What does Emotion have to do with Learning?

Blog Post #6 - Featured Image

What does Emotion have to do with Learning?

One of the aspects of education that I truly enjoy is collaboration. Through meaningful and effective collaboration, we have the chance to grow not only in our profession, but also as a person. We further and deepen our knowledge and understanding of our field, and we broaden our (personal) perspectives and thinking. When meaningful collaboration happens, we are also bringing new ideas to the forefront and creating new paths to explore. I also enjoy the personal side of collaboration. When we are collaborating with others, we are sharing. We are working together to better ourselves, our field and achieve a goal. When meaningful collaboration happens, we really are sharing a bit of ourselves in the process.

I bring this up because I recently had the chance to collaborate with Dr. Patrick Brown. Pat is an incredibly talented educator. He currently serves as the executive director of STEAM for one of the largest school districts in Missouri. He has taught science lessons across the K-16 continuum. Over the years, he has won various awards for his science methods course teaching. Furthermore, he is an accomplished author, who wrote the NSTA bestselling series Instructional Sequence Matters. He is also a frequent contributor to Education Week. There is so much more to Pat and his career, and I encourage you to find out more here: https://patbrownedu.com/about/

We recently collaborated on an article entitled: What does Emotion have to do with Learning? Here is our question and two of our “Big Ideas”:

Question: What does the research tell us about cognition and emotions?

Big Idea 1: Instructional sequence is key to supporting students in taking intellectual risks to grow as learners.

Big Idea 2: Productive discourse and writing requires a balance between old and new ideas and challenging oneself to learn from experiences.

So, with that in mind, here is the full article:

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What Does Emotion Have to Do with Learning? By Eric Richards and Pat Brown

All students come to school as knowers even before being taught anything and come to our classes with unique assets such as their everyday experiences interacting with the natural world, curiosities, interests, cultures, and abilities. We can leverage these assets to understand their incoming ideas better and use them to create everyday classroom experiences that use experiential learning for sensemaking. A Framework for K–12 Science Education envisions science education as the opportunity for students to engage in active investigations to make sense of natural phenomena and explore and build solutions to problems. Viewing learning as sensemaking is essential in a technology-driven, global economy where critical thinking and problem-solving are necessary. 

While sensemaking is critical to learning, the process can be challenging for students if they play a more passive role in the classroom. Shifting from passive to active student experiences requires classroom environments that play a supportive role. Shifting to more active learning requires a simultaneous focus on students’ emotions, motivations, attitudes, beliefs, and cognition, which develop in parallel streams. You may not have fully considered the role of emotions on cognition and vice versa.

What Does the Research Tell Us About Cognition and Emotions?

We know from the neurosciences that all learning begins as sensory information, and what comes into the brain is immediately filtered to different structures of the brain called the “thinking brain” and the “reactive brain” (McTighe and Willis 2019). For example, instructional practices that engage student thinking, allow students to make predictions that draw on firsthand experiences, and encourage students to view learning as a developmental process (thinking and reflecting on developing understanding) promotes a feeling of pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation to continue the desired response and sent to the “thinking brain.” Conversely, instructional practices that create a sense of stress for students (anxiety related to speaking in front of peers, fear of being incorrect, worry about demands of course/school) put the brain in survival mode and diverted to what has been called the “reactive brain.”

A popular theory in World Language education elaborates on the notion of a reactive brain to suggest that students screen information based on the potential stresses associated with learning. The “affective filter” hypothesis (See Stephen Krashen) suggests that language learning is mediated by students’ perception of the learning environment and whether the risk of exposing an idea through communication, either spoken or written, is worth the reward.

The implications behind the “thinking and reactive brain” and the “affective filter” can be used in lesson and curriculum design to enhance our instructional strategies.

Big Idea 1: Instructional sequence is key to supporting students in taking intellectual risks to grow as learners.

One contemporary approach that promotes sensemaking based on lived experiences is the PSOE (Predict, Share, Observe, and Explain) sequence of instruction. The Predict stage engages students’ interest in the lesson and identifies their initial ideas and experiences (including misconceptions). Activities, questions, and problems stimulate student ideas based on prior experiences and focus on specific topics. Predictions are never graded. Teachers emphasize that regardless of the accuracy of a prediction, all students will come to a more sophisticated understanding from their classroom interactions. Next, the Share phase offers students the chance to articulate their thinking and reasoning with their peers. The Share phase is a chance for students to refine their understanding through conversation. Then, the Observe stage presents students with firsthand experiences and discussions centered around their observations, data, or other evidence. During the Observe stage, students engage in activities. Finally, the Explain stage allows students to generate ideas based on firsthand experiences. After students have explained concepts in their way, teachers try introducing new terms and ideas. The teacher’s explanation and introduction of new ideas become particularly rich experiences if they occur in light of students’ firsthand experiences. While the names of the phases help teachers from a lesson-design standpoint, in practice, students move seamlessly from activity to activity. 

Big Idea 2: Productive discourse and writing requires a balance between old and new ideas and challenging oneself to learn from experiences.

Students need to learn that they are not alone in the learning process and are part of a more prominent culture, their classroom, that grows based on each other’s collective work. With this in mind, educators must consider the role of productive discourse and writing in current classroom practices. Educators must also recognize the importance of these skills as significant factors in students’ development. However, in today’s classroom, the approach to these skills requires new ideas that are in balance with established ideas. When students find writing and discourse dull, mechanical, uninteresting, and even laborious, these skills suffer. Educators must apply balanced ideas that help make these skills compelling, engaging, collaborative, and accessible to the students. Students also need meaning, significance, and variation to acquire and retain these skills. Moreover, teachers must not underestimate the need to support students through the process of improving their writing and discourse abilities. When activities prove to be too difficult for students, their affective filter rises and inhibits the educational and acquisition process. Students’ brains will move into the reactive mode, and this can lead to frustration and disengagement. Conversely, when educators implement ideas that allow students to grow in confidence and students are able to more freely engage and share their own thoughts and ideas, the affective filter lowers and discourse and writing become enjoyable and productive. This results in students becoming more comfortable with these skills and wanting to engage, collaborate, and share in the classroom.

More to Explore

Eric Richards’ book Grafted Writing helps language educators facilitate language acquisition with students through reading and writing. It employs various activities where students use acquired language skills to “graft” their unique ideas onto the original text in the target language. The activities support and improve not only students’ writing abilities but also reading comprehension, interpersonal modes of communication, and self-expression and align with modern World Language standards that emphasize learning by using language.      Pat Brown’s Instructional Sequence Matters National Science Teaching Association book series provides a theoretical backing for why sequence matters. For more about Dr. Patrick Brown and his works, please see: https://patbrownedu.com/