We often criticize changes in education based upon how things used to work when we were in school. The “if it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for them” attitude makes sense, especially when you’ve spent years finding your footing in the classroom, creating routines that work, and amassing resources that you’ve mastered using. Here’s the problem, yes, it may get students to remember information long enough to bubble in an answer sheet, but they forget after.
Here’s an example. I was talking with a few high school friends and some of my teachers. We were talking about an interaction with one teacher over 10 years ago. Out of the 6 of us, only 4 remembered this particular teacher even existed. If that doesn’t convince you that relying on memory to determine the course of present day practices is one of the dumbest things we do, allow me to continue. Of the 4 that remembered this teacher existed, only 1 remembered his name. All 4 of us remembered generally the story about this teacher doing a tai chi demo at school, but not one of us had the same memory about the demo. Some thought there was a student volunteer, but disputed who the student was. All of us had a different location in mind where the demo took place. The point is that none of us actually remember the truth. The point is that our memories are liars.
That 15 mile walk in the rain to and from school that you remember? Probably only half a mile. That uppercut the teacher threw you for stumbling on your times tables? Maybe that never actually happened. All the learning you did because your teacher stood there and lectured day in and day out? More than likely just a sliver of the truth. Do you remember the angst, boredom, and restlessness? What could you have learned if you had been taught in a different way? Not saying you’re completely wrong, but our brain exaggerates so we need to be careful.
Now for the brain science.
Studies show that there’s a strong connection between emotions and memory. The part of our brain that relays both positive and negative emotions (the amygdala) talks with the long term memory part (the hippocampus) and the seeing part (visual cortex) when emotions are happening. The brain goes on high alert when emotionally stimulated. This means that the central detail may be right but everything else has been changed into an action movie by your brain. In my story, the true part was that there was a teacher that knew Tai Chi and I thought it was cool. Everything else is suspect.
What does this mean in the classroom? Happy and excited students learn better and create lasting connections with the content. I remember things that I thought was cool or my teacher made me feel good about learning. Everything else I’ve just been learning in real time and retroactively plugging in to my high school brain when I get angry about being told to change my instruction.
We have to understand what is drawing our students’ focus and why. If that upsetting text or concern about home life is in control, the student is focused there. Why do we have to make classes more stimulating to help our kids learn? Because everything else has ratcheted up the stimulation so we have to compete if we want them to focus on all the things we as teachers have to offer.
The counter argument I can already hear from my own parents is “the principal’s paddle and the switches on that tree kept me focused.” That very well may be true. Negative emotions can motivate action, but research also show that positive emotions 1. create stronger connections and 2. don’t create long term damage that cripples learning and focus in the future.
Yes, there’s more than one way to motivate a child, but just because something we “remember” working in the past had some success doesn’t mean it’s the best option. My dad yelled a lot when I would mess up and sometimes when I didn’t. I’m damaged by it. Did I turn out ok? Sure, more or less. I have a job and health insurance so I’d say I’m doing ok, but that doesn’t mean he was right.
Something working doesn’t mean that nothing else works or that there will never be something that works better. Times are changing. The world is changing. Education isn’t the same anymore because our kids are don’t live the same lives we lived when we were younger. Sure, the guts are the same. Curiosity, mischief, and the constant seeking of approval are still the vast majority of the teenage experience. What’s changed is everything else, and if the goal is to equip our kids with information that is essential to them being able to survive in this new world, then we should be constantly evolving as educators, not trying to turn back the clock and stymie our growth and theirs.
Why Student Emotions Matter
Student Standardized Texting Anxiety
Why Student Failure Isn't the end of the world
Students, Teachers, and Technology in Dallas
New Yorker Memory Article