Student Engagement

To Teach Facts, Start With Feelings

Students are more likely to engage in learning if you present the material in the context of a story conveying emotions that they can understand.

October 31, 2014

Recently, we heard from a teacher who decided to create a more dynamic approach to his history class . . . by teaching it backward, starting with the present day. "Here's the world around you and how it feels to live in it. What happened over the last 20 years to get where we are? What happened in the decade before that?" Unsurprisingly, he met resistance from parents, who thought his approach was crazy.

From a neurological perspective, though, starting a history class from the present makes perfect sense. Scientists from Adriaan De Groot to Anders Ericsson report that human brains are very particular about how they like to take in information and about what information actually sticks.

Drawing Out the Story

Our brains love to make connections. We learn best when we can relate new information to something that we already know.

That's not news -- most teachers know that providing context is helpful when introducing new material. "Last week, we learned about the sun, the moon, and Earth's rotation. Today, let's see how that results in day and night and the seasons." Creating lesson-­to-­lesson connections is a great start. But that's not enough. When it comes to learning, not all context is created equal.

What the human brain loves most of all is story -- logic and emotion tied together to bring meaning to a set of ideas. That's why students don't need flashcards to remember the plot of their favorite movie or every detail of their most embarrassing gym class moment. Too often, students treat subjects such as history as a never-ending onslaught of unrelated facts that happened to people in pantaloons or togas -- people who are nothing like them. If you can take the facts that you're teaching and relate them in an emotional way to what your students already understand, you'll make the material more memorable than ever before.

This issue goes beyond one teacher's idea for his classroom and is at the heart of why so many students say they don't care about school. While it's easy to assume that student apathy is related to laziness or an attitude problem, it actually makes perfect sense that so many students don't care about what they're learning because they’ve never been taught how to care.

Teenagers' lives are driven almost entirely by emotions, from panicking and blanking during a test, to avoiding mistakes because of shame, to the drama of junior prom. It's common for emotions to derail students' learning, but it's rare that teachers show students how to use emotion to their advantage in the classroom. Emotions drive attention and forge lasting memories. If you want your students to be engaged, and to remember what they've learned, then you need to put emotional context first in your class.

Activating the Understanding

But how do you make that change? Don't be afraid to get creative or to get back to basics. In English class, we discuss theme and symbolism, but we don't always draw out the most accessible emotional starting point for our students. "Look, there are big words in here, and there is symbolism and an intricate plot, but let's start from the fact that The Great Gatsby is about being in love with someone who will never date you! That's the toughest feeling ever!" Similarly, Katie still remembers being handed a poem to introduce To Kill a Mockingbird in freshman English. The poem was actually the lyric to the song "I'm Just a Girl" by No Doubt. Instantly, the class was 1) excited that this "assignment" was a song they loved, 2) blown away that their teacher, Mr. Macomber, knew who No Doubt was, and 3) poised to read the novel from an emotional perspective -- about a girl whose environment keeps her from being all that she really wants to be. One song lyric gave the class a jumping-off point that made them relate and made them excited to dig into the novel.

Because teenagers have so little context, it can be hard for them to see the real-life resonance in their material. They don't realize that the imaginary numbers they learn about in math class help make their smartphones and laptops possible, or that mitosis is why you don't bleed out when you skin your knee falling off your skateboard. By making simple connections, you're starting your students from a place of understanding, appreciation, and curiosity. Neuroscientifically speaking, teaching humans isn't about giving them new information -- it's about activating the understanding they already have. In other words, we should worry less about what our students don't know, and focus first on what they already do know, including all of the knowledge that doesn't come from school.

With a set amount of material to cover and limited class time to drive it home, it's easy to view No Doubt lyrics or skateboarding injuries as "extra" information. But that extra information provides emotional relevance that makes the information stick through the quiz, the test, and beyond. Students might have minimal prior knowledge of your subject, but they all understand fear, anger, love, excitement, and self-doubt. So let's shift the conversation from the Common Core to the common context and make student apathy a thing of the past.

What are your examples of providing emotional context to your students? How can you make the concepts that you teach more memorable?

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