Do you know that happy children learn? Of course you do. You are probably a parent, teacher, grandparent, uncle, aunt, sports coach or other adult in the privileged position to witness the progress that children can and do make when they are enjoying themselves. It is well documented that the hormones dopamine and serotonin are both involved with executive function, memory and learning. Both hormones are also linked with pleasure, mood and gratification. It is no wonder then that the oft-used, and perhaps over used, notion that “happy children learn”, holds some truth. Yet as is often the case with aphorisms the truth lies deep within the words.
Paradoxically, learning also takes place fairly effectively when you are under stress. However, the stress hormone, cortisol, creates memories of short term events and can impede their retrieval. You can recall those more stressful lessons at school or in life, you know that the experience wasn’t pleasant and you will probably struggle to recall the details clearly. But whether it was long division, conjugating Latin verbs or driving a car, there is something that we have retained, under conditions of high stress, in our memories that have proved valuable later in life.
What, then, is the best way to encourage learning to take place, to make this effective and to ensure that it lasts? Looking to the classroom, or the experiences that our children are exposed to in life, we have spent much ink, digital and otherwise, exploring the ideas of risk and resilience; asking questions of our practice as teachers or our skills as parents: are we protecting our children too much? are we exposing them to too little risk? will they be emotionally and psychologically tough enough to cope with the “real” world? will they have “grit” and will we be culpable if they fall apart later in life?
Certainly it is more widely reported that the Millennial generation (young people generally in their late teens to late twenties) have a changing approach to work and life, different value sets and life goal aspirations. But this difference is beyond the remit of this article and has been explored extensively elsewhere. By Simon Sinek, for instance: https://youtu.be/hER0Qp6QJNU. However, what is important to bear in mind is that we are working in real time with real young minds who have very real futures ahead of them. And this future will be as a citizen of a rapidly changing and changeable world, with a degree of uncertainty that will require the “grit” and determination that we all understand will help to reinforce them when the going gets tough in their future.
It is not merely a fanciful notion that we can make children happy all the time and they will learn what they are presented with. At Pennthorpe we use a combination of tools to ensure that pupils recognise the possibilities in front of them. These offer a platform for intellectual and emotional growth through initiatives such as Learning to Learn, Philosophy for Children, teacher and peer mentoring and a growth mindset approach to both teaching and learning. What we are aiming to do is to equip children – or perhaps more accurately the future adults who these children will become – with the mental tools to feel confident, capable and unafraid. Happy to learn to cope with and overcome any challenge that they face; to enjoy, and above all relish, the opportunity to try something easy as well as hard. Ultimately we want children to embrace in the real world what Kipling wrote in ‘If’: to “meet Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two imposters just the same…”.