Monday, February 26, 2007

Bureaucratic Nonsense

Seems like I’m venting a lot lately but here comes another one. When a student is being educated ‘specially’ his parents, people from his school, and other interested parties get together and create a little thing called an individualized education program or IEP. This IEP becomes a sort of legally binding contract on the school to provide certain accommodations with a set of goals specific to the student in question. It also describes accommodations required for testing the student that allows these students to more fully demonstrate their abilities (in theory) when they take the exam required for graduation.

Some months ago I administered the test to a certain group of students and before hand deliberately checked their IEPs, if they had them, for accommodations I was required to give them. I found that one particular student had a few accommodations but there was no mention of calculator use so, I forbid him use of a calculator on the appropriate portion of the math test. The student was a little surprised but, I told him what I had found and he did not argue the point.

A few weeks later our school heard back from this students parents who complained that he was not allowed to use a calculator. The school admin people called me asked what happened and I explained that I had read the IEP and found no accommodation involving calculators. I also said it was possible that it was there and I had somehow missed it but I did not believe this to be the case. I suggested they read the IEP for themselves and find out if there was an issue.

That was it, or so I thought for perhaps about three months. At that point, I was contacted again by the same admin person asking the same question. I gave him the same answer. I found myself a touch annoyed but having worked for the federal government I was familiar with bureaucratic garbage and wrote it off as such. The problem was that it didn’t stop this time. I kept getting bugged about what happened on this kid’s test and why didn’t he get to use a calculator. For weeks whenever I talked to someone in the office someone brought it up. I kept wondering, “What’s going on here? Have I totally blown something?” The parents were upset. My bosses kept bothering me, and when I asked if they finally checked the IEP to see what it said for certain, I was told that use of calculators was among his accommodations.

So… great. I screwed up and had to worry about this for some time. All the while in the back of my head I have this itch saying I had checked it and I could not imagine the page with the word “calculator” on it. Something isn’t quite right.

Anyway, I was in the office a bit early this morning and remembered all of this and decided I could settle the issue in my mind once and for all. I got out this student’s file and looked at his IEP. Well, calculator use was an accommodation on it, but it was not the same IEP I had read in there before. Low and behold, there were two IEPs in the file and only one of them mentioned calculator use on the test. It was dated as to when it was sent to us. It was dated AFTER I had already administered the test. Thank heaven I trained as an archaeologist.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Illusion?

I want to speak to the issue of free will. It is something that a lot of philosophers, theologians, psychologists and others who like to think “deep thoughts” deal with. Though I don’t personally like to be regarded in this group of people there is something about the issue that is very practical and pertinent to what I do in my job. It’s also pretty central to our experience and existence as human beings so, I make myself bold enough to venture.

In one of my favorite cancelled TV shows (the more I find out, the more I realize that this is the fate of almost all truly good television) called American Gothic the main antagonist, some kind of evil mystic named Lucas Buck speaks at times of “the illusion of free will.” Whether or not he actually believes this claim, it impacts people around him in ways that make them more susceptible to his social manipulation.

These days there’s a lot of research being done in the way of behavioral genetics that may seem to support this position and it may fearfully effect people in the same way. A great concern is the possibility that people hearing that there is a gene out there that determines things such as relationship infidelity, over-eating, or aggressive driving may come to believe they have the gene and thereby create a personal excuse for engaging in any sort of licentious inclination that occurs to them. As they do so they might say to them selves “It’s in my genes. I can’t help it.”

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. I think a lot of psychology has already created this sort of excuse for any kind of behavior you can think of. Though instead of referring to genes, people talk about having “a trauma history” or “a negative upbringing.” Before this was the saying that became a joke: “the devil made me do it.” There was a whole concept of Temptation with a capital ‘T’. But either way it goes, it results in human beings denying culpability for their actions by denying the existence of free will.

Now, I don’t necessarily mean to diminish the way that our genes or our experiences affect us. Nor do I want to deny the existence of powerful temptations on a spiritual realm. I think this is all real stuff but, I think that if we come to “believe” in it too much then we are pretty much screwed and screwing everyone around us. I think it is absolutely essential that we believe in our wills and certain things I’ve been learning from my studies of neuroscience have encouraged this point of view.

The brain is often compared to a computer. The problem with this model is that where a computer’s wiring is pretty hard and fast the brain’s wiring is not. It is a living changing thing. Just as your middle-school teachers used to say, “it’s like a muscle and if you don’t use it you lose it.” This may seem a bit trite but, it’s fascinating to me to think about the mechanism by which it comes about. One theorist compared it to the process of natural selection in that neural connections exist or cease to according to a use-based selection process. Connections that never get used get cut. It becomes biochemically inefficient for them to continue to exist. At the same time connections that are fired on a regular basis are altered to make them faster and more efficient. They also become locations when new ones are made to help carry the data processing load. This stuff is all pretty common knowledge I think but it tells us something about how free will works. We as conscious beings have the power and opportunity to make determinations regarding what neurons get fired, perhaps not by finding and firing some exact cell that we label in our heads, but by choosing the functions to which we put our brain.

To get a grip on this it helps to know something about what the different parts of the brain are and how they work. On the top of the brain, somewhat towards the front is a little strip running across brain known to be the part that processes all the sensory information gained through touching with the skin. There have been several studies involving people who’ve lost body parts that experience sensations in their minds where the lost appendage should have been. What frequently happens is that adjacent sensation processors start to take over using the now-unallocated computing tissue for it’s own uses. The result can be that when still active parts of the skin surface are stimulated the brain will interpret those sensations as being in the missing appendage. This sort of thing has been seen with stroke patients as well. When one part of the brain is damaged the adjacent parts can start to take up the function of the missing part. This happens as long as signals are being sent that demand the connections be formed.

I think this is interesting when considering free will because it says something about the magnitude of neuron change we can induce through use. This then tells us something about how much we can change fundamentally about our demons and trauma induced damages through an exercise of our will to use neuronal pathways we want to and neglect the ones we don’t.

So, how do we exert this kind of will? It is largely dependent on another part of the brain, that which is in the very foremost front, thus called the prefrontal cortex. Curiously the organ that provides us the most in terms of freedom of will has as its primary function suppressing freedom in the brain. The brain stem at the base of the spine and the limbic system in the middle of the brain create lots of feelings, urges, emotions, and other “gut” reactions that serve us well as human beings in many ways. But frequently they contradict greater goals or perspectives that are available to our prefrontal cortex. So, when you are sitting in that meeting at work just before lunch and your brain stem is telling you you're hungry and your amygdala is making it more urgent, your prefrontal cortex is telling them both to shut up and let you concentrate on that super important presentation your coworker is giving. Or maybe not but, I’m sure you get the picture.

A few studies have been done on the function of this part of the brain in Buddhist monks. Why? Because one of the main things Buddhists do is meditate. A big part of meditating is exercising the frontal lobes by monitoring your own internal thinking and telling lots of stuff in your brain to shut up. What they have found about this type of exercise is that it physically changes the inside of your brain to do whatever it is you want. Your prefrontal cortex can tell the part of your brain that likes to think mean thoughts to shut up and the part of your brain that likes to think nice thoughts to turn up the music. Consequently your mean bits eventually get hijacked by your nice bits. (Alas, there’s a bit of a kwixote joke in there.) The same kind of thing goes on all the time dysfunctionally when people wallow in self-pity. The more I indulge in thinking “I hate my life and nobody loves me” the more wired my brain becomes to think that and only that. Every time you add voice to it you increase the number of parts of your brain contributing to processing and working with that idea. Instead of just your emotion bits and your thinking bits going at it, your motor bits, language bits, auditory bits, etc. all join in the party. Increased signal load => increased neuron development.

Now, considering all of this I’m left with some big, vexing, and perhaps amorphous questions. One of the questions has to do with deficiencies in the matter of the prefrontal cortex itself. This is the case in some people who are diagnosed as ADHD. When they’re in that meeting there’s not much to say “shut up” with. So, what does this mean in terms of free will? Is it limited? Does there need to be deliberate work to increase the frontal lobe by hijacking other parts of the brain to do the work? Inasmuch as a person is in this state, how culpable do we hold them for impulsive behavior? It’s a big nasty mess. It’s also a nasty mess for me to think about in the context of my students. If we were to conclude that one ought to work to exercise to increase prefrontal function, do we do this with other problems, like meanness for example? Do we try and get students to buy into this stuff? They would have to for them to exert the effort to do it. How much treading then do we do onto other people’s free will even if its meaning and intent is to increase the amount of will they have?

Now there’s a glaring hole in my discussion here and it’s the one I don’t really want to think about right now because I’m not qualified but maybe someone else will, that is the issue of medicine in terms of chemical prosthesis and even surgery. Ugh, a sticky mess but one that is going to be highly relevant. A major example is the recent discovery of a little patch of brain that when damaged cured someone of their nicotine addiction. Anyway, I’ll leave stuff to someone who’s smarter and more in touch with it than I am.

If anyone would like to have an open discussion with me on these topics I would appreciate it. You can of course publish it here for all to read (something I encourage) but if you’d rather I’m open to just e-mailing or telephoning on the subject. Phew.

Here’s a link to a relevant article out of Time that some might be interested to read.,9171,1580438,00.html

Monday, February 05, 2007

The semi-periodical invitation

I'm prompted by people finding my blog by doing web searches in recent weeks. If anyone is interested in getting an e-mail alerting you to when I've made a new post you can either post a reply here or you can e-mail me at

Sunday, February 04, 2007


There’s a Shim Gum Do master who sort of runs a school down in Pennsylvania somewhere. I don’t really understand the exact nature of the school. I’ve been wanting to visit it for some time out of a sort of professional curiosity. But, I think it’s kind of like a private school that is heavily influenced by the Buddhism. They have a full curriculum and the students can additionally study Shim Gum Do martial arts.

This last weekend a bunch of them came up for the bi-monthly test. A couple of them tested for their black belts. The principal of their school came up as well. He brought his son who also tested. They often make this trip and each time I find it interesting to see and talk to teenagers who are not my students, and kind of observe their behavior and interactions. I run a sort of compare/contrast in my head in-part because I know that my population doesn’t really reflect the majority of teenagers and I feel kind of starved for a norm reference to organize the way I think about and deal with my students.

On this particular trip something interesting really struck me that I’d seen in small ways before but never really appreciated. These visiting Shim Gum Do students have a sort of eagerness that I almost never see in my own boys. They want to learn the martial art. They want to participate in stuff going on around the temple. They’ll volunteer to do things. They have some of what I think I’ve heard the Zen master refer to as thirst, or hunger. So, the big question of course is “What accounts for the difference?”

One cause could be just a lot of background stuff that I cannot assess. The Shim Gum Do students are obviously not on the island because they probably haven’t done the kind of stuff that gets my students sent there. But I wonder if there aren’t certain factors that can be controlled to advantage.

The island program is philosophically a program of “choice.” That is to say a student cannot enter our school without first having been interviewed and indicated an intent, a desire, a decision to enroll. The problem is that this isn’t a very good description of what actually happens. For one thing the choice is often between the island and jail. It seems to me to be a little hard to make it more compulsive than that. But, other factors come into play as well: some of it real and some of it merely in the minds of the boys. For example they get pressure from all kinds of “grown-ups” including parents, social workers, ed advocates, probation officers, etc., etc., etc. Then sometimes the kids feel that certain aspects of the school were misrepresented and they end up feeling like they were more or less bamboozled into coming. Sometimes they even claim that case workers or parents basically forged their signatures to make them come here. I consider this situation in light of my own experiences as a teenager and I have to recognize that the very fact of compulsion could turn me from being interested into defiant if simply on principle. Those things I invested the most in were things that I felt wholly I had chosen out for myself.

A second controllable factor may be the issue of novelty. It has been reported in some ed psych text I’ve read somewhere or other that one thing that keeps a person interested and motivated to learn something new is when that something truly is new and not the everyday thing. Though they come from time to time the Pennsylvanian students are not here all the time and coming is for them something of a change of pace in their day to day school lives. It may be the very facts of getting away, sleeping in a different place, and seeing and interacting with different people that help to facilitate increased openness for learning experiences.
Part of the experience of learning martial arts is that there are certain goals that one is trying to achieve. Part of the goal is to get to the next rank. But some of the goals are more personal and internal. They might be athletic but they are also often psychological and spiritual. There is something intrinsically motivating about having goals to orient ourselves to motivate us for learning. This is something that is often missing in ordinary schooling. At many levels in traditional academic subjects the precise goals can be rather elusive to students (and frankly the teachers who have to teach them). And where the goals are detached, externally imposed, and ambiguous they do not satisfy the requirements of psychological proximity necessary to motivate engagement. Additionally, I believe the naturally occurring adolescent egocentrism makes the value of personal psychological and spiritual goals particularly salient. It is something that secular educational institutions would struggle to capitalize on and tragically so.