The Importance of Emotions in Learning

Learn how children learn to suppress their feelings, how historical errors led us to emphasise reason while discouraging emotions, why emotions are absolutely critical to learning and especially important for creativity, and finally, how Sharing Nature Experience brings out positive and uplifting human emotions.

Let’s begin with a story. Back in the 1980’s, there was a successful creative artist. He loved to visit schools and speak to the students. He would spend the day going into all the different classes starting with the kindergarten in the morning and ending with the sixth graders in the afternoon.

He started the same way with all the groups. He said: “Look, I’m an artist and I love to be around other artists. I look at your walls and you’ve got art on them so there must be artists here. Anybody an artist?”

In the kindergarten everybody in the class is raising both hands in the air, jumping about all excited saying “Yeah, Yeah! I’m an artist! I’m an artist!”  They’re not just an artist, they’re an enthusiastic artist!

In the first grade, still every hand is up, not so much dancing around, not as many double hand raises but everybody is still an artist. In each class after that the number of hands reduced. By the time he reached sixth grade almost no hand went up. At best there were a couple of kids nervously looking around to see if they should admit to it, wondering if they’ll be judged by their peers.

That man was late Gordon MacKenzie, a longtime creative force at Hallmark and “something of a legend” in the 1980’s in the greeting card world. MacKenzie recalls this story in his book on creativity and innovation – “Orbiting the Giant Hairball.” He says the story always turns out the same in every school.

What Happens from Kindergarten to Grade Six?

The children in kindergarten who were joyfully excited about being an artist had learnt by sixth grade that it was deviant behaviour. What happened?

MacKenzie says the kids are fearful of being judged, assigning an intrinsic value to the behaviour, and calls on them to be courageous. Children do tend to get self-critical as they grow, however, we would not blame them. The wide prevalence of the experience points to an environmental factor shaping the child’s view that discourages their inherent creative abilities and / or makes them critical of themselves. An extrinsic value of our education system and the society in which the child grows.

But before we look at a systemic cause, it’s important to ponder whether creating artists is a desirable aim of education.

Should Everyone be an Artist?

Steve Jobs considered himself an artist.

Steve Jobs, among the most successful entrepreneurs of past half century, considered himself an artist. So did Albert Einstein, in his time. Jobs’ view of the purpose of art: “to express something of what they perceive to be the truth… so that others can benefit by it.”

By this definition everyone should be an artist because the skill can be applied in almost any vocation, be it creative arts, science, business, industry or even the armed forces. While desirable, we however do not think it is the job of schools to favour a singular trait in their students. The purpose of education ought to be to provide equal opportunity and not equal outcome.

Equal opportunity in terms of avoiding discrimination in learning objectives. Most often however, schools aim for only one kind of learning that favours academic excellence. Schools must ask themselves whether they provide as much of an opportunity to a student to become an artist as they do to enable them to be a scientist or an engineer.

The History of Learning Discrimination in Schools

An integral aim of learning is the development of affective domain of learners involving their feelings or emotions. In practice, however, this remains the most overlooked part of teaching with most of the teacher’s efforts in formal teaching typically going into only the cognitive aspects of learning which involve mental skills.  Most of the classroom time is designed for cognitive outcomes that are prized for success in academics. Even assessments are designed to assess only cognitive skills.

This lopsided bent of education can be traced back to the origin of modern education during the 18th century when at the time of scientific revolution newfound interest in the ideas of science and reason determined the focus of our education. More recently, Bloom’s “Taxonomy of Educational Objectives”, published in mid 1960’s and used by educationists worldwide, made a distinction between cognitive and affective learning objectives thereby separating what cannot be separated.

When Bloom’s Handbook II on Affective Domain was published a decade later, its authors admitted that the distinction between affective and cognitive objectives, was not to suggest that there is a parallel distinction built into the basic fabric of behavior. That, it was only an arbitrary arrangement to best reflect the way in which educators have traditionally classified teaching objectives.

“School was pretty hard for me at the beginning… They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me… I’m 100% sure that if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Hill in fourth grade and a few others, I would absolutely have ended up in jail.”

– Steve Jobs on his 4th grade teacher who played a pivotal role in his learning

Yet, the distinction having been made, and because cognitive skills are prized for academic excellence, most teachers today relate Bloom’s taxomony with cognitive learning only. Few remember the affective domain even though in modern educational literature nearly every author states that the affective domain is essential for learning. Yet it remains the least studied of Bloom’s three domains.

The Importance of Emotion

René Descartes, the famous French philosopher and scientist of 17th century, a key figure in scientific revolution was also a key influence behind modern education. Descartes’ famous declaration: “I think, and therefore I am” has influenced science for well over two centuries by putting reason and thinking on top while relegating the role of emotions to a back seat.

This was challenged in 1994 when a ground breaking book demolished traditional views about rationality. In “Descartes’ Error” neuroscientist Antonio Damasio shows that emotion is part and parcel of what we call cognition. Drawing on his experiences with neurological patients affected by brain damage, Damasio proves that if there is a severe impairment of the emotions, we cannot have rationality.

“When emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture, as happens in certain neurological conditions, reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions.”

– Antonio Damasio in “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain”

“If it’s become fashionable to dump on Descartes it is with good reason. Descartes’ philosophy is more to blame than almost anything else on the reductionist tendencies of the post-Enlightenment western mind and our false equation of such tendencies with science. If a more holistic approach had prevailed in western philosophy, then science would have evolved along very different lines and many of our current struggles – such as environmental destruction (Descartes famously said that animals do not truly experience anything) could have been avoided.”

– online comment (

When We Put Thinking Above Feeling

As children move from kindergarten to higher grades they subconsciously learn that remembering facts is more important than expressing or understanding their feelings. That “being emotional” is considered a weakness and something only girls do. Since feelings are unquestionably involved in learning, when ignored, children learn to suppress them. In short, the way education is imparted promotes apathy towards our world and toward each other.

When we put thinking above feeling we get a world in which creativity is scarce. An essential requirement of creativity is imagination and imagination is what we get when we let our feelings take flight. Imagination does not originate merely from knowledge, analysis or logical thinking.

“I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

– Albert Einstein

In his book Deep Nature Play, Joseph Cornell reflects on the limitations of logical thinking:

“Michael Michalko, author of Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius, succinctly explains the limitations of logical thinking in this way: “usual thinking is logical and goal-oriented. Creativity is difficult with this kind of thinking because the conclusion is implicit in the premises.” Logic can only perceive what is already known; it “leads us to the usual ideas and not to original ones. If you always think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Play’s imaginative, adventurous spirit, on the other hand, can lead us to new peaks of inspiration and discovery, to heights where the inner being flourishes.”

Rachel Carson on Importance of Emotions in Learning

As author of the revolutionary book “Silent Spring” (1962) that inspired the environmental movement in the U.S. in 1960’s and the 1970’s – Rachel Carson understood the role of emotions in learning. In “The Sense of Wonder” (1965), she wrote:

“I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil… Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the subject of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.”

Sharing Nature and Emotions

Joseph Cornell talks about “calm feeling” or intuition a lot in his books. Calm Feeling is central to the Sharing Nature experience. With calm feeling (intuition) we are like a mirror, able to perceive life clearly. It is from a place of calm feeling that the most profound Nature experiences occur.

Sharing Nature workshops allows participants to emotionally bond with Nature. In various activities, a player sometimes acts out an animal, interviews a river, pretends to be part of a tree, and captures an image of a beautiful landscape through her inner lens – one she will remember for years. Other activities allow the player to reflect upon and express in writing some of the emotions she experienced.

Acting out in ways dictated not by logic but according to feelings, she finds that her inner child is not just acknowledged, but is encouraged. As the player experiences, acts out, reflects upon and shares these emotions – a previously unrecognised aspect of the individual finds expression for the first time and remains with her long after the experience has culminated.

During Sharing Nature Experience participants also learn about a teaching method that can be adapted to teach any subject using the same principles of experiential learning that are applied in our training. It is essentially a sequence of activities discovered by Sharing Nature founder Joseph Cornell that accelerates the flow of inspiration.

This highly effective outdoor learning strategy called Flow Learning, was featured by the U.S. National Park Service as one of five recommended learning theories, along with the work of Maria Montessori, Howard Gardner, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. Flow Learning is described here in greater detail.

“At Ford’s River Rouge plant, laughter was a disciplinary offense—and humming, whistling, and smiling were evidence of insubordination.”

– Daniel H. Pink, referring to the 1940’s in his book “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future”

We’ve come a long way since the 1940’s and the trend towards acceptance of emotions in our workplace and culture continue. See how “The Shift” is altering our future.

Sharing Nature Experience
Two-day Workshops in Chail, H.P