Work harder, you can do it. Push harder, you can do it! These words of encouragement only work when you have to repeat the same learned behaviors. When learning, we need to keep our intensity level low. We need to allow ourselves to create new habits. We need to be relaxed. – Barry Gelston, M.Ed.
As parents, educators, and learners we know the experience of trying to learn something new when we are feeling intense emotions. We may be comfortable doing the same old thing while we are aroused, but it feels nearly impossible to do something new.
My experience in supporting my learning and others during intense situations starts with my study of motivation theory when it was vogue to study behaviorism. My favorite theorist at the time was Clark Hull who proved that there was a mathematical model that linked stimulus and response which could predict behavior by taking into account motivation. He was able to show that biological drive (motivation) interacts with learned behavior at different levels when given a stimulus. In other words, a hungry rat will run a maze when it is hungry and at best may saunter when it is not hungry.
When I learned this theory it made sense to me on a visceral level. I could feel my innate drive at a moment scale my learned behaviors. I could feel that the more energy I felt in my system the more driven I felt to complete a related task. However, I also learned the opposite. I learned that intensity kept me from learning new behaviors and instead I repeated the older stronger habits. Furthermore, when learning, I had to undo my bad habits and it could only happen during times of relaxation.
It turns out that there was another theory which explained this experience called the Yerkes-Dodson law. Levels of arousal can either positively or negatively effect completion of a behavior. The second part of the theory explains that mental processes decrease during times of high arousal.
As a Math Educator, I feel the effects of these laws with kids in a very visceral way. Gifted learners come to me after they have experienced their own version of trauma while learning math.
At its core, getting a question wrong in math is inconsequential. However, learners come to me feeling very intensely about math. With gifted kiddos, adding intensity to already intense children is adding fuel to the fire.
As a math educator, I have limited time to discover the root cause of the initial trauma and am I not a Psychotherapist. But what I can do is apply what I have learned above.
When working with a new student, my priority is to begin to drain the learning environment of intensity. My method is to find initial places of relaxation and fortunately most learners respond to my type of joyful learning environment. We calm down over time. We laugh. We chuckle at mistakes. We play at problems. I make mistakes and own up to them as the nothing burgers that they are.
My other priority is to work with the family to take the intensity out of math for them. The best intentioned parents and teachers have often learned from their best intentioned parents, teachers, and peers cultural demands and habits that increase anxiety and stress. Parents and teachers need to feel permission to let go of the demands and voices in their heads which drive them and overwhelm learning.
Learning and enjoying math is about finding an emotional balance and attitude that gets us into a zone where we can be relaxed, play at problem solving, and enjoy the process of math. Before worrying about teaching techniques, the first step in education is to let go of intensity. Without letting go of the intensity, the shades go down over our senses and we shut down. For each learner the shutting down may look different based on their personalities. Keep in mind that they are just protecting themselves from pain.
In closing, before we can learn something new, we need to chill out! How you do that is up to you and how it work in your environment and personal needs.
Please don’t feel pressured for your gifted child or student to keep up with the Einsteins. By helping your family or students build a calm learning environment, the gifted child will have a fresh start to learn. Take a break, come back to it later. If you are homeschooling, do something else for a while. Whatever demand that the world has for you to keep math education moving along at a particular pace, don’t listen. That pressure and intensity is shutting someone down and keeping them from enjoying math the way that it could be.
What are your experiences in this area? How do you see your personal and cultural demands impact either supporting or being a math learner? Let me know what you think.