Why Emotion cannot be separated from Learning

The place of emotion in teaching and learning has long been debated. Teachers struggle with the question of whether or not they should focus on anything else other than fulfilling the cognitive needs of learners. However, recent research in neurosciences, education, and psychology reveal that there is a strong positive link between emotion and the learning process. Keeping this in mind, Educators might want to reconsider using emotion as one of the tools to enhance and improve educational experiences of their learners.

The school, as we all know, is a place where the mind is trained. Since time immemorial, teachers have done everything in their power to help children enhance their thinking capacities. However, little did we know and acknowledge the fact that the mind does not function independently. The mind and its working are dependent on a variety of interrelated factors. The working of the mind is only as efficient as the condition and operational fitness of one’s body and his/her emotional experiences. Therefore, the old adage, “emotion is the enemy of reason” is no longer valid. This assertion is further substantiated by research in the areas of neurology, education, and psychology.

Evidences from Brain Research

Studies in brain processes (storing and retrieving information) reveal that there is a strong connection between reason and emotion. Scientists have discovered that the same areas of the brain that are involved in processing emotion are also involved in processing memory. The connection is so strong that reason, emotion, and bodily sensations and functions affect each other at neurological levels.

Any learning experience is accompanied by feelings. Thus, learning involves the mastery of knowledge in the form of facts, figures, and reflective thoughts (content or substance of learning). But it doesn’t stop there. Learning also involves the dynamic interplay between knowledge and the context within which it is acquired and internalized. In other words, learning is the process whereby both content and context interact to form meaningful understanding of one’s self and his/her surrounding or experiences. Both content and context become the measured weight of all our thoughts, biases, ideas, and arguments. In short, every time an individual learns, he/she is feeling at the same time.

So, when people say, “we shouldn’t let our emotion impede our decision-making,” they are actually disregarding the fact that emotion is an integral part of every mental act experienced by an individual, including decision-making. It is the law of nature to predispose humans to make decisions and engage in other higher order thinking in the presence of a variety of feelings. In fact, appropriate emotions enhances thinking a great deal (e.g. positive emotions speed up decision-making enormously).

Physiologically speaking, everything that enters through our sensory organs passes first through a kind of switchboard called the thalamus, located at the base of the brain. That information is then routed automatically to different sections of the brain. At first, the information goes through the brain’s emotion-arousal systems for evaluation, to determine whether the information is perceived as safe or dangerous. That evaluation involves a number of feedback loops originating in the long-term memory. If we perceive the incoming information as threatening, we automatically engage in a series of reactions (which sometimes remain unconscious) to help us process the information. In other words, our brains have to decide whether to keep or toss all incoming information. When unconscious emotional arousal reaches a certain point, it becomes a conscious feeling. This conscious emotional experience then affects (or provides a context for) other related cognitive processes.

In short, emotion activates attention (the primary and most vital component of any learning or information processing act), which then triggers the short-term and long-term memory, and eventually makes the overall learning process possible. In other words, learning doesn’t take place when there’s no emotional arousal. However, we should remember that not all emotional arousal result in learning unless otherwise chosen by an individual.

For example, if we see a coiled snake ready to strike, that information is processed through our thalamic pathways and sent to the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the brain that has 12 to 15 distinct emotive regions. So, when information such as the sight of a coiled snake reaches the amygdala, the overriding message is Danger! Danger! Immediately, the amygdala speeds biochemical signals to other regions of the brain. Nerves sending a message of fear reach every part of the body. A person’s stomach tightens, heart races, blood pressure rises, feel and hands turn clammy, and mouth goes dry. A number of hormone-releasing glands are activated, the body goes into action, and the person runs away from the snake.

Apart from being responsible in initiating and activating cognitive processes, emotions are also responsible for behavioral responses of individuals. In fact, there is a direct connection between emotions and motion. This is the reason why we approach when in happiness, we attack when in anger, we escape when in fear, and we disengage when in sadness.

Establishing the Link

Since the relationship among emotion, cognition, and motion is inevitable and real, it is necessary for Educators to get learners to be emotionally involved in the learning process. When learners are emotionally ‘captivated’ in the initial stage of learning, the chances of them paying attention is significantly increased. Increased attention enables a learner to be highly engaged (mentally and physically) and gain maximum benefit from whatever is taught or discussed. The more emotionally engaged a learner is, the more likely he/she is to learn.

Further, having positive and favorable feelings toward a task (academic or non-academic) helps us feel that we did the task well. Similarly, when we experience negative and unfavorable feelings toward a task, we experience difficulty. The best learning takes place when a positive feeling toward a task enables us to use what we know, while motivating us to extend that knowledge and build on it (even to the extent of constructing new knowledge).

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Implication for Teaching and Learning

All that is discussed above indicate that emotion can be used as a tool (just like any other tool used by Educators) to enhance and improve teaching and learning. This is specifically achieved by doing some of the following:

  1. Create a sense of surprise and mystery in teaching (especially in introducing a new concept).
  2. Use appropriate humor from time to time.
  3. Use a variety of techniques that foster emotional connections that make a direct bio-chemical link with memory; for example, presenting a concept by relating a personal story.
  4. Engage learners’ confidence; begin with what they already know because if they are in any way threatened or have a sense of helplessness, their brains will shut down.
  5. Help learners see how new information connects with what they already know.
  6. Make learners in-charge of their own learning; this will help learners to move from dealing with shallow concepts by mere practice and rehearsal to interconnecting concepts and thinking more critically and creatively (note: creativity is accessed only when an individual is not controlled).
  7. Learn with the learners. Allow them to teach and affect your own learning process.
  8. Identify and eliminate any factor that leads to a threatening or intimidating learning environment; this would imply that every aspect of the learning environment must be checked for; this includes seating arrangements, the position of the teacher while teaching, how the teacher deals with wrong answers, etc.
  9. Hold learning sessions in non-traditional settings; funnily, adults have a difficult time accepting that they still enjoy being and learning in environments where there are colorful pictures, bulletin boards with posters, etc.; move from a ‘sterile’ environment to a ‘richer’ one.
  10. Teach the brain by involving the entire body and all of its senses and multiple ways of processing.
  11. Speak with a personal voice; learners appreciate when knowledge is shared from the ‘heart’ as well as the ‘mind’.
  12. Provide situations where learners experience feelings of security, well-being, and self-confidence.
  13. Challenge learners without threats, intimidation, or pressure.


Should educators focus exclusively on teaching a subject matter or should they go beyond and incorporate knowledge about how the ‘brain learns’ in their instruction and classroom practices? The debate continues! But let us not forget that while we choose to do things in a certain way because we are used to it, some things remain unchanged. The fact that our ‘brains learn’ best and process information most efficiently in the presence of positive emotion is a neurologically-established, psychologically-felt, and educationally-crucial principle that cannot be disregarded.

Suggested References

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). (2000). The brain and early childhood. Alexandria, VA: Author. (IE 370.1523 ASC – Inservice Education/Videotapes/Guide).

Benesh, B., Arbuckle, M., Robbins, P., & D’Arcangelo, M. (1998). The brain and learning: New knowledge and understanding/Classroom applications/Changing schools to reflect new knowledge/What parents need to know. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Brandt, R.S. (1999). Educators need to know about the human brain. Phi Delta Kappan, 81, 235-238.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., Cocking, R.R., Donovan, M.S., Pellegrino, J.W., & National Research Council (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school and How people learn: Bridging research and practice. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Bruer, J.T. (1999). In search of…brain-based education. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 648-654, 656-657.

Caine, R.N., & Caine, H. (1998). Building a bridge between the neurosciences and education: Cautions and possibilities. NASSP Bulletin, 82(598), 1-8.

Caine, R.N., & Caine, G. (1990). Understanding a brain-based approach to learning and teaching. Educational Leadership, 48(2), 66-70.

Caulfield, J., Kidd, S., & Kocher, T. (2000). Brain-based instruction in action. Educational Leadership, 58(3), 62-65.

Education Commission of the States. (1996). Bridging the gap between neuroscience and education. Denver, CO: Author.

Gabriel, A.E. (1999). Brain-based learning: The scent of the trail. Clearing House, 72, 288-290.

Greenleaf, R.K. (1999). It’s never too late! What neuroscience has to offer high schools? NASSP Bulletin, 83(608), 81-89.

Hannaford, C. (1995). Smart moves: Why learning is not all in the head. Atlanta, GA: Great Ocean Publishers.

Jensen, E. (1997). The brain-compatible approach to learning. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing.

Jensen, E. (2000). Moving with the brain in mind. Educational Leadership, 58(3), 34-37.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Languis, M.L. (1998). Using knowledge of the brain in educational practice. NASSP Bulletin, 82(598), 38-47.

Lindsey, G. (1998-1999). Brain research and implications for early childhood education. Research reviews. Childhood Education, 75, 97-100.

Lyon, G.R., & Rumsey, J.M. (Eds.). (1996). Neuroimaging: A window to the neurological foundations of learning and behavior in children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes.

Perry, B. (2000). How the brain learns best. Instructor, 110(4), 34-35.

Phipps, P.A. (1999). Is your program brain compatible? Child Care Information Exchange, 126, 53-57.

Pinkerton, K.D. (1994). Using brain-based learning techniques in high school. Teaching and Change, 2 44-60.

Slavkin, M. (2002). Brain science in the classroom. Principal Leadership, 2(8), 21-23.

Sousa, D.B. (1995). How the brain learns. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing, Inc.

Sprenger, M. (1999). Learning & memory: The brain in action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Sylwester, R. (1994). How emotions affect learning. Educational Leadership, 52(2), 60-65.

Sylwester, R. (1997). The neurobiology of self-esteem and aggression. Educational Leadership, 54(2), 75-79.
Sylwester, R. (1985). Research on memory: Major discoveries, major educational challenges. Educational Leadership, 42(7), 69-75.

Tomlinson, C.A., & Kalbfleisch, M.L. (1998). Teach me, teach my brain: A call for differentiated classrooms. Educational Leadership, 56(3), 52-55.

Walsh, P. (2000). A hands-on approach to understanding the brain. Educational Leadership, 58(3), 76-78.

Wolfe, P. (1996). Mind, memory, and learning: Translating brain research into classroom practice: A staff developer’s guide to the brain. Napa, CA: Author.

Wolfe, P., & Brandt, R.S. (1998). What do we know from brain research? Educational Leadership, 56(3), 8-13.

Pushing vs. Nurturing Children

It was a Friday; the end of another busy week and an excited teacher proudly announces to his students, “Class, I have good news for you today. There will be no homework for the weekend. You can spend time with your family, enjoy yourselves doing whatever you like to, and take a break from school work.”

To this, the students quickly answered, “But teacher, we already have a lot of things to do! Piano lesson, swimming lesson, guitar lesson, art class, Math tuition, English tuition, voice lesson…” (Sadly, the list went on)

Parents, regardless of their parenting styles, want their children to have the best, both for now and the future. However, their good intentions often go unexamined. It is not rare for parents to find themselves pushing their children into activities (academic and non-academic) that are demanding to the extent of depriving them of ‘normal’ childhood. Driven by the fear of inadequacy and unpreparedness for the world of work, parents do all that they ‘think’ they should do to equip their children for the challenges of the future. But how ‘equipped’ do children really get when parents push them into doing things?

Children find themselves trapped between wanting to please their parents, teachers, and other authoritative figures and at the same time, wanting to be who they are and enjoy doing what they really like to do. And since the need to gain approval is such a strong necessity in every child, children give in to the demands and requirements of adults. This in turn leads to a ‘pseudo-acceleration’ in the development of the child. The phenomenon creates beings that possess knowledge and skills of adults, caged in the bodies of innocent, fun-loving children.

On the other hand, there are children who would not give in to the expectations and requirements of the parents, teachers and other authoritative figures. These become labeled as disruptive, or emotionally and behaviorally disturbed, or deviant. What we fail to acknowledge as adults is that children long to have their rightful place in the society and play their rightful roles. This is not a possibility as long as adults are more content with and favor children who behave like them in every aspect. No wonder we frequently find adults who keep repeating the words, “Look at me and be like me!” to children. They can hardly expect and accept children to be naturally themselves.

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According to Dr. James W. Prescott (Health Scientist Administrator of the Development Behavioral Biology Program of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development), in the US alone suicide rates doubled for children of 5-14 years old over the past 20 years. Some of the major stressors that lead to suicide among children were identified to be 1) challenging schoolwork, 2) struggle to fit in, and 3) parental pressure. These stressors are gaining impetus and getting hold of every child, all over the world. They are quickly becoming vital issues of discussion in every country that values education as one of the most sensible tools for creating civilized societies.

Examine the following questions: “What did you get?” and “What did you learn today?”

The former is a more common question uttered by parents and teachers to children. It implies that they are interested in a child’s grades and academic performance rather than learning itself. The latter question, is rarely asked because it entails a more mature and progressive viewpoint about education, success, and life. Adults who give more importance to grades, assignments, and academic requirements create disillusionment in children about authentic learning. Children who are encouraged to focus on grades, assignments, and academic requirements view learning from a performance perspective and neglect the more important aspect of education, which is, learning for the sake of learning.

It is time we re-evaluated our understanding about children and how they can become happy and successful people, even in an increasingly pressurizing world where tests and exam results seem to hold children’s future in the balance. To do this, let us remind ourselves of a few pertinent facts:

  1. There is a clear difference between pushing and nurturing children. The former focuses on the interests of the adults; the latter focuses and gives importance to the abilities, interests, and desires of children.
  2. Being pushy implies controlling without discussing with children what they really think and feel about issues and activities.
  3. Adults cannot impose ‘what is right’ on children. Collaboratively discussing with children about ‘what is right’ helps them to assimilate and cherish every good thing that adults would want to pass on to children.
  4. There is a difference between wanting to be genuinely interested in what children do and in being perceived as ‘nosey’ (which is the case whenever children detect control from adults).
  5. It is helpful to put children in charge of as much of their school learning and out-of-school activities as is possible and suitable because these communicates sensitivity and a spirit of encouragement on the part of adults.
  6. The key to success for children is not through being pushed up the ladder by others – it is being a self-starter who loves what they are doing, and who’ll do whatever it takes to succeed.
  7. The role of the adults is to allow children to do what they love without becoming too involved – in short, to ‘be there’ for them when they need you, and to give them their space and freedom when they don’t.
  8. Adults must let children develop their own individual fighting spirit because they will reach greater heights than ever imagined, and have more fun doing it.
  9. Let children be children. Don’t force them into pre-mature adulthood.
  10. Being pushy toward children is the greatest roadblock to their present and future happiness and success.
  11. School and college grades are not good predictors for success! A positive attitude is! (positive attitude is revealed in the following characteristics: self-awareness, proactivity, perseverance, emotional stability, ability to set goals, and ability to make use of appropriate social support systems)
  12. Most problems that children encounter at school and home are not academic problems. They are actually life-problems, guised in the form of academic difficulties! When adults pay attention and fulfill the fundamental needs of children, they become motivated to tackle all other challenges of existence.

The damage done by overly pushy parents and teachers are psychological in nature and its effects cannot be easily reverted once introduced in children. Children become hateful of themselves and this hatred is taken out in many forms onto other people. It is indeed sad to note that adults who reprimand and punish children for their misbehaviors are the same ones who are responsible for these misbehaviors in the first place. When adults become insensitive and controlling of children, they can most assuredly expect all sorts of ‘negative-boomerang-effects’ in learning and other areas of life.

Applied Behavior Analysis

If teaching in a ‘regular classroom’ is a challenge, imagine how much more challenging would teaching a class with an exceptional child be.The PSYC 315 class had the opportunity to explore some of the principles and skills required to help and teach (functional skills) a mentally retarded child. Different functional skills were role-played with the use of Applied Behavior Analysis where a particular target skill is identified and broken down into many sub-steps before the teacher closely works with a child on mastering each step involved in a target skill.

The following photos were taken while students were role-playing the usage of Applied Behavior Analysis…




Top 5 Turnoffs (Working in a Group)

The following points were suggested by students in the EDUC375 class (Psychological Environment for Learning), Second Semester 2006-07 batch, as being the most unpleasant turnoffs when it comes to working in a group. The list consists of behavior and attitude that discourage members of a group and eventually lead to the feeling of hostility, disunity, and discomfort among individuals. As a result, the quality of academic and non-academic production decline. The list is presented in no particular order:

  • Social loafing (free-riding)
  • Bossiness, forcefulness, pressure
  • Irresponsibility
  • Not being heard
  • Timidity (not participating)
  • Lack seriousness, irritating behaviors
  • Lack of initiative
  • Insulting, picking a fight
  • Pessimistic attitude
  • Discrimination
  • Perfectionism

Further, the class voted the following 5 to be the worst of all (top 5 turnoffs in order of unpleasantness):

  1. Bossiness, forceful, pressure
  2. Irresponsibility
  3. Insulting, picking a fight
  4. Not being heard
  5. Lack seriousness, irritating behaviors

Finally, students identified and recommended strategies that can be utilized to prevent or eliminate the effects of the above mentioned ‘turnoffs’:

  1. Use “I wish…” statements (e.g. “I wish to be heard by the group members”)
  2. Assign the right role to the right person (in the group)
  3. Rotate roles (enhances the ability to empathize with others in the group)
  4. Model positive behavior and attitude (instead of getting upset and yelling about a particular ‘turnoff’)

‘Constructivism’ in Action


Students working on ‘the stages of group development’ (inventing their own model)


It’s not easy after all…but the juice is worth the squeeze!


“we didn’t get the table…but that ain’t stopping us from developing our own model…we will do it even if it has to be done on the floor!”


Working together is not all that easy…there are many hurdles to overcome!


The teacher’s model of ‘the stages of group development’

aiya…so different from the ones developed by the students!

but isn’t that the beauty of constructivism?

Knowledge doesn’t have to be presented in a stale manner!

Engineering new knowledge from what is already known is what we really need in our classrooms!


learning = creating knowledge