Brain Research, Emotions and Learning

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Brain Research, Emotions and Learning
Dr. Maryrose Caulfield here.   As I work with kids at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., the excitement and emotions are palpable as children interact with each new experience they encounter. Emotions are such a profoundly significant part of who we are as human beings, and can make or break an experience for even the most measured learner.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, EdD,  Associate Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute and Rossier School of Education, tells us that emotions are integral to how our brains function and how we learn.  As a researcher studying the neurobiological connections between emotions and learning, she explains:
“Emotion is essential to learning and should not be underestimated or misunderstood as a trend, or as merely the “E” in “SEL”, or social-emotional learning. Emotion is where learning begins, or, as is often the case, where it ends. It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about.  Even in academic subjects that are traditionally considered unemotional, such as physics, engineering or math, deep understanding depends on making emotional connections between concepts.”
Dr. Immordino-Yang’s research involves the use of an M.R.I. Through this research, she has found evidence that when students are engaged emotionally, several regions of the cortex are activated, including “regions involved in cognition, memory and meaning-making, and even all the way down to the brain stem.”  These connections between multiple brain regions including areas of automatic function of the brainstem, such as heart rate, indicate that “body sensations, actual or simulated, contribute to feelings, which can in turn influence thought.”
Emotions are powerful.  We acknowledge this when we can remember in vivid detail past emotional events as if they happened yesterday.  However, we do not often recognize this connection when it occurs in the classroom. Learning is thought to be pristine, acquired apart from the “distractions of emotions.”  This research so clearly informs us that emotions are integral to student learning. It underscores the notion that students will not learn from people they do not like.
This research has some important implications for educators.  Drs. Immordino-Yang and Fischer provide three potential applications:
Foster Emotional Connection to the Material
Designing lessons which allow students to create personal, emotional connections to their learning will help students build cognitive links for understanding and processing.  One example of this would be playing a relevant piece of music to engage students as they begin to read a new work of literature. Check out the website, Annenberg Learner, for resources and lesson plans geared towards making these types of emotional connections for a variety of content areas and grade levels:
Encourage Students to Develop Smart Academic Intuitions
Teachers need to become coaches of student thinking.  To develop student intuition, educators should pose prompting questions of learners as they explore a new concept.  This enables children to “try out” ideas and discover if/how they fit into “big picture” understanding. Visit the link below for resource to assist teachers with “coaching” questions.  While these questions relate to math, many may easily be edited for any content area:
Actively Manage the Social and Emotional Climate of the Classroom
Effectively managing these strategies requires a safe, secure social-emotional classroom climate.  A singularly important role for teachers is to insure that students believe there is a climate of trust and respect in which to experience the trial and error process required for intuition and problem solving.   Failure is a necessary component of intuition. Failure will render intuition impossible for students to practice if they do not feel “safe”. Head over to Edutopia for more on this idea:
As educators and as people committed to providing what is in the best interest of children, we see how important emotions are.  This research is fairly new and requires further conversation outlining strategies for the classroom. Nonetheless, the promise this research provides is profound.  Share your strategies and I will be happy to post them!
Yours in learning,
Maryrose Caulfield
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