February 24, 2008

Doing what comes naturally, or not

It is fascinating to watch bonobos in the Nova documentary Ape Genius make and use tools, copy tasks from other bonobos or humans, and work together to achieve goals they could not accomplish on their own, activities I had thought were pretty much reserved for our species alone.

The researchers were looking for why the human brain at some point “took off,” while the ape’s has remained incapable of the same kinds of complex cognition. Apes, they tell us, are like humans: they have culture and can learn from one another.

What experiments show, however, is that apes cannot teach. They have neither the passion for it or the mental skill. “Teaching locks in progress. There’s a cumulative quality over generations,” and this causes a “ratcheting up of complexity” in the mental processes.

The program has scenes showing a human mother teaching a young child something about a new object. A triangular connection is established between the mother, the child, and the object itself. Both the mother and child point to or touch the object, talk about it, and share the wonderment of it; perhaps they incur an emotional response to the learning experience itself. Ape mothers do not have these moments with their offspring. Learning seems to go as far as copying, but no further.

The online interview with cognitive scientist Rebecca Saxe fills this out a bit:
Picture a parent and a child sitting together playing with blocks. In order to build something, both of them are adding pieces to the same structure. And they're negotiating about it. Which piece goes where? Does the tower go here? Does the door go here? And they're doing this project together. They have to negotiate it, and they have to play with each other at the same time that they're both playing with the blocks. That's the kind of coordination that humans do naturally. Two minds work together, watching each other and watching the object that they're playing with. That's the kind of thing apes don't seem to do.
Teaching someone a new trick, she says, is complicated:
One reason may be that you need to work out which parts of what you're doing need to be taught. So what's the difficult bit? How do you show it? How do you slow it down? You need to have enough awareness of what you're doing yourself to slow down the right parts in the right way.

Another possibility is that it's hard to work out the coordination of your attention and the other person's attention on this third thing — the task you're trying to teach. You have to pay attention to all three elements continuously. . . . There's this other thing, which is wanting to teach. That may be even more critical. You need to understand that somebody else can't do what you're doing, and also have some reason, motivation, desire to help that person learn it. That desire to teach seems to be really pervasive in humans and may be mysteriously missing in apes.

The ability and desire to teach may be innate to the human species, but the people running the school system, from BloomKlein at the local level right up through to the NCLB Congressional crowd, are gassed up on another evolutionary characteristic: the instinct for class and cultural dominance.

These people have the means to take their own progeny right out of this system and put them elsewhere, in smaller, better-funded settings where the kind of teaching that separates humans from apes can actually take place.

In our apathy and fatigue, we at the lower end of the feeding chain allowed them to get into office, where they can design, promote, and install all kinds of educational programs that have no track record whatsoever and will allow only a minimalistic kind of achievement in much of the population.

I’d like to sit Joel Klein down in front of this show on apes to remind him that TEACHING in capital letters is a time-consuming, labor-intensive activity at which only humans excel. It involves a willingness and commitment on the part of the teacher and the learner to focus together on something new, to marvel at it perhaps, to evaluate and thoroughly absorb it. It needs the intimacy of smaller learning environments and a good amount of time to pass information effectively from one member of the species to another.

All the massive amounts of misappropriated cash into PR firms, high-end administrator jobs, test-making companies, and other self-serving money pits, all the scripted lessons and the pseudo-accountability systems will not add one whit to the skills of a good teacher or the success of a kid who has learned something. These come from the innate qualities of both, which get nurtured in the right settings.
It might be that what's different between humans and other animals is the quality and complexity and richness of the innovation.
As long as the people who manage this system are engaging in class wars and dominance strategies, what happens in our oversized, micromanaged, hypertested and time-wasting classrooms is not going to even approach the solutions to teaching that humans as a species have evolved over millions of years.

See also a relevant blog just posted Feb. 28th on Ednotes:
"There's a major story here in NYC that the national press, in it's fantasy of the phony reform movement wants to ignore. It is about the immense failures of Bloomberg and Klein."


  1. Great article, Woodlass!

    Betcha Joel will not even acknowledge that he has been clueless. But then that's the nature of cluelessness.

    Sometimes I wonder if he even realizes what nonsense his minions have been promoting.

  2. See how fast ape-response time is?
    About a day and a half.

    We've been badgering the chancellor for years, and no response at all. He's more like an ostrich than an ape.

    For readers unfamiliar with Dr. Zaius, whom I encourage to contribute from time to time, go over to Zaius Nation.

  3. P.S.: And if the Dr. Zaius I marveled at above is not THE Dr. Zaius, go to Zaius Nation anyway.