Managing Students’ Emotions while Facilitating Active, Peer-to-Peer and Experiential Learning in the Class

silhouette  of a human torso with heart and brain. How do you deal with disengaged students in your class? Those students can easily be discounted as people who “just don’t get it.” We can label them as “dysfunctional” and be comforted thinking that we can’t make every student happy in our classes. But what if your assumption is that your responsibility is to create a learning environment where transformations – from bored to engaged –can happen? What if the actual content you are teaching, and the learning you are hoping to achieve, has an emotional component?

Key questions comes to mind:

  1. Does learning involve both cognitive and affective/emotional work?
  2. How do we do this affective work and how do we balance the need for dealing with it in a way that doesn’t make the class a “shrink” session?
  3. If we agree that facilitating experiential learning is more effective than lecturing in the class, how do we develop acceptance in instructors and students of the feelings that arise during the learning process?
  4. What conditions can make the work of managing emotions in the class easier for facilitators and participants?

Does Learning involve both cognitive and emotional work?

Dualism, the idea that thinking and feeling are separated can be traced from Plato to Descartes, and from Kant to the Logical Positivists. Day-to-day life is permeated with expressions like “Don’t be so emotional!”, “Let’s leave emotions out of this discussion” or even using the word “passionate” to mean erratic and unpredictable, at least in Anglo Saxon cultures. The message is clear: emotions do not belong in a class.

Dualism has been proven to be false; cognition and emotion appear to be dynamic, interactive and interdependent. Research shows that emotion and cognition jointly contribute to the control of mental activities and behavior. Even in classes where a highly-technical subject matter is taught, the learning process is impaired when educators rely on a theory of learning that is exclusively “above the neck”. This makes emotions not-discussable, which in turn makes this decision itself not-discussable.  Thus the role of emotions during the learning process becomes a hidden process that plays a role never fully understood or leveraged for learning success. Learning does involve both the cognitive and the affective domains and educators can learn how to create the right mix.

As an adaptive leadership practitioner and experiential educator, I treasure the distinction between Ron Heifetz’s learning “above the neck” (the intellectual faculties, the home of logic and facts), and learning “below the neck” (the emotional faculties, the home of values, intuition and inner purpose). Heifetz’s great intuition is that leadership work – and that of educators – is about “managing the gradual process of easing people into an uncomfortable state of uncertainty, disorder, conflict, or chaos at a pace and level that does not overwhelm them yet takes them out of their comfort zones and mobilizes them to engage in addressing an adaptive challenge.”

How do we do this affective work and how do we balance the need for dealing with it in a way that doesn’t make the class a “shrink” session? Are emotions expressed in the class a sign of failure or success?

I see emotions as expressions of deeply held beliefs and our work of educators as getting in touch with this inner dimension in order to gain greater awareness. I can only do this work with emotions in class if I am able to explore and handle emotions myself. Exploring emotions during the adaptive change that deep learning is, I have found that the emotion of fear (e.g., fear of loss, fear of the unknown) has the greatest significance. Fear impairs our individual and collective capacity to learn by distracting us and diverting our energy into self-protection. We can deal with that fear head-on by encouraging our students and strengthening their motivational resilience. Dealing openly in the class to counter the idea that learning is only cognitive affair might be a start, as well as dealing with student’s expectations. Indeed students show up for a class with clear expectations:

They expect the work to be at a cognitive level as many individuals – emotionally intelligent in their personal lives – believe in the classroom they must be completely logical and remain emotionally unaffected by their experiences. This idea keeps students from discovering useful information and keeps them from crafting creative solutions.  They also expect the instructor will convey course content in a traditional way (often through a lecture consistent with their previous experiences).

As educators we can decide to keep the conversation at the “cognitive level”. But if we embrace learning as both cognitive and emotional we need to engage courageously with the following paradox:

  • If we meet learners’ expectations of a purely cognitive experience we do not serve them well especially in classes where the premise and purpose of the work is intentionally transformational and centered on personal growth.
  • If we disappoint learners’ expectations (and teach a kind of knowledge that is cognitive/emotional in nature and process) we may generate anxiety; and force our students to renegotiate the social contract with us as authority figures, a contract with which they are familiar and comfortable.

Expression of emotions are neither a sign of success nor a sign of failure, but I do know that classes where emotions are not expressed are more likely to be ineffective.

If we believe that experiential learning is more effective than lecturing because it mirrors more closely the real world, how do we develop acceptance of the feelings that arise during the learning process in both instructors and students?

While there may be no “right way” to manage this complex process as a facilitator, I have found from my personal experience that the following to be helpful:

  • Listening and speaking from the heart. Listening from the heart means understanding what others are feeling; speaking from the heart means expressing what I am feeling. This communicates the values at stake, the reasons that make it worthwhile for people to deal with their temporary discomfort and stay in the game. For example if I talk about something sad and feel the urge to cry, I do not end my class prematurely or walk out of the room: I allow myself to feel while also seeing my class through. By doing this, I let my students know that the situation is containable, that I can stay with the emotion and that they can, too.
  • Allowing for silence. Resisting the urge to fill the silence might be one of the most powerful ways to support students’ expression of their feelings. Marcia Reynolds, the author of “The Discomfort Zone” states “Silence is holding a space of care and trust as a person’s brain tries to make sense of what it is learning…You don’t want to interrupt when a person is processing a question you asked. Silence is more effective than trying to make someone feel better…If you quickly shift the person from feeling negative to positive, going away from the problem to what is possible…the person might feel ashamed for continuing to feel angry or frustrated during or after the conversation. His or her real needs remain unspoken.”
  • Asking myself “What person’s essential values/commitments has been so violated that it justifies these feelings?” I address this issue openly and encourage a sense of adventure and moderate risk-taking. I remind students that in their professional lives they will probably deal with issues that are confusing and unclear. I continue to issue several invitations that encourage the more controlled-minded individuals to “go with the flow, by “renting the ideas” rather than buying them to see where these ideas might lead them.
  • Being comfortable with conflict. I have no problem with a high range of emotions being expressed in the class. My belief is that the power of dialogue can get people far and that we are all better off when we learn with and from each other. Differences can become an exhilarating window into other worlds and ways of seeing the world.

In summary…

In summary, I hope you can see how the courage to be vulnerable and to embrace emotions in the class transforms the way we teach and the way we learn; and how important it is to model for our students the courage our cognitive as well as our emotional selves be seen. Vulnerability is the path if we want greater clarity in our purpose as leaders.

I have discovered that a learning process that allows for vulnerability both of instructor and students makes it easier to courageously seek our authentic purpose as teachers, learners and leaders.

We will do better in our work as educators when we decide that taking risks, braving uncertainty and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure are no longer weaknesses to be feared, rather crucial decisions that ultimately define the quality of our own learning journey, of our work and ultimately of who we are, for our students and especially for us.

For Further reading

  • Heifetz,R., Grashow,A., and Linsky,M., The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (HarvardBusinessPress,2009)
  • Nussbaum, M. “Upheaval of Emotions”
  • De Souza, Renner “Not Knowing”
  • Reynolds, M. “The Discomfort Zone”
  • Baldwin,C. ;Linnea,A. “The Circle Way. A leader in every chair”
  • De Mello, A. “Awareness”
  • Pianesi, A. “Journey to chaos and back: Unlearning in workplace training programs” The Systems Thinker
  • Web site: by Adriano Pianesi and Jill Hufnagel


Adriano Pianesi is a leadership development consultant and principal of He teaches leadership experientially at the Carey Business School Johns Hopkins University, at the State Department, at the World Bank and at Microsoft. He has worked in the last 20 years in the private, nonprofit, government sector, and in international organizations. A passionate experiential educator, World Café host, and Adaptive Leadership enthusiast, Adriano can be reached at

Image source: by Macie Hall remixed from “Man shadow – upper” by Mikael Häggström – File:Upper body front.png. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – and

Learning by Doing – Case-in-Point

group of business people in silhouette against city skylineCase-in-Point is a method of experiential learning used to teach leadership. An integral part of the theory of Adaptive Leadership™  it was developed over the past 15 years by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and their colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The method involves using the actions and behaviors of individual participants as well as focusing on the group of which they are members.

Case-in-Point is an immersive, reflective, and ideally a reflexive exercise facilitated by an instructor but in best practice, shaped by group/class participants. Case-in-Point help leadership practitioners with two key components of leadership development:
• It is teaching method that more realistically prepares people to have stamina, resilience and a willingness to work with others in the heat of change in order to adapt, because “to lead is to live dangerously.
• It helps practitioners generate a heightened awareness of themselves, their impact and the systems they are a part of.

Two Critical Distinctions
According to Heifetz, the Adaptive Leadership framework includes two critical distinctions that are central for understanding case-in-point:
• Authority/Leadership
• Technical Problems/Adaptive Challenges

Authority/Leadership. The first distinction clarifies that having a position of authority does not mean that we exercise leadership. Heifetz reminds us that an expert is not necessarily a leader:

For many challenges in our lives, experts or authorities can solve our problems. . . . We look to doctors to make us healthy, mechanics to fix our cars. . . .We give these people power, authorizing them to find solutions. . . . The problems may be complex, such as a broken arm or a broken carburetor, but experts know exactly how to fix them.

To determine whether we need to exercise authority or leadership, we need to analyze the nature of the problem we face. That brings us to the second distinction:

Technical Problems/Adaptive Challenges. Rather than being technical problems, many of the challenges we face today are adaptive. Heifetz and Linsky maintain:

The problems that require leadership are those that the experts cannot solve. We call these adaptive challenges. The solutions lie not in technical answers, but rather in people themselves. . . . The surgeon can fix your son’s broken arm, but she cannot prevent your son from rollerblading without elbow pads. The dietitian can recommend a weight-loss program, but she cannot curb your love for chocolate chip cookies. . . . Most people would rather have the person in authority take the work off their shoulders, protect them from disorienting change, and meet challenges on their behalf. But the real work of leadership usually involves giving the work back to the people who must adapt, and mobilizing them to do so.

The practice of leadership takes place in an authority structure. In an adaptive challenge, the authority structure—the people in charge—can contribute, but others must participate as well. All people involved are part of the problem, and their shared ownership of that problem becomes part of the solution itself.

Reflecting on these two distinctions, it is easy to see how professors, trainers, and consultants often end up treating the adaptive challenge of teaching as a technical problem, and applying the power of expertise by telling people what to do.

Professors, trainers, and consultants are paid for teaching, not for facilitating learning in others. “You are the expert: teach us” seems to be the implicit contract that students expect instructors to uphold. Many educators consider teaching a technical problem, exercise authority rather than leadership, and deploy their power or personality to influence student learning. In the process, they avoid conflict, demonstrate resolve and focus in their use of time, and provide decisive and assertive answers to problems through authoritative knowledge built over many years. Learners in the class find comfort in the predictability of the endeavor and by its inevitable output delivered according to the plan.

The cost of this collusion is the energy, engagement, effectiveness, and ultimately meaning of the learning enterprise itself. The result is that people lose their ability to grow through experience, tolerate ambiguity, and use sense-making skills.

Case-in-point supports learning over teaching, struggle over prescription, questions over answers, tension over comfort, and capacities and needs over deficiencies. It is about embracing the willingness to be exposed and vulnerable, cultivating persistence in the face of inertial pushbacks, and self-regulating in the face of challenge or open hostility. Why? Because this is what leadership work looks like in the real world. In the process, students and the facilitator learn to recognize their default responses, identify productive and unproductive patterns of behavior, and test their stamina, resilience, and readiness to change the system with others.

Planning and Facilitating with Case-in-Point
In case-in-point, a facilitator must not take reactions toward him personally and must encourage the same in participants. This may mean not taking offense for disrespectful behavior and later asking the person to reflect on how productive his statements were.

Ultimately, the role of the facilitator in case-in-point is to demonstrate the theory in practice, by acting on the system in the class. Case-in-point uses the authority structure and the roles in a class (instructor, participants, stakeholders) and the social expectations and norms of the system (in this case, the class) to practice in real time the meaning of the key concepts of authority, leadership, adaptive challenge, technical problems, factions, and so on.

Planning. How does a facilitator plan a session where she uses case-in-point? As in Jorge Luis Borges’ novel The Garden of the Forking Paths, the text—in this case, the lesson plan—is the point of departure for many possible learning events. The facilitator follows the emergence of interesting themes amid interpersonal dynamics and investigates those dynamics, in response to the guiding question, “What does this moment illustrate that is relevant both to the learning and to the practice of leadership in participants’ lives?” What emerges in the action pushes the class down one path of many possible junctures. For the facilitator, the implicit lesson plan turns into a labyrinth of many exciting—albeit sometimes overwhelming— possibilities.

Facilitating. A case-in-point facilitator’s main tool is the question. Questions are the currency of inquiry, and ultimately case-in-point involves ongoing research into the art of leadership that benefits as more people join the conversation. Here a few questions that I have used successfully:
“What’s your intention right now?”
“What did you notice as you were speaking?”
“In this moment, what do you need from the group to proceed?”
“What happened as soon as you asked everyone to open their books to page 5?”
“What have you noticed happens in the group when I sit down?”
“Am I exercising leadership or authority right now?”

Michael Johnstone and Maxime Fern have expanded on four different levels of intervention for a case-in-point facilitator.

At the individual level: The facilitator may comment on someone’s contribution or action for the sake of reflection, trying to uncover assumptions or beliefs. For example, “Mark, could I ask you to assess the impact on the group of the statement you just made?” “What should I do at this point and why should I do it?” “Are you receiving enough support from others to continue with your point?”

At the relationship level: The facilitator might intervene to name or observe patterns that develop between two or more participants. For example, she may say something like, “I noticed that when Beth speaks, some of you seem not to pay attention.” Or “What does this disagreement tell us about the different values that are present in the room?”

At the group level: The facilitator might confront a faction or a group with a theme emerging from the conversation, maybe after participants agree with or disagree on a controversial statement. For example, “What does the group propose now? Can you articulate the purpose that you are pursuing?” “I noticed many of you are eager to do something, as long as we stop this process of reflection. Why is that?”

At the larger level: The facilitator might comment on participants’ organizations, communities, nationalities, or ethnicities, saying for example, “In light of the large number of foreign nationals in the room, what are the implications of the insistence in the literature that Jack Welch of GE is a model for global leadership?”

 A Way of Being, Not a Way of Teaching
For me, case-in-point is rooted in the distinction between an ontological (science of being) versus an epistemological (science of knowing) view of leadership. When we teach using the case-in-point approach, we’re helping our students learn how to act their way into knowing what is right for their specific organization rather than bestowing our knowledge for them to apply, whether it fits their circumstances or not. Likewise, case-in-point is a statement of congruity, of “practicing what we preach” and, in the process, learning to be better instructors. At the same time, we introduce our students to an exciting realm of possibility, aspiration, and innovation beyond technique or theoretical knowledge.

Rules of Engagement
Johnstone and Fern provide the following rules of engagement for case-in-point facilitators:
• Prepare participants by warning them that learning will be experiential and may get heated. For example, create a one-page overview to leave on each table that clarifies all the concepts of the class and includes bibliographical information.
• Encourage listening and respect (though not too much politeness). For example, establish a clear rule that participants need to listen to each other and state their opinions as such rather than as facts.
• Distinguish between case-in-point and debriefing events. For example, set up two different places in the room—one for case-in-point sessions and one for debriefs—or announce ahead of time which kind of event will follow.
• Facilitators must not take reactions toward them personally and must encourage the same in participants.
• Recognize that no one, including the facilitator, is flawless. Acknowledge and use your own shortcomings by recognizing mistakes and openly apologizing for errors.
• Treat all interpretations as hypotheses. Ask people to consider their own reactions and thoughts as data that clarifies what is going on in the room.
• Respect confidentiality.
• Take responsibility for your own actions. Invite people to own their piece of the “mess” by asking how they have colluded in the problem they are trying to deal with.

For Further Reading
Brown, J., and Isaacs, D., The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter (Berrett-Koehler, 2005)
Daloz Parks, S., Leadership Can Be Taught (Harvard Business School Press, 2005)
Johnstone, M., and Fern, M., Case-in-Point: An Experiential Methodology for Leadership Education and Practice (The Journal, Kansas Leadership Center, Fall 2010)
Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., and Linsky, M., The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Harvard Business Press, 2009)

The text for this post originally appeared as a longer article by Adriano Pianesi: “The Class of the Forking Paths”: Leadership and “Case-In-Point.” The Systems Thinker, Vol. 24. No. 1. Feb. 2013.


Adriano Pianesi teaches leadership at the Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School and is the principal of ParticipAction Consulting, Inc.  He holds a Master’s degree in Corporate Communication from the University of Milan. Pianesi is a member of the Society for Organizational Learning and the World Cafe’ community of practice, as well as a certified Action Learning coach and a passionate experiential learner/teacher.

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art