Understanding how we learn through pain and how we learn through pleasure.

As a child I remember stretching on my tippy toes and touching the Number 3 hot plate on my parents’ stove – which happened to be on a Number 4 heat setting at the time.  The result? Screams, tears and swollen fingers.  The pain was instant and so was the lesson.  What did I learn?  Logically I should have learnt to be wary of the No 3 plate on temperature 4: that was the context of the lesson and that was the specifics of the moment.  However this was not what I had learnt. Instead I learnt to be wary of my parents No 3 plate on any temperature. I also learnt to be wary of any plate on my parents stove, or any hot plate on any stove in any house that I may visit. In fact even today, I sometimes catch myself examining hotplates I come across in houses that I visit to make sure I don’t repeat a painful experience from decades ago.  One event created a category learning – be careful of hot plates.  A fantastically clever and automatic mind trick that ensured I didn’t have to burn my fingers again and again on hotplates. So this lesson was very useful for my poor fingers, but what happens when one painful event creates a category lesson that is not so useful?

I challenge you to find someone who hasn’t had a teacher ruin a subject for them: Is it Maths? Science? Biology? a Second Language? – maybe even you the reader has someone who in a moment, or a series of moments, “ruined” a subject for you, forever.  For me it was Mrs Mercier in Standard 1 Afrikaans (my second language.) I was 8 and I was happily colouring-in pictures of Afrikaans animals (my original Afrikaans teacher knew less Afrikaans than I did), when the original teacher got sick and we were thrown head first into the grips of Mrs Mercier’s relentless grilling of the finer nuances of Afrikaans greetings. I was called to demonstrate my knowledge and skill in front of the class and instead I demonstrated how my face went blood red and I started to wilt under the gaze and screeching sounds of Mrs Mercier’s anger.  I dont remember wetting my pants, but I may as well have. That day I learnt some serious category lessons about Afrikaans, people with power, being unprepared, being in the spot light and feeling betrayed by my (until then, favourite) Original teacher.  All of these thoughts and lessons were no doubt very childish and childlike, however they were strong enough for me to still work on undoing and unlearning many of the lessons on a context basis years later.

Not all lessons become category lessons, however the more painful the lesson the more likely the body’s fight/flight mechanism will kick in to protect you, no matter how illogical the lesson is. So what’s the solution? When you or someone you care about has learnt a painful lesson, help them or yourself contextualise that lesson, it was not about Afrikaans and Teachers and spot lights and betrayal, it was just about an unskilled teacher with a bad attitude towards kids. It was about Mrs Mercier, not about teachers. It was about that classroom session, not about Afrikaans.  The second solution is to focus on your successful lessons, your triumphs, and your big and small wins and once you have extracted the full lesson, keep asking – so where else does this lesson apply? Until you have turned a contextual lesson into a category. .. Simply many of us tend to learn category lessons through pain, and context lessons through pleasure, however this does not have to be you or your loved ones, now that you know what to do..

So know that you know all of this, where else does this lesson apply?