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Feeling, thinking, learning: how emotions impact learning 

Feeling, thinking, learning: how emotions impact learning 
Prep Teacher poses for photo

By Marilia Ortiz, Communications, Language and Literacy Learning Leader & Pre-Prep class teacher 

Research into the connections between the brain and education has grown rapidly in recent years thanks to advances in neuro-imaging. This is beginning to have an impact on education as teachers deepen their understanding of the complex dynamics and interactions between different regions of the brain and the impact this has on learning. 

One such advance is the understanding of how brain development is determined by biology, but is also impacted by our experiences, opportunities, and choices. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Linda Darling-Hammond and Christina Krone, three researchers who have focused on the relationship between neuroscience, emotions and learning. They draw the analogy of the brain as a garden. The garden can grow in different ways depending on the climate, the choice of plants, the ways in which it is used, whether for a picnic, or for a stroll, or growing herbs) and the choices of the gardener. The gardener is responsible for pruning plants that are too big and for making sure that each plant gets the sunlight they need. Similarly, throughout a person’s life, the brain continues developing. It goes through moments of rapid expansion, followed by pruning unused connections. It responds to the choices and experiences of each individual, growing in certain ways and not others. 

When we think about neural functioning, it is crucial to think about emotions. It is commonly understood that reason and emotion play separate roles in people’s lives. While the first one is usually seen as a controlled process of rationality that allows for impartial results and objectivity, the second one is mostly viewed as an uncontrollable influx of visceral reactions that can consume the individual. While there is some truth to that – as reason is expressed mostly through words and emotions can feel overwhelming in certain situations – this total separation and often hierarchization is outdated. 

Recent studies demystify this dichotomy and highlight how these processes are intertwined. Neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Mary Hellen Immordino-Yang continue to explore how our learning and decision-making are shaped by both reason and emotion. They challenge the idea that emotions impair decision-making and discuss the evolutionary importance of emotions. 

Feelings and emotions helped shape life as we know it, both in humans and in animals, since they provide organisms with life-saving information about their surroundings. Emotions help individuals read their environments in an abstract way, adding an internal layer to one's perception. To every interaction and situation, we generate a flux of different emotions, that are mentally translated into positive or negative feelings.These responses provide us with vital information to improve our navigation of a complex world. This in turn shapes our choices and our learning. .  

It was a real pleasure to explore these ideas  during the St. Paul’s Education Conference, when I presented a workshop on Feeling, Thinking, Learning, attended by many colleagues from different schools in São Paulo. We discussed different developmental stages of children, and the role emotions play in these stages. . We brainstormed different approaches that could benefit children in these various stages, prompting teachers to reflect on their own practice. 

Positive practices shared during the workshop included allowing time and space for children to interact and to engage in active tasks that combine different concepts. Group discussions and collaborative tasks allow for the deep exploration of concepts while increasing emotional awareness and regulation. Many teachers shared their own examples of deeper engagement and enthusiasm for learning when children experienced the mingling of concepts, ideas and emotions.  

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