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What Cultural Differences Can Reveal About the Way We Learn

by Kayt Sukel

May 13, 2015
Beijing at Twilight.  A longitudinal study is comparing students at USC with those at Beijing Normal University in China—two groups with different ideals about when and how to appropriately express emotion. Image via Flickr user Jonathan Kos-Read.

How does one learn to read? If you’ve helped a child of your own learn her letters, you probably would tell me about words and letter sounds; how you helped her make the connection between language and symbols. But two more vital factors may be at play that you’ve likely never considered: emotion and culture. New work from Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang’s lab at the University of Southern California (USC) Rossier School of Education has revealed that emotions powerfully shape the way that we experience the world around us—as well as how we learn from it. What’s more, emotion is strongly influenced by an individual’s culture and social environment. 

Says Immordino-Yang:

“There’s a lot of evidence—and we all intuitively sense—that individuals construct different kinds of meaning out of emotional and social situations. We wanted to get a handle on the ways in which that meaning-making process influences how kids come to experience the world and how they learn. We’ve long assumed that emotion had no place in learning. That, in fact, it may actually interfere with it.  But studies have shown that that is a false assumption. It’s impossible—actually neurobiologically impossible—to have any kind of complex, meaningful thought without some emotional content in it.  We are biologically built not to waste energy thinking about things we don’t care about.”

Immordino-Yang and colleagues are currently in the middle of a cross-cultural longitudinal study, comparing students at USC with those at Beijing Normal University in China—two groups with different ideals about when and how to appropriately express emotion. For example, typical Chinese culture puts emphasis on being less emotive, while Americans are generally encouraged to be more outwardly expressive. In the first phase of the study, participants’ brains were scanned as they viewed 40 true documentary-style narratives about extraordinary teenagers from around the globe. The stories were intended to elicit an emotional response: compassion for physical pain, admiration for a physical skill, empathy for social pain, or admiration for a virtue. The researchers discovered some intriguing brain differences from the two different cultural groups in the anterior insula, the area of the brain that maps visceral states and makes us aware of our feelings in the context of our environment, suggesting that our ability to construct conscious experiences of social emotion is influenced by the culture in which we are raised.

“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,” says Immordino-Yang. “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.”

Guinevere Eden, a scientist at Georgetown University’s Center for the Study of Learning says the study’s findings so far are compelling. Her own work, for example, has demonstrated that unlike American children, who learn to read mainly by listening, Chinese children’s reading abilities are strongly tied to their writing skills because of the language’s particular meaning-based alphabet.  So an understanding of both cultural norms and practices when it comes to language acquisition—and the emotions such practices may influence—may help us develop better interventions for helping individual children who may be struggling with literacy in the future.

“Reading is a cultural skill, it’s uniquely human—it’s essentially a very special skill acquisition that is critical to academic outcomes,” says Eden. “But some aspects of learning to read are trickier than others. And it would make sense that emotional and cultural aspects would influence what is a very complex process.”

Immordino-Yang says that the education system could really benefit from harnessing more emotion in teaching practices when it comes to reading or learning about other academic subjects. Finding ways to make students care may help them better learn the things they need to succeed. Adds Immordino-Yang:

“Think about all those four-year-old kids who fall in love with dinosaurs—who want to know all about them. It’s not that we expect all these kids to become paleontologists one day. But they are demonstrating an intrinsic satisfaction in becoming an expert in this domain. Nobody is drilling them on dinosaur flash cards. They want to learn and they can learn about dinosaurs because teachers and parents will point them to resources, show them how to use them, and then let them see what it feels like to follow their interests. Such experiences shouldn’t be limited to preschool. We should provide kids of all ages with really rich learning environments where there are resources and opportunities for them to really engage, and experts to help steer them.  Schools don’t emphasize that feeling of satisfaction enough, that feeling of learning about something you really care about.  And that’s the kind of learning we should be supporting all through the school years in age-appropriate ways.”

But beyond that, Immordino-Yang argues that new results about emotion, culture, and the brain challenge many assumptions that scientists and educators have about how human beings learn in general. They give us new ways to consider teaching practices and academic environments, she says—and raise new questions to investigate. She says:

“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. Their embodied experience in the classroom powerfully influences what children take away and how they grow both academically and personally. What science is teaching us, in short, is the need to understand the holistic emotional experience of a person, and the need to account for subjective experience when we design and evaluate educational environments. Doing so can hopefully inform more effective teaching practices.”

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What Cultural Differences Can Reveal About the Way We Learn