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'When there's love inside there's a reason why': emotion as the core of authentic learning in one middle school classroom.
This paper arose from a reflective challenge offered by Alfie Kohn, and an ensuing review of the literature base dealing with the concept of authentic learning. From our perspective, the role that emotional engagement plays in the learning process has generally been left out of the classroom learning equation for an array of reasons, mostly related to educator's misconceptions and apprehensions. Thus, this paper discusses a qualitative investigation into the role of emotions in the learning process, as developed through one teacher's praxis in a middle school classroom. Data was also collected from the student's perspectives, another missing perspective from the current research literature. What emerged from this data was a series of inter-connected socio-emotional reflective practices that were grounded in emotional reactions and subsequent responses. From the student's perspectives, these provided avenues for deeper engagement in the learning processes. The teacher as facilitator, as opposed to the traditional mode of teaching, was able to engender creative links and exploration of alternative outcomes and learning pathways through a deliberate focus on these emotional connections.

Article Type:
Learning (Psychological aspects)
Middle schools (Psychological aspects)
Classroom environment (Psychological aspects)
Emotions (Educational aspects)
Fitzsimmons, Phil
Lanphar, Edie
Pub Date:
Name: Literacy Learning: The Middle Years Publisher: Australian Literacy Educators' Association Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Australian Literacy Educators' Association ISSN: 1320-5692
Date: June, 2011 Source Volume: 19 Source Issue: 2
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number:
Full Text:
What Do We Remember About School?--And the neglected component of learning

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 memory'.

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 education.

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.

Socio-emotional connectedness

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. (Jessie 8/6/10)

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 change.

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 knowing.

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 school years

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 practical capabilities.

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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