Student Engagement

Replacing Teachers with Emotion

April 3, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

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:

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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  • Student Engagement
  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Education Trends
  • Mental Health

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