The Ways of Learning
The mosquito is an automaton. It can afford to be nothing else. There are only about one hundred thousand nerve cells in its tiny head, and each one has to pull its weight. The only way to run accurately and successfully through a life cycle in a matter of days is by instinct, a series of rigid behaviors programmed by the genes....The channels of human mental development, in contrast, are circuitous and variable.
Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature
Fritz wore very thick lenses in his wire-rimmed spectacles. He was an awkward kid who mostly liked being by himself. At age eight he was becoming an insatiable glutton for the printed word, devouring all manner of written nourishment wherever he found it. At first, his parents were vexed by his marathon stays locked in the bathroom, until they found out that that was where their eccentric Fritz felt most comfortable savoring his reading. Fritz came to see me because of some motor problems, including difficulty writing, along with some seeming leaks in his memory.
On several occasions, his mom and dad mentioned that Fritz was fascinated with gadgets of any kind. He relished getting his hands on whatever seductive apparatus was within reach. In the car he would studiously detach or disassemble ashtrays, loudspeakers, and door handles. His extraordinarily tolerant father observed that Fritz was much more talented and enthusiastic when it came to taking things apart than when putting them together! But Mr. Powell did admit that his son was nothing short of remarkable at fixing objects around the house.
I was able to confirm this finding when one day I was doing a physical examination on Fritz in my office. He saw that one of the lights I use for examining ears (my otoscope) was not working. I told him it was broken and that I had changed the batteries and the bulb to no avail. I had also used a well-established, arguably primitive, Mel Levine technique; in vain, I had shaken it repeatedly and briskly. Anyway, Fritz pounced on my otoscope and immodestly proclaimed, "I'll fix it for you." Of course, I consented to the proposed surgery. Fritz then inspected the instrument, and thought out loud, "Let me see now, how is this supposed to work?" I never would have asked myself that question. Fritz then used his fingers and his voice to trace and talk through the way an otoscope is supposed to work. Only then did he go back and determine where the breakdown was occurring. In doing so, he encountered a loose connection in the switch, which he remedied with leverage from one of his handy talon-like fingernails. What struck me and what I never forgot after that was that Fritz was unwilling to repair my light without first determining how such lights were supposed to work. I have since applied the "Fritz Principle" in my career. That is to say, I should never try to understand and deal with differences in learning until I know how learning works when it's working. So I can't figure out why a kid is enduring serious grief in algebra unless I understand what it ordinarily takes to master algebra -- in other words, how that kind of learning works.
How Learning Works
The most basic instrument for learning is something called a neurodevelopmental function. Our own minds and those of our children are like tool chests. They are filled with these delicate instruments, neurodevelopmental functions, the various implements for learning and for applying what's learned. Just as a carpenter might deploy different groups of tools to complete various projects or a dentist might use different sets of tools for different tooth tasks, our minds make use of different clusters of neurodevelopmental functions to learn specific skills and to create particular products. One committee of neurodevelopmental functions enables a student to master subtraction; another squad participates in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, yet another neurodevelopmental task force makes possible riding a scooter.
Copyright © 2002 by Mel Levine
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