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Within and Without: Facilitating Students’ Authentic Exploration

By Shannon Kerry
Within and Without: Facilitating Students’ Authentic Exploration

International students have been through the wringer these last three years. Online learning, social isolation, closed borders, parental anxiety, and fear of a virus overshadowed their whole existence. In addition to a global pandemic, the climate is in constant flux. And through it all, they are still young people going through the trials and tribulations of growing up. The constant changes in their internal and external workings are hard to ignore. They know how complex living can be; they have first-hand experience of a world characterized by ambiguity and volatility.

One of our jobs as secondary educators is to facilitate the transfer of this prior emotional knowledge to new, unfamiliar contexts within a subject. Some disciplines engage these emotions naturally. Language arts teachers use literature to develop deep literacy skills providing a counterargument to any over-simplification of the human experience. Stories compel us to intimately engage with the world through another’s perspective. These perspectives, whether a character who resembles the reader or a viewpoint completely different, are universal in the fact that they are human. Students can connect because humanity is always at the center of good literature.

Other subjects might seem more distant from the emotional core of a twelve-year-old. Yet we should strive to design all classrooms to help students gain access to and build their emotional intelligence. How can we do that? What learning experiences offer the opportunity to pause and ponder the world inside and around them? It is the vacillation between within and without that is at the heart of secondary education. We must purposefully build opportunities for students to move between their past knowledge, the course content, and the wider world they see and hear on a daily basis to authentically engage their emotions. This engagement, in turn, allows students to transfer their understanding to novel situations. Those novel situations might be within a classroom assessment designed to facilitate that transfer. Or better yet, they might happen five years later when students are living their lives outside of the classroom.

  1. Oscillating between the internal and the real world via the bridge of content

To assist students with this process of transfer, we should guide students’ inquiry into case studies, the real world, their own beliefs, and back again. This infinity loop solidifies their ability to transfer classroom learning both near and far, to other academic subjects and later experiences in their life. The conclusions they reach from the “toggling” (Mannion) between their reality, both external and internal, and the curriculum will hopefully refine their understanding of their personal sense of self, of their empathy for members of their community, and of the vision they have for the world.

Small group discussions with explicit personal connection questions might help with scaffolding this looping. Socratic seminar with questions that are outside the explicit content or case study can also help students link their personal lives to their growing concepts of the world around them. Using biographies and personal narratives from key figures involved in case studies can make clear the human center of a topic. Free writing and “Connect, Extend, Challenge” thinking routines shared using video sharing technology can all help students see explicit links between their lives, the content, and the concepts seen in the world.

  1. Create time and space for informal reflection

The second arena we should include in our learning design is for students to have the space to transfer this learning to the construction of their own identities. The time and space for this last region of transfer is something often overlooked in the timetable of a secondary student. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, in her book Emotions, Learning, and the Brain, discusses “the discovery of complimentary brain networks,” (45) that allow people to toggle between “looking out” to take in stimuli from the environment around us and “looking in” as the brain goes into default mode when resting and not dealing with task-oriented goals. A key discovery Immordino-Yang highlights from Esposito and Fox is that when one network is on, “the other is decreasingly engaged,” (46). And most importantly, these networks are codependent; they need each other. The human brain needs time to be task-oriented and to look out, but also needs time to look in, developing “self awareness and reflection, recalling personal memories, imagining the future, feeling emotions…and constructing moral judgements,” (44).

For educators, this research is a game-changer in the way we build lessons, timetables, or assessment. In a world where young people’s time outside of school is increasingly filled with constant external stimuli, teachers must now carve out resting time for students to facilitate their ability to think deeply and “promote more effective balance between children’s needs for external attention and internal reflection,” (45). Teachers can also work to “train…introspection” in students through our efforts to make content and case studies relevant to a student’s identity development, as well as encouraging genuine reflection. These are the details they will take with them into the default mode time, bringing the outside inside. Later, we can ask students to process concepts in a more meaningful way by giving them opportunities to bring the inside out through authentic tasks and assessments.

  1. Authentic assessments that directly access emotions

Finally, teachers know that designing authentic assessment experiences is essential for student engagement. GRASP tasks and project-based learning allow students to show what they have learned and the tasks themselves teach along the way. However, the most authentic assessments may ask student to look inside to share how the learning they’ve encountered in a unit changed their understanding of how the world works. This confluence is where the teaching of self-expression through products like personal narratives, multi-modal memoir, portfolio curating, or other products might be the most authentic learning experience we can offer a student.

The language arts classroom lends itself well to these products, though by no means is it the exclusive holder of the rights. Emotional connections can be made in any subject-area classroom. Accessing a student’s heart and recognizing that deep learning needs both logic and sentiment is an essential aspect of great schools. Helping students see themselves in every subject is not about enabling a self-centered world view, but instead allowing students to see the knowledge we have of the world is an intimate part of them. If we define learning as a change in a person’s understanding of the world because of an encounter, shouldn’t we, as educators, focus on expediting all avenues, both the rational and emotional?



Esposito, F., Bertolino, A., Scarabino, T., Latoffe, V., Blasi, G., Popolizio, T., . . . Di Salle, F. (2006). Independent component model of the default-mode function: Assessing the impact of active thinking. Brain Research Bulletin, 70(4-6), 263-269.

Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen. Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience. W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 2016.

Mannion, James. “S2E1: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang on the neurobiological case for progressive education.” Rethinking Education, 16 October, 2021,


Shannon Kerry is the head of the language and literature faculty and the middle years learning lead at the International School of Penang (Uplands).

LinkedIn: Shannon Kerry

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