Post No.: 0395
The animals that (need to) learn the most, and that are the most creative, are those animals that play the most. Playing is essentially about learning – about experimenting and mastering – whether it’s about the capabilities and limits of one’s own body and mind, the laws of motion and how things work in the environment, how to socially interact with others, or whatever. When playing together with others, play improves a child’s social skills and morality (this is because play is voluntary and no one plays together unless they can get along with each other!) and it helps one to conquer one’s fears or train one’s impulses and emotions.
Playing can be rule-based or free (although even fluffy free play has some rules, such as to stay in character or to not hurt other people). The best kind of education and growth is arguably no different to playing!
Apart from moments for playing, the key to effective education in school is the framing of why pupils would like to learn what they could be learning in school. For example, if a pupil wants to make fast cars then she/he needs to understand engineering, and to understand engineering she/he needs to understand science and maths. So, as a teacher, constantly connect the efforts of that pupil today with her/his goal of one day designing and making fast vehicles.
A pupil’s goal or aspiration will be down to that pupil’s own choice, although goals can be inspired or uncovered with help. The main skill of a good teacher is in tailoring and constantly weaving a connection between the efforts of today with the future goals of that pupil, thus linking the efforts of learning a particular subject today with the pupil’s intrinsic motivation for reaching her/his overall goal in the future i.e. ‘to want to do that (e.g. be a designer of fast vehicles) is to want to do this (e.g. care about maths and science)’.
It’s individual for each pupil, thus helping to build these mental, and possibly emotional, connections between their efforts of today and their (even tentative or fantastical) goals of the future needs to be customised for each individual pupil. Building this intrinsic motivation is how to deeply engage pupils, and thus is also how to generate more calm and productive lessons in school. So if you are a teacher – spend time to get onside with your pupils, to connect with them, to know their interests, and build rapport with them first. Meow.
Learning occurs best when the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant i.e. when we are calm; although not when things are too calm to the point of being boring and unchallenging. When highly stressed, our minds and bodies become essentially single-mindedly geared towards our immediate survival rather than learning things for the long-term. Part of being a great teacher is about being emotionally intelligent at all times. The teacher is responsible for the level of engagement in the classroom – a teacher must therefore inspire and motivate and have many of the qualities of a leader, presenter and performer. A lack of engagement could indicate a poor attitude from the pupils but it could instead indicate an un-engaging teacher. (Well one could easily argue that a teacher blaming her/his pupils is really ultimately blaming her/his own quality of teaching and/or levels of expectations, just like a parent who blames her/his own children is really ultimately blaming her/his own quality of parenting (and genetics)!)
Our attention span depends on our individual factors or current state, current environmental factors, and the task at hand – whether it’s tedious, too confusing or just right for us. Flow, which has been mentioned in previous posts before, is the optimal state between boredom and anxiety – when there’s just enough challenge for one’s current ability level. Optimal learning and engagement therefore requires regular, small incremental increases of novelty and challenge to continually ride on this crest between something that’s too personally easy and something that’s too personally difficult as one gets better and better at doing something.
We can yawn in preparation for a taxing challenge, possibly in order to get more oxygen into our system to try to increase our alertness and performance. (Some athletes use smelling salts to temporarily improve their alertness just before key moments, such as lifting a heavy weight.) If the challenge remains too personally taxing though then we might start to feel quite tired and even sleepy. When a lesson is too cognitively taxing, but we do care to learn it, it can become quickly draining. We consolidate memories when we sleep, as if hitting the ‘save’ button, so perhaps this is the body’s way of telling us to metaphorically ‘save what we’ve just learnt so far on the hard drive before the random access memory gets too full’?
But in a school classroom environment, this sleepiness can be interpreted to mean that a lesson was boring for us when it was in fact too mentally tough and therefore confusing or frustrating for us. However, boredom usually elicits fidgeting or being easily distracted rather than sleepiness – an excess of energy for the task at hand rather than a lack of sufficient energy. (Of course, children in school can also feel sleepy because they don’t get enough sleep the nights before hence they’re sleep deprived, and this is a common problem that needs to be addressed too.) A routinely fidgety, disruptive and disinterested pupil might be bored because she/he finds the material under-stimulating i.e. it’s not personally challenging enough to be interesting. Or a pupil might conversely find the material overwhelming and cannot keep up with it so has decided to mentally give up, not care anymore and distract her/himself from the lesson, or alternatively sleep. What will also give it away is that these pupils will seem okay or wide-awake again when a break or lunchtime arrives, or when they’re in a class that’s at the right level of interest and challenge for them.
Either way, whether something is too easy or difficult for a pupil, they’re not personally riding the optimal level of challenge to achieve flow. And it’s down to the skill of a teacher to find out which it is and to tailor the lessons accordingly. This can be incredibly difficult though when classes include pupils with a wide variance of abilities – some will be held back from their fullest potential while others will start to become frustrated with certain subjects, not necessarily because of a lack of initial interest in a subject but because they’re confused and then gradually left behind. So don’t assume that a continually sleepy pupil doesn’t want to learn what’s being taught – it might just be too tough for their current level of abilities. And to carry on with the same lessons regardless or to reprimand them might reduce their motivation and they’ll fall even further behind.
They might also use sleeping and disinterest as self-sabotage strategies to protect their self-esteem i.e. rather than be seen as ‘incapable’ in front of their peers for not grasping the materials, they’d rather show that their failure was not because they couldn’t do it (if only they’d put the effort in) but because they simply couldn’t be bothered or that they didn’t revise. It’s like it’s better to be assumed to be incompetent than proven to be so beyond doubt if they tried their damned best yet still failed. (But the world is not divided between those who can and can’t – it’s divided between those who do and don’t. Post No.: 0316 explained how failure is along the path towards any worthwhile success too.)
This self-sabotage ready-excuse of, “I couldn’t be bothered” in place of, “I don’t understand” only hurts themselves in the long-term though, but their short-term strategy is to preserve what self-esteem they have in front of their peers (for adolescents in particular, their reputation in front of their peers is paramount). They may take the stance that trying hard or caring about grades is ‘not cool’ (but note that only underachievers generally say that!) For the same reason, it’s better for their self-esteem for them to think, rationalise and claim that they are bored rather than unable to keep up with the lessons too, when the latter is the truer explanation. But self-esteem is not as crucial as self-compassion – the former is more narcissistic and defensive (‘I’m not stupid’), while the latter is about acceptance and self-care (‘the way I currently am is okay because I can still grow’).
Such pupils will likely lack self-confidence as a result and this might partly explain why a subset of such pupils will exhibit antisocial and disruptive attitudes, and attempts at belittling and bullying some of the more capable pupils. They may attempt to bring other pupils down to their level because they cannot lift themselves up to compete with theirs’. But we know they really would like to be high achievers too because in those occasional moments when they do achieve highly, they are quick to let others know and they’ll boast and be proud about that A grade they got for that piece of homework they did – grades are suddenly cool now! Feelings of inadequacy are related to bullying, ‘acting big’ and other compensatory behaviours. Young bullies are therefore victims of something themselves (even if it’s their own genetics, although it’s more likely to be their circumstances). And a series of compounding moments in life when young can have far-reaching, ever-reinforcing consequences from then on. Not to say that it’s impossible for paths to change, especially when still young, but an inertia can develop that gets harder to overcome over time.
More reason for teachers to properly identify the true roots of problem behaviours in their pupils, and to address them early and in a compassionate manner. There are causal reasons for everything in life.