I know I said I was going to make a follow-up post on the term â€œfeminismâ€? and why it might be useful, but I thought Iâ€™d make another post or two in the meantime on different subjects so people donâ€™t get too burned out on the subject of feminism. This post is on two of my favorite topics: emotion and education.
Typically, we envision teaching and learning as part of an intellectual exercise. One model is that the teacher shares information with the learners that they did not previously know. Another model is that the teacher acts as a moderator for learners to explore ideas and learn how to develop critical thinking skills. Generally, teaching and learning are considered to be things that primarily involve our mind or our intellect.
While I think the church complicates this paradigm with its basic model of using the Spirit to teach, today I want to discuss the role of emotion in teaching and learning, because I donâ€™t think it gets enough attention. My general argument is that the emotional atmosphere of a classroom (or other educational setting) has a strong impact on how students learn; while learning has strong intellectual components, if students are too uncomfortable (angry, annoyed, fearful, etc.), they are going to tune out and refuse to engage in the learning process.
Here are a few examples from my academic experiences, and then Iâ€™ll consider what this means in a church context:
The first few years I taught freshman writing (which I teach every year), the students displayed such a high anxiety about grades that it interfered with the purpose of the class: to improve their writing. A couple of years ago, I set up a contract grading system. Students are guaranteed a certain grade in the class as long as they work hard on their writing all semester and adhere to some other behavioral requirements. At the end of the semester, they turn in a portfolio of revised work that is their single graded assignment for the semester. What I love about the system is that students focus on their writing the whole semester without worrying about grades. When they are given a grade, itâ€™s on writing that theyâ€™ve been working on improving over the course of a semester, and itâ€™s usually pretty good. Everyoneâ€™s writing improves, and I donâ€™t have to deal with students coming in to my office every week going â€œI donâ€™t understand why I got a B on this paper. How do I get an A in this class?â€? Because everyoneâ€™s anxiety levels go way down, students are really able to focus on how to improve their writing.
In my literature classes Iâ€™ve noticed that students often have a negative response to a text, but feel like they have to pretend to like it or the teacher will hold it against them. When this happens, there is a disconnect between their experience of the text and how theyâ€™re discussing it, which means that theyâ€™re less likely to learn from any discussions we have about the text. I donâ€™t let my students have class sessions where they only talk about what they like and dislike about texts because that is not what Iâ€™m there to teach them. But I allow them to say â€œthe Transcendentalist essays were crazy and overwhelmingâ€? because then we can have a conversation about what they might be doing textually thatâ€™s making the students feel overwhelmed. Or if they donâ€™t like Puritan journals, we can have a discussion about how writing conventions and literature has changed over the past few hundred years and how that may be contributing to their dislike of these texts.
Emotion is just as important when we think about teaching and learning in a church context, which was reiterated to me by a couple of bloggernacle posts on church meetings this past week. In the comments on Roasted Tomatoesâ€™ Sunday School post at LDSLF, he reminds us the effect an atmosphere of fear can have on a classroom: â€œâ€¦we have to develop the attitude that a stray remark or an unresolved question isnâ€™t going to destroy a testimony. If we conduct our courses in a climate of fearâ€”fear that a wrong word might be said and therefore that everyone in the room will leave the churchâ€”we foreclose the possibility of a meaningful experience for anyone.â€? Jacob at New Cool Thang talks about passive aggressive tendencies in Relief Society, and how when people are culturally discouraged from conflict as a communication style, we can end up with an equally problematic emotional dynamic.
Iâ€™ve thought about the role that emotion plays in church classrooms quite a lot, especially as Iâ€™ve thought how to improve my own experiences as a teacher and student. Iâ€™ve pondered how to negotiate different emotional styles in a classroom. Some people are more conflict-oriented than others, and if the discussion tends toward one extreme or the other (lots of heated debate, or lots of happy, feel-good statements), a percentage of the class is going to tune out. Iâ€™ve thought about how to to negotiate disagreement in a healthy, productive, learning-friendly way, because disagreement is something that can easily derail the emotional dynamic of a class. Iâ€™ve thought about how to encourage genuine emotional expression in ways that relieve fears and discourage things like passive agression or fake sympathy.
Ultimately, I think my greatest lesson on emotion and teaching in church settings came from the year and a half I taught Primary. When I first started teaching, the kids were a bit rambunctious, and since I am a very bad authoritarian, my class was a bit rambunctious for awhile. However, I noticed that once they were able to sense how much I cared about them and how much I loved teaching them every week, things began to calm down. Yes, we still did lots of acting out of stories and coloring and playing games (they were 5 years old, and it was the third hour of church). When there is an emotional environment of love and respect, whether it’s in Primary or elsewhere, it’s much easier for learning to occur.
So, what kinds of problematic emotional dynamics have you noticed in church classes? And what can we do (as both teachers and students) do to make the emotional atmosphere of a class more condusive to learning?