I once worked with a dolphin named Moe who, in his adolescence, was afraid to leave the sheltering confines of his bayside pen to swim in open water.

Whenever a gate to the wide world of aquatic possibilities opened, Moe would flee to the farthest corner of his pen, swallow a gulping breath of air through his blowhole, and dive deep for safety.

Odd for a dolphin, wouldn't you say?

And, yet, we constantly witness similar reactions of terror and avoidance just outside the gates of our schoolhouses and classrooms. 

The training solution? Fun. And it can work just as effectively for people as it can for dolphins.

Moe was experiencing what psychologists call blocking phenomenon, a more generalized version of what writers describe as writer's block. Unfortunately, academic settings have, all too often, charged learning with an undercurrent of educational alienation resulting in a generalized block to formal learning.

But this need not be so.

Counter-intuitively, an instructor interested in combating negative learning associations may be in a strong position to do so in part because - rather than in spite - of student psychological blocks. Studies of blocking phenomenon suggest that favorable associations may be readily made against a backdrop of block.

Suppose, for example, that a woman wants to ask out on a date a man who loves opera, but who has a block against horseback riding. The woman's impulse will likely be to offer an evening at the opera, with the expectation that her date will enjoy himself there, will associate a pleasant experience with being in her presence, and will be receptive to further wooing.

Blocking phenomenon, however, indicates that this is a faulty strategy.

Since the man is already fond of opera and expects to enjoy the performance anyway, he has no reason to conclude that his enjoyment of that particular night's opera has anything to do with his date. Had the couple gone horseback riding instead, and had the man unexpectedly found enjoyment in an activity he didn't anticipate liking, then the associative chain the woman hopes for would likely have been initiated.

Assuming that similar successful outcomes follow on successive dates, over time the woman will, in effect, become a conditioned stimulus - a kind of walking cue that signals to the man that pleasant experiences are likely to follow. What is more, the pleasant experiences that follow become reinforcers for the man's behavior of keeping company with his suitor. A series of conditioned interactions has taken place.

Against a backdrop of educational alienation - which is really just a generalized form of block - an innovative and behaviorally astute instructor can create a classroom dynamic that is likely to produce a shift in student attitudes toward learning.

As social creatures, we are quite adept at sending and receiving behavioral clues that tell us about the otherwise hidden perceptions of our fellows. We rely heavily on these abilities when it comes to a night at the opera with someone special.

Perhaps we should convince instructors to dust them off for use in the classroom as well.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2011

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