Monday, 25 April 2011

Proprioception: I see learning people

What makes online teaching different from classroom teaching?

The ever-astute Maxim Achkasov suggested that the difference lies in the way we communicate in the classroom, in  a manner which exceeds the grasp of our five senses.

'There must be one more,' he avers, 'which makes it really different and probably "genuine" from any other way of communication.'

In trying to put my finger on what that sixth sense might be, I found an analogy in Oliver Sacks' excellent book of case studies, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.

In it he relates the story of a patient of his who suffered from a viral infection in her spinal cord, and, as a result, lost the ability to move properly or control the tone of her voice.

The cause of this alarming impediment was the loss of proprioception.
If exteroception is the name we give to Maxim's five senses, and interoception our sense of internal pain and organ position, proprioception is the term used to describe our intuitive understanding of the position of our limbs and of our sense of balance.

It is a kind of internal compass, letting us know consciously and unconsciously where our extremities are and whether they are moving, and so on.

I think, by analogy, there is a kind of pedagogical proprioception.

A good teacher knows, for example, where his students are, whether they are on-task, bored, fascinated or utterly bewildered, down to each individual in the classroom.

We have a sixth sense, in other words, about whether or not our lesson is working.

It is as if we had sensory input from each student wired directly into our brains, from which we are able to calculate the lesson gestalt.

In the case of Sacks' patient, after a while she was able to compensate for her lack of proprioception by employing her other senses more overtly.

For example, she started to use her sense of sight to watch her limbs.

This also led to her over-compensating, such as gripping objects very tightly just to make sure she didn't drop them.

We can perhaps see something of this when we compare internet and classroom teaching.

Losing our sense of pedagogical proprioception online, we can compensate with other strategies, such as using smileys to reassure each other that we are joking.

This may give our online classrooms a jerky and unreal feeling, like Sacks' patient, but it does make them effective.

And this feeling of unreality will remain until we develop a different but equally intuitive sense of online proprioception.

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