The relevance of affect in education

In previous posts, we have reviewed some of the important aspects of certain cognitive abilities termed executive functions. In this post, we review the importance of emotions and their relationship with these cognitive abilities and explore an area also known as emotional thought.

Neurobiological evidence suggests that the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision-making, and social functioning, are all profoundly affected by and subsumed within processes of emotion.  These aspects are deemed emotional thought.

When teaching children, emphasis is sometimes placed on logical reasoning and factual knowledge and these may be used as the most direct indicators of educational success.  These are both processes that tend to involve little interaction or emotion, and a great deal of repetition.  We are going to address two problems associated with this approach. First, neither learning nor recall happen in a purely rational domain, divorced from emotion. Second, in teaching students to minimize the emotional aspects of their academic curriculum, educators may be encouraging them to develop the sorts of knowledge that inherently do not transfer well to real world situations. That is, simply having the knowledge does not imply that a student will be able to use it advantageously outside the school.

The emotional thought refers to emotional processes that allow the student to make use of knowledge that they have acquired in school, and transfer this knowledge to real-life situations.  This implies that emotions have an important role in helping students to choose when and how to use what they have learnt in schools and how it can be transferred into real world situations.  Emotions can help us to pinpoint the knowledge or skills that we have which can be applied to the current situation or problem.  In other words, emotional thought is like an emotional rudder that guides us in choosing the most appropriate response to a situation.

Emotional thought in the classroom is difficult to study from a neuroscientific point of view and much of what scientists know about this area comes from medical case studies.  Although these are limited in terms of the parallels that can be drawn when looking standard patterns of learning, they do help us to imagine what processes may be taking place in order for successful knowledge transfer to take place.

An interesting observation comes from patients who present with brain lesions (normally from stroke or trauma to the brain) the result of which is a disruption to their affective thought processes, thus impeding their ability to interact with external stimuli.  These patients develop difficulties functioning in society and can no longer apply new or previously obtained knowledge to everyday situations, despite being cognitively normal in the traditional IQ sense.  This is thought to be because they have lost their ability to analyse events for emotional consequences and to tag memories of these events accordingly.  Their emotions appear dissociated from their rational thought, resulting in compromised reasoning, decision making and learning.

In conclusion, is not enough to simply gain information; we must be able to transfer this knowledge to different situations.  To make this possible it is important that we make use of cognitive abilities like executive functions, but without minimizing the importance emotions in our thought processing. This is why it is vital to include and stimulate both emotional thought and executive functions in the school environment.