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Happy students make better learners

By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Twitter: @gordon_lp

“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 ‘Neuroscience of Change and Growth to Engage and Motivate Students’, 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 in”.

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.


The role of hormones on learning

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. Hart said dopamine 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 takes blood flow away from your brain and pushes the excess to your arms and legs…it actually shuts down our brain to a degree, it compromises our way of thinking.”

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.

Hart discussed the difficulties of learning taking place when cortisol is present in the teacher who no longer enjoyed teaching and the child who dislikes school, or the subject being taught.

The child will be distracted, have poor memory and comprehension. The teacher will become impatient and frustrated. A teacher with a positive view produces serotonin which makes them relaxed and more attentive.

If they are enjoying their job and school, dopamine will be produced which will energise, make them more creative, resourceful, cooperative, and eager. “Your memory, understanding and everything will be better. It opens all learning centres of your brain,” Hart said.


The new psychology

A great teacher is one who is inventive, creative, loving, kind and welcoming. Such a teacher will do what they can to make the student feel good about themselves and their schoolwork. “You would almost have to get out of the way if you can accomplish that because they are going to want to study, to learn.  They are going to want to do well,” Hart said.

He suggested they read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr Carol Dweck, which teaches strategies to get the 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 said Dweck worked with failing schools in the inner city and on an Indian reservation and turned around the performance in two years. He said Dweck recommends that if students believe they cannot do something, instil the words “not yet”; “you will eventually be able to”.

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.