Monkey See = Monkey Do 2

I wonder who first coined the phrase Monkey See Monkey Do after noticing primates copy each other - probably it was someone in a village somewhere who was keeping one as a pet or it might well have been a circus entertainer - - hmm, whoever it was, it was definitely way back before a bunch of men in white coats studying macaque monkeys yelled Eureka.

The Italian scientists were yelling because the monkeys not only copied their actions but apparently also seemed to experience pleasure even though they themselves didn't have any "reason" to.

As the story goes, a monkey's brain had been wired up to detect the firing of his neurons when planning and carrying out a movement such as grasping a peanut. One researcher returned from lunch licking an ice cream cone. As the monkey watched the researcher, some of his neurons fired as though he were eating the ice cream, even though he was not moving. The monkey's neurons were "mirroring" the activity that the monkey was observing.
Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma reported their discovery of monkey mirror neurons in 1996. Researchers soon found evidence for mirror neurons in human beings. Just like monkeys, it turns out that when we see someone perform an action—picking up a glass of water or kicking a ball—our mirror neurons simulate that action in our brains. Researchers have suggested that mirror neurons are crucially involved in the distinctive human development of language, morality, and culture.

Ronald Bailey, The Theory of Moral Neuroscience

I first came across this concept while reading Buy.ology by Martin Lindstrom because I am a nerd and I take business books on holiday with me. In one of the early chapters of this book which explores the reasons we buy the things we do, he mentions our purchasing decisions are often mirrors of what the people around us are buying.
e.g. I-phone, U-phone, we all I-phone

The book is brilliant: he unravels the psychology of our daily purchasing decisions, revealing influences like tradition, security, religion, superstition and sex, sensory input such as smell; somatic markers and subliminal messages - and if you're a Business English teacher of adult learners like I am then you'll no doubt find it an invaluable materials resource for authentic, stimulating conversations on topical themes.

Anyway, enough on that...

because actually,

actually it hit me like a brick,

falling out of the sky and

landing smack dab

upon my dreaming brain

while I lay lying there,

peacefully on the beach.

If most of us do things that other people do....

do we learn new words and grammar and language because other people are communicating in a certain way and we copy them? Is that how language evolved?

Oh right, yup, the men in white coats have theorized on that one already.

Not an epiphany after all.

Hmm... how does it apply to the L2 though? Maybe that's why so many expats learn second and third languages using television soap operas or why full-immersion programs are better than years of classes in a non-native speaking country. Hmm... but what about all the learners who do achieve fluency despite never having stepped outside their own countries?

My mind kept spinning as my toes wriggled in the sand...

Jeremy Harmer's fluency dilemma drifting in and out of consciousness, my feeble attempts at trying to label the rush for him - the thing I see in students' eyes when they "get it" - when they cross an L2 language threshold...

In and out... round and round in my brain.

Cloudy skies drifting past lazily and waves crashing against the shore.

I decided to push the mirror-neurons theory towards the basic processes of education:

1. We observe the world around us.

2. We notice that which causes pleasure or pain in others.

3. When we notice other people's experiences we simulate identical feelings in our own brains: pleasure inspires desire to go through the same; boredom may generate the same unless we repel or avoid the experience.

4. We remember most the things that give us pleasure.

So what I'm actually saying is this, if it is that the teacher is the most important factor in deciding whether or not students learn, as Bill Gates seems to think, is it enough to say the teacher is Factor it?

Shouldn't we be delving deeper into the why?

Shouldn't we look for what the unifying similarities are amongst different yet equally amazing teachers?

Briefly, my 4:

Mrs Lewis in grade 3: warm, helpful, supportive - she was the first person to believe in me, she told me that I would be a writer and I have spent my whole life attempting to prove her right.

Professor Hein who stood on tables and rode into class on a unicycle, passed on the gift of teaching through humour, inquiry and outrageousness! He gave me a deep appreciation for history that I've never lost.

David Langsam how many of us left his journalism course, I wonder, with not just the love of a well-written piece but the desire to become him: to have all those adventures, the prizes on the walls and the grainy photos in dark, foreign places.

Scott Thornbury, though not directly my teacher is my guru nonetheless: his cocky arrogance and abyss-like intelligence stretch my mind as he persuades those around him to dig deeper into language and communication.

What did/do these teachers all have in common?

They inspire.

Is it possible that whenever we notice our teacher's pleasure of being in the classroom, whiles she's sharing her knowledge, that we want to copy her in order to taste the joy, the secret to her happiness?

Could it be that the maximum potential for learning is when others around us are actively engaged - that we are not only enjoying the content of what we're learning but that motivation is, in itself, contagious (as is boredom) and the teacher is the virus carrier of knowledge?

Does L2 acquisition simply boil down to enthusiastic, engaged, motivated copying?

What are your thoughts? Am I on to something here or should I just go back in the ocean for a nice long swim instead?

Coming with me?

Useful links related to this posting:

draft version written overX-mas/NewYear09

3 Responses to “Monkey See = Monkey Do 2”

  • Scott says:
    January 20, 2010

    Nice riff, Karenne. Although Michael Tomasello doesn't mention mirror neurons, they would seem to reinforce his theory of language acquisition (argued in 'Constructing a Language' 2003)which is predicated on the view that it's our capacity to 'read the intentions' of others that enables language development: "Children begin to acquire language when they do because the learning process depends crucially on the more fundamental skills of joint attention, intention-reading, and cultural learning - which emerge near the end of the first year of life. And, importantly, a number of studies have found that children's earliest skills of joint attentional engagement with their mothers correlate highly with their earliest skills of language comprehension and production ... This correlation derives from the simple fact that language is nothing more than another type - albeit a very special type - of joint attentional skill; people use language to influence and manipulate one another's attention" (p. 21)

    Cockily arrogant, S. ;-)

  • Marisa says:
    January 21, 2010

    What an insightful post! I enjoyed reading it! I'd like to go to the beach with you and I understand how inspiring the contact with nature is!
    I fully agree that an inspiring teacher is a great factor in the teaching-learning process. The key factor is to be able to find out what appeals to a particular class and meet our studetns' needs.

  • Nick Jaworski says:
    January 25, 2010

    You brought this up a few posts back and I've had time to dwell on it some more. I've come to the conclusion that one of the fundamental things a teacher needs to do is to challenge their students.

    Inspiration is great, but I find it unrealistic when teaching elementary students numbers or clothing vocabulary. However, you can still challenge them to use the language in new ways or to act a way in class that they generally don't.

    At higher levels I can challenge them to think. I may not inspire them to fall in love with English or get them into hip-hop and start dropping sick rhymes, but I will push their limits in their langauge use and make them question much of what they think they know.

    When I think back to my best teachers, they were always the ones who challenged me. The ones who said what about this, or try something new, or you're wrong. They pushed me.


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