Matching the Strategy to the Student

We feel, therefore we learn. Advances in brain research have shown that emotions and cognition are inextricably connected. As a result, emotions and learning are just as deeply joined.

But do teachers have ready access to the growing body of evidence that supports social and emotional learning (SEL)? Which strategies might work better with certain students? How can teachers apply the research in authentic ways to guide their classroom practice?

The Learner Variability Project (LVP) explores these connections. It matches the research on the critical categories of learning factors to a corresponding set of teaching strategies. LVP aims to help teachers bridge the gap between emotion and learning, motivation and skill building, evidence and strategies—and ultimately, learners and their full potential.

“Studies are proving what many teachers have felt in their gut: that aspects of learning in school, such as motivation, attention, memory, and decision-making, are profoundly affected by and subsumed within emotions,” says Susanne Nobles, PhD, LVP Partnerships Director, and former high school teacher.

“In fact, learning and emotions use the same pathways in the brain and brainstem,” adds Nobles. “Research by Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is showing how our medulla lights up when we’re inspired by something we hear or learn, when we make a personal connection, when we can make sense of something. That’s when learning really sticks!”

The Four Critical Categories of Learning Factors

Learning is not simply a matter of content. It also involves cognition, biographical background, and SEL. Take stereotype threat as an example. Although the learner may not believe their ethnicity or gender should matter in their ability to learn a certain subject, a fear of proving the stereotype correct can strongly impact their working memory. The fear, in turn, takes up cognitive load. The end result is this connection between anxiety and cognition can cause the stereotype to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

LVP offers strategies that research has shown can reduce this threat. One option is to frame assessments not as a test of a student’s overall ability, but instead as representing just that moment in time. Another is to allow time for free writing about how a student feels just before giving a test. Both tactics highlight a student’s individuality rather than merely representing a group, thus helping to displace stereotype fear.

Tending the Garden

When it comes to learning, research shows that genetics isn’t a dominant factor. Our genes actually under-specify our development, rather than determine everything. In other words, learners will benefit—or suffer—from conditioning.

Think of us as seeds in a garden, to use an analogy created by the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. To grow, people need the sun, water, a gardener, the right climate. It’s really about how we are tended.

“Just like in a garden, where an undernourished environment can overpower the genes’ potential for growth, a negative social and emotional garden will stifle brain development,” says Nobles. “For someone born into a family living paycheck to paycheck, the stress of food uncertainty or housing uncertainty will impact learning and affect brain development.

“We’ve always known this, but now the research is catching up,” she adds. “The good news is we’re also learning about the brain’s potential for change, its plasticity. Teachers can provide nourishing environments for their students’ gardens.”

A Simplified Approach

Each learner is unique — and diversity is increasing among the U.S. population. The boom in research in learning sciences is uncovering new strategies to improve outcomes. LVP seeks to comb through this growing body of studies and provide teachers with evidence-based strategies that can help students.

“We want the research to be accessible. We want to connect teachers to all that researchers are learning,” says Nobles. “Take a few minutes to check out the LVP Navigator. Teachers will be surprised at how easy it is to find the right tools for their learners and create innovative lessons and programs to support their variability.”

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