Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Cultivating Practical Optimism in Remote Learning Environments

As the COVID-19 pandemic moves into its second year, experts are expressing concerns about the long-term effects that remote learning are having on the ability of young students to achieve optimal academic results. There is an emotional and social toll as well. Students who learn exclusively at home without a classroom component are missing out on the in-person connections with teachers and other students that make traditional schooling so worthwhile. Parents, too, are suffering from stress and anxiety as they strive to help students maximize their learning experiences via computer screen.

Teachers can play an important role in relieving the stress, anxiety, and social isolation of remote learning by helping students and their parents strive for a more optimistic outlook of the online learning experience. There is scientific evidence to suggest that such an outlook can have a positive impact on learning. Neuroscientists recently discovered that optimism is associated with brain pathways connecting the left prefrontal region to the amygdala. Further research has demonstrated that optimism, traditionally considered to be an unchangeable trait, is a way of thinking that can be learned and enhanced.

The Advantages of Optimism

People with a positive viewpoint have less stress, better creative problem-solving skills, and better health outcomes than less optimistic people. In addition, optimistic learners are more likely to persist in the sometimes hard work of learning, motivated by the belief that they can accomplish their learning goals.

Many teachers realize that as students become more optimistic, they are motivated to progress through learning difficulties and to attain higher levels of achievement. More optimistic students also have greater resistance to depression and the negative effects of stress. Over the years, we have taught many educators a toolbox of implementation strategies to increase practical optimism and other keys to learning in the classroom.

We use the term practical optimism to describe an attitude about life that relies on taking realistic, positive action to increase the likelihood of successful results. Emphasizing positive emotions helps students become more resilient and more likely to persevere with learning tasks. Their persistence is fueled by the belief that they will triumph over difficulty, learn from their mistakes, overcome plateaus in their performance, and progress. The mantra “I think I can! I think I can!” from an all-time favorite story, The Little Engine That Could, illustrates practical optimistic thinking.

Trash or Treasure?

One of our strategies that can be used to develop positive classrooms features six steps for easy implementation, including a read-aloud story. This strategy has been used by teachers, counselors, and school psychologists to promote practical optimism in schools:

  1. Introduce practical optimism and its benefits. Ask students if they would like to learn a way to more consistently sustain practical optimism.

  2. Read aloud the following story:

    Treasure Hunters and Trash Collectors

    It seems that in life there are two types of people. The first are treasure hunters. Every day they seek out what is useful and positive. They focus on it, talk about it, and think about it. Each of these moments is treasured like a bright, shining jewel that they store in their treasure chest forever.

    And then there are trash collectors who spend their lives looking for what is wrong, unfair, and not working. They focus their energy, time, and thoughts on the trash, and every day they put that trash into a big trashcan.

    The treasure hunters proudly carry their treasure into the future, while the trash collectors drag their heavy, smelly trashcan from one day to the next. The question is: When they get to the end of the year, what does each person have—a treasure chest filled with useful, positive memories, or a trash can full of things they didn't like.

    The choice is yours. You get to decide.

  3. Ask students to think of two or three things they can feel good about.

  4. Ask students to write, draw, or create a concept map of these things.

  5. Tell students to approach someone and share with them their thoughts. (In the COVID-19 era, this can be done by chatting with friends and family by phone or over Zoom.)

  6. Continue to use this process once a week or once a month, encouraging students to find and add more things to their practical optimism list.

Increased Motivation

Once learners understand that they have the capacity to increase their levels of practical optimism by the choices they make, many are highly motivated to do so. They become more likely to think of setbacks as temporary. They recognize that by using more effective learning strategies or investing more study time, they can overcome obstacles and turn setbacks into triumphs. This progress in turn can lead to more academic success and enhance optimism even further.

Practical optimism is not mean to sweep problems under the rug. Nor is it meant to be a magic fix. But using this strategy, coupled with support from parents, is a means for helping students during a challenging time in our history and will set them on a more hopeful path with the realization that we can overcome even the most difficult obstacles if we work hard and prepare ourselves for a brighter future.

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