“Goldilocks Zone” of Learning Is Neuro-logical

Today’s blogger is Judy Willis, MD, coauthor (with Jay McTighe) of the book Upgrade Your Teaching: Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience (ASCD, 2019) and author of the article “Stepping Up Social–Emotional Learning to Reignite All Brains,” which appears in the January 2021 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article through the month of March.

You likely know the Goldilocks “just right” experience from the fairytale. Or perhaps you’ve heard Goldilocks used as an adjective to describe the potentially “just right” for human habitation—planets that are not too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, and are blessed with oxygen levels adequate for humans to survive.

Although I grasped the fairytale and use of the term in reference to planets, the Goldilocks concept opened possibilities for me while watching the captain in a science fiction show search for such a Goldilocks planet for the survival of her crew. As Goldilocks hunted for the right bowl of porridge and the spaceship engineer pursued the well-suited planet, I was looking for the “just right” zone to best support my learners.

Prior to that insightful day, I had changed careers from practicing neurologist to classroom teacher with a specific goal in mind: I hoped to apply my neuroscience background and study of ongoing research to develop teaching strategies promoting more joyful and successful learning. Notably, I found that substantial challenges for my students emerged from stress. For students who already had mastery, the boredom of the unchallenging lessons and homework were stressors. So was the stress of frustration for students who found no personal relevance in the topics or who progressed more slowly, encumbered by inadequate foundational knowledge.

I know that sustained or frequent boredom or frustration impacts communication circuits within the brain. And these stressors reduce effective transfer of new learning into memory. They reduce the effective top-down messaging descending from the reflective executive functions in the upper brain that are needed to manage emotional reactions. Without the input of these emotional self-control neural networks, the lower brain takes control. It relies on more primitive reactions, such as fight/flight/freeze, exemplified as zoning out, acting out, and withdrawing.

Tapping Into the Dopamine Reward System

As I watched that science fiction show, I clicked into the way the concept of the Goldilocks Zone could put my thoughts into words and action. It was just what I was seeking: to provide students with the neuro-logical benefits of learning zones that were “just right.”

I could tap into their brains’ natural dopamine reward systems, lowering the barriers and not the bar, by offering multiple pathways to success. These would provide a variety of ways to progress to mastery so that learners could work in their own Goldilocks Zones. This system mirrors the way the brain is prompted to sustain motivated effort and retain memory in response to an increased release of dopamine, which enhances pleasure and satisfaction. This dopamine reward system is awakened by cognitive awareness of achieving challenges.

Dopamine, when released in higher amounts in the brain, especially in response to achieving challenges, promotes pleasure, increased attention, motivation, effort, and memory. Other strong dopamine release stimulators include humor, choice, music, optimism, kindness, and gratitude. However, awareness of achieving goals and challenges markedly boosts the dopamine response.

Individualizing Achievable Challenges

To provide learners with achievable challenges, I continued to reinforce my positive expectation that all my students could achieve their goals. At the start of units, I clearly defined the learning goals along with the variety of ways students could achieve mastery and demonstrate their understanding. When possible, I incorporated my students’ interests into learning pathways that were especially motivating to them. My concept of individualizing achievable challenges now had a name, “The Goldilocks Zone.”

To provide this variety of pathways, I used strategies such as:

  • Pre-assessments and ongoing formative assessments and feedback;
  • Flexible groups;
  • Scaffolding and enrichment;
  • Workstations with two or more levels of challenge; and
  • Digital texts, Udio, and Newsela (5 reading levels on same topic).

Recognizing Progress

Once my learners found their Goldilocks Zones for achieving challenges en route to mastery, they needed to recognize and embrace their progress toward their goals. These experiences activated their brains’ release of dopamine and its associated benefits. As they received feedback (from me and later from independent progress awareness), their recognition of incremental goal progress and its dopamine activation were evident in their approach to learning. They were not as frustrated by mistakes and were less susceptible to respond to feedback as criticism. They persevered through more demanding learning tasks, displayed greater responsiveness to making needed revisions, sought the help they needed to continue success, and even took on greater challenges.

Not Always a Fairytale

My goal of Goldilocks Zone pathways, for every individual student in each unit, was not achieved with a magic wand or warm porridge. Particularly frustrating was the time it took to provide this individualized instruction even for a few learners in some units. In response, I applied the achievable challenge practices I used with my students to myself. I found that giving myself “achievable” tasks, en route to my goals for learners, was critical. I learned that I needed to take time and plan for how I would recognize and appreciate my own progress (even in small ways). Seeing a happy and proud student was a dopamine boost to me and an impetus to continue my endeavors.

I hope that you will take the extra time to help students on their Goldilocks path to joyful and successful learning through their low stress, high-engagement, achievable challenge pathways. Starting with even one student or one unit at a time, plan for self-recognition check-ins to sustain your motivation, and dopamine, and to persevere with these efforts so needed by our students.

Not All Students Are As Fortunate

Since I first learned to read and write, I was always slow and careful.

In kindergarten during a parent-teacher conference, my teacher remarked upon my perfectionism and slow pace, noting that it might become an issue later on in school. It didn’t seem to be much of a problem then—I was just thorough and precise. It was a non-issue.

But sure enough, when I reached high school, gone were the days of unlimited time on tests and long project time-frames.

Freshman year, I relied more on my innate abilities, earning high marks while struggling to finish timed assessments. I often stayed up into the late hours of the night finishing homework. Many of my teachers that year assumed that I, like my peers, just needed to adjust to the faster pace and demanding workload of high school. One teacher even tried to tell me that I just needed to work faster and more efficiently.

No matter how hard I tried, I still floundered in all of my classes, rushing on tests in an attempt to finish, and running on just a few hours of sleep. I didn’t need to adjust, my schooling did.

After talking to my guidance counselor, she suggested that I get tested as a first step in the lengthy process of requesting a variation on an individualized education plan (IEP).

She warned that the entire process would most likely take a few months and that I would have to seek the necessary testing on my own. The testing, spread out over two weeks, took a few hours each day. The results showed a significant discrepancy between my intellectual/academic capabilities and my processing speed.

In other words, my brain processes information at a slower speed than average, and I take more time to complete most tasks.

After an hour of meeting with my guidance counselor, vice principal, parents, and all of my teachers, I was granted special accommodations, most notably, extra time on tests.

Since then, my anxiety revolving around timed assessments has diminished. However, while I was able to receive the necessary accommodations to help me succeed in school, many others have not.

My parents and I were able to advocate for my education and we possessed the resources to seek the testing required to begin the process. Not all students are as fortunate as me.

Furthermore, a stigma still surrounds those with learning disabilities. For some it may not seem to be worth the trouble; it may seem easier to struggle in silence, especially if they already appear to be successful in school.

Focusing on providing students with the tools to succeed should not be the anomaly—it should be the standard.

barowsky-sophie-1Sophie Barowsky is a senior at Framingham High School in Framingham, Massachusetts. In college, she hopes to study neuroscience or psychology.