What conditions best support learning and personal growth?
1. Judy Willis on "The Neuroscience of Joyful Education"
Stephanie West Allen points to a thought-provoking and compelling answer to the question above in the work of Judy Willis, a former neurologist who obtained her teaching credential after a 15-year career in medicine and now teaches at Santa Barbara Middle School and blogs at Psychology Today.
Willis brings an unusual and highly valuable combination of hands-on experience as an educator and a deep understanding of neuroscience to her writing, and her article in the Summer 2007 issue of Educational Leadership, "The Neuroscience of Joyful Education," is one of the most helpful pieces I've read on the subject of understanding the practical relevance of neuroscientific research.
Willis's article is focused on formal education in a classroom setting, but I believe that the findings she discusses have relevance for any experience in which we're trying to impart knowledge, stimulate understanding and foster growth, from a group workshop to an executive coaching session to an impromptu feedback conversation. I take the liberty of quoting Willis at length here (interspersed with my comments), but I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing:
[W]hen we scrub joy and comfort from the classroom, we distance our students from effective information processing and long-term memory storage. Instead of taking pleasure from learning, students become bored, anxious, and anything but engaged...
My own experience as a neurologist and classroom teacher has shown me the benefits of joy in the classroom. Neuroimaging studies and measurement of brain chemical transmitters reveal that students' comfort level can influence information transmission and storage in the brain (Thanos et al., 1999). When students are engaged and motivated and feel minimal stress, information flows freely through the affective filter in the amygdala and they achieve higher levels of cognition, make connections, and experience "aha" moments. Such learning comes not from quiet classrooms and directed lectures, but from classrooms with an atmosphere of exuberant discovery (Kohn, 2004).
"An atmosphere of exuberant discovery." I LOVE that phrase! It perfectly describes my most fulfilling learning experiences. If I can help to evoke that feeling--in myself and in others--in a workshop or a class or a coaching session, then I know we're on the right path. I'm reminded of my recent post on being an infectious agent of enthusiasm. Like enthusiasm, "exuberant discovery" is a contagious state.
The Brain-Based Research
Neuroimaging and neurochemical research support an education model in which stress and anxiety are not pervasive (Chugani, 1998; Pawlak, Magarinos, Melchor, McEwan, & Strickland, 2003). This research suggests that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are enjoyable and relevant to students' lives, interests, and experiences.
Many education theorists (Dulay & Burt, 1977; Krashen, 1982) have proposed that students retain what they learn when the learning is associated with strong positive emotion. Cognitive psychology studies provide clinical evidence that stress, boredom, confusion, low motivation, and anxiety can individually, and more profoundly in combination, interfere with learning (Christianson, 1992).
Neuroimaging and measurement of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) show us what happens in the brain during stressful emotional states. By reading glucose or oxygen use and blood flow, positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) indicate activity in identifiable regions of the brain. These scans demonstrate that under stressful conditions information is blocked from entering the brain's areas of higher cognitive memory consolidation and storage. In other words, when stress activates the brain's affective filters, information flow to the higher cognitive networks is limited and the learning process grinds to a halt.
Simply put, stress kills learning--and yet so many settings intended to support learning are needlessly stressful. I'm reminded of Hans Selye's concept of eustress and the resulting awareness that some level of stress--which differs for each of us in different situations--supports optimal performance, but above that level performance declines. The curve below may not be accurate--I suspect that in reality it's quite a bit steeper for most of us, but it serves to illustrate the concept:
Willis's work is an important reminder to pay close attention to the profile of this curve and to insure that we don't push ourselves and others beyond that point of optimal performance where learning ceases. Willis continues:
Neuroimaging and electroencephalography (EEG) brain mapping of subjects in the process of learning new information reveal that the most active areas of the brain when new sensory information is received are the somatosensory cortex areas. Input from each individual sense (hearing, touch, taste, vision, smell) is delivered to these areas and then matched with previously stored related memories...
I'm struck here by the potential importance of all the senses in the learning process and the way in which most learning environments fail to make effective use of any but hearing and vision (and even then rely heavily on monotonous lectures and boring lists of bullet points.) It suggests to me that learning is enhanced when all the senses are stimulated more thoroughly, through movement, vivid imagery and language, and perhaps even taste and smell.
Willis's website is www.RADteach.com, an acronym that stands for "Reach And Discover" but that also has a more specific neurological meaning:
RAD Lessons for the Classroom
A common theme in brain research is that superior cognitive input to the executive function networks is more likely when stress is low and learning experiences are relevant to students. Lessons that are stimulating and challenging are more likely to pass through the reticular activating system (a filter in the lower brain that focuses attention on novel changes perceived in the environment). Classroom experiences that are free of intimidation may help information pass through the amygdala's affective filter. In addition, when classroom activities are pleasurable, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the memory centers and promotes the release of acetylcholinem, which increases focused attention.
The acronym RAD can remind educators of three important neuroscience concepts to consider when preparing lessons:
- Novelty promotes information transmission through the Reticular activating system.
- Stress-free classrooms propel data through the Amygdala's affective filter.
- Pleasurable associations linked with learning are more likely to release more Dopamine...
Planning for the Ideal Emotional Atmosphere
Although it is valuable for teachers to be familiar with neuroscientific research and pass relevant findings along to education stakeholders, it is crucial that educators use classroom strategies that reflect what we know about the brain and learning. So how can teachers create environments where anxiety is low while providing enough challenge and novelty for suitable brain stimulation?
Make it relevant.
When stress in the classroom is getting high, it is often because a lesson is overly abstract or seems irrelevant to students. Teachers can reduce this type of stress by making the lesson more personally interesting and motivating. Ideally, students should be able to answer the question, "Why are we learning about this?" at any point in a lesson...
Give them a break.
...[T]eachers can give students a three-minute vacation to reduce stress. Any pleasurable activity used as a brief break can give the amygdala a chance to cool down and the neurotransmitters time to rebuild.
Create positive associations.
Eliminating all stress from students' lives is impossible. However, even if previous classroom experiences have led to associations that link certain activities, such as memorizing multiplication tables, to a stress response from the amygdala, students can benefit from revisiting the activity without something negative happening. By avoiding stressful practices like calling on students who have not raised their hands, teachers can dampen the stress association...
It is helpful for teachers to guide students in learning how to prioritize information—how to decide what facts are worthy of writing down and reviewing when studying. When teachers demonstrate and explain how they determine which facts are important, students see how to make those judgments for themselves as they read texts and study. Helping students learn how to prioritize and therefore reduce the amount of information they need to deal with is a valuable stress-buster.
Allow independent discovery learning.
Thanks to dopamine release and the consolidation of relational memories, students are more likely to remember and understand what they learn if they find it compelling or have a part in figuring it out for themselves. In addition, when students have some choices in the way they will study or report on something, their motivation will increase and stress will diminish. They will be more accepting of their errors, motivated to try again, and less self-conscious about asking questions.
Whenever we're helping people learn, whether it's in a workshop, a coaching relationship, or just a supportive conversation, we can feel tempted to tell, to advise, to provide answers. My experience as a coach has taught me the importance of resisting this temptation, and Willis's final point above helps to explain the neuroscientific basis for this dynamic. Our brains are wired to learn more effectively when we figure things out for ourselves. (There's a connection here to the value of experiential learning and its emphasis on the "perceptual order" of our direct experience rather than the "conceptual order" stressed in most learning, in William James's language.) This isn't to say that we should never tell or advise or provide answers--there are times when that's what's needed. But when we take those shortcuts, we need to be mindful of their potential to undermine learning.
2. Joyful Learning and David Rock's SCARF ModelWillis's perspective on "joyful learning" is embedded in David Rock's SCARF Model, which provides a useful framework for understanding how our brains respond to social threats and rewards. Rock's acronym stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness, five domains of social experience within which we regularly encounter threats and rewards that trigger responses in the brain similar to those triggered by physical threats, such as pain and hunger, and physical rewards, such as relief and satiation.
Rock writes in "SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others," (available as a PDF on the Resources page of the site promoting Rock's new book, "Your Brain at Work"):
[M]uch of our motivation driving social behavior is governed by an overarching organizing principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward (Gordon, 2000)...[and] several domains of social experience draw upon the same brain networks to maximize reward and minimize threat as the brain networks used for primary survival needs (Lieberman and Eisenberger, 2008). In other words, social needs are treated in much the same way in the brain as the need for food and water.
The SCARF model summarizes these two themes within a framework that captures the common factors that can activate a reward or threat response in social situations. This model can be applied (and tested) in any situation where people collaborate in groups, including all types of workplaces, educational environments, family settings and general social events.
Willis's work provides an vivid example of the SCARF Model in action. As Willis describes the neurology of learning, it's easy to envision specific aspects of stressful learning environments that trigger social threats: Authoritarian teachers and intimidating leaders who diminish others' status. Unclear lessons and irrelevant exercises that fail to provide certainty around learning goals (or the likelihood of achieving them.) Excessive structure and a lack of choice that rob people of their autonomy. A heightened power distance preventing teachers or leaders from developing a sense of connection and relatedness with others. And favoritism or arbitrary rules that undermine fairness.
Rock's model describes a set of neurological dynamics at work in every social setting, but Willis makes clear their vital importance in learning environments. Whenever we're seeking to promote learning, it's essential that we structure the environment to minimize these social threats and cultivate that "atmosphere of exuberant discovery" Willis describes above by promoting social rewards.
As teachers and leaders, we need to take advantage of every opportunity to raise the status of those around us. We need to provide sufficient certainty without stifling creativity, and we need to provide sufficient autonomy without leaving others feeling lost or alone. We need to foster a feeling of connection and relatedness among the diverse members of a group. And we must always be fair.
3. Safety, Trust, Intimacy and Learning
Finally, Willis's essay reminds me of my own belief in the importance of safety, trust and intimacy in any learning environment. As I wrote recently:
The foundational qualities that define every group are the levels of safety, trust and intimacy: Safety = A belief that we won't get hurt. Trust = We mean what we say and we say what we mean. Intimacy = A willingness to make the private public.
When safety, trust and intimacy are established, these qualities support the actions that lead to greater success as a group: experimentation, risk-taking and a willingness to be vulnerable.
When we feel able to experiment, take risks and make ourselves vulnerable, our ability to learn, to increase our self-awareness (and our awareness of others) and to change our behavior in order to achieve our goals more effectively increases dramatically.
Photo by Phineas H. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.