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Turn on the Switch and Learn

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Shaundra’s work caught my eye. Although I taught for a good number of years, I never totally connected the link between emotions and learning. I knew that upset students couldn’t pay attention. But the thought of engineering a tool to help identify emotions so they don’t block learning is an astonishing thought. What an idea for teachers!

Fear, anger, sadness, and enjoyment form the basic emotions. Within each emotion, a range of related feelings expand from there. But Priscilla Vail, an expert on learning, has explained it a different way. She describes emotion as the “on-off switch to learning.”

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Emotions give us a way to gauge the world. Without emotions, our world would be flat and dull. We wouldn’t experience the joyous dizziness that comes with falling in love, feel the surge of contentment looking at magnificent mountain peaks, or grieve over the loss of a loved one.

I’m reminded of my third grade math teacher, Mrs. Calvin, who ruled her class with an iron fist. She had rules for everything, including throwing away paper. I lived in fear of messing up anything in her class. I soon began to associate math class with those negative emotions, which hindered my learning. This problem relates to a part of the brain called the limbic system, sometimes called “the thinking brain,” because it deals more with the mind than the body.

This limbic system controls emotions. In a positive situation, signals are broadcast throughout the brain so that higher cortical functions, like learning, are more easily processed. In a stressful state, emotional response will take priority over learning. Identifying emotions in order to deal with them seems to help break those barriers, thus keeping the brain ready to learn.

Ironically, I did teach math for several years, which broke my emotional connection to the subject. Maybe engineers like Shaundra Daily will do that for today’s students in every subject.