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When Learning Hurts – Toxic Learning

What and how students learn can have toxic effects on how well they learn thereafter. It’s vitally important that educators understand this.

A recently released study of math anxiety, When math hurts: math anxiety predicts pain network activation in anticipation of doing math is the latest addition to a growing body of neuroscience that demonstrates that anxiety is toxic to learning.

The study shows that when anticipating an upcoming math-task, the higher our math anxiety, the more our brains increase activities associated with threat detection and the experience of pain. They go on to point out that it is the anticipation of math tasks, not the actual performance of math tasks that causes the most pain.

Math anxiety affects about 50 percent of the U.S. population. Anxiety over reading and writing are at least as widespread (if less studied). Test anxiety affects between 25 and 40%. Speaking anxiety (Public speaking) is the number one social fear of adults.

Math-anxiety, reading-anxiety, writing-anxiety, test-taking-anxiety, (public speaking, singing, dancing…) are all performance anxieties that, for the most part, develop in school. Though a small percentage of the population has innate learning disabilities (genetically ordained differences in brain wiring that impairs their learning), the great majority who develop these anxieties learn to develop them in school.

In my live events, I frequently ask educators how they feel about their math abilities. Typically less than a 1/3rd indicate they feel good about them and about ½ feel bad about them. I then ask how many think their difficulties with math are the result of the way they were introduced to and/or taught math, rather than some kind of innate math-processing weakness. Virtually everyone who previously indicated they didn’t feel good about their math abilities raises their hands.

These anxieties are learned responses to our learning difficulties! And, not only are these anxieties learned, they impair the kinds of learning that could free us from the anxiety – they are toxic to learning.

When we approach a challenging task with anxiety about our performance, our brains’ emotional arousal drains the mental energy and distracts from the attentional focus we need to learn to improve our performance (at the task we are anxious about).  These ‘learning anxieties’ act like negative feedback loops and, all too often, they lead to downward spirals: the more anxiety, the worse our performance; the worse our performance, the more our anxiety.

The reason these anxieties can be so potently learning-disabling is that at root they are not really about math or reading or writing or test-taking. These anxieties are not about the tasks; they are about how we feel about the tasks. What we most dread – most fear – is not the ‘fact’ of failure, it’s the feeling of failure – it’s the shame.

According to NAEP, most of our children are chronically improficient in the skill areas most critically important to their success in school (see my previous post).  They know it. They feel it. They blame themselves for it. They feel shame about it. The shame is something they can’t help (neurobiologically) but be anxious about. The anxiety they feel impairs their ability to learn. Not able to learn, to improve their performance, they feel more shame and greater anxiety. When this happens chronically and across multiple domains of learning, children begin to develop a more general shame – a more general anxiety. They become ashamed of their minds. They develop mind-shame.Most of the children who struggle in school are struggling with how they have learned to feel about learning in school. If we are going to evolve a more learning healthy approach to educating our children, we are going to have to reduce the shame-based anxieties they are learning to develop in school. We can’t begin to learn to do that until we acknowledge how unhealthy learning can be.

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9 Responses to When Learning Hurts – Toxic Learning

  1. Masha Bell November 20, 2013 at 5:20 am #

    Anxiety is undoubtedly toxic to learning. That’s why everyone interested in raising educational attainment should support modernisation of English spelling – The reading and writing difficulties which its inconsistencies cause give many pupils a sense of failure from the moment they enter school. They cause much real literacy failure too, rather than just a sense of failure, because they make English literacy acuisition for the bottom 1/5 of the ability range altogether too difficult. Their functional illiteracy leaves them gaining little benefit from their time in compulsory schooling.

    Yet given the will, they could be much reduced:

    • Learning-Activist November 20, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

      Marsha, I agree the irregularities of English cause children to blame themselves for feeling confused in a way that engenders mind-shame. In our work on Children of the Code we explore both the cause of the irregularities and the various attempts to reform the code. We also explore the how the irregularities challenge the brain during the process of learning to read. So, I agree with you at one level. On the other hand, attempts to reform English spelling, however noble in intention, are a waste of time – the inertia is much to great. See my notes on ‘reform’. Stay tuned… there is another way to approach this…. Thanks and all the best, David

      • Masha Bell November 22, 2013 at 6:19 am #

        David, I do not accept that English spelling is unreformable, despite current lack of enthusiasm for the idea.

        I believe that once more people understand how English spelling differs from other alphabetic writing systems –
        and begin to appreciate what costs its irregularities incur - –
        the chances of reform will improve.

        So i intend to continue explaining, for as long as I am able to, the exceptional nature of English spelling and how it limits the educational prospects of millions. Masha Bell

        • Learning-Activist December 9, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

          Masha, It’s not unreformable technically… the problem is paradigm inertia. I wholeheartedly agree that code-confusion limits the educational prospects of millions and that awakening more people to the role of code confusion is critical. The question is what to do about it. How do we make the early stages of learning to read less precariously confusing? Spelling reform requires the already literate to accept too much nuisance and expense. It’s also stuck in the same kind of thinking that created the problem in the first place. If you are really concerned with addressing the confusion and are not stuck on advocating some variation of spelling reform, let’s continue this via email.

          • Masha Bell December 9, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

            I do not agree that, “Spelling reform requires the already literate to accept too much nuisance and expense.” Please take a look at the changes I am proposing:
            Given the will, English spelling is as reformable as other orthographies, but it does require more people becoming interested in raising overall educational attainment. Currently, too many are still content to leave the bottom third shockingly ignorant.

  2. College 123 August 12, 2023 at 3:13 pm #

    Toxic Learning environments can be detrimental to one’s growth and well-being. When learning becomes a source of pain rather than progress, it’s essential to reassess the methods and environments in which we’re learning. Education should empower and inspire, not discourage or harm. Let’s strive for nurturing learning spaces that foster curiosity, collaboration, and positive growth. #HealthyLearningJourney


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