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October 1, 2015
Vol. 73
No. 2

One to Grow On / Intersections: Emotional Health and Learning

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Recently, I observed a university class session on learning theories. The class was well-planned, the instructor passionate, and the students well-prepared for the lesson. I left thinking more deeply about the topic. All good things. But I also left wondering whether a room full of preservice teachers can make sense of theories about learning when they've never really taught a class of their own. More to the point, I was aware (not the first time!) of how little I took away from my education classes during my college days—and of how scant the transfer of ideas from those classes was to my early work as a teacher.
I wanted my students to learn, of course, and I wanted them to be emotionally healthy. I taught for many years before I understood how tightly linked those two goals are. It took more years before I revisited key learning theories and mined from them insights that I wish had informed my thinking all along.

Basic Needs and Learning

Maslow's hierarchy of human needs (1943) has, on the whole, stood the test of time. Its wisdom should be at the core of teacher awareness. It reminds us that the goal of life is self-actualization: Humans want to become the best we can be. Seems to me, that should be the goal of the classroom as well—helping young learners progress a bit more each day toward their best selves. Surely teachers want to help each young person become his or her best in math, art, science, music, and so on.
Not so fast, though, Maslow tells us. There are barriers—speed bumps—along that path. If a student's physiological needs are unmet, the progression stalls. A child who is hungry, unhealthy, or in need of adequate housing may be stuck in place, weighed down by those concerns. So too with the next barrier, safety. Those who lack a basic safety net against life's dangers will generally find themselves unable to access the promise that should lie before them. Then there's the need for love and belonging—the hunger to be part of a "we." In the absence of feeling accepted and loved, the progression toward real learning is blocked by loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
So it is with the need for esteem. Humans need to be valued by others, yet even that level of esteem is inadequate to help us move forward; developing self-esteem is also crucial. Self-esteem accrues as we master skills that seem important to us, develop self-confidence, and come to recognize ourselves as competent and increasingly independent. Only then is self-actualization visible on the horizon.
Here's Maslow's bottom line for teachers: Most meaningful and enduring learning resides beyond the first three barriers. Insufficiently addressed physiological, safety, and belonging needs impede—or halt—the learning process.

A Complex Dance Step

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan's research (2000) on the relationship among human needs, motivation, and learning echoes many of Maslow's themes. They remind us that learning is not a neutral act of absorbing and repeating information. Rather, it's a complex pas de deux in which emotions and cognition are mutually interdependent—and in which individuals differ markedly.
These researchers define motivation as feeling moved to do something, being energized to pursue a goal. Motivation to learn, they tell us, occurs when three psychological needs are met: relatedness, autonomy, and competence.
Intrinsic motivation to learn increases when a prospective learner feels cared for and valued by his or her teacher and feels a sense of bonding with peers who share a common pursuit. In addition, students are more intrinsically motivated to learn when their teacher actively supports them in developing autonomy, as opposed to being controlling.
Finally, as a student's competence with particular aspects of learning increases, so does his or her motivation to learn. Competence evolves, however, only when students work at a challenge level that's optimal for them and receive targeted feedback that works as a kind of GPS to move them ahead "plus one" (Hattie, 2012) in the journey. Here's the dance. Psychological needs impact learning, and learning impacts psychological health.

Echoes from Neuroscience

The nascent field of neuroscience in education points to the physiology behind the psychology of theorists like Maslow, Deci, and Ryan (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011). When a student's fundamental needs for food, safety, and respect are denied, the "early brain" trumps cognition. The brain's primary energies focus on protecting its owner rather than on learning. When learning tasks are too difficult—or too simple—for a student, learning can't happen. Work that's consistently too difficult threatens safety; work that's consistently too easy threatens respect.
Learning doesn't happen because information is served up on a regimented timetable. It happens only when a learner is in a "learning condition" and when instruction meets that learner where he or she is developmentally.
A teacher's first job is to care—really care—about kids. This means noticing when their fundamental needs are unattended to and meeting those needs, making your commitment to their success public and visible by connecting with kids, and connecting young people with one another so no one need be lonely in the learning struggle. But our role isn't only to understand the basic trajectories of a healthy life and right the course when a student is off-course. It's also to understand the trajectories of learning in the disciplines we teach so we can confidently invite students into their varied points of entry.
Those roles are neither optional nor supplementary. They are cornerstones of helping young people become who they need to become.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67. Retrieved from

Sousa, D., & Tomlinson, C. (2011). Differentiation and the brain: How neuroscience supports the learner-friendly classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. professor and chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, teaching post-graduate students, mainly in the areas of curriculum design and differentiated instruction. She is also co-director of the university's Institutes on Academic Diversity, where she strives to help educators understand the principles of differentiated instruction and develop competence and confidence in creating responsive classrooms that meet the diverse learning needs of today's students.

As an educator for more than 21 years, Tomlinson has worked as an elementary and a secondary public school teacher. She was named Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education in 2004 and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2016, she was ranked #16 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #3 voice in Educational Psychology. She's written more than 300 books, book chapters, articles, and other materials for educators.

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