Emotion, Intelligence, and Learning

Spring 2021

By Alden S. Blodget

Two of the most persistent myths about learning are that emotion and rational thought can be treated separately and that emotions always interfere with clear thinking and learning. They certainly can interfere. Grief and rage or joy and excitement can easily overwhelm focus and motivation for even the most interesting lesson. So, it’s not surprising that educators have tended to accept the platonic notion of the antagonism between reason and emotion—the two horses that pull us in opposite directions. However, researchers have gained a deeper understanding of the essential, inextricable role of emotion in learning. Although the two horses in certain circumstances can pull in opposite directions, good thinking and learning require that they work together—for they are inseparably harnessed to each other.

Given these insights, it seems unfortunate that people continue to separate emotion and intelligence when they discuss EQ (emotional quotient) and IQ (intelligence quotient) as though reasoning plays no role in improving EQ and emotion plays no role in improving IQ. Even the framing of the theme for this issue of Independent Teacher captures this separation: “EQ vs. IQ,” as though they are combatants.

The goals of EQ are important. Young people need to learn how to understand and manage their emotions in order to defuse conflict, empathize with others, and develop resilience in the face of significant challenges. Equally important are the IQ abilities to reason, use language, and solve problems. Unfortunately, the focus on emotional intelligence seems to stop at gaining control of emotions that impede learning and ignores the importance of other emotional factors essential for effective learning—and for good old rational intelligence.

For the past two decades, researchers have demonstrated that emotion and cognition are inseparable. As Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio have written, “We feel; therefore, we learn.” Emotion, according to Damasio, is “the rudder for thought.” “We think in the service of emotional goals,” writes Immordino-Yang.1 Although we can help students learn to deal with emotional states that prevent learning, we might do a better job of designing schools and improving learning outcomes if we pay much more attention to the significant ways in which emotion contributes to learning.

We need to create schools where students can pursue interests and genuine questions that matter to them—that matter deeply, personally, individually, and immediately. Achieving this goal would likely require that a significant amount of time each day, every year from kindergarten through high school, be devoted to this individualized work (with the flexibility of enabling students to change their focus as they mature and learn and to work with others if they choose). These sorts of individualized, self-directed experiences would allow students to experience school as a place for deep thinking and meaning-making.

Approaching programs of study with students’ interests as the focus would also increase the potential for students to discover the value and need for learning additional essential skills and knowledge. They would more likely opt to study aspects of, say, physics that are pertinent to their interests instead of being required to “take” physics. A deep interest in one thing inevitably leads to other areas of knowledge and skill. For example, a young girl pursuing an interest in bats will naturally improve her reading, writing, reasoning, researching, and studying skills because these can be easily developed while studying bats. She is also likely to explore fractions, graphing, and algebra (populations, species, mortality, etc.); the sciences (ecology, biology, chemical threats, the physics of sound, etc.); history (human activity affecting bats); and the arts (visual, literary, musical). The possibilities are endless, especially with skilled educators acting as guides.

As learners develop skills and create knowledge in subjects that matter to them, their emotions play an additional role: Their gut feelings enable them to feel their way toward solutions to problems—to decide what strategies to use. Immordino-Yang and Matthias Faeth write about the importance of helping young learners develop what they call “skilled intuition”:
Neuroscience is revealing that rather than working to eliminate or “move beyond” emotion, the most efficient and effective learning incorporates emotion into the cognitive knowledge being built. In effect, efficient learners build useful and relevant “intuitions” that guide their thinking and decision-making. … These intuitions integrate their emotional reactions with their cognitive processing and incorporate what has been learned from experience. These intuitions are not randomly generated nonconscious whims — [rather], because they are shaped and organized by experience with a task or domain, they are specific and relevant to the particular contexts in which they are learned.2

Intuition becomes more reliable and powerful as learners gain experience and build deep conceptual understanding in areas that matter to them. Memorizing information to which they have no emotional connection may be useful for passing tests but not for the sort of immersive emotional engagement that educators claim their schools foster.

In addition to building curricula from student interest, adults should help young people develop an understanding and awareness of their emotions as they work to build new skills and knowledge while wrestling with questions arising from their self-directed studies. Teachers can help students learn to listen to their gut. Krista, a high school math teacher whom I observed, demonstrated this approach:

“Something’s not right here. What is it?” she asked. She was working through the problems that her 10th-grade math students had put on the whiteboards. She looked at the numbers as students shouted suggestions.

“OK,” she said, “so 16x to the sixth is the variable expression for the area, and what happens when we plug in 5? Why isn’t Karen’s answer coming out right?” A cacophony of suggestions erupted, all focused on possible errors Karen had made. Krista stood quietly, looking at the numbers.

“Oh, wait,” she said, stabbing at the board with her marker. “What if Karen is right? Look, look. What do you see here? I made an error. My arithmetic is wrong.”

“I knew it!” shouted one of the boys, who was followed by a chorus of “I got it right!”

Krista turned to the kids. “So why didn’t you say so? Why did you assume I was right? I make mistakes, but you just assumed the teacher must be right, didn’t you?”

Krista works hard to get her students to think like mathematicians, to understand the importance of noticing errors and to begin to trust their own powers of emotional thinking—to question answers and explanations, even Krista’s own; to listen to their gut when something doesn’t feel right. She modeled the behavior as she stood quietly looking at the whiteboard, and then by drawing attention to their emotional responses (“I knew it”). Krista encouraged her students to trust their emotions and develop skilled intuition, helping them become successful problem-solvers. And she was working within the confines of a traditional school. Imagine what Krista might accomplish with students whose interest is deeper than simply finding right answers.

Reflection and self-awareness play a critical role in our making sense of the world, including what we study in school. Immordino-Yang, Joanna Christodoulou, and Vanessa Singh have explored the brain’s primary systems involving attention: the externally directed system activated when we focus on tasks like solving math problems and the internally directed system (the default mode of the brain) activated when we engage in what they call “constructive internal reflection.” “Effortful internal focus,” they write, “is potentially important for making meaning of new information and for distilling creative connections … between complex ideas.”3

Immordino-Yang and others present a compelling case for helping young people become skillful at toggling between external and internal attentional states. Learning involves not just focusing on lessons and tasks but thinking deeply about them—reflecting on and making sense of what is being learned, especially in the context of the learner’s life. All the more reason to redesign schools so that young people experience them as places where they engage with ideas and questions that matter to them, that feel important to their lives, that invite reflection. Immordino-Yang observes, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about.” This observation should shake a typical school’s foundations.

What I have presented here is a look at critical ways emotion and thinking intertwine: the motivational significance of emotional relevance, the value of putting learners in touch with their intuitive feelings, and the power of reflection in making emotional meaning. Emphasizing emotional intelligence as a subject for separate focus to assist students with self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills and, especially, coping with lessons from which they are emotionally disconnected seems too narrow. My hope is that this brief overview might stimulate interest in exploring the research itself. Below are three essays, all readable and rich in their implications for how schools might better integrate EQ and IQ, interdependent partners in education:  The above three essays are also available in Immordino-Yang’s book: Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (New York: Norton, 2015).
Finally, another more recent article worth reading in Educational Leadership is “Building Meaning Builds Teens’ Brains,” by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Douglas R. Knecht, Educational Leadership (May 2020, pp. 36-43).


  • 1 Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education. 1(1): 3-10.
  • 2 Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Faeth, M. (2010). The role of emotion and skilled intuition in learning. In D. A. Sousa (Ed.), Mind, brain, and education: Neuroscience for the education classroom. Solution Tree Press, 74.
  • 3 Immordino-Yang, M. H., Christodoulou, J. A., & Singh, V. (2012). Rest is not idleness: Implications of the brain’s default mode for human development and education. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 7: 359.
Alden S. Blodget

Alden S. Blodget spent nearly 40 years in independent schools as a teacher and administrator. He is the author of Learning, Schooling, and the Brain: New Research vs. Old Assumptions.