Tactics to beat primal fears can boost results

Teaching pupils how to respond to a terrorist attack can improve their GCSE grades.

And telling jokes in class will ensure they do better, according to David Spendlove, education lecturer at Manchester University.

Dr Spendlove says instinctive human responses have not changed very much in the past 30,000 years.

For example, we have an innate fear of fire, but not smoking, even though smoking poses the greater day-to-day health risk. And pupils can become irrationally preoccupied by primitive fears - being murdered, for instance, or bitten by a snake.

"Within the learning environment, the brain is constantly reacting to potential perceived threats that distract the brain from learning," Dr Spendlove said. "However, emotional literacy offers us all the space to reconsider how our emotions sometimes mislead us."

In a book published this month, Dr Spendlove presents a series of neuroscience-based exercises which teachers can use to help pupils to overcome primitive fears. These involve teaching pupils how to respond in an emergency, such as a terrorist attack. But teachers can also discuss the origin and relevance of various fears, examining which are inherent and which are created by culture and the media.

"The percentage of people murdered by a complete stranger is tiny," he said. "Although we are automatically wired to fear strangers, we are more likely to be attacked by someone we know."

Pupils can be taught to value the role fear plays in their lives. Exam nerves, for example, can serve a useful function. "Imagine if you had no fear," Dr Spendlove said. "What would be your chances of getting to school successfully?"

Teachers can help reduce classroom stress by telling jokes. "Evolutionary psychology tells us that laughing is the primitive response of releasing tension, manifested in the relief from fear of what might have happened," he said. "So tell a joke." This enables pupils to focus more effectively on their learning.

"All the evidence suggests that youngsters perform better if they are calm and happy," he said. "Such emotional engagement is central to good learning and motivation."

'Emotional Literacy' by David Spendlove is published by Continuum.

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