THE THINKING HAND

What does Donald Trump's - the President Elect of the USA - use of his hands when speech making tell us about his thinking? Twitching and switching, flipping and flopping this way and that, all over the place,  Turning to an earlier time, we know how Adolf Hitler, used his hands when speech making and parading.  With a raging raised fisted right hand it was used to express his 'anti-leftist and anti-semitic passion' and with open hand and raised outstretched arm, to signal allegiance to his cause.

The question is, are such hand gestures incidental or unrelated to thinking, or are they an integral aspect of thinking? If the latter they provide at least as good a mirror into the psyche as the eyes are said to provide a mirror to the soul. And non-sensical as it might seem, focusing on hand use offers a contrast to neuroscience's focus on the 'cognitive'.

We know  that the right cerebral hemisphere operates in synchrony with the left hand and the left cerebral hemisphere in synchrony with the right hand. Noting which hand is doing what when talking or doing manual tasks tells us how the brain is organized and how the body is oriented. Let's return to HItler to illustrate the point. While we notice his raging right few notice what his left hand is doing. In so many situations his left hand holds or clutchs -as though for dear life- his coat, belt, hat, windscreen of open topped car and to brush his hair. In his final hours, with little or nothing both literally and metaphorically left  to hang on to we observe his left hand trembling behind his back, while with his right hand stroking the cheeks of young cadet soldiers parading before him. All a coincidence or something else? One possibility is that having been repressed for so long 'it' wasn't able to control itself when it had nothing left to hang on to.

The most obvious and direct example of the link between the active hand and the thinking brain     .  is determining which hand is better able to read the mind's eye image and capture it on the page, with seemingly effortless ease. One, perhaps non-obvious implication,is that in the more general case of dealing with seemingly intractable problems we need to determine the precise brain-body link in each case by identifying:

the hand best able to execute unfamiliar complex tasks with seemingly effortless ease


Graphicacy

Writing or putting pen to paper is a seemingly complex hand-brain, mind's-eye-imaging task involving a core body-brain mechanism. This requires the literate mind to link the mind's eye image to the adept hand. When this link is direct we can be said to be in harmony with ourselves and with the literate world. When it is indirect (that is via the contra-lateral hemisphere) performance capability is diminshed. This is because there is a mis-match between the mind's eye image and the performing hand.  The reason why not only literacy but other non-literate tasks are affected is simple:

in literate cultures, writing plays a critical role in structuring our sense of self

However, writing with the right hand provides neither necessary nor sufficient evidence that it is indeed the adept hand. We know this for a variety of reasons:  from those who have been coerced and are still bing induced to regard their right hand as their adept hand. The brain - action link is such that the right brain controls the left hand (and the left brain, the right hand). With an ironic twist in judging someone to be in their right mind we're unwittingly judging their left hand to be their adept hand!

Identifying the adept hand is, therefore, a key question in identifying whether or not someone is truly in theirr right mind. This is crucial when experiencing long standing problems or when seeming to have been acting unreasonably.

It is indeed possible to write with the non-adept hand. But doing so makes fluent writing and reading more difficult than it should otherwise be. And because writing-reading is regarded as a foundational skill, failure to master it has a cumulatively negative effect on individuals, families and society as a whole. Currently reading and writing problems are commonly tackled in a regressive problem shifting manner by proposing a label as a causal mechanism when they are merely re-descriptions: eg dyslexia for reading difficulty, dysgraphia for writing difficulty and dyspraxia for (eye-) hand co-ordination difficulties. Their use indicates the success of various vested interest groups; by legitimating 'differences' , establishing new identity 'norms' where individuals have succeeded in other aspects of life in spite / because of their dificulty. By personalizing then medicalizing the difficulties many individuals encounter in moving from novice to expert status we're failing to act in a progressive problem shifting manner.

Identifying the adept hand

The adept hand needs to be defined independently of the writing hand.  Similarly the strong hand is not to be confused with the adept hand either. Generally speaking, the non-writing, or holding hand, is often the stronger. There are so many cultural imperatives to do everything 'right' that it is essential to check which hand is the adept one, for some their left is their 'right' writing hand

Identifying which is the adept hand involves noting - ideally through participant observation- which hand is better able to handle a number of familiar and unfamiliar single handed and bi-manual tasks.

There are however powerful institutional obstacles to acknowledging latent / converted handedness. They represent vested interests focussing on  'abnormal' rather than a 'mirror brain' processes to explain learning difficulties, mind states or misconduct differences.

No particular professional qualification or expertise is needed to identify the mis-match. Early Years' Teachers are ideally positioned to identify pupils' adept hand. Yet they consistently fail to do so because they are enmeshed in psychologists' cognitive conceit. This conceit assumes that poor literacy and numeracy are the result of faulty cognitive processes.  Focussing on the surface 'what' behaviour - of drawing/writing- rather than on the 'how' obscures this condition.

In this context, Dr Ivo-Kurt Cizek's introduction to Dr Sattler's 1995 book captures well the importance of her insights into handedness. It also invites the question of why teacher educators and psychologists in the UK still remain are at best ignorant of and at worst deny the implications and consequences of not graphing (drawing or writing) with the adept hand. His position is summarised in this quote:

This leaves me puzzling why we never noticed the connection before. Why had no one been able to put the 'obvious' pieces of cause-effect, and action-reaction together before?

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The cognitive conceit: homo faber instead of homo sapiens?

The cognitive conceit (deceit?) assumes that the thinking brain and the active hand are separate entities, which may or may not interact with each other. In short, they operate independently of each other. The flow of information between the two is that cognitive processes control the hand. Hence the CBT belief in the general efficacy of 'talking cures'.

The belief in the supremacy of the brain is captured best by the label 'homo sapiens', signifying wisdom. It is to cite Howard Brown, a conceit. The conceit stems from the fact that viewing ourselves in the mirror, we see a face masking a highly developed disembodied brain which is capable of speech, introspection, abstract reasoning, puzzling and problem solving. Yet it is this same brain that often finds itself unable to handle what the world, both literally and metaphorically, throws at it.

The non-conceited view is that the brain and the hand have evolved simultaneously, each constitutive of the other. This is equally true in the case of the development of the self, where ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

And yet many academics and professionals still act as though mind (brain) and body (hand), are separate. This is evident in judgements such as "She's good with her head but useless with her hands", "He's brilliant with his hands but is no good with his head!", "She knows her stuff but can't put it down on paper." None, however, can be true since it is the same brain that 'controls' thinking that 'controls' the hands.

Like other professionals, teachers fail to acknowledge that their pupils' persistent writing problems provide evidence of writing with the non-adept hand; and they do so because they regard handwriting in both its orthography and cartography - as a consequence, rather than as a concomitant of poor thinking.

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Dys-labels:,disembodied reification

A label is simply a word, which acts to name some entity or other. But just because we have a word to name an entity, for example "unicorn"  does not mean that the entity exists as a reality independent of the name. Reifying something means that we beleive it exists just because we've got a name. Reification occurs regularly when, for example, we find children struggling with reading, writing or mathematics  and invent the entities, dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia to 'explain' the difficulty. Such labelling frequently reveals ignorance of the conditions which guarantee success with reading, writing and mathematics.

As far as education is concerned, a long established ritual is to call in non-education experts - for the mind - psychologists- or for the mind-body -psychiatrists, to conduct assessments to find the right causal label. This amounts to regressive-problem-shifting since we are redefining a teaching problem as a learner problem.  Such an approach seldom leads to diagnosing the precise nature of pupils' inherent obstacles to learning-with-seemingly-effortless-ease.

Psychologists, rather than identify poor pedagogy, invariably locate the difficulty within the child / adult with one of the following 'diagnostic labels':

 

TABLE 1 DIAGNOSTIC LABELS
a=absence of, thus alexia - the inability to read anything at all
dys=mal-functioning, thus dyslexia - error-prone reading
Syndrome Attribute Operationally defined by
a / dys praxia motor movement object manipulation
a / dys lexia reading fluency in reading aloud
a / dys calculia mathematics manipulating numbers
a / dys graphia expressing thoughts on paper body posture: form and context of text
a / dys phasia speaking fluency in talking
a / dys tonia muscle tone ability to hold posture / gesture

 

The above table shows that labels reify or objectify one phase in the transition from novice to expert status and label it with a bit of Greco-Latin. This confers a spurious authenticity on the labelers  own ultimate rescuer status. It also implies the possession of esoteric knowledge. This is type of insidious 'psychologizing', creates many non-substantive problems.

By now it should be perfectly clear that anyone with sufficient wit can join in this game to create their own labels like: 'amusica','aChinese-ia', 'dysphobia' and 'apathetica'.

Teachers and parents become even further distanced from the original teacher-learner problem when they involve psychiatrists, as evidenced by the following, incomplete list of medicalised conditions.

 

TABLE 2 LABELS AND THEIR CLASSIFICATORY STATUS
CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM
LABEL DSM-IV ICD-10 Legislation
SEN-DDA
American
Veterans
Association
Seligman Sattler Mathews
Alcoholism / /       ? /
PTSD / /   /   / /
ADHD attention
deficit
hyperactivity
disorder
attention
deficit
hyperkinetic
disorder
/ /   / /
Anger
Management
      /   / /
Autistic
Spectrum
Disorder
/ / / /   ? /
Conduct
Disorders
/ / /     / /
Dyslexia / / /   / / /
Dysgraphia / / /     / /
Handedness           converted latent
Learned
Helplessness
        / ? /

Why have we allowed teachers so easily to abdicate their responsibility for inducing pupil success? This question cannot be divorced from teachers' conditions of service. Fearing poor SAT, Ofsted or Exam performance they are induced into 'playing smart' by repeating yet more of the same, only with greater rigour.

Levine handled the general issue of professional alienation in a 1983 paper entitled: Method or Madness: The Alienation of the Professional, which he defined as a sense of loss of control within professions. He claimed

"...the alienating character of professional method may be observed in varying degrees in all human service professions. Method alienates the professional from the subject matter of interest, and to some degree from his or her own perceptions and interests. In the course of attempting to solve problems, too often the emphasis changes from understanding the substantive problem to checking and correcting artefacts of method, losing the focus on the original substantive problem, as the work turns in on itself. The cure requires professional social support for studies better suited to illuminate the human condition and to enlighten and intrigue the professional worker."

 

Three years earlier Cox and Wood had focused on teachers in their Organizational Structure and Professional Alienation: The Case of Public School Teachers. To quote them:

Exploring the problem of the relation between structure of social units and psychological states of their members, this paper examines professionals' alienation from bureaucratically structured organizations.
....Numerous and often disparate meanings of alienation exist, ranging from apathy to authoritarianism, from psychosis to regression. The present study of public school teachers focuses on the powerless dimension of alienation, accepting Clark's definition of alienation as . .. The degree to which man feels powerless to achieve the role that he has determined to be rightfully his in specific situations.
Clearly the 1960's has been a decade of increasing alienation among teachers. Teachers are demanding a new role for themselves, including greater professional autonomy and larger voice in educational policies and programs. ....

Pepper called the pre-occupation with method 'methodolatory'. Here the notion of 'alienation', caused by an obsession with method, has been extended to cover parents as well as teachers. The situation, if anything, has worsened over the intervening decades without any significant improvement in the performance of pupils despite numerous 'educational reforms'.

Ted Nunan, also in 1983, handled the same set of pedagogic issues in his Countering Educational Design. Later in 1991, Pawel Dembinski in another e-field, but this time economics, drew similar conclusions under the title: The Logic of the Planned Economy: The Seeds of the Collapse.

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Teachers and parents as engineering stakeholders

The OECD in their Programme for International Student Assessment 2012 report identified the role of teachers as nation builders as being a key feature in highly ranked nations. For parents to join teachers in establishing their role as nation-builders we need a more radical model of what teaching-learning is: in short a better model of how we can successfully induce brains to become more capable.

Such a model is to be found in a scientific - engineering facility, such as at  Daresbury Laboratory. This world-renowned 3rd generation Synchrotron Radiation Resource was not master-minded by one single person, nor did it arise, designed, fully fledged from a blank-sheet drawing-board. The essential features of such a system appear to be that it:

  • is curiosity and problem-solving driven: operates in an experimental mode,
  • involves inter-disciplinary teamwork: collegial not hierarchical interaction,
  • represents ever-evolving expertise,
  • represents a self-organizing criticality: self-validating interaction,
  • involves an international team: not parochial, local or even national, but truly global,
  • is constantly moving into the unknown.

The simple test for the efficacy of its system-wide management is its world class status both in leading edge research and in producing intended results.

The contrast with what happens in education, schools or classrooms couldn't be greater. External agents, generally psychologists, step in to offer teachers - who, looking for excuses / reasons for failing to inspire pupils to succeed - a variety of diagnoses meriting special educational needs status.

Marc Gold, with his Try Another Way engineering approach pioneered the shift from focussing on what learners couldn't do to what teachers should do to debug their students learning difficulties. This was achieved by contextualizing teaching-learning.

Such teachers interacting in a common-sense manner with pupils would be prompted to check out hearing, sight, and handedness. Failure to do so would indicate they're not acting pedagogically. The non-pedagogic expert would only then be needed to provide any necessary prosthetic device (e.g. spectacles / hearing aide).

The need for an implicit engineering model was brought to mind while observing how the use of modern technology is changing the way infant minds get programmed. One 'mind-programming' incident was observed in a Spanish street market. Ambling through the market, a father cradled his less-than-year-old child in his right arm, while positioning a camcorder in his left hand to show the infant the scene ahead on the screen. This meant the infant was able to view the territory both directly and as refracted through the camcorder's screen. The infant didn't have to be instructed in how to cope with the double view - the brain simply adjusted. Of course the next step would be to hand over the camcorder to the infant ,so that the infant assumes control over the viewing!

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Hand communication: hand-on-hand finger spelling

So far we have considered the role of hands primarily as a tool for writing in the able bodied. But what happens when infants are born both deaf and blind? Are they and their brains destined to be frozen forever in space and time? Are they to be condemned never to interact with the world or with others, on the assumption that since they cannot see or hear the world they inhabit they cannot 'show' or 'talk about' it?

Helen Keller's life story tells us otherwise. The critical factor in children's communication is not their disability, but the expertise of those they inter-act with. It is only the cognitive conceit that prevents such a viewpoint. For in Helen Keller's case the only means of communication left is with and through the hands, mouth and rest of the body. The procedure is straightforward and involves associating objects, actions and feelings with tactile finger-hand spelling.

In one scenario, the adult kneels astride the less-than-year old deaf / blind infant, then prompts the infant to hold an object in both hands (and let it play for a while), prompts the infant's hands to place the object up to the infant's mouth (and let it explore it for a while), takes the object off the child, then immediately finger-spells the name of the object on the infant's hand. The sequence is also immediately repeated but with a different object.

Seeing deaf / blind adults communicate with this hand-on-hand finger-spelling method and at speed is inspiring. What is even more remarkable, however, is that this form of spelling is used with the infant well below the age when spelling is normally introduced to normal children. Of course what is really happening is that spelling is introduced to a receptive brain, which is only handicapped by its blindness and deafness and not by its total senselessness

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Reference Harold Cox, James R Wood (1980) Issues and Trends in American Education, Peabody Journal of Education October p.1

 

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