Liveblog: CALRG reading group – ‘We feel, therefore we learn.

This week’s CALRG reading group discussed the paper: ‘We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education’ by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio.

We did something a little different for the reading group this week, by starting out with a video introduction by the author. We then split into two groups to discuss two separate prompts (you can read through those on the CALRG blog) before coming together for a full group discussion. Unfortunately, this means I can’t provide a full summary of the conversations that came from the discussions, but below is my liveblog summary of what I heard.

Each bullet represents one point made in the discussion (which does not necessarily represent my own views). As always, please excuse any typos or errors as it was written on the fly.


  • The term “mind, brain and education” comes from the debate about the ability for neuroscience to influence education. There’s a question about whether there’s a bridge too far. Is it too much of a reach to say you understand how the brain works, and apply that to education? In the “bridge too far criticism,” they argue what is needed is, first, a connection between the brain and cognitive psychology, and then connecting that to education in a two-step process. This paper is in volume one, edition one of this new journal. In this discussion, we’ll be having discussion groups considering those two bridges separately: (1) Instruction to cognition, and (2) Cognition to neural circuitry.

Small group discussion

Our prompt:  “Sharon Griffin, Robbie Case, and Bob Siegler applied the methods of cognitive psychology to analyze the cognitive skills and knowledge children must have to succeed in learning elementary arithmetic (Griffin, Case, & Siegler, 1994). They found that the ability to do numerical comparisons – which is bigger, 5 or 7?-is one such skill. They also found that some children from low-SES homes may not acquire this skill before entering school, but with appropriate instruction, they can acquire it. Their work is but one example of a bridge that exists between cognitive psychology and instruction.”

After reading “We Feel, Therefore we Learn” does the Instruction to Cognition describe the work outlined? Would it be useful in pursuing further research based on this paper? How would you apply this concept in testing ideas presented in this paper?”

  • An obvious question is whether they are talking about learning, instruction or education in this article? They seem to use these concepts somewhat interchangeably. Where is any evidence about how to do education research or instruction?
  • The examples they provide are about how people learn in a reductive way. How does that then connect to how you instruct people?
  • Maybe that’s one argument they are trying to make, that they’ve accomplished this much so far in neuroscience, but more research is needed to connect that with what we’ve done in education
  • Cognition needs to come into play when discussing instructional design, but I don’t know if there are frameworks existing in that sense yet
  • The paper talks a lot about emotions and social embodiment (but I’m not sure she used that word), which links to a ton of sociological research that isn’t mentioned. There’s a huge number of philosophers and educationalists that think we need to think beyond the brain to the outside social world. But I have difficulties seeing how they would connect emotions and the social world.
  • It’s difficult to draw a simple line between these points – there’s a lack of clear definition of these terms in the paper.
  • The connection is there but there is little discussion about the direction. Is our brain influenced by the social world around us, or is the social world impacted by what is going on in our brains? Or both?
  • There’s also a lack of examples or thorough experiments about how this would play out in an actual classroom – how do we take an idea from neuroscience and then use that knowledge to change learning? We’re supposed to talk about the link from instruction to cognition, but we are maybe more interested in cognition to instruction in education research.
  • I think I can’t make the connection between her theory of emotion and cognition with how it can be connected with instructional design or learning materials. Does it have an effect?
  • I can certainly get on board with the idea that emotions are important to learning, but I’m not really sure what to do with it in my own practice or my own research.
  • Can we think of any examples of our own lives about emotions and learning?
  • I personally feel you have to have some element of stress in order to learn.
  • Perhaps there must be research out there already on what motivates us to learn in terms of emotion.
  • Is there an ethical implication when it comes to emotions in learning? What if we find that people learn best when they are angry or stressed? What do we do with that?
  • We already measure satisfaction of students and have found that it doesn’t necessarily link to their success. So maybe we are aware of this already on some level.
  • The paper almost ignores the things that we are aleady doing in education about emotions – there’s plenty of research on things like satisfaction and motivation, which are surely emotional but they aren’t mentioned in this article. Maybe the point is we don’t think specifically about emotion and it might be more useful to think in those explicit terms.
  • Maybe it’s connecting emotions with related concepts that we do actually spend a lot of time on in education.
  • We actually do complete research on things like social integration or psychological/mental health and the learning experience, so we are doing research on emotions but perhaps not calling them emotions
  • Perhaps we are looking more on a shallow way than digging as deep as neuroscience
  • I’m not sure it’s shallow. We could give people a validated scale for emotions, and we don’t generally use them. But the research we do might bring out the same elements. For example, there’s was a project called Xdenia that we did here that looked at stress and learning.
  • It also might depend on the person and how they manage stress.  I think that’s what the author was saying in the video, that we are very influenced by our social experiences in how we learn.
  • The more we can understand about neuroscience, the more we can explain these sort of phenomenon we see in the classroom
  • If you look at the citations in this article, though, none of them come from education. So she’s making an argument that we need to think more about emotions in our research when they are not thinking about education in their own research
  • Learning theories are missing from this article and the different forms of evidence that are valid. Perhaps emotions are a link to this and the huge amount of research on children – how can these known stages of development impact education and how we teach.
  • It’s not clear to me how they perceive education’s role in this and it isn’t grounded in current work in our field, so it’s difficult to make that connection
  • How can we link things like the research on maths anxiety with neuroscientific research? Maybe some part of her model, the emotion or cognition, is different based on past experiences or social connections.
  • The paper would be much better if it was more balanced between the fields and used more explicit connections to examples in education
  • All fields look at education from a different perspective. Neuroscience says it’s about emotions, sociology says it’s about social relationships, etc. But in reality what we need is a combination of all of these findings in different fields to make up a more complex picture of learning
  • You’re always from perspectives, but what you need is the ability to step outside your own field and think about education from these different aspects. I wonder if they even talked to educators or education researchers
  • It’s a complexity thing, isn’t it? There’s a reason why we understand young children more than adults because there’s less prior experience and variation perhaps. There are more areas to consider as people have more experiences and things become different as you look at higher levels of education.
  • She seems to be making the argument that researchers have no understanding about emotions, but that seems too narrow. To build a bridge, you have to spend some time on the other side of it.

Whole group discussion

  • Research in education is not taking into account what is happening in the brain. Perhaps we should be testing educational theories more explicitly, which could help make results more rigorous.
  • We were grasping for examples but not really finding good examples of where this works through and how it helps us understand learning and its link to instruction. We could use a really nice example of where this would work in practice in research.
  • She started on one end and can see there’s an education community over there, so I’ve gone this far and need someone coming from the other end.
  • We have to keep in mind that this is volume one, issue one. It’s  an appealing anecdote to get us interested without an evidence base, but maybe that was the point in this first issue and more work ahs been done since then
  • It very colourfully describes the concepts that the author wants you to connect with in an emotional way. That might be part of the volume one, issue one – a need to get people on board.
  • We saw this as a perspective of her discipline, but maybe she could have done more to build that bridge.
  • Group 1 talked about: the point of when they discussed the young damaged brains that had long term effects that didn’t change over time. This was an important clue that in many cases it seems that they recover, but that wasn’t true with children. It might have some different attributes, which we thought were interesting. This led us to talk about distinguishes between brain damaged brains and autism, emotional trauma and dementia. There’s a need to understand different types of brains and their connection to learning. We questioned what this means for our own research. We talked about children in care briefly and how they had some strong indications that they would not achieve as well, and have a very different type of emotional process for learning. We felt like the paper didn’t cover the actually learning process well enough to start making connections to transfer of knowledge outside the classroom. We also discussed whether understanding the brain better would lead to more ability to create artificial intelligence, and the question of whether emotions are beneficial to people specifically or thinking and learning more generally. Would an AI need to be emotional to learn? Or would it need a new process of learning?
  • The most interesting thing is where the two groups came up with the same ideas. We both talked about maths anxiety, and that’s something we can see in actually incorporate into our research
  • From a student experience, it might be helpful to use evidence from neuroscience to show to them that they learn better in certain circumstances.
  • We as researchers struggle to understand the role emotions in learning, but students probably have varying degrees of insights in the roles of emotions in their own learning processes. One of the thing that should be pursued is helping people understand the role that emotions play in their own learning. It’s an ethical necessity.
  • Connection to learning analytics: One of the problems that some experts foresaw was that we shouldn’t give work that is too challenging or frustrating, but from an education point of view you need to encounter challenge and failure and those need to be built in.
  • There are all these concepts that we know about already in education that connect with emotions. How do we translate between the two fields, rather than starting from scratch or just the neuroscience point of view?
  • That came up in Innovating Pedagogy  discussions – learning through failure
  • Connection to parenting skills – I never ask my children to try something again, I ask them to try something and see what happens. I think failure without learning from the failure is the worst. You need to build within it a reflection aspect to learn from your failures.
  • It also reminded me of Small World Theory, that you will only learn or take information from people you trust.
  • We see that play out in the news… (Note: a good ending point!)

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