5 Insights from Social Scientists for Thriving Learning Communities

Learn insights and strategies for creating thriving learning communities with these podcast recommendations.


Endlessly fascinated by us humans and what makes us flourish, I’m always looking to leading social scientists for insights and strategies to help us (kids and adults) thrive. Recently, I had a chance to interview amazing thought leaders for my podcast and I’m here to share some of their best wisdom with you!


There is No Such Thing as "Bad" Emotions

Marc Brackett, Ph.D., Author of Permission To Feel and Founding Director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

Marc explains, “The assumption is that positive emotions are the ones you want to grab and have all the time and negative ones are the ones you want to dump and get rid of.” He goes on to share that anger can signal a legitimate grievance, sadness is a natural human response to loss, and overly positive emotions can actually impair decision-making. In other words, all emotions exist for a reason and dealing with your emotions doesn't mean getting rid of them. As Marc puts it, “What we have to do is help kids understand their feelings better and have good strategies so that they can have their feelings and also function.”

Strategy: We can use the Mood Meter in the free How We Feel app to teach an “Emotion Word of the Day”. This develops emotional awareness and improves emotional granularity, the ability to identify and label emotions with precision and specificity. How We Feel even offers strategies for regulation if we want to shift our emotions.

🎧 Listen to Marc’s Episode


Intentional Positive and Constructive Feedback Cultivates Belonging

Geoff Cohen, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and Author of Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides 

In my conversation with Geoff, he connected his work on belonging with gratitude saying, “Gratitude means that you're being seen and recognized for the beauty of who you are.” He went on to explain that in learning spaces, the gratitude we receive for our presence and contributions reinforces our sense of belonging and a teacher’s appreciation for a student’s involvement creates a stronger connection to learning. Our discussion went on to explore the power of combining gratitude with constructive feedback.  

Strategy: When offering praise (a form of gratitude) or constructive feedback, it needs to be specific and authentic. We acknowledge successes and when it is time to offer ways to improve, Geoff suggests framing it as “I am giving you this critical feedback because I have high standards and I believe in your potential to reach them.” We also want to make it clear that we are there to support them in realizing their potential. 

🎧 Listen to Geoff’s Episode


Self-Compassion and Positive Self-Talk are Motivating

Laurie Santos, Ph.D., Yale Professor, Scientist, Podcast Host

In this chat, Laurie reveals that “we assume that to be happier, we need to change our circumstances… but a lot of our happiness isn’t in our circumstances. It’s really in our behaviors and our mindsets.” 

Laurie teaches the most popular class in Yale’s history, Psychology and the Good Life. She shared, “The self-criticism that my students at Yale experience is just terrible, and when they hear that a better path to pursuing their goals and to motivating themselves might be through a little bit more self-compassion, to talking to themselves as though they were talking to a friend, rather than some sort of terrible drill instructor, I think that that's pretty shocking to them.” She continues, “when they try it out, they start to realize…being kind to myself is actually pretty helpful and makes me procrastinate less and obviously makes me a lot happier.”

Strategy: In addition to modeling self-compassion and positive self-talk, we can guide learners through practices that foster self-compassion. For example, invite learners to write a letter to themselves from a compassionate friend's perspective. This form of psychological distancing has us using "you" and "your" and could look something like, "I noticed you've been really hard on yourself lately. Remember, it's okay to make mistakes. You're always doing your best, and that's enough."

🎧 Listen to Laurie’s Episode 


Education Is A Cultivation System, Not A Selection System

Todd Rose, Ph.D., Co-Founder and CEO of Populace 

From a high school dropout with a 0.9 GPA to a Harvard professor, Todd’s story challenges every conventional notion of success in education. And it is this journey that gives him an incredibly unique perspective. “We often think that people are just talented, or smart, and especially kids, when you’re in these standardized environments, and it doesn't go well, you just assume it’s you,” Todd explained. 

He advocates for recognizing and nurturing the unique and dynamic potential within each individual. Todd says, “It is objectively true that every human being is capable of excellence of some kind” and leveraging Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a way to honor individuality and remove barriers. 

Strategy: UDL shows us ways to make learning work for everyone, creating more flexible and inclusive experiences. Specific examples include universally designed choice boards, learning stations, and other learner-centered practices that offer multiple means for engagement, representation, as well as action and expression.  

🎧 Listen to Todd’s Episode 


Social Fitness is Key to Well-Being

Robert Waldinger, Ph. D., Author, Professor, Zen Priest, and Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development

As a leader of the world’s longest scientific study on happiness, a key insight from this extensive research focuses on the concept of “social fitness.” Bob shared, “With physical fitness, we go and exercise and then you don’t come home and say, ‘Good. I’m done. I don’t ever have to do that again.’ We think of it as an ongoing practice. And what we found with the people in our study who seem to have the strongest social networks and the best relationships was that they kept at it. It was a practice for them.” Robust findings from his work also reveal that “the richness and intensity of our social connections are not just pivotal to our happiness, but are also integral to our physical health.”

Strategy: We can promote social fitness in our learning spaces through collaborative learning activities, reflective discussions on interpersonal experiences, and by teaching effective communication strategies.

🎧 Listen to Bob’s Episode 


The evidence-based insights from these social scientists can help us thrive with academic success, well-being, and resilience. Which of these strategies could you try in your learning community?





About the Author:

Lainie Rowell is an educator, author, podcaster, TEDx speaker, and international keynote speaker and consultant. She has authored several books including Evolving with Gratitude, Evolving Learner, and Because of a Teacher. Her latest book Bold Gratitude: The Journal Designed for You & by You is an innovative and interactive gratitude journal that empowers individuals of all ages to embrace their unique preferences and express gratitude in their own way. During her more than 25 years in education, Lainie has taught elementary, secondary, and higher education. She also served in a district-level leadership position supporting 22,000 students and 1,200 teachers at 33 schools. You can follow Lainie on Instagram and Twitter.


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