Teaching to Empower: Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now to Help Students Become Self-Regulated Learners
In his book Descartes’ Error, neurologist Antonio Damasio argues that humans do not make decisions by relying exclusively on the rational or reason-oriented parts of their brain (2008). Evidence from patients with brain damage reveal that our abilities to reason and make decisions are greatly influenced by our emotions (Damasio et al., 1990; Saver and Damasio, 1991). In fact, our emotions and how we feel act as a gateway to our thinking and learning by providing “the bridge between rational [prefrontal cortex] and nonrational processes” [brainstem and limbic structures].” (Damasio, 2008). Understanding the ways in which our brain processes sensory inputs and integrates those inputs into our ongoing emotional state is critical for helping students become self-regulated, sophisticated learners.
In the following article, I will begin by briefly summarizing the role of emotions in learning and the impact of toxic stress on our students’ ability to engage, learn, and thrive. I will then define and present a trauma-informed teaching and learning paradigm with practical strategies that empower students to continue to learn and succeed. I will address a few misconceptions about trauma-informed education. I will conclude by making a plea to you, members of the undergraduate neuroscience community, by presenting a case for the utility and moral imperative of educating our students about the basic functioning of their brains, especially as it relates to emotional regulation and learning.