Thinking on Education: The Importance of Emotion in Learning

Emotion in Social Studies
Oswiecim, Poland – March 28, 2016: Electrical fences of Auschwitz — the largest German concentration camp built and operated by Nazi Germany during World War II.

As your students analyze and ponder history, are they tapping into the feelings of people in the past?

We do students a disservice when we distance them from historical experiences through detached instruction.

At Studies Weekly, we live by the motto: “Standards Inform, Stories Inspire.” We wholeheartedly believe that sentiment. While all our curriculum is based on rigorous national and state standards, we present that curriculum to students through the power of stories.

Why?

Because we believe, and research proves this, that true learning involves emotion, not rote memorization of facts and figures. As noted in a Psychologist World article, “emotionally charged situations can lead us to create longer lasting memories” of events.

If we want our students to truly learn from the mistakes and triumphs of the past, we need to ensure they experience the emotions of those events.

“The need to belong, the desire to be understood, the instinct to understand — these are all universal human emotions that do not fade with time, vary across generations, or stop just because you’ve got algebra to teach. They lord over a student’s mind constantly, and require more than a little bit of ‘social and emotional learning’ — they require emotion at the core,” said Terry Heick, founder and director of TeachThought, in an October 2017 post.

Just as students need to belong and be understood in the classroom, they can see these basic human needs in the past. Are students delving into these universal emotions as they learn history?

For example, are they discovering the stories behind why an individual fought for the North or the South in the American Civil War? Or are we just emotionlessly requiring them to memorize the dates and locations of battles and their military outcomes?

For those who lived those battles — and the many battles that followed — the dates mattered less than the sights, sounds and smells of gunpowder, smoke and death. Location mattered only in that it was the last place they saw a fellow soldier alive.

This is why Studies Weekly relies so much on primary sources.

Good Primary Sources Draw Students into the Story

“Primary sources allow us to discover important details about horrific events of the past, especially the often-overlooked human response,” Lee Ann Potter, director of educational outreach at Library of Congress, in a 2011 Social Education article.

For many students today, World War II is a distant war fought on a distant land. But for people like Jack Tueller, it was where he lost many friends, but also found a strength within himself he didn’t know was there.

For many students today, the Holocaust was an atrocity that no one can comprehend happening today. For Noemi Mattis, it was an era that ripped family and friends apart.

For many students today, the Civil Rights Movement was a major achievement that struck a major blow to racism. For those who lived that era and fought for equality, it was a time of fear and violence, but also strength and solidarity.

Studies Weekly centers much of its instruction around these and other types of primary sources so students will feel and experience history, not just read about it. So they will understand multiple perspectives of events from those who were there.

So they will see something within themselves in the stories of both ordinary and heroic history makers, and realize their own place in today’s society.

To learn more about teaching with stories and primary sources, visit Teaching with Primary Source in Social Studies.