What is Emotional Learning?

by Professor J.S. Ginther © All rights reserved 2014

I began using the term "Emotional Learning" about 15 years ago to refer to the more effective approach to learning that children use naturally. Why do children learn faster than older people? How can we learn as fast as we did as children? Children are actually taught to learn slower when we limit them and force them to learn by traditional methods. When a small child approaches a tree for the first time, he uses his emotions and every sense that his body has to explore this new object. He looks at the tree, he gets excited, he listens to the sound of the wind blowing through it's leaves, he smells the tree, he touches the tree, and to the horror of his mother he tries to eat the tree. His first lesson in limiting his learning approach is the mother screaming: "Don't eat trees! Get that out of your mouth!" Later, the child attends school to learn more about slowing down his natural learning process. At this point, the child has learned to not learn about all the world by trying to eat it. He now generally limits his learning by using a combination of his sight, sound, smells, sense of touch and kinesthetic exploration of new things.

Then this thing called a teacher enters his life. The first horrible thing that happens, is the bigger person demands that the child sit motionless in a chair and limit his movements. He is then told to limit the noises he makes and look straight ahead. Now he has to learn to stare at the teacher and pretend he is listening for periods of time far longer than is natural to pay attention. He is limited to learn by symbols, words, concepts, and emotionally dead information and is further limited to learn almost entirely by sound and sight. The next set of chains placed on the child is for his imagination. As his mind wanders around the infinite universe of his imagination, the teacher or parent rudely explode into his dreams by yelling; "Pay attention!" Although he will learn to stare at the teacher and learn a few acting skills to seem like he is paying attention, he will never totally master his mind to keep his thoughts only on the topics of the classroom. He has now been trained to learn slower than before.

As children we used all of our senses and emotions to imagine, experience, and learn about the world around us. Life was emotional; learning was emotional; what we learned was interesting and fun to learn. Although we have changed in many ways and learned to not use all of our senses to learn new things; we do still learn best from strong emotional experiences and by creating associations between this new thing and things that are already stored in our minds. We all know this is true if we think about it. For example; when I traveled around China and other countries I found an interesting thing about words. Even in the most remote villages where no one speaks any English nor has experienced any English classes; everyone knows the meaning of the English word, "love." Why is this word so easy to learn? It easy to learn the meaning and remember because of the strong emotions attached to it and the strong associations to memories already understood in our minds. What do you think of when you think of the word love? You may think of man, woman, family, sports, shopping, or maybe chocolate. Whatever the associations that come to mind, these are memories you already have that are now creating links of association to the new word, "love."

Take a moment to think of some examples from your own life. What intense emotional experiences have put memories in you that you never forget? Learning through emotion, combined with multiple associations to things in our memory gives instant meaning and creates an effective retrieval system for new information and experiences. If we can understand and learn to practice using our natural methods of learning, we can return to have childlike abilities in learning faster. This is "Emotional Learning."