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The Importance of Emotions in Education

‘Emotion, then, is a basic form of decision making, a repertoire of knowhow and actions that allows people to respond appropriately in different situations. The more advanced cognition becomes, the more high-level reasoning supports the customisation of these responses, both in thought and in action. With evolution and development, the specifications of conditions to which people respond, and the modes of response at their disposal, become increasingly nuanced. The more people develop and educate themselves, the more they refine their behavioural and cognitive options. In fact, one could argue that the chief purpose of education is to cultivate children’s building repertoires of cognitive and behavioural strategies and options, helping them to recognise the complexity of situations and to respond in increasingly flexible, sophisticated, and creative ways. In our view, out of these processes of recognising and responding, the very processes that form the interface between cognition and emotion, emerge the origins of creativity – the artistic, scientific, and technological innovations that are unique to our species. Further, out of these same kinds of processing emerges a special kind of human innovation: the social creativity that we call morality and ethical thought.’

– Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Emotions, Learning and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience.


For once, this is a book that I don’t suggest you read – at least not unless you’re really into the academic side of neuroscience (if so, go for it!). It’s basically a collection of several interesting journal articles presenting research findings from a decade of research at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute.

Now Immordino-Yang is a professional scientist, so she’s careful to present her findings and theories as mostly early stage, small scale, preliminary results, that point to interesting possibilities that need more follow-up studies.  I’m not a professional anything any more, and my children will be grown-up before the appropriate research gets done, so I just leapt to the following takeaway ideas.

  • Emotions are part of everything we experience and learn (even if it’s just the non-dramatic ones, like ‘mildly interested’). You can’t really think about a learning experience as separate from the context of the mood of the learners, which will obviously vary according to all sorts of individual and environmental factors (just to make life interesting for teachers). It’s like whatever is happening is a picture and emotions are the colours that make it up – the image and the colours are always both there and both have an effect on the memory that gets laid down as a result. The mood of your learners matters, and supporting emotional development is at least as important as any particular cognitive skills. This feels like one of those things we all really know, but sometimes lose sight of if the two come into conflict with each other (they don’t have to; I think the process of learning cognitive skills can be a great way to also develop emotional ones).
  • Downtime is an important part of the learning process. Quiet time to internally reflect, consider and connect ideas is vital for both cognitive but particularly emotional and social development. The brain actually works in different ways when ‘resting’ than focusing on a goal-oriented task. Too much ‘doing’ and not enough ‘being’ does not help us grow as much as we could (at any age). When you’re done reading this, go stare out of the window for a minute and daydream. It’s good for the brain.
  • You might have heard of ‘mirror neurons’ – where the same parts of our brain fire up when we’re watching someone do something as when we do it ourselves; we really can learn – to a point – by seeing someone else perform a task. Well, apparently this only happens if we understand what they’re doing and why – meaning matters.
  • You can have half your brain removed and still be pretty much OK. This alone is amazing, but the actual point of the studies (on two boys who had each had a hemisphere of their brain removed in early childhood) was that these boys could apparently do things that they shouldn’t be able to – like process the emotional tones in speech – because those functions usually only reside in the part of the brain that they didn’t have any more.  Her theory was not that the brain had remade those functions in the other hemisphere, but that the boys managed to look at the problems differently so that they could use the areas they were strong in to compensate for the areas they were weak in, and get to more or less the same result. I don’t pretend to fully understand the implications of this, but it struck me as a prime example of why you can’t make assumptions about the way someone else does things – or should do them – because of the way you do it. We’ve all got different strategies available to us.

On one level, all these are fairly common sense ideas and it might seem like we didn’t really need a decade of dedicated research to come up with them. But in an educational environment that’s increasingly focused on only what can be tested and measured, I’m glad there are people out there looking at the scientific evidence behind the importance of the stuff that can’t be so easily pinned down. Now to get the Education Secretary out to California…

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