Information Age Education
   Issue Number 175
December, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

The Joy of Learning: An Introduction

Robert Sylwester
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 enhances life.

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 students?
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.

  • Discussions of 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 transmission.

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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Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at and all back issues of the Newsletter at