Thursday, January 04, 2007

My Frustration

Normally I'm not inclined to come here and vent in exactly the way that I'm about to. However, I'm in the middle of angsting about what I'm going to teach on the island this coming week. I have a goal, a sort of intent that I place behind every lesson I plan, and that goal is to get kids to think. It is something that from my point of view should be relatively easy and straightforward. There are an infinite number of terribly interesting questions and issues in biology that are worthy of deep and intense critical thought, even at what qualifies in the parameters of high school biology curricula. However.... Another goal is to try and make the lesson material relate directly to my students, make it relevant and interesting. So with these two goals in mind I have for some time been trying to set up my kids and the materials so that we can do a major study unit on the brain. You know, the brain. It has a certain novelty to it that adds to it's interest level. It is something that everyone has so how it works and what it does is terribly relevant to everyone. I would think this to be particularly so considering the fact that most of my students have learning disabilities which implies something that is working a bit outside the norm with their brains. That is also the case when you consider the meds they're on and the drugs they recreate with and are addicted to.

The problem is abstraction. If you want to learn and think about all this stuff in any kind of meaningful way that would be genuinely interesting, meaningful, etc. you have to be able to work with a lot of abstraction. Whenever we cross that line into the abstract I can guarantee that I will completely lose half of my students. Lately I've been trying to use concrete examples to demonstrate certain comparable genetic phenomena but my students don't get it. All they see is: yeah I'm mixing up and counting colored gaming chips and it has something to do with genes. But what they are representing in terms of the genes, the very real cellular, genetic, and population mechanics that this stuff is representing is going 110% over their heads. And despite doing things in a way that is as hands-on as I think it could possibly be made, in a way that would allow for any kind of real-time experimenting that the kids could deal with, it is still inadequate to getting them to cross that barrier and really SEE what in the world it is we are trying to talk about here.

At times, when I encounter this situation, my inclination is to shift gears to pick the whole process apart and get into the gritty details and break it into pieces and chunks small enough that the abstraction is simple enough that they couldn't help but understand it. The problem with this is the invariable outcome that reiteration and lack of context are going to make it all a big boring and irrelevant mess to my kids. How? How in the world am I supposed to make them care? For me it is all inherently interesting and the big picture is valuable and important enough to grind through the details (which sadly are interesting enough on their own). But also, I don't have the difficulty they do in trying to deal with the abstract so grinding through the details is a lot less effort for me. This has been the story time and time again. I can have them engaged doing stuff and not really learning anything or, I can fight like crazy and suffer to get unbelievably picayune but genuine thinking.

So, here I've been trying to put together this really cool stuff on genetics and behavior, highly relevant considering all the research that comes out in the news these days on this stuff, but I'm chucking the whole idea because I know that they can't deal with it. I'm going to go practice some kata and get some of the rage out of my system now.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Am I researching or am I fake?

Dominance hierarchies. They exist. They are a real phenomenon in the animal world and they are definitely a real phenomenon on the island. Whether it has proven more visible to me in my experience there because I get to live in the mix of it over and over again or because there is something about our students that makes the process more salient, I cannot at the present be sure. Recently I’ve been drawn to reflect on it a little more than usual because in my biology class I’ve been trying to teach about evolution with a focus on primate and human evolution (of course) and I’ve shown the kids a few videos about chimpanzee behavior. I have observed my students resemble our older cousins not only in parallel patterns of behavior but in specific actions. I find these facts fascinating in the extreme and simultaneously a “things men were not meant to know” kind of horror.

I have recently begun a discipline of taking daily field notes on the island. As I have in the past, I find it laborious and sometimes frustrating to realize how much data passes through my awareness that might be of critical value but manages to avoid documentation. Nonetheless I have managed to acquire a certain amount of information about dominance striving on the island in these notes over the past few weeks that I will draw from to continue my entry for today.

There was a certain study by Richard Savin-Williams that came out in 1976 about how adolescents form their social pecking-orders in a summer camp where several of the counselors were complicit in observing meal time, sporting, and other activities among the students. They found that high standing in the pack was most readily predicted by factors such as athletic ability, physical fitness, and chronological age respectively. This is pretty consistent with what can be seen on the island. However, I do believe that it is an incomplete description of what is going on. For one example, the fact of athletic ability is sufficiently subordinate to the perception of athletic ability. One of the most dominant people in the group is regarded as being very athletically able but, his field performance is substantially inferior to this regard. There are other components of his persona that feed his rank and as a result of this rank he is regarded as having all of these other attributes in high levels. Similarly another student demonstrates a certain degree of athletic ability in games and has a certain temporal age that should provide for a higher ranking position in the pack than he has.

So, what do I think is going on? Well there are a few natural phenomena that I’ve considered and is seems to me that the key to this question is intimidation. It should be no surprise but the real predictor of dominance, as with chimpanzees, has to do with one individual’s ability to cow other individuals into submission. It is pretty clear that fitness and athleticism are good markers of an individual’s ability to successfully perform acts of violence and thereby threaten others into complying with his desires. However other factors come into play as well and it is in exploiting these factors that some come to be more intimidating.

In one of the chimp videos we watched there were two brother chimpanzees. One was a little bigger than the other and was significantly more likely to bully around females in the group. However, he was the β because his brother had social tricks to help him always gain the upper hand. One of his tricks was a kind of display of his “power.” Chimpanzees before coming to a fight make a big deal of posturing in threatening ways to try and gain submission of the opponent without the risk of any real injury. This involves a lot of running around, screeching, and shaking trees. This stuff all makes a tense situation and in the state of heightened anxiety less dominant chimpanzees relent. The α in this group had a special trick up his sleeve of splashing around through water and smashing large rocks. Because this chimp was willing to “go there” where no one else would, he increased his intimidation potential to push him into the top slot past his larger more violent brother.

It is in this act of adding the special flavors to their interaction that α boys are able to intimidate their way into not only gaining the upper strata of the hierarchy but are able to change the discourse to increase their perceived athleticism. Now, some students clearly invest more energy and effort into being intimidating than others. It is in part due to this fact that there is the discrepancy that I described with the two students I mentioned earlier. This fact causes me to ask why this should be. How much of this divergence in behavior is the result of natural inclination and how much of it is learned?

One of the island events I observed that illustrated this issue pretty well is a game called “Fifty” that is played on the basketball court. Though I’m not really familiar with all the details and history of this game, I’ve been told that it is a popular one in juvenile detention and I think I might be able to see why. The rules of this game seem almost deliberately designed to facilitate dominance striving through intimidation rather than pure skill. There is nothing in it like team work and though some shooting skill is necessary, aggression is a more rewarded quality. It even has complicated procedures which would cause a kid who is winning, because he is a pretty good shot, loose everything to facilitate the advancement of someone more intimidating.

The thing that is interesting about this game is that it seems to differentiate between the two types of students. Some are more inclined to it than others. Some would choose to play it instead of basketball any day, while others who are equally interested in sports would prefer a traditional game. This preference seems to fall along lines of general interaction styles and social strategies where those who prefer “Fifty” tend to be those who rely heavily on intimidation to get by in life and are like the water splashing chimp more likely to “go there” and cross boundaries that make others in the group feel truly threatened. An element in it seems to be that on the one side boys are interested in who can beat who up and will form their ranks accordingly, while on the other side are the boys who function by really trying to instill fear and insecurity in the minds of those around them. They don’t want for you to merely know that they could, they want you to feel like they might.

So back to the question of nature and learning: In the face of the fact that the kind of fear and insecurity I’m speaking of is inconsistent with effective learning environments that allow for people to develop higher-order cognitive ability (i.e. everything I try to teach and a substantial part of what any behavioral treatment program should want to develop) can students who create such an environment be allowed to stymie the development of other students? Inasmuch as it is something that works for them, how much room do we have in a secular context to say that they should lose their strategies for the sake of others? If we did conclude that they require the corresponding moral education, how would it most effectively be administered? These are big questions and strange problems that I think may be at the root of solving some of the most pernicious and enduring social ills.