The Brain and Special Education

Work in Progress:

When you work in special education you work with kids who have "brain damage". Some of the damage is mild and difficult to discern from the quirks that make us unique. But most of it is severe enough that we are forced to wonder about the brain; how does it work? When damage happens to different parts of the brain, we wonder what "behaviors" can be expected? We need to know what can be done to circumvent abnormal behavior.

The brain is still a "black box" in many ways, but progress has been made, and there are some ideas that can be laid down. One thing I discovered, as I puzzled over the brain and the damaged brain, is that much of what we do as special education teachers, a lot of it gut level and intuitive, is actually correct; we are doing what we should do, our lesson plans make sense on a brain level.

What follows is a presentation I do about the brain. It is a "new" presentation for me; I'm still excited about it. It is based on Jeff Hawkin's interpretation of brain architecture as explained in his book "On Intelligence." Jeff could be "off the wall" I suppose, but his ideas make good sense to me. I also mixed in some concepts of my own, so don't shoot Jeff if something seems really strange. This is not my usual prose, I had fun doing this.

Also, as I read about the brain (one of my interests), I collected key ideas and listed them, and developed them, as time went by.

"Okay, let's begin. What's this? (I'm holding up a large natural sponge, heavy with water). You in the back."

"It's a three pound natural sponge heavy with water." (this is a smart class).

"Wow! Almost correct, but no, not at all, not a sponge. But a good guess. Anyone else? No one? Okay then, this is the human brain, a three pound sponge with an inflated opinion of itself (from the book: "Even Cowgirls get the Blues"). It's actually composed primarily of water." (Indeed, the brain was designed by water as a transportation medium).

What's this? You in the back." (I'm holding up a packet of yeast).

"A packet of yeast?", he asks, somewhat hesitantly.

"Brilliant! Yes, a packet of yeast, a living organism; just add water. By the way, yeast and humans share some of the same genes. What percentage of our genes are the very same as yeast genes? You in the back with your head down."

"I don't know, 2 percent, maybe?"

"Wow! That is so wrong; way far off. No, it's fifty percent. Yeast is half as smart as you. Next time you bake bread, say you're sorry. What's this?" (I'm holding a rat by the tail). Calm down ladies, this is a lab rat, she's entirely friendly and unsuspecting. You in the back with the red face." What is this?

"It's a rat, you idiot!"

"Sure it is. And how many genes do we have in common with the common lab rat? Anyone? No one? Okay, eighty five percent. We are less than one-quarter smarter than the average garbage-sniffing rodent.

"What is this?" (I open a metaphorical closet and out comes a two ton mountain ape). Stop screaming. Lock the doors. Okay, this is a common South African Mountain Gorilla. The Saginaw Zoo rented him for the evening. His name is Bill.

"Down, Bill. Don't drool on the coeds. Okay, you guessed it. Bill here has ninety-eight percent of his genes in common with you.

"Don't argue with me about evolution. God might have a plan, but it involves yeast, and lab rats, and mountain gorillas.

"And yet, it is all somewhat misleading, isn't it? After all, Bill cannot even play scrabble and lab rats can't whistle Dixie.

"What's going on here? You in the back."

"I have no idea."

"Yes! That's correct! Nobody has a clue.

"What's this?" (I'm holding up a table napkin).

No response from the coeds. Bill sits down and gets out his laptop.

"A napkin? Is that what you think? Wrong! No way. This, coeds and gentlemen, is the human cortex, surgically removed from the brain. This is the actual size of the human cortex; your world view, the color red, conversation, the thrill of victory, and the agony of divorce. Here Bill, hold this.

"And this, what is this (I'm holding up a business envelope)? I'll tell you. This is the actual size of the monkey cortex. And this postage stamp is the actual size of the rat cortex. And this pea is the actual size of my golden retriever's entire brain - but never mind that.

"It is the size of the cortex that correlates with intelligence, not the gene count. So, did Einstein have a bigger cortex than you? What do you think? You in the back."

"I think humans have about the same size cortex; so no, our brain cortexes are the same size as Einstein's.

"When they un-pickled Einstein's brain they found a larger than normal cortex with more supporting glial cells and more gyri in the parietal spatial centers. Einstein was way more spatially smart than all of us blended together. It is all about the size of the cortex. Actually, "intelligence" is the answer to the question "What does the cortex do?" Not that we can define intelligence to my satisfaction.

"Okay then, I'm holding up six playing cards and one hair brush. Why would I do that? You, in the back.

"You want to look good for the poker tournament."

"So close! But totally wrong. No tournament; the cortex is six playing cards thick and it is organized like a hair brush. But that is not the amazing thing about the cortex. The amazement is that this six card-hairbrush architecture is the same everywhere on the surface of the brain (where the cortex lives). The design is the same in the visual cortex, the motor cortex, the spatial cortex, the auditory cortex, the temporal cortex, the language cortex, the cognitive cortex, and the chocolate-craving cortex; everywhere (with minor variations) the grand design is identical. So, what does this imply, students- anyone?

No eyelid flicker, minimal pulse.

"I think we need to do a few experiments. What is this? (flashlight).

"Here, I'll shine the light in your eyes. No blinking. I said no blinking. Okay, that's experiment one. Here is the question "What does light shone directly into the eye tell us about the human cortex? You, in the back.

"I don't know."

"Sure, you don't, not yet. So, let's listen to static on this portable radio. What's your favorite static? What! You don't like static! Remember that. Okay, you in the front, John Doe, put this blindfold on and hold out your hand."

(I now place a model ship on the outstretched palm). "Without exploring with your fingers or moving the hand in any way, tell me what is resting on your palm."

"I don't know."

"Yes! Exactly my point! There you have it (I take the ship and put it in a bag before letting John take off the blindfold).

"He doesn't know! His cortex is as big as a napkin and he has more genes than a gorilla, and yet he doesn't know! Who can tell me what these experiments show us about the human cortex? Anyone. Someone. You can phone a friend.

No answer. I bang my frontal lobe on a desk.

"Alright, let's do the experiments again, only slightly different. I'll now take this flashlight, turn off the lights in the room, and shine the beam directly onto my face. What do you see, students?"

"Your face."

"Good. Now I'll turn the portable radio on to NPR and listen to human beings speak intelligently (what relief!). And finally, but just as importantly, John will put the blindfold back on- good John- and I'll place the very same object in his hand and John will tell us that it is, what? John? Go ahead and explore with your fingers."

"It's some kind of boat."

"Hallelujah! Correct answers!" Okay, what is this? (a Scottish tartan, the Wallace Clan).

"It's a Scottish tartan."

"Is this Wallace tartan the same as the Rutherford clan tartan? or the Paton tartan? or the Mc Neil tartan?'

"No sir, they all have a unique pattern."


More silence. Waiting.

"Patterns. It's all about patterns. The cortex is a pattern recognition system. There is no pattern in light shown directly into an eye. Light must be reflected and then go into an eye. Reflected light is a pattern.There is no pattern to static. Language is a pattern. The cortex is designed to remember patterns. The cortex is designed to learn patterns. The cortex can execute motor patterns. The cortex can make whole patterns out of pattern fragments. The cortex can predict patterns. The cortex architecture is everywhere the same because every human cortical system, vision, touch, hearing, uses the same software algorithm! So, what does this tell us about how to teach brain damaged kids?

"Dah, I don't know."

"Okay, then. Recite the alphabet silently and backwards. You have 30 seconds. Go."

"Times up. Why didn't you get your homework done? What's the matter with you? Don't you care about your future? Why aren't you a good student like these other sweet kids? We better run an I-Q test.

"If I gave you enough time, could you learn the alphabet backwards? Could you get very good at it if you practiced? Can you learn this pattern if you don't practice? What does this tell us about teaching children in special education?

"I know, teacher."

"Okay, what?"

"We have to teach patterns. We have to understand what patterns we are asking our students to learn. And we have to help the children practice the patterns.

"Get me my smelling salts. Jimmy Cricket, you are so right! Oh, I have a question. What is a pattern?


"I'll give you a hint. There are two kinds of patterns."

"Okay, let me tell you about patterns. Some patterns happen over time (temporal). They are sequential, serial, invariant in order; first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Mary with a baby carriage- no deviation allowed. Other patterns are not moving (spatial), not flowing, just sitting there waiting for our senses to study them, a photograph, toy boat- we move our senses over the objects, we touch them, move our eyes around over the solid surfaces. The brain takes in and remembers patterns. And there is the problem for our children in special education. Their senses do not do a good job of taking in the patterns, and even when the patterns do get laid down, they are missing valuable chunks of the pattern and the brain is (often) damaged in key pattern recognition and pattern response sections of the cortex."

"Patterns are made of sequences; invariant relationships. Temporal sequences must not vary. If they do, they are not the same pattern, maybe a pattern variation. A song is a temporal pattern. The lyrics and the rhythm and the melody create the song. Language is a set of rules that dictate a sound pattern. Our brains interpret the sound flow to recognize patterns called words, sentences, paragraphs, and polemics."

A face is an invariant spatial pattern. The eyes and nose and mouth are in a certain configuration. If not, then it is not a face, or not a usual face pattern. The picture cannot be cut up and rearranged if it is to be recognized. Our senses explore spatial patterns using sequences of sensory attentional moments. These snapshots are sent in streams to the brain to be processed in parallel in association with simultaneous input from the other sensors. Our eyes move from fixation point to fixation point checking and rechecking the spatial arrangement. Our fingers explore objects, sending the brain pressure, temperature, and surface feature information.

Of course, it's more complicated than this. The retina sends six simultaneous, upside down, fuzzy images to the brain, each with a different feature set, and the head and ears are moving all around, going in different directions from the eyes, and the whole body is posturing and fidgeting, and there are masking sounds (lawn mowers, jet planes) and distractions (cell phones ringing, TV images, glare, spilled milk), all demanding your attention, and you have out of control emotions and a sore back, and bills to be paid. But never mind all that. Let's get back to sequences. Just what exactly is a "sequence?" You in the back yawning."

"It's when something comes after something else in order."

"Okay, but how does the brain do sequencing? What do we need to be able to do well in order to sequence well?"