Emotional Energy, Diversity, and Harmony in a Confucian Heritage Classroom

In this blog post, Dr James Davis discusses emotional energy from a Confucian heritage perspective. Emotional energy is interconnected with cognitive aspects of learning while at the same time, deeply embedded in societal, organisational and classroom levels of culture. James discusses Confucian emotive experiences associated with uniformity and harmony in a Chinese primary STEM classroom to illustrate the influence of cultural diversity on emotive experiences when learning.  


Emotions as lived experiences are not universal. The way we express and interpret emotive experiences is influenced by who we are, who we are with, and what we are doing. Emotive experiences arise through social and cultural contexts. In a recent project, we explored emotional energy as it was experienced by primary school STEM students.

Emotional energy

Emotional energy is a sociological concept used to describe both individual and collective experiences of social interaction. It is a general emotive experience, very different to discrete psychological emotions such as happiness, anger, or fear. Emotional energy produces a sense of togetherness and solidarity. It is felt by people, but is often taken-for-granted, or not visible to people in-the-moment of their experiences.

The social character of emotional energy means it may be visible to researchers who study social interactions and who seek to understand how interacting people appear within moments of emotive experiences. By observing student and teacher interactions, we can identify intense experiences of emotional energy by studying the:

  1. development of shared ideas (a cognitive element within the experience),
  2. fluency and continuity of the experience, and
  3. mutual entrainment of people observable in verbal and non-verbal actions of mutual focus, bodily, and conversational alignment.

This conceptualisation of emotional energy is developed mostly through studies in Western cultural contexts (i.e., Australia and North America). Our aim in this recent project was to explore emotional energy from a vastly different cultural perspective. For this reason, we studied children in a primary school STEM program in Shanghai, China, as an example of a Confucian heritage culture.

Emotions, Culture, and Learning

Emotions and learning are interconnected through classroom interactions as places of cultural reproduction. Teachers who appreciate intercultural influences on emotions may therefore impact on students’ learning and engagement. This may be achieved by understanding and recognising micro-cultural diversity during in-the-moment teaching experiences.

In this project, we did not view diversity from a categorical level such as ethnicity or gender. Instead, we looked deeper at the social interactions of the children. This helped us to understand diversity in childrens’ ideas as the focal point for emotive experiences when learning.

As noted in the earlier definition of emotional energy, ideas are the focal point for emotive experiences, and we can observe these during social interaction. For example, a child’s proposed scientific method for how to hold a pair of tweezers can illustrate a collective emotive focus as children make utterances and gestures about this idea. Emotions are always about ideas, and our approach of looking at the diversity of ideas is a way of understanding the collectivity and diversity of emotive experiences.

Confucian Views of Harmony, Diversity and Uniformity

To frame our thinking, we explored emotive experiences within Confucian heritage cultures. Confucian heritage cultures are typically found in East Asia where there is a long history of cultural influence and social integration with China. We started this project by exploring some core emotional concepts evident in both the history of Confucian philosophy, and every day social practices in contemporary Chinese society.

In contemporary everyday situations, the Confucian notion of the middle way is about achieving harmony. The middle way may be described as a process for interacting with others, where people respect the diversity of ideas, in order to shape different, but shared ideas as an outcome of social interaction. When there is balance between diverse ideas, with each person contributing to produce something new, there is a sense of harmony in emotions and a sense of togetherness. Confucian philosophers use the analogy of mixing diverse foods such as water, vinegar, pickles, salt and plums to produce a new collective taste that is different to the individual ingredients.

Importantly, the achievement of harmony is different from achieving uniformity, which is more similar to the mixing of like ingredients such as cups of water, to produce more water. In terms of learning new ideas, uniformity is more like the imposition of a single idea that others are expected to accept, such as a fixed way of thinking about a scientific concept.

These notions of uniformity, diversity and harmony were the focus of our project in the context of a STEM inquiry lesson. We used these Confucian ideas to observe, interpret and analyse emotional energy to develop new thinking about these experiences from an East Asian perspective. In our open-access paper, we illustrate how ideas and emotive elements may be interpreted through classroom practices and student experiences.

Finally, our analysis of achieving harmony is described from a Confucian perspective as a process of proportionality involving the mixing of ideas. In contrast, similar situations in Western-based studies are interpreted as moments of conflict and argumentation. Understanding such contrasting cultural interpretations of interactional situations is important for understanding different emotive experiences of doing science/STEM inquiry in different learning contexts.

Take Home Points for Teachers

This project contributes to teaching practice by:

  1. Reframing diversity as a lived experience of diverse ideas and diverse emotive moments in learning.
  2. Illustrating how teaching practices, the diversity of ideas, and emotive experiences may shape a classroom micro-culture.
  3. Exploring harmony, uniformity and emotional energy, within everyday situations to understand classrooms as micro-cultures that teachers can influence.

You can read more about this research in the full, open access publication by Dr Davis and colleagues, available here.


Dr James Davis is a Program Co-Leader in the C4IE Engagement and Learning Program. James is a Lecturer in STEM and Entrepreneurial Education. His research interests focus on enacted pedagogy and the emotive-cognitive interplay in student engagement and learning, using qualitative research methodologies. The contexts in which his education research is conducted include science, integrated STEM, and entrepreneurial education. James is an Associate Editor of the international journal, Research in Science Education.

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