Emotional Connections, One Bite At A Time

According to a recent blog post by the New York Times, the brain is not wired to think deeply about things about which it does not care. In other words, when our students say they don’t care about what we teach, or they don’t think they’ll “use” our content areas in the so-called “real world,” they may actually be expressing something that cuts to the heart of how our minds work: in order to learn deeply, we need an emotional attachment to the content we study.

From the NYT blog item:

Emotion is where learning begins, or, as is often the case, where it ends. Put simply, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about,” she said. … Creating this emotional connection might sound like a daunting task, but research has shown that the investment reaps huge dividends in the form of increased learning and better grades. When teachers take the time to learn about their students’ likes, dislikes and personal interests, whether it’s racial issues brewing at their school, their after-school job, or their dreams and goals, learning improves.

For many teachers, however, this is easier said than done. If we find ourselves teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or how to solve a system of equations using the substitution method, it can be challenging to connect this to a student’s “dislikes and personal interests” – especially if the student does not have any obvious interests with a clear connection to our content. The issue can become even more complicated by the fact that, with a high school workload of 120 students or more, maybe everyone’s interests are sufficiently different such that we can’t find a silver-bullet strategy to make everyone care emotionally about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

So how do we truly assess and utilize student interests, if we have too many to attend to at once? A friend once posed me the riddle: “How do you eat an elephant?” When I had no clue how to respond, he revealed, “One bite at a time.” No one says you need to remember the interests of 120 students all at once, and attend to all of these interests, simultaneously, every day. Rather, consider tackling the issue “one bite at a time.”

Maybe there is a particular student, in one class, who stands out: perhaps grades have dropped, or engagement behaviors have changed, or there just seems to be something different. That might be a good time to go back to your interest inventories from the first week of school. (Or, if you didn’t conduct such interest inventories, maybe now is a good time to start.) Perhaps the student in question shared something that can be an entry point into reconnecting with him or her. It can be a way to re-ignite interest.

Of course we can’t align all of our lessons to the personal interests of 120 different students, but if a few of them are struggling, maybe we can align our intervention or differentiation efforts to the interests of those few.

Once again, it takes intentional strategies to gather and use the information. In addition, students need to be able to apply knowledge through hands-on activities to see the implications this has to real world experiences. All learners love to have choice when it comes to demonstrating an understanding that relates to their preferred learning style.

Even if we can’t figure out to connect emotionally with all of our students, we can still take that “first bite,” so to speak, working to reach the ones who need us the most.

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