Igniting a Passion to Learn

Take a moment to think back over the different experiences you’ve had during the past year.  What do you remember? When you do a quick survey of the significant events of your recent life, what type of things come to mind?

If you’re like most people, the events you tend to remember are more emotionally charged than those you’ve forgotten. Your mind goes to the gripping movie you watched, the novel that you couldn’t put down–but not that dry lecture at the long work conference. You have a vivid memory of the exuberant bike ride where you finally made it up that hill in target time, or the morning when you pedaled up over a fog bank to see a beautiful sunrise—but not the everyday training slog you conducted much more frequently. It’s hard to recall the daily routine of cleaning around the house and washing dirty laundry, but easy to invoke an image of the moment when your son took his first step right before your eyes, or the time you and your daughter had that wonderfully silly pillow fight, the one that left both of you out of breath from giggling so hard.

It’s not surprising that your lasting memories tend to involve events in which you are emotionally engaged. To the contrary, it intuitively makes sense: the reason you’re emotionally affected is that you care about what’s happening—and since you care, you’re more likely to remember it.

But why? What is it about being emotionally invested that enables greater retention?

In his recently published book, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How, author Daniel Coyle offers us a fascinating answer.

Coyle argues first that learning of skills and memory occur as a result of particular way of being voluntarily engaged in a task—what he calls “deep practice”. Deep practice is a type of sustained focus in which a person is intently focused on completing a task superlatively. Coyle suggests that such deep practice results, neurologically, in the accelerated growth of myelin, an insulating substance that wraps around brain cells carrying signals from location to location the brain, and thereby strengthens those neural pathways.

The connection to emotions is this: only when learners are emotionally connected to the skill or knowledge they are pursuing are they sincerely motivated to put forth the effort that deep practice demands. Coyle argues that the will to engage in deep practice is ignited by emotional passion.

In his research, Coyle studied what he called talent hotbeds, places around the world where a certain talent–for music, baseball, learning–abounds, and observed that they all shared passion for what they do:

When I visited the talent hotbeds, I saw a lot of passion. It showed in the way people carried their violins, cradled their soccer balls, and sharpened their pencils. It showed in the way they treated bare-bones practice areas as if they were cathedrals; in the alert, respectful gazes that followed a coach. The feeling wasn’t always shiny and happy—sometimes it was dark and obsessive, and sometimes it was like the quiet, abiding love you see in old married couples. But the passion was always there, providing the emotional rocket fuel that kept them firing their circuits, honing skills, getting better.

Coyle’s argument fits with what we’ve observed in our classrooms at LePort Schools. The best teaching is teaching that makes a values-based, emotional connection between students and the rigorous academic content they need to learn. Only if students connect what they are studying to their own values, only if they are sincerely interested and engaged with what they learn, will they consistently remember and be able to apply their knowledge to situations in their own lives. Engaging students emotionally in what they study is a fundamental principle of correct pedagogy, and a necessary component of ensuring that students develop a meaningful, deep, integrated knowledge base.

So how can material be made emotionally engaging? There are countless ways, large and small. Take a Montessori classroom. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the entire Montessori approach is geared towards the goal of ensuring learning is properly motivated—students are provided an environment in which their internally driven interests are what fuels their cognitive inquiries.

Or consider LePort’s middle school history curriculum. We interest students in the study of a given historical period in a number of ways, one of which is by dramatizing that period through the inclusion of rich, moving historical fiction—novels and plays that invest the students in the times they are learning about. For instance, after reading The Lantern Bearers (a book that tells the story of a young Roman boy’s life in a once-civilized Rome now ruled by Saxon barbarians) our students become much more engaged in learning about the Fall of Rome: the literary dramatization of the period makes it emotionally real and important. Our history program also invests students emotionally by tying what they learn to their own values and life experiences—i.e. to that which already matters emotionally. See a vivid example here.

The underlying principle here is age-old: when something matters to you, you pay attention much more closely. Or more simply, when you care, you focus more. What Daniel Coyle offers in The Talent Code is a fascinating new perspective on this principle: not only do you focus more, but you actually focus differently. This point, along with the rest of Coyle’s uniquely rich analysis of the mental and neurological processes underlying the retention of knowledge and skills, makes The Talent Code a book that all educators should take the time to read and reflect on.

Ray Girn