A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mirror Neurons_Opportunity Gap

Can your 9th grader build a 3D model of DNA independently? Joe, who knew the content, (i.e., which nitrogen bases pair up -- guanine and cytosine, adenine and thymine -- and where phosphate groups fit on the sugar deoxyribose sugar-phosphate backbone,) does not know his way around my shop, and does not grasp a need to know. Despite an interest in engineering, and automaticity with mental computations, Joe is not innately interested in working alongside me when I construct things, so I occasionally force the issue, because as a parent, I feel an ability to use tools is a life skill that he will not learn at school, whether or not he chooses to become an engineer. If left to his own devices, Joe would gravitate to highly sophisticated video games on XBox Live, which according to Scientific American, can be a highly powerful educational resources. As a parent and an educator, I know how powerful these video games can be in grabbing and holding attention - what scares me is just how effective they are in teaching the wrong lessons.

Based on what I have been "reading" in Dr. Ramachandran's The Tell Tale Brain,  the ability of humans to share cultural knowledge and learn from imitation is rooted in highly developed mirror neuron networks. As Dr. Ramachandran suggests, "monkey see, monkey do" is at the heart of our ability as humans to share and imitate procedures for using tools. Mirror neuron networks, according to Dr. Ramachandran, are the key evolutionary advantage that elevated people above apes.  Dr. Ramachandran argues that mirror neurons enabled human beings to become the most significant development on earth since life itself arose. From a Special Education perspective, Dr. Ramachandran's research has linked deficits in mirror neurons with autism.

Here are some of the specialized cultural knowledge that I tried to share with Joe, although I was not clear to what degree I was actually holding his attention:

1. I demonstrated how to use a Makita 3HP router to drill a 5/8" hole about 3/4" deep into a 2x4 block
2. I used a mitre box to cut the 5/8" diameter dowel rod and the 2x4 blocks -- Joe has seen me use this tool on numerous occassions
3. Joe walked away before I could show him how to use a drill to make holes through which we fed string to tie down his model
4. I tied down one half of his mode; I made Joe tie the other half, giving him experience with tying knots that I failed to give him by not involving him in scouting.
5. After I glued one side, Joe used a glue gun to secure the other side of his model, after we rotated the base 90 degrees to create the "double helix."

Joe had to be directed to work the tools himself, and preferred to watch from a distance, reflecting his lack of a clear vision for the future. In Joe's defense, how many 9th graders would demonstrate the fortitude needed to figure that out how to build a 3D model on their own?

With Joe and his mother at the dinner table, I showed Joe how to manipulate different color pipe cleaner, cut coffee stirrer straws, and feed the multicolor pipe cleaner lengths through coffee stirrer straws in order to create the backbone. I connected half; Joe connected the other half. His mother created the legend, with Joe's instructions, and I help Joe use double stick tape to tape it down.

A 9th grader without any shop knowledge could use a paper towel roll instead of a dowel rod, and cardboard to make the top and base, and string instead of pipe cleaners to make the backbone and frame, but how many would focus long enough to solve these problems independently, like my friend Ricky would have been able to do -- Ricky was fixing lawnmowers and building off road vehicles at that age, and yet he is a mere handyman.

When I think about the much talked about "achievement gap," I find myself always referring back to the Matthew Effect. Throwing technology at the problem, and holding teachers accountable for their student's lack of background knowledge is not helping children being left behind as early as Kindergarten. What's lacking, on a national level, is a clear vision of what the outcome of education should be, and how Response To Intervention (RTI) should be implemented. Too many decision makers are distracted by the sizzle of technology, and fail to wrestle with the more difficult question of how technology should be implemented, which why I am focusing so much on technology in the classroom.