A rational appeal for more compassion

Devin Vodicka

People that know me well would describe me as being an “even” person.  While we all have our ups and downs, I tend to have a fairly consistent disposition where I tend not to get too excited and I am not quick to be angered.  I’ve learned to take good care of myself as a way to manage the stress of demanding leadership roles.  I live in a comfortable suburban home in coastal San Diego and I enjoy spending time with my family.  Personality assessments consistently reveal that I’m introverted.  Our organization is distributed across the country and I been doing some degree of “remote work” for the past few years. In short, I should be doing quite well during COVID-19. So I was confused when I noticed that I was agitated, somewhat impulsive, and feeling tired.  Why?

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

One of the things that helps me to feel balanced is to spend time reading.  I’ve been immersed in “Thinking: Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman which not only provides a framework for thinking about our intuitive and rational processing systems, but also reviews a number of interesting studies that reveal how our minds work under various circumstances.  While I have read a number of texts on how our brains function, one of the studies that he reviewed caught my attention because it focused on the connection between working memory and self-regulation.  In short, Kahneman makes the case that the same part of our brain that is devoted to working memory also is our center for self-regulation.  

We engage our working memory when we must consciously devote focus and energy to remembering information or a process.  For example, if I asked you to solve a very simple problem such as: “What is the sum of three plus one?” you would not likely engage much of your working memory because you would have automatic recall about how to solve this simple problem.  On the other hand, if I asked you to solve a problem such as: “What is the product of 24 times 17?” you would engage your working memory as you would try to conduct more complex mental tasks that require you to remember a series of steps.  

Working memory is also engaged when we are experiencing a novel procedure.  When we first learn to drive a car, our working memory is taxed by thinking about how we need to check our speedometer, look in the rearview mirror, use our turn signals, As we become more familiar with these procedures, they become more automatic which allows us to have less stressful experience.  

Kahneman suggests that when our working memory is taxed, our ability to self-regulate is challenged.  His findings are supported by the research of McCabe et al who state that “The correlation between working memory capacity and executive functioning constructs was very strong” leading them to “conclude that tests of working memory capacity and executive function share a common underlying executive attention component that is strongly predictive of higher-level cognition.”  

When we overextend our working memory, we become less patient, we make more impulsive decisions, and our intuitive systems–including our fight or flight, reptilian reflexes–override our rational, more cerebral functions.  

A recent EdSurge story from Stepehen Noonoo entitled “Is Learning on Zoom the Same as In Person? Not to Your Brain” makes the case that “Zoom fatigue” is due to the fact small delays in timing create a situation where “Our brains subconsciously pick up on the fact that things aren’t quite right … After a few calls a day, it starts to become exhausting.”  In addition, most of us are still having challenges remember when to mute, when to come off of mute, how to navigate multiple windows during a Zoom session, how to assign people to breakout groups, how to share our screen at the right time … the list goes on and on.   

For educational leaders and teachers, we are all in a context of new procedures and new systems. Whether we are in distance learning, hybrid, or in-person learning, these changes require us to focus our energies in different ways than we have in the past. These new procedures are taxing our working memories and leading us to feel exhausted. 

In this state of exhaustion, our ability to self-regulate is significantly diminished.  Hence the agitation and impulsivity that I have been experiencing.  I should also make it clear I have optimal conditions.  Those who are under other forms of distress, including housing instability, food insecurity, threats of harm, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and other forms of trauma are also experiencing various levels of cognitive downshifting that are helping to orient to base survival.  As a result, it is hard to imagine that many of us are at our best right now.  

The point of all of this is to encourage us all to recognize that when we say that these are “unprecedented times” we are actually operating in states of distress, depletion, fatigue, and anxiety. The connection between working memory and self-regulation is a rational argument that underscores how challenging it is to function and learn in our current context. The takeaway is that we need to be more compassionate with ourselves and with others. 

In particular, if we are orienting to learning, we must be cognizant of research that suggests the following: 

  • Take more breaks: In the words of learning science researcher John Sweller, “the human brain has a pretty limited ability to hold thoughts in working memory … students retain information better if learning sessions are spaced out over time.”
  • Model self care: Bree Goff reminds us that Abraham Lincoln went to the theater more than 100 times during the Civil War as a way to “recharge and keep his anxiety at bay.” In her words, do “whatever else it is in your life that’s worth prioritizing.”  
  • Move: Our brains function more effectively when we are physically active.  As indicated in multiple studies, “When kids have been challenged with cognitive tasks that require lots of concentration and attentional control, individuals with higher aerobic fitness have performed with more accuracy. ” 
  • Provide multi-tiered support systems: There is no way that any of us can succeed in isolation.  Based on the science of learning, these systems should “enable healthy development, respond to student needs, and address learning barriers. These include a multi-tiered system of academic, health, and social supports that provide personalized resources within and beyond the classroom to address and prevent developmental detours, including conditions of trauma and adversity.” 
  • Focus on relationships: At every level, strong relationships provide the foundation for meaningful change.  For example, a recent study from the University of California San Diego revealed that “Increases in student’s perception of their trust with leaders are associated with an average increase of 15% in all eight other areas that make up a student’s school experience.”

With all of this in mind, I’m going to take a break, go for a walk, and call a friend.  I encourage you to do the same.  Be kind with yourself and gentle with others.  Compassion is not only the humane approach, it is also the rational way for us to navigate through these uncharted waters.  

Check out Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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