All humans experience emotions, and those emotions shape how we interact with and experience the world.
Ways of thinking with their roots in Enlightenment rationality tend to imagine the emotional realm as private, confined to the household, and traditionally residing in the “feminine” sphere. But it really doesn’t take any leap of the imagination or months in therapy to realise that all of us carry our emotions around with us into our professional lives, our communities – and our places of learning.
Frequently we all behave in ways that only make sense if you factor emotions into the rationale – unexpected outbursts of anger, or choices grounded in stress or anxiety rather than rational self-interest. The environments in which we work and learn can promote positive emotional experiences associated with connection, community, challenge, autonomy, and agency – and negative ones associated with stress, overwhelm, exclusion, and disconnection.
Mental health versus pedagogy
We’ve seen a new appreciation of the role of emotion in university communities in recent years with the rise of wellbeing and mental health interventions, and work on suicide prevention – undertaken with the full support of government and policymakers. Higher and further education minister Michelle Donelan has urged universities to sign up to the Student Minds University Mental Health Charter, and funders and regulators in all four UK nations are active in promoting university mental health support activity.
And while all of this predates the Covid-19 pandemic, that collective experience gave us a fresh and urgent appreciation of the scale of the mental health challenge – affecting everyone to some extent but especially young people. A survey for NHS England in 2021 estimated that one in six of 17-19 year olds have experienced disordered mental health – an increase in part attributable to the pandemic. And that’s not including those who develop a mental health condition or experience disordered mental health while studying at university.
There’s a new openness to talking about the value of well-managed mental health for individual staff and students in terms of success in professional practice and learning, and the implications of toxic working and learning environments for individuals’ mental health, wellbeing, and general ability to flourish.
But the general consensus that universities should support students’ emotional wellbeing sits fundamentally at odds with the response to efforts to exercise sensitivity to students’ emotions in the classroom. Content warnings, for example, are designed to acknowledge that for some students certain topics may cause emotional distress and allow them to prepare – but are routinely characterised in media as pandering to a generation of “snowflakes”.
More seriously, when universities, for example, make efforts to establish shared codes of community behaviour, to reassess curricula in light of historic structural inequalities (“decolonise”), or give serious consideration to students’ experience of stress and anxiety when redesigning assessment frameworks, they risk being accused of “wokery”, imposing uniformity of thought, or compromising standards. Mental health is an absolute priority, in other words – except when it manifests in the core business of learning and teaching in ways that policymakers don’t like.
Now a lot of this is your typical culture war nonsense, and in theory, not something educators should pay too much attention to. And of course university practices and pedagogies need to be open to critique and debate, though it would be preferable if that critique were offered in better faith.
But there’s a bigger picture here too, which is about responding to and acknowledging the role of emotion in pedagogy and student engagement, and considering what might reasonably be expected of educators in universities to engage with students’ emotions in the learning environment.
Feeling the fear
While the culture wars “snowflake” narrative represents the reactive end of the opinion spectrum, there’s still quite a lot of discomfort inside universities with the idea of emotion having a role to play in teaching. Some of that discomfort might be couched in the language of the pursuit of knowledge being rational and objective, but I suspect that’s a bit of a smokescreen for a deeper fear about being pushed well outside a personal comfort zone.
On a practical level, one of the consequences of the focus on students’ mental health is that academics have found themselves thrust into the role of counsellors, a role for which they generally do not have appropriate training and support, never mind time and emotional bandwidth.
And while it’s natural for students to turn to academics for support, there’s a risk that compassionate academics who genuinely want to help quickly become overwhelmed – with particular implications for those who are perceived to be more approachable and who share characteristics with distressed students. For those academics who are deeply uncomfortable with the pastoral role, there’s a risk that students leave the conversation feeling even more rejected and misunderstood.
Talking about emotions in pedagogy, then, can slip very quickly into what to do about students who are in crisis, rather than a wider conversation about how pedagogy can foster positive emotional wellbeing in students in general.
Not everyone is comfortable with emotions; not everyone has a broad emotional range and can name and manage their feelings with any degree of sophistication. There’s a reason why when we need to have a good cry in a professional context we usually hide in the toilet to do it.
And learning and teaching carries its own peculiar risks of vulnerability on the side of both the teacher and the student. Allowing emotions into the classroom carries the risk of things getting out of control, people becoming overwhelmed, of misunderstandings, and somebody getting hurt. Keeping emotion out of the equation can feel much safer.
I get so emotional
But the thing is, the emotions are there, whether we would like them to be, or not. And how students feel about themselves, and their interactions with their peers and their teachers, affects their approach to learning and their engagement. “Engagement” as a construct is manifested and observed in student behaviours such as completing assigned reading, contributing in class, and handing in assessments, but at its core it is a cognitive and affective (ie emotional) state.
Our current research on belonging and inclusion with Pearson has found a clear association between students’ self-reported mental health, and their overall sense of belonging at university, as well as with reported levels of happiness and loneliness. We also found associations between students’ sense of belonging and their academic confidence, their sense of community on the course and at university, whether students feel their course is inclusive, and whether students feel safe to be themselves, and speak their mind in their learning environment.
Since we published that research, we’ve also had some really interesting conversations with researchers exploring academics’ experience of belonging – and it will come as no surprise that educators also have emotions about their professional experience and variable sense of belonging in the academic sphere – whether that’s being shaped by the anxieties and stresses around the experience of casualised teaching work, or personal struggles with imposter syndrome, or any one of numerous other possible factors.
So, if the emotions are there, what are the options for engaging with them in pedagogy? I’ve been fascinated to notice that some universities are talking more about “compassionate pedagogy”. Without getting into the deep theoretical background on it, it’s a school of pedagogical thought that draws on the critical pedagogical tradition to centre the human interactions and relationships that constitute pedagogical practice, promoting a community-based and cooperative approach to learning rather than a competitive and individualistic one.
Practising compassionate pedagogy means adopting an ethic of care towards students, making space for diverse voices and experiences in the classroom, actively engaging with the structural and intersectional inequalities that may be manifesting in specific learning contexts, and seeking to alleviate suffering and promote wellbeing as an objective of education.
Its potential application runs across all kinds of learning contexts, such as interactions between academics and students, or between students, the design of learning activities, the content of the curriculum, student voice structures, assessment and feedback, academic support, or beyond to the interactions between students and the corporate university.
Needless to say it’s not about “dumbing down”, but when you adopt a lens of compassionate pedagogy to look at pedagogic practice course teams or individual academics might interrogate, as for example a team at University of the Arts London is doing, the impact of assessment processes and grading conventions on students’ wellbeing and sense of belonging. At university level, you might look at the emotional resources that complaints procedures demand of students and consider how processes might more effectively acknowledge or mitigate those.
It makes absolute sense that some universities and educators are turning to compassionate pedagogy. There’s strong alignment with social learning, authentic learning, and constructivist approaches that hold that knowledge is generated in social, dialogic contexts. By foregrounding the relational and community aspects of learning it could help improve student engagement, which every university leader I’ve spoken to in the last few months has said is an enormous challenge post-pandemic.
With its social justice ethos it clearly has resonance for work on diversity, inclusion, and belonging. And it’s a really helpful corrective to the tendency of university systems to be policy and process driven, and even occasionally dehumanising; my personal mental reference point for what anthropologist David Graeber notoriously described as the “violence” of bureaucracy.
Nevertheless, while I think compassionate pedagogy is brilliant for developing practice at the level of the individual or team, if everyone’s bought in, I have reservations about the applicability of compassionate pedagogy to the development of institutional pedagogical or student experience strategy.
It goes back to that point about variation in individuals’ general level of comfort with bringing emotion into putatively calm and orderly spaces. Acknowledging also the risk of unhelpful deficit models – ie “some people just have more emotional intelligence than others” – it might be fairer to say that different people have different orientations – some people like working with people and orient towards the relational, while others might be more motivated by moving strategic agendas forward, or engaging with deep theoretical analysis.
There is also, without resorting to stereotypes, observable variation in cultural levels of comfort with emotion – both in the “academic disciplinary cultures” sense and “world cultures” sense. Accommodating neurodiversity means recognising that different people express and process their emotions differently, and respond differently to manifestations of emotions in others.
And while no particular cultural way of thinking or individual orientation could reasonably be said to be incompatible with compassion, centring compassion as a feature of your institutional pedagogical approach could create friction, anxiety, or worse, the kind of dismissive hilarity that masks deep discomfort but is quite hard to come back from.
It is also, I think, reasonable to ask what is being demanded of educators in the adoption of compassionate pedagogy. Compassion suggests fierceness, intensity, requiring the daily practice of empathy and the ability to see things from others’ perspectives. The world would no doubt be a better place if we all practised compassion on a daily basis, but anything that seemed like encouraging or enforcing the inauthentic performance of compassion would be…troubling.
I’d also be concerned about what is promised to students in the practice of compassionate pedagogy and what can ultimately be delivered. The mythology of the extraordinary educator who can transform students’ lives is a potent one, and some individuals do stand out for their commitment to and engagement with students, but at base higher education is a team sport and requires lots of different kinds of skill sets. And while it’s absolutely right to recognise extraordinary teaching, nobody should be expected to pour their heart and soul into their students if that’s not what will fulfil them.
For a student to feel “seen”, valued, and cared for with a reasonable degree of consistency is a noble goal, and so there needs to be a pragmatic accommodation with course and professional teams’ willingness and openness to adopting practices that are more likely to result in that outcome.
Emotionally literate pedagogy
My proposal – which may seem like splitting hairs – is to consider what an “emotionally literate” pedagogy could look like. That means that as a baseline the existence and impact of the emotions in learning and teaching interactions must be acknowledged, and that it should not be considered culturally acceptable to dismiss emotions as “hysterical” or “unreasonable” or exclude emotional response from consideration in policy development, and pedagogic and professional practice.
For pedagogy in particular it might consist of developing a toolkit of practical things educators can do to support students to develop effective emotional regulation in the context of their learning, and that could help to promote the kinds of positive emotional states that learning has the potential to foster – agency, autonomy, connection, engagement, and intellectual challenge.
Some of those tools might include:
- Practising noticing and being curious about students’ emotional state, seeking to enable students to locate the intellectually challenging sweet spot between being under-stimulated and being overwhelmed and stressed.
- Focusing on effective two-way communication, and not expecting either students or academics to intuit the other’s expectations or experience.
- Establishing boundaried connections – seeking ways for students to experience a sense of collective care and concern for their academic success, within practical and appropriate limits and within the teaching time and space available.
- Encouraging students to notice and name their emotions, and make appropriate distinctions between their feelings about their learning, and their actual learning.
- Observing how students interact with each other and what kinds of facilitated interaction or tasks produce the most dynamic and inclusive learning conversations.
- Listening when students express something about their experience or about their learning and acknowledging and validating the emotions contained within that expression – especially important when it’s something that is inconvenient or unwelcome or itself provokes a strong emotional response.
- Endorsing and making space for colleagues to talk about their own emotional response to particular learning situations and contexts as part of general teaching development, and share what they have observed about the currents of emotion shaping particular learning and teaching interactions
It’s worth adding that many great teachers do this kind of thing already – whether or not they use compassionate pedagogy as a reference point. The difference is in whether there are frameworks for developing pedagogic practice in this complicated emotional space, and options for those who do not feel confident or are sceptical of the role that emotion can play in teaching.
None of this has to mean abandoning a critical or compassionate pedagogy on one hand, or academic rigour and standards dissolving into some kind of fuzzy therapeutic groupthink on the other. Students come to university to be challenged, to debate and disagree, and to grow as individuals as part of a learning community. But by being attentive to the emotional dimension of that development process as well as the cognitive, universities can enable students to develop their emotional wellbeing and resilience as part of their development of academic knowledge.
Elsewhere on Wonkhe Tony Moss has argued, drawing on the field of counselling and mental health, that what might matter more to student learning is less the pedagogical “technique” or framework adopted than the ability of the teacher to forge a sense of connection with students.
If he’s right, then encouraging educators who might struggle with the notion of compassionate pedagogy to develop an emotional literacy “toolkit” could be one way to advance the cause of student academic success and wellbeing without insisting that academics should exercise a level of “compassion” towards students they may simply not be comfortable with.
The worst thing would be to raise the expectations of distressed students towards their institutions in ways that cannot be sustained, risking greater harms. To be dragged through the press for encouraging snowflakery would simply add insult to injury.