Emotions and Learning

Try this on a few friends…

Ask them to take their pulse for 10 seconds and multiply the number by 6. Ask them to remember that number.

Now tell them that you have a quick Maths test for them and ask them to calculate:

23 x 12 and 369/9

Don’t give them too long before interrupting to ask them to re-check their pulse rate. You should find that for some people their pulse has risen quite sharply. This is because the questions and the feeling of being under pressure caused an emotional reaction (anxiety) which cause a physical reaction (an adrenaline spike). This is concerning because adrenaline spikes are specifically designed to actually limit cognitive function; this is our fight or flight drug- it makes us stronger, faster and less sensitive to pain but it also shuts down higher cognitive functions so that we don’t waste precious time in emergencies. Not good news for learning!! Interestingly, the sums above are not actually as hard as they look once we calm down and apply some simple processes to them!

There are now huge swathes of research now that suggest that emotional thought and cognitive thought are not, as we previously thought, two separate processes. They are in fact deeply intertwined. Immordino‐Yang MH “Emotions, Learning, and the Brain” (2016) explores this issue in considerable depth. They write:

 “When educators fail to appreciate the importance of students’ emotions, they fail to appreciate a critical force in students’ learning. One could argue, in fact, that they fail to appreciate the very reason that students learn at all.”

They go on to say:

“We only think deeply about the things we care about (p. 18). Helping students care about what they are learning is both difficult and complex, but “it appears to be essential for the development of truly useful, transferable, intrinsically motivated learning” (p. 20). Sharing with our students the critical importance of being emotionally connected to/caring about what they are learning to make what they are learning meaningful and useful, however, may be the first right step.”

So what I have been impressing on us as teachers lately is the paramount importance of us being passionate about what we are teaching. If we really care about the material and concepts we are teaching then there is every chance that this will prove infectious and so too will the children. I must say that anyone who wants evidence of how this works should make sure to attend one of our Topic Explosions (like the excellent Year 6 one of WWII this morning!). Here you will find students who have real mastery of their learning in a particular area and who clearly care about it very deeply.

I have also challenged us to be more aware of the range of emotions being felt by individuals in our lessons. We are tempted to fall into the trap of judging students by their level of competence in the skills we are trying to teach but if we start from a place of understanding where they are at emotionally and then differentiate and refine our approach from there, we may be surprised at how positive the results are.