Derek Hedgcock : Dangerous Ideas

The Treehorn Express

Derek Hedgcock, a primary school principal with a penchant for expressing what schooling and teaching and their many layers are all about, deals here with the most important aspect of classroom behaviour that there is : the stability of emotions in the teaching/learning process. It forms a trilogy with the two previous Treehorn Express articles. In the first, I tried to point out that the deliberate political damaging of children’s emotions, part of the forlorn attempt by compromised testucators to gain better scores on blanket tests, is cruel and nasty…a product of the shared neoliberal ideologies of our Liberal and Labor controllers . Kelvin Smythe then pointed out the dreadful evils that have been perpetrated by these tormentors in the name of ‘school reform’, and especially by their defilement of the curriculum. Derek here explains that there is no excuse for this politically based defilement, nor for the hard-hearted, ignorant dismissal of the supremely important connection between learning, its durability and childhood emotions.
“Learning is a form of memorised behaviour that is shaped by experience and is entirely determined, in its durability, by emotional connectivity to its stimuli.”

Dangerous Ideas

Derek Hedgcock

I vividly recall from my school principal days, the need to counsel a pupil about the dangers of leaving his classroom to seek refuge in a large urban park, adjacent to the school. The park was a notorious “stranger danger”, no-go area of which the local children were well aware. The school community was constantly vigilant and therefore it was unusual for a pupil to venture into the park at all. However, as this child was relatively young and new to the school, I spent some time detailing the relevant safety issues, with particular emphasis upon the “stranger danger” risks that existed, along with the hazards associated with taking a dip in the lily ponds.

Despite the thoroughness of my counsel, it was obvious that I was not making the required impression that might convince the boy to cease his escapades. His repeated response in broken English was something like…. “That place not dangerous!”

Perhaps now, I should reveal that the eight-year-old lad in question was Sudanese, had spent almost two years in a refugee camp in Egypt, prior to his family’s sponsorship to Australia. In his previous life, he had witnessed an older sibling hacked to death with machetes and no doubt had drunk water far more foul than the turtle infested lily ponds in which he was delighted to “swim”…. He couldn’t swim a stroke. Danger is, I then realised, a concept of variable relativity.

It also reaffirmed to me, that there are certainly dichotomous viewpoints of the very same thing. It got me thinking. At the time, I was applying scientific principles of the physiology and psychology of human emotions in lieu of the traditional “behaviour management” approach, common place in our schools. It was necessary, even more so in this case, to abandon rational argument, and apply an emotion based trigger to alter this boy’s extremely powerful emotions-charged view of the world. In short, unless there is some form of emotional connection that overcomes the emotional connections of prior learning, little if no behaviour change occurs.

Emotions determine what we learn and what we forget. It makes sense that there has to be some mechanism of mind and body that sorts the trivial from the salient, the ho-hum from the bass drum, the urgent from the later-will-do….

That mechanism is emotion of which there are basically seven; universal across all the human species…. anger, fear, surprise, happiness, contempt, disgust and sadness. These are considered to be the background or landscape, against and through which our lives constantly exist.

Unless an event or part of an event elicits an emotional response that is more significant than those prior, during or after, memory of that event or its components will not endure. In fact, awareness itself will fail to arise unless emotional salience exists in relation to the incident.

Obvious!

EMOTIONS AND LEARNING

There is little excuse for educators not to consider the significance of emotions to learning, now that the science is out and unequivocal in its explication of this essential principle of learning.

For that’s what learning is…. a form of memorised behaviour that is shaped by experience and entirely determined in its durability by emotional connectivity to its stimuli?

So… learning has a duality. There is both a physical- metaphysical interdependency that comprises emotional connection AND salience, before an enduring lesson will be formed and manifest itself as behaviour.

Memory is a manifestation of learning. Behaviour is the only tangible evidence of learning. Emotion determines it all.

Gardner described intelligence as a bio-psychological potential, a view very close to my own and perhaps the most concise and accurate definition I have encountered. However, intelligence does not qualify learning in any formal school sense. On most if not all systemic, school-based tests of learning, the Sudanese lad would have failed. His NAPLAN scores were low indeed. Did he have the capacity to learn? Certainly! It was amazing how quickly he learned to speak English. He had certainly learned what danger truly can be and accordingly, in the nicest possible way, put me in my place in that regard…. “There no man with machete, no crocodile in water…. That park not dangerous!”

This to me was a salutary lesson and accordingly an emotional experience.

The most significant of all learning qualifiers is emotion. To have this young man change his behaviour, it was necessary to resolve the emotional trigger, the button that was firing the flight response causing him to seek refuge in the out-of-bounds park. After all, he had sought refuge before and in far more dire circumstances. He could fight; proven the day he sorted out a racist, a year seven bully with great physical skill and panache! What was it that stirred his emotions and why was he running away, seeking solace in a lush, verdant parkland the local kids thought to be so dangerous, they did not go there? Let’s think about it.

3 Ss

There are three genetic imperatives we all possess….. Succour, Success, Survival…. the 3 S’s.

We all crave acceptance in the company of others. We all aspire to succeed at least some of the time. We all need basic comforts and sustenance. Whenever one or a combination of these imperatives is compromised – real or perceived – a flight or fight response arises according to the emotional state associated with that compromise. The states prevail within the scope of the seven human emotions…. fear, surprise, happiness… etc, singly or in combination. The behaviour defaults arise from those states. For example, racism is most probably a combination of fear and contempt, which when exercised might bring happiness to some!

I have already illustrated the significance of prior experience and the relative assessments we each make with respect to any given context. Sheltered,middle-class, middle-aged Aussie male conception of danger varies widely in comparison to that of an eight-year-old, Somalia refugee male. My three genetic imperatives had never been as severely compromised in my life, as had his. Both beauty and ugliness are in the eye of the beholder…. a fundamental by which all educators might do well to hold dearly when they apply policy and practice!

Further to these salient three, there are I believe, three dimensions across which we all traverse with mixed degree of attachment, from context to context and from role to role in our daily lives.

These dimensions, I propose as …. Social. Novelty, Convention.

DIMENSION OF SOCIAL CONNECTION

…… Imagine this….

Way back on an ancient, prehistoric African savannah, a family group meted out their existence, in competition not only with neighbouring family groups, but also against large predator cats, vagaries of the weather…. Within the group an individual had a strong disposition to keep the group together, socially convivial, insightful, cohesive…… Another individual was disposed to trying new ideas, always tinkering with rocks and sticks to invent more efficient weapons, hunting tools, cooking methods…. Another individual was disposed towards remembering the weather patterns, the habits of plants and animals, the pathways to favourable locations at key times in the annual climate cycle…

Would the group’s survival be compromised if any one of these dispositions weren’t preserved genetically? Which of these dimensions of emotional connection could be lost to the human species by way of natural selection? …. I like to socialise and maintain family cohesion…. I enjoy experimentation and challenging the status quo…. I love to keep to the rules and help others to do so as well…..

Alternatively, is it fortunate that natural selection has preserved these dimensions of emotional connection to the extent they are recognisable traits among us all to this day?

Some classroom teachers never bother to open windows each morning because they are required to close them again before afternoon departure. If you’ve ever entered such a classroom in North Queensland, on a summer’s day, after lunch when thirty or so kiddies have returned after madly running about and their tummies have begun processing the sardine sandwich that made up lunch…. you will accept that any class group is indeed a heady mix… a primordial broth?

Beneath that obvious layer of complexity lies a simple dynamic. There is a variance of dispositional mixes across the three dimensions of emotional connection.

Some children most obviously consider school a social experience. They are there to be with their friends and, at the extreme boundaries of this dimension, are those who know the most detailed trivia about the other kids in the class and those across the school population.

Some children find it surprisingly difficult to conform to “the rules”. They display an amazing propensity for innovation and variation from routine, not simply because they have had poor training at home, but more so, because they are innately possessed of a dispositional character for looking at the world outside the box. They are usually the first to notice an unexpected visitor to arrive at the classroom door, gaze constantly outside with fixed attention upon any novelty that presents itself….. the busiest bees in a bottle they are.

Some children will respond with…. “Why are we doing reading now Miss? It’s not afternoon yet!” They know where everything is kept and most willing help tidy up. They do not cope well with alterations to routine.

Each post schooling vocation has an inbuilt requirement for a bias towards one of these dimensions of emotional connection…. however…for example…. not a good idea when approaching to land in a large passenger aircraft to have the captain announce…. “We are approaching to land. We will be on the ground in about five ot ten minutes and I am going to try a new way of landing… something never attempted in this particular aircraft ever before…..”

SO

  • When pupils are confronted by a learning expectation, imposed by the school at some systemic level or another…. how much of the emotional aspects that underpin learning are considered?
  • Does the current, so-called developed, world trend in education adequately consider the ancient roots of our species as emotion-dependent-for-learning individuals?
  • Do schools and their shakers and movers ever give due consideration to the significance of emotions to learning as a fundamental, human behaviour?
  • Do school curriculum designers and enforcers give due regard for the emerging scientific knowledge and understanding of how our species’ mind and body functions undertake learning – the most fundamental of all human behaviours?

Or conversely, do they adhere to anachronistic fundamental, security-blanket, power conserving, freedom constraining, self aggrandising, miserly-wealth accumulation indulgences that are not at all about education in its purest opportunities and liberating forms?

Should the powerful, who currently hijack education for their own self-serving interests, ever, ever consider that, among the teaching profession, there is a significant proportion of individuals possessing a dispositional preference for the Novelty dimension of their emotional connection. Furthermore, should the imposers of fear based compliance, recognise that the Novelty dimension is the one most liable to spawn creative innovation… the very essence of an ever expanding diverse knowledge based economy…. the very thing that may best guarantee their hegemony in a rapidly changing, global economy?

Should not our political “masters” ensure the Novelty dimension is nurtured as least as equitably as the other two, if for no other reason than to ensure our national 3S’s remain robust?

Would the designers and enforcers of NAPLAN and/or correspondingly restrictive, scripted curriculum impositions, not be better agents of education efficacy and fairness, were they to consider the emotional aspects of learner behaviour and the emotional aspects of teacher behaviour? Shouldn’t they resile from such Kleinsian platitudes as…. “Failure is something with which we all need to cope…. Failure is part of life’s journey” etc, etc”?

Just as I considered the park a dangerous place whilst failing to consider another’s perception of danger, is it not reasonable to assert that NAPLANers hold scant respect for the perspective of others who are less empowered to compensate their fears or relegate them to a form of relative triviality within the ordinal scope of their, as yet unknown and un-encountered, vicissitudes of future lived experiences?

Should they understand that because learner variation exists across emotionally connective dimensions as a compelling, ineluctable, genetically inherited disposition, only modified and ameliorated by nurture as opposed to coercion, that one-size-fits-all assessment and instruction strategies are morally reprehensible in an age when scientific discovery reveals more just and diversely accommodating alternatives for education to explore, apply and refine?

Should the powers that always want to be, and the bureaucratic wannabes, understand that both the Social dimensions and the Novelty dimensions of emotional disposition to learning and connection to any learner’s world, are equally as salient as the Convention dimension? In fact: without an equal measure of all three, the human world as we know it, will descend into chaos?

Do they comprehend as convention- compliance mongers, that they in fact rely upon the influence that the other two dimensional dispositions bring to the world?

Same emotional landscape, same buttons, same dimensions of connection apply to us all.

They are not only the architects of the demise of others who have a right to a fair and proper EDUCATION, but also inadvertently, the makers of their own downfall. Perhaps they may, one day, come to realise that the very button that drives their own power mongering and greed (greed; borne of fear) … the Success imperative, with extremely limited disposition to connect to others who function outside the Convention dimension….. They may realise, then, their own self imposed peril?

Somehow, I doubt it! They keep the pressure on the wrong button.

Because their Convention disposition has served their Success perception well: because their narrow, self-obsessed view of what comprises fear has seldom strayed into the perceptual realm of those less fortunate or privileged : because their knowledge of learning as a behaviour remains in an age of uninformed and cloistered hegemony of but one dimension, as opposed to a balanced dichotomy of the physical and the metaphysical (Gardner’s bio-psychological)…. NAPLAN and its ilk are the only idea they have.

That’s why it is so dangerous!

By the way…. the Sudanese boy ceased his flight induced escapades once his default, fear button was identified within the Success imperative. Another boy in his class teased him repeatedly about his language inadequacies, especially when came reading time. The teaser displayed perceived compromise regarding his soccer prowess which by comparison with that of the Sudanese boy, was obviously inferior. Same button, similar fear based, fight/flight response pattern, variable perceptual context.

When the whole class was made more aware of the Sudanese boy’s life experiences, empathy and sympathy prevailed as is almost always the case among young children who remain largely untainted by the bigotry and racial biases of adulthood. When the boys were encouraged to help each other by imparting their skills by mutual exchange, the Success button was restored and escapades to the park ceased. Yet another layer of peace descended upon the school community.

Education is the way to social harmony. Emotional connectivity is an essential element of learning stimuli. Emotional wellbeing is the essence of beneficial learning.

In this day and age, there is no excusing, whatsoever, the emotions based ills that NAPLAN and its brethren perpetrate upon modern education!

_______________________________________________
Phil Cullen [….for kids. They have feelings too.] 41 Cominan Avenue Banora point 2486 Australia 07 5524 6443 cphilcullen@bigpond.com
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