Monday, March 12, 2007

dirty dog david: reflections on "whole class intelligence"

Lewis Thomas has a rather remarkable essay, I believe in Lives of a Cell, that he calls simply "Living Language." He starts the essay, quite improbably, by recounting some recently conducted research on the nest building abilities of termites.

It seems that termites have the most advanced building abiliities in the animal kingdom. Outside of humans, of course. Termite nests in South America can run up to ten feet in diameter and several feet deep. That's about the size, Thomas notes, of New York City, relatively speaking, to the size of an individual termite. And these dwellings are not simple structures. They have sleeping rooms, food storage rooms, a room for the queen and her retainers, and so forth. Yet individual termites have a miniscule brain--the original pinheads. So how do they know how to build these elaborate underground structures?

To answer this question, a researcher studied smaller and larger collections of termites under laboratory conditions. Turns out that when a few termites were placed in a small dish with soil and pellets, they would rush around moving their pellets randomly from place to place. More termites, more random moving about of pellets. But when 25 or so termites were placed in the dish, they'd start building columns of pellets, and when these columns were built close enough to one another, the termites would connect them with a neatly finished off arch. And that arch, of course, was the basic "building block" of their elaborate underground edifices.

Termites could not build these edifices individually, the researher concluded. There had to be certain number of termites before they could "discover" their collective intelligence. It's like the English language, Thomas muses in his essay. There is no one author of this magnificent "acheivement"--it's the product of many many individual intelligences working collectively, feeding intellectually off one another.

I think the same thing is true of classrooms of students. Certainly we all have had classes where one or two students stood out as particularly gifted or talented in one way or another--most often linguistically in English classes. But what's far more impressive to me is how intelligent classes can become when they are encouraged to perceive themselves collectively rather than as a random collection of individuals.

I play a "name game" with my students at the beginning of each semester. Every student must not only tell the class his or her name, but must repeat all the names of all those who have already said their names. To enable students to do this, I tell them to the class their first name, then follow this with something they like or dislike that begins with the sound of their first name's letter or letters. So Diana dislikes dinasours, Lizzie likes lizards, and so forth. The next week I have them do the same thing, but now with an alliterative phase or pair of words that begins with the sound of the letter or letters of their first name.

In week two of the methods class I'm presently teaching, Diana began the Name Game by telling us she disliked dirty dogs. They are smelly, she explained, and they make a mess of your carpet. The class nodded, and proceeded. We came round to the final student--an older student named David who had informed us a week earlier that he enjoyed hiking in Denali National Park.

"I'm David," he told the group, "and I AM a dirty dog."

Classroom intelligence/

1 comment:

DynamiteDave said...

I feel honored to be singled out in this fashion. i shall have to embrace my new identity.
--Dirty Dog David