Harnessing Emotion to Boost Learning

“Keep Quiet…”

As children enter into the classroom, the most common expectation a teacher would have is for them to take their seats, sit quietly, take out their books, and wait for the next instruction. However, this is an inevitably unrealistic and impractical expectation.

By nature, students, who are social beings, crave to establish communal connections with one another, the moment they come in contact with each other. The seating arrangements in classrooms reflect this interactive component of student-life. Nevertheless, the actual social interaction (in the form of talking about academic or non-academic matters) is officially, formally, and systematically discouraged to allegedly ensure learning.

The Real World

Imagine sitting all alone on a bench in a recreational park. Because you are by yourself and the bench is still spacious, someone comes along and sits next to you. For a moment, there is complete silence in the air. This is a good silence. It is an indication that both you and the other person are thinking hard about ways to break the ice and start a conversation.

This example shows that by nature, humans like to engage in the enterprise of social interaction, in response to anything that remotely resembles a social interactive situation. Talking and interacting with another yield many psychological and accompanying physical benefits. Hence, it is a biological, psychological, and sociological survival tool that humans have used since time immemorial.

Warming-up in the Classroom

Students go through a variety of experiences at home the previous day and night. They get excited about sharing some of these with their classmates the next day at school. Most often, the first and most appropriate opportunity (in their minds) they get to do this is in the class, before a lesson begins, or just after a lessons ends.

How does a teacher deal with this situation? Should he/she ask students to “Keep quiet!” and expect them to be about their business as learners? Or should he/she be concerned about decorum and discipline, and ignore the fact that students do want to interact and socially connect before they begin plunging into the process of learning?

Personally, I would answer this question by saying, “It is wise and appropriate to allow students to talk, about anything they are interested in before beginning a lesson.” There are times in my own teaching that I entered into the classroom, and contrary to conventional practice, announced, “I want all of you turn to someone nearby and talk to that person about your weekend…” Of course the noise level goes up; however, my intention for doing this is to ensure that students are emotionally ready and prepared to undertake and follow through the lesson for that particular day.

I realized that every time I allowed students some time to talk about something non-academic before beginning with a lesson, they were more relaxed, positive, and geared up for learning.

To make things better, sometimes, we talk about an issue, related to the previous day, or week, as a whole class. This becomes a more interesting and energizing discussion and leads the whole class into a thinking mode. Students loosen up and contribute their opinions and ideas without hesitation. There is no right or wrong answer. They can be themselves and express their emotion and thoughts without the fear of evaluation.

Consequently, students realize that the teacher is interested in an issue that they are concerned about. The gap between the teacher and students is significantly reduced, and a neutral, stimulating, positive platform for teaching and learning is created. Students feel comfortable to take an active role in the learning process without feeling like they were being pushed or unreasonably forced.

What Brain Research Says?

Studies in brain processing (storing and retrieving information) reveal that there is a strong connection between reason (cognition) and the three-pronged elements required in learning – emotion, activity, and meaning.

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.

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 does not take place at optimal level in the absence of emotional arousal. Apart from being responsible for initiating and activating cognitive processes, emotions are also responsible for behavioral responses of individuals.

Since the relationship between emotion, cognition, and motion is inevitable and real, it is necessary for teachers to get students to become emotionally involved, before initiating teaching and learning. When students are emotionally captivated in the initial stage of learning, the chances of them paying attention is significantly increased. Increased attention enables students to be highly engaged (mentally and physically) and hence gain maximum benefit from whatever is taught or discussed.

The more emotionally engaged a student is, the more likely he/she is to learn. Furthermore, having positive and favorable feelings toward a task (academic or non-academic) helps students to feel that they have done the task well. Similarly, when they experience negative and unfavorable feelings toward a task, they experience difficulty.

“Let’s Talk…”

Allowing students to talk to each other about non-academic matters, before or in-between lessons, is an appropriate teaching practice. Instead of depriving students of their basic social need to interact and feel good about being connected with one another, teachers might want to consider taking a more progressive approach in harnessing the emotional gains that accompany such a practice.

The best learning takes place when a positive feeling toward a task enables students to use what they already know, motivates them to extend that knowledge and build on it, even to the extent of constructing new knowledge. Casual talking with peers allows students to experience a positive emotional arousal, which serve to improve their own learning. This is true at psychological, as well as, neurological levels.

Test-taking is Learning, ONE MORE TIME…!

“In my view the main purpose of language testing is to provide opportunities for learning, both for the students who are being tested, and for the professionals who are administering the tests” (Tomlinson, 2005)

I totally, completely, whole-heartedly agree with Tomlinson. In my opinion, testing (measurement and evaluation) is another way to teach & learn. Although scores on a test provide teachers and students with information about “how well a particular content has been understood and assimilated”…the more important objective of tests is LEARNING itself. In other words, students get an opportunity to reinforce, revise, and re-establish whatever they have learned in a class, ONE MORE TIME! Every test taken is actually every concept, idea, principle, re-visited. Tests help students to re-think and re-structure whatever was stored in the brain – when previously learned materials are pulled out – the brain re-constructs the same by associating them with other old and new materials, giving the concepts, ideas, and principles learned, in-depth meaning and complex and more structured connection with real-life.

PSYC384 Forum: Question No.1 (Rewards)

We talked a lot about the ills of rewards, when used in conjunction with behavior management in the classroom. Some say that rewards can be effective tools for correcting inappropriate behavior. Some say that rewards could actually become a punishment in the long run (encouraging students to do something for the sake of rewards and not because they are internally motivated to do so). Some others say that rewards, when used sparingly and thoughtfully, can be an effective tool for behavior management.

What is your view in this matter? Why do you say so? Your answer must be substantiated with a real-life example (preferably classroom example).

Textbook Definition vs. Students’ Definitions

Teachers are often comfortable to present students with definitions, explanations, and descriptions of concepts (especially if they are new) from textbooks. While this is not a harmful practice, I wonder how many of us want to convince ourselves that only those who write textbooks are capable of aptly defining, explaining, and describing something. Since we are innately predisposed with an intense sense of curiosity, we tend to desire the act of explaining things on our own…in our own words, the way it reflects and is connected to our own past, present, and future realities. This, in essence, points toward our need and ability to construct and re-construct knowledge by attaching meaning to a new (or any) learning material.

Keeping this in mind, today’s lesson on General Learning Goals (in EDUC390 Measurement and Evaluation for Education class) was introduced by presenting students with series of examples of General Learning Goals (GLG). After allowing some time for scanning and reading the examples of GLG, students were asked the following questions:

  1. What are the similarities among the examples?
  2. What are the differences among the examples?
  3. What are other characteristics that you see emerging from the examples in front of you?

After writing answers for these three questions on the board, students were asked to write down their own definitions of GLG, in their own words, in pairs. These were some of the definitions proposed by students:

“General Learning Goals are statements that show the desired achievement of students as a whole, with no specific criteria.”

Vannak & Daneth

“General Learning Goals are central goals and can be broken down into sub-goals.”

Song & Champ

“General Learning Goals are aimed at building abilities in various aspects of learning in accordance to the course objectives or desired outcome from the course.”


“General Learning Goals are broad views of what students will be able to do or know, that can lead to writing the specific objectives.”

Lerie & Monta

“General Learning Goals are overall expectation of students’ achievement.”

Waleed, Asher, Jimmy, Ju

Textbook Definition:

“General Learning Goals are the general educational aims – the broad outcomes that are expected. In articulating learning goals, teachers are answering the question – what will our students learn? Goals can focus on content, skills, or attitudes.”

Now, how different is the textbook definition from students’? Not much of a difference!

However, when encouraged and permitted, students who formulate their own definitions are better able to retain the meaning of a concept, recollect the same whenever necessary, and apply it in appropriate settings to refine and extend knowledge. Learning becomes fun, personal, and more meaningful this way. This is known as brain-based teaching!

Focusing on Strengths: A New Approach to Behavior Management

Managing children’s disruptive behavior at home and in the classroom is one of the most frustrating tasks for parents and teachers. Most adults learn and utilize numerous techniques for managing children’s behavior only to find themselves hopelessly fighting a losing battle. In the face of actual behavioral crises, adults sadly realize that most theories and techniques of behavior management are either too detached from the practical day-to-day life, or too technical to be completely understood, hence implemented.

“He can’t be handled…”

Such was the experience of a teacher, who came face-to-face with a disruptive student, whose primary interest was soccer. He was least interested about learning. His unruly behavior caused uproar and discomfort for everyone in the classroom. After trying out a variety of behavior management techniques, the teacher came to a dead end. The unpleasant, out-of-the-norm behavior was reinforced. The student became even more difficult to handle as time went by.

The past and present

In the medical world, physicians treat the sick by identifying symptoms and matching them to appropriate medication. This approach focuses on curing the symptoms. The actual cause of a sickness usually goes undetected. Such diagnosis provides temporary physical relief. Sooner or later, the symptoms surface, and the medication is repeated, with some revision to previous diagnosis, to relieve the person from the symptoms once again.

Adults at home and school have been using a similar approach to behavior management for many decades. They identify misbehaviors and match them to whatever behavior management techniques they are aware of. They try using these techniques to reduce or eliminate misbehavior after diagnosing the crisis situation. However, unlike a wound or some other physical sickness, a child’s behavior cannot be treated at a superficial level. Success in behavioral changes requires the utilization of a more holistic, systemic, and practical approach.

In other words, instead of superficially curing a wound, a good behavior management model requires that the source of the wound is identified and treated alongside the wound itself. If the wound is recurrent, it is possible that the actual root of the whole issue is abuse at home. In this case, treating the wound alone does not solve the problem. Parents and teachers who attempt to reduce or eliminate a disruptive behavior (symptom) at a superficial level commit the mistake of overlooking the actual reason(s) for misbehavior.

The New Approach: Focusing on Strengths

At the core of traditional behavior management techniques is the obsession to focus on the weaknesses of children (their wrong-doings), to the extent that the power of these weaknesses are overestimated. Adults have failed to recognize and make use of children’s strengths to their advantage. In other words, problems in behavior management persist because we fail to look at the right place for solution.

The new approach to behavior management requires that we shift our gaze and attention from children’s weaknesses, problems, deficits, to their strengths and potential. According to Buckingham and Clifton (2001), “the real tragedy of life is not that each of us doesn’t have enough strengths; it’s that we fail to use the ones we have!”

A longitudinal research, conducted over a period of 30 years by the Gallup Organization on the best ways to maximize an individual’s potential found the following:

  1. Each individual’s talents (strengths) are enduring and unique.
  2. Each individual’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his/her greatest strength.

Thus, instead of focusing on a problem behavior (or asking the question, “What is the problem Roy?”), adults should ask themselves and children the following questions:

  “What are your strengths?”

  “What specific qualities, supports, skills, attitudes, aptitudes, and talents have you relied on to make it this far?”

Preoccupation with a problem behavior and trying one’s best to treat, reduce, or eliminate it only accentuate and reinforce the behavior. A better approach to deal with a disruptive behavior is not to talk about it at all. Instead, examining, identifying, and discussing about the strengths one possesses yield a more positive result in the long run. The outcome of such an approach is lasting and genuine (inside-out change). Further, a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment derived from one area of strength help children to gain control of and experience success in other areas of life. Eventually, children become internally motivated to behave constructively in all of life’s situations.

He can be handled

Employing the new approach to behavior management to deal with the child whose preoccupation in soccer causes disruption in the classroom, the teacher stopped focusing on the many misbehaviors displayed during lessons. Rather, the teacher visited the child during a soccer game and watched him in his best state of mind and behavior. The teacher observed the child as he demonstrated his soccer skills and celebrated his strength. By doing so, the teacher communicated an important message to the child – “I am proud of you and I believe in your potential to continually succeed in soccer!”

The outcome of the new approach was fascinating!

When the child came to class the next day, he swapped his back seat to one closer to the teacher, paid attention during lessons, participated when required, and asked the teacher and classmates to help him with homework and other assignments.

This incident clearly reflects the truth in what Saleebey (2001) said about behavioral changes, “People are more motivated to change when their strengths are supported.”

How does it happen? (The process)

The new approach to behavior management takes into account children’s strengths. As such, the primary role of parents and teachers would be to identify and use these strengths to deal with any sort behavioral crises. The process is simple and is illustrated in the following diagrams:

behavior mgt. new approach.ppt


When parents and teachers identify, support, and celebrate children’s strengths, they provide an opportunity for the young ones to find meaning and gain satisfaction in life. Focusing on strengths rather than wrong-doings allows for a more positive interaction between children and adults. As such, the new approach to behavior management is a more constructive intervention tool that yields definite and explicit encouraging results in terms of behavioral changes.