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Getting students to love learning

By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Twitter: @gordon_lp

If a student has low self-esteem and does not believe they are good in a subject, it will be very difficult for them to learn. One of the first things a teacher has to do is help them change their attitude “before they can learn efficiently and effectively,” said Barry Hart founder/chief executive officer Growth Opportunities Ltd.

Archbishop Jason Gordon and the Catholic Education Board of Management (CEBM) on August 14 hosted a webinar ‘Neuroscience of Change and Growth to Engage and Motivate Students’. Hart told the more than 100 participants Archbishop Gordon asked him to use his experience in neuroscience to assist teachers to be peaceful in this time of COVID-19, calm in mastering the new technology and to discuss the “growth mindset” which he said is key to getting students motivated to learn. Hart has been involved in neuroscience for 50 years and his company has conducted over 300 leadership programmes with government and private enterprise throughout the Caribbean.

“Certainly, we are born with different brain capacities through our genes but every single human brain has an incredible capacity for growth and development way beyond what we are using,” said Barry Hart, founder and chief executive officer Growth opportunities Ltd.

In his presentation he explained in simple language the learning process in the brain. He said the brain was like the hardware and the mind the “software”. The early software developed in the formative years 0–7 years through repeated experiences imprinted into the subconscious especially those with high levels of emotion. Dividing the brain into the conscious and subconscious Hart stated that learning takes place through repetition or practice as something is moved from the conscious—thinking, reasoning, the five senses, experiences—to the subconscious or long-term memory.  

He told participants there was a way to “speed up” the learning process through repetition and emotion. Using repetition alone took longer.  Hart said, “Subjects that you loved at school that you had a lot of emotion to, you learned much more quickly and easily than subjects in which you have little or no interest.” He added that the emotion could be negative such as fear, which registers as quickly in the subconscious. A traumatic experience though happening only once can implant in the subconscious and this “record” of negative beliefs and attitudes can affect present feelings and behaviour.

Hart spoke of the part which hormones played in emotions and learning. There are over 37 hormones produced by the body. Hart said the type of hormone that is produced determines the emotion and emotion is produced by the way someone thinks; their choice of thoughts. If they have pleasant thoughts, dopamine “the happy hormone” is produced. It opens all the learning centres of the brain by reducing blood flow to the extremities i.e. arms and legs and pushing the additional blood flow and oxygen to the brain. This leads to better memory, concentration, energy and enthusiasm for activities. “You actually become smarter, more intelligent,” Hart said.

Negative thoughts or dislike for something can produce cortisol, the “stress hormone” which is activated for fight or flight. It has the opposite effect to dopamine.

Hart said people have to learn to switch their thoughts to produce a different hormone and emotion; this has to be repeated until a new habit is formed over time and created different motivation, behaviour and results.

He suggested they read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr Carol Dweck, which teaches strategies to get students excited about learning. Hart said, “Just by teaching the teachers about mindset, how to praise and reward children, how to have a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.” The student with a fixed mindset believes they are not good enough and will most likely compare themselves to others. Then the fear and anxiety of failure will prevent them from taking risks.

Hart advised the teachers to focus on their own growth and happiness because in the classroom “you can’t give away what you don’t have.” The brain contains ‘mirror neurons’. So, the teacher must continue to renew their positivity and passion for teaching. In this way their happiness and care for the student will produce positivity and a love for the subject in the student who will then find learning much easier and enjoyable.