Learning as an emotional process?

I also read Descartes’ Error, by the neuroscientists Antonio Damasio. Damasio had noticed an unusual latter of symptoms in patients who had suffered brain damage to a specific part of the brain—the ventromedial (i.e., bottom-middle) prefrontal cortex (abbreviated vmPFC; it’s the region just behind and above the bridge of the nose). Their emotionality dropped nearly to zero. They could look at the most joyous or gruesome photographs and feel nothing. They retained full knowledge of what was right and wrong, and they showed no deficits in IQ. They even scored well on Kohlberg’s tests of moral reasoning. Yet when it came to making decisions in their personal lives and at work, they made foolish decisions or no decisions at all. They alienated their families and their employers, and their lives fell apart.

Damasio’s interpretation was that gut feelings and bodily reactions were necessary to think rationally, and that one job of the vmPFC was to integrate those gut feelings into a person’s conscious deliberations… The head can’t even do head stuff without the heart… When the master (passions) drops dead, the servant (reasoning) has neither the ability nor the desire to keep the estate running.

(p. 34 of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt )

I believe that one of the things that experts and scholars should actively try to avoid is being narrow-minded. Mark Twain has appropriately put it; “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Just because we are familiar with the subjects and tools and we are also required to go deep, rather than wide, in our own fields, we often forget that we are sometimes confined by the boundary of our own making. Reading The Righteous Mind, which talks about morality being based on emotion, I stepped back and started to wonder whether I mistook the cognitive part of learning for its entirety. Isn’t learning also an emotional process? Current learning assessment tools and rubrics are designed to measure how much students learned; educators rarely focus on how much students enjoy learning. Self-assessment questionnaires are mostly about students’ confidence on the lecture contents and/or cognitive abilities, not about their feeling. Maybe we educators should ponder how to integrate emotional boost into learning.

Here I am quoting again. “The head can’t even do head stuff without the heart.”



Experts vs. non-experts/pseudo-experts

When people saw MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) reshaping the landscape of higher education, they mainly talked about technology. Cathy Davidson, a scholar and author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux, on the other hand, saw human interactions in MOOC.

When people were talking about Airbnb and Uber, they said these companies are leading a sharing economy. Rachel Botsman, a scholar and author of Who Can You Trust, recognized they change something more fundamental—how we trust each other.

This is what experts do. When non-experts or pseudo-experts see what’s presented on the surface, experts lift up the cover and look for the crux of the matter.


(Image credit: CC0)


“Learning is social”


Cathy Davidson, who was invited to the campus to talk about higher education, said it was a great experience to run a MOOC course with the enrollment of ~18,000 students from all over the world. She also mentioned that her teaching assistants were exhausted from communicating with students 24/7. “Learning is social and interactive,” she added.

Acquisition of information could happen in solitary, but learning requires interactions for two reasons. First, in order to explain something to somebody, the speaker needs to break the information into bite-size pieces, fill any missing links between concepts, come up with analogies, make a story line, etc. These active mental engagement, largely overlooked in education for a long time, is what converts information to knowledge. Second, having a listener means that somebody cares about you—your understanding, thoughts or opinions on something. It’s an implicit, simple but warm gesture that makes your learning relevant and, more importantly, fun.

An effective teacher evokes an image of an eloquent speaker whose clear explanation, charisma and charm overflow from the stage and grab students’ attention. Nonetheless, in light of the importance of human interaction in learning, I wonder if that image may not be correct. As a professor, I should perhaps strive to be an active listener—someone who finds holes in students’ logic and/or asks smart questions that challenge the student to look at the information from different angles.


Image credit: “Listen” by Steven Shorrock is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

근자열 원자래

“공자는 인이란 ‘근자열 원자래’라고 합니다. 가까이 있는 사람이 기뻐하고 멀리 있는 사람이 찾아오는 것이 인이라고 했습니다” (p92, “담론” 신영복저).

어질다는 의미를 이렇게 간략하게, 마음에 와닿게 정의하다니. 신영복 선생님의 책 “담론”을 읽다가 내 눈이 위 문장의 끝에 머무는 순간, 그 감동은 입안에 들어온 사탕의 민트향이 몸에 사아~ 퍼지고 내 몸 밖으로 잔잔하게 번지는 그런 느낌이랄까?

“인(仁)”이라는 내면의 향기라는게 이런것인가보다. 강하지 않고 은은해서 곁에 더 있고 싶게 만들고, 강하지는 않아도 오래 남아 다시 찾아오게 하는. 처음엔 민트향처럼 느껴진 그 감동에 갑자기 무게가 실려 나를 짓누른다. 아… 너무나도 어려운, 도달하기 어려운 것이 인(仁)이구나.

좀 가벼워 지자 하는 마음에 목표를 수정해 본다. 근자열 원자래를 실천하지는 못해도, 이 은은한 향을 띈 사람을 알아보는 사람이 되자. 멀리 있는 사람을 찾아오게 하지는 못해도 내가 마음 준, 하지만 지금은 멀리 있는 이를 찾아가는 사람이 되자. 가까이 있는 이들이 맘 편하게 내 곁에서 쉴 수 있게 하지는 못해도, 타인이 보낸 배려에 밝게 웃으며 고마운 마음을 꼭 표현하는 사람이 되자.

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I’m learning in my class too!

teacher-407360_1920When people talk about the effects of active learning, it’s all about students; students are motivated to learn, their ownership increases, they retain knowledge longer, etc. One thing I noticed is that in the active learning classroom, instructors also learn and intellectually grow just as students do.

When the instructor steps aside a little bit to leave a room for students so that they could follow their interests and synthesize information on their own, the instructor acquires new information relevant to the course subject from students’ work. Moreover, while observing how students develop their interest and improve information fluency, the instructor could reassess his/her teaching philosophy and grows as an educator.

After all, active learning is happening to EVERYONE in the classroom. 

Intersection between what you know and who you are

Sanger’s point rang true to me in part because I almost never speak about my own abortion, which I had when I was an eighteen-year-old freshman at U.C.Berkley. This was strange, it occurred to me as I read Sanger’s book, because the decision was as consequential as any I’d made as a young person’ it had allowed me to claim the future I imagined for myself. But, in another way, it wasn’t so strange, because I had never regretted having an abortion, so it was not a choice I felt compelled to revisit… I never did feel that I’d killed a baby; I felt that I’d ended a pregnancy. What I remember most of all was the relief when it was over, and the kindness of the doctor and the nurses at the health center, who treated me like a person with a reasonable sense of her own mind. So why don’t I ever talk about it? … in part, it’s true, because abortion has a stigma–a stigma I don’t believe should exist but am not entirely immune to, an aura of selfishness or callousness. (Obstacle Course by Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker (April 3rd, 2017))

Margaret Talbot’s piece was just another monthly book review in The New Yorker until the paragraph above appeared. She reviewed a recent book on abortion and then toward the end of her piece, she unveiled the story of her own abortion. Her candor and willingness to stand up for and share her decision astonished me. It goes without saying that her honest personal account made her review more vital and relatable. Ms. Talbot’s article reminded me of an interview of Krista Tippett in the podcast “On Being”. When the interviewer asked Ms. Tippett about including her separation from her father in her book Becoming Wise, she said,

 … the book, it just — it didn’t come alive for a long time, and I realized, actually, I also had to do what I ask other people to do, which I know makes ideas come to life, and also makes them listenable, makes them land in the imaginations of listener with vitality, which is to really walk that line, that intersection between what you know, and who you are. And, yeah, then I had to actually — I had to be honest, even just with myself, about the hard, the sad parts of my life, and those things that I wrestle with. (https://onbeing.org/programs/krista-tippett-the-mystery-and-art-of-living/)

Perhaps, what makes someone a true intellectual who desires to bring about changes in others and communities is strength and courage that allows him/her to be able to share own struggles and vulnerability pertaining to his/her ideas. Because changes occur when the heart is touched and only a shaky but firm voice coming from the heart can touch another heart.

The coevolution of knowledge and schools?

In medieval Europe, the chief formula for knowledge was: Knowledge = Scriptures x Logic. If people wanted to know the answer to an important question, they would read scriptures and use their logic to understand the exact meaning of the text… The Scientific Revolution proposed a very different formula for knowledge: Knowledge = Empirical Data x Mathematics. If we want to know the answer to some question, we need to gather relevant empirical data, and then use mathematical tools to analyze them… As humans gained confidence in themselves, a new formula for acquiring ethical knowledge appeared: Knowledge = Experiences x Sensitivity. If we wish to know the answer to any ethical question, we need to connect to our inner experiences and observe them with the utmost sensitivity… What exactly are ‘experiences’? They are not empirical data… an experience is a subjective phenomenon made up of three main ingredients: sensations, emotions and thoughts… And what is ‘sensitivity’? It means two things. Firstly, paying attention to my sensations, emotions and thoughts. Secondly, allowing these sensations emotions, and thoughts to influence me (p239 in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Harari).

In other words, the meaning of knowledge has evolved from what we were told to do to what we could test to what we experience and internalize.

The trajectory of this evolution is quite interesting. The realm of knowledge has moved from something concrete and tangible to abstract and intangible. The focus of knowledge was external objects (e.g., God or nature), but now it’s about what’s in me.

Then, what does this new formula for knowledge mean to us, educators? What types of experiences do we want our students to have in order to become competent, responsible and mindful adults? How can we create the environment that can cultivate the capacity for sensations, emotions and thoughts? How could we even assess students’ performances when the knowledge they acquire is about themselves?

Dr. Harari’s insightful perspective on knowledge encouraged me to imagine how the college would (or should) be changed. What would the college look like when its goal is to help students gain knowledge composed of experiences and sensitivity? Three pillars of the new school curriculum would be open-mindedness, self-consciousness and expressive mind. Experiences are qualitative. A single simple phenomenon could elicit a multitude of emotions and thoughts if the individual sees it from different perspectives. Internalization of an experience requires being mindful of oneself and expressing his/her emotions and thoughts in various forms–words, drawing, music, physical movement, etc. Namely, the new formula for knowledge would redefine the school as a safe place where students gain experiences without worrying about failure, pay attention to opposing or foreign ideas without any prejudice, get to know themselves without any pressure to fit themselves into the existing frames, and create and strengthen own channels of expression.