Learning, emotion, and the Goldilocks Zone

Theo Dawson
4 min readMar 10, 2019

Super learners (a.k.a. learnaholics) feel great when they don’t understand. The rest of us are more likely to feel bad. This has big implications for learning in the Goldilocks Zone.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ve already heard about the Goldilocks Zone. It’s the range in which a learning task is just challenging enough to support optimal learning by stimulating interest and triggering the dopamine-opioid cycle—the brain’s natural motivational cycle. The brains of babies and young children are wired to learn in the Goldilocks Zone, but formal education often disrupts the dopamine-opioid cycle. As a consequence, many (perhaps most) older children, adolescents, and adults must rediscover the Goldilocks Zone if they want to learn optimally from everyday experience.

My mentor, Dr. Kurt W. Fischer of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, claimed that mainstream educational systems work only for about 20% of students—those endowed with slightly above average intelligence and a high tolerance for sitting still. The majority of students are either punished for learning (with low grades) or experience learning itself as a kind of punishment (endless information cramming or chronic boredom).

Rediscovering the Goldilocks Zone can be difficult—sometimes downright onerous. My colleagues and I have been gathering evidence that some of this difficulty stems from the negative emotions many older children, adolescents, and adults have around learning. We believe these emotions can disrupt learning in the Goldilocks Zone.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, see the short video about our learning model—VCoL+7.

To illustrate, I’ve created a couple of word clouds. The first word cloud represents the emotions reported by learnaholics (people who absolutely love learning) who have been asked what they feel like when they don’t understand.

You’ll notice that the larger words in this cloud primarily represent emotions most of us would label “positive.” When learnaholics don’t understand something, they feel curious, excited, motivated, engaged, and energized.

The picture looks quite different for many other learners. They are far more likely to experience not understanding as a negative experience, one characterized by feelings like frustration, stress, embarrassment, self-consciousness, and overwhelm.

My colleagues and I think this second pattern of emotions suggests that many adult learners are likely to lack an innate (or intrinsic) motivation to learn. In other words, they are likely to find it difficult to recruit the dopamine-opioid cycle in the service of learning. There are two reasons for this conclusion:

  1. First, individuals who primarily experience negative emotions when they lack understanding are unlikely to view not understanding as a positive opportunity.
  2. Second, these individuals would find it more difficult to identify the Goldilocks Zone, because doing so depends on the ability to experience interest or curiosity about something that is not understood.

Unlike knowledge of calculus, which for most adults isn’t much more than a fuzzy memory involving baffling equations, emotions around not understanding have been wired deeply into our brains. Overcoming them means rewiring neural pathways laid down over many years. The long-term solution involves educating our children in a way that preserves their natural love of learning. For adults who primarily associate not understanding with negative feelings like shame, stress, or anger, the first step toward the Goldilocks Zone is awareness.

Here’s an example of a VCoL (Virtuous Cycle of Learning) designed to build emotional awareness around not understanding.

  • SET: Learn to notice how you feel when you don’t understand.
  • SEEK: Spend the next week paying attention to how you feel when you don’t understand something. Keep a running list of the feelings or sensations you experience.
  • APPLY: At the end of the week, clean up your list and order the feelings from most common to least common. Then compare your list to the word clouds on this page.
  • REFLECT: Think about how your feelings about not understanding might affect your interest in learning. Would they impede or support your desire to learn? What could you do to overcome emotions that might interfere with your desire to learn?

We plan to continue our research in this area, in the hope of identifying ways of supporting learners who have lost touch with their natural motivation to learn. If you have a story to share, please do so!

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Theo Dawson

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.