Relaxed alertness… and big brother.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email blast from Tomorrow’s Professor, a great newsfeed I’ve been following for about 15 years, that discussed “relaxed alertness” as an optimum state for teaching and learning. The post is an excerpt from the book 12 Brain / Mind Learning Principles in Action: Teach for the Development of Higher-Order Thinking and Executive Function by Renate Nummela Caine, Geoffrey Caine, Carol McClintic and Karl J. Klimek. As it explains,

People in a state of Relaxed Alertness experience low threat and high challenge (Caine & Caine, 1991/1994, 2010). Essentially, the learner is both relaxed and to some extent excited or emotionally engaged at the same time. This is the foundation for taking risks in thinking, questioning, and experimenting, all of which are essential to mastering new skills and engaging higher-order thinking.  In this state the learner feels competent and confident and has a sense of meaning or purpose.

I’ve long been an advocate of “low stakes” learning; this means, essentially, that I try to put students at ease in the classroom, and I encourage failure in minor stuff as a route to success in the bigger things. My experience as a student (not SO long ago…and I try to return to learning whenever I can, to stay fresh and empathetic) was one of constant panic around the possibility of failure; that panic produced results, sure, but it also meant I literally threw up before essays were due and tests written, out of the terror of messing up FOREVER.

A big part of me doubts that the throwing up part needs to be correlated to the succeeding part; certainly, failing a test or an essay won’t ruin your life, and it is on us as teachers to remind students of this every day.


So seeing this TP post in my inbox reinforced for me my pedagogical belief system: I cultivate low stakes (most of the time), encourage students to speak up even if/when they are wrong, and I try to model error as a way of discovering the correct (or a better) answer. Cheering inside as I read, I passed the message on to some of my colleagues who also think actively about teaching and learning strategies; I was in the moment also uplifted by having read some wonderful letters of support from former students (I’m going up for promotion right now) who reinforced for me the value of the low-stakes-high-energy approach in the classroom.

But – …

(There’s always a but.)

One of my colleagues – though supportive and loving as always – nevertheless helpfully reminded me about the politics underlying the “relaxed alertness” approach to teaching and learning. As she wrote to me,

It concerns me somewhat … that pedagogy talk is increasingly becoming counselling talk, which is tied inextricably to “therapy culture,” which is tied inextricably to neoliberalism’s refusal to recognize that individuals are not solely responsible for accommodating themselves to the direction the world goes in: maybe the world could make some changes and not expect the individual to compensate for the world’s flaws….


And she’s not wrong. When I dug deeper into the post I’d received from TP, I discovered this moment in the piece, connecting “relaxed alertness” to “resilience” and “self-efficacy”:

Resilience and self-efficacy have a great deal in common. Resilience refers to the ongoing, deep capacity to bounce back from failure or setbacks. People who struggle against enormous obstacles, say, to survive by struggling to find their way back from being lost in the wilderness, have resilience. The term often is used to describe students who survive poverty or abusive environments. Resilient kids survive and thrive despite the odds (Gillham, 2000; Reivich & Shatte, 2002).

Students with resilience (see Davies, 2002) are likable; they have social skills and are socially competent, have coherent moral or spiritual beliefs, have problem-solving skills, are self-directed, and have a sense of autonomy…

(All emphases my own)

There’s a problem here: on one hand, yes, “relaxed alertness” in the classroom means we are all invested but not overly so; we all can talk without the stakes getting too much in the way (and making us feel sick). If somebody goes offside, that’s fine; the larger conversation includes us all and we all know our value within the community, and the value of our risk-taking contribution.

BUT, on the other hand, if relaxed alertness is meant to cultivate “resilience” and “self-efficacy”, and if the latter two are explicitly connected to the bootstraps-pulling-up that we associate with libertarian independence, then we are in danger of arguing that a low-stakes, shared, empathetic classroom environment is – or could, or SHOULD – work in the service of a neoliberal reality in which everyone is supposed to learn to be resilient because nobody else is, or should be expected to be, around to help.



What we’ve got here is a classic Catch-22. We all, I think, want to teach our students to be active and engaged but not SO invested that they panic and deflate (or worse). But few of us, I imagine, would advocate that we are teaching our students to become resilient in the face of a world in which governments’ abilities to support the citizenship properly are decimated, and it’s every-person-for-themselves… and yet, the rhetoric I quote above suggests that’s a desirable, and somewhat inevitable, outcome. (And frankly, the current US presidential debate suggests it’s a necessary precaution, too.)

I have no resolution, no answer to offer here. But I’d love to hear others’ thoughts. Is “relaxed alertness” something to cultivate, or to be wary of? For me, I’d like to do the former, and yet also explain to my students the logic of the latter, in “teachable moment” fashion. To demystify the strategy while I use it, I guess.

But maybe that’s too much to dream of… or maybe there is no longer any getting outside the text of neoliberal realities. Although that’s an outcome too depressing to contemplate.

On an uncertain note,



4 thoughts on “Relaxed alertness… and big brother.

  1. Thanks for making this catch-22 explicit. As a language teacher who used drama in her classroom and shares your low-risk, creative-challenge philosophy, I have been thinking about that for a while. My sense is that the K-12 system often delivers students to us who just want to minimize friction and get through their education, because that’s often what you need to survive high school. It tends to produce good citizens for a neoliberal system, as you say. (And I am not saying that’s all schools do, but…)
    I think we can get around this a little by ceding some of our power to students and making it possible for them to shape the what happens in the classroom – and sometimes by explicitly addressing the power dynamics and/or playing with them. I have found that teacher-in-role scenarios can help with this, as well as showing up the limitations of my own perspective as a teacher (as in encouraging students to play detectives and find out what perspectives are not represented in our textbook and our conversations. I’m still very much in the experimental stages with all this, good to read about a fellow questioner!

  2. Thanks for this! I agree that looking at “meta” experiences in the classroom – as you say, power dynamics, exploring the missing or unseen things around content, etc – provide helpful teachable moments that let us talk about and challenge the agendas that underlie our current teaching systems. It’s tough though, and especially tough because I find I’m so tired most of the time that I often miss the obvious problems with my own teaching models! I was super excited about this TP post (gosh, it’s nice to feel validated!), until my colleague reminded me of the serious issues it skirts. So, yes… more questioning needed indeed!

  3. Hi Kim – long-time reader, first-time poster! I so appreciate all the questions you raise on this blog. I’m commenting here because this one felt directly relevant to some recent experiences in my own teaching of group work and collaboration — in which I realised that earlier in the term I had introduced ideas of immaterial labour, and that the kinds of collaborative skills I was asking students to practice could easily be aligned with the attributes of immaterial or affective labour. It gave me pause for thought — the only thing I could think to do was to make that explicit, to say (not in these words), ‘here you go! time to practice some transferable skills to make you a better 21st century worker!’ But what I read in your post was the way in which there are, of course, slight inflections in performance practice that make all the difference. Firstly, the ways in which we are *modeling*: both in the sense of the teacher/facilitator as modeling an inclusive leadership, that is anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist in the way it recognises that people’s ‘relaxedness’ often comes from privileges they have enjoyed, so this is an attempt to redistribute that experience; and also in the sense that the kinds of exercises we engage in theatre practice are ‘only’ models and allow a subjunctive mode: the frameworks within which we are working are of our own construction, we can re-make them, etc. And so secondly, what I recognised in your reflection is that the theatre/classroom, and the classroom as theatre, is a place where we do this together. That is, it is not just a matter of being supported in risk-taking, but that we learn to hold space for others’ risk and to accommodate the challenges to our thinking posed by others’ perspectives. In this way it feels quite distinct from ‘self’-resilience, but instead a recognition that resilience is *only ever* a property of the relationships between selves and between selves and structures, and that there is no such thing as ‘self-resilience’.

    • What a fantastic reflection, Theron! Thanks so much! You’re right of course: doing this stuff *in a theatre and performance classroom* allows us to engage it metacritically as a matter of course; it’s probably ultimately easier for you or me to bring this up even while we deploy and discuss the innate value of group work or other kinds of active learning, than it is for, say, someone teaching in the sciences in a larger class less accustomed to intersubjective labour. (Maybe? Science people, chime in!) And we are the kinds of teachers – thanks, interdisciplinary performance studies! – who make a habit of thinking constantly about performance’s power for social good but also for political hegemony, so again – we have a kind of “natural” in.

      My favourite thing about your comment, though, is the notion that we are always already modelling intersubjective resilience – resilience as shared social labour, NOT individual attribute – when we encourage student team work, in performance or anything else. This is a really inspiring thought – I’m happily hanging onto it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s