Deep Learning and Well-Being – Levelling the Playing Field for all Children
I was honoured with an invitation to speak at Michael Fullan’s conference on New Pedagogies for Deep Learning: Engage the World to Change the World, in Vancouver in April 2018.
Apart from the terror this created for me, as Michael is such a giant in the field, it has provided me with the opportunity to think about his equity hypothesis. It goes something like this; when students fully engage with the 6C’s of Character, Citizenship, Collaboration, Communication, Creativity and Critical Thinking, those students who come from disadvantage have a more profound and deeper opportunity to engage in the learning through collaborative inquiry. They are able to bring their experience and life knowledge, rather than simply being labelled as not having what we “need them to know.”
When I started to dig more deeply into this thinking, I was struck by an insight: if classrooms could TRULY be spaces where RELATIONSHIPS are built focusing on the development of the 6 C’s, kids would be developing the life skills and protective factors they need to stave off or mitigate developing mental health problems.
Teaching is an ancient role, traditionally of being HUMAN DEVELOPERS — I think it is so important that we move back towards that thinking in our understanding of a teacher’s purpose. To educate means to lead out, bring forth, as our Indigenous elders tell us, “The light within.”
A focus on communication requires students and teachers to truly listen to each other, asking questions like, “Tell me what you meant,” rather than simply, “That’s not the right answer.”
I feel that a classroom focusing on the 6 C’s creates a very strong sense of relationship-safety between the teacher and students, the students to each other and also importantly the student to the space of learning or learning environment. For example, in order to create a collaborative space the teacher must model empathy and compassion for the differences within the learning group. A focus on communication requires students and teachers to truly listen to each other, asking questions like, “Tell me what you meant,” rather than simply, “That’s not the right answer.”
This implies an inherent belief in the competency and capabilities of every child; that every child CAN learn and will do well if they are provided the opportunity and the right environment. As one group says, “It’s skill, not will they need to do well.”
So, why is this learning philosophy good for mental well-being?
- Stress in the classroom interferes with learning. As the brain focusses on threat and survival, the amygdala triggers the release of cortisol and epinephrine, and the “Learning Brain” – the prefrontal cortex – goes offline. This becomes a non-teachable moment.
- Children coming from disadvantage are more primed to perceive a threat in the environment and shift to a survival strategy since the brain is formed by its experience to promote survival.
- Creating a place of safety and a sense of belonging by levelling the playing field – with a focus on unique competencies that the disadvantaged student has – can counteract the sense of stress and threat that affects disadvantaged children more acutely.
- We know from neuroscience that creating a sense of belonging plays a huge role in learning and protection against stress. That feeling of belonging results in the release of more neurotransmitters like oxytocin which neutralizes the effects of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
This is a profound shift to view the child as a capable, competent, rich in potential rights-bearing individual rather than as an empty vessel waiting to be filled. As the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child states, “Relationships are the active ingredient of the environment’s influence on healthy child (and youth) development.”
As educators and scholars of education, we must capture and foster that ingredient fully.