• Aaron Daffern

Creating Emotional Anchors for Learning


Photo by Yan Krukov from Pexels

Sometimes teachers don’t need research to tell them something they already know through observation and/or common sense. For example, I don’t need a rigidly controlled double-blind laboratory study to let me know that students exhibit higher levels of engagement in daily tasks when they are not knee-deep in a wading pool filled with Madagascar hissing cockroaches. I can pretty much figure that out on my own, thank you very much.


Similarly, I found that when teaching writing, time spent on grammar rules and usage rarely made a lasting impact. No matter how many worksheets my students completed on punctuation or prepositional phrases, none of it ever seemed to transfer. Days of drilling on the correct use of good and well made no difference when I asked them to write authentically.


And don’t even get me started on quotations and the use of dialogue. I finally just told my students that no one was allowed to talk in their stories. Ever!


It wasn’t until recently, though, that I finally understood why grammar practice never transferred to student writing. Neuroscience has shown that emotion, once thought to be separate from cognition, is in fact integral to all thought. To be succinct, there is no such thing as rational thought apart from emotion.


How Brain Damage Affects Decision-Making

This discovery first came about when scientists studied adults who suffered from early-onset prefrontal brain damage as children. These patients could logically discuss social norms and the best decisions to make in hypothetical situations. However, the patients’ decision-making abilities in their own lives were severely compromised. They were oblivious to the consequences of their actions, insensitive to others’ emotions, and unable to learn from their mistakes. 


In addition to severe social deficits, they also showed serious difficulty making rational decisions. They performed poorly in their jobs even though they had the required skills. They made disadvantageous business decisions and choose partners that were not a beneficial match for them. 


With testing, researchers showed that these patients did not suffer from damage to their logical abilities or their knowledge base. The injury due to their brain damage instead affected their emotional capacity. Both their social emotions such as compassion and guilt and emotional reactions had been compromised. These patients had lost the ability to evoke emotions tied to past associations as a guide for properly responding to present experiences. They never made any progress emotionally.


Emotions and Cognition

Emotions, then, are the underlying support for all cognition. They are the glue, so to speak, that attaches knowledge together. Emotion makes experiences accessible for future recall as a reference for decision-making. Learning done without an emotional context is sterile and ineffective.


Please take a moment to consider two questions:

  1. What did you eat for dinner last Thursday?

  2. What did you eat for dinner last Thanksgiving?

You would think that the first question would be easier to answer since it occurred more recently. Perhaps if you went on a date or had a nice meal with your family you can remember. Chances are, though, you don’t remember specific details. I sure don’t.

Thanksgiving, though, is a completely different matter. If you know my wife, I highly recommend asking her for her Awesome Sausage, Apple, Cranberry Stuffing recipe. It is so mouth-wateringly delicious that my boys and I have considered asking her to forego the turkey and just double up on the stuffing – it’s that good. Put the turkey and stuffing together with rolls, green bean casserole, real mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, and assorted desserts that start and end with my mother-in-law’s famous Chocolate Delight, and Thanksgiving is an annual tradition in gluttony that serves as a guidepost for every calendar year in the Daffern household.


Emotions and Memory

The difference is emotion. A whole host of emotions exist that are associated with Thanksgiving, ranging from gratitude to exuberance. I’m sure last Thursday’s meal was edible but there wasn’t enough emotion involved in eating it to make a dent on my psyche. If you comb through memories of events, movies, or people that have stuck with you over the years, you’ll find emotion wrapped up in each of them.


I never found a way as a teacher to create emotional anchors for grammar, though. Instead, I beat my head against the wall year after year, wondering what the previous grade levels were teaching, and plowed through the various parts of speech. If I knew then what I know now, I would have approached grammar completely differently.


Creating Emotional Anchors

Successful writing teachers find emotional tie-ins for their students in order to make grammar memorable and transferrable to personal writing. Some ditch all their worksheets (a move I applaud) and base all instruction on the students’ writing. Through the emotions usually encountered when truly creating writing of one’s own accord (as opposed to responding robotically to prompts passed out on worksheets), teachers can leverage the emotional power of writing itself to work on improving word choice, subject-verb agreement, and sentence structure. Other teachers make the learning of grammar rules themselves fun by incorporating mnemonics, raps, or other techniques designed to elicit emotional connectivity.

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