Ruminations on learning, on teaching, and on making sense of our wild individual neurocognitive variation

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Unfettered Potential

I have to fess up to one of my educational fantasies.  Often, I’ll be working with a kid, and I imagine what learning would be like without cognitive roadblocks.  What we ALL would be like without these roadblocks, but especially them, right here and now.  
I see the seeds of some good idea that the world needs to know about, and it isn’t coming out.  The darn handwriting just doesn’t get it out fast enough before the darn monkeymind jumps on to some new thought.  Or the words weren’t accessible - just stuck right there on the tip-of-her tongue - so why try to explain it anyhow.  
I feel similar frustration trying to get needed ideas in.  A 9-year-old can give me a phenotypical run-down on the difference between Indian and African elephants, but her brain never downloaded the sound-symbol codebook to be able to read a first-grade book about them (“Huh? A Frickin’ Elephant?!”).  
What would life be like without these roadblocks, these input-output issues, these cognitive bottlenecks?  Imagine the DaVinci Flying Machine that was never made because of poor visual-spatial skills.  Or The Great American Novel never written due to waning attentional skills.  Arg. 
Often my fantasy of untapping potential drives my remediation sessions with a kid; I’m madly running through my ever-increasing key ring, fervently jamming well-used (or newly constructed) keys into quickly rusting locks.  Then quickly trying to duplicate the keys and hand them over before a session ends, or a kid wants to just do homework, or some new profound tangent pulls us away.
Assistive Technology shares this fantasy of mine.  With some skill building I’m a fan of  voice dictation software (www.macspeach.com, www.nuance.com) to bypass graphomotor weaknesses, mindmapping software (www.inspiration.com) to scaffold organizational skills, reminder systems (www.reqall.com) to aide long-term memory retrieval, text to speech scanners and pens (www.kurzweiledu.com, www.quickpen.com) for decoding weaknesses, and voice recording and uploading pens (www.livescribe.com) for note-taking assistance.  [Hmm. Maybe this is worth its own blog.]  So, problem solved?
But sometimes I am of the mind that these cognitive bottlenecks are a GOOD thing.  Perhaps they hold gifts wrapped in frustration.  
For one, the process of figuring out ones’ learning is a more powerful tool than effortlessly gliding through school and then hitting a brick wall and having no way to recover.  I worry about this when I see an 11-year-old with working memory skills in the very superior range (stronger than 98% of their same-age peers) and executive functioning/organizational skills within the borderline range (below the 9th %ile), who rightly claims “Nah, I don’t need an assignment notebook because I remember my assignments.” [No doubt he does, but there’s no way to undo those compensatory mechanisms and learn how to use an assignment notebook in Junior Year of High School in AP Class content.]  
And does my image of unfettered potential even exist? A disembodied black box mind that effortlessly inputs information and exudes brilliance with no friction or resistance?  I am too much a believer in Whorfian thinking and know that language and culture must change our thoughts.  So a kid with an auditory processing or language disorder would be a different thinker without the bottlenecks.  And I like this kid’s mind too much to be trying to change it!
A final reason cognitive bottlenecks may ultimately serve us is that they lead us toward our proclivities.  Although extreme, consider the likes of Stephen Hawking, of Temple Grandin, of the Jill Bolte Taylors of the world.  Annie Sullivan had almost completely lost her own eyesight before learning sign language and meeting Helen.  Although clearly nowhere on the same scale of genius, personally, I have no doubt that my own frustrations coming up with that right word on the spot have led me toward expressing my truest thoughts and feelings non-linguistically through music.  I don’t know where I would be without busking, writing songs, and gigging regularly.  
Ultimately, these days I find myself reconciling my fantasies for unfettered potential (more Darwin flying machines!) and my respect for our existing neurocognitive architecture with an ever deepening faith in process over product.
I’m learning that the keys we uncover in our resilience serve us well beyond the immediate ease of showing our smarts.


  1. ...along the lines of "unfettered" versus "structure," right? Mashed up in my brain is the idea that no artist creates without some limits, whether imposed by materials or structures by which they are comprehending the very something they wish to (re-?)present. Which is to say...

    I, too, have grappled with the very question you pose. Is it complete unfettering which we seek? Or an understanding of how our abilities/structures (linguistic, cultural, what have you)/challenges shape our creating machine? To what extent are they pliable? At which point should we start, or stop, pushing at them to reshape the elements, and at what point should we just start pulling out? And isn't this perhaps a dynamic process, which evolves as long as we are willing?

    And is it fair to rest at some point along the way, and say "this, THIS is the basic shape--from this I shall operate?"

    Oh, such a conversation as could be had. Thanks for shaking the brain into thinking space today.

  2. yes yes, Anonymous.
    great point about the relationship between the creation and the creating machine (or perhaps the cog and the cog-nition?). I realize it's a luxury to be able to reflect back on our own reflections (only with language and art?). I think that's the pinnacle that I work for with kids, but those cogs have to be pretty well greased to get there.
    And thanks for continuing to turn the gears!

  3. I like your point about "cognitive bottlenecks lead[ing] us toward our proclivities."

    It made me think about to what extent we should try to "correct" our children so that they fit into the mold expected of them in a (public school) classroom.

    I just read this quote from a book on how intensity in children is misperceived by educators, from the book "Living With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults": “Their excitement is viewed as excessive, their high energy as hyperactivity, their persistence as nagging, their questioning as undermining authority, their imagination as not paying attention, their passion as being disruptive, their strong emotions and sensitivity as immaturity, their creativity and self-directedness as oppositional. They stand out from the norm. But then again, what is normal?"

    If we correct this "deficiency" in children, make them appear less intense, fit into a mold, could we be squelching their gifts, their proclivities, as well?

  4. Thanks for the quote and your thoughts, Anonymous! I shouldn't say too much here or I risk redundancy in an upcoming parent seminar I'm giving on giftedness and double exceptionalities. Nevertheless: Parents have always existed to maximize their children's potential. Public education has always existed as a normalizing and socializing force (making good worker bees). And therein lies the rub. Some private schools are in fact designed to further what you aptly summarize Susan Daniels' description of kid's excitement, high energy, persistence, questioning, imagination, etc. Nevertheless, there is always a classroom tension between one child's excitement and another's imagination, one child's persistence and another's questioning.