The Learning Process: Part 1

Grow or die. George T. Lock Land’s Grow Or Die: The Unifying Principle of Transformation (1973) looks at life processes. The success or failure of these leads to growth or death. This is the extreme of life, of course, but Robert Gilman takes these processes reapplies them to the process of learning. Gilman’s article, “The Process of Learning: Helping various parts of our mind fulfill their intentions“, takes us through five applications of the “grow or die” perspective in terms of motivation, immersion, integration, use, and refinement. Although it was originally published in 1984, Gilman’s article presents us with a profound look at what it means to learn in light of cognitive theory. The practical application of the learning process to our instruction and how we approach our own learning is what matters. Theory is good as long as it paves the way for application.

I am fascinated by the learning process, as it encompasses so much of who we are and what we do. I would like to break Gilman’s article into five parts to look at each of the five areas mentioned above, starting here with motivation. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that we need to motivate students….

Fill in that blank. The first question that should be asked here is, What motivates us? When we are in the midst of engaging with new material — in the midst of learning — what keeps us going or prevents us from progressing?

Our brains generally want balance. We want a state of equilibrium and safety to surround us if at all possible, and when we are confronted with a situation that is not safe, comforting, or relaxing, we usually look for an escape route to a more pleasing state of being. While our prefrontal cortex is busy learning and seeking new information to assimilate, other parts of our brain are on the lookout for stress and anxiety. If we encounter those things, the bulk of our brain function dedicates itself to finding a way out of the situation. It also helps to develop a behavioral need for avoidance of that situation in the future. We shy away from putting ourselves in that position again, and the learning is passed up for stress-free living.

In stress-free environments, more of our brain’s potential is realized as more parts engage and dedicate their processes to learning. Without fear, embarrassment, or stress, we are free to fully commit to the process of learning. Students must feel confident in themselves, have choice in what they are doing, and trust in you and others to provide security for them and their ideas and actions. Failure is good if it is guided and followed by success. Too much failure, especially in the presence of stress and embarrassment, can lead to the balance-seeking brain taking over. Risks can and should be taken, but students are more likely to do so if they are assured and realize that after the risk is taken, they can return to a state of normalcy. Otherwise, mental blocks are thrown up by the learner, and patterns of avoidance will become commonplace in similar situations.

According to Gilman, “[T]he essential conditions for effective motivation are free choice, self-confidence and trust.” If a student shows extreme resistance to something, it is probably worthwhile to look at what is motivating him/her and get to the bottom of it. Is it just that situation? Or does it stem from a previous experience? Motivating is not providing students with no-risk learning opportunities; rather, to motivate we must provide them with choice, trust that choice, and scaffold it with guidance, correction, and encouragement. Think about a time that you resisted learning. Why did you do it? How could a stress-free environment have helped to motivate your prefrontal cortex instead of the reptilian part of your brain that wants to perpetually bask in a “comfort zone”? 

Once you’re motivated, immerse yourself in Part 2 of this series.

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