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How To Make Your Teaching Meaningful And Memorable

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A second post title: Evoke Feelings for Fractions, Photosynthesis, & Forces. 

Some people might find it odd to read feelings and fractions in the same sentence.  The truth is, we don’t talk much about feelings in education. When we do, our discussion tends to focus on the social and emotional needs of students rather than on feelings about subject matter content. There are many reasons for this, but I think one of the most important is that many people don’t believe feelings have anything  to do with serious learning—that is, the serious learning of the 5-year-old making sense of colour, the 16-year-old exploring trigonometry, or 27-year-old studying literature.  Worse, many people  hold the misconception that emotions actually interfere with learning.  

Recent findings in affective neuroscience research disprove this troubling and damaging idea. In fact, Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s research indicates the reverse is true.  In her new book Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (2015; Norton & Company) Immordino-Yang describes how emotional engagement is crucial in all subject areas and for all ages of students.  Her thesis is this: emotion is the mind’s rudder; it directs all learning: “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion.” So, when we ignore the role of emotion in learning, we neglect one of the most powerful ways human beings make meaning of their experiences. 

We need to have feelings for fractions, photosynthesis, and forces if we are going to learn about them. We need to enable our students to form an emotional connection with cell division, citizenship, censorship, and civil war.  Dinosaurs, division, drama.  (I could go on with this alphabet game.) As Kieran Egan has shown so thoroughly and engagingly in his writing, when topics are shaped in ways that leave students feeling something about them, then teaching becomes story-telling.  This is the key to making all teaching meaningful and memorable.

Making Knowledge Meaningful & Memorable:  The Tools

I often hear the argument that educating people is easier now because there is a wealth of knowledge readily available on the internet. I hope to convince you that access to knowledge is not the greatest challenge that educators face. Making knowledge meaningful and memorable to students is. How often have you read something and, soon after, completely forgot about it? How often have you spent time “surfing the web” only to leave with absolutely nothing learned?

Again: It’s not access to knowledge that is our greatest challenge as educators—though the internet does offer us a great resource of course—helping students retain, apply, and enjoy that knowledge is.

The first and most important step to making anything you teach more meaningful and memorable is this: Think about what it is about the topic that engages you. This is the emotional significance of the topic.  When you shape your teaching in ways that engage your students' with the emotional significance of a topic they remember it.  They care about it.

Quick example for teaching about the Properties of the Air or the Water Cycle (Elementary Science Curriculum) : Is it the richness of the air that engages you? We could spend our lives studying what constitutes the "empty" air around us.  Or is it the permanence of water?  We simply can not get rid of it. (Learn How To Find The Story in a topic here.)

You may find it odd that I have bumped learning objectives from centre stage (Isn’t identification of learning objectives the first and most important step for planning? That is what I was told in my teacher training program.) I am not suggesting we throw out our learning outcomes or objectives (or whatever we currently call those "targets")—these are crucial to teaching. Nor am I suggesting our classrooms be full of roller coasters of jubilation followed by gutt-rotting despair.   Human emotions are much more varied and complex: curiosity, intrigue, joy, sadness, pleasure, fear, confusion, satisfaction, jealousy and on and on and on...

What I am suggesting is that objectives and outcomes do not acknowledge the role of human emotion in what is meaningful to them. We need to acknowledge that the knowledge we retain, the knowledge that matters to us, has somehow engaged our emotions. We need to talk more about feelings and subject matter content.  When teaching becomes story-telling we, like our ancestors before us, make knowledge memorable and we maximize learning.

This is just the beginning. Stay tuned for my next posts: ready-to-use tips for teaching that will engage your students’ emotions and imaginations with all subject matter.


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Gillian Judson (@perfinker) teaches/writes/researches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in B.C., Canada, co-directs the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG), and coordinates Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) research and practice. Her work is primarily concerned with the role of imagination in all learning.  She also investigates how an ecological and imaginative approach to education can both increase students’ engagement with, and understanding of, the content of the curriculum but can show it in a light that can lead to a sophisticated ecological consciousness. 

Gillian writes on a range of educatonal topics but especially about imagination, creativity, wonder, story, and ecological/place-based teaching practices. She is author of the books Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education: Practical Strategies For Teaching (Pacific Educational Press, 2015) and A New Approach to Ecological Education:  Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World (New York:  Peter Lang; 2010). She most recently co-authored a book called Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. (New York: Teachers’ College Press; in press). 

She has also edited the book Teaching 360°: Effective Learning Through The Imagination (Rotterdam: Sense Publishing, 2008) and co-edited the books Engaging Imagination and Developing Creativity in Education (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press; 2015) and Wonder-Full Education:  The Centrality of Wonder (New York: Routledge; 2013).

She started a blog in 2016. Learn all about imagination-focused practices (K-post secondary) at imaginED: education that inspires.

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Guest Monday, 24 June 2019