The Burr That Keeps On Giving

The neuroscientists are hard at work. Their discoveries, hypotheses and suppositions are gaining traction, within and outside of the quad. Science is helping us gain better and deeper understanding of how humans learn. This is no slow process, either. The pace is rapid and shows no sign of abating for decades. Imagine what we will know about the brain and learning in twenty or thirty years – it boggles the already boggling mind.

In a period of flux such as this, before the paradigms have been established and the intellectual lineaments formed, the popularization of concepts is extraordinarily important. For all of us interested in the field but without the talent, time or access, metaphors and analogies are essential. Sure, the brain may be “plastic” – but is that the soft plastic of Gumby or the hard plastic of a Lego block? It matters, especially as we struggle to understand, share, and incorporate into our academic practices. Popularizers, writers such as Jonathan Lehrer, are critical. A subscription to the Journal of Neurophysiology is not in the cards; we need Lehrer to read it for us and keep us up to date.

I lack to expertise to speak to Lehrer’s scientific acumen, but he most certainly is a fine writer. How We Decide is a powerful book and one that cannot help but influence one’s teaching.

Central to my responsibilities as a dean, I regularly engage with faculty and administrators about student learning. The recurring question is what changes, what processes, what assignments, what events will increase student learning and eventual success. We are given a tremendous opportunity as college educators to shape a student’s environment. What is the best way to do so? And what can the recent science tell us?

My working metaphor for synthesizing the recent science and scholarship is managed discomfort. Borrowed from many, the phrase is an attempt to capture both the older formulations of learning as well as the new integrated ways of thinking about the brain. I use this metaphor in meetings and around tables to encourage colleagues to critique and innovate with a different perspective on student learning. We are educators and do not seek student comfort, satisfaction or happiness; we want students to learn.

Learning is only possible when there is a change in the brain. Learning requires new neural pathways and for it to remain secure, it has be electrochemically “seared” into the brain. If we do something unconsciously or without attention, we do not learn. Discomfort is a necessary component of learning. Further, the learning is often more effective is the discomfort is, to a certain degree, sought.

Too much discomfort, however, and we do not learn; we shut down or flee. Overwhelm a student or ratchet up the emotional component too far (in an attempt to make sure that the brain “remembers”), and students become frustrated and angry. They leave, drop the class, and sometimes establish those self-destructive cycles that lead to even less learning.

Not enough discomfort and nothing happens.

Too much discomfort and learning does not occur.

Effective learning takes place when the discomfort is managed just so – a Goldilocks kind of uneasiness. Such learning is often more effective if it is sought by the learner.

Overall, managed discomfort requires intellectual gauging and goal-setting, and also emotional gauging and goal setting.  It demands a heightened awareness of the students entire learning environment. Insights into that environment, coupled with an intense awareness of students’ emotional and intellectual capacities, makes greater learning possible.

So far, managed discomfort has generated good comments, questions and proposals in my arena. It is a local form of popularization, a phrase to effect change until something better comes along. Feel free to use it – and I hope that you find it helpful.

David Potash

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