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Now You See Me, Now You Don't: The Hidden Truth In Our Faces!

Facial Expression and Emotion (and the hidden truth of our faces)

Paul Ekman (1993) examines cross-cultural research on facial expression, seeking to elucidate further understanding about four key questions: (1) “What information does an expression typically convey? (2) Can there be emotion without facial expression? (3) Can there be a facial expression of emotion without emotion? (4) How do individuals differ in their facial expressions of emotion?” (p. 384) Ekman reaffirms the cross-cultural agreement on six primary areas of universal categorization of facial expression: fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and enjoyment. Ekman also makes clear that further research is necessary to explain, “the question of what the face can signal, not what information it typically does signal” (p. 387). Important to this dissertation is Ekman’s assertion that, “facial expressions are more likely to occur when someone sees or hears a dynamic (moving) event and the beginning of the event is marked rather than very slow and gradual” (p. 388). Ekman claims that sometimes the only expression of emotion a person may exhibit might come from an area of the body other than the face, such as, “the voice, posture, or other bodily action” (p. 388). Ekman goes further by claiming that there is a possibility for an emotion to transpire without a facial or observable change in expression (p. 389). It may be that in situations where someone shows little or no observable change in expression that the emotional connection is weak, not present at all, or not entirely transferable to the person being observed. It is important to note that change may indeed be occurring, but these changes may be sub-visible, taking place at the micro-muscular level, indicating autonomic nervous system activity that is only detectable through sophisticated measurements with electromyography (EMG) sensors. Tomkins (1963) reports that facial activity is always part of an emotion, even when its appearance is inhibited. This could be based on cultural differences or any variety of other factors. The intensity of the emotional reception is somewhat correlated with the fidelity of the expression.

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Ekman (1985/2009, 1992, 1993) reports that individuals can experience emotion without observable changes in facial expression. Sometimes a person will respond to a stimulus with a head nod, a clenched fist, change in posture, or by walking toward or away from a situation. Even more intriguing is the change in expression that can be communicated through spoken words and audible vocalizations (i.e., moans, screams, or sighs), without necessarily expressing a visible change in the face. Ekman (1993) shows that it is equally true that a person can fabricate an expression of emotion without actually feeling an emotion (p. 390). Ekman states that, “although false expressions are intended to mislead another person into thinking an emotion is felt when it is not, referential expressions are not intended to deceive” (p. 390). It is most common to use referential expressions when referring to previous emotional experiences, specifically not experiences being felt currently. Examples of false emotional expressions aside from referential expressions are generally understood to be examples of deception. Efforts to deceive can be harmful or beneficial. A lie can conceal an important truth that harms a person in some manner. However, a lie can also allow a comedian to deliver a punchline at the appropriate time to maximize the intended comical effect, or give someone the courage to push past their fears when facing the insurmountable task of asking someone else to be their Valentine. The key is to fabricate expressions without specific emotional impetus.

Facial Action Coding System

Ekman and Friesen (1978/2002) published the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) manual, with a robust revision in 2002. This publication is a comprehensive guide for measuring facial expressions and behaviors. The manual includes the complete 527-page guide to various facial expressions, a 197-page investigator’s guide, a score checker protocol (included for the FACS test, published and sold separately), and a variety of example photos and videos are also included. The manual is a comprehensive system for describing all observable facial movements; it breaks down facial expressions into individual components of muscle movements that represent changes in behavior and emotional response to a given stimulus. Subsequent publications have featured subtle and microexpressions. Whether you can see them or not, there are a great many truths hidden in the expressions of our faces. Are you looking closely enough to find them?!

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Teacher as Architect of Learning and Designer of Experiences

Teaching efficacy is among the most significant determinants of student outcomes in classrooms (Hattie, 2008). As wide as the variety of teaching styles are, so are the variations of curricula, curricular delivery systems, factors affecting schools, and the quality of teachers and the training they receive. Laurillard (2013) sums up nicely the importance of teachers and their role as architects of learning and designers of experiences that optimize surface to deep thinking:

What it takes to teach cannot be determined directly from what it takes to learn, which means that teachers must be willing to treat the process as essentially problematic, iterative, and always improvable; we must stop assuming that teaching can be theorized like a natural science and treat it as a design science. (p. 82)

Indeed, teaching can and should be a designed process that encourages vibrant and dynamic growth in student outcomes. Aha! moments in learning are an important and special part of that design. These moments in learning should be captured and cultivated – and produced regularly. Teachers can positively transform learning experiences for students using strategies that promote the increased frequency of Aha! moments in their classrooms, the benefits of which connect to all areas of learning growth and potential (Kounios & Beeman, 2014). The opportunity for students to find deeper meaning in their work, extend ideas, and become more actively interested in their personal development in all areas of learning, becomes a powerful lever in education and learning overall, and one that teachers and school leaders must embrace and nurture.

Experienced teachers are able to contextualize learning and meet the needs of their students within various curricula, regardless of personality differences, and remain focused on mastery of content and transfer across subjects (Hattie, 2003). Further, as teachers develop their practice over time, the potential for greater positive impact in classrooms increases. Hattie (2011) states:

Expert teachers and experienced teachers do not differ in the amount of knowledge that they have about curriculum matters or knowledge about teaching strategies – but expert teachers do differ in how they organize and use this content knowledge. Experts possess knowledge that is more integrated, in that they combine the introduction of new subject knowledge with students’ prior knowledge; they can relate current lesson content to other subjects in the curriculum; and they make lessons uniquely their own by changing, combining and adding to the lessons according to their students’ needs and their own teaching goals. (p. 261)

The focus must therefore be on providing opportunities to develop expertise within teachers to cultivate and capture insight and discovery throughout their curriculum and course lessons. If one of the primary objectives in increasing teacher efficacy is helping students move from surface to deep thinking (Hattie, 2003), and if it is hoped that this change in thinking will produce transfer across different areas of learning, Aha! moments in learning provide an excellent opportunity for this type of teacher training. Hence, an understanding of surface and deep learning, the differences between them, the place of both in the learning, and developing Aha! moments to enact the transition from surface to deep could be most valuable in teacher development programs. These teaching strategies can be aimed at manifesting greater numbers of Aha! moments and a more robust and engaging learning environment. Teachers can be trained on how to maximize the number and magnitude of these moments and further impact learning, achievement, and observable outcomes of students.

There is a growing body of neurological research that proves cognition is highly plastic and that complex mental activity improves cognition, brain function, and structure (Chapman et al., 2015). The tools that are becoming available to enhance and increase retention of learning are becoming easier to access and more widely used, and there is growing interest from teachers and professionals in implementing techniques that increase achievement in students. School administrators must discover and invest in teaching development programs where current research about learning is at the center of informing practice. Teachers need to spend more time harvesting from the available research literature, perhaps even adding to it, in order to garner the fullness of its potential to inform behaviors, and to enhance their professional work in schools. This may be best accomplished by placing a greater premium on the observable behaviors and patterns surrounding learning in classrooms. As Laurillard (2013) suggests, we should transfer energies away from teaching teachers how to teach and toward training them in methods to become leaders of learning. Teachers cannot practically observe what is happening in the mind when learning occurs (or easily, even with various measurement apparatus – e.g., fMRI), but if the observable correlates of the Aha! moment reflect the plasticity and growth happening when students’ do learn, this breakthrough in research will open tremendous opportunities for teachers and students alike.