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The Black Box

I remember reading about the “black box” when I studied Skinner in Psych 101. B.F. Skinner reckoned – in summary – that the brain and what happened in it was unmeasurable and therefore not subject to theorising. Radical behavourism, I think was the term. It also supposed that it wasn’t necessary to know what happened in the brain to get the owner of the brain to do certain stuff. This idea is borrowed from engineering and is called “the black box” – sort of like a telly. I have no clue what anything inside the telly looks like or what it does or even what it’s called. I don’t care. I know where the on/off switch is and I get from the telly what I want (unless Virgin has swopped channels around again and I can’t find “Judge Judy” – but then it’s just a matter of pushing different buttons until I find her new home – I don’t need to delve into the innards of the box.)

This morning I sat staring out of the window, wondering about my three students – Serpil, Roman and Monika: wondering more about their langauge acquisition to be precise. Three totally different people and three totally different types of student – in every conceivable way – including level, learning styles and motivation. One is here to “catch up” because she didn’t learn English earlier and spends the time lashing herself for not absorbing it more quickly; the second is here to learn how to analyse fashion shots and how to direct a fashion shoot. (She loved “The Artist”, which she demanded to see as part of her training); and the third is here to – as far as I can make out – learn the order of the Kings and Queens of England by heart. Don’t ask.

They each have a brain and I have no clue how any of their brains work. But for my purposes, each is a “black box”. I don’t need to know how it works, or which side is better for language acquisition, or which nerve paths are stimulated or how or how often. It makes no difference to me. In fact it just obfuscates the whole process, because then I’d be concentrating on that and not on the person in front of me. An acute listening ear and a keen observation of face and eyes and the path opens up. Does he learn better if he moves about? Must she see it written down? Does he have to repeat it til it becomes chant? Does she question and search and frown? What it means doesn’t matter. That it helps is their business. Allowing them to do it their way, is yours. You don’t need to know what is happening in the black box, just monitor what is produced. This is all you need. The mysterious mechanics of the “black box” will take care of the rest – in its own time. It’s none of your business…..


5 responses »

  1. I taught a Serpil once. Wanted all the grammar yesterday 😉

    • Hi Mike. How you doing? How’s the DELTA? Yeah – it’s the grammar fiends that make it tough. I can’t get it into them that they had no clue of their native grammar when they learned to talk…:)

  2. So true! I think it is the chanting and a cigarette in some cases…..

  3. Be grateful that ‘they each have a brain’. Not all my charges are so endowed.


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