What does childhood joy during the holidays teach us about how we can instill a love for life-long learning in our students? What can Santa teach us about teaching? In this post, I consider the relationship between affect and learning, between holidays and development.
The holiday season recently offered a chance to bring fresh insights to a topic that is persistently on my mind–the power of affect, especially as it relates to learning. Affect refers to internal changes that are felt rather than consciously thought. When we consciously reflect on and interpret affective states, we come to understand them as feelings.
For sure, the holiday season is rife with possibilities for feelings: “Christmas spirit,” “holiday cheer,” and “the season of light” are some of the most common expressions denoting the affective states in which we happen to find ourselves or into which we intentionally try to place ourselves. We accomplish shifts in affective states through the enactment of traditions and through rich sensory experiences tied to memory: the aroma of Christmas cookies, whiffs of pine, and the taste of peppermint, for example. This is a season in which we both culturally and individually, both intentionally and incidentally, experience positive affect.
For me, I can’t help but wonder how much of the joyful sentiment that recurs around holiday time stems from early in my childhood with the positively delightful anticipation of Santa Claus’s coming to town. I daresay that the excitement of opening presents on Christmas morning–and the painfully exhilarating weeks leading up to it–was the materialistic precursor to the more transcendent positive feelings around the holidays that emerge later in life. I believe that this same phenomenon applies in another context: the domain of learning. No matter how we accomplish it, as long as we can instill children with a sense of joy around learning, that positive and inspiring affect can ferment and develop over the course of their lives. We can create generations of lifelong learners by making effective use of the same kind of joy that we experience around the holidays.
We’re often reminded even as children–sometimes even admonished–to never forget the “reason for the season.” Whether meant as a religious chastisement or an attempt to temper rampant commercialism, the intended message is that the joys of the holidays should stem more from transcendence than materiality, that we should focus on “presence rather than presents.” As adults, the positive affect of the holidays not only remains, but seems to run deeper, enhanced by the rich complexity afforded by years of past experiences. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, the source of our warm-and-fuzziness expands from material gifts to immaterial shared experiences. We begin to treasure the intangible. But this emergent focus on immaterial sentiment is still built upon a foundation of childhood Christmases, the joys of which were surely dependent upon Santa’s wrapped goods.
I’m reminded of a notion developed by Giovanna Colombetti, an Italian philosopher who works on affectivity, that she refers to as “primordial affect.” Even the simplest of unicellular organisms experience this almost subjective “feeling” of primordial affect in that they are driven by a simple “lack of indifference,” (Colombetti). This simple, elegant, and powerful understanding of affect–as a “lack of indifference”–helps us understand so much of our experience of feelings, and offers limitless ways of making productive use of those feelings as we seek to achieve goals of any kind. Isn’t the key factor in any motivating force a “lack of indifference?”
Lending support to this principle, research in cognitive science suggests that any emotional engagement–either positively or negatively valanced–is potentially motivational. The enemy of productivity is not frustration, but boredom (Baker et al.). The drives that propel us toward positive experiences and away from negative are manifestations of one critical principle: that in order to act, the first impulse comes from any sensation other than indifference.
But, of course, a “lack of indifference” with a positive inflection is surely more pleasant to experience and is more likely to reinforce continued, recursive behavior in the future (think Christmas traditions that we strive to keep alive year after year). Children are too young–and forgivably shallow–to deeply appreciate the immaterial and intangible values celebrated during the holidays, but–as was the case with us all–years upon years of positive affective experiences accumulate, saturating each instantiation of the holiday season with multiple layers of rich, affective significance.
The object of desire and the source of contentment gets transferred from presents under the tree to presence around it.
The importance and potential applications of this principle are varied and multiple. But they come down to one core concept that can inform our teaching and assist us in prioritizing our goals: emotional engagement of any sort is sufficient to set our students on a dynamic path toward lifelong learning.
Learning experiences should be joyful. Mastery of the rest–the technical details, the “content,” even procedural memory–will evolve in time as long as the reiterative engagements with learning carry noticeable, even if artificial and superficial, affect–just like Santa Claus and the depth and significance of the joy that he brings each year.
Baker, Ryan S. J. d., et al. “Better to Be Frustrated than Bored: The Incidence, Persistence, and Impact of Learners’ Cognitive–Affective States during Interactions with Three Different Computer-Based Learning Environments.” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, vol. 68, no. 4, Apr. 2010, pp. 223–41. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1016/j.ijhcs.2009.12.003.
Colombetti, Giovanna. The Feeling Body: Affective Science Meets the Enactive Mind. Kindle edition, The MIT Press, 2014.