Learning Brains vs Survival Brains

by Julie Ruark
Research & Instruction Librarian/Wordpress Instructor

If I could step out of myself for a minute and watch how I teach, I’d see myself acting out of these convictions:
Teaching requires the eyes to see what exactly a student is struggling with, and then the ability to give them just what they need to take the next step.
Teaching is best if you can step into the shoes of your student, for a little bit, understanding the challenge from their point of view.
Teaching also requires you to see into the future, to see what’s possible for this student.
And to communicate your belief that every day is full of possibility.

I had an experience recently that showed me something else about teaching that I had overlooked. And I learned this from one of my students “teaching” me. A student of mine shared a You Tube video on Facebook, “Understanding Trauma: Learning Brain vs Survival Brain”. (https://youtu.be/KoqaUANGvpA) Students are often impacted by trauma, setting up a “survival brain” response to stress.

The video describes being in learning brain vs being in survival brain. Learning brain is characterized as being open to new information, comfortable with ambiguity, and emotionally calm, peaceful, excited about learning, curious, and not afraid of making mistakes. Survival brain is the opposite: hyper focused on threat, doesn’t like ambiguity, thinks in black and white. Emotionally someone in survival brain is stressed, panicky, obsessive, afraid of making mistakes, just wants to get things over with, filled with self-doubt.

The key for teachers is this statement: “Students best learn when they feel they are safe and supported by the adults around them.” I was surprised to read what she wrote next:

“This is awesome! Julie Ruark is an awesome teacher. She taught me how to make websites. She would say, “It’s ok to screw this whole thing up, we can fix it.” I believed her because I trusted her and so I learned how to do a new thing. I’ve always been afraid of making mistakes or “doing it the wrong way” so I never really tried new things because of that fear. It took me 40 years to be ok with making mistakes.”

Even our older students need safe spaces for learning! As a teacher I don’t intentionally set out to create a safe space for learners. But I do get consistent feedback that I’m very approachable, a good listener, and that I care about my students. I hadn’t connected the dots that this translates into safety for others, and I hadn’t considered how valuable this actually might be for our learners. I can create the environment they need to live out of their learning brain.