International College Hong Kong
Nov 21, 2016

The Role of Emotions in Learning

The third transversal conclusion drawn by the OECD speaks directly to the wealth of research that confirms that learning results from the dynamic interplay of emotions and cognition.

Indeed, to one extent or another, emotions are always either supporting or inhibiting learning, and the job of school is to create the mood-environment in which learning is made more not less likely.

However, as the OECD point out, "this interplay is much easier to acknowledge in theory than it is to truly absorb and act upon". This is not least because the emotions that primarily militate against learning (chronic stress and disempowerment) are positively built into the conditions that attach to much school learning, especially at the secondary level and especially in the examination years, i.e. all of years 10 to 13.

Meeting this recommendation, then, is a difficult brief; and yet we do believe that, at ICHK, we not only go beyond acknowledging and paying lip service to this dynamic relationship, but, via the 5+1 model, actively create the conditions that provide for students to thrive emotionally and, therefore, to learn optimally.

Sympathy for the Teenage Predicament

There are two primary ways in which 5+1 promotes a teenage learner-friendly environment, though, as always, actually, all five dimensions are in play, and it is the complexity of their interaction and mutual reinforcement that lends the model its force.

First, 5+1 reminds us, through the work of Erik Erikson, that teenagers are undertaking a very particular phase of life – one that makes unique demands on them of which they have no previous experience. Erikson suggests that the teenage years witness the emergence of a new set of psychosocial questions and dilemmas, unique to the adolescent. If the primary years prompt the young learner to gain a sense of herself in the realm of competence ("Can I make it in a world of objects and tasks?"), the secondary years, at least from about Year 8 or 9 onwards, tend to pose a different set of interconnected riddles – who am I, what do I stand for, and what am I to become?

In the adolescent phase, questions of identity and orientation become uppermost in young people's minds: what do and should I believe in? How can I make myself (my self) clear and visible to others? What image do I want to promote? How can I hold my own in a world of other people?

At ICHK, teachers are reminded to remain mindful of the teenage learner’s necessary but tiring and, occasionally, frustrating "identity work" at all times. We recognise that it is right and proper that secondary school students will begin to push at the boundaries of their established ‘selves’, that they will need to expand beyond the personality they have developed as ‘children’, and that, once in a while, they will make mistakes, get things wrong and manage these new demands a little clumsily. This can be galling and challenging for adults; but to remain sympathetic, while still establishing clear boundaries and modelling positive possible solutions, is a critical part of being a secondary school teacher – and one that is explicitly built into the profile developed in our staff through an allegiance to 5+1.

Communicating with Realism and Empathy

The second highly relevant aspect of the model, which supports us in our aim of being sympathetic guides and models for our students as they navigate the teenage years, is an appreciation of Eric Berne's transactional analysis (TA).

Examined in detail, TA is a complex and sometimes elusive body of theory, but for us it is sufficient to rely on it to prompt us into more adult conversations with students – and to equip them to do likewise with each other and with us, their teachers.

The adult state reflects an honest, open, reasoned and reasonable acceptance of the "here and now", a willingness to put aside prejudice or "baggage" from the past, and a sincere commitment to understanding the position and needs of the person to whom one is talking. This does not mean agreeing with or allowing everything they say, it does mean taking their perspective seriously and following through its feelings and logic.

That's a tall order, and many full-grown adults, to say nothing of children and youngsters, find it a struggle to reach, let alone sustain, such a frame of mind. However, that does not mean it is not worth trying and, with mindful practice, we can all get more accomplished at transacting with openness and equanimity – and with a view to acknowledging what is real and objectively useful, rather than what is imagined but psychologically self-serving.

At ICHK, we teach students the rudiments of Transactional Analysis via Human Technologies in Year 9, but reference to Berne's insights are built into our Approaches to Learning from Year 7 onwards. These encourage the adoption and maintenance of a form of self-regulation that makes switching between ego states more mindful, directed and goal–orientated. For Berne, all the ego states and their various subdivisions have their uses and are valuable at different times and when aimed at different outcomes – so, it is in knowing which state best serves you at any given moment and being able to orientate oneself into that state that TA’s strengths lie.

For staff and students, encouraging a mental attitude of alertness to one's own moods and feelings and to those of others is an important pay-off from a conversancy with TA. We are confident that, via the 5+1 model, this is something that plays a significant role in strengthening relationships at ICHK and that it is through the nurturance of positive relationships that the goal of optimal learning is brought that much closer.

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