Emotions enhance or interfere with learning.
Achieving change is emotional as well as intellectual. Emotions can enhance the learning process or interfere with it.
Our emotional system drives our attention, which drives learning and memory. Specifically, how a person “feels” about a situation determines the amount of attention he or she devotes to it. Students need to feel an emotional connection to their tasks, their peers, their teachers, and their school. For an increasing number of students, school is a place where making emotional connections is more important than anything else. This is especially true for so many adolescents where a feeling of belonging almost overshadows all other desires and is often the most important factor that keeps them in school.
We generally focus on cognition when we teach and tend to ignore emotions. Yet, students must feel physically and emotionally secure before they can process information. Threats are counterproductive because they stimulate emotions that interfere with thinking skills. Examples of negative emotions are humiliation, shame, guilt, fear, and anger, which become “paralyzing experiences.” When students are anxious, their emotions interfere with thinking and disrupt the learning process. In short, negative emotions are counterproductive to learning.
Some knowledge of how emotions and thinking are intertwined is important because in every encounter there is an emotional subtext. Within a few moments of seeing or hearing something, we react. There is a very subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, liking or disliking. The brain evolved this way for survival. In case of a dire threat, we needed an immediate response. Not much time was allowed for a rational decision. “I’ll get it or it may get me.”
The emotional brain still reacts before the thinking brain. Sensory signals from the eye or ear travel to the thalamus. The thalamus acts as a relay station for information and branches to both the neocortex, the thinking or cognitive part of the brain, and to the amygdala. The amygdala is an almond-shaped ganglion (mass of nerve tissues) perched above the brain stem adjoining the temporal lobe. The amygdala stores our emotions, especially fear and aggression. It is our emotional memory since the time we were infants. But there is one long neuron connection from the amygdala to the gastrointestines. That is why you may have a feeling that seems like it emanates from the pit of your stomach. It does!
Branching allows the amygdala (emotions) to respond before the neocortex (thinking) because the circuit to the amygdala is smaller and shorter. This explains why we get angry before we think. This threat-response is great for escaping from predators, but not for learning. The short-term impact of this brain response includes impaired memory, weakened ability to prioritize, and greater likelihood of repeated behaviors that impinge on learning.
The brain biologically is going to pay attention and remember longer those things that have strong emotion, either negative or positive. Since emotional climate is critical for learning, we need to invest the first few minutes of every class in activities that allow students to get into a positive learning state and make the lesson “enjoyable” to the learner.
The implication for the classroom is to add emotional hooks to what we are teaching. The art of this craft is to create experiences, rather than just present information. For example, a high school history class is reading about immigration to the country in the early part of the 20th century. The textbook contains a graph showing great numbers coming from Eastern Europe. A simulation could give students some idea of what the experience was like for these people, who were mostly very poor, and who traveled across the Atlantic Ocean on ships as steerage. A group of students huddles sitting on the floor in one corner of the classroom. Crowded together, they move their upper bodies back and forth to simulate not only the movement of the ship but also how people were seasick for much of the voyage. No wonder they were elated to see the Statue of Liberty in the calmer waters of New York Harbor! When we add emotion to learning experiences to make them more meaningful and exciting, the brain deems the information more important, and retention is increased.
The human brain has a built-in attention preference for certain stimuli, such as novelty and pleasure. We can take advantage of the brain’s preference for novelty by eliciting states of curiosity, oddity, intrigue, suspense, anticipation, awe, confusion, surprise, and challenge. We can increase pleasure by creating states of anticipation, hope, security, fun, acceptance, success, and satisfaction.
Knowing that we respond emotionally when fear and anxiety are involved should always be a classroom consideration. If a student feels helpless or incompetent, anxiety sets in and impedes learning. Conversely, when students are encouraged, empowered, and challenged without coercion or fear of failure, they feel the likelihood of becoming more competent.
To move towards competence, students need to learn to accept feedback, whether positive or negative, without any emotional connotation or judgment. They need to learn to treat failure as an opportunity, not a disaster. Failure gives information one would not otherwise have. The approach is to see failure as a guide and not allow an emotional rush to swamp them. But we have done a funny thing with failure. Instead of keeping it as a lookout, we have too often given it the helm. Failure is a natural part of any learning. In reality, the only time we fail is when we do not get up, continue, or persevere.
You cannot learn and be perfect at the same time is a mantra I continually used with my students. This phenomenon can be observed by watching very young children before they put on their belief systems. They take one shaky step and fall down; they take another step and plop. Without emotional freight, babies know instinctively that failure is a signal to try another way. If failure is feared, learning will never be optimal. If failure is used as a guide, not an accuser, success will be swifter.