The Importance of Joyful Learning

The Importance of Joyful Learning

"Elements of instruction...should be presented to the mind of a child; however, they should not be presented under any notion of forceful education. A freeman ought not be a slave in the acquisition of knowledge of any kind. Compulsory bodily exercise does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind." Plato 360 BC

Over the years I have had a few parents remark that they were worried that their children were having too much fun in school and that we should be pushing their children harder.  Although I understand the concern that parents have that their friend’s child might have more homework or more pressure to perform on written tests, I am concerned that some people feel that children actually learn better when they are under stress. 

Over 2000 years ago Plato recognized that forced learning is quickly forgotten.   Neuroscience and incredible advances in brain scanning technology over the past two decades have backed up Plato’s observations and have literally shown us that children learn best when they are in a happy and stress free environment. Dr. Judy Willis, M.D., who is both a neurologist and a classroom teacher, addressed the importance of “joyful learning” in an article in Psychology Today Online entitled “Curiouser and Curiouser”, Plato Under a Brain Scanner.  In the article, she explains that brain research clearly supports the need to avoid forced instruction and the importance of providing children with a stress free environment of joyful learning.

When discussing external stimuli Dr. Willis states, “Getting into the brain is like getting into an exclusive nightclub where only the glamorous few are selected at the door”. Once the messages are inside the club (our brain), the level of stress determines what impulses are allowed to enter the “upper VIP lounge” where our highest cognition and emotional thinking takes place.

As part of our survival instincts, the brain gives priority to potential threats.  Every second, only a few thousand bits of sensory information, out of the millions of bits of information being sent from the sensory and internal organs, are actually noticed by the brain.  The information that is noticed is then filtered by a primitive network of cells in the lower brain stem.  This primitive network, called the RAS, favors the intake of sensations that are most critical to survival. Therefore, when a threat is perceived, the RAS automatically selects the sensory input and directs it to the lower brain where the involuntary survival response is to fight, flee, or freeze. To save time and provide a much faster response to the threat, very little thinking is involved, or even allowed, in this process.   This survival-directed filter is critical for the continued existence of animals in the wild and it has not changed significantly in our brains as humans have evolved. 

The classroom implications of stimuli filtering and involuntary survival responses to perceived threat stimuli are profoundly significant.

When a child’s brain perceives threat (punishment or embarrassment in front of classmates, pressure from a high stakes test, or anxiety that they will make an error because they are not fluent in the language) the primitive cell network lets in only what is perceived as relevant to the threat. Unless the perception of threat is reduced, the brain fulfills its primary job - protecting the child from harm. In this stressed state, "attention" is not under the child’s control.  The lesson or directions from the teacher fall on deaf ears while the lower brain stops the thinking process and decides whether to fight, flee or freeze.

In other words, when a student’s stress level is low their brain is open to learning.  When the stress level is high, the brain goes into survival mode. 

Therefore, when teachers create a joyful atmosphere that promotes curiosity and openness to new learning, it is much more likely that the student will carry the information into their long-term memory.  

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” Albert Einstein

Posted on 13 Apr 2018, 17:32 - Category: Learning

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