Emotion At The Helm

Emotion At The Helm

Education March 31, 2017 / By Gillian Judson
Emotion At The Helm

Current research in affective neuroscience indicates the crucial role of emotions in learning. Learn more about Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang's research and the role Imaginative Education can play in centralizing emotion in the learning process.

You know that feeling when you read something and it completely resonates with you?  You might find yourself smiling or head-nodding or you might experience an odd surge of good feeling? Well this happened to me when I discovered Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s research. Sitting alone at my computer in an overly crowded coffee shop, I literally banged my hand down on the table. Yes! I felt like I had hit the (pedagogical) jackpot.

The quote:

“…giving candy to make children want to come to math class will not make students feel the joy of mathematical thinking. Instead, understanding emotions is also (and perhaps even more critically) about the meaning that students are making — that is, the ways in which students and teachers are experiencing or feeling their emotional reactions and how their feelings steer their thoughts and behavior, consciously or not. Emotions are not add-ons that are distinct from cognitive skills. Instead emotions, such as interest, anxiety, frustration, excitement or a sense of awe in beholding beauty, become a dimension of the skill itself.”

(Source: Dr. Immordino-Yang quoted in Education Week: Emotions Help Steer Students’ Learning, Studies Find Scholar sees passion as mind’s ‘rudder’ By Sarah D. Sparks)

Dr. Immordino-Yang is a Science teacher turned Associate Professor of Education, Psychology, and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Her book entitled Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (2015; Norton & Company) is fascinating--each chapter adds support to my understanding of why we need emotionally-engaging pedagogy. In this post I highlight her work with the dual aim of convincing you to use the “F”-word more often in education (“Feeling”) and enticing you to look more closely at Imaginative Education as a pedagogy to enable you do so. Imaginative Education connects emotional engagement with knowledge. Read on.











Features Of Dr. Immordino-Yang’s Research

“People think of emotion getting in the way of cognition, but it doesn’t. Emotion steers our thinking; it’s the rudder that directs our mind and organizes what we need to do.” (ibid.)

In line with recent brain research, Dr. Immordino-Yang’s work disproves old beliefs that emotions interfere with our ability to think and reason. It simply is not true. In fact, she argues, the reverse is true: “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion.” (ibid). Dr. Immordino-Yang describes how emotional engagement is crucial in all subject areas and for all ages of students:

“Even in academic subjects that are traditionally considered unemotional, like physics, engineering or math, deep understanding depends on making emotional connections between concepts. For example, one study using an fMRI scanner found that when mathematicians see equations that they judge to be “beautiful” and elegantly formulated instead of “ugly” and awkwardly formulated, they activate the same sensory, emotional brain region that activates during experiences of perceptual beauty, such as when admiring a painting (Zeki et al., 2014).” (ibid.)

In her book Dr. Immordino-Yang points to some pedagogical implications of her research. She suggests that it is necessary to leverage emotions in all learning contexts to maximize learning:

“…for school-based learning to have a hope of motivating students, of producing deep understanding, or of transferring into real-world skills — all hallmarks of meaningful learning, and all essential to producing informed, skilled, ethical and reflective adults — we need to find ways to leverage the emotional aspects of learning in education.” (ibid.)

So there you have it, more brain science research proves the role of emotion in all thinking.  I believe Imaginative Education can provide a solid theoretical and practical framework for the kind of pedagogy that Dr. Immordino-Yang calls for.



Imaginative Education:  Why It Works

If you’ve been following my posts, you know I’m on a mission to give emotion and imagination the pedagogical credit they deserve. I want educators to acknowledge the roles emotion and imagination play in all learning—whether preK or post-secondary, emotions direct learning. Dr. Immordino-Yang’s research provides a powerful rationale for pedagogy that centralizes the emotional and imaginative lives of students; this is Imaginative Education. The cognitive tools outlined in Imaginative Education are the tools all educators can use to make what they are teaching emotionally meaningful.

Click here to view a TedX talk in which Mary Helen Immordino-Yang points to the emotional core of all learning. (Pause—view it!)

Imaginative Education:  You Felt It & You Can Do It Too

Dr. Immordino’s TEdX talk is engaging. She evokes her viewers’ emotions by using particular cognitive tools—e.g. vivid mental imagery, metaphor, humanization of meaning, story. These are a few of the kinds of cognitive tools that you can use to add emotional meaning to content in your classroom. By using these tools she makes the content of her talk more memorable; she gives us to tools to think with. I was particularly captivated by the brain images showing the actual impact a cognitive tool (in this case the story of the “Woman in Sudan”) has on the brain. Imaginative educators! Notice the blood flow into the brain when our emotions are engaged. 

Resources: Click here to access a Tools of Imagination Series—for educators of all ages, we can employ tools to evoke emotion.

Take this home: Our emotions shape what we learn and how we use what we learn. Our biology and our sociology are inseparable. At the end of the day, our embodied minds work closely with our hearts.

Dr. Immordino-Yang urges teachers to make the content of what they are teaching more emotionally meaningful to students—this does not mean bribing them with candy to come to class. Rather, the trick is to tie up emotion with content itself. We need to use tools that will help students to think and to remember. Imaginative Education offers those tools.

A few other posts on imagination and education

How Our Imaginative Lives Change:  Implications For Teaching And Learning

Why Imaginative Educators Tell Stories

Stimulate Wonder:  Make Curriculum Strange

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