New View EDU Episode 35: The Relationship Between Emotions and Learning

Available April 11, 2023

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Social-emotional learning and student well-being are increasingly showing up as priorities for schools. But what if research could prove that looking out for the emotional components of teaching and learning aren’t just important for mental health, but actually essential for academic growth? That’s the central premise of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s research, and she’s ready to make the case that emotions are vitally linked to our ability to learn.

Mary Helen Immordino-YangMary Helen joins Tim Fish for an episode packed with fascinating findings from her work at CANDLE, the Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning, and Education at the University of Southern California. Mary Helen and her team have spent years exploring not just the mechanics and outcomes of learning, but the emotional and neurobiological experience of learning. In other words, Mary Helen says, she’s “interested in the ways that young people grow themselves by thinking.”

Through deep, multi-faceted research conducted with students and teachers, Mary Helen has discovered inextricable links between the way a person experiences and views their role in education, and the efficacy of their learning and development. She shares that adolescents who are able to attach deeper personal meaning and construct meaningful narratives around the content they’re learning make greater strides cognitively than students who are not attaching deep meaning or storytelling to the work. Additionally, the emotional connection to the educational process extends, she says, to teachers. Those teachers who have a meaningful sense of themselves and their role in the learning process, and are able to take emotional ownership of their work, tend to be more effective and forge stronger bonds with students.

Arguing that emotions cannot be removed from the learning process, Mary Helen points out that traditional measurements of cognition, like IQ, are limited in their usefulness as predictors of brain development and personal growth. Pointing to research that proves deep thinking and learning cannot take place without an emotional connection, she critiques the traditional mindset that students can or should be motivated to learn content through external rewards. Grades, test scores, college admissions, and other outcomes-based measurements may be the way that educators typically convey the importance of engaging with content, but Mary Helen says that’s not providing the connections required for deeper learning. Instead, she encourages educators to ask themselves how they can construct an environment where they can create true meaning and relevance around the content they’re teaching. 

Learning, Mary Helen says, is not the purpose of school. Development is the purpose of school—the ability to grow and engage more deeply with information and systems and the people around you. Learning is a part of development, but if it’s the only part schools focus on, then students will miss out on the opportunity for long-term growth in all areas of their lives. In the midst of a growing youth mental health crisis, reframing our view of education as helping students find meaning and purpose in their learning could be a powerful tool for well-being. 

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim and Mary Helen explore in this episode include:

  • What does the research show about the neurobiological processes of teaching and learning? What’s happening with emotions and the brain?
  • What are the conditions of teaching that lead to deep learning? What do teachers need to know, and do, in the classroom in order to facilitate deeper engagement?
  • What are some of the characteristics of a school environment that’s primed for student development? 
  • School leaders are noticing a growing number of mental health and social-emotional crises among students. What does the research suggest about the pandemic and other cultural factors, and how they’ve affected kids?

Episode Highlights

  • “The whole rest of the brain, the deeper thinking, the emotion regulation, the engaging with other people, the social meaning making, the sense of self. All of these kinds of very basic systems that are fundamental to being a good human are not predicted by, or even associated with, IQ. They are predicted by what we're calling transcendent thinking. … So how do we get kids to think that way?” (9:50)
  • “It's literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about information for which you have no emotional reason or context to engage.” (12:09)
  • “In our education system today, we so often make the outcome the result. …We do it all the time, and that is a cheat. It's basically laziness on our part. As the adults in the system, we can't make the actual information relevant enough. Or, we can't help kids find the relevance in the information, so we just slap on some reason why they ought to care, which has entirely to do with the endpoint and nothing—and the implication in the long term—to do with the actual ideas you're learning about.” (16:27)
  • “We're not installing information into a person like a squirrel, like, stashing away its nuts, right? What we're doing is inviting a person to engage actively with an orchestrated set of materials and content in a way that will help facilitate them naturally coming to realize what matters there, and the power of those tools for understanding something important about ideas and the world.”  (21:12)

Resource List

Full Transcript

  • Read the full transcript here.

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About Our Guest

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (Ed.D., Harvard University), is the Fahmy and Donna Attallah Professor of Humanistic Psychology at the University of Southern California and founding director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning, and Education (CANDLE).

Her work pairs in-depth qualitative interviews with longitudinal brain imaging and psychophysiological recording to reveal coordinated mental, neural, and bodily processes by which adolescents and their teachers build meaning—deliberating on the abstract, systems-level, and ethical implications of complex information, social situations, and identities. Her research underscores the active role young people play in their own brain and psychosocial development through the narratives they construct, and capacities teachers cultivate to support student belonging and deep learning. She conducts her work in partnership with expert educators and diverse youth from the low-socioeconomic-status communities where she works. She writes and speaks extensively on the implications for redesigning schools around curiosity and civic reasoning to promote intellectual vibrance and thriving.

She wrote the 2015 book Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, and she has received numerous local, national, and international awards for her research and impact on society, especially education.