Saturday, March 08, 2008

Of Typecasting and Individuality


Dear Mr. Vernon,
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was that we did wrong. What we did was wrong, but we think you're crazy to make us write an essay writing about who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us—in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct? That's the way we saw each other at 7:00 this morning. We were brainwashed.

From The Breakfast Club
a film by John Hughes

Back in January the weblog Cybernet displayed the image to the right as a Friday fun piece titled: Optical Illusion: Are You Right or Left Brained. The image originally appeared in the Sydney (Australia) Herald Sun in a short article about which side of the brain we rely on. The short article that accompanies the image states:

If clockwise, then you use more of the right side of the brain and vice versa.
Most of us would see the dancer turning anti-clockwise though you can try to focus and change the direction; see if you can do it.

According to this I am extremely right brain dominant as I could only rarely see her move in any other direction than clockwise. About the only time I could see her move in a counterclockwise motion is when I glanced at the image of the corner of my eye without thinking. But can this picture tell the whole story?

Can one picture determine whether you are left-brained or right-brained oriented, I'm not convinced and the more I thought of it the more it seemed to me to be a cute parlor trick and nothing more. As I write this, I'm watching the image out of the corner of my eye and I can see it moving counterclockwise, but as soon as I turn my full attention on it it switches back to going clockwise. I think this may suggest that when I am concentrating on writing my right brain kicks in to organize my thoughts. When my brain is at rest my right side takes over control. But it made me think about the impact on learning. And I did some cursory research.

While we like to see clean black/white solution for these issues, we live in a messy world and while there is extensive research into this phenomena, science is not ready to say that there is a hard and fast drawing of the line regarding brain lateralization.  

But this got me thinking about how we use categories and classifications to simplify our lives even in the realm of learning. There are still raging battles over how people learn.

  • Is it sensory-related experience with no thought to internal motivation as the behaviorists believe?
  • Should we be treated as biological computers that await to receive data  input by an expert on which we then act as the cognitivists support?
  • Do we use data input to reach solutions on how to make sense of the world around us as the constructivists would have us believe?
  • Or do we learn best by recognizing that learning operates much like a computer network in that data is received from a variety of sources in a variety of forms and we teach as much as we learn as the connectivists would have us believe?

The passion that arises over these discussions sometimes rise above mere academic debate and harken back to a more clannish response as we take sides in the discussion. Personally, I see some relevance in each. Only the individual who is learning knows what is going on inside his or her head (behaviorism), and if we have no knowledge of a subject then we are certainly filling a void with new data that is provided by an "expert" or someone who proclaims to be an expert (cognitivism).

As this new information is received and processed we usually work to fit it into our existing knowledge base, weighing it against previous information to determine if it augments what we already know or it replaces previous knowledge (constructivism).

Finally, there is no strict separation between learners and teachers - and there never has been. We learn from one another in an ongoing dialog that occurs on a daily basis in our schools, workplace, and our social life as long as we remain open to the idea that we can be taught by anyone (connectivism). And this is probably the biggest impediment we face today.

I am fond of saying to my children that the civilization we claim to see around us is but a thin veneer covering our continued preference for our prehistoric ancestor's clannishness. We find comfort in listening to people who hold similar views as ours; there is safety in numbers.

And every clan had an alpha male or female that the clan looked to for guidance. He or she was the leader and the survival of the clan depended on everyone following the alpha's directions. That is why education has adhered so closely to the sage-on-the-stage approach to teaching. For the clan to survive we must all learn to think as the clan thinks.

So, until we as individuals recognize that there is no one right way of thinking learning will remain stunted by our "simplest terms" and "most convenient definitions."


Downes said...

The illusion has nothing to do with whether you're left-brained or right-brained. That part has simply been made up.

In fact, any person can easily view it going both ways - alternating first one way, then the other. How the woman spins depends on where you focus your attention.

It can be quite difficult to see it spinning the other way - and then equally difficult to get it spinning the original way!

The illusion says a lot about how our expectations shape our perceptions - and nothing at all about being right-brained or left-brained.

dmcoxe said...

That was my point. We tend to oversimplify the world around us. We say "Gee, I only see the image turning counterclockwise. I must be right brain dominant."

And, yes, initially, I was taken in on this, but as I did some further research on brain functioning I discovered that there is no such thing as left brain/right brain dominance. And I also don't think that any one learning theory has a stranglehold on how we learn.