Monday, April 13, 2020

Safety is an essential part of learning.

Students need to feel safe in their environment in order to learn. If a person is worried about getting beat up - physically or verbally, that person cannot open his or her mind to effectively put things into long term memory. Effective teaching requires that teachers create an atmosphere in the classroom where students are free to ask questions without fear of being made fun of or being made to feel stupid. The tapestry of life is woven from discovery and memory. From the moment of birth, we are exposed to a continuous flow of sensory experience — sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Our remarkable brain takes the images and sounds, the feelings, scents, and tastes of each moment and creates an internal representation of the external world. In the beginning of life, all is new: each experience is a first. Each image, melody, scent, and caress bathes the newborn's brain in data as it attempts to organize and make sense of this world. Over time, we create memories, and we learn. Learning is fun when it is curiosity driven. In the words of one of my former students whom I refer to as “the great philosopher Ned”, “Math only sucks until you get it.” The difference between a student “getting it” or just trying to survive by memorizing enough information to pass the test is whether the learning is curiosity based or fear based. It comes back to safety in the classroom. The fear response is essential to the health of the human brain and body. Under threat of any kind — hunger, thirst, pain, shame, confusion, or too much input coming in too fast — we respond in ways to keep ourselves safe. When the fear response is triggered, our minds will focus only on the information that is, at that moment, important for survival. Fear kills curiosity and inhibits exploration. Hear at SRS, most of my students come into my classes with math anxiety: a fear of math (and the experience of learning math in a group) which requires that they never ask a question which could expose them to an uncomfortable social experience, and a fear that I will find out just how much they don’t know. To combat this self-imposed barrier to effective learning, I tell them about what I call the “basic agreement.” This agreement stipulates that I will do my best to teach them from where they are at any given moment. As a result, they don’t need to pretend to know things they don’t know, and if they ask a question, I will do my best to answer it in a way they can understand without editorializing about when they should have learned it and how many times it has been explained before. Their responsibility is that they will do their best to learn. This means asking questions to help me learn how they learn. Once I know how they learn, I can teach in a way that allows them to understand and remember. All of us can vividly recall a situation (perhaps many) when a teacher reviled a student with words like, “How many times to I have to tell you?” or “You should have learned this in 1st grade.” The anxiety is present in students of all subjects, not just math, and teachers play the dominant role in creating physically and emotionally safe places for students to learn. I find that after the initial “I hate you” phase, students who receive consequences for aggressive behavior toward peers quickly become champions of protecting other students from aggression. Here are some key behaviors I try to use in creating a safe classroom here at SRS: • Maintain a clean, organized classroom. All people feel safer and more comfortable in a clean organized classroom • Be the same teacher yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Follow through on promises. Be consistent in discipline • Be kind, and let students know you care. I chose this profession to make a difference, and I want my students to know that I care about the long term effects of my teaching. I want to my students see higher goals for themselves and help them believe in their abilities by helping them master challenging tasks. • Protect students from misbehavior. Always follow through on discipline for students that threaten others. Demonstrate that you care enough about not to allow bullying, triggering, coercion, or intimidation. These behaviors can help students overcome learning anxieties in any classroom environment, but they work particularly well among our population at SRS