It is not unheard of for someone to look back on their upbringing and marvel at how they could have been raised by same parents in the same house and with same conditions as their siblings to the end of flourishing into a lively, productive adult while their sibling struggles to find solid footing in a meaningful existence. It’s easy enough to guess that conditions alone are not enough to predict the way a child will emerge into adulthood. It’s commonsensical to assume that people are all different and how we view the world and our experiences would have impact on who we become. Yet, even with countless examples of the same events ultimately shaking out to be described as very different experiences by the folks sharing them, for quite a long time, in the area of education, past expectations have been that if the teaching event is high quality enough, the students should all share the same learning experience. To be sure, I am stating this in oversimplified laymen’s terms, as I am not an educator. However, I am a student—since I was 5 years old—and I do know that the system of uniformity and comparison under which I was educated did not seem to take into account any variables of my personhood (outside of grouping by age) that might lend to how, what, when and why I might learn best. So when I heard her Ed talk (see link above), my interest lit right up.
Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, as a affective neuroscientist, education researcher and former teacher, personifies the intersection between the varying fields of study helping to shift the lens through which we examine how what we learn and the way we learn it, that is, what strikes us as memorable and relevant, can be impacted by the emotions and cultural perspectives. While she advances the idea that students would benefit from teachers delivering lesson plans that integrate emotional experiences, she is also careful to express the importance of avoiding inadequate or overreaching responses to neuroscience research and she offers strategies to do so. She calls for creative and collaborative cross talk between educators and neuroscientists. This Immordino-Yang explains would help pave the way for the most creative questions to be pursued in the field of science.
So, what does our daily decision making have to do with the wellness of our brain’s emotional centers? According to Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio…much. Their research raises questions about how our ability to make judgements day-to-day relies on our brain’s ability to process choices through a sense of right and wrong and the calculation of risk. You see, like pedals on a bicycle, to keep things rolling along smoothly, logic and emotional feelings work in tandem, creating a point-of-reference by which we avoid social discomfort or disapproval. In the absence of this coalition, one might be more likely to be more cavalier in his actions than social rules dictate. Research suggests that emotions may be the stuff that our unique capacities to function are made of. We are motivated, inspired, moved, cautioned and driven by emotions in a way that makes learning applicable for each of us in a unique way.
Neuroscientifically speaking, recent years have seen an upgrade in thinking to an understanding that affective thinking systems and cognitive thinking skills, including recalling memories, deep thinking and making decisions that matter, operate by some of the same neurological processes. In other words, our beautiful brains have evolved and these processes activate common areas in the brain. And, they do so to the extent that if something doesn’t really matter, it won’t earn real estate in the mind because the brain won’t be bothered processing it. And if the brain doesn’t think it’s important how can we learn it? And, educationally speaking, this is a conundrum worth drumming up some attention, because while there have been some changes in educational methods that reflect this reality, Immordino-Yang and Damasio make the point that for a long time, teaching methods have approached the two skills as separate.
Immordino-Yang, as a young teacher, had an aha moment. She noticed that her student’s learning was being influenced by the connections they could make between the lesson content’s and their personal, social and emotional experiences. She was provoked to dig into more research and her subsequent questions emerged as the theory that emotions are important to learning in ways that will extend beyond classroom performance and test scores. That emotions are not only important but integral to helping learners integrate information or skill in a deep, organic way that can then be negotiated in the world.
The scientist educator also noticed something else in her quest. She also found evidence of the evolutionary nature of the brain. That is, emotions which drive our basic needs for safety, comfort and growth and the survival mechanism that has always been responsible for keeping us from becoming tiger food light up the same areas of the brain. This might mean that the only thing worse than being chased down and eaten by a tiger is thinking you’re being chased down by a tiger and are going to be eaten. That tiger in the imagination may present in the form of an SAT, disapproval of a parent, ridicule of a peer or self-loathing and when it does, the emotions are processed no differently from those of real events. The point is, how a student perceives what might happen, what did happen or what should happen—or what is good, bad, right, or wrong—regarding the most important aspect of their life can also affect their learning. .
So, the idea that our human experiences real or imagined, and how we feel about them, cannot not be extracted from the collection of thoughts that make up our mind, and therefore, become our experiences, abides by the notion that we are each multiple forms of the same substance—light, vibration, energy. And the idea that taking an expanded look into what learning looks like, means students can perhaps step into a classroom with their mind, body and soul, encounter information that feeds the totality of who they are, utilize experiences that in past might have provided a distraction to learning, and walk away continuing the learn-burn even while contributing what they have into the world. That sounds to me like thriving above and beyond surviving. As the world becomes more conscious by the minute, meaningfulness will become a prerequisite to anything we do. The long path of education (K-12, higher education and graduate programs, etc.) can be exhausting and disaffecting or it can be expansive, cultivating and renewing. As a student, across time, I have experienced both. And to the extent that technology and research is allowing us to know ourself (the body of humanity) better, I am appreciative of the push to do the work, have the talks, share the information and take the next steps to allow creativity to thrive in relating to one another in education and every way.