Emotional Factors in Learning

Motivations and emotions may have an evolutionary purpose or function related to self-preservation, pain avoidance and gratification. However, if we were chiefly guided by our instinctual motivations and emotions, we would live more like animals. We can raise motivations and emotions above this level by moderating and integrating them with our uniquely human capacities. Developed motivations and emotions guided by love and justice results is such qualities as service, courage, fortitude, integrity, patience, and discipline. Selfish or negative motivations and emotions can greatly limit happiness and health of the individual and society.

Development depends on a level of knowledge, love and will within social structures based on authenticity, altruism and autonomy and can be facilitated by increasing relevance, curiosity, novelty, choice and control, interest, mild anxiety, emotions, challenge and feedback. As we grow in healthy inner love, knowledge and will, we gain in capacity, courage and motivation.

When growth has been rewarded, rather than punished, it releases increased mental, emotional and physical energy. It is natural to avoid pain and suffering, but some will be encountered in the growth process. Hardships need not be avoided as they lead the way to motivation and development. Mental and emotional pain and suffering are often internally perceived and defined based on the values of the culture, not based on reality outside that cultural definition. What one person may see as physical pain and suffering may be seen and experienced by another as fun and rewarding, such as physical or mental exercise. If effort is related to valued goals that are believed to be achievable, some sacrifice is expected and accepted in the process.

If interactions with the environment are seen as opportunities for growth rather than threats to well-being, we are more likely to engage in them. Engagement with learning, effort and motivation are increased if the experience is positive and the learner feels safe and secure. Motivation and effort are also activated by avoidance of unpleasant stimuli, such as negative reinforcements and punishments. Fear, anger and disgust, all aspects of love, can be very motivating emotions and may be used to assist learners to exert needed effort to maximize the positive and minimize the negative emotions.

The five classic emotions accepted by most psychologists are happiness, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. As discussed earlier, these emotions can be viewed as different expressions of our loving capacity. Happiness is an emotion that results from having an object or entity that is loved being treated in way that brings pleasure or satisfaction. That object is often ourselves or our sense of what is true, loving and just. Happiness increases as we feel those things treasured and sadness results when what we love is being removed or hurt. Anger results when a love object is unjustly treated or threatened and fear when it is being threatened without our ability to help. Disgust occurs when something we love is somehow violated, including our valued sensibilities. Understanding these as forces of love can help us to regulate and direct their influence in ways that are more beneficial to others and ourselves.

If the love is out of balance with our knowing and willing, or not properly associated and supported by them, the ability of the to prosper, be happy, creative, and autonomous is impeded. Similarly, if what we love is not in accord with beauty, unity, truth, goodness, service or justice, then difficulties will also ensue. As explained in the mathematical models above, the positive powers of love combined with negative forces such untruths or injustice results in a negative outcome. On the other hand, negative emotions of love, generally hate but also other expressions like sadness, anger, fear and disgust, when combined with the negatives of falsehoods and oppression, can create a positive motivation if used properly. However, if these negative emotions are overwhelming and are not properly channeled to the accomplishment of a worthwhile task, they can have a detrimental effect on development. General positive emotions such as joy, inquisitiveness and enthusiasm enhance learning and the accomplishment of tasks.

When we know what to do, want to do it and choose to act on it, we have increased effort, mastery and courage. Once in motion, inertia tends to keep us going. Our actions evoke reactions that can increase the likelihood of continued growth and development. These actions and reactions have positive and negative charges and will react to one another to either increase or decrease growth. The more conscious, deliberate and proactive we become, the more likely we are able to keep growing. We can help students be attracted to good qualities, and repelled away from the bad that may appear attractive, but are actually negative and destructive.

Love is the force that holds all things together, from the atoms to the galaxies. Love also holds groups, societies and civilization together. Disintegration results when this force is missing. If learners and groups of learners feel loved, they will be more likely to realize their full potentials. Therefore, teachers’ ability to teach or motivate students is greatly affected by their own purity of motive and ability to express love in action. Sincerity and purity of motive then is vital to success, because it directs and determines the value of any action. Love gives us energy and where we put that energy and effort most often is toward what we love. If what we love is based on ignorance, self-centeredness and selfishness, we are using a formula for failure, not success.

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While the cognitive and metacognitive factors above focus more on the mind, the motivational factors deal mostly with the heart and will. Successful learners must use and balance all these faculties. Motivation is dependent on having a purpose in life—no purpose, no motivation.

Maslow’s (1971, 1975) hierarchy of needs is related to the hierarchy of purpose and motivation. These needs in hierarchical order are survival (basic physical needs), security (physical and social protection), belonging (social needs), cognitive (to know), aesthetics (beauty, to love), and self-actualization (to will and do). Later Maslow postulated a self-transcendence (spiritual, to transcend) need. Some people’s purpose and motivation is only to survive, the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy. The lower level needs only act as motivators when they are absent. The lower needs represent the physical concerns. Our knowing, loving and willing capacities represent the highest levels in Maslow’s hierarchy. The higher order needs become more motivating the more you have of them—the higher the purpose, the higher and more sustaining the intrinsic motivation. Those who reach self-transcendence are at the stage of united and fulfilled functioning.

Extrinsic motivators, rewards and punishments though needed and useful, are limited and can hinder motivation, especially if one is intrinsically motivated (Deci, 1971; Deci, Koestner, and Ryan, 1999; Fehr and Falk, 2002; Kohn, 1999, Shapira, 1976). We should move away from dependence on extrinsic motivators and move toward intrinsic motivations in a deliberate and measured way (Kohn, 1999). Whenever possible and practical, students should be given choices about learning to help develop their volition and intrinsic motivation. If they comprehend the relationship between cause and effect and understand the results of their actions, then they will be motivated to follow the course that optimizes their happiness and well-being. They need to be in charge of their own transformations by making them competent in applying their faculties.

Perseverance is an essential condition to the accomplishment of any task. We seek self-determination and autonomy, which can be negatively affected by others’ manipulation, including rewards (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Motivation is positively related to effort and effort is positively related to relevance. If learners do not see the relevance of learning to their lives, motivation and effort will be negatively affected. School learning is often perceived as not relevant to the students’ lives. It is our perceptions of reality, and of cause and effect relationships, rather than reality itself that often determines our actions and motivations. If our perceptions are not reality-based, than adjustments need to be made.

The law of causality is as true in the mental and spiritual world as it is in the physical world. Every effect has a cause and every cause and effect. Energy must be exerted to create a change of state. We are internally motivated by real challenge and accomplishment (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Seligman, 2011). We choose relatively easy tasks when external rewards are given, but more challenging activities when they are not given (Shapira, 1976).

Without effort, little growth can occur. Interactions between self and reality are the cause of growth and development, and can lead to true happiness and autonomy. We can control our responses to the challenges life offers us, but we cannot control the challenges. To respond effectively requires effort and an internal locus of control. As we actualize our potential, we experience cognitive, affective and physical benefits, and are further motivated. Five factors that cause people to flourish: positive emotion, relationship, accomplishment, engagement and meaning (Seligman, 2011) can be fully experienced in teaching and learning. The sense of accomplishment in completing our own goals and following our own values is lost when we are made to feel we are being driven by someone else’s goals and values.

Encourage internal and autonomous motivation and use external motivation with wisdom. Assessments can be motivating when they are used to provide relevant information or feedback, but are demotivating when they are controlling or too difficult. Both teachers and students do less well when external pressure or motivation is applied (National Research Council, 2011).

Achievement motivation is related to our knowing and willing, and affiliation motivation is related to the loving qualities. Effort, related to will, is a combination of all the capacities. It starts with love, desire or attraction, goes to knowing how to fulfill our wants, and results in willing to realize the object sought. Accomplishment requires discipline, self-regulation, goal directedness, activity, personal responsibility and other cognitive, metacognitive and affective factors.

Teachers can first work to develop their inner and outer capacities then bend the energy generated toward whatever may foster the education of their students. They should encourage and counsel their students through means based on love and reason. Verbal and physical abuse affect the character and learning of others negatively, especially children. They can teach resolution, endurance, perseverance, constancy, strength, determination, striving, high mindedness, firmness of purpose and other qualities and traits related to motivation and effort. When we teach them to dedicate their lives to matters of importance that benefit humanity, they will be assisted to accomplish whatever they undertake and become happy and successful individuals.

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Strategic Development in Learning

Understanding the capacity-building process enables us to reflect upon, refine and apply our capacities to new situations to enhance our autonomy and responsibility. Just as artisans need to be skilled in their trade and the strategies of their craft, so do learners. As there are many successful strategies to building a house, there are also many successful strategies to learning. These strategies can be taught and learned. Educators can teach, model, assess and develop strategic learning skills such as making associations, connections, inferences, conclusions, interpretations, summaries and decisions.

Consultation with and among learners is one of the most powerful tools for acquiring new knowledge, skills, qualities and dispositions. Consultation involves seeking truth through joint sharing and investigation. It requires some training and self-discipline to be done successfully and effectively. Consultation requires developing the skills of comparing and contrasting. This problem-solving approach utilizes our knowing, loving and willing faculties to evaluate options and identify truth from falsehood, fact from opinion and cause from effect.

Some strategies and skills related to consultation and learning given in research (Marzano, et al., 1997) include being aware of our thinking and resources while pushing the limits of our knowledge and ability. We strive for accuracy, clarity, sensitivity and open-mindedness in our discussions. As we generate new ways of viewing situations using questioning, analyzing, comparing, contrasting and evaluating, we also learn to express our views with moderation, care, detachment and consideration, always trying to balance the principles of truth, love and justice.

Using the truth can assist strategic thinking and complex learning by helping students develop their own potential. Using justice is itself a form of strategic thinking. Our capacities will be enhanced as we develop and use them in more complex, expanded and unique situations. Understanding which of the knowing, loving or willing modes we prefer can help us to start and facilitate our developmental process. Educators can help students make choices of approaches and activities that will assist in effective learning using strategies such as redirection, probing and reinforcement.

Peer teaching where learners question and help one another to solve learning problems can help develop capacity. Developing reasoning and powers for unfettered search for knowledge and independent investigation of truth are essential to thinking for oneself and true learning. Memorization is a very useful and necessary learning tool that can help students become successful learners. Meditation and reflection are also effective strategies and valuable learning tools, since encouraging our head and heart to work together can lead to great discoveries and accomplishments in science, the arts and life. Parables, stories, metaphors, analogies, play, recreation, travel, music, the arts, drama and other creative expressions can facilitate learning. As we incorporate several of these strategies to further understanding of human potential, we will advance individually and collectively.

The above thinking strategies help build capacities, especially the knowing and willing. Modeling and providing students with instruction in thinking skills to promote growth makes available ways of constructing and developing the knowing capacity and involve the loving and willing capacities in learning. 

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Constructing Capacity

We build capacity based on our existing capacities. If these bases are weak, or not well-formed, then additional constructions on them are bound to suffer. As we learn and develop more, broadening and deepening our truth, love and justice, we add to, modify, refine, change and reorganize our existing knowledge, feelings and will. If we do this in a productive way, our capabilities strengthen to face new experiences in more effective ways. Earlier learning based on ineffective or wrong information, motives or behaviors may need to be replaced with more sound and useful constructions.

These three faculties of our minds, hearts and will, which are the seat of our knowing, loving and willing, must be integrated by truth, love and justice to be effective. As educators, we can help students to construct meaning, use it symbiotically and integrate it into their lives. Understanding how earlier constructions may need to be temporary structures or replaced in light of new understandings is vital for growth. Sometimes scaffolds need to be built to temporarily support and construct knowledge. Knowing when, where and how to use these supports will facilitate the learning process.

In terms of construction, not only do we build on what we have, we also build toward what we want to have in the future. Not everyone constructs, organizes or goes about this process in the same way, goes from the same bases of knowledge and experience or desires the same future results. As educators, we can give students the tools and organizers for learning representations and constructing meaning, such as generalization, categorizing and cause-effect relations. Knowledge of these tools allows learners to choose the ones that are best for them. Learning models help construct knowledge about developing human potential through concept mapping and organization and metaphorical, visual and mechanical representations of the learning and development process.

We have innate, inherited and acquired characteristics actualized through interaction with environment. Learning is a proactive and reactive process between the body and the soul. The body is an instrument and vehicle for the soul’s development. Our innate natural capacities are all good when used with good motives, but can be bad when improperly used. These abilities must be disciplined and trained according to laws of development. These competencies require effort for self-improvement.

Developing and realizing our potentials can be considered our purpose in life. The social structure the schools and teachers create will help determine the extent students will be enabled to grow. Teachers are to act morally to create a moral order in their classrooms—to act with truth, love and justice—so both individual and social good are served. As the education and training of children help them realized their potential, they can be considered among the most meritorious services one can perform in the world.

We grow intellectually analogously to how we grow physically: we take in, assimilate, utilize, grow and develop. Not all that we physically take in is good or useful. Like physical growth and health, intellectual growth can be healthy or not. Not all knowledge, love, actions or reactions are beneficial. There are many mistakes and errors made in this process of refining ourselves and helping others. Educators can create environmental influences and guide learners’ responses in healthy ways to develop their individual cognitive, motivational and social faculties. An individual is like steel, which needs the fire of education to help in refining and forming it to be made stronger. Iron left on its own becomes rusted and corroded with desires and ignorance.

Developing human potential is the process of using will to develop and then translate knowledge and love into action. It is only in living our lives with love and knowledge that we can gain a truer perspective of ourselves and reality. As we move away from self-centered views toward more universal understandings of truth, love and justice, we obtain a truer knowledge of self and become a better, healthier and happier people. If we focus on material and selfish aspects of life, we do not develop the faculties of our true potential. Truth, love and justice must work together for the individual and society to grow, develop and advance. Growth results from creation, expansion and consolidation of capacities.

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The Nature of Goals

Goals affect learning. Our minds, hearts and wills are goal directed. Truth, love and justice should be the primary goals of our minds, hearts and wills and make all other goals positive and powerful. The more we are aware of our goals, define them and consciously work towards them, the more likely we are to achieve them. This process can be learned. It takes time and effort. It is the responsibility of parents and educators to assist their children and students in developing their capabilities to reach worthwhile, long-term and meaningful goals.

The goals we aspire to, we will tend to manifest. If we use our knowing, willing and loving capacities for material ends or lower purposes, we will reflect and move towards them. Because of our natures, we can become attracted to and pursue selfish ambition instead of justice, prejudice instead of truth, and hate instead of love. We can use our powers and knowledge for harm, arrogance and pride rather than to help and serve. People with selfish, individualistic and materialistic goals can become savage, unjust, cruel and harmful.

We can assist learners to set their goals high, to strive for noble goals and purposes, to control their passions and desires and to avoid frivolous and useless endeavors. Children can be encouraged in this process and taught these skills from the beginning of their lives. Such training will result in high resolve, sense of purpose and personal capability, self-esteem and an internal locus of control. These aspects of will enable then to accomplish things and bring to successful conclusion whatever they undertake.

Goals evolve along with our sense of self. Our first unstated and unconscious goals in life are satisfying our basic needs and desires. They have little to do with loving and doing for others beyond our inner drives. As we grow, our goals move from self to family, and then expand to community, culture, nation, world and beyond. If our goals do not move outward to encompass higher truth, love and justice, then growth will be limited. As educators, we can assist young people to adopt and pursue these healthy goals. We can help them create meaningful and coherent representations of reality, which will require moving beyond limited conceptions based on earlier and less mature views to those that integrate self, family, and ever widening and more inclusive social groups and knowledge into a unified whole.

Goals give meaning to life. They direct our energy towards the things we value. If our goals are positive and healthy, they will take attraction, time and energy away from less worthy goals. Educators can help students value useful goals and work toward them. One reason education is so important and vital, is that children’s success and prosperity depend on it. Success, honor, distinction and prosperity come from service, being the source of social good and the cause of peace, well-being, happiness and advantage to others. These are goals that are worthy of striving for and that give meaning and happiness to life. Unfortunately, they are not the goals often promoted in our media. Lofty goals will not indulge unhealthy selfish concerns and interests.

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The Nature and Context of Learning

Understanding our cognitive and metacognitive learning processes is a key to promoting human happiness and well-being. Information and experience are the material we use to construct and generate meaning. One process of learning results from interactions with the environment using our five physical senses to take in knowledge. The outward physical senses receive sensory energy, which is communicated to the brain to be processed.

The internal mental senses or properties that operate through the mind such as imagination, which imagines things transmitted through the senses; thought which thinks about or conceives what is imagined or perceived; comprehension which comprehends what is thought by connecting and constructing understanding; and memory, which remembers what the physical and mental senses have experienced (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 1987, pp. 210-211).

Learning processes are varied; some simple and others more complex; some unconscious or subconscious while others are conscious. The process of learning and the development of potential increases to the degree we are intentional using our thinking, feeling and willing faculties to be active, goal directed, self regulating, assume personal responsibility and identify and exploit learning opportunities. If we can intentionally use information and experience to develop our capacities and our varied intelligences in good ways, learning and development improves.

Learning occurs in a context; it results from some interaction with the environment. These interactions test our capacity. We can categorize the environments with which we interact into the self, others, objects and unknowns. The first and primary interaction each person has is the self with the self, then with other human beings and objects, concrete or abstract, and lastly unknowns, mysteries and entities we do not comprehend,. Most interactions are a combination or collection of the above entities with one or more being dominant. Individuals by interacting in these environments can create movement toward the development of potential in themselves and others.

Teacher to student and student to classroom interactions are potent sources for learning. The teacher plays an important role in creating a good learning environment. Creating contexts to actualize capacities in good ways is the goal of teachers. Teachers have a responsibility to create classrooms characterized by truth, love and justice to facilitate the knowing, loving and willing capacities of their students. The educators’ use of these qualities and their own capacities, affect the classroom environment and learning. When the educators’ capacities are properly developed and developing, they can create the energy or force needed to start the students’ learning. Classrooms and teachers characterized by love, fair-mindedness and honesty will engender these qualities in the students.

Some students are so stuck in their limited and low views of themselves that only a great force can get them to move. In these cases, extra caring, acceptance, love and service may help. Sometimes teachers need to be forceful in their love, truth and justice in order to have effect. By having more authentic, face-to-face, relationships with learners, teachers have more chance of influencing them. If we have not actualized our capacities, then we are not in a position to help others do so. This process is synergetic or symbiotic: the more your students grow, the more energy is created, which causes the teachers to grow more as well. The students create a motive force to move the teacher.

We are situated in contexts and affected by them. If students are turned away from learning or going in a different direction, they can limit or disturb the learning of others. Use of technologies and instructional processes can coordinate, focus and extend the learning. Our capacities are essential in the context of learning and in many ways determine the inner context of the learner. As we turn towards truth, love and justice, we prosper, as we turn away from any of these positive forces, our development and happiness will be hindered.

Education can be divided into three kinds—material, intellectual and spiritual relating to the body, mind and soul. Material education is the education of the physical body, intellectual education relates to civilization and intellectual development and spiritual education is the acquiring of virtues. These three types of education all depend on truth, love and justice. Each must be developed. Education should cover all three aspects: the physical, intellectual and spiritual. Each level is progressively more difficult to measure, but standards and assessments can be made for each. Health and nutrition are the primary sources for developing the body; family, schools, and society the mind; and religion and spiritual practice the soul.

Material education is to nurture and strengthen the body and develop bodily soundness and health through such things as proper care of the body, outdoor activities, play and athletics. Intellectual education relates to those activities that distinguish humans from animals, that contribute to the advance of civilization and that are of use and benefit to the world, such as useful arts, crafts, trades and sciences. Spiritual education is more important in that it inspires, guides and regulates all other education in healthy ways. This involves moral education and the acquiring of spirituality, morals and virtues.

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Combining Learning Principles from Science and Religion

I am starting a series on combining principles from science and religion that will be taken from my book, Truth, Love and Justice: A New Paradigm for Education and Its Reform, which can be obtained for free on my website at rodclarken.wordpress.com under “Books and Papers.”


Throughout history, the principles and theories of learning and developing human potential have largely derived from religion. More recently science has come to play a predominate role in furthering our understanding of learning and human development.

Psychologist, philosophers, neuroscientist, and computer scientist are beginning to carefully and precisely identify some of the underlying mechanisms that give us this distinctively human capacity for change—the aspects of our nature that allow nurture and culture to take place. (Gopnik, 2009, pp. 8-9)

The last 20 years have witnessed tremendous advances in theory and research in developmental and cognitive psychology, and on the emotional, motivational, personality, and social processes of individual learners that contribute to the dynamics of the learning process. (Spielberger, 1998, p. ix)

I will focus on learning principles approved by the American Psychological Association (1997) and reviewed by leaders and scholars in education, psychology and other scientific disciplines. They offer a synthesis, foundation and framework of the best thinking on learning and are consistent with more than a century of research on teaching and learning. They integrate research and practice in various areas of psychology; reflect conventional and scientific wisdom; and provide a framework for and lead to effective schooling, positive mental health and a realization of greater potential (McCombs & Whisler, 1997).

I will attempt to combine these learning principles from science with learning principles from religion, focusing on the Bahá’í writings and using the principles of truth, love and justice developed thus far. As such, I will limit my referencing by stating upfront that the key ideas have been drawn primarily from the American Psychological Association’s 14 learner-centered psychological principles (1997) and from multiple Bahá’í sources. See http://www.apa.org/ed/governance/bea/learner-centered.pdf and http://bahai-library.com/compilation_bahai_education for some supporting material.

This treatment is necessarily very preliminary and superficial as the topic is immensely broad and complex, far beyond my capacity to adequately address. However, it is hoped that this discussion can provide a framework for ongoing exploration and development and provide further evidence on how the guiding principles of truth, love and justice can serve as a new paradigm for education and its reform.

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