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News

The Brains Behind Learning, Part 8

February 13,2013

by Gretchen Cruden

Ivan Pavlov, with his signature long, white beard and slightly rotund figure, could have played a perfect Santa in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He even had a penchant for ringing a bell! But instead, our dear Pavlov cut a path deep and wide in the field of psychology that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1904. 

Perhaps one of Pavlov’s greatest discoveries was his Theory of Classical Conditioning. To understand his theory, we need to understand Norka. Almost every household in America has a Norka!

Norka was a dog. And like any other dog, at the sound of food being prepared, Norka would get antsy, prance about and start to drool, drool, drool. Pretty standard-edition dog stuff really. But Pavlov decided he wanted to explore the drool. Interesting guy that Pavlov. He rang a bell every time he was preparing Norka’s food. Ring, ring, ring, + food = drool, drool, drool. Simple equation.

Then things got tricky, as Pavlov threw the proverbial fake tennis ball. He changed the equation on poor Norka. Ring, ring, ring and then…nothing. BUT DROOL NORKA DID! What? Pavlov determined that Norka (and about 40 other dogs he experimented on) had learned to associate the sound of a bell with food, hence the drool. Hmm, the brain had rewired itself. This rewiring he called his Theory of Classical Conditioning.

You can see classical conditioning every day in your life. Think of a pickle and, assuming you like pickles, your mouth waters. The phone rings in the middle of the night, and your heart pounds. Hear the sound of a bath running and your body automatically relaxes. It is everywhere.

But, what about in the world of teaching and in learning? Does classical conditioning play a role? The quick answer? You bet it does! Sometimes for the good, and sometimes for the not-so-good. Today we will focus on the latter. The rest of this article may not apply to all of you; however, I am thinking if we all can be honest, it probably does.

So here goes. Picture it: a nice, sunny morning as you and your child break out your math textbook for today’s lesson. Your child looks up at you lovingly and says, “Gee, I sure do love doing math with you. You make it so easy and never get frustrated with me when you have to go over the same problem again, and again, and again. Thanks for being you. You are the best!” Goosebumps of sweetness. Hallmark has nothing on this moment. Ahh, this is what teaching your child is all about.

Okay, that was for someone else and I am not sure who. But the rest of the article most certainly does not apply to them and they are free to stop reading now.

So, here goes again. Reality. Picture it: a grey morning. The forty-fifth grey morning in a row. Your child finally finds the math worksheet you spent an hour going over with him or her as you not-so silently mutter to yourself that you are going to create an organized system for all these worksheets if it is the last thing you do. You are frustrated it took so long to get started as you put a new set of problems in front of your child and say it is time to do some math. Groan. Math. More frustration. Your child begins to squirm and chew on a pencil. There is a request to get a glass of water. You see the half-full glass right there on the table and deny the request. A long pause before your child slowly, very slowly, writes his or her name at the top of the worksheet. Why? Why does your child do this? It is not going to get confused anyone else’s worksheet?! Part of you secretly thinks it is just to drive you crazy. You look away and let your child have this moment of personal control. After a long interval of staring at the paper, your child looks up.

Child: I just don’t get it.

Patient Parent: (YES! Forward movement finally!) What honey? What don’t you get?

Child: Why you won’t just let me get glass of water?

Patient Parent: (I will let you imagine the rest of the exchange…)

Maybe not every day is like this and maybe not in every subject, but I am going to take a wild guess that there are days like this and within days, there are subjects like this. Yes? What is going on and what does it have to do with classical conditioning?

Let’s step back a moment and really reflect on our teaching of our children. Ask yourself, is there a certain subject you struggle with in teaching your child? Are there certain situations you can feel your frustration rising? Good news, it happens to the best of us – you are not alone. Even better news? You can have strategies in place to work with these feelings of frustration. Why should you put these in place? Well, because of the bad news…

In situations like the above example, classical conditioning is working absolutely against you. When a learning environment has a consistent pattern of stress and frustration for either the learner or the teacher, cortisol is released in the brain of both people. Cortisol is a neurotransmitter that does all sorts of good things in the body and brain, such as regulating insulin levels, and prepares your body to face physical challenges. But, in too high of quantities over too long of a period of time, it can be damaging in many ways. 

Cortisol diverts glucose in the blood to the largest muscles groups in a person’s body in preparation for “Fight or Flight” and thus, the amount of glucose that reaches the brain's hippocampus is diminished. Glucose is a key component in creating new memories, thus, less glucose equals impaired memory. Not a good situation for learning.

Now, how do we know this? James l. McGaugh, Ph.D., did a series of tests on different groups of mice to test cortisol’s effect on memory. He gave three different groups of mice a bit of an electric shock at four hours, 30 minutes and two minutes, respectively, prior to turning them loose to run a maze they had already learned. The mice in the four-hour group and the two-minute group zipped through, no problem. However, the 30-minute group had a most terrible time. They wandered about as if they had never even seen a maze before. What was going on in their little minds?

McGaugh concluded that the cortisol released in the brains of the mice four hours prior to the running of the maze had dissipated and did not have any lingering effects, while at the two minute mark, the cortisol had not reached its strongest impact yet. However, it appeared the 30-minute mark was in the golden window for memory disruption and caused the mice to stagger about in the mazes, unfocused and totally lost; much like a tween facing the task of making equivalent fractions.

Which brings us back to our little story from above. Remember the frustration of your child not finding the worksheet, the blank staring at the page, the maddeningly slow action of getting to work and the asking for water? All of these are classic signs of a defense mechanism called “Avoidance Behaviors,” which, as the name implies, is not a good way to embrace learning.

Children trying to avoid their learning, repeatedly, in the same subject pretty much every day, have probably experienced stress at some point in that area. This stress has released cortisol and your child may have come to subconsciously associate the release of cortisol with the learning event itself. In other words, your child has become classically conditioned in a way that is not so good (but one must admit it is still better than drooling!). Let’s take a look at this situation more closely.

Your child was asked to find his or her worksheet (some stress released as your child has no idea where it is). Your child finally finds it but, knowing he or she is supposed to start working on it, your child is confused by it and the last time he or she worked on it, things did not end such a good note (more cortisol released). Your child dawdles (trying to avoid more cortisol from being released, but unfortunately, this just moves your child toward that oh-so-golden 30-minute mark of total forgetfulness) and then the blow-up comes when water is requested (alert, alert, alert – cortisol overload) and then your child does start on it and struggles through a fog of memory disruption until the work is finally completed and put it somewhere that will surely be forgotten so the whole process can start over the next day. Whew – tiring!

On top of all of this cortisol release, your child now associates the mere mentioning of math with feelings of confusion and frustration. For your child, the equation went from: math + frustration = bad feelings, to: math = bad feelings. Oh, no. Not good. Very Norka.

Before you panic, you need to keep a few things in mind. One, this type of classical conditioning does not happen in just one or two sittings – it takes some time. One bad day of math does not make a Norka. Whew…

Two, whatever has been learned in life, can be unlearned. This is great news and just how this “unlearning” happens will be the subject of the next article. Until then, happy learning! 


A passion for learning and a desire to help kids be incredibly strong thinkers and remain joyful in their learning are the driving forces behind Gretchen Cruden's thirteen years of public school teaching at the middle and high school grade levels. She holds a BA in Education, a BS in Biology, an MA in Teaching and is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) and an NBCT Facilitator. Her background in science, coupled with her experience in education fuel an intense interest in the emerging field of neuro-education and its application to student learning.