Another academic year has started. For some students, parents and teachers, this means different people (teacher, students and parents); new content and skills to be learned and the experiences that any new academic year will bring. For some students, the start of the academic year signals a range of significant new experiences, related to a move to a different educational environment.
Whatever an individual's situation, it is really about what is made of the opportunities available. The limbic system – made up of several neural structures, including the amygdala and hippocampus, responsible for a variety of functions – is involved in the individual's experience of emotion. Located under the brain's cortex, the limbic system experiences emotions and selects the memories to be stored. Neurologist and teacher, Dr Judy Willis, refers to the importance of the limbic system in learning.
New beginnings – in any form – can be wonderful as eustress (the positive form of stress, generated by a little surprise and novelty) engages, motivates and enables learning to take place. In order to continue learning, or as Judy Willis maintains: "to hold the gate to learning open", prompting the release of various neurotransmitters that assist the process of learning, it is important to create positive experiences and a state of well-being for students by building feelings of trust, support and confidence.
In contrast, learning that takes place through neuronal transmission becomes blocked when the limbic system is overloaded by stress, anxiety, fear or boredom. Dendritic growth and the synaptic connections that are necessary for new neural pathways to be established is thus restricted, limiting higher order thinking and the learning that takes place when new information is transmitted to the memory centre.
Feelings are temporary and may include sensations of various kinds; whereas emotions begin with our thinking and self-talk, are stored in the hippocampus or memory centre of the brain and have a significant impact upon learning. The patterns or habits of thought that an individual establishes will influence emotions and learning. It all begins with thought. Thinking is a process that can be adjusted. 'Metacognition' is just a fancy way of saying that we can think about our thinking. This is sometimes illustrated with a 'thought bubble' inside another 'thought bubble'. By developing self-awareness and becoming conscious of patterns of thought, we can each adjust our thinking, altering patterns of thought to establish positive emotions that influence productive learning.
There is much that individuals cannot control; however it is possible to become aware of patterns of thought and adjust habits of thinking to positively influence the process of learning. A little eustress is a positive precursor to learning but dystress (i.e. the negative, excessive form of stress) causes personal distress by overwhelming the brain with negative emotions that impair a student's ability to learn.
Wishing everyone a positive academic year in which great learning takes place.
© Michele Juratowitch