Educators educating Educators

Jan 19


Brains are like hearts -- they go where they are appreciated.


“People will only entrust their hearts to you when they feel they can trust you with them. If a teacher wants to be trusted, then he or she must demonstrate empathy.” ~ Paul Houston, No Challenge Left Behind


 Over my 41 years as an educator, I’ve learned that high school graduates will mostly forget what was said and learned in school, but they will never forget how you made them feel.


For a little comic reflection upon this belief, take a moment to watch the following video


Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University:



Linda Stone, former Microsoft VP, said, “People are paying continual partial attention to events, situations, and people in our everyday lives.  We must live with the persuasive force of distraction confirmed by the fact that it is almost impossible to get anyone’s full attention at any one time throughout our chaotic and hectic lives."

So, how do educators tackle this problem in their classrooms?  One remedy to assist teachers in overcoming the “partial attention” of students and to enhance their engagement in class is by utilizing emotion in their pedagogy.  Below are some examples of how to insert emotion into daily activities and reasons why teachers should consider the use of emotion in class.



Central points.

· All thoughts have emotional components

· Emotions color meanings, thoughts, and learning. We feel before we think. We had emotions before we had language.

· Emotions are the on/off switch of learning.

· Cognition and emotion are two sides of the same coin: they shape our learning experience. There is no thinking/cognition without emotion.

· We are constantly driven by emotion. “Oh, I don’t like this, I don’t like that.” “Oh, it’s hot in here. When is the break?” All of this is emotional processing.


Don’t be a Dream Breaker, be a Dream Maker

Anger, fear, frustration, and shame turn learning off.

Hope, enthusiasm, pride, and safety turn learning on.


*** Teaching Suggestions ***


1. Design a lecture into 10-minutes segments, each segment covering a single core concept, which is always large and general, and always explainable in one minute. Use the other 9-minutes in the segment to provide a detailed description of that single general concept.

2. Ensure that each detail can be easily traced back to the general concept. Take time out from content to explain the relationship between the detail and the core concept in clear and explicit terms.

3. Always explain the lecture plan at the beginning of class, with many repetitions of “where we are” sprinkled throughout the class.

4. The brain likes hierarchy and processes meaning before detail. Start with a general concept followed by an explanation of the supporting data leading to explaining information in a hierarchical method. This method provides the essence of the concept or context (background, circumstance, environment), before content (matter, body, stuff).

5. Most importantly! At the outset of the lecture and between modules, trigger an emotion! Fear, laughter, happiness, or nostalgia (bad or good). Doing so alerts the brain that something big and exciting is going to happen. This wakes up the amygdala, which is critical as explained below.

6. Make the trigger relevant, and place it between the modules.

7. Do not overstuff your students. The brain needs a break from the fire hose of information occurring at a high school 45 to 60 minutes per class, five to six periods a day. Relaying too much information, with not enough time devoted to connecting the dots, leads to poor memory and retention. This practice is similar to force-feeding, followed by very little digestion.


John Medina, author of Brain Rules, developed the above outline based on his research that a college student’s attention span is ten minutes, for which he was named the Hoechst Marion Rousell Teacher of the Year.


***  Insights ***

As a teacher, why should I care about students’ emotions?

“Emotions allows us to use our knowledge in ways that will be culturally appropriate and useful both in school and outside school. Emotions are not add-ons that interfere with cognition. Instead, they are functional elements of why thinking and learning happen. Emotions involve the self and the body…and therefore so should schools.”

Immordino-Yang & Damasio.  Mind, Brain, and Education, 2007

“Emotion is the on-off switch of learning. We don’t talk about it enough as a pedagogical tool. Fear and shame shut it off; hope, enthusiasm, and safety turn it on.” ~ Ed Hallowell


The Amygdala and Learning

Emotions occur in response to events and keep our brains focused on critical information. Emotions motivate us to develop behaviors to gain what we desire and avoid what we fear.

The amygdala is our fight or flight center. It responds to fear and positive emotional stimuli, and to sight, sound, smell, and touch. It focuses our attention on emotional events in our world.

Research has shown that damage to the amygdala reduces fear in animals and people and reduces signs of physical anxiety. People in card games with damaged amygdala fail to respond to risks with increase heart rate and sweaty palms. However this is not a good situation in Las Vegas because you need this emotional reaction to make good decisions under uncertain circumstances.

The amygdala mediates the effects on many types of learning and emotional arousal by facilitating attention to the most important details of an experience. For example, victims of armed robbery remember what the gun looked like, but damage to the amygdala would prevent a person from recalling this salient fact.

Interest and importance is inextricably linked to attention, sometimes call arousal. The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborate the information will be encoded-and retained. Better attention always equals better learning and improved retention.

Emotionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events. An emotionally charged event is the best-processed kind of external stimulus. Emotionally charged events persist much longer in our memories and are recalled with greater accuracy.

As noted by Aamodt and Wang, the present belief of researchers of how memory works is that the brain records the essence of what we encounter, rather than retaining a literal record of the experience. The brain remembers the emotional components of an experience better than any other aspect. Emotional arousal focuses attention on the essence of an experience at the expense of marginal details.

“Teachers with high emotional literacy…experience more positive emotions in the classroom, receive more support from co-workers, employ more effective coping strategies during stressful encounters, and report less burnout and greater job satisfaction.” (Underline added)

Marc Brackett, Emotional Literacy in the Classroom (2007), Yale University


Enhanced and enriched environments change the brain – physically and forever

In experiments with rats, enriched environments increase cell weight and the number of synapses.  Impoverished environments decrease cell weight, diminish synapses, and possibly cause loss of cells.

The photograph below shows the dendrite of a rat from an impoverished environment and the dendrite of a rat from an enhanced environment.  The picture on the left is of the rat’s dendrite from a impoverished environment – left alone in his cage with only food and water.  The picture on the right is the dendrite of a rat from an enriched environment – social interaction with other rats, running/spinning wheels, and novelty (frequent change of toys).  The rats reared in enriched environments had brains that were larger and heavier.  Their dendrites, neural pathways, and connections were much longer, more complex, and branched out to more areas of their brains.

Rat Dendrites


An enriched classroom environment changes a student brain. Classrooms are student’s environments for 5 to 6 hours per day and an enhanced classroom environment cultivates learning.

Most importantly, novelty is important to the learner’s brain. Brains attune and attend to novelty and it is important to build novelty into lesson plans in order to engage the learner and improve their learning. Personal meaningful and positive emotional experiences increase memory storage. Help students remember important information by connecting information to positive experiences. (Armstrong 2010).


The Feeling-Learning Connection

Our feelings determine our capacity to learn







Without access to your memory we cannot learn




In order to remember, we need to be able to focus our attention.


When we’re focused, we’re in a state of “relaxed alertness” and we’re ready to learn.




Our feelings determine whether we can focus or not.


When we’re emotionally flooded and don’t have a chance to empty or express them, our

emotions hijack us and block our capacity to focus.

1998 Educators for Social Responsibility


Mr. Spock

Remember, there is no Mr. Spock

Examples of emotion

Examples 1, 2, and 3 illustrate my favorite education motto: Brains are like hearts; they go where they are appreciated.



Example 1. As you look at the picture below, you probably easily remember the emotion you felt when the Philadelphia Phillies won their first World Series in 25 years. Now recall the final score of the game. (Sorry for the example, I’m a Phillies fan).

Phillies win 2008 World Series

You probably remember more about the feelings you felt about the 2008 Phillies World Series victory than the scores of the games. Psychologists have long known emotionally intense events produce vivid memories. Emotional arousal seems to provide a particular advantage for the long-term storage of important details of an experience, sometimes at the cost of remembering peripheral details.

Why? Because of an organ in the brain called the amygdala, a region important for the influence of emotion, which helps create and maintain emotions. The amygdala supervises not only the formation of emotional experiences but also the memory of emotional experiences. It allows us to feel rage, fear, or pleasure, or memories of rage, fear, or pleasure.

Emotional arousal causes the release of adrenaline, which activates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve (sympatric-flight or fight reflex) sends information to the brainstem, then on to the amygdala and the hippocampus, which is the grand central station of memory. The hippocampus is deeply involved in memory formation and the conversion of short-term memories into longer-term forms. Any activity in these two areas of the brain increases synaptic plasticity, which is the core neurological process of learning.

Stressful situations also cause the release of gluco corticoids-stress hormones, which work directly on the amygdala and the hippocampus to enhance memory. In their bookWelcome to Your Brain, Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang affirm that people with damage to the amygdala do not show this enhanced memory, suggesting that this brain region is important for the influence of emotion on memory. The amygdala becomes involved in memory during intense situations, whether the emotions are positive or negative.Blocking the receptors for this information in the amygdala prevents adrenaline from enhancing memory, while activating the receptors in the amygdala improves memory.However, an unhealthy level of stress also causes damage to the prefrontal cortex, working memory, and to the hippocampus.

Example 2. Think of a teacher you liked and a teacher you did not like when you were a student and then describe them in several words. Just as you have words to describe your teachers, your students have words to describe you. What words would you hope your students would use to describe you? What words would they actually use to describe you based on your actions of the past month? How close are the two scenarios? The above example can be used to describe a husband & wife or a parent & child relationship.

Example 3. Of all of the memories you have as a student, what is one of your favorites ones? Is it something a teacher or administrator said or did that boasted your motivation and self-dignity?

Of all of the memories you have as a student, what is one of your worst ones? Is it something that a teacher or school administrator said or did that lessened your motivation and self-dignity?

As you reflect upon both your positive and negative memories of school, what can you learn from both and how can these memories serve as a guide to what you are doing with your students today?

Example 4. Recall the most remarkable teacher you ever had. Now picture the teacher’s face. Now recall how he or she made you feel.




New Course at MIT Emphasizing People Skills

Why did one of the world’s premier engineering schools create a course dealing with how to relate to people?  At Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania Medical Schools, and other medical schools across the country, the curriculum has been redesigned as educators begin to realize that empathy is as valuable to a doctor as any clinical skills.

Apparently, MIT was receiving feedback from employers who were reporting a lack of people skills in engineering graduates.  As Tracy Jan points out in a recent article in the Boston Globe titled At MIT, a New Focus on Generating ‘People’ Skills, “MIT created the unusual undergraduate program in response to industry pressure to produce engineers who are as skilled at communicating face-to-face as they are at writing complicated computer codes on their own.  Business leaders complain that many of today’s engineering graduates, trained as abstract thinkers, have too little grounding in the actual practice of working with others to deliver innovative products amid time and budget constraints.”

The article goes on to quote Tanya Goldhaber, a senior mechanical engineering major, “There’s this pervasive attitude that we’re engineers, we build stuff.  We don’t need all that silly management stuff.  A lot of MIT graduates go out into the real world and fall on their face because they don’t know how to work within a company. They expect their bosses to be impressed by their creativity, but they don’t deliver the product on time.”

In describing the new MIT course, Jan writes, “The students practice networking and hone “elevator pitches,’ entrepreneurial ideas summarized in under a minute.  They don blindfolds for team-building activities. Failure is met with candid critiques about their leadership styles.  This isn’t a business school.  It’s a new engineering class at one of the premier engineering universities in the world, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

The Globe article quotes Edward Crawley, a 1976 graduate of MIT and director of the Gordon engineering leadership program responsible for the emphasis on people skills.  “One of the pretty clear messages that has come through is that MIT graduates work hard and are analytical and creative, but they don’t rise to influence their organizations in a larger way.”  The article goes on to quote Bernard Gordon, a 1948 graduate of MIT whose $20 million gift helped launch the new program, “most new companies fail despite assembling a group of smart engineers because no one is comfortable shouldering the responsibility of leadership.  Young engineers should be trained to understand the needs of others and be able to motivate a team of diverse personalities.”

Throughout the years, Bob Brooks, on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, has advocated the need to incorporate in our schools skills associated with emotional and social intelligences.  Brooks argues in his recent monthly article published on his web site that this “should not occur in a separate curriculum but as a common occurrence in the classroom and does not in any way detract from teaching academic subjects.  Moreover, the more that individuals of any age are able to learn and apply the skills MIT is addressing in their leadership program, the more we will nurture the “whole” person.  Such a person will not only be receptive to learning academic material, but, as importantly, will feel increasingly self-assured and better equipped to relate effectively and satisfactorily with others.”

In the Globe article, MIT student Goldhaber talks about the “whole person” when she observes, “I literally thought two years ago that I’d be an engineer sitting in a cubicle cranking out equations for the rest of my life.  Now I’ve discovered that I’m good at people as well as machines, and I never would have had the gumption to explore without this program.”

In his web site article, Brooks states that, “The study and application of science and the study and application of effective interpersonal skills are not mutually exclusive.  Innovative leaders at Harvard Medical School, MIT, and other renowned institutions have recognized the importance of focusing part of the curriculum on enhancing people skills.  People skills are necessary in all facets of one’s life regardless of one’s career responsibilities.”




Distraction is the simplest form of emotion regulation. When we are distracted, there is decreased activity in the emotional centers of the brain. Being distracted helps with pain due to deceased activity in the insula (the pain responsive area) and activity in the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, areas associated with cognitive control of emotions (the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex).


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.