going to happen next?" Or, in a state of this is relevant, this is meaningful to me, that will naturally motivate their brain.
Now, there are other motivators that shift as we move through different developmental phases of life, different ways to motivate younger students, different ways to motivate middle school students and high school students, those ones do shift. And in fact, I just put together a workshop, an online workshop, about all of the science of all of these different states for motivation, the science of those three hardwired motivators, as well as just tons of specific strategies to do it. The cool thing about it, what I love so much about... Now I'm getting excited. What I love so much about studying the science of the brain, is that there isn't one right answer.
It's just like, okay, look, curiosity, anticipation, relevance, these are your three big targets that you're aiming for. And then, it allows for incredible teacher autonomy to really tap into your relationships with your students, to discover what is relevant to them, and just do whatever you want to do to facilitate anticipation, or to facilitate curiosity. It doesn't have to be the same thing that everyone is tweeting about, or everyone is talking about in the teacher's lounge, it's just like, you hit one of those, it's a bullseye.

Kyle Pearce: I love it. I love it. And it fits so perfectly with things that we try to talk about. I know we talk about the curiosity path so often with our 3-Part Framework, to try to create curious math lessons, and make math moments in our classroom. And really, we build this idea of withholding information to build anticipation, and then, we get kids... We say, noticing and wondering, but as you mentioned, that is so true, that if we just do... If it's just like, "Okay," and the next part of the lesson is notice and wonder time, it's not going to work, right?
And we talk about this all the time, especially when Jon and I are doing full day workshops, in the morning, we tend to notice and wonder a lot, but then as the day goes on, we kind of get to the point and let the curiosity take its toll. We let the questioning, the prompting, sort of do some of that heavy lifting. So, again, bringing in a little bit of that art piece, and then obviously, relevance, so important. And I'm guessing... I'll let you kind of articulate this, but sometimes, people misread, in my opinion, the idea of relevant in math class. A lot of people think relevant is like interesting to students.
But in reality, I think... And correct me if I'm wrong, but you're referencing relevance as in, I can actually relate to it, I understand it. It's like I can connect to the context. Not necessarily that it's my favorite thing to do, but that it's something I can understand and connect with. And I'll let you confirm or deny that.

Liesl McConchie: Yeah. There's actually two layers to relevance. You can approach relevance with, I actually think that this specific content is relevant. Like, oh, I actually will use the Pythagorean theorem when building my deck outside someday, or... I don't know. This is actually going to be like... Doing percentages, I love to shop, so it's going to help me when I'm doing shopping online on whatever today is. What's today? Cyber Monday, we're recording on Cyber Monday. And that's a tough one. I'll be honest, as a secondary math teacher, that is often a tough road to travel.

Kyle Pearce: If it's not relevant now, I'm not that interested.

Liesl McConchie: Exactly. And that's the key thing to understand about relevance, is that where the teenage brain is developmentally, if it's not immediate relevance, then there really isn't any relevance. This being relevant to you when you get into the workforce, when you become a parent, even when you get into university, no, the brain isn't developed enough to be able to think that far ahead. So, it's got to be relevant to me right now. How am I going to use this right now this week in my life to help me in my life? Or, the second track that a lot of secondary math teachers, including myself, use a lot, is the borrowing effect. We borrow relevance from things that are relevant to our students.
I remember teaching in Florida for a year, and I was really immersed into the football culture down there. And I learned real quickly that football rules the world, and so I was like, "Okay, here we go. AP Stats class, we're going to use the stats from last weekend's game into learning about our lesson." So, we take, like you said, from the context of the problem, and we borrow relevance from that if the skill itself isn't going to naturally ring the relevance bells for them.

Jon Orr: Yeah. It reminds me of Dan Meyer's talk on math is the aspirin. If math is the aspirin, what's the headache? It's like putting kids in situations to develop this relevance. I need this now because my head is hurting with this math, and I'm in a tough struggle right now, and I'm sure there's a rule, or a procedure, or an idea that can help save the day here. And then, they're going to be like, "I really want to know that because it's relevant to me right now to get me out of this jam."

Liesl McConchie: Exactly, exactly.

Kyle Pearce: Super cool. Super cool. We are learning so much here and it's great. I know Jon and I always reflect when we're thinking about the things... And again, like you had already said it earlier, we went through... And we talk about this all the time on the podcast, how we went through 10 years of teaching sort of trying and failing, trying and failing. Oh, there was a success, we're not sure why. Okay, we're going to try to replicate that tomorrow. Oh, failed again, failed again. And you do this for so long. And then, Jon and I have spent so much time trying to kind of take all of these ideas... And we'll call it our own research with our own experiences, and trying to find these commonalities. And we always love it when we're chatting with people who bring us new ways to kind of think about things, and why they're working.
So, you've been super helpful for us to just try to have another reason why some of these strategies are helpful, and why some other strategies may not be so helpful. I'm wondering here... We're looking at the time, we don't want to keep you all night long.

Liesl McConchie: I could talk all night long. This is so fun crosstalk.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. I know, us too, us too. My wife's always like, "You guys talk way too long on that podcast." But I'm wondering, if there was one last idea that we haven't gotten to... And I know I'm kind of putting you on the spot here, but if there was like one last piece of information you wanted to share with the world before we give you an opportunity to share where they can learn more about you, what might that be? If somebody is listening, they're leaning in, they're like, "Wow, this is really interesting stuff," what would it be a big takeaway that you'd want people to walk away with, and to think on a little bit more here as we get closer to the end today?

Liesl McConchie: That's a great question. I think a general statement that, if the brain isn't ready to learn, it's just not going to learn, so I'm talking about the phase of readiness. Now students don't walk into a formal academic setting naturally ready to learn. They don't walk in, "Oh, I'm so curious about matrix multiplication." No, let go of the fantasy, it doesn't happen. They don't walk in anticipating, "Oh gosh, I can't wait until Mr. Orr inaudible." Unless you've orchestrated that, it doesn't happen. So, in normal life, the brain naturally selects what it's going to learn, and that choice is based on relevance. So, the brain naturally has its relevant scanner out like inaudible. "Oh, this is relevant to me, I'm going to pay attention to this."
And that act right there, that choice is what primes the brain for learning. It opens all the learning centers... We're not going to get into all the neurobiology of it right now, but it opens all the learning centers, the attentional systems, the motivational systems, the memory formation systems, and that's how learning happens. Now, those are mostly closed when students walk into your classroom. So, instead of just getting frustrated with... Like this picture of teachers trying to shove the learning into the brain, but the brain is closed because it hasn't been readied for learning. And there are specific things that teachers can do to ready their students for learning that just makes everything so much easier, it makes teaching so much more joyful and fun. Yeah.
So, if that's where you're at, it just feels like this shoving, pushing game, maybe just step back and reflect on... The expectations you have of your students walking in, ready to learn, let those go, and let's see if we can find other ways for you to get your students ready for whatever amazing learning you have planned for them.

Jon Orr: Yeah. So, it's like, how can we open up those gates? And it's like, how can we make these moments? And I think you've given us some great tips today on how to do that using brain science. So, we want to thank you so much, Liesl, about that. But before we sign off here, where can all of our listeners learn more about you, and your work, and maybe hook up with learning a little bit more?

Liesl McConchie: Yeah, sure. So, depending on what you're looking for, if you want to just get to know me and my work more, you can just jump onto my website, lieslmcconchie.com. That's L-I-E-S-L.mcconchie, M-C-C-O-N-C-H-I-E.com. If you're a big reader, and you really enjoy books, I just published a book with Dr. Eric Jensen, the leading expert in brain-based learning. We just wrote Brain-Based Learning. Came out a few months ago. So, that's available on any bookstore that you like to shop at. And then, if you're more into the video format, like I said, I just launched an online workshop that specifically dives into the science of motivation, and it's designed for all teachers K-12, and really dives into what motivates the human brain.
We go into specifics... Or I go into specifics about different grade levels, I mean, just tons of strategies that hit those big targets, and how you can really learn to develop the habit of motivating your students, and to recognize the state that they're in, and how to quickly and efficiently orchestrate a different state for your students based on whatever they bring in to the classroom.

Kyle Pearce: I love that. I'm seeing so many connections as well, especially for those Math Moment Makers from the academy or from our online workshop who have been working through the Make Math Moments 3-Part Framework, and the curiosity path, we sort of... In that online workshop, we do a lot of like the how. We show you, we give examples, we help you to do those things. And it sounds like you're going to get a lot of awesome in your workshop, a lot of awesome ideas behind the why, why is this working? And I'm sure once you understand the why even more clearly, it will make those opportunities for applying the curiosity path even more flexible, making it more available to you. So, I see that as a great sort of co-course for you to try. If you haven't yet, definitely dive in there, we'll be sure to include all those links in the show notes.
And we can't thank you enough for taking time out of your busy schedule to hang out with all of us. We just want to say, we appreciate you, and we hope we get to connect with you some time at a live face-to-face conference in the near future.

Liesl McConchie: That'd be great. I'd love it.

Jon Orr: We would do too. So, thanks so much and take care.

Liesl McConchie: Thank you.

Kyle Pearce: Hey, Jon, it was great welcoming Liesl on the show, and I don't know about you, but I took some nuggets away that I'm going to have to sit and reflect on. So, how about you, friends? Make sure that your doing something to reflect on your learning, whether it's writing it down, whether it's drawing a sketch note, or having a conversation with a colleague, doing something to ensure that these ideas don't wash away like footprints in the sand, is really important to maximize your own growth.

Jon Orr: And in order to ensure you don't miss out on new episodes as they come out each Monday morning, be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast platform.

Kyle Pearce: Show notes and links to resources from this episode, including full downloadable transcripts, can be found at makemathmoments.com/episode128. That is makemathmoments.com/episode128. Well, my friends, and Math Moment Makers everywhere, until next time, I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High fives for us.

Jon Orr: And high five for you.

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