Monday, January 7, 2013

Rewiring Our Feelings

James E. Zull's book The Art of Changing the Brain makes a very useful connection between emotions and learning. Traditional education and scholarship has worked hard to minimize emotions within the Academy, and if Zull is correct, then this is most unfortunate. Our brains are wired for emotions, and teaching and learning suffer when we ignore or minimized emotions both in teachers and students. Humans cannot help but respond positively to things that enable pleasure and control and respond negatively to those things that enable pain and loss of control. Learning involves emotions. As Zull says, "Not only is knowing a feeling, getting to knowing [italics in original] is a feeling" (73).

Our feelings determine our attitudes about a teacher, a class, a subject, and those feelings are fixed by the brain before we are even aware of them. Zull explains how sensory impressions bypass our conscious brain and go straight to the amygdala, where they are assessed for threats. For anything that threatens pain or loss of control, the amygdala throws us into fight or flight mode, immediately and without question. The resulting feelings are very difficult to change through the conscious mind. If we don't like a class, teacher, or subject, then we just won't like it.

The problem is that the brain is a battleground for competing attention centers, and reason does not compete so well with emotion. It is hard to attend to a lesson when the amygdala senses loss of control or painful experiences ahead. We teachers can help a student's brain focus its attention through pleasure and movement, connection with people, awareness of the relevance of the material to the brain's identity, a sense of control, and other techniques. People can respond when, first, they are not distracted by threats of failure, pain, and loss of control, and second, when they sense relevance, control, joy, and play in what they are asked to do.

This suggests to me that my classes should begin with some task high in sensory input and something that students can almost certainly achieve, will want to achieve, and will enjoy achieving. I've been starting my writing classes by having students send text messages to someone outside of class, telling them what they are doing. The replies are often humorous, and the task is delightfully unexpected by the students. It demonstrates that they already know how to use writing as a tool for communicating with others. Now, they just have to learn how to use writing in a different, more academic context. I should be able to think of other opening tasks. Any suggestions?
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