Neuroscience, ELT and the MIT Robotics Connection

All three of the entities mentioned in the title above have an interesting connection.  You might be thinking how on earth could Neuroscientific discoveries, ELT and MIT Robotoics (artifical intelligence department) have any kind of connection.  MIT scientists trying to push robotics processing power to the complex abilities of  humans have discovered that the main and vital ingredient is understanding human emotions.  They hold the key.  Brain scans and studies written in the neuroscience field have also confirmed that inorder for more complex processing to occur the emotions are an essential ingredient.  If the emotions are out of balance they can actually hinder complex processes needed to learn.  Which brings us to the ELT part of the equation.  Deep learning it seems cannot take place unless the emotions are operating to open learning.   This actually is one of the clearest transportable findings from neuroscientific studies for us as teachers.


At this point I want to ask you to take a pause and think about your ELT classroom experiences.  I also want you to reflect on the situations in your classrooms where learners have been emotionally blocked.  Here is a quick list of some of the learner behaviours that might suggest there is an emotional block to learning:


  • the learner disrupts the class
  • the learner does not engage in the lesson (looks out the window, does not bring the material needed, does not seem to do anything)
  • excessive sleep
  • aggression
  • boredom

I am sure there are more behaviours that could be added to the list.  The next questions are slightly more tricky.  How much do you take into consideration the possible emotional blocks when planning the lesson?  How do you react to these situations?  Some negative reactions might be:

  • I am not a psychologist, this is a classroom.
  • I know it’s not interesting but we have to do it.
  • Either work or get out
  • Relief that the student in question has not come to the lesson
  • anger
  • frustration
  • accusation (i.e: The learner is lazy)

Kathleen Graves in her conference plenary at Bilkent University this year spoke about how teaching tradionally has focused on scaffolding content and skills needed in the learning environment but that it is becoming clear that affective scaffolding of learners is also equally important.  From my own experience, addressing emotional needs head on actually enables learners to overcome their learning obstacles and put themselves in the direct driving seat of their own learning.  The transformation can be profound.  So how can we go about doing this effectively in our own classrooms?

1-The getting to know you tutorial

Within the first couple of lessons of any new course make sure there is a getting to know you tutorial and casually asks the students how things are going?  Some learners quite openly will tell you if they are uncomfortable about study or even life.

2-Noticing quickly and checking in

We are in a unique position as teachers where we can understand quite quickly our learners needs or obstacles because we are in quite frequent contact.  If you notice that a learner does not seem themselves, privately ask them if they are ok.  I usually grab them in a breaktime and privately chat to them outside the classroom, just once again asking them how they are.  If they have shared something with me, the next time I see them I will just check in with them to see how they are.  Just knowing that they can talk about study, life etc. can relieve the emotional block.


3-Know where you can be helpful and where you need outside help

If your learner is facing a really difficult private problem it is important to refer them to a professional psycologist when needed.  If you have one in your establishment make sure that you ask the learners’ permission before making an appointment for them or before emailing the psychologist.  The learner should be included in all the written correspondance.


4-Patience and talking

Rome was not built in a day and emotional obstacles usually take some time.  Some emotional issues around study etc. do not disappear after one conversation.  I have found that being open to talk about the same issue again and again, with the learner, helps them to process how they feel.


5-Keep calm

We have all lost it at one time or another in the classroom due to various reasons.  If you feel the behaviour is becoming challenging, breathe, count to 10 and then address the situation with the student outside of the lesson.  This does not have to be on the same day if you are agitated by the behaviour.  Calm yourself first and remember to use the ‘I’ language.  For example:  I feel that you were not comfortable in the lesson last week, I was wondering if everything is ok’. This is much better than ‘you continually keep disrupting the lesson, why is that?’.


Just those five small steps have really helped change the learning environments I have been working in.  If we ignore the fact that learners need a place to explore emotional challenges in the learning environment we are not really addressing a person’s whole learning needs.  However, if we include and acknowlege the central role of emotions in learning and have affective strategies to help them remove these barriers, the learning flourishes and the learner is able to reach their full potential.


For more neuroscience related posts have a look at: Bloom’s Taxonomy, Neuroscience and ELT



  1. Nathan says:

    Sharon, I really enjoyed your post. I’m also very interested how science, specifically neuro-science, can help us improve as teachers. I agree with many of your tips. When we care for our students, it shows that our classrooms are safe places. I also believe that humor is great way to help students feel positive and help them learn more effectively.

    Have you read, “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman? This is a great look at what science and economics tells us about how people learn and behave. It’s something I think you might enjoy.

    • Sharon says:

      Dear Nathan,

      I fully agree, safety and humour are absolutely important as well as allowing students to be themselves. I haven’t read ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ but it seems right up my street.)) Thanks for the recommendation. I will go and look it up.


    • What if students don’t react to your caring? To what do you attribute that? Is it you?

      I sometimes wonder what my students really say about me to each other.

      • Sharon says:

        Dear Tyson,

        Sorry I missed this and I have been madly busy all weekend!! I think that if they don’t react either they don’t want you to be the person to share it with or they might not be in the place to face and deal with it. I don’t think it is about you. It’s about where they are and if they don’t want to discuss it then I respect that. If a student doesn’t want to open up then I leave it for a while and if it continues I might wait for the right time to raise the topic again. Or I just make sure that when they do want to come and talk the door is open. I think we all wonder what they say about us because in the sameway learners have to expose themselves in the classroom so do we. It is a deeply personal experience and one built on building a realtionship.)


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