The 3 Emotions That Drive Deeper Learning

I stood in front of a packed classroom flipping through pictures on our SmartBoard. I’d never heard my students so quiet. I’d never seen them so engaged.

A 10th grader asked, “So you’re telling me, Mr. J…that this is happening right now? And no one is doing anything about it?”

We were in the middle of reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and had spent the better part of a month learning about the Holocaust, researching its beginnings and the many different ways people responded. We heard from a Holocaust survivor, watched Wiesel’s interview with Oprah, and spent hours going into the psychology of it all while analyzing the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

I responded, “Yes, this is happening right now. And yes, there are people that are trying to stop it. There are many people who are trying to fight…but it’s a big fight.”

The lesson, and pictures on the SmartBoard, centered on current human rights violations. In our class discussions most of my students couldn’t believe that the Holocaust wasn’t stopped at the outset, and commented that there is “no way” that could ever happen today.

I showed them pictures and videos of current human rights violations (and genocide) that was happening during their lifetime. My students were in “awe” of the magnitude of these problems, and “angry” that they had never heard about most of these situations. I also showed them this graph on the media coverage of conflicts:


What happened next was something I’ve written about before: We (as in my students and I together) came up with a project that would actually “do something” about human rights violations. It was called “Project: Global Inform” – and my students would go on to create awareness campaigns that informed thousands of people about current human rights violations. I’ve never been more proud as a teacher.

Emotions and Their Role in the Learning Process

I recently read Jonah Berger’s book, Contagious: Why Things Catch Onand my mind immediately went to “Project: Global Inform” when Berger talks about emotions. Berger’s research has shown that “high-arousal” emotions (such as awe, excitement, humor, anger, and anxiety) drive sharing and discussion. It’s the reason articles are shared online and discussed on social media…and it’s also part of the reason things catch on.

As I look at this project’s success, it’s apparent that a few specific emotions that Berger mentions drive deeper learning more than any other. As teachers, leaders, and learners we must understand the role emotions play in the learning process.

For a long time I never thought about stirring up emotions through my teaching. But that is a silly way to think about our profession. Whatever you are doing in front of the classroom is creating some type of emotion. It could be boredom…excitement…anger…empathy. As humans, emotions are drivers of action, and this is no different with students. Recent research has shown that some emotions work better than others throughout the learning process. Let’s take a look at three emotions that I’ve seen impact my students as a teacher.

1. Awe

In Vicki Zackrzewski’s article in Edutopia, “Let’s Put the Awe Back in Awesome” she explains how new research looks at the ability of emotions like “awe” to take learning to a higher-level:

While the research on awe is still fairly new, several studies conducted by the Greater Good Science Center‘s Dacher Keltner have shown that the experience of awe has the potential to turn students’ lives in a new direction.

Keltner has found that awe makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves — a crucial and necessary aspect of purpose. According to Damon, without this larger connection, students are less likely to maintain their inspiration, motivation and resilience in the face of challenges.

Awe connects deeply with both motivation and student’s ability to develop grit in difficult learning experiences. More importantly it is an emotion that can drive positive action, beyond just the sharing of an article.

2. Excitement

My students were flat-out angry that human rights violations and genocide could still exist in our current world. Why didn’t we learn from the Holocaust they would ask? How can so many people be bystanders? However, when presented with an option to do something about these issues, they became excited. Excitement led them take action. They did not want to sit back and be a “bystander” anymore.

In professor Martha Burns article, “Dopamine and Learning: What The Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators“, she looks at important research on how “excitement” raises levels of dopamine…which in turn impacts the learning process:

For many of your students and many of us as adults, learning about new things is an adventure and very rewarding, and dopamine levels increase in the brain to help us retain that new information. But for some learners, if dopamine levels are low, the new information literally goes in and out of the brain and is lost.

The importance of EXCITING in learning is why as teachers we rack our brains at night trying to think up adventuresome ways to keep our students interested in the content. To make the content exciting, I know primary teachers who get their students to act out letters or new vocabulary, middle school math teachers who teach area computation by asking students to determine the amount of paint that would be needed to redecorate their bedroom, high school teachers who teach students physics by asking them to build a bridge with nothing more than toothpicks. All of these represent what we were taught were teaching methods — ways teachers devise to keep the energy and excitement level up in a classroom.  Increase excitement in a classroom and you increase dopamine levels of your students.

Many teachers learn about this through trial-and-error. But once you see students doing amazing work after an exciting lesson, you want to continually create that emotion. Admittedly, this is extremely difficult to do in some learning circumstances, but the more we can “teach above the test“…the more we’ll create rewarding learning experiences for our students.

3. Amusement (and humor)

Interestingly, amusement and humor are also strong drivers of learning. Looking at two ends of the emotional spectrum, it may be hard to see how “amusement” can impact learning in the same way that “awe” does.

But it is important to note that “deep learning” does not always have to be as serious as my Project: Global Inform was with students. Amusement and humor allow us as teachers and leaders to shape the conversation and draw students attention to big understandings.

In an article published by the American Psychology Association, “Laughing Leads to Learning“, Zak Stambor discusses the the research on humor’s role in learning:

A growing body of research suggests that, when used effectively, classroom comedy can improve student performance by reducing anxiety, boosting participation and increasing students’ motivation to focus on the material. Moreover, the benefits might not be limited to students: Research suggests that students rate professors who make learning fun significantly higher than others.

I know many teachers and leaders think they have to be “all business” at work. Simply put…this is not the most effective way to impact learning. There is always a time and place for serious issues like the human rights violations my students tackled during “Project: Global Inform”. But we must also make room for humor, fun, and amusement.

Each of these three emotions are integral to our learning experiences. The way we design and craft lessons can either draw students in or leave them disengaged from the process.

What other emotions have you seen drive learning in your work?

PS- I’m debating between a few new book ideas and I could use your help. My purpose is to provide the most value to the readers of this blog, so if you could answer this one question survey, it will help me get the clarity I need!

Photo Credit: LadyDragonflyCC – >;< via Compfight cc

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