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Emotional Connection is Crucial to Learning
Scott McDougall, Science Department Chair and Upper School Science Teacher

When I began my career in education teaching sixth grade science at Park Tudor more than 20 years ago, I was fortunate that the Middle School Director at the time, Mike Ayres, gave me significant latitude to take some calculated curricular risks and creative license. He allowed me to leverage my educational psychology background to reimagine the sixth-grade science curriculum utilizing novel resources, unique travel experiences to Cameroon and Central America, and pedagogical approaches that encouraged students to form an emotional connection with science concepts.
In the early 2000s at Park Tudor, the grade six curriculum was life-science biased, with a focus on teaching several principles of ecology - the study of the complex interactions between living and non-living things. In my search for curricular resources, I learned that Jane Goodall, the world-renowned primate researcher and former United Nations Messenger of Peace, was leading a lecture at Xavier University. The lecture covered Goodall’s thirty-plus years of chimpanzee research published in the seminal book Through a Window, and her temporary exhibit at the nearby Cincinnati History Museum. After listening to her speech and visiting the Museum, I read Through a Window and promptly decided to anchor the teaching of basic ecology concepts to the book.
Goodall’s rich and easily accessible writing was a successful on-ramp for young science students to grasp and recall the ecology concepts and, to my surprise, connected with students on a deeper emotional level than I expected. Naming the chimpanzees, some subtle personification, and stunning and sometimes graphically detailed descriptions of primate behavior pierced the often clinical and stale status-quo science textbook writing. Her chapters grabbed students’ attention, enhanced their memory encoding and retrieval, and forged an emotional connection to students’ learning.

Years later, I learned how effective this ecology unit had been. Students’ recollection of Goodall’s chimpanzee stories even after 10 years made me take note. I was especially struck by the themes of empathy and compassion tied specifically to Through a Window. The book was the glue that connected the science concepts to students’ memory formation and was the genesis of an emotional response.
In recent years, neuroimaging techniques mapping the brain’s limbic system, the regulator of behavioral and emotional responses, have revealed a specific region associated with empathy (2012). By consistently accessing the limbic system using Goodall’s vivid language describing complex chimpanzee behaviors, students became emotionally vested in science concepts. Moreover, the emotional component students verbalized certainly strengthened long-term storage and retrieval of the original lessons (Harrison et al., 2010).
A decade later I moved to the Upper School and taught biology. In the spring of 2011, I attended an education conference in New York City. As I entered LaGuardia’s terminal in the early morning hours of March 11, 2011, I saw a live television broadcast of the earthquake and tsunami impacting Japan. Witnessing the force of nature and its impact on life and the coastal ecosystems was what psychologists term a flash-bulb memory (Brown & Kulik, 1977). As I gathered my thoughts from the coverage of the crisis, I had a professional “ah-ha” moment. I was compelled to reconsider my approach to teaching biology and build from a foundation of emotional connectivity, i.e., accessing the limbic system, to this once-in-a-lifetime event. 
Rather than focus a single unit about what had happened in Japan, I wanted a curriculum that had numerous and purposeful touchpoints with this story woven throughout the year. The course begins with the natural and nuclear catastrophes, a purposeful sequence of instruction to quickly engage students’ limbic system. The curriculum concludes with an evaluation of how the tsunami and nuclear incident impacted macro and microscopic lifeforms and how the historic event will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. While students typically come into the course with no knowledge of the events that unfolded in Japan a decade ago, the story connects emotionally with them and enhances their learning.

The Goodall and Fukushima examples are but two examples amongst an impressive and expansive backdrop of colleagues’ years-long efforts to inform their curricular, instructional, and assessment design using research-based MBE (Mind-Brain Education) best practices. The connection between cognition and emotion is articulated well by Immordino-Yang’s (2015) quotation:

“It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion. And after all, this makes sense. The brain is highly metabolically expensive tissue, and evolution would not support wasting energy and oxygen thinking about things that don’t matter to us. Put succinctly, we only think about things we care about.” (pp. 18-19)
My personal desire is to connect students’ learning to their emotions so that the learning subsequently influences behavior, and ultimately causes students to take action as a result of their education. This is one of the many joys I’ve found in the education profession.

Brown, R., & Kulik, J. (1977). Flashbulb memories. Cognition, 5(1), 73–99.   

Harrison, N. A., Gray, M. A., Gianaros, P. J., & Critchley, H. D. (2010). The embodiment of emotional feelings in the brain. Journal of Neuroscience, 30(38), 12878–12884.
Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2015). Emotions, Learning and the Brain: Exploring the educational implications of affective neuroscience. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.