“I’M STILL LEARNING.” ~MICHELANGELO
Suzanne and her Great-Grandmother
Learning from Suzanne
A new grandmother’s reflections on learning
Suzanne sees me and she laughs. I instinctively giggle. Suzanne laughs again. I smile and laugh in response. This gleeful conversation continues on for a minute or so.
Such a simple exchange of sounds! Such powerful feelings of connection!
The happy noise of laughter, a series of individual sounds each lasting roughly 15 milliseconds and iterating every 200 milliseconds, has the power to instantly fill me with a sense of joy and overwhelming love.
I hadn’t thought much about laughter until now, but I find myself fascinated by my four-month-old granddaughter’s ability to instantly control a room with her newly learned skill.
Laughing is not language specific – the sounds of laughter in English and Mandarin are identical. It is notably contagious. Scientists say that laughter at its core is a means of communicating with others. We rarely laugh when we’re alone. Laughter can be triggered by surprise, joy, and affection. In Suzanne’s case, I believe it is a vehicle for connecting with another human being – pretty astute for a little person who doesn’t yet have language at her disposal.
Suzanne laughs a lot these days. She seems to want to interact and has figured out that this is a good tool for doing so. I don’t remember my own children laughing so much when they were babies – this could just be my memory. But my daughter says that she and her husband laugh a lot so perhaps laughter is simply a feature of Suzanne’s home environment. Perhaps Suzanne has some additional laughter heredity from my mother, her great-grandmother. Growing up during the Great Depression, Mom says she treasures her memories of laughter with family.
So, what is Suzanne learning? I think she’s learning how to build relationships with people. She seems to understand the back-and-forth pattern of conversation because she applies this pattern in her exchanges of giggles; she’s learning what it means to talk.
Every day I spend with Suzanne, I learn as well. Here is my current lesson:
Laughter is good. It activates a wealth of positive emotions in individuals which sets into motion a chain reaction of positive actions. We should all strive to laugh more, for ourselves, for others, and for the world.
Questions that I think are worth pondering: What are some ways we might bring more laughter into our daily routines? What are some ways we might give the gift of laughter to others?
Amygdala Hijack Happens: How to Maintain a Learning Mindset when Fear-of-Failure Shows Up
I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures, those who make it or those who don’t. I divide the world into learners and non-learners.
~ Benjamin R. Barber, Political Theorist
Self-doubt – it happens to all of us. Research has shown that the brain has a negativity bias – we spend on average 20 times more time focusing on negative experiences than we do on positive experiences. And when environmental factors seem to reinforce our internal fears, a cycle of negative thinking and feelings is set into motion which only worsens the situation.
“Am I capable of learning math? Can I succeed in this class?” “I don’t understand this math problem. I don’t even know where to start.” “My teacher calls on other students to answer questions. She knows I’m not smart.” “They say girls are not good at math. I guess they’re right.” “I’m just not a math person. There’s no point in trying very hard.”
“Am I a good teacher? Is this job right for me?” “My students are behaving badly; I am not meeting their needs. I don’t know what else to do.” “My students’ assessment scores are terrible. I did the best I could.” “I’m Alt-Cert. It’s no surprise I don’t know what I’m doing.” “I’m just not cut out to be a teacher. I’ll try to get through the school year and then look for another job.”
The anxiety caused by self-doubt along with the negative framing of life events triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain. This natural brain response is called an amygdala hijack. The amygdala is a part of the brain responsible for emotional processing of events. It activates fight, flight, freeze, or appease responses in reaction to fear and is designed to keep us out of physical danger. However, the amygdala also releases cortisol when we experience fear of failure, shutting down our best problem solving, creative thinking, and learning capacity, just when we need them the most.
When we are in this middle of an amygdala hijack, how can we remove ourselves long enough to calm our emotions and recapture our best thinking selves?
When someone else is in the midst of such a cycle, how can we help them recognize what is happening and see that they can choose not to stay there?
The questions we ask ourselves when we’re in the middle of an amygdala hijack, like the ones listed below, allow us to pause, take a deep breath, and look at the situation from a new perspective. Likewise, when we pose questions such as these to a student, colleague, friend or family member who is experiencing an amygdala hijack, we offer them a hand for climbing out of despair, hopelessness, and negativity.
Questions for Combatting an Amygdala Hijack:
- What am I/are you thinking and feeling right now?
- What is my/your internal dialogue about this situation? What would I/you like my/your internal dialogue to be?
- What assumptions am I/are you operating from? What is the evidence?
- What do I/you want for myself/yourself in this situation? For others?
- What do other people need from me/from you?
- Why is this important to me/you?
- What is the best possible outcome for this situation?
- What actions might I/you take that would work towards accomplishing this outcome?
- What factors do I/you control?
- What are my/your options?
- What is my/your best next step?
- What internal/external resources might I/you draw on in tackling this challenging?
- What are some other situations where I have been successful in tackling challenges? What strategies did I/you use in those situations which might be helpful here?
- What am I/are you learning from this situation?
- Where am I/are you now in your thinking about this situation compared to earlier? What helped me/you to change your mindset? How might I/you use these insights in future situations?
We don’t want to use all of these questions at once – a couple of questions, even a single question can often be enough to help yourself or someone else make a shift in how you/they are thinking and feeling about a situation. Questions like these are key to self-coaching and coaching others to examine our current mindsets and choose a mindset which maximizes our capacity to make a positive difference in a challenging circumstance.
How might these questions be valuable to you? What concrete steps might you take to keep these questions “at the ready” and/or to begin internalizing them as part of your toolkit for supporting self and others? How might knowing about these tools for combating amygdala hijack be useful to others that you work with, and how might you share these ideas?
Resources worth checking out
Things that are Hard activity sheet from the book Big Ideas for Curious Minds: An Introduction to Philosophy (The School of Life, 2019)
Cult of Pedagogy podcast. Jennifer Gonzalez interviews Elena Aquilar about 12 Ways Teacher Can Build Resilience.
Give Me Five! Five Coach-Teacher-Principal Collaborations that Promote Mathematics Success by Janice Bradley and Dana Cargill, Math Solutions, 2017
Give Me Five! is an invaluable resource for school leaders and instructional coaches working to strategically build their mathematics program. Not only does the book provide clear guidance for implementing practice-based professional learning structures (inspired by PLC guru Shirley Hord), it also allows us to learn directly from the educators who developed and have used these structures with convincing results. Teachers, coaches, and administrators from the Pampa Independent School District, a Title I district in Texas, share their stories and practices in a series of video clips that accompanies the text. These little windows into a school-at-work allow us to listen in on their strategic planning sessions, meetings with teacher teams, and coaching sessions as these educators use the five collaborative structures. The structures include:
- Strategic Planning Sessions
- Mathematics Content Learning Team
- Shared Classroom Experience
- Mathematics Vertical Learning Team
- Ten-Minute Meeting
Filled with practical tips and tools, this book is a perfect guidebook for schools that wish to activate a systems approach to improving mathematics teaching and learning.