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Why am I here?
Gary managed to sit in his chair by resting on the lower vertebrae of his long spine, legs thrust well under the seat in front of him. His head rested on the top rung, and he glared at Jim, his teacher. Gary didn't seem to like Jim's sophomore English class despite months of Jim's trying to cajole Gary into participating. It was now winter, and Jim asked Gary to stay after class to discuss yet another dreadful essay. Though, as a young teacher in his fourth year, Jim had pretty much used up his limited strategies.
"Come on, Gary, you could be a terrific writer if you'd just do some work. What's the matter?"
"Nothing," he mumbled.
And on it went, frustration mounting in both of them until finally Gary looked at Jim and screamed, "I don't work because I hate your guts."
"Good," Jim shouted back. "Good, now we are getting somewhere." Whatever that meant.
But they did get somewhere. Jim had no idea how or why, but from that day on Gary became one of his best students. Years later, as Jim learned more about the connection between emotion and learning, he gained more insight into this incident. It appeared that Gary needed some sort of emotional catharsis to tell Jim how he felt in order to move on. Although Jim hadn't known it at the time, he and Gary had managed to align their emotional goals so that Gary could begin to learn how to write.
Most teachers know that emotion is important to learning. Math teachers certainly know how past classroom traumas paralyze students. Science teachers know that explosions, rockets, and snakes can crack the walls of student resistance. Many history, English, and foreign language teachers have become virtual stand-up comics attempting to make their classroom a funhouse of positive experiences. And arts teachers have long encouraged students to rummage about in their emotions seeking inspiration for their paintings, dances, and plays. (top)
(End of first column online)
So, what is the point of more research into emotion and learning? What can neuroscience teach teachers that they don't already know? Fun and positive emotions enhance learning; fear and negative emotions prevent learning. What's new?
Well, a lot is new, and you'll discover some of that here. While these are reasonable questions, they also may miss the point as they suggest that the relationship between teacher and neuroscientist is similar to that between supplicant and oracle. Many of the conferences on learning and the brain feel like visits to Delphi—omniscient scientists lecturing a host of teachers looking for answers.
But the truth is that teachers don't need answers to questions about how to teach or how to bring the insights from research into their classrooms. And neuroscientists don't have these answers anyway. Teachers and neuroscientists are members of a professional community of educators who seek to help young people learn. They are part of the village needed to raise a child. Both groups, though looking at learning from different perspectives, want to understand what works, why it works, and what might work better. Each group has its own job, and each group needs the other.