Transforming your staff's potential

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Of Language, Seeing, Understanding, Human-ness, Humaneness, and Learning

I recently read "Animals In Translation" by Temple Grandin. Ms. Grandin is a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, holding a PhD in Animal Science. She single-handedly transformed the meatpacking industry to be profoundly more humane in the handling of livestock going to slaughter. She has done this though a redesign of slaughterhouse facilities and development of a new scoring system for assessing handling of animals at these facilities. She credits, in great part, the fact that she is autistic to her ability to understand what causes animals to become fearful which, in turn, is the greatest cause of injury to and harsh treatment of the livestock in slaughterhouses.

Why is this, and what does this have to do with learning?

Prof. Grandin's autism manifests, in part, in thinking in images as opposed to language and in seeing what's in front of her initially as a collection of pieces as opposed to an integrated whole. She posits this is also how animals think and see. The book discusses the difference between how autistics see and think, and how (in her words) "normal" people see and think: image vs words, pieces vs whole. She describes the pros and cons of each, and recounts the the challenges this created for her as an autistic learner in "normal" learning and work environments. This includes the fact that, as she thinks in images, English is a second language, mandating that she translate from a language of image to one of words when communicating. She describes the performance support tools/processes she created for herself to succeed.

This got me thinking about language as a construct and how relying on language for thinking can be limiting, asking:

  • How can images, models, concepts be more a part of the learning process?
  • What does it bring to the table in terms of both learner experience and the potential for outcome?
Today, I came across this video by Amanda Baggs. Before viewing the video, be sure to read her introduction:

"The first part is in my "native language," and then the second part provides a translation, or at least an explanation. This is not a look-at-the-autie gawking freakshow as much as it is a statement about what gets considered thought, intelligence, personhood, language, and communication, and what does not."

Now my mind is also noodling on the questions:

  • How do our concepts of what language is and how thinking works limit our own capacity for communicating, thinking and conceiving?
  • What can be broader, more inclusive concepts of language and thinking?
  • How can these be used to enhance the facilitation of learning?

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