Harnessing the Power of Emotion in Education

Emotions in the Classroom Can Be Effective Instead of Destructive

Posted Jun 17, 2014

When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” - Dale Carnegie 

I sat in my first college class with pen nervously poised, ready to absorb every word my professor had to say. I imagined that he would stand at the front of the class and stiffly, yet drolly - and preferably with an English accent - impart the wisdom of his many years in the field of psychology. Instead, the late, great Michael Fleming of Boston University stalked into the room with all the zeal of a velociraptor. He spent the following semester alternately delighting and terrorizing us – with shocking tales straight from the therapist’s couch; hissed, Mystery Science Theater style psychological commentary on scenes from popular movies; and by gleefully creeping up on sleeping students to startle them awake. It was my favorite class of a very long educational career, and it was a rollercoaster of emotions.

The lay assumption seems to be that learning is a dry, staid affair best conducted in quiet tones and ruled by an unemotional consideration of the facts, and historically we have constructed our classrooms and working environments with this assumption in mind. But I will argue that we learn – and work – at an optimal level when our emotions are fully engaged. Moreover, I’ll argue that even when a calm, careful approach is indicated (such as at the laboratory bench), we still do our best work when motivated by underlying emotional forces.

Indeed, many emotion scientists believe that emotions are the most basic, essential motivators – that they evolved in order to drive us toward things that are advantageous for our survival and reproduction (high-calorie foods, attractive sex partners) and repel us from things that are potentially hazardous (rotten meat, venomous spiders). They do so in a way that is often not subject to our insight or control, and emotions can at times be so powerful that they hijack our entire cognitive and motivational systems. Anyone skeptical that emotions can take the driver’s rather than the passenger seat has never been in love, or experienced true grief. This centrality of emotion is what led scientist Elaine Fox to make the bold claim “emotions are at the heart of what it means to be human”.

The field of education is beginning to awaken to the potential power of emotions to fuel learning, informed by contributions from psychology and neuroscience. At the forefront of this charge is Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, educational psychologist and recipient of the Award for Transforming Education through Neuroscience. She argues that we need to consider social and emotional forces even when assigning something as seemingly unemotional as a physics problem. She details how emotions play a role in each step of tackling the problem: spurring motivation to get started, determining persistence, managing anxieties that one may not be able to solve the problem, and finally following a strategy to solve the problem that feels the most rewarding.

Thus, we can enhance the learning, motivation, and productivity of our students by understanding - and then harnessing - the power of emotion. Not only will they learn better, but exploiting emotional power could also yield a truly transformative life experience. 

To hear more, stay tuned for my book on this topic, out in 2015!


Are You in the Field of Higher Education? I Could Use Your Help!

In the book, I will first make the argument that understanding the emotional forces that underpin student motivation and learning can transform our efforts to inspire and instruct. Next I’ll illustrate how we can harness the motivational power of emotions by sharing concrete examples of activities/assignments that target a series of specific affective states.

These states are: confusion and curiosity, awe, humor, social emotions (socially-evoked sadness, empathy, outrage), and happiness/flow.

This is where I need your help!

I’d like to use examples from a variety of disciplines, so if you are willing to share examples of activities/assignments/experiences that evoked these affective states, I’d be ever grateful. The focus will be on the higher ed classroom, but I welcome examples from secondary education (or even business/industry).

Here is a link to an official survey, and you can find out more here.