Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Crisis of Confidence

Some years ago I sat in the cafeteria of the school I was teaching in to listen to a person present information about brain research relative to teaching. I consciously remember very little about the presentation; the concept of brain research relative to teaching was new and foreign to me. I am still barely knowledgeable about brain research as it relates to the educative process. However, I came away with one important idea that day: the crisis of competence.

As I already stated, I do not suggest that I know much about the brain, but I recall that the crisis of competence created a reaction within the amygdala, a portion of the brain responsible for the creation and storage of emotional memories. The most important emotional memories may well be those associated with fear, resulting in fear behavior. It is our memories of the things we fear that promote our survival. Certainly, when we are young and mistakenly touch a pan that has been used for cooking and receive a burn, we remember that a pan that has been on the stove may be hot and that we should use caution. But the reality is that we now fear the hot pan and that emotional memory is stored and retrieved when needed to keep us from burning ourselves over and over again. It is a survival skill.

At this point it is important to address then what the individual perceives as necessary to his or her survival, for it is not only that which threatens our physical health that may be perceived as a threat to our survival, but our emotional health is also threatened from time to time and is also important to our survival. Another way of saying this is that we have to feel good about who we are. We have to have a good sense of self worth. Those who lack a strong sense of self worth become targets for ridicule and perhaps more, making their survival tenuous on a daily basis.

Accepting that the individual needs a strong sense of self worth to survive and that the amygdala stores memories of the things that create fear--cause to be concerned about one's survival, it is reasonable to establish that an individual's self-worth may be threatened from time to time, causing the amygdala to send an alert through the brain, calling for the individual to move into survival mode. Moving into survival mode generally means that the individual resorts back to the skills that are most comfortable and most protective. During a physical attack, the body bends more toward a fetal position, protecting vital organs, and the individual may look for ways to strike out in defense. During an emotional attack, the individual again bends inward and looks to strike out. The bending inward is seeking that which is most comforting and protective, providing the stance to launch the counter-attack. These emotional attacks create in the individual the crisis of competence: sensing that the self is under attack, the individual's confidence is challenged, perhaps weakened. Therefore, the individual seeks that which is more familiar, that in which he or she has greater confidence, so that he or she may return to security, to survival.

When the teacher encounters a crisis of confidence in the classroom, he or she resorts back to the most comfortable methods of teaching or of classroom management, which tend to be those methods that were used when the teachers were students, teaching as they had been taught. And this is where teaching often falters. What the skilled educator must do is create a high degree of confidence in his teaching methods so that even when experiencing a crisis of confidence, he or she can continue to pursue the method chosen rather than resort to survival mode.

More on confidence and the crisis of confidence to come later.

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