by John Hill

Studies show that there’s a strong connection between emotions and memory. The part of our brain that relays both positive and negative emotions (the amygdala) talks with the long term memory part (the hippocampus) and the seeing part (visual cortex) when emotions are happening. The brain goes on high alert when emotionally stimulated.
What does this mean in the classroom?

Happy and excited students learn better and create lasting connections with the content. I remember things that I thought was cool or my teacher made me feel good about learning. Everything else I’ve just been learning in real time and retroactively plugging into my high school brain when I get angry about being told to change my instruction.

We have to understand what is drawing our students’ focus and why. If that upsetting text or concern about home life is in control, the student is focused there. Why do we have to make classes more stimulating to help our kids learn? Because everything else has ratcheted up the stimulation so we have to compete if we want them to focus on all the things we as teachers have to offer.

The brain science we need to understand students is all around us, but our commitment to old ways of thinking prevents us from making progress for kids in schools.

Stuck in our ways

Attempt to change something in education today, you will with the common criticism that the status quo worked in the past, so it should be good enough for the future.  That’s so wrong, for many reasons, but mostly because it denies that any change or growth has happened in human beings over the past century or longer.

We often criticize changes to how we do education by pointing to how things worked when we were in school. By now the “if it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for them” is common sense, especially if, as a teacher, you’ve spent years finding your footing in the classroom, creating routines that work, and amassing resources that you’ve mastered using.

But there is a problem with old habits in education. Yes, those routines may get students to remember information long enough to bubble in an answer sheet, but they forget after. How is it education if it lasts only long enough to satisfy a test?

I was talking recently with a few high school friends, and some of my teachers, about an interaction with one teacher over 10 years ago. Out of the 6 of us, only 4 remembered this particular teacher even existed. Of the 4 that remembered this teacher existed, only 1 remembered his name. All 4 of us remembered generally the story about him doing a tai chi demo at school, but not one of us had the same memory about the demo. Some thought there was a student volunteer, but disputed who the student was. All of us had a different location in mind where the demo took place. The point is that none of us actually remember the truth. Our memories are liars.

In my story, the true part was that there was a teacher that knew Tai Chi and I thought it was cool. The central detail of this story may be right but everything else has been changed into an action movie by our brains. Everything else is suspect.

That 15 mile walk in the rain to and from school that you remember? Probably only half a mile. That uppercut the teacher threw you for stumbling on your times tables? Maybe that never actually happened. All the learning you did because your teacher stood there and lectured day in and day out? More than likely just a sliver of the truth. Do you remember the angst, boredom, and restlessness? What could you have learned if you had been taught in a different way? Not saying you’re completely wrong, but our brain exaggerates so we need to be careful.

We need to be careful about the tapes in our head that replay messages from the past that should have been defeated with research by now. I can already hear from my own parents is “the principal’s paddle and the switches on that tree kept me focused.” That very well may be true. Negative emotions can motivate action, but research also show that positive emotions 1. create stronger connections and 2. don’t create long term damage that cripples learning and focus in the future.

Yes, there’s more than one way to motivate a child, but just because something we “remember” working in the past had some success doesn’t mean it’s the best option. My dad yelled a lot when I would mess up and sometimes when I didn’t. I’m damaged by it. Did I turn out ok? Sure, more or less. I have a job and health insurance so I’d say I’m doing ok, but that doesn’t mean he was right.

It was wrong. Period.

Something working doesn’t mean that nothing else works or that there will never be something that works better. Times are changing. The world is changing. Education isn’t the same anymore because our kids don’t live the same lives we lived when we were younger. Sure, the guts are the same. Curiosity, mischief, and the constant seeking of approval are still the vast majority of the teenage experience. What’s changed is everything else, and if the goal is to equip our kids with information that is essential to them being able to survive in this new world, then we should be constantly evolving as educators, not trying to turn back the clock and stymie our growth and theirs.


John Hill is a current classroom teacher in Dallas, Tx and the co-creator of , a Dallas education blog and podcast.


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