George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Teachers mean well. By teachers, I mean you.

You mean well.

After all, you're here, aren't you -- looking for resources to become a better teacher or administrator? And you're in education to begin with -- that's a selfless and Sisyphean pursuit in itself. You want what's best for the future of mankind, so you decided to teach. Went to college, learned about Vygotsky and Piaget, and here you are on Edutopia, finding out what makes learners tick.

That part's simple: it's emotion that makes them tick.

Emotion in Children

The need to belong, the desire to be understood, the instinct to understand -- these are all universal human emotions that do not fade with time, vary across generations, or stop just because you've got algebra to teach. They lord over a student's mind constantly, and require more than a little bit of "social and emotional learning" -- they require emotion at the core.

But in western education -- being the purveyors of both ambition and science that we are -- we've tried a more analytical route, attempting to decode how learning happens (and the human genome as well, not ironically). We've found its characteristics, we look for research and data that prove we're not wasting our time, and then we struggle mightily to get the results we want.

While every multiple choice question has a distractor -- an answer to tempt the responder to choose the answer that's nearly right -- it might be that assessment itself is the distractor, because few experiences are as cognitively arresting as a rigorous academic exam.

A solution, though, is well within reach.

Replace teachers -- that means you -- with emotion.

The Neuroscience of Emotion and Learning

Of course, there's neuroscience jargon that explains how emotion impacts learning. A 2007 Johns Hopkins School of Medicine study explains:

Emotion enhances our ability to form vivid memories of even trivial events. Norepinephrine (NE), a neuromodulator released during emotional arousal, plays a central role in the emotional regulation of memory . . . Our results indicate that NE-driven phosphorylation of GluR1 facilitates the synaptic delivery of GluR1-containing AMPARs, lowering the threshold for LTP, thereby providing a molecular mechanism for how emotion enhances learning and memory.

So emotion enhances learning by flooding the brain with biological actuators of memory. In education, we look for symptoms of these emotions, maybe engagement or creativity.

Or the ultimate prize in K-12: proficiency.

We then look to crude mechanisms that will cause these symptoms -- we group students, give them "voice and choice," ask them to "predict what might happen," and then have them turn to an elbow partner to discuss how their predictions did and did not pan out.

We hang Marzano's 9 on the wall, and go to our weekly data team meetings to try to figure out what's going on, all the while missing the rub.

None of this causes emotion, and emotion doesn't cause learning anyway.

It supersedes learning.

An Analogy

"Students may never remember what you taught them, but will never forget how you made them feel." This age-old saying is dead-on. It gets at the conundrum facing every teacher every day as he or she begins class: while you look for your students' attention and try to cause engagement, it's their emotions you need to skillfully identify, navigate and masterfully manipulate.

A robot learning Chaucer is a robot nonetheless.

An admittedly dramatic analogy might help sort it all out:

Teaching is a minor act that in itself causes nothing; understanding is the detonator, and emotion is the mushroom cloud.

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Lauren Larson's picture
Lauren Larson
Third Grade Teacher- NJ

This article was a breath of fresh air! So often we are focused solely on test scores, data, standards, and assessments that we forget what should be at the heart of teaching- emotion. As a third grade teacher, I constantly feel pressure to have my students do well on the mandated state testing. However, I did not go into teaching to have my students do well on one test! I went into teaching to show compassion, offer inspiration, and to light a fire within students. This article reminded me that I DID go into teaching for the right reasons. That emotion is a crucial part of student learning. Thanks for sharing!

Catherine Day's picture

Exactly! Students learn (or not) through emotion. When teaching, you have to present the material that will spark something in them. They have to have a connection to the material or it is lost completely.
While I was doing Pre-Clinicals, I did a lesson on Supreme Court Cases. Since I was teaching 8th graders, I picked cases that involved students around their age or cases that they could personally relate to. Their job was to be the 10th Justice and write a short opinion on whether they agreed with the decision or dissented. The students read the cases and audible gasps were coming from some of them (due to the facts of the original case and the outcome). It was really neat to see their reactions during the discussion and opinion writing. I used those as a part of a "bulletin board" (more accurately, I took up an entire wall in the hallway) and put all of their opinions on it. They were loving every minute. Even students from other wings were stopping to read it.
Learning is just not tests, facts, figures. It's about how the students feel about those tests, facts, and figures. We, as educators, must ensure that they care (another emotion) enough to learn them. That is how they will be successful.
Thank you for reminding us about this important piece of the learning puzzle.

Rusty May's picture
Rusty May
School counselor, Exectuive Director of the Bullying & School Safety Foundation and Creator of

Thank you Terry. I really appreciate your consideration of this important aspect of the education process. I'd love to share my relationship resource I've created with you and get your feedback. Thanks again and keep up the good work.

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

Can you sense the emotion above? *cute wink* We stick powerful SEL into tunes that appeal to kid's souls. Thank you for describing exactly why that works! I wish more teachers could grasp the power of the mushroom cloud. This is spot on and fabulous :-) Standing ovation. You have just made me so happy.

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