Emotions & Education: Enhancing Learning In The Classroom


emotions education

“Students learn as much for a teacher as they do from a teacher.”
—Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, Learning Policy Institute president

A man in a dark trench coat strolls up to the opened classroom doorway, glances in, turns, and continues walking. All eyes shift immediately and fixate on the potential intruder. Body orientation addresses the target until he is comfortably out of our sight, and we hear sighs of relief. Then, students refocus on the teacher and their concentration on learning resumes. But does student learning restart with no thought to the interruption?

According to the Dutch psychologist Dr. Nico Frijda and colleagues, the answer is no. When the relevance-signaling systems in the brain are activated, our emotions initiate a quick situational appraisal to answer the emotionally-centered questions. What was that? Friend or foe? Danger or opportunity? The series of secondary questions in this emotional equation entertains our best options for next steps: What should I do? Was that something I should approach, or avoid? Will it satisfy a goal, drive or a need of mine? Whether we wish to accept this reality, we exist in an almost perpetual state of emotional arousal and decision-making based on feelings.

When we think, remember, imagine, and mentally rehearse interpersonal encounters, emotions dominate the contents and determine the directions that our thoughts will take. At any given moment, what we pay attention to and what we choose to ignore are driven by emotions. Memory gives us a personal past that is only made possible as a consequence of what we paid attention to while we were in the present, which was governed not by the events themselves but by how those events were linked to our emotional states at the time.

Imagine an “emotional number line,” with zero at its center, +10 to the farthest point right and -10 to the farthest point left. Our strongest memories are formed at either extreme of the emotional continuum. The representative neural pathways there are flooded with glutamate — the most common neurotransmitter — signaling the brain to encode the event with a We’d better remember this! marker. The closer we approach zero on the continuum, though, the more emotionally indifferent we become, relegating that experience to the mental trash heap (“trivia”), where it is promptly forgotten.

In schools, we often are confronted with the mutually exclusive binary choice of being either intellectual or emotional, but seldom is their interdependence acknowledged. All memories are not creating equal; students learn what they care about and are most interested in personally relevant matters. The most difficult things to remember are those that have no personal-emotional importance to us. Those with a deep emotional connection have greater longevity, are easiest to retrieve from long-term memory and enjoy the greatest degree of durability; nothing short of acute regional brain damage will dislodge them from permanent memory.

Learning commonly refers to immediate changes to the brain that come by way of experience, but all learning begins with emotions and relies on the same dynamic interplay between emotions and cognition.

What About Emotions?

Human emotions are complex and highly developed, but simultaneously primitive and somewhat unrefined, influenced by both primary and secondary needs. Emotions can serve as powerful motivators, learning catalysts, and healthy memory boosters, just as easily as they can be disruptive forces in our lives. most mental health disorders are grounded in problems with emotions or attention, and frequently both.

Since emotions are subjective experiences, educators, and the scientific community in the past have tended to dismiss them because they cannot be measured, controlled, or calibrated. Fortunately, neuroscientists and educators are turning to one another to answer the same questions concerning the impact of emotions on learning.

When we evaluate elements in our surroundings, we engage the emotions, which provoke an instantaneous bodily (visceral) response to each element, taking note of those features deemed of greatest emotional importance. Following our cognitive-emotional assessment, we might smile, become fearful or angry. We might tenderly approach a person or an object almost instantaneously. Residing in between each of the basic emotions, we find a great number of other human emotions. Our feelings might best be viewed along the following seven continua of emotional ranges:

  1. Love—Indifference—Hate
  2. Ecstasy—Sadness—Remorse
  3. Excitement—Serenity—Boredom
  4. Trust—Apprehension—Terror
  5. Pride —Acceptance—Shame
  6. Pleasure—Relief—Pain
  7. Admiration—Disapproval—Loathing

Humans are endowed with a long list of emotions, each with a short list of associated conditions under which the emotion is expressed. The human face has 44 muscles which can produce over 10,000 different facial expressions, many of which are universal and easily deciphered, revealing our underlying emotions and intentions. Some emotional experiences involve the entire body (laughter, sobbing, excitement, etc.), while others are more subtle (acceptance, hope, optimism, admiration, etc.), where the internal feeling remains largely concealed. Over the course of evolution, we have developed distinct emotions for different occasions as being the most appropriate responses, as opposed to automatic reactions witnessed in animals with a less-developed cortex and a relatively small catalog of emotional responses, regardless of the environmental trigger.

Dr. Paul Ekman, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, discovered that each human emotion comes with an almost universally identifiable facial expression, regardless of culture, ethnicity, or experience. More interestingly, Ekman and Dr. Maureen O’Sullivan uncovered the phenomenon of human microexpressions, which reveal our true underlying emotions and are only detectable with the assistance of a high-speed camera. Sequenced images capture facial reactions that are sliced into fractions of a second, exposing the microseconds of sneers, snarls, smiles, etc., which occur so quickly and whose duration is so brief that they cannot be detected by the naked eye in real time but become photographically clear upon review. Facial cues can subconsciously activate the orbitofrontal cortex in such a manner that we have “a bad feeling about Mary,” but we’re not certain as to precisely why.

When we are cold, we shiver. Yet shivering would be an unsuitable behavioral reaction to experiencing a heat wave, where we should perspire instead, which is a specific response to a specific environmental change that our bodies detect.

Strangely, the human body-brain system has evolved over the millennia without expanding our response repertoire to make distinctions between a physical threat, an intellectual threat, a psychological threat, a social threat or an emotional threat (a challenge to our precious egos). While each psychological condition may differ, our physiological defenses are nearly identical, due to a mysteriously limited biological repertoire for an “advanced” organism.

You May Also Like

Fitting In: The Neuroscience Of Conformity
Rewire Your Life: Looking Closely At Your Media Use

Sponsored Link

About Us

A magazine dedicated to the brain.

We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

Education and Training

Newsletter Signup

Subscribe to our newsletter below and never miss the news.

Stay Connected