GUEST POST: The Relationship between Affect and Cognition in Teaching and Learning (A Case Study)
By Wendee White
Wendee is a Lecturer in the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Dundee, Scotland. Prior to this position, Wendee spent 15 years as a school teacher before pursuing a Master of Arts in Early Childhood Education. As a school teacher, Wendee has gained a wealth of experience working in a range of educational settings from reception, through university. Her training has included post-graduate course work in Special Education, Behaviour Support, and leadership training in Mathematics. Most recently, Wendee has been awarded a Fellowship with the Higher Education Academy, and within the School of Education, she has been awarded a Certificate for Innovation in Teaching. As an educator, Wendee promotes the development of positive learning dispositions, and growth mind-sets; supporting her students at all levels of learning to be creative, autonomous thinkers, engaged with learning as a life-long process. Through her research, Wendee has investigated the role of affect in learning, developing an affective instructional design to support educators in establishing quality learning environments that promote positive attitudes and meaningful learning in mathematics.
This weekend, we published a digest on memory and emotion. In this guest post, we learn about a case study that illustrates how emotion can have an impact on teaching.
I’d like to introduce you to Mary. Mary is an experienced Kindergarten teacher, who took time to share with me her feelings about teaching Science and Math in the early years.
‘Oh, I love teaching this age group. They are like little sponges, soaking up information and new ideas; we have so much fun in our Science classes. Look, over here we are hatching eggs, and over there the children have collected leaves, and are sprouting seeds.’
Mary’s eyes have lit up, her smile is wide, and it is obvious how much she enjoys teaching and learning science in the early years. In this subject, Mary embraces a constructivist pedagogy, facilitating teaching and learning through inquiry and discovery.
Expecting more heart-warming stories, I ask Mary about teaching Math in the early years. Her eyes down-cast, her lips tighten, and a shake of her head tell a different story. Mary feels frustrated and exasperated teaching Math. ‘I’m expected to introduce these difficult concepts and the children have to be ready to answer questions on their tests. I mostly rely on worksheets’. Mary went on to explain her anxiety and insecurity about her ability to teach math in an interesting and enjoyable way. She felt confined to rote practice as a way of ensuring the children were prepared to pass the Spring-term State testing. Mary has adopted what’s sometimes known as a “traditional” approach to teaching math.
Mary’s feelings, words, and physical expressions reflect her subject-related emotional experiences and subsequent attitudes, which can be defined as her affective affiliation for teaching and learning in Science and Math. On the one hand, Mary expresses positive affect for teaching Science. Her lessons are routed in inquiry, discovery and interaction. She describes how her children seemingly respond, absorbing new information and engaging with learning. On the other hand, negative affect defines her approach to teaching and learning mathematics. In her words, teaching and learning are, ‘a burdensome chore’. ‘I tell the children they get to do “fun sheets” so they will sit and complete their worksheet. Terrible, I know, but I have to check they can answer the questions. Most of them finish as quickly as they can, so they can play.’ Mary’s reflections on math suggest a different response from her children, a misplaced motivation for task completion rather than learning.
Perhaps you can identify with Mary’s story. You may have different emotions associated with different aspects of teaching, but you may recognize the pattern of feeling excited and positive about one type of technique or material, and trepidatious and negative about another. Her story reflects the interconnectedness of affect and cognition in the teaching and learning process. This is a relationship gaining increasing attention in education, and it is through neuroscience that we can better understand what this means.
Current neuroscience research suggests that affective development is the vehicle through which learning occurs (1), (2). Experiences that trigger moderate levels of positive affect can promote greater development of higher order thinking skills, resiliency, and positive learner attitudes relative to experiences that don’t trigger positive affect (3). From our earliest experiences, affective development is a result of neurochemical responses triggered when sensory information from environmental and social stimuli is interpreted by the brain (4). These responses are expressed physiologically and interpreted as feelings, ultimately influencing the formation of attitudes. Much research has found correlations between attitude and learning, suggesting that the relationship between affect and cognition warrants close examination in the teaching and learning process (5), (6), (7), (8), (9).
Let’s consider these ideas in a mathematical teaching and learning context. Research suggests Math is a subject for which a large percentage of our adult population express negative attitudes (9).These negative attitudes arise primarily from negative mathematical experiences encountered during school years (10). For those individuals who become teachers, research suggests this leads to reliance on shallow instructional techniques such as rote memorization without understanding of underlying concepts, which has potential to trigger negative affect in learners, leading to the propagation of a culture of negativity toward mathematics (11), (12).
The affective affiliation a teacher has for a subject influences their teaching approaches. This can been seen from Mary’s opposing approaches to teaching Science and Math.
Following her interview, Mary agreed to implement an affective instructional design (AID). The purpose of the intervention was to explore how AID might support a teacher who has negative affect affiliations with mathematics as a way of interrupting the cycle of negative affect in the teaching and learning process.
The framework for AID was adapted from Kort et al.’s (2001) emotion-cognition model. In this model, Kort and colleagues present cognition – the act of gaining knowledge – as an emotionally charged cycle of learning, happening over time. Through this process the learner experiences an array of positive and negative affect states as they move through four distinct learning phases.
In Phase 1, learners encounter new information. This information is explored and challenged during Phase 2, leading to a state of disequilibrium. Phase 3 sees misconceptions identified and discarded. Phase 4 provides opportunity for discovery and new understanding leading to new knowledge.
Four important ideas about affect arise from Kort’s model:
- In the learning cycle, the 1st and the 4th phase promote positive affect;
- During learning, a range of positive and negative affect states occur, varying in type and intensity;
- Learners need to recognize and know how to respond to heightened affect for the learning cycle to continue;
- In all learning, positive and negative affect states should be expected and accepted as part of the learning process.
Based on these ideas the framework for AID was conceptualized. Each lesson was guided by an overarching goal linked to cognitive development derived from curriculum. Instructional time was segmented into four learning phases with corresponding key questions related to affect embedded through the instructional plan. The teacher was required to answer these questions during planning, as a way of supporting the focus of affect in teaching and learning:
Corresponding to each question, Mary accessed a resource bank offering evidence-based strategies promoting affect. Resource bank 1 and 2 provided theoretical information and strategies related to the Universal Design for Teaching and Learning (UDL); visual mathematics; and social-constructivist strategies for mathematical working. Resource bank 3 and 4 provided theoretical information and strategies linked to growth mindset in mathematics, and cognitive reappraisal through role-modelling.
Following the 13 day intervention, Mary completed a social validity survey as a way of sharing her affective experience. In her responses she expressed a feeling of ‘transformation’ in her approaches to teaching mathematics. For her, math had become ‘fun’ and a ‘subject she looked forward to’. She expressed feelings of ‘excitement’ for teaching and learning math. Mary reported ‘an electric learning environment’ where children were engaged in ‘discussing concepts, and making connections to prior concepts’.
Mary’s responses suggest a change in her affective affiliation for teaching and learning in math. Using AID, she discovered how the relationship between affect and cognition impacts on teaching and learning. Finally, she adopted teaching approaches to establish a learning environment characterzsed by positive affect, promoting positive attitudes and mathematical learning.
(1) Schlöglmann, W. (2003). Can neuroscience help us better understand affective reactions in mathematics learning. Proceedings of CERME (Vol. 3).
(2) Mahn, H., & John-Steiner, V. (2002). The gift of confidence: A Vygotskian view of emotions. In G. Wells & G. Claxton (Eds.). Learning for life in the 21st century: Sociocultural perspectives on the future of education (46-58).
(3) Ashby, F.G., Isen, A.M., & Turken, A.U. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review, 106, 529-550.
(4) LeDoux, J. (1999). Psychoanalytic theory: Clues from the brain: Commentary by Joseph LeDoux (New York). Neuropsychoanalysis, 1, 44-49.
(5) Claxton, G. (2008). ‘Cultivating positive learning dispositions’, in Harry Daniels, Hugh Lauder and Jill Porter (1ed), Educational Theories, Cultures, and Learning: A critical perspective (Routledge: London, 2009), 177-187.
(6) Grootenboer, P. & Marshman, M. (2016). Mathematics, Affect and Learning, Springer: NY, DOI 10.1007/978-981-287-679-9
(7) Fleckenstein, K. S. (1991). Defining affect in relation to cognition: A response to Susan McLeod. Journal of Advanced Composition, 447-453.
(8) McLeod, D. B. (1992). Research on affect in mathematics education: A reconceptualization. Handbook of Research on Mathematics Teaching and Learning, 575-596.
(9) Hannula, M. S. (2006). Motivation in Mathematics: Goals reflected in emotions. Educational Studies in Mathematics 63, 165-178.
(10) Grootenboer, P. & Marshman, M. (2016). Mathematics, Affect and Learning. Springer: NY, DOI 10.1007/978-981-287-679-9
(11) McLeod, D. B. (1992). Research on affect in mathematics education: A reconceptualization. Handbook of Research on Mathematics Teaching and Learning, 575-596.
(12) Richardson, V. (1996). ‘The role of attitudes and beliefs in learning to teach’, in J. Sikula (2ndEd.) Handbook of research on teacher education, (New York: Macmillan, 1996), 102-119.
(13) Wu, S. S., Barth, M., Amin, H., Malcarne, V., & Menon, V. (2012). Math Anxiety in Second and Third Graders and Its Relation to Mathematics Achievement. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 162. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00162
(14) Kort, B., Reilly, R., & Picard, R. (2001). An affective model of interplay between emotions and learning: reengineering educational pedagogy – building a learning companion. Paper presented at the IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technology: Issues, Achievements and Challenges. Madison, WI.