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The Science of Social Learning: The Research of Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

The internationally respected research taking place at Rossier continues to contribute critical information to the conversation on education reform. Among emerging researchers is Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist, psychologist, and former teacher.

Her studies focus on the science of social emotion, self-awareness and culture and their implications for development and schools. Other recent work involves the study of learning that occurs when the brain effectively balances its inward and outward systems; the neurological effects of family conflict on youth; the development of prosocial emotions like admiration and compassion; and socialization in schizophrenia.

Immordino-Yang’s interdisciplinary research in this emerging field has been possible with funding from NSF, the USC Brain and Creativity Institute, the USC Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences (ASHSS) Provost’s Initiative, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Foundation for Psychocultural Research at UCLA.

Futures spoke to Immordino-Yang about the importance of her research, and its ultimate impact on a new generation of learners.

Futures: Why is it so critical right now for people to be investing in research about how learning happens?

Immordino-Yang: The world right now is at a very dynamic and volatile turning point. For the first time, human beings have the possibility of controlling and damaging our planet. We have the possibility of solving diseases and problems that have never been solvable before. We have the possibility to communicate with each other and to move around in ways we never could before. Yet, we really can’t foresee where these new capabilities and technologies will take us as a species. Our only hope is to find ways to raise and teach and educate young people who are capable of thinking about complex critical problems along with their social implications.

This is a much more complex educational challenge than has ever before been faced because people are communicating with one another more and there is more information readily available. At the same time, there is also much more intercultural mixing in the form of urban crowding and movement around the globe. So, modern kids need to develop skills for thinking together with people who are different from themselves, for appreciating diverse perspectives. These skills will be necessary for kids to think in morally responsible ways, creative ways, about how to collaboratively solve the problems of the future.

Futures: Tell us about your National Science Foundation CAREER grant funded study.

Immordino-Yang: We are currently working on the first-ever longitudinal study of adolescents’ social brain development. We’re looking cross-culturally at how adolescents over time come to feel complex social emotions about other people’s minds; emotions like inspiration, awe, admiration, compassion, and gratitude. We’re looking at inner-city L.A. youth from urban, under-privileged neighborhoods with high levels of gang activity and other kinds of ethnically motivated violence. We’re looking at first generation Chinese-American and Mexican-American 9th and 10th graders. We’re following the ways in which those kids, over time, come to make meaning of their social worlds, and how they experience and understand the violence in their neighborhood, the love in their families, their own academic identities, and their hopes for success. All of these things come together with their biological selves, to sort of co-regulate or co-organize both their biology and their social mind. So we’re looking at the effects of the social world on adolescents’ development.

Futures: So this research could particularly impact urban or high-need learners.

Immordino-Yang: Any competent, empathic teacher understands that everybody is different. Not everybody learns in exactly the same way. And currently our education system does not take into account and does not allow for, or encourage, a culturally diverse way of making sense of, understanding, and thinking about the world. Yet, it is in the richness of that diversity, within that plethora of perspectives, that we as a nation and we as a world will move ourselves forward in the most creative, innovative, and socially responsible ways possible.

The cultural differences that we see among young adults must emerge throughout the course of adolescence. We want to understand the processes by which the social world influences and grows these teenagers’ ways of knowing about the world and themselves. This is especially important for urban kids because urban kids tend to be in more violent and densely populated regions where they see more of the social world in a shorter space of time, if you will. Urban kids are really in the thick of it – they need to build resilience and a strong acculturated sense of identity. So this kind of research is key to helping us improve education and get rid of things like the achievement gap. We simply must stop wasting the potential among urban kids, so many of whom are not educated in ways that connect to their real lives and strengths.

Futures: As a former teacher, how would your current research have changed the way you taught in the classroom? 

Immordino-Yang: That’s a great question. I was a teacher when I was pretty young; I was right out of college. I didn’t know going into it that I would be so struck by the diverse perspectives that the learners brought to my classroom. I was teaching in an urban public school in Massachusetts that was at the time the second most diverse school in the state.  I was struck by the differences in the ways kids came to the science I was teaching, but I didn’t really have good tools for managing that diversity or capitalizing on that strength in the classroom. Our current work highlights the really fundamental ways that culture shapes how a person makes meaning of the things they’re learning. If I were teaching now, I would try to find more ways to let kids own their curriculum and own their learning. I would focus even more on the sorts of project-based, community-oriented activities that really engage kids from the starting point of their own self and their own communities. I see teaching now as a process of facilitating kids building new understandings of their worlds, less than as a process of imparting information. I would see myself as much as a learner as the teacher.

Futures: What would you say to a potential funder about why this research is a critical investment?

Immordino-Yang: The world is really changing and the only way in which we can really understand what is going on and shape educational experiences for kids to optimize their potential, both to be successful human beings and to be smart human beings, is by conducting research like this into the nature of social learning. There are just so many open questions about how learning is actually happening – how current technologies and social situations shape and change the ways in which kids develop. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach and everything we think we know is a special case. It’s not wrong but it is a special case.

USC Rossier plans to create a translational and collaborative research center, The Center for the Science of Learning, to expand, share and apply Dr. Immordino-Yang’s and her colleagues’ work. Leadership funding is currently being sought.


This article was featured in the Spring 2013 issue of Rossier’s Futures in Urban Ed magazine.

Click here to see more articles from that issue and click here to download a PDF of the magazine.