The Two Very Different Ways of Processing Information;
What does that mean for Education?
Copyright © 2003 by Renée Fuller,
"What is it I'm doing wrong!?"
Tina, a second grade teacher at one of my inservice training sessions was thoroughly confused. The cause: her school agenda required that she teach the rules of grammar to insure that all her students speak correct English. Being a new teacher Tina had followed the curriculum religiously: with no success. Her charges had neither understood the rules of grammar nor was the incorrect speech of some of her less fortunate youngsters improved. Even little Bess who spoke impeccable English with a highly advanced vocabulary for a seven-year-old had trouble. She just couldn't get the hang of the different parts of speech – not even a concept as simple as a noun. Tina was sure she was failing as a teacher. But what was she doing wrong? It never occurred to her that it might be the curriculum.
What was it that the curriculum didn't understand? Shouldn't reducing a sentence into four main parts with a few additional pronouns and prepositions be a simple enterprise? Grammar is composed of such straightforward rules. So why did the children have trouble understanding them? And it was evident to Tina that it was the understanding that was missing. There was no problem in getting the children to repeat definitions. Most of the kids were good little parrots. But she knew that getting them to parrot what she had just said is not what teaching is about.
Tina expressed her concern after a demonstration that showed how easy it is for learning-disabled 1st and 2nd graders to manipulate letter sounds in order to build words that make sense in the story they are reading. Our research with the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system had shown, much to my surprise, that even severely brain damaged and low IQ students can successfully use this technique, which I called "code approximation". I like to demonstrate "code approximation" with students who are diagnosed as reading failures because their sudden success helps teachers understand important cognitive principles.
After seeing such a demonstration, during which one of her reading failures became a reading success Tina blurted out, "Why, when as we just saw, kids have no trouble with code approximation, do my students have so much trouble understanding grammar? Grammar strikes me as a lot simpler than code approximation. And yet all my students, especially those who really need to apply grammar correctly, just don't get it". She laughed nervously. "What am I doing wrong? I feel so stupid."
It wasn't that Tina had failed to follow the directions of the curriculum. And she definitely wasn't stupid. It was that the curriculum devisers hadn't understood or remembered that:
there are two ways the human brain processes information. These two ways make their appearance at different stages in child development. The first one to be mastered is the simple story form. As the child matures, the story form of processing information becomes more elaborate, more complex. At that stage the other mode of information processing, rule analysis, begins to make its appearance. This rule analysis form of information processing involves the understanding and capacity to determine and/or apply the principles that govern a phenomenon or a story.
It took us humans many millennia to conclude that there are rules to how we speak (grammar), to understand how numbers can be organized (mathematics), to discover the laws of physics and chemistry. The advent of our scientific age owes its progress to the growing sophistication of some of our greatest minds in their ability to analyze the rules, the laws of nature. Note: it takes our greatest minds to accomplish such feats before the rest of us, sometimes with considerable effort, understand and can apply the principles involved.
The capacity to analyze or to understand and apply analysis is much more difficult for the human brain than our ability to understand or produce a story. It is easier for us to describe a "something" by making a story out of it, than to analyze that "something" for the principles governing it. Using the story form we write novels that depict the intricacies of individuals and their society. Our historical accounts, also in story form, describe large-scale events and the behavior of nations. Even the behavior of the stock market is easier to follow when presented in story form; thus far, although many have tried, it has failed to give up its secrets to analysis.
Because our human brain finds it difficult to analyze and/or apply the rules governing complex systems we resort to the computer. Although rule analysis is difficult for us, it was this ability that produced the concepts necessary in order to program the machines. However, once we became skilled at computer programming, the machines surpassed our human capacity to store, analyze and/or apply information. A major reason for the growing computerization of our society is the difficulty our brain has in analyzing complicated systems, especially if they are interlocking feedback systems. Analyzing the rules governing such complex systems, or even applying them once discovered is difficult even for our greatest minds. The new mathematics of chaos and complexity theory represents attempts to unravel and apply the rules of complex phenomena for which advanced computers are required.
As for Tina's elementary school children? Of course they found it difficult to understand what she was trying to teach them. Their young brains were designed for the primary task of learning contextual language. Which is why telling and understanding simple stories is easy for them. And that is also why after being taught with the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system four year olds and the brain damaged were able to "code approximate". However, analyzing the same speech and stories for their underlying rules is cognitively a very different and much more difficult task, especially for the developing brain. As the work of Piaget and Gesell demonstrated, the ability to understand the rules that govern our speech and our storytelling (grammar) doesn't usually appear until early adolescence. It wasn't that Tina was an incompetent teacher. To the contrary. Only a good teacher would have been aware that her students were merely parroting what she was teaching, rather than understanding it.
In the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system I took advantage of the early ability to understand and produce stories. Each time an alphabet letter or a reading principle is introduced it is immediately put to use to make words that advance the ongoing story. To further facilitate story reading, the beginning books utilize developmental linguistics, mimicking the progression of language acquisition by children. The system avoids explicit teaching of rules, which would be mere gibberish to young minds to be parroted on demand. Even the various spelling principles, which are presented in word lists and immediately used in the ongoing story, are presented without an explicit statement of their rule. Despite this, and much to my surprise, our students became excellent spellers, although they were not able to verbalize the spelling rules involved. The successful reading and writing outcomes by four-year-olds, by severely brain damaged students is a reflection of the power and early development of the story form of information processing. All the students, including the learning disabled and the dyslexic not only learned to read with surprising ease, they became "hooked on books".
It took me years to fully understand the reasons (to analyze the rules involved) for my reading system's successes. Even though I was the creator of the system and an "expert" in child development I had difficulty in analyzing the rationale for its successes. It seemed illogical that severely brain damaged students (IQ's in the thirties) were reading. Such results contradicted IQ and intelligence theory, which I had found so useful and significant in my previous work in clinical physiological psychology. What could account for the "illogical" results? What was it I had done?
After extensive follow up of the students I was able to isolate the determining factors. Especially important turned out to be embedding the alphabet and reading principles in stories that utilized developmental linguistics (i.e. language acquisition of the child). Eventually, because the data and the reasons for them contradicted intelligence theory, an alternative conceptualization of human cognition was required. This led me to postulate the story-as-the-engram theory of cognitive organization, which gives the evolutionary rationale for why stories are fundamental to human thinking, and why analysis for the rules governing phenomena make their appearance later in human development. Note: even though I was the creator of the reading system, and had organized its components to insure reading success, it was nevertheless difficult for my human brain to analyze the principles, the rules that accounted for these successes.
We humans tend to differ in our ability to extract the rules, the laws that govern phenomena. Psychological tests indicate that this is indeed the case. Like music or athletics, analytical talent varies from person to person. Certainly Einstein had superior analytical ability compared to the rest of us. And yet Einstein had difficulty learning to read. Interesting that in his popular book, RELATIVITY, which is intended for the layman, he made use of stories to explain his difficult theories. Perhaps that was because Einstein had found that he, like the rest of us, had to first make a story out of a phenomenon before he could analyze it for its rules.
And that's why when we teach rules, or how to analyze an event or phenomenon for rules, the most effective method is by first making a story out of it.
Six-year-olds can be introduced to a low-level of abstraction with "What happened to: (a particular character in the story)?" Then after being able to answer this type of question comes a fun one. "What do you think will happen next in the story?" Note: we haven't yet left the contextual story form. But we are at the beginning of story abstraction, which becomes even more evident with the next question. "What does it mean?" These story-bound questions eventually lead to the higher level of "What do two or more occurrences in the story have in common." With this we can begin the game of "let's find the rules."
So how did Tina go about teaching grammatically correct English to her students who needed help? My suggestion to Tina was: "Read stories to the children; slowly and with drama so they can hear "correct" speech in story context. That will help them learn to speak grammatically correct English. Explicit grammar instruction isn't an effective way to teach correct speech. Those of us who learned a foreign language by being taught its grammar know that only too well. Grammar, however, can be an interesting subject once you realize that all human speech follows identical major rules.
"But the school board and the superintendent insist that our second graders learn grammar. What can I do?" Tina was still on probation. So how was she going to make grammar understandable to her students? My suggestion was to play a contextual story-like game; a children's version of developmental linguistics.
"You can introduce your students to the game as follows: 'You know the 'What's its name game?' We're going to play an advanced version of that game.' Then point to objects around the room and at various students and ask 'What's her/his/its name?' After they have given the names of their classmates and things you pointed at say, 'All of these people, animals or things we've given names to, they have a group name. They are called nouns.' This game will probably have to be repeated over several days before every student understands the concept of the noun. Once they do, they are ready for the next part of speech: 'What is it that animals and people do? They run, breathe, bark, talk, think, etc.?' This is cognitively more difficult for children than isolating nouns. So you'll have to ask 'what does the noun "mouse" do, etc.' It will take some time before you can say to them, 'What people, animals and even plants do are called verbs.' Again this has to be repeated for several days. Adjectives are next with 'What kind of person is she/he? What sort of sweater, etc.?' After you have repeatedly played this game the children are ready to understand that these are description of nouns and are called adjectives. Very much later it's on to adverbs, a surprisingly difficult concept, at times even for adults."
Tina found that this approach worked. However, as she told me later, "We spent so much time on the grammar games that I couldn't help but wonder whether all that time spent was worth the gain. The short time we spent on the reading system each day produced real gains. Besides, the kids got so much more out of the great stories; not only enjoyment but they learned so much. And it improved their speech much more than all that grammar, which did nothing; except they did pass the grammar exam with flying colors!"
Tina's success is a demonstration that by embedding rule concepts in the story mode of information processing we can teach low level rule abstractions even to six and seven-year-olds. But our human history has shown that as we get to the more advanced stages of rule formation there arises the question: "Are these indeed the true, the correct rules?" Our history is replete with instances where the claims for a particular rule, fact or precept did not stand up to long-range scrutiny and as a result had to be revised. The certitude with which spurious facts or analyses of rules are often held shows the difficulty of this mode of information processing. Even the hard sciences have had their mistaken facts on which have been built flawed theories (a hypothetical framework of analytic information processing). And some of these mistaken facts and/or theories have, and are being held with an amazing ferocity.
As adults we still resemble Tina's children in the difficulty we have with the rule analysis mode of information processing. However, like all children, the telling of stories comes easily – even stories about our eager exertions to find the rules that explain everything and everybody.
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Williamstown, MA 01267
© 2002 Renée Fuller
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