How Are Happiness and Learning Connected? | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

How Are Happiness and Learning Connected?

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

We've all heard of the fight or flight response. We go into survival mode when threatened by something or someone. We either put up our dukes (literally or metaphorically) or take off running (literally or metaphorically). Students often go into survival mode when they feel threatened by an overwhelming cognitive task or confusing text, or when they are called on and don't know the answer, or are confronted or teased by another student (or a teacher!) Can one even learn in such a setting?

It's a question that deserves our full consideration.

As teachers, we also know that when students' affective filters or defenses are sky high, fight or flight responses will be modus operandi. A room full of defensive behaviors (withdrawn, angry) is a sad, unproductive place to teach and learn.

Now let's flip it and take a look at how much more we are able to learn when we are in harmony with the people and things in any given educational environment. Being in harmony means feeling safe, feeling valued and a necessary part a group, and in this case, a learning community.

Hearts and Minds in Sync

What does research show to be the opposite of the brain's fight or flight response? It shows that when we don't feel threatened at all, we have a willingness to be vulnerable, to be open to new ideas and guidance from others -- the ideal learning scenario!

Co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute Dr. David Rock says this:

"Engagement is a state of being willing to do difficult things, to take risks, to think deeply about issues and develop new solutions. ...Interest, happiness, joy, and desire are approach emotions. This state is one of increased dopamine levels, important for interest and learning."

Unfortunately, the hyper focus on standardized testing has gravitated many public schools so very far away from whole-child teaching and learning. Less time is spent on social-emotional, behavioral activities that help create and sustain an inviting and engaging classroom environment. And we know that to engage students in deeper learning -- those times we really stretch their thinking -- there is a certain vulnerability they must surrender to. It's a magical mix of willingness and curiosity. So how do we get them there?

Let's go back to Dr. David Rock:

"There is a large and growing body of research which indicates that people experiencing positive emotions perceive more options when trying to solve problems, solve more non-linear problems that require insight, [and they] collaborate better and generally perform better overall."

In the Classroom

Of course this is great news from the research of Dr. Rock and others. So before challenging students with those high-level cognitive demands such as problem-solving, we need to cultivate a safe and harmonious learning environment that invites vulnerability and genuine inquiry. Here are a few essentials for doing that:

Essential #1: Be Sure to Community Build All Year Long. Routinely include strategies and activities in your lessons, such as Save the Last Word for Me, that allow students to express who they are, their thoughts and ideas, build relationships, and practice collaboration. This will help grow and maintain a feeling of emotional and intellectual safety in your classroom.

Essential #2: Design Group Guidelines Together. We have all felt fear (or some anxiety) when working in a group: Will they like me? Will my contributions be valued? It's important students have a say when creating the guidelines so they feel connected to and ownership of them. They will also be more on board with adhering to them. "One Speaker at a Time," "Respect all Ideas," "Listen With Your Whole Body" are valuable norms when students collaborate. Make suggestions but let them decide on wording for the norms.

Essential #3: Have Non-Negotiables. Along with classroom rules and procedures, students must know non-negotiables right out the gate. My biggest non-negotiable: name-calling. This resulted in an immediate consequence (a call to the Dean and/or removal from the classroom that day). We have to tackle such things as name-calling and teasing head on or else kids won't feel safe to be themselves, let alone learn.

Essential #4: Post Student Work Everywhere. This one is simple and easy. When displays of essays, poems, projects, and exams dominate the walls, there is a sense of belonging for the students in the room. When they look around and see their own writing and thinking, they certainly experience a higher level of comfort than if they see store-bought posters. That said, if informational posters are needed, ask your students to create them.

Now we'd love to hear from you! How have you developed your classroom to be an inviting, safe, and productive place to learn? Please share in the comment section below.

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Emotional safety, for students and teachers, encourages learning optimism and excitement. Kids are naturally curious, and with the reasonable expectation of respect, students can participate in classroom activities that produce solid learning for the long term. Positive teacher input for the tiniest success is a seed for future learning, praise is the Miracle-Gro.

Cathryn Hudson's picture
Cathryn Hudson
Project manager, Conscious Dimensions LLC.

Conscious Dimensions(r) has created a multi-dimensional journey for personal awareness that can be experienced in various media and educational formats from video gaming to classroom teaching. Just as individual awareness is a life-long evolution, the context in which this evolution takes place is a shifting consciousness as well.
Incorporating Fractal Time calculations/biofeedback, players will be able to calculate the probability their avatar will make the same mistakes again in future levels of the game, providing important in-game advantages.
The player learns about themselves and others while playing.
We are a start up, getting funding, and really believe that if students can learn about themselves and others, they can become a happy, productive member of society.

Mr. Tarkowski's picture
Mr. Tarkowski
School Counselor

I believe when teachers are happy, students are provided a great opportunity to learn. When students learn and grow, happiness will be shared by both teacher and students.

Your blog has provided some great hooks to get student's attention and may lead to happiness. Providing a safe environment for students is paramount for any learning to happen and may lead to happiness. I don't believe happiness is a goal. Happiness is a by-product of effective teaching. I am confident that a happy teacher is on the way to be an effective teacher.

One business model is to put employee happiness first, costumer happiness second and share holder happiness third. Happy employees will go the extra mile to make costumer happy. Happy customers will spread the word and a company (school) develop more customers. More costumers make share holders happy.

flourishingkids's picture

I have been working for years on this very thing! I follow the work of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson of University of Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her work is very enlightening on the power of both negative and positive emotions.
My blog ( is filled with stories of how I incorporate positive strategies to reduce the impact of stress as well a s promote learning. Here is a link to a presentation I did as well.
Thanks for the important!

Jo-Ann Fox's picture

People wonder what is the difference between good teachers and GREAT teachers? This is it. Teachers who strive to make their classroom a community built on trust, safety, and a place where all students are celebrated will show the results of deeper learning and inquisitive minds. Good teachers can teach, GREAT teachers inspire. Thank you, Edutopia, for sharing such an amazing article.

blog Defining "Best Practice" in Teaching

Last comment 19 min 32 sec ago in Teacher Development

blog The Need for Adaptation in Schools

Last comment 2 days 6 hours ago in Student Engagement

blog Storytelling With Wearable Technology

Last comment 1 week 6 days ago in Mobile Learning

blog Inspiring Progress Toward Learning Goals

Last comment 1 week 4 days ago in Brain-Based Learning

blog 6 Engaging End-of-Year Projects

Last comment 1 day 14 hours ago in Student Engagement

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.