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Principles to consider
- Emotion is the rudder for thinking, learning, and decision-making.
- Motivation is rooted in emotional relevance.
- Meaningful learning requires three ingredients: factual knowledge, skilled emotional intuition (emotional tags), and practical understanding of the rules or principles governing the specific area of study.
- The purpose of education is to develop students' abilities to recognize the emotional implications of situations and to help them create increasingly nuanced and sophisticated strategies for acting and responding.
- Social and cultural factors are just as significant inside as they are outside the classroom.
Emotion is the rudder for thinking, learning, and decision-making. The inability of patients with ventromedial brain damage to function, rudderless, in the world emphasizes the critical role of emotion in transferring previously acquired knowledge to real-world decision-making and problem-solving. Without these emotional processes, we cannot move the skills and knowledge acquired in school to novel situations and to life beyond school. That is, emotion seems to play an essential role in helping children to decide how and when to apply what they have learned in school to the rest of their lives.
Of course, emotion is needed to acquire this knowledge in the first place in any sort of meaningful sense. Students who can only parrot what teachers tell them haven't really learned anything useful. They may have learned the skills of memorization and regurgitation, but meaningful learning—internalizing concepts and skills and connecting them to emotional goals—results from emotional thinking. It is significant that children who suffer ventromedial damage never learn the social rules that should govern accepted ethical behavior. Adults who learned the difference between right and wrong prior to their injury still know these social rules after the injury. They can discuss them; they cannot put them into practice. But without the emotional connection, children with this brain damage never even learn them. Emotion is essential not just to applying knowledge, but also to learning it.
Motivation is rooted in emotional relevance. Many teachers understand this truth because the emotional relevance of their own studies attracted them to teaching. The courses they now teach allow them to continue to study the Civil War, speak French, solve problems, or look for evidence that local farms are polluting a nearby stream. Teachers love these things: these things matter, they're important. What's important to the students, on the other hand, rarely finds its way into the classroom. Yet, like Ian, those few who do find emotional relevance in their schooling offer convincing arguments for rethinking schools.
Consider Ted: "The only thing I felt truly connected to was my poetry writing and English classes. I did poorly in all of the other classes and was on academic probation off and on during my sophomore and junior years. I remember feeling like I wanted to give up if I had to follow the standard coursework that awaited me. I was not engaged, and I desperately needed the freedom that came with a course of study that was created out of my own interests."
Or Andrea: "My motivation changed once I was accepted into this independent program because my interest and involvement with the studies became more personal. I immediately began to think differently about school and what I could do. I felt a brand-new set of doors was opening. I pushed myself because I was motivated to learn more because it was information I was interested in and felt it was important to know."
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Or Cynthia, who described herself as "the type of person who prefers to learn about something that, to me, has relevance. It was clear that those subjects that did have relevance were more interesting; and if I was interested, then the motivation to work and study and learn was there. Basically, once I got going with my program, which entailed working with children with severe special needs at a local nursing home up the road, I felt like my school had meaning, like there was a purpose."
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Meaningful learning requires three ingredients: factual knowledge, skilled emotional intuition (emotional tags), and practical understanding of the rules or principles governing the specific areas of study. Motivation, purpose, engagement—these are the qualities most teachers long to see in their students, the same qualities that prevent adults from burning out in their jobs, and the same qualities that neuroscience connects to emotional relevance and the central role that emotion plays in learning. Teaching for understanding, cooperative learning, portfolio assessments, differentiated instruction, project and service learning, and online courses are just some of the latest creative solutions many teachers have developed to make their classrooms positive experiences for students. And for some students, these innovations have helped. For others, simply having teachers who care about them as individuals worthy of all this invention has helped.
Yet, the system does not seem to be succeeding. Too many students continue to drop out—if not actually, then effectively; too many learn too little; and too many teachers become frustrated, anxious, and cynical. Our expanded understanding of the brain and how and why it learns suggests that the system may be flawed. At a time when it is fashionable to blame teachers, the critics may be ignoring a deeper problem. If the system is flawed, and if the assumptions and basic structures of schools are at odds with how the brain learns, then all the innovation in the classrooms seems little more than well-intended jerry-rigging.
The purpose of education is to develop students' abilities to recognize the emotional implications of situations and to help them create increasingly nuanced and sophisticated strategies for acting and responding. Emotional relevance can have many sources: innate curiosity or ability, the discovery of a new idea through exposure to the rich variety of human endeavor, or the enthusiasm of a parent or teacher. It will always be important for adults to expose young people to the possibilities the world has to offer, and it is useful for teachers to help students connect their studies to their lives. But we must also consider that schools might be so much more successful if they were truly conceived and structured to nurture students' curiosity and encourage them to pursue their interests, changeable though they are—from kindergarten (where children's interests already tend to influence curriculum) right through college (where choosing a (top)
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major again allows students to pursue a deep interest).
In addition to an emotional goal, meaningful learning requires three ingredients: factual knowledge, skilled emotional intuition (emotional tags), and practical understanding of the rules or principles governing the specific area of study. Factual knowledge alone is useless without a guiding emotional intuition, and intuition grounded in insufficient relevant experience will be equally useless.
Social and cultural factors are just as significant inside as they are outside the classroom. From the perspective of affective and social neuroscience, the purpose of education is to develop students' abilities to recognize the emotional implications of situations and to help them create increasingly nuanced and sophisticated strategies for acting and responding. In the area of disciplines like math or history, for example, this means, in essence, helping students begin to think like mathematicians and historians—building a base of knowledge and successful experiences solving problems so that they can become inventive as they feel their way to solutions to increasingly complex problems. Of course, this level of engagement depends upon caring about math or history.
In the world outside the classroom, the goal is essentially the same: to help young people develop increasingly nuanced and sophisticated strategies for acting and responding to whatever life throws their way. While too many young people find little emotional relevance in their studies, they are frequently overwhelmed by their emotions as they navigate the cliques and shifting friendships in the sociocultural jungle of the hallways, cafeterias, and locker rooms, or as they struggle to make decisions about their plans for the future. (It is important to note that these realities of everyday life can make good starting points for engaging students in math or history.)
We all have automatic emotional responses to events and situations, whether real, imagined, or remembered. A fight with a friend, a sad movie, or the memory of recalling a family vacation can trigger an emotion that signals its presence through various physiological changes. Our heart rate changes; we sweat; we feel nauseous or incredibly good; we close our eyes or reach out or hit. These physical changes are accompanied by all sorts of thoughts: I'm no good; I hate her; I am the greatest; how can I get out of here with the least amount of embarrassment? Although these emotional responses are automatic, they are not simple. They are complex responses shaped by our knowledge and experience. Thus, as we mature and have more experiences, our emotions become increasingly complex.
Young people generally are still developing sophisticated ways of understanding or dealing with their feelings and emotions. Often, they misread their or others' emotions—or even trigger an emotion that is not appropriate to the situation—and miss what is really going on. For example, they can easily misread a comment or facial expression as a threat, especially to their sense of who they are, and can be quickly swept away by negative emotions and accompanying thoughts of worthlessness. These feelings, in turn, can feed off each other and spiral out of control. (How many times have teachers marveled at a student's angry response to what the teacher thought was an innocuous, even supportive comment?) On the other hand, sudden, unwarranted enthusiasm can also lead them quickly astray—into dangerous relationships and behavior.
As we mature and gain more experience, we learn to rethink and reinterpret these reactions in order to build more advantageous ones. The process of maturing involves feeling and understanding our emotions and learning how to change our thinking so that we can induce, regulate, and use our emotions in productive ways. Shakespeare was right: "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." Survival in the sociocultural jungle means feeling good about ourselves in relation to others. If one of the goals of schooling is to socialize young people, then helping them develop strategies for invoking advantageous and appropriate emotions and for feeling, understanding, and regulating their automatic, complex emotional responses is essential.
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We have to take the time to feel our emotions, to feel what our automatic responses to situations actually mean, and to make sense of them. The impact of an emotion on our body and mind alerts us to the meaningfulness of a situation and invites us to make sense of it. For example, Amy participated in an experiment to study reactions to stories meant to induce admiration for virtue. While listening to a true story about a young blind German woman who learns the Tibetan language by ear, invents a Tibetan Braille system, and travels to Tibet to start a school for the blind, Amy's emotional response is visible in her body: widened eyes, erect posture, slow and deep breathing, and open mouth.
At the conclusion of the story, the interviewer asks Amy what she feels, and she responds, "Extremely impressed because she went above and beyond. I think I also just respect her for not only helping herself out of her own situation and making the best of it, but for trying to help other people's situations as well, especially those who are less fortunate. [long pause] I found the story very motivational, too. It kind of makes me reflect upon my own life and realize that considering that I haven't had as extreme, like, uncontrollable circumstances as a lot of these people [whose stories are featured in the experiment]... . It makes me realize, well if they can do that despite, like, whatever hardships they have, then I definitely should be making more of my resources in my life." Clearly, Amy is guided through a process of transforming her emotional response into feelings and meaning and discovering her motivation to seize the opportunities in her own life.
Teachers constantly work with young people to help them understand their reflexive emotional responses. People have emotional triggers, and both teachers and students must be conscious of the potential for firing these. Whether with a more reflective adolescent like Amy or a 7-year-old bully, caring teachers take the time to develop their students' insight into their own feelings so that they can improve their ability to manage emotion and interact productively with the world. If emotion is our rudder, it makes sense to help young people learn to steer their own course and perhaps share William Ernest Henley's claim: "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."
It's also important to recognize that social and cultural factors are just as significant inside the classroom as they are outside it. Wherever learning happens, it is not a rational or disembodied process; neither is it a lonely one. Learning is all tied up in our social relationships and our cultural context. We learn with our teachers and our classmates and our parents. This is true even if we are by ourselves. We always function—make choices, interpret meaning, derive motivation—within a cultural framework. At the very least, mom and dad and their expectations are forever within us, whether we are striving for them or reacting against them. We can't check our culture or our emotions or our bodies at the door to clear the way for rational thinking. Schools need to be rethought not as ivory towers of rationality, but as community centers of emotional thinking.