My “fight or flight” response was alive and well when I read both articles: Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not  Work and Teaching for Meaningful Learning: A Review of Research on Inquiry-Based and Cooperative Learning.  I struggled with the black and white nature of both pieces and the perceived predetermined pathway for my thinking. I was uncomfortable with my immediate conclusion that effective teaching and learning lies somewhere in the middle. That was too simplistic, and because of its simplicity it was dismissive.  I was missing something. If I stopped there I would be robbing myself of deeper understanding, change and growth.  In my experience, that feeling of unrest and the “fight or flight” response ( rising heart rate, fidgeting, anger, and wanting to shut down and disengage) is my cue to dig in and  unearth my discomfort. I have learned that by doing this I will likely be rewarded with a change in my thinking and understanding. It is my cue that I need to dive deep into the material, and discover why the experience is unsettling to me.  In this process, I find my purpose for teaching. My purpose for teaching is to support students as they work through their discomfort and anxieties, so they can experience the liberation and satisfaction of learning.

Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark’s article on Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work highlights the importance of respecting human cognitive architecture in the learning process. Studies suggest that problem solving places a huge burden on working memory (Sweller, 1988). This burden puts such limitations on our working memory, that acquiring new information becomes ineffective.  I wonder why (or even if) it has ever been suggested to teachers that they throw students in to a learning situation with minimal guidance.  At it’s very roots this seems to be shirking the responsibilities of the teacher and is not good teaching practice.  Teaching is so much more complicated than this.  A familiar teaching progression for me is:

  • Introducing the learner to the content by tapping in to previous knowledge and experience
  • using a wide range of activities and teaching methods to introduce students to the necessary first level knowledge
  • modeling and implementing processing strategies
  • problem solving, synthesizing and implementing the acquired knowledge to new situations.

Costa and Bloom have been celebrated for  their work on levels of thinking and questioning, and I have implemented this progression of learning in my teaching, but this also simplifies things greatly as it negates the importance of personal connection and the many factors that contribute to supportive learning environments.

On the other hand, Barron and Darling-Hammond’s article: Teaching for Meaningful Learning: A Review of Research on Inquiry-Based and Cooperative Learning suggests that complex projects involving problem solving and inquiry are necessary for developing the higher level skills that are required in many of today’s jobs.  I certainly agree that these skills are highly valuable, but our students need to be proficient in the process of gathering and acquiring knowledge so they can graduate to a place of thriving in the less structured environments of higher level thinking. Here is where I have to pause.  What are the conditions needed for students to thrive in the less structured environments of higher level thinking.

I want to make an analogy between learning and our autonomic nervous system.  The two branches of our autonomic nervous system involve the familiar “fight of flight” system and the “rest and digest” system. When it comes to teaching, I believe that it is imperative to change the mindset of students during times of discomfort, anger or fear (the “fight or flight” response) and encourage them to embrace these times as opportunities for learning. This is the place where meaningful learning,  innovative and creative solutions can develop.

The two complementary systems of our autonomic nervous system (the part of the nervous system responsible for unconscious body functions) are the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.  The sympathetic system prepares the body for intense physical output, and is implemented in times of stress (the fight or flight response).  It increases heart rate to provide extra oxygen to muscles and the brain, and provides an infusion of glucose to the blood for extra energy.  In contrast, the parasympathetic system slows the heart rate and allows the body to do the primary functions of digesting, fighting infection, and growth.

I often find myself in a state of “fight or flight”, and have learned that although this may not be a comfortable place, it is here that I need to plant myself and not give in to the urge to dismiss, disengage, or resist.  It is here that I need to “rest and digest”. It is a signal that some of my assumed knowledge is being challenged, and an indicator that I have a lot to discover.  I propose that learning happens in the space in between “fight or flight” and “rest and digest”.  So back to the question of “What does effective teaching and learning look like?” Is it guided instruction? Project-based learning? The multitude of answers to this question swirl around in my mind.  It is a guided and supported progression through the levels of knowledge and questioning.  It is an environment in which my students can process information through reflecting, journaling and  discussing their learning with others. It is seeing their learning through to a place of new understanding and a meaningful application of knowledge. Personally, this excitement for learning begins with the “fight or flight” response.  I have learned that if I embrace that unnerving state, and engage with the information that challenges me, I will be rewarded with new ideas, perspectives and experiences.

It is this process of resisting the path of least resistance and embarking on the new and unfamiliar where the most learning will take place.  And yet we see in our schools that anxieties and feelings of being overwhelmed are debilitating our students. Can we change the mindset of our students to accept those feelings and proceed with confidence knowing that on the other side is meaningful learning and personal growth?

If I can engage and support my students and give them the tools and safe environment necessary to navigate the ‘fight or flight’ response, they can experience the satisfaction of  “resting and digesting” with a new level of understanding.  But now I struggle with new uncomfortable questions…” What are those tools? And how can I contribute to that safe and supportive environment?”