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We Feel, Therefore We Learn

Emotions drive learning. That is one of the most exciting findings from Immordino-Yang’s years of work in affective neuroscience with great implications for teaching and learning. Emotions are an essential piece in the learning process, so how can we foster them in the classroom? What can we do, as educators, to engage students in meaningful ways? In my earlier posts How emotions affect learning part 1 and part 2, I discussed how the emotions students experience in the classroom can affect their disposition to learn. Read more

How emotions affect learning, part 2

In an earlier post, I discussed the concept of emotion and offered a few suggestions to build self-awareness and self-management in your students. After reading the blog, did you start identifying your different emotional responses during the day? Did you find yourself paying more attention to how your emotions predispose you to act? Understanding how emotions work is key to build our awareness! Today, we’ll explore how emotions affect learning.

Students bring to the classroom emotions from life outside of school; they might be dealing with an ongoing stressful situation at home, like a divorce or a parent loosing their job, or maybe something more momentary, like an argument with a sibling. If students didn’t have a chance to manage their emotions before getting to school, they will need your support to cool off and re-focus before they can move on with their day.

In addition, students also experience emotions that originate in the classroom and that are especially relevant for students’ learning (Pekrun, 2014):

  •  Achievement emotions relate to success and failure resulting from classroom activities. Students might feel hope and pride can they examination stresshave been successful, but they can also feel anxiety, shame or fear of failure. Taking tests, for example, is an achievement activity that tends to create high levels of anxiety and stress in our students. These emotions will influence how students approach the task and how well they perform. Remember our discussion on growth mindset?
  • Topic emotions pertain to the topics/subjects presented in class. Students might feel excited about a new art class, disgusted with certain lab experiments or saddened by the fate of a character in a novel.
  • Social emotions relate to teachers and classmates, as students (and teachers) work together and interact in the classroom. Compassion, envy, sympathy, anger or social anxiety can be present at different times during the day with any and all of our students.

working together As a teacher, it might be difficult to respond to your students’ emotions at all times, while you manage the classroom and attend to academic content. However, there are things you can do to incorporate students’ emotions when you are planning and also during class.

  • Offer a variety of tasks and activities, so students can feel successful during your class/period, and combine both achievement and performance tasks. Building self-confidence in your students by providing opportunities for success and accomplishment is key to promote a joy for learning and to avoid achievement anxiety.
  •  Provide contents that are meaningful to students and, when possible, allow students to define their own learning. You can make tasks more meaningful by connecting content to students’ current interest or relating them to their career goals. When possible, give students autonomy to select tasks or topics for learning. Both of these strategies promote students’ engagement and offer opportunities to practice social and emotional competencies.
  • Build regular check-ins with students (both at the beginning and during the day/class). This can take the form of a classroom meeting, but could also be a silent activity where students quickly show you how they are feeling. Check out this example. You can also use check-in time to ask for feedback about lessons, classroom routines or particular projects students are developing.

Students bring emotions from life outside of school that influence their disposition to learning. In the classroom, students experience emotions based on the activities, topics and social interactions that are presented to them. Offering a variety of tasks and activities for students to feel successful, providing engaging content and allowing for students’ autonomy in learning are a few examples of strategies teachers can use to incorporate students’ emotions in their planning. And don’t forget to have regular check-ins with your students to continue building awareness!

Reflecting to Learn

I recently came across the book “The 5 Dimensions of Engaged Teaching”, a practical approach to teaching and learning that focuses on meaning, purpose and motivation in the classroom and incorporates social and emotional competencies. One of the practices in the model is engaging the self-observer, which the authors Weaver and Wilding (2013) define as cultivating the ability to notice, observe, and then reflect on our thoughts, beliefs, biases, emotions, and actions to make more conscious choices.

critical thinkingThis principle asks students and teachers alike to acknowledge their feelings, thoughts, and actions in order to make better, more conscious decisions, instead of functioning on autopilot. In the classroom, it might translate into creating time and spaces for reflection and self-analysis. This reflective practice, if build as part of a daily routine, will develop students’ self-awareness and self-management, but also help them make sense of their learning. Dewey (1962) claimed that we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. Reflecting helps us to clarify what was learned and, hopefully, it will inspire new thoughts and actions.

Engaging in reflective practices becomes even more necessary now as educators and students transition to the Common Core. Being a critical thinker, which is highlighted in the standards, involves being an active observer, asking pertinent questions, evaluating arguments and being open to examine own beliefs and assumptions (and change one’s mind!). Most of those skills require being able to stop and observe, study and think, and also wonder.  Building time and space for reflection about our thoughts and feelings, and what we have learned, will help students and colleagues to make more conscious decisions and be ready to develop new learning.

Reflective activities will vary depending on the audience, the desired outcome or the amount of time available. These are just a few examples that can be incorporated in the classroom:

Journaling

  • Journaling. Students (and educators) may record activities, thoughts, feelings and questions in an individual or group journal. Depending on the desired outcome, you could ask students to reflect on the day, what they wish to accomplish or what they have learned. This could also be a time for free writing. Journaling works really well to help students focus after recess or lunch, but it can also be used at the end of the day or following an activity.
  • Group discussion. Listening and speaking are also ways to reflect, and they enhance students’ social and emotional competencies. You can facilitate discussions focused on the content and skills that students are learning in your class, address classroom concerns or build a sense of community. These shared spaces can assist learners to make sense of their learning and the learning of others.
  • Portfolios. Essentially portfolios are a collection of pieces from a learning experience. They help students make connections among interests and skills, and how they relate to what they are learning in school. Portfolios bring a great opportunity for students to reflect on their strengths, and how they could use them to accomplish their goals. Digital portfolios, such as slide shows or multimedia presentations, provide a forum for students to both construct the fruits of knowledge while simultaneously reflecting on it.
  • Art. Some students might prefer to express their feelings or thoughts visually rather than verbally or in writing. Offer students the chance to draw or paint, especially for younger students, as a way to reflect about themselves and their learning.

self_reflectionThese opportunities for reflection should occur, when possible, before, during and after key activities or events in the classroom. We want students to develop self-awareness and self-management skills by encouraging reflection of their starting point and their progress, and by allowing students to evaluate their own learning. Incorporating reflective activities like the ones described here into your teaching practices will develop students’ social and emotional competencies and will help students consolidate what they know so new learning can take place.

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