“we may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think” (as cited in Merriam & Bierema, 2014 p. 170)
I was drawn to this quote because it seemed to be very much in line with my own beliefs around emotions; that we use thinking (through language) to make sense of what we are feeling at any given moment. In my opinion, our biological responses to some situations are likely quite similar, but we make sense of those responses in a very personal way.
As an example, I was hiking last weekend with a friend and we came to a section of the trail that was still snow covered, and dropped off sharply to one side. To make it across this, we would need to brace ourselves and lean against the mountainside on one side and dig our feet into the snow bank to make sure we didn’t slip over the cliff. I’m going to guess that we likely had the same, or at least similar, biological reactions to this scenario. Focus sharpened, heart rate up, all of the things are bodies do when faced with potentially dangerous situations. We both made it across easily and, as people will do, turned to each other to debrief and reflect on the experience. This is where things get interesting; I found the experience to be fun, exhilarating, and exciting from start to finish, while he found it to be horrifying, terrifying, and he never wanted to do it again.
This is not the first time that I have been hiking in somewhat precarious situations with this friend, and we always face these types of scenarios the same way. What I find curious is that even though neither of us has ever been injured or even had a close call in any of these situations, his experience of this type of situation does not change. He has experienced a multitude of examples that could alter his way of thinking, but it never happens. I suppose that what I get from reflecting on this quote and thinking about it while I consider my friend’s experiences is that deeply rooted emotional beliefs are very hard to change. He will still do the hikes, and venture across the sketchy spots, but he doesn’t enjoy those moments.
Educators need to be aware that adults are going to bring into the classroom similarly held emotional beliefs about their world and themselves, and they are going to have a massive impact on the learner’s experience. Additionally, those beliefs are going to be deeply personal and sometimes hard to access in a classroom. Asking students why they think something is a reasonable question; asking someone why they feel a certain way is a far more challenging question. Getting at the root of emotional experiences with adults can be incredibly transformative, but is the classroom a place to do that, if the emotion in question is being experienced in a negative way?
Exploring the impact of emotion on learning can be an encouragement to try to increase students’ emotional connection to whatever subject matter we may be teaching, but I believe that we need to tread lightly when trying to trigger emotional experiences in adult students. This may be due to the fact that I currently work with a vulnerable population that often experiences low mental health, but I think that as adult educators we need to understand the boundaries of our competencies and be very careful when we are trying to dig into our students’ feelings.
The main insight that I have as a result of this quote is that, when it comes to learning, considering only the cognitive or social aspects of a person’s experience will not be enough. It’s important to realize that what may seem to be an intellectual reaction to something is still affected by feelings. People are not robots; it may seem that someone is not having a ‘feeling’ response to a situation, but the wealth of emotional experience that they bring to the table is always having an impact on their decision making processes. The way that we make sense of the world has always been impacted by our biological and, as a result, emotional experience of it and this cannot be ignored.
Reflecting on this quote lead me to read Emotions and Their Effect on Adult Learning: A Constructivist Perspective, by Shuck, Albornoz, and Winberg (2007) and a quote from that article really struck me;
“the right answers in class are often praised, but what about the courageous answer or genuinely personal response?” (pg 4)
The authors argue that feelings in the classroom cannot be ignored. While I am wary of digging into learners’ past emotional experiences, as I mentioned previously, I think I need to be more open to emotional experiences in a learning environment. I am currently quite aware that many of the students in my workshop are likely coming in with some anxiety or fear around learning and I do my best to create a positive and safe learning environment for all, but I think that my concern around the negative feelings that people have around classroom experiences leads me to attempt to create an environment void of feelings. That is not only impossible (again, we aren’t robots), but also is likely doing a disservice to the participants in my workshops. I need to work towards being more courageous in this regard and engage with my students’ emotional experiences of learning in a way that will enhance the experience for all.
Shuck, B., Albornoz, C., & Winberg, M. (2007). Emotions and their effect on adult learning: A constructivist perspective. In S. M. Nielsen & M. S. Plakhotnik (Eds.), Proceedings of the Sixth Annual College of Education Research Conference: Urban and International Education Section (pp. 108-113). Miami: Florida International University. http://coeweb.fiu.edu/research_conference/
Merriam, S. B. & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.