Fear and Learning

least-favorite-teacher-091416Bad experiences from the past in school play a big part in preventing effective adult learning.  Negative memories in our brains are easily recalled and will even produce the same chemical reactions that we had when originally experiencing the negative emotion.  Our brains are remarkable in being able to release cortisol (the chemical that gives us bad feelings) just by recreating the memories in our brains.  It is unfortunate that we don’t have the same ability with positive memories. From the research:

Fear is easy to learn and difficult to forget; the brain is biased toward remembering the bad and forgetting the good (Davis, 2002; Vyas and Chattarji, 2004). For many adult learners, the classroom triggers memories of failure and shame that might have once driven them from school. For others, just being in the position of being evaluated triggers stress. Stressors in and out of the classroom can work to inhibit the neuroplastic functions of the brain.
Davis, M. “Role of NMDA Receptors and MAP Kinase in the Amygdala in Extinction of Fear: Clinical Implications for Exposure Therapy.” European Journal of Neuroscience, 2002, 16, 395–398.

This is something that has been of key concern to my team here at Absolute-North from the start.  We were all too aware that the emotionally charged experiential learning that we were doing had the potential to bring up negative “fearful” memories in participants from the past.  So we set out to ensure that we managed this and “wrapped” our experiences in positive and supportive techniques that have proven very successful in the 10+ years we have been doing this.

How do we do it?

Here is a list of the things we do in every program.

  1. We get to know our participants.  Not just job titles but the person though introductory activities.
  2. We create a safe environment where exploration and stepping outside the comfort zone are encouraged.
  3. We conduct our sessions in small groups, as small as 2 persons and one trainer/coach.
  4. We re-play difficult cases and give feedback to help participants learn and try again when they have not succeeded, helping them to feel success.
  5. We adjust the experience to the person.  My team are experts in identifying the level of person we are developing and adjusting to that level.

We have managed this very well over the years and have not had a negative experience with any participant to date.  We have had many that have come to the program fearful of role-playing, and many have commented on this, but all leave feeling the experience was highly beneficial and positive.  A testament to the skills of my team.

Read more about The Neuroscience of Adult Learning by Louis Cozolino, Susan Sprokay.