Pencils, Backpacks, and Perspective: Emotions in Education

When I think back on my K-12 education, the parts of it that I remember most are those which I enjoyed. There were subjects that I took over the years that I wasn’t particularly interested in, of course. But in some of these subjects I had teachers who managed to inspire in me an emotional response to the subject, thereby garnering both my attention and motivation. This isn’t easy to do, different subjects will always have particular students groaning all of the way through. I think it’s still important though to acknowledge the role that emotions play in education.

One of the best classes I ever took was in a subject I did not particularly care for. It involved learning a whole lot of information that seemed to me, at the time, pretty darn useless. Two weeks into the class though, I was wholly invested in learning more, even researching more about the subject in my spare time. What changed? My teacher convinced me that the knowledge I would gain in their class would change the way I saw the world, and make me a better person for it. “Convince” is an odd word though. How do you even go about persuading students that they want to learn?

The first, and what I consider the most important step, is fostering a community within the learning environment. Whether you’re in a traditional classroom or in a homeschooling situation, I think it’s important to have clear goals and expectations. Beyond that, positive reinforcement and association are key. Punishing ignorance or failure to grasp contents will tend to make a student associate the subject with negative emotions – this can spiral into a complete refusal to absorb anything. But, encouraging critical thinking, collaborative work, and effort can do the world for any disinterested student.

The second step, I think, is really demonstrating your own interest in the subject. Passion is contagious and passionate teaching can mean the difference between ambivalent learning and real, lasting interest. If a student can see that you aren’t particularly interested, and trust me, they can tell, they won’t see the need to put as much effort into learning it. Conversely though, if they can see that gleam in your eyes while you’re teaching, they might just catch on to it.

To wrap this up – I still remember probably 80% of what I learned in that class I initially disliked. It changed my learning habits and perspective for the better. I chalk it all up to the way my teacher’s eyes brightened when they saw we understood what they were getting at. Now, I don’t mean to prescribe anything, just to get you thinking about the way in which information is presented to students. Because that presentation can make all of the difference.