Self-Reg and the Joy of Learning

Revitalizing our faith in universal education.

Posted Oct 31, 2019

Pixabay #416443
Source: Pixabay #416443

These are inegalitarian times. I am not referring to the socio-economic meaning of the term, although the steepening of the social gradient, as Wilkinson and Picket show in their new book, The Inner Level, is deeply worrying in every conceivable way.i Rather, I am referring to the original meaning of the term as spelled out in the Book of Deuteronomy: the idea that the path to a Just Society lies in universal education.

Long before Froebel launched the “kindergarten movement,” the Jewish High Priest Joshua ben Gamla ordained – two thousand years ago – that: “teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and each town, and that children should enter the school at the age of six or seven.”ii The inestimable benefits of literacy – the “ratcheting effect” of recording thoughts and discoveries so that others can build on them – are everywhere we look.iii

The Challenge Facing Universal Education

But we are losing our faith in universal education. How can we continue to teach a generation of children and teens who seem to be either incapable or unwilling to learn?

The keyword here is seem. It is only because of the scientific revolution that is taking place that we are forced to think hard about this seemingly innocuous linking verb. For what is being linked isn’t just a subject with a piece of information: it exposes the way judgment is linked to past ways of thinking about behavior.

Egalitarianism has been tied from the start to the concept of revolution: in the socio-economic sphere, political, and in the case of education, technological. In the latter case, the first major revolution occurred with the creation of the alphabet, where a small number of phonemes rendered literacy within the reach of every child. The next major revolution occurred with the creation of printing, which cost Tyndale his life. The revolution we are experiencing today will prove to be equally momentous.

Science Across Fields Illuminates the Path Forward

A number of advances across disparate fields – neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology, and clinical theory – have converged upon a common theme: what earlier generations would have seen as problems of character or motivation, we now begin to see as the result of excessive stress and/or the effects of maladaptive modes of dealing with that stress-load [Self-Reg].

Far more is involved here than helping our children to become mindful of when they are over-stressed and find ways to remain or return to being calm. Instead of looking for someone to blame for the child’s behaviour, anxiety, or “output failure”iv – if not the child, then the child’s parents, teachers, or the child’s culture – we search instead for the neural and physiological factors that are blocking the child’s development.

We need the understanding that arises from these scientific advances in order to release the  Limbic Brakes that are holding the child back. This latest paradigm-revolution is as much about a child’s intellectual as her social, emotional, and moral development. This point must not to be confused with Watson’s exuberant claim at the beginning of the last century that, with the tools of “behaviour engineering,” any and every child could be molded into a “doctor, lawyer, artist or merchant-chief.” The point is rather that we simply never know what a child’s intellectual or artistic potential might be if that child’s limbic brakes are not released. And not knowing, we can unwittingly curtail the whole raison d’être of universal education: to inculcate a communal joy of learning.

It was an article published in Psychology Today in 2012 that first got me thinking about this issue. Reporting on a fascinating study conducted by two Finnish educational psychologists, Taina Rantala and Kaarina Määttä, Scott Barry Kaufman summarized their 10 Insights to Enhance the Joy of Learning. As invaluable as the methods might be, even more important is the reminder that the goal of universal education is to inspire the joy of learning.  

The word joy is loaded with profound associations. Unlike happiness, which is fleeting and personal, joy persists and is social. In Self-Reg we want both to flourish in our schools. But for that to be possible, we cannot create a climate where students are pitted against students or teachers against teachers. This may lead some to be happy, but at the cost of others being deeply unhappy.

Schools as Self-Reg Havens

Instead, we want schools where, as Susan Hopkins and I explain in our new book, Self-Reg Schools: A Handbook for Educators (Pearson, 2019), educators and school leaders have both the knowledge and the strategies required to become a Self-Reg Haven. Every Self-Reg Haven, for the reasons that I explore in my forthcoming theory book, Reframed: Self-Reg for a Just Society (University Of Toronto Press, 2020), will have hanging over its lintel a sign that reads: Embrace Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.

It is a message that we need to convey to every student and every teacher, and to a society that is at serious risk of losing its faith in universal education.


i R Wilkinson & K Pickett (2019). The Inner Level: How more equal societies reduce stress, restore sanity and improve everyone’s wellbeing. Penguin.

ii Bava Batra 21a

iii Tomasello, Kruger & Ratner (1993), ‘Cultural Learning’, Brain and Behavior Sciences, 16(3), 495-55

iv See Mel Levine (2004), The Myth of Laziness. Simon & Schuster.