The Importance of Emotions
The importance of the emotional arousal in the student is vital if learning is to occur. After all learning is in the first instance based on the formation of memories (see Newsletters: ‘The Intricacy of Stress’ – 19th June 2017, ‘Empathy’ - 18th February 2019 and ‘Sense of Self – Part 2’ 23rd September 2019). In these essays I have emphasised the importance of getting that level of stress just right, not too little, not too much. It is this stress that provides the energy required to form new memories, to learn new things. But, what is the difference between stress and emotions?
Neuroscience provides plenty of complex answers to this question but for our purposes the difference between stress and emotions is that stress is a response to demands or pressures from an external force. For school children it is the teacher along with the contents of the lesson. Emotions are internally stimulated in response to a feeling about the situation the student experiences. This ‘feeling’ is not related to any concrete understanding of that situation but the arousal will be a result of the stimulated emotional memories.
So, we have two broad types of memories that are present when we are faced with a new situation. The cognitive, extrinsic memories that are the narrative of what happened before in the same or similar situations and the emotional, intrinsic memories of how the situation we are observing reminds us of the feelings of previous experiences.
It is important to understand that young children form and rely on emotional memories far more than the cognitive memories required for academic learning. Very young children are incapable of articulating memories of things that happened to them other than at the time of the immediate experience; they can’t recall that situation in the future. This is known as infantile amnesia.
The earliest recollections you have about your childhood will be after about the age of three. This is when the hippocampus, that part of the brain that initiates cognitive memories is developed enough to lay down the required neural networks to store that memory. More recent investigations suggest that it is the small region, the dentate gyrus, the bridge between the hippocampus and the surrounding structures that is developed at this time. Either way, emotional memories dominate early childhood understanding of what happens for kids and the extent this dominates decreases slowly as they develop. If you ask a child under ten to tell you about their life the conversation will be brief, very brief in most cases. Contrast this with the narrative a teenager will supply if you ask them the same question and you will be there for as long as you can stand it! It stands to reason, emotional memories dominate the developmental stages of childhood and so, learning is an emotional activity!
The importance of emotions was dismissed during the rationalist era in the early sixties. That is when science became fixated on ‘evidence’ and gave rise to terms like ‘if you can’t measure it is not worth considering’. The then leading psychologist, B. F. Skinner led the field and as a result consideration of emotions was a lower form of understanding. This has influenced the psychology of education ever since and it still does. Educational rationalism dominates academic research and bureaucratic curriculum development in a time when the same alliances lament the falling academic achievements of the students they ‘study’. I disagree about the ‘falling standards’ but that is for a different time but I do know that the level of emotions, like the level of stress does impact on the quality of academic learning that will take place for that child.
Authentic teachers understand the importance of emotions for kids to learn. This is why their relationships with each child is so important but as adults we ‘know best’, we understand how the kids feel. We all know the saying ‘don’t assume because it makes an - ass out of - u and -me, well like most adages there is some truth for all us teachers, especially those in primary or junior secondary. If you assume you understand how they feel at any given time and about any given task you will make a fool of yourself and you more importantly will be doing a dis-service to your pupils.
While thinking about these ideas I came across the concept of phenomenology, roughly speaking the idea that rational bias conflicts with lived experience. For the purposes of this work it is that our rational judgement about how and why a student is feeling like they do may well be at odds with exactly why they feel the way they do. It is more important that you find out how they feel about a situation than you ‘seeing’ how they feel about it. To avoid this all you have to do is ask!
I have referred to phenomenology, not just because it is a big word that makes me feel important but because it is the study of the subjective experience of life, the internal view of the world. We have made the point above that children’s learning is dominated by the emotional content of the lesson therefore we need to take the kid’s view of the lesson not what we think it should be if we want them to learn. This is not easy to achieve but the following steps will help:
- Give a voice to the kids; ask them for their opinions and join in adding your own views about the topic. When they are talking really listen, don’t wait for them to stop so you can tell them what it’s like. You have to create opportunities for these discussions to take place, it is your teaching duty!
- Don’t judge them or the situation they are describing. If as a class discussion allow lots of different views and discuss each without judgment. Encourage controversial and/or ethical discussions. There are plenty of ethical dilemmas you can use at an age appropriate level. This helps the kids understand the complexity of life including their own and it helps develop their critical thinking and moral development.
- Teach kindness, we are always encouraged to have empathy, to understand how the other person is thinking or feeling. From this work I hope you get the idea that it is impossible to understand ‘how someone else feels’ or ‘walk in their shoes’; I understand the attraction of ‘experiencing’ what the other is going through but you can’t, and saying you do is can be insulting. I prefer the concept of compassion, we understand the other person is feeling bad, we don’t know how that feels but we know it hurts. Kindness is the step beyond compassion, it is actually doing something for the other or about the situation.
- In your classroom publicly recognise acts of kindness and call-out acts of meanness. Develop a culture of caring for others. You can get the class involved in volunteering work where they help those less fortunate. There is lots of evidence about the benefits of such programs for the students and the culture of the school. This teaches that the pursuit of happiness is a selfish occupation, it relies on some external response. The pursuit of kindness is the attempt to produce happiness for others but the magic of humanity is that it leaves you feeling good.
Finally, and as always model – model and model the behaviour you want from your students. The fact that acts of kindness will make the child contented can be multiplied for the teacher by the number of students they assist.