Thursday, December 21, 2023

The Promise of Human Diversity

My mind often takes the form of internal dialog. Sometimes it's a conversation with myself, but often there is an imaginary "other," such as an imagined blog post reader or a family member. Sometimes it takes the form of making a case with a skeptic in mind. Sometimes it's an argument with an adversary. Sometimes it's a conversation with my dog, who responds quite wittily. 

I'd always assumed that this was a common part of the experience of mind for all my fellow humans, but researchers tell us that as many as 70 percent of humans report they don't have inner monologues. When I first heard this I found it mind-blowing. I mean, how is it possible to think without it? I've since started asking people in my life about their own experiences and while my self-selected interview subjects mostly report some level of inner dialog, several have told me they don't have one at all. One confessed that she had always just assumed inner dialog was just a convention used in novels and movies. She found it equally mind-blowing to learn that it was an actual phenomenon.

If you ask me to imagine an apple, a stereotypical apple pops up in my mind. I might imagine it in my hand, on a counter, or hanging from a tree, all from a few feet away. Others apparently "see" the apple more close up, some from a wide-angle view, some can only see it in the context of a specific memory from their past. And some don't conjure an image of an apple at all. If you ask me to imagine myself skiing, I tend to see myself from the outside as if being tracked in a medium-shot by a camera, although others, if likewise prompted, see it all from a first-person perspective. Some of us form such photographic memories that we are later able to recreate them with uncanny accuracy, while I'm well aware that my own mind is more of a generalist when it comes to recall.

The human mind is one of the least understood things in the universe. Even what we think we know is fragmentary and incomplete. The study I linked to above was performed on Chinese college students and may or may not be relevant on a wider scale. For instance, I imagine that the same study applied to, say, geriatric subjects might reveal different results. I wonder what we would discover about the minds of people who have never been exposed to written language. And what of young children?

As educators, parents, and caretakers of very young children, we spend our days among minds that are largely pre-literate and that have not been exposed to nearly as many memories and experiences as Chinese college students or senior citizens. Certainly what goes on inside their heads is equally fascinating, diverse, and mind-blowing.

Over the past several decades we, as a society, have begun to have conversations around the framework of neurodiversity, the basic idea being that variations, even wide variations, in human cognition is normal. This certainly makes sense from the perspective of the evolutionary advantages of biodiversity.

Those of us who work with young children, who play with them, who have spent our lives amongst them, know the beauty of that diversity first hand. They delight us with their insights, the profundity of their accidental poetry and philosophy. They astound us with their ability to comprehend the world, framing it in ways that our adult minds have never considered. We discuss developmental stages and whatnot as passing phases, but it's also worth considering the value this kind of diversity across ages and stages brings to society writ large at any given moment. What do we lose as a culture when we relegate our youngest citizens to preschools instead of living with and amongst them on a daily basis?

This is why I say that our main job beyond keeping the children in our care safe is to "listen" to them with our whole selves, to strive in everything to understand them. We cannot assume that their minds are anything like our own. And we ought not fall into the trap of bigotry when it comes to how the minds of others work. Just as we're coming to finally learn (or re-learn) that we are not a superior species with a superior intellect, we are at our best when we don't place our own minds above or below anyone, even the youngest child. 

In their book The World of the Newborn, Daphne and Charles Maurer write:

"His world smells to him much as our world smells to us, but he does not perceive odors (as we do) . . . His world is a melee of pungent aromas -- and pungent sounds, and bitter-smelling sounds, and sweet-smelling sights, and sour-smelling pressures against the skin. If we could visit a newborn's world, we would think ourselves inside a hallucinogenic perfumery."

What an amazing glimpse into a mind I once had but have since lost. Obviously, there is no internal dialog occupying the mind of a newborn, nor images based on past experience, but there is something else that is both valid and true.

(Psychologist Kurt) Lewin's equation of human behavior is B=f(P,E), which states that our behavior (B) is a function (f) of our personality (P) in the environment (E). As observers, as day-to-day researchers, we can be relatively certain about observable behavior and the environment. It is the personality part of this equation that is the unknown, or rather, the less known. I go back and forth on the question of whether thinking, that process so essential to learning, is an aspect of behavior or personality. If it's behavior, then we can see it as a result of that unique and mysterious thing within the child interacting with the environment in which they find themselves. But what if thinking itself is personality? So the question, I guess, is whether personality precedes thought or is thought.

Does it matter? I don't think it does, at least in any practical way, but has often been the subject of my internal dialogs. 

As an adult who works with young children I strive to start with the assumption that no mind is broken or wrong, and that behavior gives me insight into the unique personality of the child in front of me. If I wish to help a child change a destructive or distressful behavior, then I must start with the aspects of the environment over which I have control. Is it too loud? Is it too dull? Is it too confined? Can we change the expectations or rules or schedule? So often, standard schools can't do this. I have many friends and colleagues who spend hundreds of hours every year writing IEPs (Individual Education Plans) for students whose behaviors don't "fit" the standard school environment, then hundreds more hours fighting to ensure those plans are implemented. When the environment won't or can't change, then all too often the blame falls on the child's personality or mind, which leads to attempts to change the child to fit the environment.

The truth is that this bigotry of "normal" is a bigotry against human diversity. Standard schooling is based on the myth of a standard mind. This is why play-based learning (as we call it in the early years) or self-directed learning is, for me, the gold standard. When we shed the confines of efficiency and standardization, creating instead flexible environments full of "loose parts" (including our own expectations among those loose parts), and instead assess our success based upon the engagement and self-motivation of each individual, we can finally begin to appreciate the true promise of human diversity.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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