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ASSESSMENT

Affectively and Socially Healthy Environments Promote Learning

The Learning Principles Column
By Dr Karen L. Taylor
22-Jun-21
Affectively and Socially Healthy Environments Promote Learning


I have a very vivid memory of eating my lunch in the dining hall when a colleague sat down next to me, bubbling over with excitement about the advanced calculus class he had just been teaching.

As Jon told me about his class, he scribbled a formula onto one of the paper napkins on the table. I should say up front that my math skills are minimal and certainly not such that I could understand advanced calculus equations. Still, it was such an amazing conversation that I kept that napkin and I have it somewhere still, more than 15 years later.

What I remember most about that conversation are three things: Jon’s passion for his subject, the fact that he kept talking about how beautiful and elegant the formula was and, finally, that what made him so excited was being able to share his aesthetic appreciation for the beauty of an equation with his students.

Those students were very fortunate to have Jon as a teacher. He is highly knowledgeable, enthusiastic, respectful of the students in his class, and collaborative in his approach to working with them and in guiding them in their work together. 

In 2007, Immordino-Yang & Damasio published a great article called “We feel, therefore we learn.” Obviously there was a play on the famous line from Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” Their work reveals something profound about the nature of thinking and being, about the interconnectedness between emotion and cognition, and what this might mean for us in terms of our classroom practice.

Thanks to developments in neuroscience we now know much more now than we did in the past about the interplay of emotion and cognition, feeling and thinking. Still, one needs to be cautious. Neuromyths abound and educators should be careful about the validity of research on which they may base classroom practice. 

Pekrun (2014) identifies four types of academic emotions: achievement-driven, epistemic, topic-related, and social. There may be negative or positive emotions associated with each. However, it would be too simplistic for me to suggest that negative emotions inhibit learning and positive emotions promote learning when, in fact, the interplay between them is more nuanced and also powerful. Furthermore, the emotions that students experience in class have an effect on a range of cognitive processes: self-regulation, memory, critical and flexible thinking, self-efficacy, and motivation. 

It might be helpful to think about the influence of emotions on cognition in terms of the external and the internal. External influences may be related to teachers, peers, family, even society overall.

As teachers, we have a certain amount of control over the role emotions play in our classroom. We can be like Jon whose enthusiasm is contagious. We can base our interactions with students on the delicate balance between high expectations and support. We can use humour and self-disclosure (within reason) to nurture open, trusting relationships in the classroom. We can demonstrate respect for individual differences among our students.

All this contributes to an affectively and socially healthy learning environment. This sort of classroom dynamic most likely stimulates the “mirroring” that human beings naturally engage in when they respond to other people’s reactions and emotions. 

As I mentioned above, this is all a bit more complicated than negative emotions = bad; positive emotions = good. As we know, a certain amount of stress can be motivating; excess stress is debilitating and impedes learning (See Learning Principle #4). Being subdued or even a little sad can contribute to our analytical and methodical thinking (Newton, 2014).

On the other hand, positive emotions can free us to engage in more creative thinking because we feel safe and willing to experiment with new ideas or potential solutions (Fredrickson, 1991). It seems that extreme emotions, on either end of the spectrum, are likely to be detrimental to learning or, at the very least, distract attention away from the learning.

The range of emotions in the middle may be used by teachers deliberately to promote different kinds of thinking and can even be considered in the planning of a lesson if we manage “the stream of affect” effectively (Newton, 2014).

Just as Jon’s enthusiasm for beautiful calculus equations is infectious, so are all our emotions. We might wish to think about our use of body language, the way our own mood may have an impact on our students and adjust these, as best we can, to suit the lesson or activity. 

Finally, although the individual differences in emotion are more varied even than within membership groups, there may be cultural differences that determine which emotions are deemed appropriate to be expressed in public. As we are reminded in Learning Principle #10, all learning is personal—but it is also relational. When we create a classroom climate that is respectful of individual students, culturally responsive, engaging, and supportive, we shape the conditions for creative, purposeful, productive, and collaborative learning.

Things to consider 

  • Is the learning environment of my classroom positive, encouraging, and tolerant?
  • Do I avoid presenting peripheral information in an emotive way that distracts attention away from learning?
  • Do I encourage students in developing greater self-efficacy by focusing on mastery learning and assessment?
  • Do I provide appropriate feedback that is supportive and informative?
  • Do the activities I design take into account the role of emotion? 
  • Do I guide students in learning how to self-regulate their emotions? Do I self-regulate my own?
  • Do my expectations of student engagement rest on unconscious or unquestioned cultural assumptions about how emotions are manifested?

Useful Resources

HGSE Social-Emotional Learning

Émotions et apprentissages

ULP Guide to Universal Understanding (Mastery)

Suggested Reading

Christophe, V. 1998. 2. Les processus cognitifs dans l’élaboration de l’émotion. In Les Émotions: Tour d’horizon des principales théories. Villeneuve d'Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion. doi:10.4000/books.septentrion.51003

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Row.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.56.3.218

Hinton, C., Miyamoto, K., & Della-Chiesa, B. (2008). Brain Research, Learning and Emotions: Implications for education research, policy and practice1. European Journal of Education, 43(1), 87-103. doi:10.1111/j.1465-3435.2007.00336.x.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3-10. doi:10.1111/j.1751-228x.2007.00004.x

Immordino-Yang, M. H., Gardner, H., & Damasio, A. R. (2016). Emotions, learning, and the brain: Exploring the educational implications of affective neuroscience. W.W. Norton et Company.

Newton, D. P. (2014). Thinking with feeling: Fostering productive thought in the classroom. Routledge.

Pekrun, R. (2014) Emotions and Learning. UNESCO. IBE/2014/ST/EP24. http://www.ibe.unesco.org/en/document/emotions-and-learning-educational-practices-24

Sander, D. (2015). Le monde des émotions. Belin.

Dr Karen L. Taylor is Director of Education and of the Institute of Learning and Teaching, Ecolint.




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