August 19, 2011

What is affective teaching?

How is it exactly that teachers involve students to learn by integrating emotion, cognition, and language?

The answer to this question has intrigued me for at least 20 years and still today I feel fascinated by the simplicity and complexity of affective language teaching. Simplicity in knowing and understanding and complexity in implementing and living. 

Even though I have studied the theme for almost two decades, I still consider myself a learner in this vast domain. Here below I outline some key features and teacher postures in affective language teaching:

Affective teaching requires respecting our students. This happens when we value and accept their background, beliefs, religions, sexual preferences, political views, and social status, even when different from ours. We respect our students when we attentively listen to them, sincerely ask for their opinions, and truly value their previous knowledge. Respect is present when we live up to our promises, when we  allow them to fully express with their bodies, and certainly when we fully believe that all students are able to learn, not giving up on any of them. 

Affective teaching requires listening to students. When teachers listen to students, teachers are able to discover previous learning histories, fears, expectations, dreams, and passions. This extremely interesting emotional world of learners is essential in the planning of future classes as emotional states certainly influence student's learning. Important is also to listen with our eyes, to what is not said, as silence may reveal feelings and thoughts that are not ready to be openly expressed. The teacher can choose to verbalize these silent messages and bring them to discussion by asking students to confirm his/her impressions. Circle time is important to everybody, not only to the little ones. This is not lost time, but time invested in the group. It is amazing how students get excited when they notice we really listened and prepared something for the class that is especially significant for them.

Affective teaching requires communicating affectively with students. This means always using English as a real means of communication, in which authentic interpersonal exchanges happen. These take place when teachers mean what they say and say what they mean. One example is to only ask questions that we do not know the answers. Asking students “Is this a frog?” when showing the card of a dog makes absolutely no sense, because students and teacher know that a dog is in the picture. When language is used in this alienating way, children lose motivation to learn (and teachers to teach) because language is dissociated from their lives. Teachers should ask themselves how children would feel if they  listened to that very same sentence in the native language. If perceived as silly or nonsense, language was certainly not being used as a means of communication.

Affect is not only present in our words, but also in how we express ourselves. Our tone of voice, volume, speed and intonation may carry messages of acceptance, patience, partnership and faith. Affect is also present in modified discourse that allows all students to understand and interact. Not to be forgotten is our body language, especially our smiling, looking and moving in the classroom.

Affective teaching requires fostering curiosity.  Curiosity makes learning much more interesting and fun for all involved. Curiosity can be enhanced by surprising children with novelty, contradictions and thought-provoking questions. Curiosity happens when we risk ourselves out of our comfort zone and venture in knowing more about different animals, places, food, music, and people. Teachers can foster children’s curiosity through music, poetry, literature, theater, and all other relevant artistic expression means. But let’s remember to be curious, not fussy, about ourselves. Curious about how our families, our pets, our hobbies, and our learning. Listening to others and talking about ourselves in English is a very affective experience, in which language is just a means. 

Affective teaching involves sharing power in the classroom. Power sharing happens when teachers make decisions with the students about the content and path of future learning. Students feel empowered when they can teach peers, evaluate themselves, and choose how to complete tasks. But most of all, power sharing happens through listening, and this can be worked by being aware.

Affective teaching requires being self-aware. Being aware of our physical presence, our movements, our listening, our talking, our respect, and our commitment to students and to our beliefs. Self-awareness can be developed by reflecting about the dynamic classroom system through reflective journaling, mutual supervision, and self-recording, among others. Meditation, yoga, and mindfulness are also self-knowledge paths that may nurture our well-being and availability with students. Feeling our prejudices, incompetence and impatience is accepting that we are also learners in development to become better teachers and people.

What affective teaching is not

A common misconception to affective teaching is that the teacher is more of a friend to the student than an actual teacher. In this misconception, children would learn as long as they “like” the teacher, who as a result might be inclined to only teach what the child wants to know or to only do what the child wants to do, resulting in a mixture improvisation and permissiveness. Last but not least, affective teaching doesn’t have to do with kissing, hugging or excessively praising children.


I end up this post by trying to define the challenging concept of affective teaching in one sentence. 

Affective teaching is the democratic empowering act of students and teachers learning together in a caring, conscious, curious, and committed way.

I would love to hear your comments!

A big hug,

Check also the selected affective teaching scenes from Seven Years in Tibet with Brad Pitt. The student? Nobody less than the Dalai Lama!


  1. Thanking you for a great post which is thought provoking itself..I totally agree with your points and as the world becomes a more complicated place to live is essential we teach our YLs with these points in mind, especially being self-aware!

    I m looking forward to your next piece!

    Sharon Noseley

    1. Thank you Sharon for your lovely comment!

      We teach much more than a specific content, we teach who we are. And being self-aware is a great ability for all of us to live better together.
      This piece was written last year and there are many more here in the blog.
      Enjoy these and I look forward to reading your comments!



  2. Hi Juan. Thanks for sharing. Very thought provoking.
    What I gathered from your post is that affective teaching is a student-centered approach.
    As in my teaching context, once a week for an hour, we spend the first 30 minutes on the floor doing communicative activities and the last 30 minutes is spent on the desk doing writing and drawing activities. This works pretty good for me.
    I do need to work more on sparking my student's curiosity. Many of my students come to my class tired after a long day of schooling. It takes a lot of energy and preparation to keep them motivated. Actually, most of my free time is spent on reflection and making materials. That said, my hobby is my work.
    Thanks again, Juan! Looking forward to seeing you here in Japan for the JALT conference.
    Mark in Gifu

    1. Thank you for your comment Mark!

      You are certainly right when you say that affective learning is a student centered approach. I even prefer to use affective learning instead of affective teaching, and also to use WITH young learners instead of teaching TO them.

      Your class seems to be very affective as you tell me that there is lots of communication and drawing, in which they can use language in creative ways. Writing is also important as it gives them and their parents the record of their learning.

      I have also had students coming to class after a long day at school, which is a challenge. Talking to them about plans and giving some room for deciding together helps a lot. Being acknowledged is key here.

      Look forward to meeting you in October too! Want to visit your school too, saw one picture of the reno and it will surely look fabulous.

      Hug from Toronto,


  3. Dear Juan:
    Reading this post, it comes to my mind what I learned being an exchange teacher which applies to all cultures and ages: we teachers, need to be careful when moving around the room, the gestures we make, our tone of voice and even the words we get to choose when talking: they all comprise affection!. I also agree with what you say, being affective to children does not mean they decide what to learn or do, they need to understand, little by little, that doing something they may not like the most, trains them to face life with a smile: what you get is not quite what you choose.

    1. Dear Fabiana,

      Affective learning happens when we create environments in which children feel safe, valued, and acknowledged. It is the sum of "small" subtle details that make a big difference in the end. I'm happy that everyday more people are interested in learning about it. Humanity moves forward with the powerful combination of affection and cognition.

      Hugs and hugs,

    2. Dear Fabiana,

      Affective learning happens when we create environments in which children feel safe, valued, and acknowledged. It is the sum of "small" subtle details that make a big difference in the end. I'm happy that everyday more people are interested in learning about it. Humanity moves forward with the powerful combination of affection and cognition.

      Hugs and hugs,


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