The neurology of Goldilocks

In the interests of deepening my (very shallow!) understanding of Neurology, I did some homework. Here are my latest findings, on stress and brain function.

My Google-ing journey started here, with a blog post by Judy Willis who extols the virtues of teachers with a knowledge of neurology.  Phew! I thought. I’m on the right track with my quest to find out more!

She begins by talking about Neural Placticity – the exciting idea that our brains are  malleable, able to be ‘rewired’ and that intelligence is not a fixed state.

However, this is all well and good, Willis says, until stressors inhibit our ability to learn.

Seeing neuroimaging scans of students during stress states, such as those that build up with sustained or frequent boredom (information already mastered; no evident relevance) or frustration (repeated past failures in subject), offer powerful insights into the importance of classroom climate and differentiation of instruction. These scans reveal the increased metabolic state that blocks processing in the highest brain (prefrontal cortex; PFC) when this boredom or frustration alienates students from instruction.

Willis says that people’s responses to stressors are largely involuntary. They will be fight or flight type responses that manifest themselves as acting out or zoning out in the classroom.  Obvously, this effects learning – “As students’ stressors build, loss of information access to the PFC for memory construction means new learning is not retained.” She goes on to say that  when teachers recognise this relationship between stress, behavior and learning they are more able to minimise stressors; which comes down to differentiating learning:

When new teachers understand how they have the capacity to reduce the stress of frustration or boredom by providing all students with opportunities to learn at their appropriate level of achievable challenge, their motivation will increase with the expectation of success.

So what does stress actually look like in our brain? And is it always bad for learning? The video below gives a clear and succinct picture of this, as well as some guidance for leaders (which also applies to teachers).

Which brings us back to something we all learned at training college – learning in the Zone of Proximal Development or, as Hattie puts it, the Goldilocks Principle.



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