This series of posts around education’s new normal inevitably feature posts on peer engagement, learners as partners and the importance of deliberately casting learners in co-roles; co-learners, co-creators and co-investigators. However, Anna Craft, who coined the term possibility thinking (acclaimed by readers in the Kadenze post of May 23 this year) points to a key dynamic in building engagement. In Co-creating education futures? Craft asserts that “Truly grappling with engagement involves adopting a view of children as empowered and creative and emotional.” (p.176)

However, have school administrators and educational researchers paid adequate attention to the ‘emotional’ dimensions of each learner’s life, especially after two years of COVID? Much prominent research is of the measurement and scaling kind, urgently trying to explain changing patterns of student engagement through school average test scores, growth percentiles, mean scores, and distributions of change.

Yet for all the value of this muscle-bound research there is a sense that it is somewhat incomplete; failing to capture the actual granular details of the emotional lives of individuals as they seek to build a post-pandemic future. Often, at Kadenze, our conversations with teachers take a different turn. As teachers of the arts and design, the “creative and emotional” dynamics of their students are a reliable and recurring starting point for learning. Consequently, some Kadenze partners across the planet are bemused, foxed and even thrown by what they are encountering. For instance we are hearing (in most unscientific ways of reporting) that increasing numbers of students: 

  • are more concerned with their place in the group than dealing with the artistic ideas of others. As a result ideas are often dismissed too early and too easily, hampering meaningful collaboration.
  • appear to have little interest in appreciating and learning from live performances in their community.  
  • prefer not to engage with other students’ work with commitment and generosity.
  • struggle to deliver group work-in-progress, even when back in live classrooms.
  • prefer not to engage in established protocols for classroom organization and management. For example one basic organizational move in a drama classroom is for students to gather in a circle. More than one teacher, commenting from different parts of the world, noted how difficult such a grouping is now, with an Australian teacher referring to her classroom as being made up “of circles of one”.
  • are reassured by mask wearing, not only for virus protection, but as a comfort system. It seems mask wearing for some can create a kind of emotional safety zone prompting a Canadian colleague to note  “Our high-school dance team – we had to pry their masks from them!”

The point of listing these gritty observations is not whether they are ‘true’ for learners across the globe, nor is it to argue the case for more qualitative research into these issues, but to note the direct relationship that exists between the emotional circumstances of students and the influence it has on their engagement with the curriculum, their teachers and their fellow students.

Understanding the potency of a learner’s emotional life on their learning was penetratingly demonstrated by Robert Witkin in his groundbreaking argument for the creative arts. In his The Intelligence of Feeling (1974) Witkin notes

There is a world that exists beyond the individual, a world that exists whether or not he (sic) exists. The child needs to know about this world to move in it and manage in it. ….it is a world of facts, of public space and ‘objects’. (p.1)

All educators, extending from parents to politicians, know this world, for its objects stand as the content of the formal curriculum. Learners encounter it everywhere, in the disciplines they must study, the classrooms (real and virtual) they must sit in, and the assessments they must take.

Witkin continues.

There is another world, however, a world that exists only because the individual exists. It is the world of their own sensations and feelings. It is the world of private space and of the solitary object.(p.1)

This recognition, that as sentient beings, each learner and all learners must navigate these two worlds, prefigures Craft’s insistence that we must foreground the ‘creative and emotional’ alongside empowerment, if engagement is to be deep, rich and personally significant. Failure to do so will have dire consequences, and make education’s new normal unaffordable. Unaffordable in Witkin’s terms; for

If the price of finding oneself in the world is that of losing the world in oneself, then the price is more than anyone can afford. (p.1)

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Brad Haseman, Professor Emeritus and Executive Vice President, Kadenze, Inc.