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One of the sessions I attended recently at the CSLEE conference in Houston was on the role of emotions in moral decision making.  It was a fascinating topic especially so close to my reading “Emotions, Learning and the Brain” by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (2016).  One speaker from Georgia State University, Dr. Yinying Wang, spoke about ‘moral emotions’ which can bind us to a group or may also blind us to outsiders who do not share our views.   In so doing, our social identity is somewhat malleable as collective social identity can have sway over our decision making.  We see the influence of group think in our students as well as in education generally.   We are individuals but also very drawn to identifying with a group of like-minded others.  We seek connection.  

In Immordino-Yang’s brilliant book (2016), she shares in understandable terms, that the brain is a “dynamic, plastic, experience-dependent, social and affective organ” (p. 85). The long debate over nature versus nuture is unproductive for this author. Rather, “learning is social, emotional and shaped by culture! (p.85). The implications of this understanding are profound for our classrooms.  In the book’s explanation of why emotions matter in learning, here are some key points that stand out: 

  1. Emotions guide cognitive learning

  2. Emotional contributions to learning can be conscious or unconscious

  3. Emotional learning shapes future behaviour

  4. Effective learning does not involve removing emotion, rather, it involves skillfully cultivating an emotional state that is relevant and informative to the task at hand. 

  5. Without emotion, learning is impaired. Emotions need to be an honoured part of the learning experience all along (points adapted from Chapter 5)

The implications for our instruction are profound and the author offers three important strategies for us to keep in mind: 

  1. We must foster emotional connection to the material students are to learn.   Find ways to relate the material to the life of the learner and the learner’s interest. We must create safe spaces where emotions can surface in learning and risk taking to make mistakes is encouraged and possible. 

  2. We must encourage students to develop smart academic intuition.  “Are we getting closer to the correct solution in this math problem and why?” is one example of helping to foster intuition.  Intuition helps with concept transfer and long-term retention. 

  3. We must actively manage the social and emotional climates of our classrooms.  Using humour might be a pleasant but task-irrelevant way of lightening moods.  For emotion to be useful, we must become skilled in knowing when and how evoking emotion will be helpful to learning.  It becomes a balancing act.  Over-excited and distracted students will not learn well.  We must read the signals our students send about their understanding and evoke meaning and emotional connection to our teaching material as much as possible.

What we teach matters but how we teach matters so much more!  There is still so much to learn!

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