Incepting Perception

I’ve been reading ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales’ by Oliver Sacks recently. In the book, Sacks, who is a neurologist , describes the case histories of some of his patients. The title of the book comes from a case study of a music professor who has developed visual agnosia with age. He can see things in great detail but cannot give general overall descriptions. When shown an object, he says that it is ‘about six inches in length’ and goes on to describe it as a ‘convoluted red form with a linear green attachment’. When Sacks probes further and asks him what he thinks it is, he replies with perplexity that it is ‘not easy to say’ and that ‘it lacks the simple symmetry of the Platonic solids, although it may have a higher symmetry of its own’. It is only when Sacks asks him to smell the object that he realises that it is a rose.

Reading that case study made me think about the role of perception in our lives. What you see is based on what you think, and what you think you see drives so many other things, like what you say and what you feel, for instance.

I guess that’s why there’s so much talk about brain-based learning, learning about how the brain works and how that influences learning. And why, in teaching or in communication in general, it’s always essential to check understanding by asking questions. It’s really to unearth perceptions that are bourne out of existing schemas because how something looks like to one person can seem radically different to another. Perhaps the most effective conversations or lessons occur when both parties come to a common understanding of the other’s perception of a certain topic.

What also struck me from this particular case study was how the man needed to be told to smell the rose and how that act made him suddenly aware of what the object was. Using an educator’s lens (perception!), it seemed like a parallel to what teachers do. To point our students to what they need to do, realise or understand so that they can grasp the concept or the skill. The difficulty though, is unearthing what that thing they need to do or realise or understand is. In UbD, these would be within the big ideas. In the literature on Lesson Study, these would be the gaps in student understanding and knowledge and the gaps between who the students are now and who we hope they will become. It’s akin to what great coaches know, which is how to push their athletes to the next level.

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