Explore Nueroscience in Education with Dr. Lori Desautels

Learning and Optimism- A High Stakes Assessment in Education

Learning and Optimism- A High Stakes Assessment inside Education Reform

Fact: 3.22 million kids ages 7-17 were treated for depression in the past five years. More than double the number in the previous five years.

Fact: 77% of students have been bullied verbally, mentally, or physically in school.

Fact: 1 in 5 teens have thought about suicide.

Fact: 1 in 6 teens have made plans for suicide.

Fact: 1 in 12 teens have attempted suicide

This is the educational crisis we have on our hands and hearts! Raising test scores, closing achievement gaps and implementing data to drive instruction is completely insignificant and short term if we do not address the social and emotional needs of our students and educators!  Like it or not, disagree or agree, educators and schools must examine these statistics, exploring   ways to assist students in nurturing their sense of self, remembering their innate genius and instilling optimism, even if for a minute, by listening and serving one another while teaching the subject matter.

 Scientific research has repeatedly stated that optimism, success, and a sense of well-being begins and ends with “serving another” through every day experiences. Children at young ages teach us about compassion, but somewhere along the way this sense of joy and compassion is forgotten and shelved. The plasticity, power and training of the mind, allows us to imagine create, and live the lives we center our thoughts upon.

 How do we define learning? It was explained to me a few weeks ago that to know any concept well and to share the wisdom of this concept or notion, one must be able to define it. I believe “learning”  is not an off and on again event that occurs solely in schools, but a process of exploration and discovery of not only the content and subject matter  presented but of one’s inherit and changing beliefs, values, environment, and present moment life experiences. How does a student, parent or educator’s perspective play into this definition of learning?   Perspective drives motivation! Motivation drives learning!

What is optimism and what does it have to do with learning? Optimism defined : World English Dictionary-Optimism-the tendency to expect the best and see the best in all things. Hopefulness; confidence.  

Optimism has everything to do with learning because definitive research and our own personal experiences have verified that positive emotion is directly and intimately tied to clarity of thought, creative and critical thinking, broadened perspectives, enhanced  long term memory, and a stronger and improved   immune system; therefore an overall healthier mind and body.  Deepened learning and creative thought processes are tied to the emotions that engineer our every day experiences.   

Public education is a political business and many policy makers are ill informed about “how” learning occurs. At the government level, policy makers are adopting educational assessments, evaluations and mandates that are clearly and simply not addressing the dynamic learning potential of each and every student, and more importantly educators!  When we teach, we learn. When teachers are motivated, inspired and feel successful, they produce incredibly powerful results inside our classrooms. But when we create policies that focus only on closing achievement gaps, raising test scores, and evaluation through numerical data, we spin in cycles of short term solutions and minimal learning, memorizing for a 24 or 48 hour period to frantically pass a standardized assessment. This type of learning is not what will be required of our students within the reality of creative professions and future job satisfaction. Just as research as shown that the human brain has great plasticity for learning and novelty, the students in our classrooms and buildings embrace a parallel learning potential.  “Learning” takes place in and out of school environments and for educators, this is possibly a trite and repetitive statement, but one  we cannot afford not to examine and understand deeply as we begin to open our classroom doors in a few weeks. 

I have read hundreds of educational articles from state and national publications over the last few months that are arguing, explaining,  assessing, and adamantly instructing how educational reform must occur, implementing the strategic plans for improved data application and leadership directives that will readdress and fix  failing schools and seemingly broken public educational systems.  I believe state and national policies for educational reform desire our students and educators to be competent, competitive and well-adjusted world citizens as we begin to leave to leave the Age of Information and enter into a Digital and Conceptual –High Touch Age as author, former attorney and motivational speaker Daniel Pink defines, where design, empathy, creativity, specialization, and meaning-making professions will be highly touted and desired. 

How may I serve you? What do you need? What can I do? How can I help? These are the questions we must begin to ask one another as we imagine and envision the best in one another. Students who are bored, underperforming and failing standardized tests are screaming out for ways to express themselves that demonstrate their unique strengths, aptitudes and interests. How can we incorporate and model a cultural educational climate where students begin to learn “how” to solve a complex problem, how to feel their way into a “flow” of successful experiences and apply what they have learned to their everyday realities? We begin by listening to what our teachers and students are asking and needing. We listen beneath the sometimes offensive behaviors and obtuse words. We implement interest and aptitude inventories and notice those students who walk through the doors on day one, looking and feeling defeated. Here is where we focus on strength, personal narratives and building relationships. At 9 am when the bell sounds the start to the first hour of school, whether we are instructing a class of 20, 40 or 180, we must begin to notice the needs and desires of one another. This is “service” in its finest hour and when we serve another, our worlds, perspectives and ways of relating to one another expand.  We begin to listen to NOT respond, but to learn!   Below are a few suggestions for the first weeks of school as we initiate and generate a balance of mind and heart through teaching what we need to learn.     

  1. Gratitude promotes positive emotion and clarity of thought. Ask your students and yourselves to take two minutes as a bell ringer to write down two or three experiences, people or things one feels grateful for on that day.
  2. Use the standards to not only learn the subject matter but in personal narratives so students are discussing, writing, and creating a mindset where right off the bat, they are the experts! We are all terrific at something!
  3. Collaborate with partnerships. Assign partnerships- students and educators to one another for a period of time where times of challenges, celebrations or inquiry are met with small groups to inquire, express, or share in our learning and teaching throughout the day!   
  4. A “self-explanatory style” defined and researched  by Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, is a necessary tool and strategy that can move each of us from temporary negative emotion to a more hopeful perspective when we learn “what we say to ourselves” about any experience! Our thoughts create, consciously or subconsciously, our realities. It is never anything outside of ourselves that induces stress or angst. It is the way we perceive and think about an event or relationship that begins the downward spiral of a class, day, or moment.
  5. Use inquiry with confidence because when we ask and explore, we innately open to perspectives we never thought or saw in moments of anger, stress and agitation.

I will follow-up with more specific strategies that focus upon the process of understanding that a state of flux and change breeds opportunity, growth and creativity! Take a moment and breathe deeply, pondering the notion that systemic changes occur through one heart, one mind and one individual at a time!   I am hopeful and optimistic that we will remember we are relational people and schools are where we each began our journey of social, emotional and cognitive growth!

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