During my years of teaching the Science curriculum has gone through many changes.  Unfortunately, the one that was in place for the years before I retired was not one of the best.  In my opinion the pre-high school science curriculum should be far less content oriented and more process oriented.  Especially in the Intermediate (Middle) grades when students are evolving into more rational thinking, the emphasis should be more on scientific method than on any content.  Not only is it critical to a proper understanding and perspective towards science, but it also reinforces the developmental changes and intellectual curiosity of the student at this age.

There was a time when this was understood and applied, roughly during the mid 1990s.  It was one of the few bright spots in Ontario’s Outcome Based Learning initiative.  When OBL was scrapped for some reason a lot of the process based learning outcomes went out with the bathwater, and a proper introduction to scientific method was one of the casualties.

The best intermediate science curriculum I ever saw came from the Lincoln County B of Ed. in around 1990.  There was a 2” binder for each of grades 7 & 8.  The grade 7 curriculum was themed around physical sciences and grade 8 around biological sciences.  But the thing that made these special was that each started out with a comprehensive unit about scientific method and that process was reflected in all of the units that came afterwards.  It introduced the ideas of what a hypothesis was, or what the difference between correlation and experimental data.  It introduced the idea of different types of variables and why controlling them was important.  It also introduced basic equipment, so that students would know how to use a triple beam balance and understand the difference between force, weight and mass.  None of these skills, or the many others that come under the banner of basic scientific method, were contained in the content based science curriculum that I was forced to deliver in the last years of my teaching.

Additionally the entire program could be conducted without a textbook, as each teacher guide page was accompanied by several student work sheets that were all excellent.  This might be one of the reasons for its demise and one should never underestimate the influence of the textbook publishing industry in educational policy.  Text book publishing is a billion dollar industry and is largely responsible for the standardized testing craze, as they publish those as well.  However, back to the matter at hand...

One of my favorite activities in this program was to have students calculate the unit cost of theatre popcorn.  I would save up a number of popcorn bags from movie theatres and bring them into class.  Then we would make popcorn and figure out its cost per kilogram and per pound.  It was a fun activity, but required the concepts of net, tare and gross weight, how to use a triple beam balance and how to convert measurements.  When I recently visited a grade 8 class and ran this program I found that each one of those skills had to be taught as they’d never been exposed to them in their current curriculum.  The cost, by the way, works out to about $68 per pound, which is interesting to compare to other items.  Students would go on line and discover how much quality steak, lobster and caviar cost, being amazed to find that theatre popcorn is more expensive than all but the most exclusive caviar.

Another of my favorite activities was the basic pendulum experiment, used to teach the manipulation and control of variables, forming a hypothesis and planning a valid experiment.  It starts with the question, “What factors (variables) will influence the frequency of a pendulum?”  A bunch are listed, including amplitude of the swing, mass of the bob and length of the swing.  We did one together as a class in order to model the proper design and write up of an experiment, paying attention to things like replication, observation charts and proper wording for conclusions.  Students then worked in small groups to plan and conduct the other experiments until they can show which factors (length of the string being the only one) did or didn’t result in frequency change.  Once they established length as being the only relevant variable, they were required to investigate further by using many different lengths, recording the data and plotting it on a graph, thus showing that there was a mathematical relationship between length and frequency.

We did many similar experiments, some involving levers and leverage, or calculating the height of a tree using shadows and ratios.  The idea was not to teach a specific content, such as memorizing the Periodic Table, but rather to encourage the proper understanding and application of scientific method and process.  Not only did the students end up doing a lot of experiments, but they also were exposed to a variety of scientific equipment.

I want to briefly mention two other activities used in this approach to science.  The first involved giving pairs of students a small slip of paper on which was written CARBON DIOXIDE and a stoppered test tube full of water.  Students were then told that all of their discoveries had to remain secret, and as they progressed through the activity they could only relate their discoveries to me in a whisper.  They were then told to use the two items and try to discover something that was problematic.  It doesn’t take long before you begin to hear “What the…” as the students look through their test tubes at the slip of paper.  What they are noticing is that, as seen through the water, the word carbon flips upside down while the word dioxide does not.  Each pair comes up to tell the teacher and after a while the teacher announces the problem to the class and tells the students that it is their job to find out why this is happening.  I would tell them that once they understood the reason it would be an “aha” moment and they were still required to keep the secret.  The class would talk briefly about the kinds of experimentation that could be conducted and the kinds of variables that could be changed.  Then students are let loose to experiment.  Eventually you get the “ahas” and students begin to come up with the answer.  (I won’t tell you what it is here.  You can try it yourself if can’t figure it out in a mental experiment.)  That’s all there is to it.  There’s very little written work in this activity, other that a short personal response about what the student learned from the experience.  But the activity is extremely instructive, …again without the need for specific content.

Another activity was about the integrity of research and revolved around a great Internet site which I believe is still active.  I told the students that the lesson was about safety and that they were going to examine a dangerous chemical called dihydrogen oxide.  (Once again they were told that if they had the aha moment to keep it to themselves.) They then had a work sheet with general questions on it and were directed to the web site in order to find the answers.  The web site had many facts on it such as that dihydrogen oxide was responsible for more deaths every year than any other chemical.  Students would dutifully answer the questions on their sheets, but eventually a few would clue in to the fact that dihydrogen oxide is, in fact, water.  Once the class as a whole was enlightened it would lead to a discussion about facts and their interpretation, along with the importance of verifying information from the Internet.  There are many other similar activities in the Internet, but this one is simple and not in any way controversial.

So, these initial units in grade 7 & 8 provided an essential grounding in scientific method and other related concepts.  Later units reinforced and expanded these.  Behavioural concepts were studied using mealworms, and in several years I even had students design and conduct simple, harmless psychological experiment, sometimes using subjects from younger grades.  These were always tremendously fun for all concerned.

One of my favorite applications did not come from the LCBE curriculum, but was an elaboration of an idea from a conference I attended.  This was the idea of a CSI unit, where the students were given a murder mystery to solve.  Clues were provided to them, on which they had to do research and experimentation.  For example a cup of coffee was found at the scene and the police recorded the temperature of the coffee.  Students were given information about the temperature at which it was brewed at the local Tim Horton’s and how far away it was.  They then had to measure the rate of cooling of coffee in a Tim Horton’s cup to see whether it matched the time line given by the suspect.  Other evidence included materials that had to be looked at under a microscope and even tire and shoe tracks that had to be compared to real life data.  (The “guilty” party was a real person in the school.) This CSI unit ended up being combined with all of the other subjects from Math to Language Arts to Geography in a vast integrated unit which consumed a major part of each day for several weeks.  Setting up integrated, multi-subject units like this one is something that I’ll discuss in a future entry as it was definitely the highlight of my teaching career.

I strongly believe that students need an ability to critically evaluate the massive amount of information that they encounter every day through the media in the internet.  I know that half the time I hear a study stated on the radio or on TV, I look at it and shake my head because I can see the flaws in the science. Understanding scientific method, statistics, and logical fallacies are central skills, not peripheral.  In my opinion they need to be stressed at the age that the biggest leap in rational developmental growth takes place, which is early adolescence.

#3 Spelling

Posted: July 23, 2016 in Personal Whining

The final component to all of this was the Spelling part.  Both my personal experience in the classroom and various studies that began to emerge led me to the conclusion that the regular, speller based program was not of much use after grade 5 or 6.  For previous grades one could argue that building a common stock of spelling words and vocabulary held some merit, however I do believe that a variation on the following program probably works better for Junior grades as well.

I had yet another binder for Spelling, with a page devoted to each student.  That binder was always there when I marked anything, not just writing compositions.  I used it when I graded Science experiments or History projects as well.

If I found a spelling error, I would circle it with a highlighter and record the word on the student’s page.  Once a week I looked at the list for each student and wrote between five and ten words on a sticky note, which I then gave to the student.  I drew a line on the page under the last word recorded on the sticky note.  (This is important, I found out, because students are apt to lose the sticky note and then you have to look in the binder in order to create another one.)

In a spelling notebook the student would transcribe their list and then would have to complete at least three exercises with them.  These came from a list of activities that I prepared and which they glued into their notebooks.  There were about twenty activities and they could choose the ones they wanted to use, but had to cover all of them over a defined period.  Activities might include writing the meaning, a synonym or using the word in a sentence.  Creating a word search or crossword with clues were also among the activities.

The research that I had read said that the only way spelling activities helped the student was when the words involved were ones that the student was likely to use in their communication.  By taking the words from compositions and other assignments I was correcting words that were already in the student’s vocabulary and usage.  I found this to be far more productive than arbitrary words from a spelling text.  I also would occasionally take words from content subjects like science and make them words that everyone in the class had to put on their lists.  For example, from Science I might take the word “hypothesis” in order to familiarize them all with the word.

Obviously there were two exceptions to this whole arrangement.  There were some students who never had any spelling mistakes.  Those students were encouraged to find words from their reading or from other subjects that they wanted to add to their own lists.  They had to have between five and ten.  These students usually were engaging in more challenging reading, so they could easily find words in their novels or other reading that could be used.  I also had an old spelling/vocabulary book that I picked up in the book morgue which had really interesting words grouped by theme.  Sometime, when a theme overlapped what we were studying, I would utilize some of these lists, which was great because they often came with relevant exercises that I could suggest.  (I don’t know whether Boards still maintain these book morgues.  They were essentially a warehouse where old books unwanted by schools were sent to die.  Any teacher could go in and literally take whatever they wanted for use in the classroom.  Many were old grammar books or had other activities that I used for the skills folders that I mentioned in the entry on writing.  Sometimes I would rip pages out and use them like that.  Occasionally you would find an old gem like the advanced vocabulary book I mentioned.  If they are still in use, I would recommend visiting one.)

The other exception was the student who had severe problems with spelling.  This student required a more tailored remedial program, going back to the goal of building a central bank of words that they would be able to use.  If you are lucky, you can get the Special Ed teacher or TA to help with that.

Once again, this spelling program ended up being totally individualized, -a goal that teachers talk about but which is always a little elusive.  This worked well on all levels for my Intermediate (Middle School) students.  I think it would work well in the Secondary panel (although I don’t hear much about spelling skills from that corner at all) and I think it could be modified for at least Junior students.

Nancy Atwell had a writing component to her program as well which had the same individualized nature to it.

At the beginning of a week students were expected to fill out a contract outlining the piece of writing they were going to work on.  There was space on the contract for the title of the piece, a short description, the genre or style of writing (narrative, exposition, poem, etc.) and space for between two and four goals that they would try to achieve in this writing.  The goals were based on previous writing, often suggested my me, although students were free to set their own goals based on self evaluation.  The contract had to be submitted with the final draft of the writing, which I would use as the evaluation page, and often I would make goal suggestion on the sheet to be considered for the next composition.  This might include attention to sentence structure, paragraphing or vocabulary.  There might be a suggestion to edit work for spelling errors, or to consider greater depth in character development.  The writing would be evaluated based on the goals.  In addition I would assign the writing an overall grade based on the COSMP grading method.

This COSMP grading method came out of a workshop I attended and I don’t remember the specific source.  I quickly adopted it because it really facilitated the contract aspect of Atwell’s writing workshops.  The letters stand for:
C – Content : This evaluated the substance of the writing, whether it was factual material presented in an exposition, proper reasoning and support in an opinion piece, or plot development in a story.
O – Organization : This was often paragraphing, but went beyond that in to the proper sequencing of ideas or story line.
S – Style : This involved the complexity of sentence structure (encouraging students to use complex/compound sentences) along with level of vocabulary, use of metaphorical language, etc.
M – Mechanics : This is the straight forward mechanical grammar of the piece, such as writing in proper sentences, and also spelling (**to be discussed separately later**).
P – Presentation : Not always included as part of the evaluation.  On occasion, if the writing project was a story or a poem, the nature of the presentation, such as  binding or illustrating, would also be an evaluation component.

Separating the evaluation into these streams had many benefits:

  1. It gave the student greater feedback and could be used to help guide them and me in the creation of contract goals. I don’t mind discussing the work with students, but I found that breaking it down like this allowed less interviewing and writing of comments without sacrificing detail.
    2.  It gave me some leeway in separating marks into reading comprehension, writing composition and media streams when doing final evaluation summaries.
    3.  It allowed me to use this system on all work in other subjects, such as a science experiment, and then migrate those marks into Language evaluation, thereby fulfilling the whole “language across the curriculum” imperative that was popular in some years.  Doing this made the students aware that their language skills were important when they were writing anything, not just in Language Arts.

Students had writing folders that were divided into three pockets.  (When the Board provided these folders it was a great resource, but afterwards students made their own.)  The writing process for the student went something like this.  First the student would decide on a project.  (Sometimes that would be a continuation of a previous project, as students were encouraged to divide their writing into realistic segments that might be ongoing for several weeks.)  Then they would complete the Writing Contract, referencing previous contracts to help them setting their goals.  Then they would do the pre-writing portion, which might involve brainstorming, mind maps, research or any of several other strategies which we covered in mini-lessons.   This would go into the Pre-Writing pocket of their folder.  The next step would be the First Draft, which the student was encouraged to do with the primary focus of Content.  Getting the idea or opinion or story down on paper was the first priority.  One or more drafts might be required, and I often quoted Hemingway (I think) who said, “A good novel is not written.  It’s rewritten.”  These would all go into the Drafts pocket of the folder.

During these steps of Pre-Writing and Draft Writing the student would have the option to conference with a classmate or with the teacher.  To avoid chaos and a really noisy classroom, a system was set up.  On a bulletin board there was posted all the student names on post-it stickies.  If a student wished to conference they and their partner would take their sticky note and put it on a sheet labelled “In Conference”.  Only three pairs were allowed to conference at a time and the conferences were restricted to five minutes.  If you wanted to conference and saw that the “In Conference” board was full, then you had to wait.  As you would expect, there was some issues around this at the beginning, but it quickly turned into a workable routine.  I always had a rather large number of students in my classes, so I had to have conferencing done in the hallway.

Once conferencing was done and a student was reasonably happy with the draft, they could present the draft to the teacher for a final edit.  This was the one stage of the program with which I sometimes got bogged down.  I tried to guarantee that students would get their edited draft back in 24 hours, but sometimes there was a deluge and it was hard.  I never had the chance to experiment with parent volunteers or older students doing the editing, but it would be worthwhile to try.  I kept my editing to two things.  I circled any mechanical errors (without correcting them) and I sometimes made comments related things like Style, Organization or Content.  Over the years I developed a bit of an editing shorthand that students became familiar with.

Then it is up to the student to complete a final draft.  When it is time to hand it in the contract was on top, followed by the Final Draft and then followed by earlier drafts is the student wanted the teacher to witness the progressive improvement that were made.  I often stressed how impressed I would be by seeing that.

Now the Final Draft is in my hands and I have to evaluate it.  Before reading it, I would look at the goals and keep them in mind.  Each goal would be scored out of 10 (although any evaluation system could be used).  I would write comments on the sheet and perhaps add a goal or two on the back to be considered for the next composition.  I would then give it a comprehensive grade using the COSMP system.  All of that would be recorded in my mark book, meaning that I’d have quite a few marks for the same composition.  Sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn’t as most of it is the simple recording of numbers in an organized way.  Some years I made photocopies of the contracts before giving them back, which was good for accountability.  It depended on the number of students in the classroom and how much time I had to do it.

When the student gets the work back, it’s a pretty comprehensive evaluation package.  They’re encouraged to look at more than the bottom line because they need the feedback to complete the goals on their next contract.

When I was running these programs, although there was extensive use of computer technology in the schools, it was not yet seamless and much of this was still paper and pencil writing and record keeping.  I have no doubt that things may have evolved considerably in the intervening years and that some or all of this process could be easily accomplished on screen.  I still believe that the submitted product should still be a hard copy, but perhaps there are new developments of which I am unaware.  I can easily see, however, that the developmental process could easily be adopted to some kind of technology connection.  And I can only hope that easier methods of tracking and record keeping for the teacher have also evolved.

Two more things come out of the process.  The first is spelling, which I’ll deal with in the next blog entry.

The other is the whole idea of mini lessons and tasks.  Each student had a tracking sheet, again a modified version of something that came up in some workshop.  It tracked several things.  One was the genre of writing that was being attempted by the student.  Over the course of the year the student was required to tick off all of the different genres at least once.  The other thing tracked was a list of common writing problems, including everything from sentence structure to use of homonyms to verb tense agreement.  (I could email someone the MW doc I used, but I’m not sure how to include it here.  These tracking sheets were in a binder that was open in front of me when I was marking writing.  If I noticed that a student had a weakness in a particular area, …say homonyms…, I would check off that box.  Over many years, stealing from the internet, old textbooks and random worksheets, I had put together one file folder for each of these writing problems.  Into these folders I would put copies of worksheets related to the problem which I could take out as needed and give to the student to complete.  When they handed it back to me, I crossed off the check mark.  Usually this translated into a goal for the next contract as well.  If I found that a significant portion of the class was experiencing the same problem, it would become the subject of a mini-lesson and a larger portion of the class might get the work sheet as homework.  If it was a new concept, such as compound sentences, then we might spend a few lessons on it and everyone got the sheet.  But it was always presented hand in hand with practical applications to their writing projects.

That’s it, except for the Spelling.  It looks like a lot of work, but it went surprisingly smoothly once all of the organization and resources were set up.  The biggest hassle was if you wanted to mark and you didn’t have the right binder with you.  Then you were crippled.  Also there were the inevitable bottle-necks.  But in the end it resulted in some amazing work from the students, primarily because they were motivated to complete things that they were interested in and to meet goals that they had a big hand in setting for themselves.  Obviously you get a range of responses, but you get that in anything.  I found that the range for this program shifted distinctly to the positive.

Several recent conversations with teacher colleagues have highlighted to me the fact that there were many successful teaching ideas used in my classroom over my thirty year career that should see a little more sharing and daylight.  As a result, I would like to start a series of blog entries which describe some of these ideas in hopes that others might find them useful in some ways.  I’ll try to make the ideas concise and practical.

Most of my teaching career was spent in Grade 6, 7 & 8 classrooms, so the ideas are often aimed at that age group.  However, I strongly feel  that a little modification would easily expand their application to younger or older students.  Many of the ideas were taken from programs designed for younger or older students and were modified by me to the final result I describe here.  By far, a majority of these ideas originated with or were strongly inspired by someone else.  Where possible, I will try to give credit where it is due, but in some cases I’ve simply forgotten.

In my long teaching career in York Region, Ontario, there were many curriculum initiatives thrown at us.  We would often joke about the pendulum of educational philosophy and in my thirty years I definitely saw it swing back and forth multiple times.  Some initiatives were more along the lines of current fads, given a lot of attention for a short time and then abandon or forgotten.  Some were valuable, but many were not other than for a few significant points that could be salvaged from them.  I’ll try to sidestep the cynicism here and concentrate on the successful ideas that I gleaned and integrated into an overall program.

 

Finding a teaching resource, whether it be a book or a program initiative presented by the Board, which has significant merit and applicability is always a great joy.  I have to say that one of the most valuable resources that I ever came across was a book by Nancy Atwell called In The Middle.  I found it mid career and had ample opportunity to tweak and fine tune it over the years.  One of the initiatives often pushed by the Board was individualized learning, although it was seldom presented with any kind of practical strategies.  Nancy Atwell is one of the few educators who approaches this idea realistically.

In The Middle presents a language arts program tailored to the needs of Intermediate (Middle School) students.  It covers Reading, Composition and Spelling, although I added a lot of my own strategies to it in order to round it out.

The reading component of the program was very simple.  She believed that people learned how to read by reading.  I can sympathise with that as I’m sure that I learned how to read by reading comic books.  Their vocabulary, deep character development and relevant themes did a lot to establish a foundation for all the reading which I’ve done afterwards.  (Comics are often under rated in the complexity of their writing, but I have always found them to be a genre that can contribute a lot to reading development, especially for the adolescent male.)  The core of Atwell’s reading program was uninterrupted reading time every day.  Students got to choose their books based on some simple but firm standards which encouraged variety in both content and reading level.  She recognized that at times students might want to read something below their reading ability and encouraged this as long as it was balanced by more challenging reading.  In fact, reading a book below one’s reading level sometimes yielded insights that were quite surprising.

In order to monitor and encourage balanced development in reading, this program had several other tasks connected to it.

  1. Periodic checks of the group or subgroup (recorded simply on a class list) of what they were reading and the progress they were making. There was also a reading log in the back of the Journal which had to be completed each day.  This log allowed the teacher to keep track of the performance of the student.
  2. Periodic interviews with students or small groups of students where they could discuss what they were reading and have a chance to respond to challenging questions and perhaps discuss more general ideas around their reading progress. This allows the teacher to encourage and suggest more challenging or a different genre of reading.  It also allowed the teacher to help the student make connections between their reading and other resources.  A topic of interest in a fiction book, for example, might lead to reading a non-fiction book on that topic.
  3. Every week a student was required to complete two journal entries about their reading. The entry had to be at least 100 words and was not allowed to be about the plot.  A list of potential topics was distributed and discussed at the beginning of the program, talking about such things as character development and other literary aspects, or about a general review of the book when completed, citing reasons for the rating.  Sometimes particular questions or topics could be featured by the teacher in a given week in order to facilitate a certain direction for conversation or mini-lessons.  The entry could be addressed to any other member of the class or to the teacher (who also had a journal and who would write entries addressed to students at times.)  Students were encouraged to respond in the same journal and often there emerged a dialogue which went back and forth several times.  Every couple of days the teacher collects 5 – 10 journals and writes comments in them after reading all of the entries and responses. Several times a term a “content” grade (**I will describe my evaluation strategy of COSMP in a future blog entry**) which only looked at the quality of what was expressed and understood in the entries.  While students were encouraged to write in good style, it was not evaluated in this setting.
  4. Short mini-lessons were interspersed that provided examples of literary terms and ideas. For example we might do a five minute lesson on plot climax, character development or theme, just to take a few.  We might talk about research skills that could be used to look up a point about the author that might be revealing.  We would talk about different genres.  And often I would arrange book talks on reading suggestions that might be done by myself, the librarian (although you have to be sure that it doesn’t become overkill then) or perhaps even a student who had completed a book they wanted to share.

At the beginning of the year, before launching this program, I would often do a class study of the same novel.  I looked for books that were a reasonably low reading level so that they would be easily accessible to all students in the class, but also rich in content and complexity.  There are a few books like that out there, but the challenge is finding one on the “approved list” for whole class study and which the school has in sufficient quantities.  In my case I was fortunate to have a stack of the novel “Copper Sunrise” by Bryan Buchan,  which has mixed reviews, but always seemed to be enjoyed by the students and contains a rich collection of (sometimes too obvious) literary devices that can be examined.  It’s also short and to the point, so you can complete this preamble to your program fairly quickly.  When studying this novel, I would try to include the kinds of topics, questions and activities that I wanted the students to pursue in their journal entries.

I would try to run this program for at least 50% of each term.  The remainder of the time was taken up with other programs that might play into specific curriculum requirements such as media studies or poetry.  But this was the core of the program and encouraged students to simply read, even when it wasn’t actively running.

That last sentence is important and deserves a little more comment.  Students in middle grades, especially boys, are very reluctant readers.  There are many reasons of this, not the least of which is simply the nature of the beast.  But some of it comes from poor choices in laid on reading material in the classroom.  When I see the selection of books often chosen by schools to inflict on students, I find there to be no mystery in understanding why middle school students are discouraged from reading.  I remember my own experiences of painfully enduring Eagle Of The Ninth and Master Skylark.

I’ve been fairly successful in motivating teenage boys to read, both inside and outside of the classroom.  One thing I’ve found to work is to frame reading as a “subversive activity”.  So I talk about banned books and why they were banned.  What was the great attraction of Harry Potter or Catcher In The Rye, both widely banned?  Reading has to be relevant to what the student thinks is important or exciting in order to be enticing.  Outside of class I’ve seen reluctant readers devour books like Youth In Revolt by  C..D. Payne, Fade by Robert Cormier or Lamb by Christopher Moore, all of which are not likely to appear on any school curriculum list, but also both of which I would approve of as independent reading.

A book I’ll talk about in a later entry is The Knife Of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness.  This was a book that I chose to read aloud to my class, with an entire unit of activities revolving around it.  Students who would otherwise never read would often devour any chapters that they might miss.  Once I purposely stopped short in my reading and provided the end of the chapter in photocopied pages.  It was fascinating to see special education students take the pages as they left for their support class and literally bump into people in the hall because they were reading while walking.  (I know, not entirely kosher, but boy did it work.)

I think that when, left to schools, curriculum “specialists” or even teachers, we choose books for students to read, we do so for the wrong reasons.  We do so based on what we think is best for the student rather than what the student wants or needs.  The result is obvious, with reading becoming a painful endurance for many middle school students.  It is better to let the student choose, and for the teacher to extend a supportive or guiding hand when appropriate.

The program may look like a lot of work for the teacher, but if you are organized it is actually easy, fun, often very interactive, and even gave me some opportunities to read in class along with the students (which is being a good role model).

One of the oldest questions in philosophy is that of determinism.  Do we have free will or are we simply machines that react to external stimulus.  Recent brain research shows strongly that in most of the things we do, the brain actually makes decisions and initiates actions microseconds before we are conscious of the decision.  In his book Incognito, David Eagleman gives study after study demonstrating that the brain functions on a level below willful consciousness.  One interesting study describes a man who got up in the middle of the night, drove to his in-laws and murdered them, -all while sleepwalking and not remembering it the next morning.

I think that we’re all familiar with some examples of this in our own lives.  At times we’ll read a page of a book and realize that we’ve done it totally mechanically and can’t really remember anything from it.  We did it.  We looked at each word and it registered in our brains, but we didn’t do it on a cognitive level that included awareness of the meaning.  Similarly, walking or driving home may become a mechanical act.  With a little honesty, I think that this might extend to a lot of behaviour, including interacting with certain people.

On these occasions we’re acting like the proverbial zombie, acting mechanically without consciousness.  How do we know that people are not acting like that all of the time.  I know that I’m not because of my inner dialogue, which we’ll return to later.  However how can I be sure that other people are not just going through the motions, firing off stimulus/response reactions in the same way that Turing’s test for AI claims that a machine can fool an observer into thinking that they are speaking with a real person.  Eagleman comes to the conclusion at the end of his book that more than 90% of our actions is our brain working on automatic pilot with consciousness just checking in occasionally to make sure that the brain’s projection of reality is consistent with the “actual” reality.  (Don’t get me started on that.)  Consciousness, awareness and decisions fueled by will power are the remaining 10% or less.  He actually suggests that it is very much a sliding scale where some individuals implement this level of consciousness far more often than other, and some perhaps only 1% or 2% of the time.

That leads us to the question of whether there are some people who exercise that level of awareness to such a minor degree (or perhaps not at all) and as a result are conducting their lives much like Turing’s AI.  The program is sophisticated enough to approximate real human reaction, but really there is little or nothing in the way of actual human consciousness and free will.  Something as complicated as a chess game can be faked by a non-conscious computer program, so believing it possible of other human actions is only a matter of degree.

In his new novel, Quantum Night, Robert Sawyer takes ideas from new discoveries combining quantum physics and consciousness, and works them into a fiction which starts with some good, hard science and then extrapolates it into speculations about the consequences.  He postulates three kinds of people: normally conscious people, those without empathy who are psychopaths, and those without inner dialogue who are simply acting mechanically.  The third type relates to an old idea of “philosophical zombies”, which are people who appear to be conscious but do not really have any inner consciousness.  One question which I carried away from Sawyer’s speculation was whether it had to be an all or nothing proposition.  In his novel, to be true to his plot line, it does.  But this may take on varying degrees.

Are there people who have a stunted or perhaps even non-existent inner dialogue and who drift through life without real consciousness?  Many philosophers have asserted this, as have many psychologists.  Dealing with some people who seem to just babble on with glazed eyes it is not hard to imagine.  Looking at bizarre behaviour by otherwise normal people, it is not hard to imagine a momentary glitch in the system of the brain’s programming that causes someone to adopt radical ideas, act violently in a moment of jealousy or commit some other uncharacteristic or explainable act.

It’s not a question of how logical somebody is.  One can have an inner dialogue which is very rooted in emotions and not be a philosophical zombie.  One can be highly logical and yet have no inner dialogue, like the computer chess program.  What it seems to have more to do with than anything else is the idea of the quality of inner dialogue.  Hence the ideas of meditation and self reflection in the current mindfulness trends being among the most productive methods of self-improvement.  Inner dialogue slows down thinking and reaching conclusions so that the first thing that the brain presents doesn’t have to be the final conclusion.  Self reflection promotes an examination of multiple options and forces the brain to do that “checking in” thing that Eagleman talks about, encouraging a more discerned answer.

But, as is suggested by the Turing test, philosophical zombies can respond mechanically to the extent that they can fool the average person.  How do we tell if we are dealing with a zombie, and does it actually make a difference?

This is when I started thinking about metaphors and analogies.  (Similes are different because they present a physical connection between the meanings being compared, -but sometimes the observations below work with them as well.)  I have noticed that some people just don’t understand metaphors or analogies.  They just don’t get them.  It tends to be certain kinds of people who also seem to lack some other cognitive skills and who have very simplistic views.  When I started to think about the question of philosophical zombies I noticed that the people who didn’t get metaphors very often had the kinds of characteristics that I would expect in someone who had limited inner dialogue.  That makes sense.  Without inner dialogue, the required reflection necessary to make the connections of meaning in metaphors is unlikely to happen.  Without that capacity for reflection and inner dialogue, metaphors become very difficult to interpret, other than those that can be learned by rote.

So, can the interpretation of metaphors and analogy be used as a determination of inner dialogue?  A quick Google search suggests immediately that there is a lot of research out there that bears this out.  I’ll leave the readers to investigate that themselves.  Furthermore, it makes sense.  And finally, I plan to test the hypothesis (hopefully without angering any zombies), but my past experience suggests that there is at least some truth to this hypothesis.

Why does it matter?  Some may regard this whole issue as a bit crass.  Why do we need to judge people in this sort of way?  Well, I think it is important for a number of reasons.

First, let’s not forget that I’m far from the first to propose that there are philosophical zombies out there.  Perhaps a lot of them.  From numerous philosophers who promote determinism, to George Grudjieff who proposes that man is primarily a machine, to countless spiritual leaders who point to humanity’s blindness in crucial areas of consciousness, the idea that much of mankind is the “mindless grey masses” (as Tom Brown like to call them) is far from new and points to an urgent need to pursue a course of self improvement.  Our world is suffering from all sorts of tribulations which might easily be explained by a lack of genuine consciousness.  And furthermore, I’m speculating here that we all suffer from this issue to one degree or another.

Second, ethically, if a person is acting in a way that does not utilize a level of consciousness and awareness that involves free will, can they be held responsible for their actions?  Eagleman addresses this in the conclusion of his book, where he says that, of course, responsibility has to exist, but the manner in which you treat, punish, rehabilitate or otherwise deal with such people has to take into consideration their fundamental human condition.  That is a difficult issue to deal with because many of those who create laws may easily be zombies themselves.

Third, please remember that I’m not pushing a dichotomy here.  I don’t think that it is an all or nothing proposition.  I think that many people work on automatic pilot much of the time and occasionally check in with a more conscious part of their brain.  As a former teacher, I often had to grade essays.  After reading a few carefully, I would create in my mind a kind of evaluative algorithm that would then take over and grade the rest.  If I came to something that didn’t fit the algorithm I would re-engage my mind and deal with it more consciously.  I have always tried to practice self observation and reflection in my own behaviour so perhaps I’m more likely to be able to notice and analyze that kind of pattern.  But my point is that everyone uses this auto-pilot.  We wouldn’t be able to function without it.  However, some use it more than others, and some may even use it exclusively.  Teaching people to improve their existing self reflection and inner dialogue is a critical endeavor of the utmost importance.  I think it has been a guiding principle for a lot of the teaching I’ve done in my life, even if I haven’t been totally aware of the issue framed in this model.  After all, the map is not the landscape.

Fourth, this has nothing to do with psychopaths or sociopaths, who may or may not have inner dialogues.  A psychopath’s inner dialogue just ignores any kind of empathy and is totally self centred.  Theoretically, psychological zombies could be very nice people.

I’ve just started using the story of “Jumping Mouse” as an allegorical story of self development with the youth group I’m currently working with.  It is interesting to watch the response to the story in these 16 year olds.  There are other such stories, many from old spiritual texts, such as Sufi teaching stories and Zen Koans.  The fact that they seem to have spiritual roots strengthens the connections between conscious will power, inner dialogue and metaphors  I’m advocating in this article.  It also suggests that, in addition to being a method of determining consciousness, they can also be used as a vehicle for promoting and developing it.

There is a story in a book of tales by Mullah Nasrudin which talks about this enlightened master walking through the village at night carrying a lantern.  A villager approaches him and asks, “If you are so enlightened, why do you need a light to show you the way.”  The Mullah responds, “The light is not for me.  It is so that others do not bump into me.”   Sometimes I read that story and delve into layer after layer of meaning.  Sometimes I only am able to relate to the first layer or two.  Sometimes I read it and feel nothing.  I’ve come to regard it as a good indicator of my own immediate state of mind.

There are many simplistic definitions of a CULT that provide a very broad and general meaning.  I’ve researched the material and come up with a more narrow and specific definition, which I think points to more dangerous cults more effectively than a broad definition.

It rests on 7 essential principles:

  1. It has a very strong leader, based on personal, emotional identification and an extreme feeling of allegiance and compliance.
  2. There are demands, pressures and pledges of allegiance to that extreme leadership figure or group of people.
  3. There is a central religious or ideological foundation that is rigidly adhered to.
  4. Some form of impending doom is involved, whether it be apocalyptic or some other sort of catastrophe.
  5. That impending doom is used as a vehicle to mobilize fear as a strong motivator.
  6. There is a routine suspension of reason and a dismissal of facts, with severe rationalization being obvious.
  7. There are paranoid tendencies dismissing all sources outside of the cult as conspiracies opposed to their one right way of seeing things.
  8. There is a strong pressure and often serious consequences forcing members to not leave the cult.

 

[postscript]   There’s one other characteristic of most cults that I want to add after watching some of the televangelists this Easter Sunday morning.  (I’m normally not in the habit of doing that, but GPS was a rerun, so I ended up flipping through channels.) Cults present arguments in calculated increments that are designed to convince people with weak reasoning skills to go deeper and deeper into ideological or religious beliefs.  They’re half reasonable (if appealing to a more semi-rational group) or deal in gradations of emotional ecstacy with the less rational and more emotional group.  They believe that if you repeat something, however ridiculous, often enough eventually many people will believe it.  The facts around it aren’t important, but you still have to pull the con job in gradual increments so that cognitive dissonance can take hold. Whichever strategy is present (and sometimes all are), it is calculated and deliberately designed to inch the potential cult member towards the desired goals.  It is different from “education” per se in two ways.  First of all the strategies are diabolical and designed to minimize personal awareness rather than maximize it.  Second, it is done in the context of the eight characteristics mentioned above.

 

Do with that what you will.  Personally I have no trouble seeing Donald Trump’s supporters as falling in line with most of these to a rather extreme degree.  Granted, you could make a case for any political movement being a cult, however by comparison I honestly don’t see Sanders supporters in the same fanatical light.  There are some pretty easily identified differences between charisma and fanaticism.  There are some pretty easily identified differences between speaking purely emotionally and putting forth rational arguments.  Easy, at least, for those that are not embraced by the cult.

More and more, as I’ve watched Trump surrogates on news talk shows, I see blank eyes and totally uncritical minds.  I’ve talked to many individuals who have come from bonifide cults, and Trump surrogates most certainly have “the look”.  It has gotten to the point where some of their advisories on these panels seem like they want to physically go over and shake sense into them, and I can’t blame them.  Recently several panel discussions actually cut the mike of Trump supporters because they just couldn’t stand the nonsense that they were spewing.  I think that marginalizing reason and suspending critical thinking are a slippery slope for some people, aided by incremental brainwashing and the calculated use of logical fallacies.  Once you start doing it, cognitive dissonance takes over and you end up going all the way down the rabbit hole.

 

Fortunately, a cult leader who is an outright narcissist is likely to consume himself and the cult in time.  Also, unless there is some kind of societal psychosis, the cult should have a ceiling, reinforced by the aversion to that narcissism.  That’s starting to happen now.  But watching these people embarrass themselves as they are drawn into this hypnotic state is almost too weird to believe.  I am hoping that it will be a socially transformative experience when it is all over, …and in a positive way.

Never mind Survivor or The Bachelor, the current American presidential race is the best reality TV that anyone could ask for. I would never watch, and actually I decry, any of these other shows, but this one has all the hallmarks of what a good reality TV show should be. It is continuous and in real time. You can tune in any time of the day to check up on it, like a Tamagotchi pet or the Truman Show. It is a contest with exceptionally high stakes. It has fascinating characters that develop over time. It has witty and entertaining rhetoric, sometimes prepared by some of the best speech writers in the world. It has drama and scandal and controversy. My favorite attraction to it is that, being based on real issues and politics, it is a constant source of moral, ethical and rational thought experiments, allowing you to weigh arguments , fact check and, with any luck, see through spin, disinformation and innuendo. Finally, being a Canadian, it is possible to view it with detachment, and even to garner lessons or ideas from it that are applicable to our own Canadian politics, all without the worry that Trump may become the new leader of my country.

Watching intelligent people on both sides of the fence polarize their beliefs in order to correspond to their political positioning is a valuable lesson in human nature. Having a character like Donald Trump, who has migrated his position and behaviour farther and farther into unacceptable territory is a wonderful opportunity to watch his supporters struggle, rationalize and fall victim to cognitive dissonance.   It’s a naked demonstration of almost ever social psychology concept and theory that I’ve ever studied, laid out ready to be inspected at its most basic level.

In the most recent developments, this has turned into an opportunity to observe a sizable fraction of the public swallowed by a cult like movement and to watch the pundits supporting that movement fanatically ignore facts and turn logic on its head in order to justify their candidate. In recent days that has turned into shouting matches where all those not supporting that fanaticism are visibly stunned and angered by the Trump supporters’ indifference to reality.

A reality show where reality itself is at stake. Entertaining, yes. But also a little scary.