The Brains Behind Learning, Part 9

February 20,2013

by Gretchen Cruden

Let the unlearning begin! Of what? Well, all that is of classical type of course…classically conditioned that is!

Classical conditioning is the process by which the brain rewires itself upon repeated exposure to stimuli to connect two unrelated experiences. In the world of psychology, the gold standard is getting a dog to drool when you ring a bell. In the world of education, it is getting a child to love learning when he or she is exposed to knowledge.

But, as we have learned in the previous article, things can go awry. A child may begin to dread the experience of learning because the child has associated the process with uncomfortable emotions, such as frustration, anger and fear. These emotions release large amounts of cortisol, which stymie the learning process even further. What to do? How do you unlearn in such a case?

To begin with, there will need to be honesty and communication surrounding this situation. The following questions may be uncomfortable questions to reflect upon. No one wants to think they may be playing a role in the struggles their child is facing. But, whenever learning is occurring, there are at least two people involved: the learner and the teacher. Exploring what emotions and actions each participant is bringing to the table is hugely important in creating a better learning environment.

With this in mind, think about the learning going on in your child’s education that you would like to improve and ask yourself the following questions.

When you sit down to learn, is there a familiar pattern to the situation? 

Familiar patterns lead to classical conditioning. When you habitually plump your pillow at bedtime, there is an increase in melatonin in response to this action that helps make you feel sleepier. Your brain is acting in response to environmental cues. Ahh…feels nice, yes?

But what about when your child sits down to learn and immediately feels stress? One place to start is to break the pattern of what “sitting down to learn” looks like. Perhaps start with changing the time of day you do your lessons, the physical place you do your lessons, the order in which your do your lessons. Any or all of these actions changes the environmental cues that have played a role in the classical conditioning to this point. They help to break the cycle.

Now, simply changing these things without changing anything else will only result in new classical conditioning to the new physical environment given time. Read the following questions and reflect on them deeply. Make the changes needed that are embedded in the following questions and then make the changes in the learning environment.

Have you prepared the lesson and the learning environment to facilitate the smoothest experience possible? Are the lessons organized in a manner that makes sense? Are the papers, books, and materials required for the lesson all readily available?

When you think about this set of questions, do you smile because you know you are the organizational guru of the neighborhood? Not only are your child’s assignments all ready to go before the lesson even begins, they are color-coded to which child they belong and will be stored along with their other work in an electronic portfolio you update daily. Good. You have got it down.

If you are not the aforementioned guru, take heart. There are simple ways to tackle the beast of getting organized. Do some research and check out websites such as http://organizedhome.com/family-ties/homeschool-get-organized for some good ideas or read the book, The Organized Homeschooler by Vicki Caruana . Whatever method of organization you decide to use, make sure it works for your child too.

But, why does all this matter? If every lesson begins with a struggle to find the papers and books needed for the lesson, there is undue stress brought in. Eliminate this stress from the equation of the classical conditioning that may have occurred in the past and you will see different results. 

Also, studies out of the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute showed a direct correlation between the amount of visual clutter in an environment and the brain’s ability to focus on and process new information. The more clutter, the less focus. Reduce the clutter, increase the focus. Also, having an organized work area reduces the amount of misplaced work and thereby, reduces the stress hormone cortisol. Less cortisol equates to better focus as well. 

Are you fully confident in your ability to teach your child the subject that is seemingly becoming an issue or are you unsure of your abilities? 

Now, onto a harder question: how capable do you feel in teaching your child the subject matter? Remember, it is important to be honest with yourself. If you know the material inside and out, you are probably fairly confident that you can help your child grasp the information. But often, curriculum presents information that is new to you or in a way that is new to you. The latter is especially true in math. Being unfamiliar with the material you are to teach reduces your effectiveness for a multitude of reasons. Namely, you may not have enough background information in the subject to make as many connections between the material and other information. This loss of connection between the new knowledge and your prior knowledge leaves you not only feeling at a loss as to how to teach it, but also can make you feel anxious. Anxiety releases cortisol. Cortisol reduces thinking. So, what to do?

Remove the anxiety. Let it be okay, more than okay even, that you do not know the answer to all of the questions your child will have about the material. Let it be okay that you are learning right along with your child. Let your child see the delight in your own experience of learning. About to tackle Greek mythology and all you have to go on is that Clash of the Titans was a great movie? Start there. Perhaps not with the movie itself as it was pretty violent and would release far too much cortisol, but start where you are at. Show your child how you go about learning too. Hit the library, talk to people, call your CVA teacher, research online and let your child see how learning develops from your end of things too. Learning is not the sole property of the child and teaching is not the sole property of the teacher. Things are much more exciting when they can be shared endeavors! 

Are you modeling in a positive manner how to handle feelings of frustration, anger, or fear or are your child’s actions simply mimicry of your own?

This is perhaps the most difficult question to reflect upon and answer if the answer is ‘no’. It may also be the greatest influence on the learning. It does not take a neuroscientist to easily understand that the emotions you express directly influence the emotions your child will experience, and hence the chemicals released in his or her brain. If the parent is frustrated or angry, the child’s brain will be washed in cortisol, and learning will come to a standstill. It is that simple.

There are many reasons why you may be frustrated in teaching. We have tackled two big ones already: organization and preparation. Perhaps the last relates to how you feel about your role in teaching your child. Are their successes a reflection of your success? Are their failures your failures? If this is the case, you should know that one of the greatest things about learning is that it is never so black and white. Success and failure are deeply intertwined as Edison captured in his quote, “We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb.” What a great way to think about failure. And about success!

It is hard to determine what may or may not be driving your emotional response to your child as every situation is different. Teaching is hard work and it is bound to be emotionally challenging at times. Take some time, talk to other parents that are teaching their children, look online at chat groups, talk to your spouse. Be honest with how you are feeling and look for solutions. Once you have an idea of what role you are playing in bringing negative emotions to the table, you will have a better jump-off point to make changes. 

All of these actions, from getting better organized to changing your own emotional reactions, are aimed at changing the behaviors of you, the parent, in the dynamics of surrounding the learning of your child. Anything you can do to reduce stress will in turn reduce cortisol. Less cortisol increases learning. It will change the classical conditioning at play.

In the next edition we will explore what actions students can take to reduce cortisol for themselves.

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.