One definition of insanity that is often cited is the practice of repeating the same failed practice over and over expecting different results. Though this doesn’t apply to all academic institutions, all of the time, when it comes to the relationship between emotion and learning, the traditional approaches of institutions routinely fail students, or at best, help them only by accident.

A study published in “Praxis: A Writing Center Journal” on the attitudes towards emotion in academics, explores how traditional institutional practices regard negative emotions, like anxiety, fear or anger. The study suggests that most academic support services almost exclusively treat these emotions as disruptive and frame them as “baggage that we must carry around.” They also tend to suggest that reason and emotion are mutually exclusive states that are external and a student should be able to shift between them.

However, countless studies on the subject have proven repeatedly that the emotional connection of a student to material and instructor constitute a critical factor for success. In fact, the two are mutually dependent. So much so, that according to empirical data, success for students is inextricably linked to their ability to regulate their emotions.

As the author of this study suggests:

“writing-based emotions could function generatively or disruptively; that is, these emotions can lead to both short term writing success and long-term writing development—or not. It really depended on how a student used them, experienced them, and most importantly managed them. This means that these so-called emotions that writing center tutorials want to move out of the way and see as disruptive are actually central to long-term learning outcomes.”

In casual observation, this is undoubtedly true. Do you think that students who fail to put forth a full effort on any particular assignment are thwarted more often by intellectual inability, or by the inability to manage feelings of frustration with the exercise or the instructor, anxiety or fear over the grade, or boredom with the subject? In my experience failure is due almost exclusively to the latter explanations.

If this conclusion is indeed true, wouldn’t it make a whole lot more sense to focus on accepting and managing these negative emotions if we’re interested in helping the student succeed? Or at least offer a partial effort? Or any effort whatsoever? But traditional educational structures alienate these negative emotions, and treat them as worthy of quarantine and reform.

I think we’ve got to educate the whole student: both halves of the brain, negative and positive emotions in combination with the intellect. Isolating and bifurcating the possibilities of the human mind is extremely limiting and anxiety-provoking. After all, we can’t truly ever sincerely escape ourselves, only pretend to exist in such a vacuum. Our kids deserve a better educational system that takes this extensive research into account, and not one that clings to traditional models that limit and fragment. These emotions in concert with the intellect turn a child who traditional systems label as “problematic” into one that is actually quite powerful instead, unified and empowered by capability and limitation accepted.