Emotional Learning

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Competency-centered learning includes not only cognitive aspects, but in particular it involves emotional, unconscious, or ambiguous ones. This kind of learning needs to be appreciated in learning processes with space, adequate methods and reflection in order to help learners in making use of their emotions

As the competency theorist John Erpenbeck is putting it: “Action necessarily presupposes emotion.” [1] Creativity requires emotion. The wish to change or put new things on the agenda is not necessarily intellectual, but an expression of intrinsic, emotional motivation. Creative processes include emotions in all kinds of ways: positive (e.g. visions, embracing something new) or negative (e.g. protest or disagreement).

Aspects of Emotional Learning

  • Feeling connected to others
  • Playfulness
  • Experiencing yourself in a group
  • Experiencing positive and negative emotions
  • Feeling capable and strong

Facilitation can make use of this emotional treasure by helping to bring it to the surface and make emotion accessible for learners to reflect on. As we put it in the second handbook for facilitators: “holistic learning seeks to increase our consciousness of our behaviors and skills. This helps individuals see how self-development takes place.“[2]

However, where outside of such attentive learning spaces emotion is recognised or welcomed? Therefore, learning processes with and about emotions require specific awareness of facilitators. For instance, people need to feel safe. In this context, safety means being able to express non-conforming or unfiltered ideas or positions without negative consequences. Because people deal different with emotions, they need also space where they are able to express their emotions in their own individual way. Emotional expression needs also to be accepted. In this sense, especially learners need to see the gain they make from making their emotions accessible to themselves and others (for example better inspiration or support, or relief, or relaxation).


A non-facilitative way of emotional learning is manipulation - allowing people to invove their emotions not helping them to make use of them in a voluntary, transparent, self-responsible or independent way. In opposite - often manipulation is aiming to build dependence and to depower individuals. An attitude of practicized critical thinking is a balancing instrument for limiting overwhelming pedagogy. For preventing conscious and unconscious manipulation facilitators need to take as well active preventive measures like establishing and enforcing rules, reflecting their roles and supporting and sheltering people in emotional disbalance.

Facilitating Emotional Learning

  • Start with reflecting the needs of learners including the emotional needs.
  • Establishing good working conditions helps to build trust in a group, one main condition for such safe spaces.
  • Motivation is a required emotion for competency development. And in the opposite - if motivation is fading away, sustainable and voluntary learning will become less feasable.
  • Basic rules help learners to be sure, not to take part in manipulative learning processes (Stop rule, disagreement rule, discretion rule).
  • Reflection of facilitators on their roles and how they make use from their authority.

Emotions in Democracy

When we talk about political systems, structures, or logics we are chosing a rational view on social processes and also a rational terminology. However, this is the one side of the coin, while many where on their way to activism, civil engagement or even a professional political career triggered by an emotional key moment - an happening, a conflictary issue or feeling of belonging to a group. In this sense, dealing cionstructively with emotions in learning processes is helping us also to access feelings and fears related to democracy i.e. to address the attitude dimension of democratic competencies.


  1. John Erpenbeck: Stichwort Kompetenzen in: DIE Zeitschrift für Erwachsenenbildung; III 2014
  2. Nils-Eyk Zimmermann, Elke Heublein (Ed.): Holistic Learning - Planning experiential, inspirational and partcipatory learning processes; Facilitator handbook #2; Competendo - Tools for Facilitators

Elke Heublein

Co-founder of Working Between Cultures. Co-author of Holistic learning. Facilitator since 2004, certified intercultural facilitator (Institute for Intercultural Communikation, LMU München) and trainer (IHK Akademie München/Westerham), adult education (Foundation University Hildesheim). Focus: Cooperation and leadership in heterogenouos teams, higher education, train-the-trainer.

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. He writes and works on the topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Coordinator of European projects, in example DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship, DARE network.

Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience.
Email: nils.zimmermann@dare-network.eu

Handbook for Facilitators: Holistic Learning


E. Heublein (ed.), N. Zimmermann (ed.) (2017). Holistic learning. Planning experiential, inspirational and participatory learning processes. Competendo Handbook for Facilitators.