Opinion: Students Learn From People They Love

RIchard feynman teaching

I stumbled upon an article from The New York Times titled “Students Learn From People They Love”. It instantly caught my attention because hey, that sounds interesting and also right! This is an opinion article about that article, which it’s worth a read! But I quote the most important parts here (highlights are mine).

“A few years ago, when I was teaching at Yale, I made an announcement to my class. I said that I was going to have to cancel office hours that day because I was dealing with some personal issues and a friend was coming up to help me sort through them.”


Some students sent him emails showing concern and appreciation. A single simple act of humanity opened up a gate for his students to realize that their professor was also human and for them to be concerned for him.

We tend to forget that everyone it’s also an individual. We all have hopes and dream, we all struggle and suffer, and we all try to stand up after falling down. It’s so easy to forget this and assume we’re the only ones having a hard time.

“That unplanned moment illustrated for me the connection between emotional relationships and learning. We used to have this top-down notion that reason was on a teeter-totter with emotion. If you wanted to be rational and think well, you had to suppress those primitive gremlins, the emotions.”

More and more psychological studies and theories are pointing at the huge role emotions play in having a healthy mind. Philosophers used to argue that a completely logical mind was the most worthy of goals, but scientists have found that people with brain injuries that disrupt their emotions are incapable of making the simplest of decisions.

Emotions not only dictate what we feel, they help shape and steer our thinking. Emotions are not to be confused with animalistic instincts, on the contrary, they are incredibly advanced algorithms created by evolution to fast-track our thinking and help us make lighting-fast decisions.

Furthermore, emotions tell you what to pay attention to, care about and remember. It’s hard to work through difficulty if your emotions aren’t engaged. Information is plentiful, but motivation is scarce.

In Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”, Haidt uses the metaphor of emotions being an elephant and logic being the elephant’s rider. If the elephant it’s hungry and wants to eat, there’s not much the rider can do to avoid it from looking for food.

The rider it’s powerless at the elephant’s will. However, the rider can steer the elephant’s direction, leading to where “logic” dictates they should go. The elephant it’s strong, the rider it’s wise. They either work together and thrive or they don’t and perish.

 “… think of all the emotions that are involved in mastering a hard subject like algebra: curiosity, excitement, frustration, confusion, dread, delight, worry and, hopefully, perseverance and joy.”

I have a very clear picture of one of our most beloved teachers from high school, half-sitting on his desk, talking to us about everything but the curriculum.

He mentioned Socrates’ urge to ask why. Why, why, why does everything work the way it does? He emphasised how important asking questions was. I remember it clearly, he wasn’t giving us a lecture, he was imparting wisdom. Even years after he left, I heard comments about how great a teacher he was.

When you start thinking this way it opens up the wide possibilities for change. How would you design a school if you wanted to put relationship quality at the core?

Something I found out when I became a applied physics mentor (which, funnily enough, was one of the courses I was worst at!) is that I love teaching. I really enjoy being able to share knowledge and find things out alongside students.

This is something I really respect about new web development bootcamps such as Thinkful or Block (on which I’m currently a mentor). Each student has a personal mentor and time 1-on-1 with them. The relationships you build with the person at the other side of the screen are beyond that of a teacher-student.

It may sound cliche, but love fosters all kinds of positive outcomes. We learn better under a loving hand, the same way a loved child will grow up to be a better human. Love it’s not to be confused with softness, you can be strict while being thoughtful, but it’s much easier to understand that you failed because of your own lack of effort rather than because “the teacher has it on me”.

Positive emotions seem to have a more powerful impact on the world than negative ones, even if it seems like the opposite it’s more common.

People that are more thoughtful of others tend to have better friends, the same way genuine smiles warm up our hearts. It sounds obvious when you think that a good teacher will be one that can bond with students, making it a two way street of teaching and learning from each other.

I guess this can then be applied to everything in life. Why don’t we default to kindness, respect and thoughtfulness for others (and ourselves)? The world would be a better place if we could bond, even just a little, with our fellow men.


After thinking some more about this, I realized there’s more to it than teacher-student bonding. What about the bond between what you’re learning and yourself?

It’s incredibly hard to smash through our insecurities and lack of knowledge when learning something we don’t want to learn. If we feel passionate about what we’re learning, it will push us through the hard times and let us enjoy the good ones.

Perhaps we can hijack this, perhaps changing our thinking from “I hate match”, to “I need math in order to…”, would help our emotions be better aligned with our goals. After all, we do need math, if only to pass our course and move on to learn something we feel passionate about!

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