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This is Part 1 of a three-part blog. Part 1 explores the Hebraic understanding of the heart to reclaim a vision for the transformational and life-giving education that occurs when educators acknowledge students’ whole selves—intellect and emotions included. Part 2 uses neuroscience to further explore the nature and role of emotions in learning, and Part 3 offers suggestions concerning how educators might positively engage emotions in the classroom by targeting 4 key relationships.

Within the last two to three decades, formal education has significantly increased its emphasis on making learning engaging—albeit as a way to either improve the lecture or move the classroom experience beyond just lecturing. This change in emphasis is evidenced in such approaches as student-centered learning, active learning, and so forth. Though some scholar-practitioners have put forth learning taxonomies that incorporate affective dimensions (see L. Dee Fink), pedagogical norms predominantly focus on forms of engagement that center the intellect (i.e., mind, cognition, etc.) by disseminating information to increase knowledge. Yes, an indisputable and vital part of education is what we do with the mind; however, as we think back to our penchant for learning, our learning seems to be most effective—even life-giving—when it engages emotion along with engaging the intellect (See Figure 1).

Figure 1.

As educators, we can’t help but wonder why emotion proves so critical to transformative learning. In exploring this question, we found significant overlap between the insights of theology and the hard sciences (i.e., neuroscience and psychology), both of which suggest personal transformation (which we often call learning when it relates to cognitive change) involves deeply affective processes.

The idea that learning—at its best—reaches beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge and skills and into one’s very emotion is not new. Aristotle was aware that education, formal systematized learning, must involve the affective—education without education of the heart [the emotion, the affect] is no education at all. Moreover, he was not alone in this thinking. Even before modern science revealed the connectedness of the mind and emotion—through biology, neurology, and psychology—the language of ancient civilizations revealed an age-old perception of intellect, emotion, learning, and behavior as inseparably joined.

Perhaps the best example of this inseparableness comes in the form of a brief word study of the Hebrew word לֵב (leb) or “heart,” as used in the Old Testament. Bible concordances (See Strong’s Strong’s H3820; H3823; H3824; H3825) reveal general agreement that the word “lebab,” and its derivative “leb,” are used interchangeably and can be defined as:

  1. inner man, mind , will, heart, understanding

1. inner part, midst

  1. midst (of things; i.e., “heart of the sea”)
  2. heart (of man)
  3. soul, heart (of man)
  4. mind, knowledge, thinking, reflection, memory
  5. inclination, resolution, determination (of will)
  6. conscience
  7. heart (of moral character)
  8. as seat of appetites
  9. as seat of emotions and passions

2. as seat of courage

The Hebrews perceived the heart as not just housing emotion (see definition 9) and cognition (see definition 4) but as determinate of one’s moral reasoning and actions (see definitions 5, 6, and 7), thus constituting the very core of one’s being (see 2 and 3). Moreover, a heart could be broken (Psalm 34:18), molten (2 Samuel 17:10), clean (Psalm 51:10), or new (Ezekiel 18:31). In other words, personal transformation—or lack thereof, if the many references to Pharoah’s hardened heart is any indication—began in the heart. Education that occurs in the heart, in the Hebrew sense, captures one’s intellect and emotions and provides the basis for discernment and moral reasoning which in turn influence one’s intents and behaviors. Finally, the same heart that houses one’s thoughts, actions, and intents is the basis of the “inner person”—one’s very core. Therefore, educators must take care to shape the hearts of their students since doing so has a profound impact not just on how they think and act but who they are. Educating the heart is a form of education that outlasts the time our students spend in our classrooms.

As we reflect on our practice as educators, we humbly admit that we too often fail to engage our students in ways congruent with the Hebraic vision presented. We—like our students—have become accustomed to the pedagogy of contemporary Western education. We prioritize reason and rationality and too often neglect, even if unintentionally, the role of emotion in both formal and informal learning. Perhaps when we adjust our pedagogy to better capture students’ hearts—an inseparable force of the intellect and emotion that drives behavior—our classrooms will increasingly be places of truly transformational learning.

Not only is such transformational learning central to the espoused missions of so many Christian colleges and universities, but facilitating such learning proves life-giving to students, teachers, and the communities in which they individually or collectively find themselves (yet another function of the heart). Parker Palmer reflects, “I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is illumined by the lightning-life of the mind—then teaching is the finest work I know.” We can’t help but notice, in this statement, Parker’s emphasis on the heart, and the life he experiences in a class where emotions like joy co-mingle with intellectual engagement and discovery. This is teaching and learning at its best, and it’s why we go to work in the morning.

As we reflect on the Hebraic conceptualization of how humans think, feel, and act we cannot help but ponder the implications for the classroom contexts where we hope transformational learning occurs. In a broader academic culture in which objectivity and emotivism exist on opposite ends of a spectrum of intellectualism, Christian educators must engage their students in distinct ways. We believe adopting a Hebraic understanding of our students’ hearts—and our own—provides the basis of a vision for teaching and learning that is more fully human, but realizing this vision necessitates resisting contemporary pedagogical tendencies to engage the intellect as disconnected from emotion and behavior.

Jessica Martin

Baylor University
Jessica Martin is currently earning her Ph.D. in Higher Education Studies & Leadership at Baylor University. She holds an M.A. in Higher Education & Student Affairs along with a B.S. in Medicinal & Biological Chemistry (and a minor in Theology).

Scott Gaier

Scott Gaier is the Director of Academic Enrichment and also Professor of Higher Education at Taylor University, Upland, IN.

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