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Critical Connections: Experience, Emotion, and Knowledge Building

Updated: Apr 29

Critical Connections: Experience, Emotion, and Knowledge Building

How do the emotional responses students experience affect their depth of knowledge and learning? What is the relationship between experience and knowledge building? We were joined on our webinar by educational psychologist Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and a special group of teachers from Flemington Raritan School District to explore the critical connections between emotions, experiences, and learning. Read below for a summary.


Key Takeaways

  • Shifting Perspectives on Brain Structure: Advancements like neuroimaging reveal the interconnected nature of brain function, challenging traditional views of isolated parts.

  • Fostering Collaboration between Researchers and Educators: Bridging developmental science with K-12 education supports educators in understanding classroom dynamics and enables scientists to address key questions.

  • Inquiry-Based Learning in Action: Through the Migration and Movement unit, students delve into complex socio-cultural topics, developing critical thinking skills and cultural empathy.

  • Transcending Learning Boundaries: Through the process of transferring and applying learning, students build a broader understanding of the significance of their learning, 

Complex Connections and Networks for Learning

To begin the webinar, we explored differences between common perceptions of the brain's structure and the understanding of developmental scientists. Immordino-Yang shared that, historically, scientists and physicians studied the brain by observing patients with brain damage. They observed that damage in a specific area resulted in the loss of a particular function (or set of functions). This led them to describe the brain as being composed of separate modules (think of the cogs in a complicated machine). 

It’s this older description that in turn shaped the popular conception. Today, however, advancements like neuroimaging provide real-time insights into brain function and offer a different view: not of discrete parts functioning independently, but of an interconnected and dynamic network. This understanding has profound implications for education, shaping how we approach learning and cognitive development.

A Bridge Between Research and Classroom Experience

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Dr. Immordino-Yang has some insight into the complex, swirling dynamics of today’s K-12 classroom. Before embarking on her academic and scientific career, she taught in a 7th-grade science classroom for two years. Her experience had a lasting impact: “I think what was so interesting to me about that time,” she shared, “was the way the kids in my class were making sense of the things they were learning…complex and emotional and social.” 

This early experience had a profound effect on the trajectory of her later research and shaped her belief in the need for a deeper relationship between developmental scientists and K-12 educators. “The science can empower educators to make sense of the things they're seeing, and educators can empower scientists with the important questions.” This relationship is particularly vital within an educational landscape that is rapidly evolving. “The real goal is to come together,” Immordino-Yang said, “and really listen to each other.” In the spirit of working toward that goal, we were joined on the webinar by three teachers from the Flemington Raritan School District: Hanna Attiyah, Katherine Kuhns, and Nina Higgins.

Learning in Action

The Flemington-Raritan School District in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, serves Flemington Borough and Raritan Township. The district focuses on academic excellence, student engagement, and personal growth through diverse programs and activities.

Migration and Movement, Inquiry Journeys

Attiyah, Higgines, and Kuhns walked us through students’ experiences of the 3rd-grade Migration and Movement unit from Inquiry Journeys. In this unit, students explore the push and pull factors that contribute to the movement of people across nations. They compare past and present stories of immigration to develop and deepen their understanding of how cultural identity is built and maintained in a multicultural society. 

An inquiry unit is made up of three types of modules, each containing a series of connected lessons. Units begin with a Launch Module, move through a series of Investigation modules, and end in an Action module.

The Launch Module

Students begin their experience of the unit in the Launch Module. The lessons in this module hook students into the inquiry, introduce the Inquiry Question and help students generate questions to guide their exploration. “It’s really one of my favorite parts of the process,” Attiyah shared, “because it really shows the students that you're motivated and eager to start the unit with them.” 

As part of this opening experience, students use the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) to generate their own questions to explore across the unit. Kuhns shared that when students first experience the QFT, they are usually quiet and unsure. “But once we start taking any all questions in any way, shape, or form,” Kuhns shared, “you begin to see other kids start realizing, okay, this is a safe space. I can ask anything…and slowly but surely, all of them do.” 

The exploration doesn’t end when students generate the questions, however. Those questions are kept alive during the unit, revisited, and reflected upon, and according to Higgins, “we see a lot more buy-in from students, their interest is more peaked when they are investigating these questions and coming back to them.”

Investigation Modules

As students move through the Investigation Modules of the Migration and Movement unit, they build their background knowledge and social studies skills, experiencing explicit instruction and engaging in collaborative, student-centered learning. Those collaborative, social learning experiences – whether it’s a mingle pair share, a concentric circles discussion, etc. – take some time to establish and fine-tune, but have huge payoffs for learning. "It definitely takes some modeling from us," Higgins shared, "but it really increases that student engagement piece,

allowing the kids to share their thoughts and their feelings in a low-risk situation." 

Dr. Immordino-Yang pointed out that it’s impossible to remove learning from a social context. “Our very biology is social, and so our modern traditional way of schooling where high-quality learning is what you can do by yourself…just does not reflect the human condition.”

Learning transfer and application

After the Investigation Modules, students start to think deeply about what they are going to do with the social studies knowledge they have built throughout the unit. In the Action Module, students use their learning to design and implement an action that has an impact on their community.

To guide their work, they create an Inquiry Challenge Statement that describes the action they will take, the product they will create, the target group they will affect, the impact they want to have, and the goals they will work toward. "I was a little surprised," Higgins shared, "but the students wanted to create posters to represent their immigration experiences. It was such a simple project, but setting their own parameters and creating their own rubric gave them great buy-in to this and they took such pride in this work."

Dr. Immordino-Yang highlighted that giving students a choice in the matter – and having them make connections to their lived experiences – are critical parts of the learning process. "The outcome or endpoint," she shared, "is ownership, where kids…say 'I see the connection.' We call that transcendent, where they transcend the details of what they've learned to build a bigger story of why that's important, and how it applies in other places." Ultimately, this is the goal of a dynamic inquiry-based classroom: to extend beyond the four walls and shape the overall development of young people into engaged thinkers in the world.

Keep Exploring

You can keep digging into the critical connections between emotions, experiences, and learning by watching the full webinar recording below.

About inquirED

inquirED was founded by teachers with the mission of bringing inquiry-based social studies to every classroom. Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum, is used in schools and districts across the country to help students develop deep social studies content knowledge and build the inquiry skills that are essential for a thriving democracy.


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