National Writing Project

Writing and the Brain: Neuroscience Shows the Pathways to Learning

Date: May 3, 2011

Summary: Judy Willis, a neurologist and teacher-consultant with the South Coast Writing Project, explains how the teaching of writing is important for learning based on neuroimaging and brain mapping.


Judy Willis brings a rare combination of expertise to the classroom: she's not only a teacher but also a neurologist. With a medical background in using such diagnostic tools as positron emission tomography (PET) scans, neuroimaging, and brain mapping, she empirically understands how the brain is wired to learn.

Throw in her experience with California's South Coast Writing Project, and Willis will tell you that the proof of writing's importance to learning isn't in the pudding—it's in the image of the brain at work.

"The information is now here so teachers can build on professional skills in the art of teaching by incorporating strategies confirmed as beneficial through neuroimaging of the brain during the process of learning," she says.

NWP sat down with Willis to get her thoughts on the writing-mind connection.

NWP: Let's start with neuroscience fundamentals. What is a "positive brain state," and why is it crucial for learning?

Judy Willis: The brain evolved to better protect the well-being of its owner and species. One way that this is important for the classroom is that effort and attention are limited commodities the brain parses out to the actions it predicts will be successful in protection or pleasure.

So, for example, when students participate in engaging learning activities in well-designed, supportive, cooperative groups, there is a positive emotional response in the brain. The pleasure of learning with one's peers increases the brain's release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases pleasure, motivation, perseverance through challenges, and resilience to setbacks.

In addition, there is a beneficial response in the amygdala. The amygdala is a switching station (there's one on each side of the brain) in the brain's emotional-monitoring limbic system that determines if input will go to the reflective, higher cognitive brain (the prefrontal cortex) or down to the reactive, involuntary brain.

The brain scans of subjects learning in supportive and emotionally pleasurable situations show facilitated passage of information through the amygdala up to the higher cognitive brain, so learning associated with positive emotion is retained longer. Stress, however, determines if the intake is sent to that lower reactive brain.

NWP: It sounds like the brain isn't wired for the traditional "drill and skill" approach often used these days to prepare for high-stakes testing.

Willis: Exactly. Isolated skill practice is contrary to the brain's instinct to preserve its energy, because the brain does not tend to have the expectation of pleasure in such learning environments. On the other hand, when students know information will be used to create solutions to problems that interest them or to create products they want to create, that is when the brain predicts pleasure and applies efforts to achieve the desirable goal.

NWP: How does writing figure into this?

Willis: Writing is, by nature, an opportunity for creativity and personal expression. When writing is incorporated in learning and assessment, there is increased opportunity to produce the ideal situation for active, attentive learning because students value creative problem solving or creative production.

They're more likely to apply the effort, collaborate successfully, ask questions, revise work, and review foundational knowledge because they want to know what you have to teach.

NWP: As science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects get more emphasis, it seems as if writing and the arts have become secondary. Where do you see writing's place in STEM subjects?

Willis: It's interesting because the increasing buzz about an innovation crisis in the STEM subjects comes at a time when neuroscience and cognitive science research are increasingly providing information that correlates creativity with intelligence; academic, social, and emotional success; and the development of skill sets and higher-process thinking that will become increasingly valuable for students of the 21st century.

Consider all of the important ways that writing supports the development of higher-process thinking: conceptual thinking; transfer of knowledge; judgment; critical analysis; induction; deduction; prior-knowledge evaluation (not just activation) for prediction; delay of immediate gratification for long-term goals; recognition of relationships for symbolic conceptualization; evaluation of emotions, including recognizing and analyzing response choices; and the ability to recognize and activate information stored in memory circuits throughout the brain's cerebral cortex that are relevant to evaluating and responding to new information or for producing new creative insights—whether academic, artistic, physical, emotional, or social.

NWP: Writing is often thought of as a solitary activity, but you've written about its collaborative benefits.

When writing is incorporated in learning and assessment, there is increased opportunity to produce the ideal situation for active, attentive learning.

Willis: Greater activation throughout the brain occurs when information is acquired through the diversity of experiences provided by peer collaboration.

When groups are planned so that each member's strengths have authentic importance to the ultimate success of the group's activity, this creates a situation where individual learning styles, skills, and talents are valued, and students shine in their fortes and learn from each other in the areas where they are not as expert. They call on each other's guidance to solve pertinent and compelling problems and develop their interpersonal skills by communicating their ideas to partners.

Also, multiple sensory-intake systems such as talking, writing, moving, and listening enhance long-term memory. The multisensory intake and positive social interactions are reflected in neuroimaging with activation of multiple neural networks when the brain seeks to retrieve stored information. This duplication of memory storage in the multiple long-term memory circuits throughout increases efficiency of information retrieval and durability.

NWP: We're not only talking about effective learning in the classroom, though. How does this apply to teacher training?

Willis: Since the Writing Project model mirrors what I consider the ideal classroom model—that of collaborative, supportive, purposeful participation—its effectiveness is no surprise. We could do brain scans of the teachers participating in Writing Project professional development, and I'm sure the results would be favorable.

When I attended the South Coast Writing Project's summer institute, the positive interactions among my fellows was such a prevalent element. Writing is a personal, often very private endeavor, but it was interesting to me to experience how knowledge about ways to enhance writing and the teaching of writing skills was nurtured in an environment of support, shared wisdom, and collegiality.

The dynamics and makeup of the group really contributed to success. The group involved teachers from all levels of education and all subjects, with diversity and equity in age, years of classroom experience, gender, and even subject taught. This diversity was described as analogous to being sure there were no instruments missing from the orchestra.

Most of us have participated in groups that have seemed doomed almost from the start. Sometimes it is in committee work, where all members are self-selected and come with different agendas and rigid inflexibility. When we do thrive in a group that has been so well selected as to have the perfect blend of conviviality, tolerance, and mutual support that permits and even encourages disagreement, without disruption or disrespect, it is a memorable experience.

NWP: You might say NWP's "teachers teaching teachers" model is prescient since there weren't brain scans in 1974 to back it up.

Willis: NWP's founders obviously had a keen pedagogical instinct. Again, we have to think of professional development in terms of effective classroom practice.

To promote engagement and effort, students need early opportunities to find personal pleasure and relevance in the material they need to learn. Knowing from the start that they will produce representations of the learning creatively is an inoculation against boredom and low effort. Likewise, when teachers engage in learning together in a supportive, collaborative environment instead of listening to a "sage on the stage" lecture from an outside consultant, they're more likely to have increased engagement.

Many students become bored and drop out because high-stakes testing has turned many classrooms into places of mind-numbing lectures and drills about information students do not value. Professional development is no different: teachers don't want to mimic sensory input, or information, in the same way it was received—they want to learn in a creative, collaborative way that requires analysis, relational thinking, and prediction. That's what NWP is all about and why it is successful.

About the Author

Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist in Santa Barbara, California, attended the UCLA School of Medicine, where she remained as a resident and ultimately became chief resident in neurology. She practiced neurology for 15 years and received a credential and master's degree in education from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). She has taught in elementary, middle, and graduate schools; was a fellow at the South Coast Writing Project; and is currently an adjunct lecturer at UCSB. Her articles about the neurology of learning have been published in her six books and numerous educational journals. Dr. Willis is a speaker at national and international professional educator conferences. Visit her website at

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