The Primacy of Emotions in Learning

From the Headmaster's Desk, January 29, 2019

Let me start with a story – a true story – about a relationship between a pupil and teacher.  Thankfully this is from another school:

A boy’s face hardened noticeably when he described a hurtful encounter with a History teacher. The boy, self-described as frequently in trouble, had been sent out of class for a dress code violation: a coloured tee shirt under his code-required dress shirt. Because his outer shirt was in code and (he felt) the undershirt did not really show, he was angry that he was called out. As he stormed out into the hall, the teacher followed him and continued to berate him, concluding with, ‘You are such a punk.’  ‘How did that make you feel?’ the boy was asked. The boy said with conviction, ‘I hate him.’ We persisted, ‘You are still in the class, you have to work for him, right?’ The boy said, ‘I’m not doing anything in that class. He can flunk me, they can kick me out—I’m not doing anything.’

This story is from one of my favourite books about teaching that was published just a few years ago. It’s called, ‘For Whom the Boy Toils’. For whom the boy toils means, in other words, boys toil, or work for some people, and not for others. Can anyone guess who boys are most likely to work for?

The answer is obvious: students work for teachers they like, and they are less likely to work or make progress when they don’t like the teacher. In the story above, the boy dislikes his teacher so much, he refuses to cooperate at all in his lessons.

This research explains that the most important factor for building a positive relationship in the classroom is that a teacher has a positive attitude towards their pupils.

I was reminded of this book when I came across an article published this last week by one of my favourite journalists in the New York Times. The author normally writes about politics, but his feature piece last week was titled: ‘Students Learn from People They Love’. In the article, he argues that we should put relationship quality at the centre of education.

He explains that there is a ‘connection between emotional relationships and learning. We used to have this top-down notion that reason was on a teeter-totter [see-saw] with emotion. If you wanted to be rational and think well, you had to suppress those primitive gremlins, the emotions. Teaching consisted of dispassionately downloading knowledge into students’ brains.’

He goes on to explain that emotion is not the opposite of reason.  On the contrary, emotions assign values to things. Emotions tell you what to pay attention to and what you should remember and care about.  Perhaps even more importantly, emotions tell you who to pay attention to.

What teachers really teach is themselves – and their passion for their subject is contagious, so the students are inspired. Young people are inspired by teachers who care – who care about their subject but also care about the student as a person.

All this is no surprise, of course, and fits in perfectly with what our Pupil Learning Council spoke about last week. In their charter, the first two points were all about relationships:

  1. Teachers are friendly, approachable and willing to listen.
  2. Teachers treat each pupil as an individual.

The Pupil Learning Council also noted that great teachers are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and funny, as well as caring, patient and motivational.  So, knowledge is important, but the other most important traits of a great teacher have much more to do with relationships than knowledge or even teaching technique: enthusiasm, motivation, humour, patience and care.

My final source of inspiration is from Dr Magill, our Deputy Head Academic.  He is a pretty inspiring guy, and he cares about teaching.  In fact, over the holidays, he wrote a primer, or short textbook, about teaching at Blue Coat, helpfully pulling together some of the latest research.

Dr Magill also highlights the role of emotions in learning. He notes that when we first encounter new information, as we learn, it is our emotions that first react, not our rational or cognitive side. Learning is an emotional process.

He writes, ‘emotional engagement in learning has benefits for pupils’ academic success – heightened emotional involvement makes academic material more memorable and for longer periods.’ This connects back to the quote I highlighted above:

Emotions assign values to things. Emotions tell you what to pay attention to and what you should remember and care about.  Perhaps even more importantly, emotions tell you who to pay attention to.

Or, to quote Dr Magill: ‘Evolution would not allow the brain to waste energy on things that don’t matter to us – therefore, we only think about things we care about.’

If your teacher cares about you, and you care about your teacher, then you will remember what you learn with that teacher.

I do believe that teachers at Blue Coat believe in the improvement of all pupils. And in doing so, we create a culture for learning where the pupils feel motivated, supported and encouraged by the relentless positivity of the teachers. That’s another quote from Dr Magill, not from me.  Have a great week.

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