Nonverbal Communication and Experiential Education

March 3, 2012 at 5:09 PM
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Nonverbal Communication and Experiential Education


Vanessa Castro NU’09, UMD’11 and Jim Stellar


Vanessa and I have written posts before about nonverbal communication of emotion in body movements and also about facial emotion recognition when she was a Master’s student at U. Mass Dartmouth.  Now she is a PhD student at North Carolina State University and we have been discussing the role of nonverbal communication in developing the learning power from experiential education and how that contrasts with the classroom.  I asked her to look at a lecture I gave that referred to a TED talk by Ramanchandran  on mirror neurons (which he calls Ghandi neurons for their ability to produce imitation and empathy) and to give me her thoughts on this topic and how that relates to experiential learning on co-op/internship.  That spiked this response from her which begins our new blog.  Finally, I see a relation between this blog and the last blog posted.


Nonverbal communication (including that of empathy and emotion) requires to some extent an appraisal. And I’m not sure that the Ghandi neurons explain this aspect enough. I agree that nonverbal communication (NVC) is engaged in a co-op but I think NVC also plays a large role in the classroom, perhaps greater than we understand, especially given the interplay of stereotyping, prejudice, and human error. For example, in my research we are working on a teaching grant where we hope to examine if and how African American males are perceived as more threatening, specifically more angry, by their teachers because of their race, as opposed to actual valid nonverbal cues of anger. In this way, our interpretation of cues is the most important in the classroom.  It is embedded within the situation in which these cues transfer as well as the culture in which these cues manifest. Another example would be the direct influence of culture in the hypo-and hyper- cognized emotions. Mirror neurons will only let you feel how another is feeling within the given cultural scripts. If, for example, an American student, never having been in close contact with Asian culture, finds themselves in an Asian community, they may be tempted to attribute familiar appraisals to the behaviors they see. For example, suppose you saw a child expressing great anger to their family, but not to others.  You might incorrectly assume that the child is a “bad child.” However, in this hypothetical culture, maybe it is more appropriate to display strong emotions to family members and inappropriate to display strong emotions to strangers. The opposite could be argued for another culture, say American culture.


Point well taken.  Classroom situations are full of NVC, culture, assumptions, and all of the issues that we face in a job environment. I guess what I was thinking was that in the job environment, some of the protections are gone.  For example, it can be more like a small seminar if one joins an office team.  In a small seminar and on that office team, there is no place to hide like one can in a large class.  Also, the consequences of failure are real-world, e.g. loss of the client, not just a grade.  Finally, there are fewer rules of fairness that dictate what you are supposed to know and when you are supposed to show it.  So, my idea was that in this “real-world” situation there was more reliance on NVC to share the work, evaluate the situation, and build a team.  Do you think that there is more pressure on NVC in a job environment and if so, more learning of an “other lobe” – experiential education nature?


Given your explanation above, I think that in the workplace and any kind of job environment there is pressure to both gain sensitivity in NVC and utilize these skills- if you a. care about the position and b. feel respected in your environment. I feel that this latter part may facilitate the best connection to your notion of “other lobe” experiential education. If you feel that you are not being respected, or if you are not very invested in your current position or place of employment, there may very well be little motivation for individuals to engage in active communication whereby you are communicating but also reading between the lines; building a repertoire of cues that you can use to accurately attribute behavior. There is also another side of this coin in that when an in individual is at work, they may often feel the need to inhibit or mask their nonverbal expressions. Given the dynamic nature of interactions, this need may differ based on the composition of the interactions (e.g., who the individual is interacting with). For example, while interacting with coworkers, an individual may display one particular nonverbal pattern which may differ drastically from the pattern he or she exhibits when interacting with a superior.


What I see you doing here is taking my simplistic concept (I am not a social psychologist) and making it more complex and nuanced.  It is the context that may create pressure to use NVC to tap into what Ramachandran called “Ghandi” neurons to produce learning.  It is not any greater use of NVC itself as that exists everywhere humans interact. The work place, with its unfamiliar practices that demand the student’s attention and the real consequences for the student-employee’s action, the student might be more engaged.  We know that engagement does produce activity and active learning is more powerful than the kind of passive learning which can exist (it does not have to) in large lecture classes where the professor can become a 3-D audio-visual display.


Exactly. Attention, and the engagement of attention, is an integral component of achieving adequate NVC competence. It is both reasonable and plausible to suggest that such attention would be greater in an experiential education setting than in a passive lecture-style setting. The former allows for a bidirectional route of communication, which may facilitate and maintain the skills needed for nonverbal sensitivity.

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