Educating hearts and minds

Last Updated 19 October 2022, 10:16 IST

Whether a person is left-brained or right-brained is one of the neuromyths that pervade popular culture. Left-brained people are believed to be more logical and analytical, right-brainers are considered to be more creative and emotional. However, the fact that various parts of the brain are highly interlinked and work together in concert is often overlooked when people speak in broad generalisations.

In fact, both cognition and emotion are subserved by both hemispheres. That said, the left hemisphere (in right-handed people) is responsible for the verbal aspects of language processing, while the right hemisphere is more involved with music, art and emotional perception.

Regardless of which hemisphere subserves thinking and feeling, a question that educators may address concerns the relative importance accorded to cognition and emotion in our schools. Most schools prioritise the former while either giving short shrift or entirely ignoring the latter. However, this approach of emphasising thinking over feeling is actually counterproductive and definitely not the most attuned way of promoting learning.

Foremost, teachers should recognise that basic cognitive faculties, like attention and memory, are highly influenced by emotional processes. For example, if a child is feeling angry, disappointed or anxious, for whatever reason, he or she will find it difficult to attend and focus on what the teacher is saying. As a result, the child may process the content only superficially, leading to weak memory traces.

Second, students learn best when they are motivated to learn something. Understanding the larger purpose of why they have to contend with tedious equations or voluminous information may spur students to invest the effort to master difficult concepts. If teachers spend some time helping students appreciate the significance of why they are learning a particular concept, students are more likely to persevere when the going gets tough. If they understand the potential social impact that could result from mastering a lesson, students are more likely to exhibit deeper engagement.

Creating conducive climate

Additionally, teachers may also create conducive classroom climates that promote intrinsic motivation. Eminent psychologist Edward Deci posits in his book, Why we do what we do, that the three psychological nutrients of affiliation, agency and autonomy fuel intrinsic motivation. Affiliation involves a sense of belonging or connectedness with the teacher and other pupils. Students who have a bond with one another are more likely to learn in class than a child who feels alienated from fellow pupils.

Agency refers to a child’s sense of competence wherein she believes that her skills and knowledge are enough to address a set of task demands. Autonomy implies giving children freedom or control over the decisions that impact them. This should not be mistaken for permissiveness or letting them do whatever they please. It helps students make responsible choices by setting limits that are developmentally appropriate for them.

Besides fostering engagement and focus, a warm classroom climate also reduces the incidence of behavioural issues. When a teacher establishes positive rapport with students by being empathetic to their concerns, needs and perspective, students are less likely to act out in class. The time and effort teachers spend into promoting socio-emotional skills in the classroom will reap rich dividends as the teacher will subsequently spend less time disciplining students and exhorting them to focus on the lesson. As a result, students who are motivated to learn will be more focused on the lesson and are likely to make optimal gains in their learning.

Just like putting energy and effort into creating meaningful curricula for academic subjects, schools can also plan a socioemotional literacy curriculum. But in case of the latter, it’s not enough to teach these skills in assigned periods. Rather, they have to be practised by staff and students right through the day and woven into the routines, rules and rhythm of a school’s culture.

By catering to the needs of the heart and mind, of both students and teachers, schools may morph into spaces where individuals and the collective thrive in tandem.

(The author is a psychologist and writer)

(Published 19 October 2022, 10:09 IST)

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