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The Joy of Learning: An Introduction
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
Conscious learning as we
currently think of it is a conscious/rational process that begins with
an unconscious arousal system called emotion.
Emotion alerts us to potential environmental dangers and opportunities.
Sufficiently aroused, emotion activates a focusing system (called
attention) that informs us of the nature, location, and intensity of
what caused the arousal. Attention can also lead to conscious feelings
that incorporate previous experiences and help us to determine how
important the challenge is and then help to direct an appropriate
resolution. The lower (or subcortical) part of our brain processes
unconscious emotions, and the upper brain systems (or cortex) process
the conscious feelings that regulate learning. Various forms of joy
emerge when these innate-to-conscious systems mesh seamlessly.
Let's use a narrative to clarify the process. You've dozed off on an
afternoon and are suddenly jarred awake by a ringing. You wake up and
realize it's the phone. You walk over and pick it up. Good news. It's a
friend you had hoped would call. He has the information the two of you
need for a collaborative project. He suggests that you drive over to
his place and then the two of you can go to get what you need. You
learned how to drive years ago and you remembered how to get to his
house. You get in your car and drive over. Emotional arousal had led to
an attentional focus, which had engaged related feelings, memories, and
problem solving. A feeling of joy emerged from the appropriate
resolution of the problem.
Think thus of emotion as a biological thermostat that monitors and
reports variations from normality. If no innate response exists for a
particular emotional challenge, the nature of the arousal will activate
our attention system, which further identifies the basic dynamics of
the challenge and the relevant problem-solving systems that consciously
respond to the challenge. Almost everything that we currently do thus
begins with unconscious emotion and with such variants as conscious
feelings, temporary mood, and long-term temperament.
(The Notes section at the end of this newsletter briefly describes
three learning systems: genetic/innate, conscious/rational, and
unconscious/implicit learning. This newsletter series covers only the
conscious/rational system of learning that is most exemplified in
nurturing and formal instruction.)
Our conscious brain evolved so it can recall past related experiences,
analyze the current situation, and anticipate probable local and
distant results. We thus function within a temporal/spatial
environment—the past/present/future and the here/there.
Is it any surprise that feelings of satisfaction and joy emerge when we
(either alone or with help) can merge a potential problem into the sort
of a satisfactory conclusion that we can also use later in related
settings? Joy, in its various forms that emerge from learning, thus
Many young people lack the current maturation that such emerging
capabilities require. Parents and teachers are examples of adults who
nurture and instruct. Adult culture can also make complex demands that
are beyond the capabilities of many. Various forms of leaders and
pundits assist, sometimes helpfully and sometimes not so helpfully.
The various forms of dementia signal the loss of such rational
capabilities. Caregivers must then provide guidance and assistance.
The Joy of Learning
Children are born with the unconscious emotion/attention
elements, so we don't have to teach these elements. However, we adults
have to help children learn how to appropriately channel
emotion/attention into the affective or feeling elements that lead to
the satisfactory problem solving and decision-making behaviors that
must be learned. This newsletter series will thus focus on learning and
the joy that can come from learning. It will consider the following:
What values (educational benefits) emerge when we help students increase their level of joy/satisfaction in learning?
How can informal and formal educational activities help students to increase their level of joy in learning?
As a parent or
teacher, what can I learn from this series of newsletters that will be
valuable to me personally, and to my interactions with children and/or
To do this, the series will follow this sequence of major ideas and issues:
An explanation of
learning, and discussions of such basic issues as intrinsic/extrinsic
motivation and play/games in joyful learning.
Explanations of the central neurological systems that are involved in joyful learning.
such psychological issues as the role of humor, testing, and awards;
and the roles that such phenomena as religious belief have in
increasing/decreasing the joy of learning.
Extensive discussions of instructional systems that will enhance learning and increase/decrease the joy of learning.
Learning occurs through three systems:
Genetic (or innate) learning.
Most animals survive by innately responding to challenges. In earlier
eras (and with most animals today) those that could effectively respond
to challenges survived, could reproduce, and thus pass on their genes.
Over genetic time, we could thus say that the successful animal species
genetically learned how to respond effectively to given challenges.
Conscious (or rational) learning.
The expansion of our brain's cortex opened up a new form of learning
that functions within a generation through memory formation and recall,
problem solving, and decision making. It also involves older to younger
Unconscious (or implicit) learning.
We master many forms of complex information in an incidental manner,
without conscious awareness of what has been learned. The kinds of
self-exploration that occur through play and games are good examples.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and co-editor of the IAE Newsletter. His most recent of 10 books are: A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (Corwin, 2010); The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (Corwin, 2007); and six books he helped to write and edit for the IAE Newsletter. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run.
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