Uncovering the Invisible Roots of Learning


Kirke Olson

My pickup truck comes to a clattering stop in the school parking lot. Through the windshield, I see small groups of students lingering outside in the morning sunlight. Some are chatting with each other; some talk and laugh with the principal; a young couple stands separately, showing the first signs of blossoming love; others are shooting baskets as they tease each other. I notice two boys running awkwardly toward my truck. Tucker is informally dressed in dirty overalls and work boots, Jimmy wears a sweater over a white shirt. Both are smiling.

Tucker (completing his morning ritual) laughs, yanks open the passenger door, and hops in: “I love your truck. Will you give it to me?” As I give him my daily answer and shoo him out, Jimmy, standing in his characteristic awkward stiffness, excitedly informs me that the insect order Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) was named by Carl Linneaus in 1735. He asks, “Do you know all the species in that order?” I refer him to his biology teacher, who is also arriving, and he dashes to her car.

As I walk toward the school building filled with students placed here by the special education system because they could not be taught in other settings, I take a moment to reflect. How can there be so much joy and warm human connection among students who some believe are unable to connect and others consider simply unteachable? Why, with no formally assigned bus duty, are so many among the staff standing outside warmly greeting students every morning (even during the cold, dark days of winter)? How is it possible for Tucker, who last year was chronically angry and even injured a teacher in his previous school, to be laughing and joking with the school principal? For that matter, what happened to change the boy excited about Lepidoptera from someone so afraid he could not enter a school building without vomiting into a student who feels safe enough to eagerly greet staff in the morning?

The daily challenge of teaching students after many talented educators had tried their best and failed pushed me to look for potentially helpful research results from fields outside of education. I examined areas such as interpersonal neurobiology, positive psychology, social neuroscience, mindfulness, organizational development—anywhere an answer to the puzzle of students’ challenges might be hiding. Because the research included infants, children, adolescents, adults, animals, organizations, and businesses, it has useful applications for all of us: students, teachers, administrators, parents, classrooms, and schools alike. It seemed the most helpful results could be roughly grouped into discoveries about neuroscience, relationships, strengths, and mindfulness.


 What can recent brain research teach us about the roots of learning? In 2001, I began to be fascinated by neuroscience, particularly interpersonal neurobiology (Siegel 1999, 2001a)—the study of how our relationships continually shape our brains. A good starting place for schools and teachers is to dedicate ourselves to learning about the core circuitry of the brain—not just the cognitive circuits but the relational and emotional circuits as well. This knowledge can be applied to understanding how teaching and learning can be enhanced by the quality of our relationships with each other, and thus we can create a school culture that supports creative excellence. In the process, we can begin to understand that students have patterns neurobiologically ingrained from their early experiences that can, for example, make it difficult for them to imagine school as a positive experience. In the case of difficult-to-teach students, I began to suspect that this negative perception of school might be adding an impossible load to the burden of their learning challenges.

For an example of how interpersonal neurobiology can inform our teaching, let’s take a close look at Tucker, a student who came to my school after his previous teacher lost her temper and yelled at the school counselor and special education director, “I don’t care how you do it, get this kid and his mother out of my class!” Tucker was physically large for a seventh grader; he saw no use for school; he hated reading, history, and math; sometimes he was interested in science; he loved to hunt and fish and often spoke of his father’s gun collection and their hunting excursions. At home, he blamed the teacher for his poor grades. His parents had attended the same school when they were children, had hated it, and always believed Tucker’s negative stories about his teacher and school.

How can neuroscience help us get Tucker (or any student, for that matter) into a state of mind open to learning? In the late 1940s, psychologist Donald Hebb (1949) discovered a simple but profound neurological process. Anything we experience causes a network of neurons to fire. Imagine these complex networks of neurons that can span the brain and body as resembling a fishing net. Like a fishing net, each fiber is connected to every other fiber to create a whole net.

The more frequently the same net of neurons fire together, the more likely they will fire in the same pattern again. This is summarized in the phrase, “What fires together, wires together.” This simple but profound process applies whether we are learning course content, discovering how relationships work, living our daily lives, or developing a sense of how school will be.

To understand how this neuroscience process can help you with your students, take a moment to imagine yourself in Tucker’s life. As a young child, he heard his parents complain about school and tell stories of their negative school experiences. Every time he heard the complaints, a network of neurons fired in his brain, and the more often they fired, the more likely they would fire again in the same pattern. Without realizing it, his parents were creating an ingrained neural network in their son that led Tucker to expect that these same negative experiences would happen to him when he went to school.

[wlm_private “1 Year Subscription|2 Year Subscription|3 Year Subscription|Staff|NPT Basic|NPT Standard|NPT Premium”]Let’s give this complex web of neurons the crude yet accurate name of the “school sucks” neural network. Over and over, his parents’ stories unintentionally made the “school sucks” network fire and strengthen. Imagine Tucker on his very first day of school, with his wired-in “school sucks” network at the ready as he enters the building. Without his conscious knowledge, Tucker’s brain is expecting a negative experience at school. In the multitude of small experience that make up a day at school, he will certainly find some negative ones. If nothing else, he will interpret his normal first-day anxiety as supporting his “school sucks” neural net. Imagine him arriving home after his first day, saying something like: “That place is creepy. Those big kids are scary.” His parents, triggered by their son’s fear, share negative stories from their past at school. Tucker’s “school sucks” network triggers his parents’ “school sucks” network and they strengthen each other. If nothing changes, the next day will be a repeat, further strengthening the negative network until the thought of school produces a feeling of dread and resistance through the whole body—hardly an ideal stage for learning.

The thought of breaking through this kind of negative neurological cycle might seem hopelessly daunting. But this is far from the case because another neuroscience discovery—neuroplasticity (Doidge, 2007; Schwartz & Begley, 2003; Siegel 1999, 2012). Simply put, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change its pattern of neural connections throughout the life span. Neuroplasticity is a discovery from neuroscience that offers educators much hope, because unlike the outdated belief that the brain is static after about age seven, neuroplasticity shows that it is possible for anyone to change their neural networks with some effort and support.


No matter how much you may want to, you cannot go inside Tucker’s head with a pair of tweezers and disconnect his “school sucks” neural network. However, you can help students change the old neural networks by creating more positive relational experiences for them at school. The change can begin, for example, simply by greeting each student individually, authentically, and warmly, allowing him or her to feel felt and seen by you. Taking an interest in his or her strengths and passions, no matter how different they are from yours, will let each student know you value him or her. Incorporating some aspects of mindfulness practice (described later) will help calm the fear that may be activating some of these neural networks. As these positive relational experiences are repeated, the old neural network will begin to be transformed into one carrying the new experience. This process is called memory reconsolidation (Ecker, Ticic, Hulley, & Niemeyer, 2012). Part of Tucker’s “school sucks” pattern is experienced in his body: his muscles get tense, his gut tightens, his heart speeds up at the very thought of going to school. In this state, he is primed to notice anything that is even a remote trigger of the “school sucks” network. He also has the anticipation that teachers will greet him warily, since that’s what his parents described and what happened to him at his old school. All of this creates a state of mind that makes it nearly impossible for him to learn.

If instead, when he arrives, he is greeted personally with authentic warmth, that simple gesture will help his body begin to relax a bit. In that moment, the old network is being modified very slightly because of the difference between what his “school sucks” neural network led him to expect and what actually happened. This is called a disconfirming experience, an essential building block of the memory reconsolidation process. When we anticipate one thing but experience another, our future expectation can be modified slightly—sometimes a lot. By repeating these experiences daily, gradually large shifts in perception are possible. The beginning of creating a foundation for academic learning is establishing a relational environment that collaborates with the brain’s natural learning processes. When kids feel safe and connected, the doors to learning open wide.

It begins for us educators by accepting students for who they are—in any given moment—although we may not actually like who they are in that moment. This can be a difficult task, but anything other than personal acceptance increases fear and reinforces negative neural networks. For example, when Tucker first began attending my school, we did not try to convince him school is really important for his future or that he might as well make the best of it. We intentionally ignored these typical talking points. Instead, we encouraged him to join the outdoor education program and even invited his parents to join him. Although they did not, the invitation was likely a small disconfirming experience for them, because it was an authentic experience by school staff—people whom they had long considered negatively—to engage in an activity they have enjoyed. The staff members were told about the family’s outdoor interests, so they looked for opportunities to swap hunting and fishing stories with Tucker’s parents at various school events. These experiences and others began to add a “this school is different” or a “this school is okay” stream of information to the old neural network for the family.

A good deal of effort was made to repeat these experiences so the old neural network could continue to transform. There were ongoing one-on-one discussions about his interests, encouragement in classes, and offers for Tucker to have a voice in decisions about his classes. It is possible that these efforts at school might have triggered positive school-related discussions at home, further transforming the neural network holding his perception of school.

It is important to know that the “school sucks” neural network does not just vanish immediately; it takes time for many disconfirming experiences to weaken the network, just as it took many experiences to develop and strengthen it. During this process, the network may be easily activated by perceived negative school-related events, and when this inevitably happens, it is a temporary setback. But the ongoing repetition of positive experiences—intentionally created—continue to make the “this school is okay” neural network fire and become stronger. In Tucker’s case, as this new neural network became established, he began to feel safe and accepted, making room for him to anticipate positive events at school. From the foundation of the “this school is okay” network, we could help him build other positive neural networks that supported his learning. For example, we might build a bridge to new learning in biology with a project linking his knowledge about game animals to related topics; in his history class, we could link his hunting and fishing passion to the lifestyles of the early American colonists.

Tucker is an example of how understanding and using neuroscience’s basic processes and neuroplasticity gives us tools to create the kinds of experience that have the potential to change habits of thought, feeling, and behavior that create obstacles to student learning. The details of students’ experiences and their preexisting neural networks as they enter our classes vary widely. Neuroscience invites us to think about any attitude or belief that creates an obstacle to learning as a neural network that can be altered by creating positive relational experiences and disconfirming experiences for students.

Applying these and other research results is both demanding and exhilarating. In the opening chapters of this book, we consider discoveries about the autonomic nervous system and the importance of safety for learning (Chapter 2); explore the ways that warm connections prepare the brain to take in new information (Chapter 3); and learn about the neural processes of paying attention and remembering (Chapters 4 and 5)—all with many practical application ideas. How we see ourselves and our students prepares us to offer experiences that collaborate with the brain’s natural learning process.


This has been an excerpt from The Neuropsychotherapist Volume 6 Issue 12 – for the complete article and more interesting content, please subscribe to our website.

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