Putting Relationships at the Core

Recently in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote a column about the importance of emotion in learning. Excerpts from his piece appear below:

We used to have this top-down notion that reason was on a teeter-totter with emotion. If you wanted to be rational and think well, you had to suppress those primitive gremlins, the emotions. Teaching consisted of dispassionately downloading knowledge into students’ brains.

Then work by cognitive scientists like Antonio Damasio showed us that emotion is not the opposite of reason; it’s essential to reason. Emotions assign value to things. If you don’t know what you want, you can’t make good decisions.

Furthermore, emotions tell you what to pay attention to, care about and remember. It’s hard to work through difficulty if your emotions aren’t engaged. Information is plentiful, but motivation is scarce.

That early neuroscience breakthrough reminded us that a key job of a school is to give students new things to love — an exciting field of study, new friends. It reminded us that what teachers really teach is themselves — their contagious passion for their subjects and students. It reminded us that children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person.

Over the last several years our understanding of the relationship between emotion and learning has taken off. Everything is integrated. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California shows that even “sophisticated” emotions like moral admiration are experienced partly by the same “primitive” parts of the brain that monitor internal organs and the viscera. Our emotions literally affect us in the gut.

Suzanne Dikker of New York University has shown that when classes are going well, the student brain activity synchronizes with the teacher’s brain activity. In good times and bad, good teachers and good students co-regulate each other.

The bottom line is this, a defining question for any school or company is: What is the quality of the emotional relationships here?

And yet think about your own school or organization. Do you have a metric for measuring relationship quality? Do you have teams reviewing relationship quality? Do you know where relationships are good and where they are bad? How many recent ed reform trends have been about relationship-building?

How would you design a school if you wanted to put relationship quality at the core?

For more, see https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/17/opinion/learning-emotion-education.html