Learning Under Threat
I have a lot of synonyms for learning. ‘Risk taking’ is one. ‘Truth telling’ is another. A sense of safety is crucial for learning. If there isn’t a sense of safety, it becomes very difficult to learn.
– Canice McGarry
There’s powerful form of learning which takes place when you get out of your natural comfort zone — whether it’s to test your own limits (risk taking) or to become vulnerable to a greater self-understanding (truth telling). Making that leap forward — like a baby hawk following its parent out of the nest and tumbling through the air awkwardly — requires safe conditions.
For some people, this is the allure of certain types of military training… for others, it’s the corporate training workshop/ weekend team-building retreat / 10k race / thesis project / therapy session / etc. etc… the common thread being that in this form of learning , the instructor’s job is to create a safe environment and let the learners take on the responsibility for pushing themselves forward and teaching themselves.
But what about the opposite of safety — what about learning under a feeling of threat?
There’s another powerful form of learning called fear conditioning, which is highly efficient at teaching certain lessons (aka “learning outcomes”), but often not the intended — or desired — lessons. This form of learning places the learning responsibility on the instructor… the learner is a dependent party, acted upon by teacher.
When I started first grade, I had a teacher who had a habit of screaming at certain students and dumping out their desks in front of the whole class, especially those students who were messy or disorganized. I think she came from Transylvania or something… in my mind, I can still hear a shrieking, Eastern European accent berating me for not doing my homework. Apart from a kid once peeing his pants during one of her tirades, she certainly kept a measure of decorum in that classroom — excellent fear conditioning. However, my desk is still messy to this day, so I guess in terms of stated/intended/desired learning outcomes, her methodology was lacking.
(To be clear: 30+ years later, my messy desk isn’t her fault… at this point, I’ll take full responsibility for that! However, her dominating “high -impact” pedagogical style — combined with the mediocrity of subsequent teachers — was definitely responsible for the lack of skill, interest and motivation that me and my classmates displayed for her assigned subjects during first grade, and for many years afterwards. As a teacher, her primary accomplishment was to create some powerful, negative associations. Thankfully she didn’t teach English, Math or General Studies.)
As with any profession, the teaching profession has its talented players, and its less-talented players. Considering what is sometimes at stake though, perhaps it would be wise for teachers to take an educator’s equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath, especially that part where the practitioner pledges at first (and at the very least) to “abstain from doing harm.” Sadly, if you search YouTube for videos of “teacher hitting student,” “teacher beating students” or similar terms, you’ll get hundreds of results. Well, at least the kids have cellphone cameras these days…
None of this is to diminish the undeniable role of the Teacher as Motivator. Using fear to motivate is easy, and while it’s a powerful motivator, it’s also very limited and unpredictable in its effects… especially when the instructor lets his/her guard down or leaves the scene. Finding a way for learners to feel secure enough to challenge themselves takes a lot more work up front, but in the long term, it makes an instructor’s job a lot easier… and a lot more effective.
As I currently see it, the role of teacher as an effective motivator is twofold:
- Before the learning: Inspire a desire in the student to learn, change and grow.
- After the learning: Generate interest and a sense of accountability in the student to reinforce, apply and extend the learning.
Combine this with having a deep understanding of (a) the student, (b) what the learning objectives specifically are, and (c) how the attainment of those objectives will be positively confirmed, and you’ve got a great teacher!
Oh yeah, those things and also (d) good communication skills, (e) genuine sense of inquiry, (f) positive attitude, (g) respect for the Other, (h) passion for learning, (i) caring, (j) flexibility and (k) external focus.