This essay is an extension to an essay by Jeff at Logic of Long Distance in regard to the relationship between anxiety and learning. If we think of Jeff’s essay consisting of a hypothesis (anxiety and learning) and conclusion (need for play), then what I aim to do here is to re-frame the hypothesis in order to arrive at the same conclusion.
One of the curious characteristics of conditionals is that the truth value of a conditional statement does not depend on the interpretation of the hypothesis and conclusion, merely the components themselves. Specifically, a false hypothesis can still return a (overall) true statement, as long as the conclusion itself is true.
The premise of Jeff’s essay is that anxiety is a condition of learning and efforts to reduce anxiety harms learners more than it helps.
Student mis-conduct, mis-behavior, and under-achievement seems like it is a nation-wide problem in 2015. I base this statement merely on my own observations in California and reading the recent posts by Jeff who is based in Tennessee. It seems like those two regions are far enough apart, and yet experiencing similar enough behaviors to extrapolate nation-wide. Educators are under a lot of stress and pressure to deliver positive results while having to do deal with stronger and stronger student behaviors.
For whatever reason, students in public schools have a lot of energy, tension, and/or anxiety, which, in and of itself, is not a problem in- or out-side a classroom. Regardless of what we attribute mis-conduct in the classroom, the tension, anxiety, energy we see can be used for good. In the field of sports psychology, as well as education, there is a concept called optimal arousal (flow). Athletes and students seek an optimal arousal in their particular discipline such that they can achieve their highest performances. Optimal arousal (flow) is, in part, what we runners call the Runner’s High. The Runner’s High is when the emotional (and spiritual?) state of the runner synchronizes with the *current* physical/physiological state of the runner. I believe the state of being known as the “runner’s high” is a state that should, and can (!), be sought in all aspects of life. It is not merely meditation or nirvana. It does not take necessarily take any profound wisdom or great leader or incredible mindfulness. But those things could be helpful (J).
I would argue that less successful runners; runners who struggle to maintain a regular exercise routine; runners who frequently get injured or experience large peaks and valleys during their training ‘season’ have yet to somewhat consistently and effectively figure out how to influence their emotional and physiological states such that running is a joy – and not drudgery. Such that they are able to live closer to that ‘runner’s high’ or optimal arousal more frequently. My argument is that these less successful runners are similar to these ‘anxious’ students in that neither of them have figured out how to use the energy within their bodies well.
Back to the classroom, the optimal arousal for learning is, of course, different by subject, age, and person. The problem isn’t too little or too much energy but rather how to regulate ourselves for peak performance. Unfortunately, in today’s society, this is where the most important adults (parents, family, teachers, coaches) play a huge role in the lives of the students. How students perceive the relationships between themselves and the magic adults in their lives plays a huge part in their ability to find the optimal arousal for high performance. It is up to these magic adults to provide opportunities for students to think one step beyond their comfort zone (see proximal zone of development discussed by Lev Vygotzky). This level of thinking is probably (from my own empirical observations) for us humans the greatest thrill or source of play we could ever experience. And no other animal can experience this type of play – it is what makes us uniquely human.
It is when these relationships, with the magic adults, do not exist that problems occur. When students have poisonous/toxic relationships with the most important adults in their lives, then we see the negative aspects of the adolescent energy in the classroom, on the streets, in the household. Healthy playing, that is thinking, is vital to the success of all of us. Adolescents, like all of us, need the adults in their (our) lives to provide opportunities for them (the adolescents) to make decisions for themselves, where the consequences of a wrong decision will not be insurmountable.
The more I observe, the more I come to the realization that the ‘anxiety problem’ we perceive in our own children or students is not really a problem and not really their problem alone. Students/children are mimicking the adults in their lives. Anxious behaviors are often displayed by all of us (mature adults or adolescents) when we perceive that we are not in control of our own future, or have little confidence that the future beyond our horizon is to look forward. Common anxiety behaviors I see in adults all the time include: leaving a conference room with chairs sprawled every which way, accumulated clutter on passenger seats of vehicles, repeating sentences in conversation (I am sure any of my readers could help me list more).
I don’t believe in the existence of a singular problem/solution to the pervasive behaviors we are seeing throughout our lives and communities. Efforts to define and propose “a” solution by themselves only create greater problems. There are infinite variables that affect how you and I (not to mention adolescents) learn and interact within our environment.
That being said, the more I study the course of the evolution of our justice system, the more I believe we are enabling/encouraging ourselves to think less of ourselves, rather than more. The secret to success, happiness, prosperity, and even progress is not to seek the least common denominator that we can all live with, but to seek a higher level, to become more every day. There is not a single person alive or dead from all of the popes to Mother Theresa who would say they have reached the pinnacle of human greatness. Even the greatest athletes always reflect back on their success and think “I can do better.”