Updated: May 19
Captain’s Blog: 003
Who was your favorite teacher? Most people can spontaneously blurt-out that teacher’s name like a reflex. Some folks can even toss-in the grade level to boot. Mrs. Smith in the fifth grade.
What made your favorite teacher stand out in your memory after all these years? Perhaps she explained things in a way that you could understand. Maybe he pushed you to achieve more than you thought you ever could. Maybe she encouraged your talent. Among all the other qualities that your favorite teacher possessed, nine chances out of 10, this educator somehow made learning joyful. This teacher tapped into your brand of fun, and the experience stuck with you. It turns out, these educators were onto something.
Joyful students, who are comfortable in their learning environment, connect better with the information they receive, and they remember it better. Research shows that a student's "comfort level can influence information transmission and storage in the brain…” Neuroscience studies also reveal that when joy is removed from learning “effective information processing and long term memory” decline.
The animated television series, Schoolhouse Rock!, is a perfect example of joyful learning. Each cartoon explored grammar, government, science, or math in a single, catchy tune that many adults can still sing today! These shorts were originally aired during Saturday morning cartoon commercial breaks. They had a captive audience of youngsters, who were blissed-out watching their favorite cartoons in their pajamas, eating a bowl of Captain Crunch in the security of their own home. It doesn’t get more comfortable and joyful than that!
Learning can also reach new heights when joy and comfort are combined with a good mood and a relaxed mind. In the article Why Fun, Curiosity & Engagement Improves Learning: Mood, Senses, Neurons, Arousal, Cognition, applied psychologist Aditya Shukla explains that a good mood enhances attention. When we’re in a positive frame of mind, we’re more open to accepting new ideas. When we’re in a sour mood, we frequently dismiss new information as “useless or irrelevant.”
Think of your last really, really bad day. In all likelihood, you hated everyone; you thought everything was stupid; and your main goal was getting a spoon into that Häagen-Dazs STAT! Your negative frame of mind closed you off to accepting new ideas.
When we learn during an elevated mood, information becomes associated with a positive emotion. When new information lives in a happy place, it’s easier to remember. Why? Memory is reinforced when it is accompanied by an emotion-based component.
Think of it this way: Instead of storing static, fact-based information in a black cave, the information now lives in a positive, emotionally-charged location…let’s say…a tropical beach. You can see the palm fronds gently dancing in the warm breeze; you can see the powder-white sand between your toes; and you can see the surf gently rolling to shore. You smile as you soak in the sun. You look over to a lounge chair on the beach. A colorful umbrella sways above the occupant of the chair. Who is it? What?! It’s the static, fact-based information! Voila! The static, fact-based information is now tethered to the warm-fuzzy feeling that you associate with the beach. Since you can emotionally recall the beautiful beach better than the black cave, you can access the static, fact-based information more easily. That good-mood-beach-vibe helps you remember the information you learned because a positive emotion attaches to it. (Learn more about the positive effects of restorative environments in the article Estate Planning & Ecopsychology here!)
Aside from your mood, the brain also contains a filter that instantly labels information with a corresponding emotion. For example, the brain will immediately affix a happy emotion to a fluffy, cuddly puppy. Conversely, the brain will automatically label ill-health, dying, and death with sadness, anxiety, or stress, which can emotionally discourage a student and prematurely stop the learning process. When fun is introduced into learning, the strength of the negative emotional brain filter diminishes, which enables students to receive and process information better.
Studies also show that a relaxed mind processes information better. When the mind is preoccupied and emotionally burdened, the brain allocates some of its resources to untangling the mess. When the mind is peaceful, the brain has more resources at its disposal to optimize learning in more creative ways.
Think of it this way: You’re watching a baseball game. There’s a fight on the field, and the umpire expels players from the game for unsportsmanlike conduct. That leaves the coach with fewer key players, which limits his clever game strategies. With a full roster (or with full resources at his disposal), the coach could implement more strategies to get the win. Similarly, when your mind is unburdened, the brain can allocate its whole team of resources to creatively process new information.
When the mind AND body are stressed, the nervous system activates its “flight or fight” response. During this heightened awareness, the mind dismisses superfluous information that doesn’t pertain to the emergency at hand. If you’re about to be eaten by a T-Rex, chances are you won't memorize the formula for calculating pi. Although our civilization has evolved beyond carnivorous dinosaurs, our prehistoric instincts have survived. However, these instincts can’t distinguish between the threat of a raptor and the stress of work. Therefore, a stressed mind has more difficulty learning ideas unrelated to the threat.
When a learning environment fosters joy and comfort, students are given the opportunity to relax into a good mood, which enhances their ability to understand information and recall that information later. Research shows that joy, comfort, relaxation, and a positive state of mind help people learn, which is essential when discussing sensitive or difficult topics. …So put on your sunglasses, slather on some sunscreen, and let’s join Law underneath that colorful umbrella on the beach!
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 Judy Willis, The Neuroscience of Joyful Education, Educational Leadership (Vol. 64 Engaging the Whole Child (online only) 2007) https://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/4141/the-neuroscience-joyful-education-judy-willis-md.pdf (last visited January 25, 2022).  Id.  YouTube, Schoolhouse Rocks!, https://www.youtube.com/user/SchoolhouseRockTV1 (last visited January 25, 2022).  Cognition Today, Aditya Shukla, Why Fun, Curiosity & Engagement Improves Learning: Mood, Senses, Neurons, Arousal, Cognition (August 23, 2020 October 22, 2019) https://cognitiontoday.com/why-fun-improves-learning-mood-senses-neurons-arousal-cognition/ (last visited January 25, 2022).  Id.  Id.  Id.  Id.  Id.