Why Emotion Is More Important Than Understanding

Why Emotion Is More Important Than Understanding

by Terry Heick

Ed note: This post has been updated from a previous post with new imagery, a new metaphor, new title, and some clarified language. 

Teachers mean well. By teachers, I mean you and I. We mean well.

After all, here we are, creating and consuming resources to improve the learning of someone, somewhere. And we’re both in education to begin with — that’s a selfless and Sisyphean pursuit in itself. We want what’s best for the future of mankind, so we decided to teach. Went to college, learned about Vygotsky and Piaget, and here we are on TeachThought–me blogging, you seeing what’s what–each of us trying to find out what moves students.

That part’s simple: It’s emotion.

Teachers & Solutions

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 and I–with emotion.

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The Neuroscience of Emotion & 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 emotion you need to skillfully identify, navigate and masterfully manipulate.

Of course mastery matters. A learner that understands can take that understanding with them and do something great, but it’s their emotion–their affections and hopes and concerns–that make them human and carry them when “being rational” isn’t enough. Begin the learning with emotion, use it throughout the process, and end there. A robot learning Chaucer is still a robot. 

Teaching is a minor act that in itself causes nothing; understanding is disruptive–it breaks the surface of the water, but it’s the lingering emotional response to that understanding that ripples forever.

This post was written by Terry Heick and originally published on edutopia; Leading Your Classroom With Emotion; image attribution flickr user mrhyata

  1. IamBullyproofMusic says

    Thank you. Wow! After reading this, I just want to hug you! So well put! This is why I do what I do. Music makes kids feel. In turn, they absorb powerful SEL better that actually changes their lives. They’ve told me as much! I’m going to pin this everywhere! You are cooler than cool. Or at least that’s how I feel 🙂

  2. anitav says

    I love this whole piece!!!! adding the deep psycho-babble and turning it around….just lovely!!!!

  3. Sherri Spelic says

    Thank you for again saying what’s what. We live this reality every day in our classrooms yet there’s such a push to work around emotions rather than recognizing to what degree they run each of our shows (teachers included).
    A recent blog post I wrote gives an example: http://edifiedlistener.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/teaching-to-learn/

  4. ankita soni says

    Well I have to say they started a good thing in education. It will surely help students to understand the things well in homely atmosphere specially for kids.


  5. Farah Najam says

    Students may never keep in
    mind 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 starts the class: while you look for your learner’s attention and
    try to cause engagement, it’s their emotions you need to skillfully spot,
    navigate and masterfully manipulate.

  6. Julie Sweeney says

    I like to say “Joy is the best teacher” and “When all else fails, add brownies.” We so often forget that the context of learning helps to create affective ties to the thing being learned. If we gave more attention to context, we might create a receptivity in the learner that would have been missed in humdrum conditions.

  7. Rodrick Rajive Lal says

    This is an amazing write up and I can see the connections the observations have with what I have learned through teaching! Yes, it is emotion that plays such an important role in pedagogy, students will always remember how they felt, and emotion is definetely a powerful tool for getting the students to see relevance. It goes without saying that joyful learning and passion for teaching are all the result of emotions in teaching!

  8. young j kim says

    I believe your suggestion. As a person of involving to teach I have found without a good relationship between educator and learner, the learning is hard to be accomplished. even it is hard to get the servant-ship in teaching for learner, I know, I should be a servant person.

  9. Nancy Lin says

    Teacher’s mission is to assist student into world’s cognition. But it really matters, what the student feels during classes. All students are different, so the teacher has to find a unique approach to each student

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  14. LK says

    Thank you for this thoughtful reflection, Terry. I really like the link you made with increasing effectiveness of teaching by focusing on engaging a students emotions. This hits at the core of lifelong learning and helping 21st century students engage with the world beyond their classroom. As a matter of fact, I was just discussing the role of emotions in learning with a psychology student this weekend and though i have seen the power of emotions in the classroom you put it so well when you said, “emotion enhances learning by flooding the brain with biological actuators of memory.” Your article is really inspiring me to think about incorporating in a more purposeful way an emotional connection for my students. Thank you!

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