Friday, December 17, 2010

Temple Grandin and visual thinking: the world needs all kinds of minds

The OU is currently doing a research/scholarship internal audit to get a picture of the University's measurable outputs, leading me to ponder Martin Weller's and Jim Groom's notion of the perpetuation of the zombie scholar.
"Scholars engage in a number of different activities, which operate within specific cultures. These cultures are defined in part by technology and reward and recognition frameworks. In this paper we look at the functions of the scholar, particularly focusing on research. The uptake of new technologies in research and associated practices can be seen as a barometer for innovation within higher education.
We argue that the context within which academics operate is akin to the spread of the zombie virus, with new entrants rendered zombies by the constraints of the environment. We suggest one possible antidote to this zombification of higher education is the use of new technologies and particularly the cultural norms they embody."
Modern scholars have to churn out conventional papers through conventional peer reviewed journals and tick the appropriate boxes on conventional metrics to have a legitimate career.  The sheer enormity of the grunt work involved in doing this leaves no room for innovating, exploring new technologies, thinking.  Standardisation and zombification, accepting absorption into the academic Borg is the rational means of survival.

If the university sector is bad in this respect (though Martin and Jim propose a partial solution through the - surprise, surprise - engagement with new technologies) then schools appear to be worse, with their league tables and targets and box ticking and fear of not fulfilling all their administrative duties to keep their political masters and the inspectors on side.  This kind of zombiefication is not limited to the education system - see Martin's recent pop at the media for example or Dan Gillmor's excellent new book on the same - but it's the education system I want to stick with here and in particular Temple Grandin's recent TED talk The World Needs All Kinds of Minds.

Grandin does a lot of travelling and meets a lot of bright geeky/nerdy kids that teachers - often dedicated professionals - have no idea what to do with.  She's passionate about changing the world through enabling people to realise their potential, regardless of the different learning and thinking modes that might be most natural to them.  She herself was not interested in 'learning' until an enthusiastic, unconventional science teacher, previously a NASA scientist, got her engaged in science through tapping into her innate visual thinking talents.

Grandin herself is autistic which partly manifests itself in an exceptional ability to think in pictures and patterns.  What's interesting in the educational technology context is that she repeatedly uses the Google images analogy to describe how her brain works but also that she naturally uses web tools like YouTube as part of her work.  She talks about the autistic/geeky/nerdy mind tending to be fixated on certain things.  With kids that can be lego, cars, insects, computers, the weather or a host of other things.  That fixation, she argues, is the handle that schools can use to engage those kids - use it as a basis to teach maths or science or a whole range of other things.  The important thing is to light the spark of learning and in one sense it doesn't matter what you teach them.  It has to be said that it is not just autistic kids that this applies to.  There has been political hand wringing about the lack of interest teenage boys or [insert your own favorite demographic group here]  have had in learning/schooling for as long as I can remember.

Yet the entire system is designed for standardisation and churning out the perfect job trained zombies. It's a great system for bureaucrats to work in but not for kids with different kinds of learning styles, thinkings skills or interests.  Grandin is passionate about the need to work with and nurture different kinds of minds - silicon valley is chock full of autistic talent for example - if we are to tackle the serious challenges facing the world today; whether that's climate change, global warming or the energy crisis for example.  If Einstein, Mozart, Turin, Da Vinci or Gutenberg had been around today they would likely have been diagnosed as autistic.

When Grandin was at school she had a mental block against algebra - the autistic mind fixates on certain things and blocks others and she just couldn't do it.  As a result she was banned from taking geometry and trigonometry.  Think about that - an exceptional visual and pattern thinker banned from practicing those natural skills on subject matter at which they would have enabled her to excel.  How many kids are locked away from activities which could create that learning spark due to deliberate bureaucracy, baffled overworked teachers who don't know what to do with certain children, the national curriculum, the lack of time and space to do anything that doesn't contribute to pursuing targets - systemic, introspective, bureaucratic, neglect?

Depressing really but as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, once said, you should never let your schooling interfere with your education. I wonder if there is anything in Martin's and Jim's partial cure through technology that could work in the school context? I suspect so though have my doubts that the UK schooling systems as currently constituted could facilitate it.  Grandin's right that if we want to change the world for the better and address the really big issues like the energy crisis then we need to be lighting the spark in the varied minds of coming generations. As she once wrote:

"If by some magic autism had been eradicated from the face of the earth then men would still be socialising in front of a wood fire at the entrance to a cave"
On a final note it was interesting to hear her talk about her passion for server farms because they 'contain knowledge, they contain libraries'.  Another advocate for open access.

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