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

Mother-Hawk-Teaching-Young-To-FlyThere’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. 

A sense of safety facilitates learning within the whole brain — from the lofty hemispheres of the cerebrum, right down to the basic level of the hippocampus and the amygdala.

teacher-holding-stickBut 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.  Pink_Floyd_the_Wall_TeacherHowever, 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:  

  1. Before the learning:  Inspire a desire in the student to learn, change and grow.
  2. 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.  

Easy, hunh?

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on September 29, 2009, in Learning, Life. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. this is one of the big problems with religious teaching

    • re: the problem with religious teaching:

      You often hear people complaining about their strict religious instructors growing up, and how that has poisoned their feelings for the religion, for school in general, or for learning itself. There’s a bunch intertwining issues here, and I’m no expert…. here are some thoughts:

      Religious instructors may be selected for the job on the basis of their subject matter knowledge or piety, not their abilities as inspiring and effective teachers. The using of “subject matter experts” instead of “good teachers” is a problem faced by non-religious institutions as well (and so is the issue of “piety” in some cases!).

      Furthermore, when ineffective religious teaching is combined with the force of doctrine and religious coercion, the results for students can be very damaging.

      In places where religion has lost its grip society at large, a religious teacher’s attempts to intimidate students in classroom becomes a sad “throwback” to earlier ages – the teacher is doomed to irrelevance in the eyes of the students (well, those teachers *might* be relevant, in terms of the pain they cause).

      In places where a particular religion imposes its will on society at large, it’s a whole other story.

  2. —————————————–
    September 30, 2009, 3:05pm, J B-F wrote:

    It is hard to learn when you are trying to protect yourself, means all your energy isn’t available.

    Hard to teach, too.

    • Very well put, J… !

      It works both ways, doesn’t it?

      The ideal learning setup will allow both the learner and the instructor to focus their energy on the learning objectives, and not be worried about looking foolish, etc. etc.

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