kitchen table math, the sequel: David Sedaris on language lessons

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

David Sedaris on language lessons

Ah, grammar. How dry. How boring. Right up there with those tedious times tables and those soul-sapping algorithms of arithmetic.

But then here's David Sedaris in the latest New Yorker reflecting on the Pimsleur language program:
Thanks to Japanese I and II, I’m able to buy train tickets, count to nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, and say, whenever someone is giving me change, “Now you are giving me change.” I can manage in a restaurant, take a cab, and even make small talk with the driver. “Do you have children?” I ask. “Will you take a vacation this year?” “Where to?” When he turns it around, as Japanese cabdrivers are inclined to do, I tell him that I have three children, a big boy and two little girls. If Pimsleur included “I am a middle-aged homosexual and thus make do with a niece I never see and a very small godson,” I’d say that. In the meantime, I work with what I have.
The problem is that Pimsleur is all about mimicry:
Pimsleur's a big help when it comes to pronunciation. The actors are native speakers, and they don't slow down for your benefit. The drawbacks are that they never explain anything or teach you to think for yourself. Instead of being provided with building-blocks which would allow you to construct a sentence of your own, you're left using the hundreds or thousands of sentences you have memorized. That means waiting for a particular situation to arise in order to comment on it; either that or becoming one of those weird non-sequitur people, the kind who, when asked a question about paint color, answer, "There is a bank in front of the train station,"or, "Mrs. Yamada Ito has been playing tennis for fifteen years."
What are those "building-blocks which would allow you to construct a sentence of your own," and, equally importantly, the rules that tell you how to put those building blocks together? That dry, tedious, soul-sapping entity known (or sort of known) as Grammar.

However tedious and soul-sapping it is to do so, mastering a language's grammar rules is the only way to move beyond mimicry and use the language creatively: the only way to move from  "I have three children, a big boy and two little girls" to “I am a middle-aged homosexual and thus make do with a niece I never see and a very small godson.”

Pimsleur isn't alone in presuming that you can master a language without learning its grammar; the biggest seller of this fiction is Rosetta Stone (whose slogan, ironically, is "More than Words. Understanding.") Other grammar-denialists (as I discuss here) are k12 foreign language curriculum developers, as well as (as I discuss here) autism therapists and the general American public. It's a vicious cycle that worsens with each succeeding generation of mis-educated students, more of whom need to spend time attempting to converse with Japanese cabbies before foisting their language lessons on the rest of us. Thank you, David Sedaris, for yours!

(Cross-posted at Out in Left Field)

46 comments:

Bonnie said...

If you are talking about being able to speak and understand a language in its verbal form, I fundamentally disagree. Mimicry IS the way to learn to speak a language. I am a veteran - I learned German as an elementary school kid, and French in high school. I didn't really learn French until I went to live there - all the grammar in the world couldn't help me speak French. Listening to other kids speak French, and imitating their phrases was the way I became fluent.

My kids are now learning Chinese at a traditional Saturday Chinese school. It is a horrible way to learn, all grammar and no speaking. My kids complain that they aren't really learning the language, and they are right. We have some other personal reasons for sticking with the school. so we have now hired a tutor for the summer who is doing conversation with them.

Conversely, China is famous for its terrible English-language education. The students who come here cannot speak well at all, unless they were able to take private English language classes from a native speaker while still in China. The reason Chinese language instruction is so poor is because they adhere to the traditional, grammar-rule focused approach.

If your only goal is to be able to read and write a language, then a grammar-centered approach would work.

Katharine Beals said...

I'm talking, specifically, about Pimsleur's approach of having people mimic (quoting Sedaris) "hundreds or thousands of sentences you have memorized".

Immersion, which includes a much different (and better) sort of mimicry, is the best way to learn a language. With it comes the implicit learning of grammar rules.

Hainish said...

Meanwhile, hot off the presses, the new framework for K-12 Science Education:

http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13165

Anonymous said...

My son quit Japanese in frustration at the age of 16 because, as he said, "She's not teaching us the structure of the language!"

Immersion allows you to hear grammataical elements so many times, and in so many variations, that you can begin to intuit the grammar. Pimsleur doesn't do that.

Glen said...

Pimsleur is a good program for taking a small portion of a language and exercising it thoroughly. You get some good vocabulary, useful phrases, practice with variations in sentence structure, all presented in a way that promotes retention. I find it particularly useful for pronunciation practice, since the voice actors tend to have excellent, standard pronunciation and they repeat the same material so many times, giving you plenty of opportunities to refine your mimicry.

Even so, Katharine is right that it doesn't provide you with the explicit grammar instruction that should accompany serious adult language learning. Explicit grammar teaching is an important supplement to implicit grammar learning for language learners old enough to have developed their analytical faculties to some extent (adults, teens, some older children). It directs their attention to patterns they might otherwise not have noticed, working against the natural tendency of language learners to unconsciously default to familiar patterns from their native languages.

This doesn't mean that Pimsleur isn't serious; it's useful but not sufficient for developing full conversational proficiency.

Glen said...

Pimsleur is a good program for taking a small portion of a language and exercising it thoroughly. You get some good vocabulary, useful phrases, practice with variations in sentence structure, all presented in a way that promotes retention. I find it particularly useful for pronunciation practice, since the voice actors tend to have excellent, standard pronunciation and they repeat the same material so many times, giving you plenty of opportunities to refine your mimicry.

Even so, Katharine is right that it doesn't provide you with the explicit grammar instruction that should accompany serious adult language learning. Explicit grammar teaching is an important supplement to implicit grammar learning for language learners old enough to have developed their analytical faculties to some extent (adults, teens, some older children). It directs their attention to patterns they might otherwise not have noticed, working against the natural tendency of language learners to unconsciously default to familiar patterns from their native languages.

This doesn't mean that Pimsleur isn't serious; it's useful but not sufficient for developing full conversational proficiency.

Anonymous said...

[I'll try posting as "anonymous" to see if it will stop deleting my comment]

Pimsleur is a good program for taking a small portion of a language and exercising it thoroughly. You get some good vocabulary, useful phrases, practice with variations in sentence structure, all presented in a way that promotes retention. I find it particularly useful for pronunciation practice, since the voice actors tend to have excellent, standard pronunciation and they repeat the same material so many times, giving you plenty of opportunities to refine your mimicry.

Even so, Katharine is right that it doesn't provide you with the explicit grammar instruction that should accompany serious adult language learning. Explicit grammar teaching is an important supplement to implicit grammar learning for language learners old enough to have developed their analytical faculties to some extent (adults, teens, some older children). It directs their attention to patterns they might otherwise not have noticed, working against the natural tendency of language learners to unconsciously default to familiar patterns from their native languages.

This doesn't mean that Pimsleur isn't serious; it's useful but not sufficient for developing full conversational proficiency.

-- Glen

Anonymous said...

[I'll try posting as "anonymous" to see if it will stop deleting my comment]

Pimsleur is a good program for taking a small portion of a language and exercising it thoroughly. You get some good vocabulary, useful phrases, practice with variations in sentence structure, all presented in a way that promotes retention. I find it particularly useful for pronunciation practice, since the voice actors tend to have excellent, standard pronunciation and they repeat the same material so many times, giving you plenty of opportunities to refine your mimicry.

Even so, Katharine is right that it doesn't provide you with the explicit grammar instruction that should accompany serious adult language learning. Explicit grammar teaching is an important supplement to implicit grammar learning for language learners old enough to have developed their analytical faculties to some extent (adults, teens, some older children). It directs their attention to patterns they might otherwise not have noticed, working against the natural tendency of language learners to unconsciously default to familiar patterns from their native languages.

This doesn't mean that Pimsleur isn't serious; it's useful but not sufficient for developing full conversational proficiency.

-- Glen

Bonnie said...

Explicit teaching of grammar *feels* better to older learners, but it just is not effective for learning to speak and understand an oral language. There is no question in my mind that immersion is the only way to go, which takes time. The reality is that you are not going to learn a second language in a few hours a week.

The biggest problem with any of these "language on a cassette(CD,computer,Internet)" methods is that there is no feedback. You need the feedback, which may be informal - trying to ask directions on the subway and not getting a useful response - or formal - a teacher explicitly correcting you.

I was listening the other day to a podcast of a show on WNYC in which a neuropsychologist was explaining why humans are naturally bad at quantitative reasoning, but really good at pattern detection. It seems we are hardwired to recognize patterns in the input surrounding us. We are very good at detecting patterns in visual and aural data, and classifying according to those patterns. I think this ties into language learning. Immersion works so well because our brains are very good at detecting the linguistic patterns as we hear and repeat the phrases of the language and get feedback on our repetitions, such as the puzzled look on the face of the subway conductor when you ask for directions. Trying to memorize explicit grammar facts fights the way our brains want to learn language.

Anonymous said...

The ideal way to learn a language for those who can't pick up stakes and move to an immerision situaiton (and I think that's who we're talking about here) is a combination of direct instruction on grammar and vocab, PLUS daily opportunities to engage in conversation with a native or near-native level teacher (augmented with language labs that give the ear and brain even more training). It is hard work; harder for some than for others. But I learned a language fairly fluently with this method in high school, and it set me up to speak and understand well enough to function and absorb even more once I was in a foreign country.

cranberry said...

Immersion does provide grammar. If you use improper grammer while speaking with a German, for example, you'llsee an immediate reaction. He may not say anything, but you'll be able to tell you made a mistake from his expression. Making mistakes puts you in the category of "cutely ill-educated foreigner," if the German likes you.

Germans do not hesitate to correct grammar errors. watching videotapes of foreign language interactions is nearly useless in comparison, because you don't get the feedback.

Katharine Beals said...

"Trying to memorize explicit grammar facts fights the way our brains want to learn language."

Not if you're a linguist.

Amy P said...

KB,

I seem to recall that there's a difference in how adult and child learners take in language. As I recall, adult learners benefit from a more explicit approach that would be wasted on children.

Bonnie,

When I was a TA for Russian, one of the older grad students mentioned a phenomenon called being a "Terminal 2" (2 being an intermediate score on a language evaluation test that I can't remember the name of now). The issue is that there are some adult learners who dive into an immersion situation and quickly learn how to fluently and effectively communicate, but their linguistic development stalls out and they never learn to produce the sort of well-formed sentences that mark an educated foreign-language learner. That would be the difference between a foreigner who arrived in the US with a few good years of English under their belt, versus a foreigner who arrives knowing a few English words and just starts throwing them together haphazardly and doesn't take classes. The first speaker is automatically going to get a lot more respect and to have a lot more opportunities.

"Trying to memorize explicit grammar facts fights the way our brains want to learn language."

For an adult learner who has worked with a couple of languages already, there's nothing more natural than working with a verb conjugation chart.

Here are the present forms of "to work" and "to fly" in Russian.

ya rabotaiu
ty rabotaesh'
on rabotaet
my rabotaem
vy rabotaete
oni rabotaiut

ya lechu
ty letish'
on letit
my letim
vy letite
oni letiat

It's very efficient for an experienced adult learner. As adults, we are able to piggyback our knowledge on new languages onto our previous learning, so that even dimly remembered high school French will light the way to being able to more efficiently learn Spanish.

Bonnie said...

But what happens when you want to learn Chinese, which has no conjugations? You won't be able to generalize from your memorized conjugations. The grammar of Chinese, in fact, is incredibly simple. The trick is in developing your ear to hear the tones. Of course, if you want to read, and you should, you will have to do a lot of drill to learn the characters - although those are more systematic and phonetic than many people realize.

I spent 3 years sitting in classrooms conjugating French verbs and learned nothing of any real value. I did not get good at French until I was forced to speak it and hear it all the time.

Now, I do understand the idea of hitting a plateau. Native speakers, too, have to be trained in their language's grammar and literate forms. I am sure the same thing happens with second language speakers. It is probably a good idea to do this once you can speak at a certain level. I really think, though, for beginners, time spent memorizing conjugations is wasted time.

Amy P said...

What to do in Chinese? Katharine, any thoughts?

"I really think, though, for beginners, time spent memorizing conjugations is wasted time."

No way! My high school French experience was probably rather similar to yours, but I wouldn't go so far. Even to this day, 20 years later, with no French practice, I can remember je suis, tu es, il est, nous sommes, vous etes, il sont, j'ai, tu as, il a, nous avons, vous avez, ils ont, je vais, tu vas, il va, etc. I had an adequate first year of high school French and then my second and third year, they rolled the classes together, so that I was sitting in a first year class while attempting to teach myself second year French. Predictably, that was a bust. The teacher naturally didn't have any time for us second or third years. I was cramming my way through the text book (lots of verbs!) and taking tests and it didn't really stick all that well, because it wasn't adequately supported by oral practice. However, the happy ending to the story is that some 10 years later, I needed to pass a French translation exam to get my MA in Russian literature. I took an undergraduate French translation course that semester, did a very moderate amount of work, and managed to do a very difficult translation passage with very little pain and suffering (French literary criticism is a verbal nightmare). Even aside from such a rarified use for French, I think you can get pretty far in a new country by being able to talk about having, being, going, etc. I think I could learn adequate tourist French pretty fast, even 20 years later. I agree that there needs to be a balance between the grammatical and oral proficiency, but the two do support each other nicely if introduced in appropriate doses. In Russian, there are a limited number of permutations of verbs, and the more linguistically sophisticated you are, the better you can predict which rules a verb will follow, and the less work you have to put into memorizing stuff. For instance, in the first person singular of "to fly" that I listed earlier the "t" mutates to "ch" and this is quite predictable in this position.

I should mention that in Russian, like a number of other languges, nouns and adjectives change form according to function in a sentence. So if kniga is a book in Russian, I read a "knigu." I talk about a "knige." A "kniga" is interesting to me. I walk with a "knigoi." I accidentally went to class without my "knigi." And there's a whole set of different plural endings, not to mention adjectival endings. Under the circumstances, it's possible to say a Russian sentence and to have a grammatical mistake in almost every single word. It's a minefield.

Grace said...

Sedaris should have tried Fluenz, a learning program that is much more than mimicry. From their website:

A simple fact guides our programs: we learn better when we undestand how something works. We are not children and don't learn like them; we thrive on explanations that show us how the parts fit together to form a larger whole. A language is not just an endless set of words and images... The Fluenz tutor is front and center providing context, leading learners step-by-step as they advance...

We find it impossible to learn languages without understanding how they work. When teaching Spanish, for instance, the big immersion companies won't explain how the verb "to be" works ("ser" and "estar"), and they won't provide simple strategies for making sure that the proper word order in a sentence is observed. Their online tutors won't explain anything in English, pointing instead to pictures while repeating words and phrases.


So far, I've found Fluenz an excellent blend of "immersion" and grammar instruction.

Anonymous said...

"For an adult learner who has worked with a couple of languages already, there's nothing more natural than working with a verb conjugation chart."

At the risk of side-tracking this discussion, I'll mention that one of the things I find fascinating about languages is how they *DON'T* all agree on things that seem "obvious."

One crazy example is that Middle Egyptian (the language behind hieroglyphics) verbs do not have a present tense the way we think of it.

American Sign Language mostly does without prepositions.

Sometimes *unlearning* what you thought was a fundamental is an important first step :-)

-Mark Roulo

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Perhaps I'm missing something in this debate, but to me it's a non-issue. If you really want to master a foreign language, you need to work on it intensively from both the grammatical side and the immersion/accent side, and given that I have a degree in a foreign language, speak two others fluently, and have studied several additional ones, I think I can say that with some confidence. I know people who've just learned one way or the other, and the deficiencies are always apparent. It's not either/or. It's both.

Amy P said...

"I know people who've just learned one way or the other, and the deficiencies are always apparent."

Indeed. Almost every foreign language textbook I've ever seen sets up a dialog where real information is exchanged, but that requires the student to correctly use a particular grammatical form.

Catherine Johnson said...

This reminds me!

I just read a fascinating account of adult versus child language-learning that I was planning to post.

As I recall, adults need to spend a lot of time learning just single words with no grammar at all (and no sentences....)

I'll find that passage.

Catherine Johnson said...

wow

Now that I've read the post (as opposed to skimming), the Pimsleur approach is even more at odds with the research Bielock cites.

Catherine Johnson said...

The reason adults have to study grammar explicitly is that grammar is the aspect of a foreign language that most adults never master.

Linda Seebach said...

@Bonnie:
Chinese grammar is not at all simple; it's as complicated as any other natural language. It's just not complicated in the decelensions-and-conjugations way that Latin and Greek are. There's no practical way to write inflections in Chinese characters -- think about it, where would you put the "s" to make a noun plural? -- and they've all pretty mich vanished, as indeed they mostly have in English, too. But the syntactical rules for ensuring comprehension are more complicated to make up for the lack of information not conveyed by morphology.

Glen said...

You don't pluralize a Chinese noun with an "-s" suffix, of course, you use a '-men' suffix. The Chinese don't pluralize many nouns this way, mostly those referring to people, but they have the mechanism to do so. Just write a "-men" character suffix to inflect the noun from singular to plural.

They pluralize the adj/determiner for "this" into "these" and "that" into "those", which effectively pluralizes the noun it refers to (this thing vs these thing) with the suffix "-xie" appended to "this" or "that".

The suffix "le" inflects a verb into the past tense (actually aspect, not tense, but that's a technical detail).

Chinese, as spoken, is minimally inflected relative to most Indoeuropean languages, but these examples showing how certain nouns, adjectives, and verbs are inflected show that the writing system does support grammatical inflection.

Glen said...

Catherine: I just read a fascinating account of adult versus child language-learning that I was planning to post.

Do you know where you found it by any chance?

Glen said...

Bonnie: Explicit teaching of grammar *feels* better to older learners, but it just is not effective for learning to speak and understand an oral language.... But what happens when you want to learn Chinese, which has no conjugations? You won't be able to generalize from your memorized conjugations.

Memorizing conjugations isn't the point. The point is to be made explicitly aware of patterns that you might not notice on your own or might not notice for a long time. In some languages, those patterns include conjugations/declensions, etc. In Chinese, they are other kinds of patterns. (How do I say, "If I hadn't..., then it wouldn't..."? How do I say, "Even though..." vs. "Even if...", and so on.)

When someone is speaking to you in a foreign language, you may be so burdened by the task of extracting their meaning that you pay no attention to the form. Later, when you have to express a similar thought, you may fall back on a pattern from your native language instead of reusing the proper form that you heard but didn't notice.

This can go on for a very long time unless you are given explicit instruction in these patterns. You are forced to notice. Even then, your procedural memory may go on producing the improper habitual form despite the new learning in your declarative memory, but you have increased the likelihood that you will produce the correct output on occasions when you slow down and speak deliberately, and your procedural memory will often begin to take notice of what your declarative memory is saying and gradually incorporate it as a new habit.

There are books of Chinese patterns ("reference grammars") that aren't mere pamphlets just because there is no chapter on conjugation. Serious study of a reference grammar (or a textbook tutorial presentation of the same material) will improve your Chinese significantly beyond what you would just naturally pick up from conversation.

The conversation is, however, mandatory. I'm not claiming that you can learn to speak Chinese well just by explicit study. It won't become a real-time skill until you have extensive real-time, real-conversation practice.

Glen said...

Oops, Catherine, you were referring to the less is more post, apparently. I misread the time stamp and thought you were referring to something still to come that sounded interesting.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi Glen - Yes, I was referring to "Less Is More" - have only posted a bit from that book at this point. It really is terrifically useful.

Yesterday I remembered the argument for why strong working memory handicaps adults in language learning (& other realms): working memory blocks extraneous 'data.'

I'll look up the passage that describes this, but for the moment you can see immediately why that would be a problem when it comes to creativity or problem solving (the book has fascinating material on problem solving) and language learning (an adult with strong working memory blocks a lot of the small phonemic details a child can't block --- I think that's the idea).

Catherine Johnson said...

"Choke" is tremendously helpful in terms of showing the 'opportunity costs' of any cognitive strength -- or just in establishing that cognitive strengths have opportunity costs ----

Amy P said...

"When someone is speaking to you in a foreign language, you may be so burdened by the task of extracting their meaning that you pay no attention to the form. Later, when you have to express a similar thought, you may fall back on a pattern from your native language instead of reusing the proper form that you heard but didn't notice."

Very true. That's what a good textbook will get you to do--slow down and practice going carefully over the predictable speedbumps.

A lot of this stuff is more idiom than what Bonnie may be thinking of as grammar. Each language seems to have an idiosyncratic way of having speakers express things like, "I'm sick/well/cold/hot," "It's half past three," etc. You really don't want to be the funny foreigner saying stuff like "I feel myself badly" or (a classmate's experience) "I'm in heat."

Glen said...

Catherine, that sounds like a great book. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for posting about it.

Catherine Johnson said...

The idea that high working memory -- which is pretty close to being the same thing as high IQ -- could be an out-and-out liability in many situations was a revelation.

Of course I've always had the hazy perception that you **don't** always want the 'best and the brightest' running the show -- remember that great line from Buckley about preferring the first 100 names in the Boston phone book to Harvard advisors? -- but I'd never understood what the mechanism behind that phenomenon might be, apart from the idea that 'regular people' have more 'common sense.'

Choke has a specific theory about the failings of high IQ and presents convincing evidence for the theory.

palisadesk said...

The idea that high working memory -- which is pretty close to being the same thing as high IQ

Whoa, that's not right. The two are closely associated, in many cases, but the relationship is not causative, nor is it inevitable. See my account of the super-high-IQ student with low working memory and inability to master letters and sounds. On the other hand, I have had students who tested in the intellectual disability range, who had superior working memory -- over the 90th percentile.

So you can't infer one from the other.

I've ordered Choke from the library, but if you don't know it already, you might be interested in another excellent book on the same general theme:
What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought by Keith Stanovich (of reading research fame).

There's an interesting article that gives you a hint of what is to come:
Why Smart People Do Stupid Things.

It's not so much about opportunity cost as Choke but is a readable and engaging look at the limits to IQ.

Allison said...

Catherine, your own comment about opportunity cost shows a good example of how working memory can't be trivially the same as high IQ--clearly for some people, their high IQ comes at the expense of working memory, and also their high IQ compensates for their lack of working memory in some other mechanism.

The total amount of brain real estate is limited, literally so by our skulls. Of course there are going to be tradeoffs. In fact, it makes more sense that high IQers trade off working memory in return for other cognitive skills -- if they can process faster, or have great long term storage and retrieval, or better abstraction/synthesis, why would they need as much working memory?

Allison said...

the obvious reason you don't want the best and brightest running everything is hubris. Since they are so bright in some places, they often assume incorrectly they are well informed in everything else too, and that problems in domains they don't know are trivial to solve.

Often, the brightest folks just believe everything that isn't to their liking is solveable when it isn't, and ascribe the insolubility to other people being dumb. If they'd been in charge, they think, it would have been solved.

Anonymous said...

"The obvious reason you don't want the best and brightest running everything is hubris..."

Which can be cured, even in the best and brightest, if they get pushed enough. Eventually, they find that they do have limits. Also, that sometimes you just fail.

I'm coming to believe that one of the primary values in sports (especially team sports) is that most kids get exposed to the notion that they aren't the best. Tournaments where the winners advance pretty much ensure that almost everyone goes home having lost. I used to think that this was a flaw ... now I'm thinking that it might be a virtue.

A bright kid academically can easily never run into one of these tournament-type events where they find out that they are good, but only in the top 4,000 in the country (as an example). If you never/rarely leave your local pond (and if the field is such that there aren't clear winners and losers), it is easy to believe (a) that you are a lot better than you are, and (b) that someone who fails to solve a problem is stupid.

Losing/failing objectively and regularly can cure these misconceptions.

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

Losing/failing objectively and regularly can cure these misconceptions.

But only if people generalize the lesson --- and people aren't particularly good at generalization.

Catherine Johnson said...

the obvious reason you don't want the best and brightest running everything is hubris. Since they are so bright in some places, they often assume incorrectly they are well informed in everything else too, and that problems in domains they don't know are trivial to solve

Absolutely true!

Willingham writes about this phenomenon, which - again - has to do with generalization.

Reasoning well in the field you're expert in doesn't generalize to fields you're not expert in -- though Willingham claims in a footnote that people with advanced study & expertise do start to be able to reason in fields not their own.

I asked him about that, but didn't hear back.

Catherine Johnson said...

As to the best and brightest, though, it's not just hubris; the research cited in Choke also points to brainy people not being able to 'think outside the box.'

This reminds me of my all-time favorite story, which I think I've told before in Comments.

A friend of ours, who is the head of the medical school at a Big 10 school, told me this.

He was educated by a legendary medical professor at Columbia, and his fellow students are now leading figures in medical research across the country.

The MAIN lesson this legendary professor drilled into his genius students?

"If what you're doing isn't working, try something else."

I found that story amazing & charming -- and now, reading Choke, I see the brain basis for it.

High IQ people aren't good at trying something else.

High working memory makes people less cognitively flexible (unless, as I believe, they have offsetting genes in the ADHD/bipolar/autistic realms).

Katharine Beals said...

(unless, as I believe, they have offsetting genes in the ADHD/bipolar/autistic realms).

Catherine, what do you think of claims (by Attwood and others) that autism is characterized by cognitive *in*flexibility?

palisadesk said...

unless, as I believe, they have offsetting genes in the ADHD/bipolar/autistic realms

Or they're left-handed, LOL.

palisadesk said...

Catherine's doctor story reminds me of a book that many might find worth a read: How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman of Harvard Medical School. It discusses the various types of cognitive errors physicians are prone to (some parallels to education are impossible to miss), but in the course of the book the author interviews several physicians who are renowned for their diagnostic wizardry. One of them explained a cardinal principal was training himself to always ask, "What else could it be?" to combat the temptation to go for the obvious (and possibly wrong) solution.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi Katharine -

Offhand, I don't 'spark' to the idea that autism is characterized by a high degree of cognitive inflexibility, although obviously autism is characterized by a very high degree of behavioral inflexibility --- and a very high degree of obsession and a restricted range of interests ---

I don't know if I can work this out here, but I may not be talking about 'cognitive flexibility' so much as....other qualities that added together produce cognitive flexibility.

e.g.: people with traces of autism seem to me to rather easily resist the consensus view -- which is not at all easy to do if you're entirely normal

However, being able to resist the consensus view doesn't make you cognitively flexible; it simply makes you look flexible in comparison to typical people who are wedded to consensus

The second aspect of autism that I think looks like cognitive flexibility is the autistic ability to see parts instead of wholes. Autistic people thus perceive elements of situations that typical people can't --- which, again, looks like cognitive flexibility but whether or not it **is** cognitive flexibility, I don't know. (I don't know what cognitive flexibility is; I just have a common sense notion of it.)

Last but not least, with Temple I saw a near-total absence of ego when it came to her ideas about animals. She could tell me something about animals in a tone of absolute confidence, and if I went out and found research that contradicted what she'd said -- or if I just spotted a logical inconsistency in what she was saying -- she would drop it!

Temple had the lowest level of 'ego' involvement in her own ideas of anyone I've ever met.

That quality is consistent with cognitive flexibility.

Summing up: I see at least 3 ways in which autistic people end up being more cognitively flexible than typical people in spite of their obsessions:

1. relative indifference to consensus view (not hostility, but indifference)
2. ability to see parts instead of wholes
3. lack of ego involvement in one's own ideas

Catherine Johnson said...

One of them explained a cardinal principal was training himself to always ask, "What else could it be?" to combat the temptation to go for the obvious (and possibly wrong) solution.

That is WONDERFUL!

I'm going to have to read that book.

Doctors especially are going to have huge temptations to 'think what they think' --- I've come to believe that everyone should have a rule like asking "What else could it be?"

btw, as a nonfiction writer, I have rules like that.

A Princeton scientist once told me that when he writes a paper, he asks of every single sentence:

How do I know this?
Is this true?

I loved hearing that because I pretty much asked the same questions about everything I wrote -- and of course I had to because I was always writing about other people's work.

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, I think ADHD genes may work differently than autism genes (it's possible...)

I need to look all this stuff up - I'm just writing from memory here

However, I believe that with ADHD you have worse working memory (that part is a general finding) AND you get more stuff 'interfering' with what you're trying to focus on....more extraneous stuff is coming in.

It's that extraneous stuff that likely allows ADHD people to be more creative -- to see and forge new connections.

ADHD people see new connections because they're (accidentally) looking at more stuff to begin with.

There's an element of serendipity.

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks, Catherine. That makes a lot of sense. Meanwhile, I stumbled upon this: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19138551