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Understanding Emotions is Essential to Brain-Based Learning Strategies

golden-gate-bridge-84I just attended the 37th Learning and the Brain Conference, in San Francisco.  This my 3rd such conference, and as usual, the speakers did not disappoint.  The theme was using brain science to build social and emotional skills.

Brain-based learning, up until fairly recently, has focused on building cognitive skills.  Such skills include executive function skills such as focus, memory, reading and the like.  In both education and in the workplace, the role of emotions in optimizing learning and performance has not been studied as closely as these other aspects.

However during the conference, it was made clear that the brain is first and foremost a social organ.  The cortex is shaped by social interactions.  How much we feel that we are a part of something has much to say about how ready our brain is to learn.  I was struck by the number of speakers who had learning disabilities but who went on to complete advanced degrees from the some of the loftiest academic institutions:  Harvard and Stanford, for instance. Each of them credits significant figures or groups in their lives who made them feel connected, safe and empowered.

This is very critical.  I remember a teacher I had in 8th grade who didn’t like me, at all.  In fact, when my father went to a conference for my brother who was a year older, she wanted to talk about how there are good kids and bad kids and I was a bad one.  I had another teacher in high school who told me I wasn’t going to get into college, let alone the college of my choice.  Today, I would like to hit her over the head with both of my diplomas from the college of my choice!  And by the way, she was in no way an inspiration as if I had to prove something to her.  She was just awful.

Now things could have turned out rather badly if it weren’t for my father who wrote me a letter of support- basically saying that he loved me and wanted the best for me. He urged me to give my full effort because my world would be opened onto me if I did. I would have an interesting life.  And you know what?  He was right.  You can read that letter here .

Life is full of challenges- one of the speakers grew up in a 1 bedroom apartment in New York with several siblings. However it is clear that if we hope to meet these challenges, someone has to be in our corner, someone who will make us feel valued,connected and encouraged. Not someone who will blow sunshine at us but someone who will acknowledge our lives as they are and encourage us.  It is in this framework and this mindset that the best learning can occur.  Who in your life played this role for you?


This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Ann – The conference sounds awesome. (On the one hand, I wish I had known about it ahead of time! (On the other, I doubt I could have afforded admission, so perhaps it’s best I didn’t know. 🙂

    “during the conference, it was made clear that the brain is first and foremost a social organ”.
    I’ve just begun reading, “Social”, by Matthew D. Lieberman. A reasonable guess and a quick search shows that he gave a keynote on Day 3 at this conference. 🙂

  2. To respond to your question: “someone who will acknowledge our lives as they are and encourage us. … Who in your life played this role for you?”

    I have been very lucky. Both of our parents acknowledged my sister and myself as we were (and are). Sister is an extrovert, who got a BS in Elementary Ed, MS in Arts Admin, and currently works as a Project Manager! I’m an Introvert, science student & techie with a BS/MS in Microbiology (neither of which I ever used :-), and a career in programming and documentation management.

    I had some good teachers too, as well as a professor/advisor in my first (misjudged) attempt at grad school who told me “If you don;t love what you’re doing, you should be doing what you love.” I’ve been trying to live up to his advise ever since.

  3. Thanks for sharing who was important in your life. It’s critical to have that support. As one of the presenters said at the Learning and the Brain conference, “The only learning disability is fear and thinking you’re stupid.”

  4. Dr. Lieberman was indeed a keynote speaker. The conference was excellent! Keep your eyes peeled for further Learning and the Brain conferences. They frequently come to San Francisco.

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