I believe all young children are natural scientists. What is science after all but simply exploring how the world works? It is our very nature to experiment, see the results, and draw conclusions. My brother at the age of two once sat on the floor at the same moment my mother happened to turn off the lights. He immediately built that association in his brain and tried to make the light go off again and again by plopping his little butt to the ground. There is science already in a two year old mind. Our natural homo sapien brain, interacts with the world and tries to figure out cause and effect.
Walk into any elementary school and see first and second graders agog with wonder over the simple science activities of the age, observing the classroom hamster, learning about the weather and going outside to look at clouds, playing with tadpoles, and reading about dinosaurs.
By the time I see students at age 14, 15 or 16, many of them are sour on science. “I can’t do science” a student will sometimes confide after getting comfortable enough with me to make this admission, often while squirming in her seat, flushing and averting her eyes. What has happened in those intervening years to shutdown that naturally curious and enthusiastic mind?
There are many reasons I suspect, but years of accumulated “handler error” is the one I want to discuss here. When a puppy is not learning what the human is trying to teach him, trust me, it is handler error, not a puppy’s lack of ability to learn simple cues such as “sit.” (The reader may want to go back and read the earlier post “Of Kids and Dogs” for background on why I bring up dogs here.)
Let us trace how learning happens. In James Zoll’s book “The Art of Changing the Brain” we are presented with the concept of the “learning cycle.” The learning cycle begins with being exposed to information, then proceeds to processing that information internally, and forming it into a conceptual idea. Finally there is testing that concept in some way. For example, a student might begin the cycle by hearing a teacher’s explanation, viewing a video, or reading an assignment. Next this information gets processed in the brain, where she forms a conceptual model of what it all means or how the idea works. Finally the student will “test” her understanding by writing an answer on a worksheet, or speaking up in class in response to a teacher’s question.
It is at this point where the response the student gets from her environment can have a big impact on how she feels. It turns out that the emotions underlying all of this are absolutely critical to the outcome. If the other kids laugh at her, or she gets a bad mark on the worksheet or the teacher says “No, that’s wrong!” then the child’s body can secrete stress hormones, creating a very unpleasant sensation. The child will likely change her behavior for the next learning experience in an attempt to avoid this consequence. This is the basis for Negative Reinforcement learning and it results in an ever decreasing range of behaviors and eventually a state of “shut down” or “learned helplessness” when brought to the extreme. This is a student who sits quietly in her seat but does not trust herself to try or to think.
On the other hand, if the child is rewarded for her attempts, coached about how to refine her answer (we call this “reinforcing successive approximations”) then the child’s brain might secrete the rewarding chemical dopamine. This learning process is therefore enjoyable and she will be motivated to try again. This is the basis for Positive Reinforcement learning. Because the learning experience creates rewarding brain chemistry, learning itself becomes a pleasurable and actually somewhat addictive activity!
Emotions have biochemical origins. They are important. They are really at the heart of success or failure. I believe we as educators should be paying more attention to the emotional state of our learners and focusing less on critiquing the exact correctness of their answers or insisting on perfect “properness” of their behavior in class. Those other two aspects will come along nicely if we manage things just right, but meanwhile our students’ motivation, resilience and ultimately achievement is at stake.
Once again dogs can teach us so much about learning. A dog taught with “leash corrections” and Negative Reinforcement learns in order to avoid unpleasant consequences. But observe a dog trained this way and see his affect is flat. He is dull in the eye and subdued in his body language. Because he has learned primarily through negative means, he is not intrinsically motivated to perform the behaviors he has been taught. If the threat of consequences is removed, (the owner relaxes his vigilance) the dog is likely to stop doing the behavior the owner desires. The owner then resumes the Negative Reinforcement. Unfortunately the owner experiences a reward for his own actions by seeing his dog then do what he wants him to do. You can see it is a vicious cycle. (We teachers are not immune from this pitfall either.)
Here is a very clear example of “handler error” in the extreme.
On the contrary, watch a dog who has learned through Positive, force-free methods and you will see joy in his demeanor. He will look happily at his owner and offer behaviors in an attempt to gain rewards and therefore experience the dopamine releases. He is an eager learner, and cannot wait for another challenge. He is resilient if he “guesses wrong” and has many more “tries” in him without giving up.
Now compare this video with the last one. Really, watch this! It is beautiful! These are the “Advanced Placement” students of the dog world. These are happy dogs performing behaviors that can only be taught by the purposeful elevation of rewarding brain chemicals, through the learning process!
Can we as educators learn something from these examples that we can apply to our students? I believe we can! I am moved to tears of inspiration by that video of Emily Larlham working with her dogs. Isn’t this what we hope for our human students, to be eager and resilient learners who are doing amazing things we, and they never even imagined they could do?!