Emotions in the classroom: the crucial component

Teachers really should take notice of the amount of cognitive research being conducted these days and think about how the scientists’ findings relate to the learning of their students and their classroom practice. A few weeks ago, I came across the work of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Associate Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California’s School of Education. What she says about her own cognitive research into human emotionality and its implications has literally blown me away. This was one of those moments where you actually sit back and go, “Wow.”

I have written two blog posts recently about the importance of EAL learners’ first language (L1) in the classroom – in one, around the issues of SEN/EAL; in the other, focusing on the dichotomy of “ability” and “high expectations“. The implications of Dr Immordino-Yang’s research provide me with additional ammunition to support what I have already been saying, and a very powerful and novel way of looking at the importance of really taking onboard the pupil voice, acknowledging and taking advantage of pupils’ prior (non-British, in case of EAL learners) knowledge and the power of classroom practices such as the aforementioned L1 as well as collaborative learning.

Dr Immordino-Yang studies emotions in the brain. In the EdX online course, I have recently finished called “Deep Learning Through Transformative Pedagogy“, she talks about what her research entailed. She would conduct interviews with people who were shown/shared with stories (short documentaries) about people who were, as she calls it, “compassion inducing”; people who achieved success despite incredible odds against them in ways that many will find inspirational. The interviews took 2 hours each, where Mary would tell them the story and show them the footage, including the actual protagonist talking about it. She would then ask the interviewee about how they felt about it. 

The research analysed how the interviewees’ emotional states during the interview predicted fMRI results (measuring heart rate, respiration, skin conductance) later as the person was asked to think about the same protagonists again. Originally, Mary thought they would studying emotions about other people: how we feel about other people’s mind-states (their inspirational mind-states, virtuous mind-states, painful mind-states). However, what became apparent was that as the interviewees were engaging with other people’s minds, in order to try and understand other people’s emotions, they were calling up their own memories, bringing up heightened self-awareness. It was a psycho-neurological platform for engaging empathically with other people’s stories and making meanings out of them.

In the video embedded below (when you play it, it will start at 9m28s), Mary talks about how when somebody’s story inspires you and truly touches you, it’s the same cortices that are in the part of your brain responsible for you feeling what’s going on in your guts – you use them to tell your emotions about other people. But, even more powerfully, in the brain stem, there is a part that one can literally not live without – turning it off would result in actually dying (couldn’t even keep you on life support). These nuclei get your heart beating and get you to breathe. When you feel inspired by another human being’s mental qualities, you’re feeling their emotions on the substrate of your own biological survival, says Mary.

But that’s not all. Here’s how, Mary says in the EdX course I mentioned earlier, it should inform our classroom practice. 

“The way in which we interact with one another in these constructed microcosms we call schools is going to have huge implications for the way in which both kids and teachers are constructing knowledge within those spaces: the way in which they’re learning from these experiences, the way in which they’re interpreting the information to which they’re exposed to and, ultimately, the way in which this information is able to become part of who they are as a person going forward. 

The way in which we learn from one another is to literally call up our sense of self empathically and simulate what we think other people are thinking about or how they’re doing things or why they’re thinking the way that they are in our own mind as a way to learn from them. This is actually the basic process by which we internalise the things that we are meant to learn from a school setting: by engaging as if our mind were the teacher’s mind. As if our mind were our peer’s mind who understands something better than us. And in that empathic sharing, it’s via these relationships between people that the meaningful learning is actually able to happen. We can’t, as teachers – it’s humanly impossible to take information and put inside your kid’s head. You can’t actually take the information you want somebody to know about or to know how to do and give it to them directly. What we need to do instead is facilitate people to build that knowledge on their own from the inside. They need to conjure and construct it for themselves. But how do they do that? They do that by watching the way the way more skilled people – or the teachers – are doing it, and they try to imagine in their own mind how that person’s mind is working and why it’s working like that and to try and be like that. 

And what that means is that the tighter the relationship between the learner and the teacher, the more directly, the more facilely people will be able to engage with one another.

In other words, feeling accepted, included, secure, sensing that your identity – who you are – is respected and valued, having a good relationship with a teacher will lead to this greater ability to construct new ideas in your head. Vygotsky’s ZPD is echoed quite strongly, of course, in what Mary says about learning from “more skilled people” – more knowledgeable peer indeed. 

The question, thus, arises: how the heck would you be able to ensure this is you are repeatedly blocked from using your L1, from expressing your identity, when you’re put into bottom sets where behaviour tends to be worse, being sent a message that you are a failure? How can use build that tight relationship with a teacher when your ability that you brought with you from your country of origin is disabled in England when in group work you are regularly excluded because of your lower English language skills? How can you believe internally that your teacher believes you when you see them repeatedly sending you to the “induction” group outside of the mainstream class? Or even when you are with the main class, you’re not with the entire group really (this would be inclusion) but sat together with all the EAL learners in one area of the classroom (this being integration). 

In my view, what is called for here is what Gloria Ladson-Billings in the US calls culturally-responsive teaching. If your EAL learners are to feel non-threatened, non-ignored and not undervalued, their personal life circumstances (present and past) have to be taken into consideration by teachers. Lisa Delpit, whom I have cited before on this blog, mentions her conversation with a teacher, who claims that they “don’t have time for this relationship stuff”, hiding behind standardised tests and accountability, to which she riposts, “And how’s that working out for you?” (Teaching Tolerance Conference 2012 Keynote) Clearly, it’s not working for them precisely because of the kind of insights that come from Dr Immordino-Yang’s research: if you don’t sort it, they are not going to learn.

What is required, then, is becoming a culturally-responsive teacher. Introduced by Gloria Ladson-Billings in 1994, culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is pedagogy that recognises the need to incorporate students’ cultural references in all teaching. It is seen as an approach that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally and politically by using cultural referents to impact knowledge, skills and attitudes. 

Ladson-Billings lists 9 principles of this approach:

  • communication of high expectations
  • active teaching methods
  • teacher as facilitator
  • inclusion of culturally and linguistically diverse students
  • cultural sensitivity
  • reshaping the curriculum
  • student-controlled classroom discourse
  • small-group instruction and academically-oriented discourse

Essentially, this means that the experiences of EAL learners become mainstream, which, in case you haven’t noticed yet, is one of the guiding principles behind this blog website. High expectations are key – as the teacher, you would need to examine your teaching practices and ensure that what you teach is relevant to your students. Look at page 5 of the document embedded below – how culturally relevant/responsive is your class / your teaching?


Teachers also need to care deeply about their students and, certainly, cannot see EAL learners as other types of human beings from native English speakers – this is to say, any level of othering EAL learners is simply deleterious from the CRT perspective. Indeed, even the word “inclusion” is problematic by itself as it suggests that some learners are not “in” in the first place. It follows that you would employ student-centred approach where you take interest in them as individuals as much, or even more so, than as learners. This means that you acknowledge your limited experience of the world and are open to learning more about other cultures, other peoples, other language- and culture-mediated ways of seeing the world – this, of course, relates to cultural sensitivity as listed above. An open mind is key here.  

Interestingly, this links to the dangers of I-R-E (initiation-response-evaluation) type of feedback. I-R-E links directly to teacher-centred approaches, where a teacher asks a question (to which there is just one answer), a student answers, followed by the teacher providing feedback on whether the answer was correct or incorrect. This is not helpful as it doesn’t invite higher order thinking skills, it doesn’t develop one’s speaking skills and is precisely what stops learners from seeing issues from various perspectives. In case of CRT, the danger is that I-R-E feedback will be related to culturally-laden issues such as ethics or religion or other practices, which might be presented to students as facts. Avoiding I-R-E will open avenues for students to discuss – and reflect upon – these issues. Discussion and respecting your students’ views is, of course, precisely what Dr Immordino-Yang means by saying we should have tight relationships with our students. Trying to force our cultural values on them will only likely result in creating a greater divide and greater unwillingness to understand our way of thinking and, thus, will lead to less, not more, learning.

The CRT list above includes “active teaching methods”. Last year, I wrote a blog post on Dialogic Teaching. At that time, I meant to write a post on collaborative learning, stemming from the discussion of dialogic teaching and planning for talk in the classroom, but, alas, work commitments have prevented me from doing so. Collaborative learning is, indeed, an active teaching method. It is my intention that my next blog post will rectify this issue and will address how we can use collaborative learning for orchestrating genuine exploratory talk in our classrooms, where the principles of CRT are met and Immordino-Yang’s idea of co-construction of knowledge through empathetic collaboration/learning from others is truly put into practice.

Deborah Cameron warns that terms such as “inclusion” or “integration” are often just another word for “assimilation” (Multilingual 2.0 Conference). The examination of attitudes of certain teachers in schools in relation to L1 or respecting students’ identities tells us that it can, indeed, perhaps too often, be the case even if it unspoken and hidden under the surface for political correctness reasons. If not for the simple reasons of morality, we can now see that from the cognitive science point of view, it will not do. Humans are social creatures and they learn socially. “De-mainstreaming” students, excluding them whilst “integrating” them in a classroom, not hearing their views, not respecting (or disrespecting) their identities, posing as “all-knowing teachers”, not recognising the limitations of our own culturally and linguistically-based experiences and knowledge will only lead to more tense, less stable relationships with our learners. In so doing, we would prevent them from getting a glimpse of how we construct knowledge so that they can reconstruct it for themselves in their brains.

The flipside of the coin is: encouraging our learners to use their L1, asking about their prior experiences, inviting their understandings into our classrooms, orchestrating properly differentiated exploratory talk episodes and collaborative learning approaches, changing our lesson plans or planning approaches to accommodate their needs, and above all else, expecting high of them on a par with anyone else. In short, treating them as human beings rather than non-English human beings. 

Clearly, Vygotsky was on to something. Dr Immordino-Yang has told us why. 

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