I “met” Temple Grandin as I was pulling into a T.J.Maxx parking lot. It takes a lot to deter me from a bargain shopping sortie, but I sat in the car, mesmerized, for the next 15 minutes as she was interviewed by WHYY’s Terry Gross on NPR. You can hear a collection of Fresh Air‘s interviews with Dr. Grandin by clicking here. (You won’t be disappointed…I really don’t have words to describe the experience of hearing her speak.)
Dr. Grandin was diagnosed with autism in 1950 when that condition was not the household word it is today. Disregarding advice that she be institutionalized, her parents sought the best educational facilities for her. Because of their wisdom, she was able to develop her considerable intellect, ultimately earning a doctoral degree in animal science in 1989. She has been an activist for autism, a consultant to the livestock industry, a bestselling author, and the subject of a motion picture in which she was portrayed by (gasp!) Clare Danes. Not too shabby.
Summer Reading: Part 1
I’ve been reading Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals on my Kindle reader, and I’m finding something on almost every page that applies to my teaching, my relationship with my beloved corgi Julep, or both! (Click here for the Amazon page for the book, which features a Q&A with the author.) Now, I realize that some people get all worked up when we start talking about humans—and students in particular—as animals. But, hey, I teach anatomy and physiology. The parallels are hard to ignore.
In the opening pages of the book, Dr. Grandin lists “five freedoms animals should have:
- freedom from hunger and thirst
- freedom from discomfort
- freedom from pain, injury, or disease
- freedom to express normal behavior
- freedom from fear and distress”
These are things we all want and deserve, whether we are human or canine, student or professor. I’m comfortable leaving the “hunger and thirst” item up to my students, although I do schedule a break to take care of those needs. I try to regulate the temperature in my classroom/lab, and I wish I could change the seats. We try to keep things safe, taking care of #3. The last 2 items are the ones that have me thinking.
“Freedom from fear and distress”
Wow. I’m still amazed by the number of teachers who fail to see that a stressful, judgmental atmosphere in which students fear their instructor is an adverse learning environment. Seriously, do these folks really think that we’re impressed when they trumpet how tough their courses are and what iron fists they have? I DO feel that students need to be accountable for their behavior and their performance, and I insist that they demonstrate that they have mastered the material necessary to complete the course. However, my students should know that I am on their side, literally cheering them on rather than trying to trip them up.
“Freedom to express normal behavior”
Here’s the really interesting item: Grandin states that emotions always precede behavior, and she credits neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp with identifying the “blue ribbon” emotions that control animal behavior. One of these is SEEKING (Dr. Panskepp always writes the blue ribbon emotions in all caps), which is defined as “the basic impulse to search, investigate, and make sense of the environment.” Grandin goes on to explain: “SEEKING is a combination of emotions people usually think of as being different: wanting something really good, looking forward to getting something really good, and curiosity, which most people don’t think of as an emotion at all.”
Aha! This is something I can really use! I can leverage the fact that my students want something good (knowledge, a grade, a career, a great experience in my class), look forward to getting something really good (everyday should have a party!), and….best of all…curiosity. I just have to figure out how to do it. Wait a minute! I am looking forward to using this and getting good results, and I’m curious about how to do it.
Julep proves Grandin is right
With these ideas still churning in my head, I put Julep on her leash and headed out the door for a nice walk. We’re spending the summer a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean here in Florida, and we both enjoy exploring an environment so different from our western Kentucky headquarters. She’s always excited when she sees me lacing up my walking shoes–she’s wanting something really good and looking forward to getting something really good–a walk! Julep lunged for the grassy island across from our driveway, ears pricked and tailless rump twitching.
Julep meets a tortoise
What had caught her attention? She had spotted a tortoise, and the ensuing encounter was worth grabbing my iPhone to take a shot. Eventually we continued on our walk as planned, but she insisted on revisiting the site of the adventure on our return and has checked it out on every subsequent trip outside.
How to push that button?
Curiosity…what a powerful motivator. How can I use my students’ innate curiosity to help them learn? As I wondered about this, I recalled an episode from my last A&P II class. In an effort to put some relevance and emotion into a discussion of mechanisms that control blood pressure, I used a clinical scenario from my instructor resources. The case was illustrated with a single unremarkable photo of a young man, supplemented with a written history, lab data, and vital signs. We worked through the initial steps of the exercise, but then reached a point that required knowledge of some renal mechanisms we hadn’t yet covered.
“We’ll stop here for now,” I announced, “but we’ll come back and finish saving him in a couple of weeks when we know more.” And promptly forgot all about it.
Fast forward. After slogging through renal physiology and fluid and electrolyte balance, we were all pretty tired. “Aren’t we going to save the guy?” someone asked.
“The guy with the septic shock…we’ve all been worrying about him.”
So save him we did. I hope my students learned something good that day. I know I did.
- What is curiosity? (yeahiknowall.wordpress.com)
- Lesson from Temple Grandin (pamboyd.wordpress.com)
- Searching for the Tastiest Patch (pleasureinlearning.com)