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What Fear Does

What Fear Does
By Wendy Priesnitz

When I look back at my elementary and high school years in the 1950s and 60s, the main emotion I recall is fear, or at least anxiety. I was perpetually afraid – of going by myself to the first day of kindergarten (I cried but they told my mother to go home and I’d stop), of failing a test (I never did), of being called on to answer a “mental arithmetic” question or sing a scale (my throat would close tight), of looking clumsy in gym class (I often did), of not making friends (I was shy but relatively popular), of getting a bad report card (I never did), of forgetting my locker combination (I still dream about that), of getting a detention and then being punished again at home for the transgression (that happened on occasion), and, and, and…. My teachers and my parents believed that fear motivates children to behave well, which in school means a good mark.

When my own daughters were little, my mother tried to invoke fear of ruining their lives as an argument in favor of sending them to school. By then, I had begun to understand the damage that fear does. And I now believe that whatever success I’ve had in life has come in spite of fear, and from learning, rather late in life o tolerate risk (I’ve yet to learn to fully embrace it.) I wonder how much more I could have achieved had I felt secure in the first place.

“Even when someone isn’t inciting fear in us, learning something new can sometimes feel like a dangerous adventure, at the same time as it is exciting.”

Apparently, not much has changed. In his book Motivated Student, educator Bob Sullo writes that many teachers still believe that fear is a prime motivator for students to excel. As examples of things that teachers incite in students, he lists fear of failure, fear of an unwanted call home, fear of the teacher, fear of ridicule, and fear of another unpleasant consequence, even fear of an unknown future. He states, “The intentional creation of fear in the classroom remains one of the most widely used strategies for managing student behavior and encouraging academic achievement.”

However, there is compelling evidence to the contrary, that fear actually impedes learning – and that is important even though, as I’ve written elsewhere, there isn’t necessarily much connection between “student behavior,” “academic achievement,” and real learning. Here’s Sullo again: “Physiologically speaking, students in an environment characterized by fear are not able to think as effectively and learn as much as those who are in an environment that feels safe and secure.” That’s because humans are designed for self-preservation. Fear activates the fight-or-flight mechanism, which sends increased amounts of oxygenated blood to our legs and arms so that we are prepared to run away from danger or fight it off. Because we have a finite amount of blood, that results in a corresponding decrease in blood flow to other areas like the brain.

Fear’s Opposite

Now, I’m assuming your life learning household has neither saber-toothed tigers nor a climate of intellectual fear. But even when someone isn’t inciting fear in us, learning something new can sometimes feel like a dangerous adventure, at the same time as it is exciting. A person might make mistakes and feel a whole range of emotions from disappointment and anger through to jubilation. Anticipating that, in order to get started on a learning adventure, most people – especially children – need as much comfort, reassurance, and security as they can find. The risk- and mistake-making processes are best supported by a secure physical, intellectual, and emotional environment.

Take reading, for example. The typical situation, with other children ready to correct or laugh at every mistake and the teacher (or even parent!) all too eagerly “helping” and correcting (if not overtly inciting fear of the results of failure), and even unconsciously belittling or undermining self-confidence, is the worst possible environment for a child to learn to read. So one of the best ways to support the learning to read adventure is to allow the child time and space to spend with words, and to avoid demanding regular demonstrations of what they might prefer to keep private. We’ll still notice that the child is making more and more sense out of printed language – that they are reading road signs or food labels, for example, and then one day a page or screen of type.

I remember John Holt once describing how he helped his young niece learn to read. He said all he did was let her snuggle up on his lap and read to her, later letting her read to him. She refused to read unless she felt physically secure. He said that later, she moved from his lap to a corner of the room, shrouded in a tent made from a blanket. Eventually, she was confident enough to discard the blanket and read aloud wherever she was. That sense of security and privacy was apparently crucial to the process.

“The optimum life learning environment is a secure, non-coercive one that supports risk taking, curiosity, and exploration.”

Taking a Risk

The process of learning can feel scary because it requires taking risks. Think about how, whenever we adults take on the challenge of acquiring new knowledge or developing new skills, we make ourselves vulnerable. We leave our comfort zones and will likely display some incompetence along to way to gaining competence. That is also true for younger learners, and is best encouraged by creating a comfortable environment for that risk-taking.

So the optimum life learning environment is a secure, non-coercive one that supports risk taking, curiosity, and exploration. If we encourage (but not force) the pursuit of new challenges and knowledge, while providing the necessary support and security, our children will develop into the flexible, resourceful self-directed learners that they were meant to be.

The same principle is true for other aspects of life, such as socialization. Self-confidence is nurtured in children who have the freedom to venture into sophisticated social situations at their own speed. Pushing children into what seems to them to be a scary situation will accomplish nothing positive if they are not ready or comfortable enough to allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to take the required risk.

When a person is afraid, they will focus on self-preservation rather than the acquisition of new knowledge and the development of new skills. Fear has no place in a learning environment.

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's founding editor. A writer and journalist for over forty years, she is the author of thirteen books, a former broadcaster, and a lifelong changemaker. She and her husband helped their two now-adult daughters learn without school in the 1970s and '80s. You can learn more about her and read more of her writing on her website.

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