TouchPaper Problem #2 – Productive Emotions

This is the second blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013

2. How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorization, (d) creation?

One of the things we do as teachers is plan activities. We figure out what students should be  know or do (or we’re told what they must know and do) and we then plan a variety of tasks that, if undertaken carefully, should mean the student ends up with whatever it was we were attempting to transfer to them.

Too often, when planning, teachers worry about the way students will feel during the tasks and less about whether or not the students will gain the required knowledge or skills. (Someone saying “I have planned a really fun lesson” is the usual giveaway for this one). On the other hand, teachers sometimes worry about what students will be thinking about and neglect to ponder whether students will be motivated, interested, delighted, disgusted. 

Some people may scoff at this latter part, but learning involves both things: emotions and cognition. Our emotions are related to motivation and interest, and those things affect the way we think. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we must be happy to learn. In fact, there is fairly good evidence that a mildly negative mood is actually more productive when we are doing detailed work requiring highly accurate step-following – for example, solving a complicated mathematical equation.

This got me thinking. Are there rules of thumb that teachers could use to consider the mood of their classroom and then align it most productively? If the aim in a session is to have students working well together (perhaps this is a drama exercise) is there a conducive mood for this? At the cognitive end of things, if I want students to memorise a list of French verbs and their agreements – what should the atmosphere of my classroom now be?

But just answering the question of “what mood is productive?” is not really a problem. So I pushed a bit further.   Even if I was certain that a mildly negative mood is best for maths – so what? How do I safely and humanely induce it?

Now, I say safe and humane, but I’m also willing to accept the idea that non-humane ways might work too and  in the spirit of not wanting to rule things out I’d be willing to let these into a solution (presuming they could, somehow, be ethically proven) because then at least we’d know. Of course, knowing something will work is not the same as needing to do it (and obviously, I would advocate against it).

Nevertheless, in my head this problem would be solved if someone could show what is the most effective mood for each of these outcomes, and at least one way to induce that mood among a majority of students in a classroom environment.


Categories: #TouchPaper Problems

10 replies

  1. Hmmm – more questions than answers….
    First thoughts: this sounds like something that could/should be tested in lab conditions before going anywhere near classrooms. I’m sure someone somewhere will have done psychological experiments along these lines. So, maybe what’s needed is a thorough trawl of the research evidence that already exists before embarking on further studies designed to replicate classroom conditions.

    There’s a PhD just in this one question! I’m sure that will turn out to be the case for all your problems. So, what you need is a team a researchers and a huge grant. Anybody?

    • You’re right David, I think there’s already a lot of this research out there so it’s a case of bringing it together. We’re currently looking at ways of doing that which don’t quite involve a PhD or research team, though there are some potential offers of cash – exciting!

      Thanks, as ever, for your engagement with this 🙂

  2. Interesting idea Laura, you might want to look at what the Wellcome Trust is up to on neuroscience and education ( The Royal Society also produced a report on this area a while back (

  3. Could you link me to some of the evidence on moderately negative moods being beneficial? Sounds very interesting.

  4. I can’t help thinking that, hopefully unlike some of your other questions, this one is going to be affected a lot by context. When I really need to concentrate on some evaluative thinking (I think marking counts) the Bach Violin Sonatas is the most reliable way to invoke the appropriate emotional state in me (not sure my methodology is robust but it is at least a repeatable result) but I doubt Bach for Year 10 is going to be the answer. I would think that there might be a whole range of things that would have small effects in nudging the emotional state in the right direction, and it would be good to know what these are, but are they going to make a real difference to what happens in a classroom? I’m wondering whether, in a heavily controlled experiment, seating arrangements might have an effect, or colour and lighting, or speed and tone of voice, or meta-cognitive training, but I wouldn’t want to put money on any of these cutting through the random noise of a real school environment. My hunch is that teachers that are good at achieving these things do a combination of subtle things it would be hard to pin-point, and impossible to reliably re-create, leading to the danger of hearing Mozart echoing through school corridors but with no improvement in learning. I think this question could keep plenty of researchers busy but, to me, they wouldn’t be lighting anything I might describe as touchpaper. However, I’m seduced by your idea of getting some focus into the pragmatic part of educational research and eagerly await blogpost #3.

  5. Reblogged this on The TouchPaper Problems and commented:

    TouchPaper Problem #2….


  1. Arguing over the Ridiculous: Brain Gym and Mantle of the Expert | Scenes From The Battleground
  2. Questions that matter: method vs practice | David Didau: The Learning Spy
%d bloggers like this: