EMOTIONS AND LEARNING: FROM “COLD” TO “HOT” COGNITION
The summer is a great time to reflect on things we do. I was discussing this with my 16-year-old son a few weeks back when I asked him, “Who do you think you are?” I meant this quite literally. There was no issue, no attitude adjustment needed. I simply wanted to know who he thought he was. He asked me to clarify the question so I replied, “You are what you do. Each day, you choose to do stuff. That is who you are.” Then I asked him, “What is it that I do, most days, from your observation?” His response? “You run a school. You ride your bike. You drive me around.” That about sums it up!
What do we do at Synapse? Who are we? We teach and we learn, sure. I thought about our learning framework, HEARTS. Hot Cognition. Engage. Activate. Reflect. Transform. Store. HEARTS is what we do. And with that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the meaning and purpose of each aspect of our teaching framework.
Let’s focus on the H. In HEARTS, this stands for “Hot Cognition.”
As humans, we use two forms of cognition. One of them is cold cognition, or non-emotional cognition. You use cold cognition when you are planning your work commute or when you make a shopping list. This is simple, basic decision-making. When it comes to solving complex problems in a social situation, there are more demanding cognitive needs.
These needs require Hot Cognition. This is also known as emotional or social cognition: one’s ability to function well in situations that elicit strong emotions. It is what we use when we are faced with risk and reward scenarios. Racing a bicycle, which I do from time to time, is full of hot scenarios. Taking it up another cycling level, riders in the Tour de France are making hot decisions all day long, weeks on end. When there’s real risk of physical harm, heat is present. When Tour riders descend mountains in the rain at 50 mph with hundreds of other riders, dozens of cars, and thousands of spectators all over the roads, you can be sure heat is present. It’s an environment perfectly designed for risk rehearsal, for making hot decisions. Riders get immediate feedback about the quality of those hot decisions because if they make a bad one, there are real, painful, and public consequences. Eventually, every successful cyclist learns to make heated decisions as if those choices were a whole lot cooler.
As we know from the neuroscience of plasticity, those hot skills hardwire new neural networks that cross disciplines. The better we get at making hot decisions cool, the better we get at making them cool elsewhere. That’s why our HEARTS model starts with heat. When our teachers create a situation for students that offers a little risk and provides a good amount of immediate feedback, students learn to sort through their emotions, choose those that help, and make choices that help them in the moment. Feedback is critical at this point. Though the learning can feel unsettling for kids and the class can become emotionally-charged, our teachers are trained to step in and guide students in this process. This allows students to begin to recognize what they need to do to “cool” down in the heat of the moment. It sets them up for an exciting and engaging project ahead. Hot Cognition prepares them to tackle any complex challenge that they may face down the road, on a bicycle or in the classroom.