What Do We Remember About School?--And the neglected component of
This paper arose from a challenge directed to educators in the
keynote address at the international conference on Authentic Learning,
in Santa Barbara, California in August 2010. At this gathering of
international researchers, parents and teachers, Alfie Kohn told the
audience that a key question teachers should ask themselves is,
'what will my students remember in ten years time?'
As we drove home that night, we began to debate, discuss and
reflect deeply on this issue. In the first instance we reflected on our
own schooling, now admittedly way past the ten year mark, and we came to
the conclusion that we remember very little of that time. While we know
that what we learnt gave us an opportunity to make our way in the world,
we also realised that the strongest memories were almost entirely
affective and were related to special friendships, difficult times and a
favourite teacher. From a tacit knowledge viewpoint, we came to realise
that these fragments of memory and perhaps the overall impression of our
school life are deeply rooted in either the memory of emotional
attachment or emotional disengagement. Beyond these elements very little
remained. In the background a Bryan Adams CD was playing the song,
'When There's Love Inside There's a Reason Why' and
this became the focus and title of this paper in what Samaras, Hicks and
Berger (2007, p. 926) would term a 'place experience and place
As we continued the discussion of affective learning through a more
focussed lens of 'self-study research' and the 'active
stages of self-questioning, thinking critically and deliberating
critically' (Austin and Senese, 2007, p. 1233), and then a review
of the literature related to learning in general and the notion of
emotion in the classroom, several key issues arose. While emotional
attachments would appear to be the most enduring of our school
experiences, when it comes to the classroom itself, the role of emotion
in learning and in the classroom setting appears to be in a state of
flux. On one hand researchers have recognised that 'clearly
emotions matter' (Bondi and Smith, 2005, p. 1). However, when it
comes to the notion of optimal learning, the classroom and teachers in
particular, the role of emotion remains largely unexamined, suppressed
and downplayed (Smith, Davidson, Cameron and Bondi, 2009; Fitzsimmons
and Lanphar, 2010).
It is at this point the educational waters become even more
muddied, as the concept of what constitutes 'authentic
learning' has arguably been an ongoing 'bone of
contention' since schools were first formed. Certainly, as Guruz
(2007, p. 5) suggests that debates over this question formed the first
separation from the traditional modes of 'transmission
learning' in higher education into more interrogative modes. As we
see it, this dichotomy stills underpins many of the current debates in
According to Murphy (2009, p. 6) this concept again became the
'buzz word' in education in the last decade of the 20th
century, with the implication educators had now moved on to a new area
of consideration. In his view this teaching approach 'often
included role-playing, real-world experiences, exploration,
experimentation, simulations, discovery, and service learning'.
However, even the most cursory review of the literature related to
education in general, and learning in particular, reveals that rather
than fading into the apparent re-visioning cycles of academic
'education speak', the notion of what constitutes
'authentic learning' is still a 'hot topic' at the
end of the first decade of the new millennia.
Indeed, Saubern (2010) believes that 'the idea of
'authentic learning' has become central to our current ideas
about educating young people ... where the real-life meaning and context
of knowledge is embedded in educational tasks ... real learning in the
real world.'(p. 26). While the elements that constitute authentic
learning revolve around the facets of 'real world, hands on
experiential learning', as the field continues to explore and
debate the precise nature of these foundational elements each
commentator and researcher adds a slightly different aspect or flavour.
However, our 'research radars' became particularly honed in on
Wagner's (2008) often-cited text, in which he states that students
are motivated to learn when their 'learning is hands-on and more
personalised with the result that students perform real-world tasks and
produce public products that reflect who they are and what they believe
and care about' (p. 259). As we saw it, the key element was the
'process of caring' which for us was an emotionally laden
course of action. However, the only mention of this term and process in
this text was a reference to 'emotional intelligence', which
in turn was never fully unpacked or delineated.
In many ways this is not surprising since the role of emotions in
teaching has been a relatively neglected sphere due to the lack of
definition of what emotion actually is (Cole, Martin & Dennis 2004,
p. 318). Teachers are typically afraid to enter into the emotional arena
believing it is too personal (Halstead 2005) and the dominance of the
belief that schooling is about 'rationality' and emotions are
simply not a part of this construct (Zinn, 2006).
However, at the same time that 'authentic learning' was a
supposed 'buzz word', Andy Hargraves' seminal school
based research began to reveal that 'emotional' contact was
'not too rapid or fluid to elude observation' (Cole, Martin
& Dennis 2004, p. 319). Instead webs of classroom interactions are
readily identifiable. Also, this web of connectivity was the
socio-political glue that had the potential to either hold a school
together with an ensuing flow on of teaching-learning efficacy, or push
the human components apart to the detriment of learning.
In even more specific terms, as stated previously, initial
'school-based' research has tended to demonstrate that close
'emotional connectedness' or the 'emotional
topography' that exists between all school community member
engenders engagement with the learning process (Hargraves, 2002, p. 15),
relatively few studies show how emotions help create optimal learning
environments (Wubben, de Cremer & van Dijk, 2009, p. 19). While
there is acknowledgement that 'emotions play an integral part in
the process of creativity in schools there also appears to be a paucity
of literature dealing with how teachers and students understand the role
of emotions and emotional relationships (Halstead, 2005).
The learning web in an emotionally grounded context
This paper discusses the findings of a project that sought to begin
to address the apparent lack of understanding of the role emotions play
in classroom learning by undertaking a bricolage approach (Denzin and
Lincoln, 2008) using autoethnography and ethnographic case study. The
site was one middle school classroom at San Roque School, Santa Barbara,
California. The respondents in this study were a cohort of fifteen
students aged eleven to fourteen years, and were recruited as a
'convenience sample' (Creswell 2009, p. 442). The majority of
research took place in their classroom over a twelve-month period so as
to ensure the inclusion of critical aspects of qualitative authenticity
such as prolonged engagement in the natural setting of the research
site, the researchers as key instruments in data collection, the
inductive approach to data analysis and the 'emergent design'
(Quinn-Patton, 2002, p. 43) of the entire study. Data collected for this
study were in the form of semi-structured interviews, classroom
observation, reflective journals and the student's end of year
reflections. This collection of multiple forms of data enabled a process
of triangulation between data sources and to 'increase the
expressiveness of the data' (Flick, 1998, p. 140). During the data
analysis process a number of coding phases occurred whereby data were
transcribed and then analysed via a 'constant comparative
method' (Creswell, 2009, p. 451). A two-fold process of coding was
used with a general scouring of the data for dominant themes as well as
the use of isolating and unpacking the verbs and gerunds used by the
respondents (Charmaz, 2006). This process finally resulted in a series
of themes or higher order concepts that emerged from within and
explained the data. The data samples used throughout were selected on
the basis that they were a representative sample of the responses of the
students across different aspects of the school day.
A key aspect of this study was our initial generic use of the term
emotion. We began this research using this expression as a broad net
that covered the full gamut of human reactions and response, almost as
if each emotion had equal footing. What emerged from the student's
responses was, that while all emotions were accepted, one key element
was the underpinning foundation for the entire classroom millieu. The
core driving force of this classroom, as perceived by the students, was
that it was powered by love. As Jessie stated;
It's about loving here, it's about loving and nurturing
us in the right way. Also, here it's about loving and exploring.
For this cohort, the love extended to them by their teacher was
more than a sense of affection or attachment, but an energising
reflective process that also provided personal and social identity. The
'love in action' in this classroom provided the means by which
all the other emotions experienced by the students be expressed within a
'safety net' culture in which all voices and opinions were
heard and valued. In providing the means and time for this in the
immediacy of the classroom, when it came time to deal with the more
formal elements of the child centred curriculum there was a broader
context and paradigm of thinking about the world. In other words, this
love centred approach of allowing the primacy of emotions and an
unpacking of emotional responses provided an opportunity for the
creation of a new paradigm of thinking about the world at large.
Embedded in this paradigm were a series of subthemes that were
'reflection in action'. These included the following.
Gaining socio-emotional competence
As each student felt their voice was heard, and they realised the
collective voice of the class was also being heard with genuine care and
respect, each interaction with their teacher, and ultimately their
peers, not only gave them a sense of feeling valued, but also a believe
in their competence. Each interaction was a stepping stone through which
they had the ability to explore and clarify emotional reactions, which
in turn allowed them to come to understand that emotional points arising
in their day to day living had a broader context.
It's a really interesting learning environment. A lot of the
time I'll be thinking about one thing and wanting to do another.
It's like that here. You hear other ideas from the other kids as
well and are allowed to look at things from different ways. They
encourage that here. So you start with a feeling and learn where that
leads. (Katie 25/5/10)
Listening to other's reactions provided an understanding that
emotions were embedded in the other student's life stories. Being
able to explore their own and other's stories provided a feeling of
self-efficacy in that they began to notice that they were not alone and
the other class members had similar issues and expectations. Through the
support and guidance of their teacher they were able to work through
their individual and collective issues by making personal connections.
This added sense of finding their own voice gave them a further
awareness of competence in that they gained the perceived abilities to
negotiate and articulate their understandings, as well navigate their
way through the lives and understandings of their peers.
Undertaking socio-emotional risk
The notion of risk taking is often cited as being an integral part
of an authentic learning site (Young, 1999). However, in this instance
it was more than simply stepping out and making a learning
approximation. Linked with the previous theme, the instances of sharing
with their teacher in private, small groups and in what the class called
a 'circle' necessitated personal vulnerability or opening
oneself up to other's perceptions and reactions. This was much more
of a 'risk taking' exercise than any other situation these
students could, or had, embarked on.
This school is very different to the last. The other school had
guidelines, down to the paragraph. But here you get to choose. You learn
to do stuff on your own, take risks with everything you are feeling and
doing, and make your own choices. Because you have the freedom, it makes
you want to do it. (Kimmy 4/11/09)
Just as learning in the classroom was a process, these students
were also learning that divulging their thoughts and emotional reactions
was a relatively long-term process. Often commencing with incidents that
had been reactive and immediately responsive in a negative sense,
learning to expose their innermost thoughts required a circular
reflective process in regard to how they had been cared for in the past,
the manner in which each instance had been handled and an ensuing
understanding that there was never any retribution. In many instances
even though they recognised that they were in the safe hands of their
facilitator; learning through the multiple micro-moments of elaborating
and exploring emotional reactions, both negative and positive, required
a constant trust in their fellow students and in their facilitator.
It was the facilitator's skill in being able to constantly
keep tabs and read each individual situation and bring each instance to
a successful resolution that provided a constant safety foundation of
trust. Thus the emotional reactions and resolutions were a step ladder
that allowed each student, and the class as a whole, to take a risk in
sharing their most private of thoughts in an environment that at once
provided an avenue for voicing their concerns and also reciprocal
learning about how to handle their emotions and deal with other
students' emotions. Thus each became equipped with an ongoing sense
of 'agency', which we see as the capacity to effect and affect
Resilient socio-emotional reframing
Lying at the core of this entire classroom experience of unpacking
of emotions is the notion that in this context it produces a different
self-talk. This meta-language involves a selfawareness of emotional
reaction in others and actions that produce a personal emotional
response. Because of the reflective 'self talk out aloud'
undertaken by their facilitator, the students began to internalise this
and developed a repertoire of the internal language that allowed for
navigation through personal reflection and social interactions.
Another means by which this group gained an inner script, or rather
set of scripts, was through the interaction involved in the
'circles'. This provided not only a new understanding of
learning how to deal with issues and developing new coping mechanisms
related to emotional issues, but also allowed the learners to know that
there is always more to know and that not to know is just as OK as
This ability to be able to draw on different scripts instead of
reacting with a single focus of metalanguage, further enabled the agency
factor in that these students appeared to be more resilient and were
able to reframe the meanings behind other student's responses to
gain a more holistic appreciation.
I think I think differently. I think I used to have one way when
things went wrong. Now I can see things more clearly, I have different
views to use. (John 25/5/10)
Authentic learning and 'affectiveness' for the middle
The implication arising from this small data set is that the role
of emotion in classroom learning is not one of simply being a 'feel
good' experience, but the psycho-socio-emotional glue that has the
potential to take middle school students to new areas of reflective and
This recall and reflection was really based on the past histories
of interactions, as developed over the course of the year. This
emotional engagement allowed students to make decisions on what best
works for them, as well as providing insight into the different forms of
learning approaches undertaken by their peers.
The teacher's role in this process necessitated a shift from
the traditional teacher mode into one that was based on constantly
referring to the developmental emotional gains, reflective modes and
successes undertaken previously, as well as the recall of previous
learning. As one student put it, this integration produced an:
open learning place I can do what I want to do without a map
telling me what to do. The teachers here guide you but you can really
choose. You have the freedom to choose. (Katie 19/9/09).
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