Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Friday, July 1, 2011

Summer Reading - Chapter Five

Eric Jensen's Teaching with the Brain in Mind Chapter Five, "Emotional States" discusses how neuroscientists are providing evidence to the fact that we should be more cognizant to the emotional state of our students. Learning is dependent upon how we feel, act, and think. Emotions are crucial in how we create our reality.

Jensen summarizes the research on emotions. Emotions drive attention, create meaning, and have their own memory pathways. they regulate behavior and help us organize our world.
Emotions drive a passion for learning, help our attention span, support persistence or retreat, and provides incentives. Daniel Goleman's work on Emotional Intelligence started in 1995. Just as there are physical states, there are emotional states and this new science is uncovering new things about learning and the brain.

Perhaps the reason emotions has not been on the brain research radar is that emotions are not located in one area of the brain, but are distributed throughout the brain. For example frustration and pain are housed in the anterior cingulate; pleasure from drugs in the nucleus accumbens; and terror in the amygdala which guides decision making. In addition it isn't just the different connections, but also the messengers involved in transporting the different emotions. Further the prescribed drugs some people take that suppress some of the natural brain chemicals causing an imbalance.

Jensen goes on to explore just four of the emotional states our students may find themselves in a classroom. Emotions cause us to remember the highlights of school through field trips, hands on experiments, or a friend rather than a lecture. This is why those out of school always wax nostalgically about school, until they really probe. School was always better when I was a kid. Not so. Jensen has selected four emotional states to concentrate on: fear/threat, joy/pleasure, sadness/disappointment, anticipation/curiosity.

When the brain is faced with fear/threat there are three reactions, fight, escape, freeze. Escaping is no a real option. Students tend to freeze and exchange facial and body language threats. Fighting may occur at class change, in the hallway, or out of school. The chemical reactions happening inside the body and mind of the student have overshadowed any chance of learning. The next thing to happen is the stress level rises. In many situations, moderate stress improves learning, but prolonged and intense stress can and will be very damaging. The difference between useful and dangerous stress is dependent upon our control or assumed control over the event causing stress. The emphasis has been on student stress, but more research is suggesting schools need to examine stress levels in the adults, too.

If the stress level is too much, students tend to drop out. Too much negativity results in bad behavior and choices. On the other hand, when students experience joy/pleasure in the classroom, then learning will occur and had occurred. Dopamine doesn't alert our pleasure neurons, it enhances our ability to pay attention.

Sadness/disappointment connote a negative response. However, sadness/disappointment unlike the stress of fear/threat, may be useful in not repeating the actions that resulted in sadness and disappointment. Being cognizant of the event will provide the learner with fodder to not repeat the event that resulted in sadness/disappointment.

Anticipation/curiosity create a heightened and positive state of hope and vigilance. They are called "appetitive" states because they stimulate the mental appetite. A student has to come to class hungry to learn. This has always been an argument by me for students taking time off between high school and college and between college and grad school. Students need to have a mental appetite to learn as they commence new institutions of learning. What's the rush? In addition, if a teacher is priming the learning process by guaranteeing success, then the learning will improve, success will be achieved as the student anticipates a positive experience. That experiment I tried a number of years ago when I guaranteed 90's to all my students for the semester resulted in 99% success. In fact many students produced more than they ever had and learned more than they thought they could.

So the question is how do we influence these emotional states? Increasing the positive flow of the good chemicals in the students, to help them feel good about themselves is what the student brain craves. What we know about the effect of emotion on the brain is that emotions are ubiquitous, they run our lives. All behavior is connected to our emotions. If a student isn't in the mood to read, s/he won't read. Our states aren't who we are, so be positive in labeling a student by a state. When a student displays a negative state over a prolonged period, help is required. We have mood swings and our emotional state will change very quickly depending upon outside influences like a good grade on a paper as opposed to bad grade. Events influence the chemical flow in our bodies and then our emotions.

Ways to change the emotional state is to ask questions that engage the student by including them in the answer. Not what should this character do, but what would you do if you were this character. Teachers should share their joy in learning. Celebrating student accomplishments is good in any class. Try to incorporate some physical activity in class, moving around, standing up and moving to groups. Debating a point, acting out a scene, or just having a lively discussion will improve attention and stimulate the brain for learning. Chaos always finds its order, especially in a classroom. Allowing students to journal or share their lives with you will engage them and make them feel safe and provide the appetite to learn.

As teachers adjust to emotions, their own and those of their students, learning environments will improve. Again it is more about quality and not quantity. Take time to address emotions, especially tragic ones, joyous ones, and positive emotions that surround us in and out of school. When we ask, "How are you?" expect a detailed answer. Model by giving a detailed response when asked, "How are you?"

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