We feel, therefore we learn

This article originally appeared in the July issue of BiBimBap magazine, an online journal for EFL teachers in Jeollanamdo, South Korea. You can view the ISSUU version here.

The Emerging Science of Culture and Emotions in the Classroom

At our orientation in Gwangju, all of us JLP NET’s were introduced to the cultural framework of Geert Hofstede who, according to JLP coordinator Chris Devison, characterized Korea as “collectivist, slightly feminine, having large power distance and a strong avoidance of uncertainty”. Among the many implications that this unique Korean cultural makeup has in our English classrooms, Chris pointed out that, “What your students have learned when learning Korean is part of their identity and eliminating it completely may give the impression of threatening their identity.” Another important implication is that, “Korean students also have a strong avoidance of uncertainty and ambiguity. This causes them to seem quiet and shy as they prefer not to ask about the unknown and even try to avoid it if possible.” At one point or another, we have all found ourselves frustrated with the variety of Korean cultural elements at play in our classrooms.

Indeed, as Western Waygooks we all experience the cultural effects on education in Korea more acutely than the natives. We are able to compare and contrast against what we know of and experienced in our schools back home, as students and/or teachers. In addition to what we intuit about the cultural effect on education systems and learning styles, there is an emerging body of research that confirms and potentially clarifies that effect.

At the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is in the midst of a five year study of Latino, East Asian and bi-cultural students to see how culture affects the social development of the adolescent brain. Half way through the research period, Immordino-Yang claims there are already two big takeaways about learning; first, Immordino-Yang says, “Traditional educational approaches think about emotion the way Descartes did; emotion is interfering with your ability to do well in school, to think rationally. Neuroscience is showing us that that is absolutely not the case—when you take emotion out of thought you have no basis for thought anymore. So we’re trying to understand how socially constructed emotion shapes learning, academic development and identity.”

Second, Immordino-Yang says “There were no differences at all in how much these young adults’ brains were activating when they responded to our emotional stories—and no differences in the strengths of emotions that participants in the different cultural groups reported…But there was a strong cultural difference in how patterns of neural activity corresponded in real-time with participants’ experience—in how people became aware of their emotion.”

In other words, emotions play a big role in how we all learn, regardless of cultural or linguistic backgrounds, and yet those backgrounds do have a differing effect on our awareness and outward expression of those same emotions we all feel.

Based on my background teaching in Latin America, Korea and the U.S., these preliminary results of Immordino-Yang’s research rung true, and so I became interested in hearing how or if this study resonated with some of my fellow English teachers here in Yeosu. So I asked them. What follows is an abbreviated version of some of the highlights of that discussion.

How do you say ‘emotions’ in Korean?

Many of the teachers I interviewed expressed bewilderment at the fact that emotions were once thought to have no role in learning. Most seemed to believe that across cultures emotions play a significant role in learning, but that student emotions in a Korean classroom differ significantly from those in Western classrooms. For example, Alison Pirtle (Nam Elementary), said, “I find that it is more difficult here to identify the students who are experiencing big, emotional issues in Korea, than it is in the U.S. My lack of understanding the Korean language probably has a lot to do with that, but I also think it’s their lack of outward emotions as well. Back in the States, it’s often easy to identify students who are having emotional issues due to personal problems. Here, though, it seems that students internalize their problems so it’s harder to identify a student who really needs emotional support.”

The emerging results of the Immordino-Yang study confirm this anecdotal observation about East Asian students. In a cultural identity test students are asked to monitor their heart rate after performing a simple exercise. “What we find is that among the East-Asian American kids, it’s the kids who are not particularly sensitive to their heartbeats who are saying they strongly hold Asian values, whereas among the Latino kids, it’s those who have a better ability to feel their heartbeats who are saying they strongly hold Latino cultural values,” says Immordino-Yang. In other words, a person’s cultural identity may affect their sensitivity to or awareness of their own physical and emotional state.

One teacher went a step further regarding emotions in our English classrooms and brought it back to us as Western educators and cultural ambassadors in Korea. Melody Peters (Booyeong Elementary) said, “The biggest thing in any classroom in Korea is that to the students we don’t just teach English, we ARE English. We can have the best resources, technology, and curriculum, but if we don’t show up emotionally, if we don’t see ourselves as the biggest asset in their learning, then we offer little chance of the students to emotionally connect with the language.”

The Cultural Elephant in the Room

In the end, Immordino-Yang puts her study’s implications for learning fairly succinctly, “We’re learning that what’s happening on the outside—the same story, the same lesson—can be interpreted differently, experienced differently, by different learners. So we really need to start to unpack the roles of school culture and individual variability when we think about how children learn. We need to understand that the way kids feel matters.”

Not surprisingly, this is where my conversations with my fellow NET’s on this subject got a bit more critical of Korean and Confucian culture. Issues like the singular adolescent pressure of Suneung (수능) were mentioned, large class sizes, the lack of differentiation in instruction and too much rigidity in the curriculum. While the most watched TED Talk of all time is Sir Ken Robinson’s on creativity and schools, John Palmsano (Shinwol Elementary) wrote of Korea, “Creativity isn’t reinforced as much as it is back home. Asking them {students} to be creative with or modify their use of our language is something out of reach of all but the most advanced elementary speakers.”

Lastly, the Confucian undercurrents in modern Korean society are significant. Its emphasis on family and social harmony are evidenced positively here by the Han River Miracle and the high level of personal safety we all feel walking down the street. “It ensures that Korea is a strong society and community by ensuring everyone’s survival and collective success as a people. The teamwork of Korea astounds me as an American,” writes Ryan Hedger (Yeosu Information Science High School). The downsides, as we all know, are rigid social hierarchy, lack of individual identity and one-size-fits all solutions to all sorts of problems ranging from safety to English language acquisition.

In spite of the significant strengths of Korean culture, the questions that the Immordino-Yang study presents for Korean society and education remain. Is that initial progress and success brought about by Korean culture and the education system now being impeded by those same forces? Is it necessary to improve the quality and style of education in Korea in order to leverage student emotion? How can the strong and proud collectivist culture of Korea, which has assured their sovereignty and exported wonders across the globe, accommodate the unique learning needs of individual students in the education system? Should Korea even care about a Western academic study on culture and learning?

My answer to those questions is YES, YES, IDK and definitely! But, of course, I’m the one working in a foreign culture here.

GOOD Magazine on Immordino-Yang – http://magazine.good.is/articles/cultural-literacy?utm_source=thedailygood&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailygood

USC Rossier School of Education article – http://rossier.usc.edu/immordino-yang-probes-the-connections-between-emotion-culture-and-learning/

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