Having the Journey

The following blog has excepts from the book Computers, Cockroaches and Ecosystems: Understanding Learning through Metaphor.

The map is not the substitute for a personal experience. The map does not take the place of an actual journey. (Dewey, 1990/1902, p. 198)

The above quote has profound implications for education. Implications we have largely ignored. Let me explain.

On August 13th, 1869 John Wesley Powell wrote, “We are now ready to start our way down the Great Unknown…We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well!” (Powell, 1875, p. 80). When Powell wrote this, he was standing at the junction of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado. Below him waited the unexplored Grand Canyon.

GrandCanyon copy

Sketch included in Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries

Powell’s 1869 expedition of the Colorado River was a legendary achievement, and his report of the expedition, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries, became a classic. With its detailed map and a wealth of information on distances, directions, elevations, landmarks, rapids, and navigation strategies, it became a guide for future explorers and thrill seekers for decades to come. In an introduction to the 1987 edition of the report, Wallace Stegner wrote, “Nearly everyone who runs any part of the canyons now…either carries this story of Powell’s in his duffelbag or has it read or recited to him around the fire while the tamed Colorado slips past” (Powell, 1997, p. xii).

In the fall of 2009, I had the awe-inspiring experience of rafting the Grand Canyon. We used an updated guidebook with topographical maps and detailed information about rapids, campsites, side canyons, sites of historical significance, and the geology and zoology of the region. The guide was even waterproof so we kept it strapped to the top of a cooler where we could use it as a constant reference. The thing was indispensable. It made our journey possible and greatly enriched the experience.


Our trip down the Grand Canyon

Such is the purpose of a guidebook. It compiles information obtained by visionaries like John Wesley Powell and, in doing so, opens up opportunities for us ordinary folk. Guidebooks can be fun to read for their own sake, but their full value is in the experiences they make possible. Reading the guidebook, or viewing the map, should not substitute for a personal experiencing. This is the point John Dewey (one of America’s great philosophers and educators) was making in the opening quotation. Only he was speaking metaphorically about the purpose of education. Education should not be the equivalent of the map substituting for an actual journey. What does this mean?


To answer this question, let us start by laying out the parts of this metaphor. We have explorers, whose experiences result in the creation of a map or guidebook that then becomes a guide for future journeys. To apply this to education, switch the reference from a wilderness domain (e.g., the Colorado River) to a knowledge domain (e.g., literature, history, science). The explorers then become the pioneers of the knowledge domain, such as Newton and Einstein in physics. Their experiences and knowledge are compiled into a school curriculum just as Powell’s experience and knowledge was compiled into a map and guidebook. Thus, in Dewey’s metaphor, the map is analogous to the curriculum. Further, just as Powell’s map and guidebook served as a guide for journeys down the Colorado River, so the curriculum should serve as a guide for journeys in the knowledge domain.

There are at least two meanings to “having the journey” in a knowledge domain. One is that students should have the experience of authentic doing in the knowledge domain. Just as I had the experience of actually rafting the Grand Canyon instead of just learning about John Wesley Powell and his experience, so physics students should have the experience of actually doing physics instead of just learning about Newton or Einstein and their ideas. Psychology students should have the experience of actually doing psychological investigation instead of just learning about Freud or Maslow and their ideas. History students should actually do historical analysis and so on. The curriculum should play a vital role in guiding such doing. Students should not be left to discover everything for themselves any more than I was left to discover my way down the Grand Canyon. The curriculum is vital. But it should not substitute for the actual journey. It should not be an end unto itself (sadly, this is exactly what it has become).


The second meaning of “having the journey” is to use the curriculum, or rather the powerful ideas contained in the curriculum, to see and experience the world in exciting new ways. These ideas should enrich and expand students’ everyday experience. Teachers are well aware of how experience can enrich learning. What Dewey would have us consider is how learning can enrich experience. My colleagues and I have focused on this purpose of education in our Transformative Experience Theory. As an example of a transformative experience reflective of “having the journey,” consider this anecdote.

“Teachers are well aware of how experience can enrich learning. What Dewey would have us consider is how learning can enrich experience.”

“Every rock is a story waiting to read by those with the knowledge to read them,” spoke Mark Girod to a class of fourth graders. He held a rock in his hand and slowly turned it for the students to see. Mark had a particular passion for geology and possessed a real gift for infecting his students with this same passion. As he began narrating the story of this rock, the students watched with rapt attention. As the lesson progressed he taught the initial principles of reading the story of a rock, convinced the students of how cool rocks are, and told them they would never see a rock the same again.


Over the next week, a number of his students became engrossed with rocks. They would pick up rocks on the playground and study them, bring rocks to class and share their stories, or start rock collections at home. One such student was captivated by the idea that rocks contained stories that could be uncovered by examining such things as crystal size, color pattern, and shape. She started a “rock book” at home and often brought rocks in to class. During an interview, she explained, “I think about rocks differently than I did before. Now when I don’t have anything to do, I look at a rock and try to tell its story. I think about where it came from, where it formed, where it’s been, what its name is…I used to skip rocks down at the lake but now I can’t bear to throw away all those stories!” (Girod & Wong, 2002, p. 211-212). I love that comment.

For this student, the curriculum was not an end unto itself. Learning the ideas of geology was not the end goal. Instead, she used the ideas of geology as a guide for exploring and experiencing the world in a fascinating new way. This is what it means to have the journey.


Dewey, J. (1990). The school and society and the child and the curriculum. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press (original work published 1902).

Girod, M., & Wong, D. (2002). An aesthetic (Deweyan) perspective on science learning: Case studies of three fourth graders. Elementary School Journal, 102, 199-224. doi:10.1086/499700

Powell, J. W. (1875). Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its tributaries: Explored in 1869, 1870, 1871, and 1872 under the direction of the secretary of the Smithsonian institution. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. http://www.archive.org/details/explorationcolo00goodgoog.

Powell, J. W. (1997). Exploration of the Colorado River and its canyons. New York: Penguin Books.

What Draymond Green Can Teach Us about Learning

This blog has excepts from the book, Computers, Cockroaches, and Ecosystems: Understanding Learning through Metaphor.

The Golden State Warriors just won the NBA championship in dominating fashion. Some are calling this team the greatest ever. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant may be the superstars, but basketball fans know Draymond Green is the linchpin – which is rather surprising given that Green was not expected to be a great NBA player. Heck, he was not expected to be an NBA player at all. As a high school player from Saginaw, Michigan, Green was not particularly athletic and rather short for his position. He had some skills but not enough to stand out from his peers. So what happened? How did he become an NBA All-Star? The story has more do with his mind than his body and it can teach us something about the nature of learning.

Green attended Michigan State University, where he was under the tutelage of hall of fame coach Tom Izzo. Green explained that Coach Izzo “taught me to think the game.” By “think the game,” Green means he learned to anticipate actions, read the tendencies of other teams, be in the right position, make the right play, and so on. Later in his college career, as Green was leading his teams to victories in the NCAA tournament, it became a mantra for announcers to comment on his “high basketball IQ.”

Green was always a smart player, but two factors were critical in helping him capitalize on his potential. First, Green received a lot of one-on-one and team tutoring, not just from Coach Izzo, but the whole coaching staff, including an associate head coach, two assistant coaches, an athletic trainer, a strength and conditioning coach, and others. Green had a knack for appropriating feedback and using it to constantly improve his game. Second, Green took advantage of Michigan State’s state-of-the-art video production services. A video production team, consisting of a coordinator and about a dozen student managers, edits and digitizes footage of every game so that players and coaches can efficiently and flexibly review performance. Green spent countless hours with coaches and by himself critiquing his performance and figuring out how to maximize his performance on the court.

Despite becoming a college star through such efforts, no one expected much of Green in the NBA where his lack of athleticism and height would be more glaring deficiencies. However, Green quickly proved his doubters wrong. He carried his passion for learning from coaches and video feedback to the NBA and constantly improved his game. In 2014, Goldberry wrote, “You could argue that Green is the ‘most improved’ player in the NBA this year, but that overlooks a bigger truth: Green is always improving, and the only constant in his game has been its perpetual evolution. He is the best-case scenario for player development in the NBA.” As if to prove Goldberry right, Green blossomed even more the following season, earning his first All-Star appearance. Now he’s considered one of the 15 or 20 best players in the NBA.


Here’s the take away from Green’s story: feedback, and the ability to learn from feedback, are really important. In fact, the ability to learn from feedback is far more important than innate ability. As an educational psychologist (i.e., someone who studies education and learning), I get frustrated by the number of fixed mindset students who equate educational success with innate intelligence. But if I’m honest, I have to admit, I was once there myself. I used to think there were smart kids who got As and average kids, like me, who didn’t. Then my sophomore year in high school, I sat next to a girl in biology class who had a 4.0 GPA. She was a year older and known as the smart girl in the school. We became friends and one day I realized, “She’s no different than anyone else. She just does her homework, studies, takes things seriously…hmmm. I could maybe do that…” Changed my whole academic trajectory. Over time, I understood that you can develop as a learner just as Green developed as a basketball player. Learning from feedback is key to such development. But students are at one huge disadvantage compared to Green: they do not have access to an abundance of feedback.

There are two good reasons for this. One, lack of resources. Teachers do not have a staff of associate and assistant teachers. Plus, instead of one team of about 13 players, teachers often have multiple “teams” of 20-30 students. Two, lack of video. Teachers cannot take a video of the learning processes going on in their students’ minds. There can be no post-performance video sessions of the type that so benefitted Green.

Consequently, to improve as learners, to be engaged in Draymond Green-like perpetual evolution, students have to provide feedback to themselves. They have to become their own coach. Cognitive psychologists use the term metacognition to refer to the process of reflecting on your own thinking. Metacognition involves such things as becoming aware of how the mind processes information and monitoring these processes.

Through metacognitive activity, students can become learning all-stars. A practical model for doing so is Zimmerman’s (2002) model of self-regulated learning (SRL). Zimmerman divides SRL into three phases: forethought (before the learning activity), performance (during the learning activity), and self-reflection (after the learning activity). You can think of each phase as a self-coaching phase.

In the forethought phase, the individual sets goals and engages in strategic planning (i.e., plans which strategies will be effective). The individual also activates productive motivation patterns, including a belief that one can be a successful learner, an interest in the learning, and a focus on learning as opposed to worrying about grades or the perception of others. This phase is parallel to such coaching actions as preparing a game plan and getting the team focused and energized. During the performance phase, the individual implements the planned strategies, monitors the learning process, makes adjustments as need, and maintains appropriate motivation. This phase is parallel to implementing the game plan, monitoring its effectiveness, making adjustments to counter challenges, and firing up or calming down players as needed. In the self-reflection phase, the individual uses self-evaluation to make judgments about the success of the learning, the effectiveness of the strategies, and the appropriateness of the motivation. These judgments are used to consider improvements for the next learning activity. This last phase is parallel to reviewing game tape, identifying areas of success and areas in need of improvement, and exploring alternative strategies in preparation for the next game.

Draymond Green may not be role model in all things (some of his antics are over the top), but he is a great model of a perpetual learner. Individuals who want to become learning all-stars would do well to develop metacognitive skills and follow his example of constantly learning from feedback.


Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41, 64-70. doi:10.1207/s15430421tip4102_2

Can Trauma Be Valuable for Students?

“The steep part was best!”

My 5-year-old daughter exclaimed this as she bounced around my bedroom, early in the morning, reliving the excitement of yesterday’s skiing. Over and over again she came back how great the steep part was. In my mind I was thinking, The steep part? Really? Here’s my memory of the steep part: HEEEELLLLLLLLLLLP!

We started the day on the magic carpet – a conveyor belt that moves beginning skiers up a very gentle slop – rehearsing how to turn and make a pizza (i.e., make a wedge with the skis in order to slow down or stop). After lunch we moved to the adjacent kiddy lift and, eventually, my daughter wanted to try a section with a steeper angle.

We start doing our pizzas down this steep part until I hear, “HEEEELLLLLLLLLLLP!” and see my daughter’s panicked face as she careens uncontrollably down the slope. I’m able to catch her without incident, but I can tell she is not happy. “I was doing a pizza but I wouldn’t stop,” she says with huff, “I was doing a pizza! I was doing a pizza!”

I can tell she is offended at the pizza for failing her, but she opts for another try at the steep part. Unfortunately, this effort results in more out-of-control skiing, a bad catch on my part, and a crash. “I can’t do it! I can’t do it! I’m no good at skiing. I want to go home.” She starts to cry. It’s late in the afternoon. She’s tired. I’m Ok with calling it day. But when we get to the bottom of the hill, she turns into the lift line.

Next time down we focus on making a pizza and wide turns down the steep part. This works well for the most part but we still have a crash, a lost ski, and more whimpering. We get to the bottom and my daughter silently shuffles into the lift line once more.

Our next run is generally a success. I have to catch her once when a turn doesn’t quite make it all the way around, but she now mostly has the pizza, wide turn thing down. We call it a success and head for the car.

My daughter’s exuberance about “the steep part” the next morning caught me by surprise. The most traumatizing part of the day was now a thrilling episode to talk about, relive, and take pride in. As an educational psychologist who studies motivation, I couldn’t help but find this reaction rather profound.

Typically, we educational psychologists discourage teachers from traumatizing students. We teach that emotions like anxiety, fear, and frustration are to be avoided at all costs. Yet, this may be a mistake. Increasingly, researchers are recognizing the value of struggling through difficult experiences, even failure experiences. Paul Tough wrote a nice article for the New York Times Magazine a few years back about how failure experiences in school can be important to developing grit (What If the Secret to Success is Failure?). I think most of us get this point. By experiencing and recovering from failure, we learn set backs aren’t the end of the world and success can be achieved through determined effort. But a point less recognized is that emotions like frustration, anxiety, and even hopelessness can be the basis for later feelings of pride and exhilaration.

I have an older daughter (current in 9th grade) attending an expeditionary learning school that places emphasis on complex, long-term, authentic projects. During the course of such projects, there are numerous meltdowns, feelings of hopelessness, and expressions of HEEEELLLLLLLLLLLP! But you know what? When the project is finished, there is great pride and excitement. These projects – the same ones that cause such trauma – bring about the greatest joy in her schooling experience. Moreover, experiencing the trauma seems to be a necessary precondition to experiencing the joy.


My daughter presenting a project to parents

This is not to say that frustration, anxiety, fear, hopelessness and other traumatic emotions are always desirable. They only seem to serve a useful function under certain conditions. Two come to mind:

  1. These emotions have to be experienced in the pursuit of a worthwhile activity. The individual has to feel they are engaging in something meaningful or important; something worth suffering for to achieve. Skiing is worth suffering for. Many school activities are not. They are artificial, disconnected from students’ experiences, and pointless.
  2. The individual has to eventually achieve some level of success or at least survival. Failure without any degree of progress isn’t going to do anyone any good. That simply leads to disengagement and learned helplessness. My 5-year-old was thrilled about the steep part – not just because it was traumatizing – but because she survived it. Many students never get the support they need to survive and improve at challenging tasks.

By taking on the steep part, my daughter stared fear in the face and didn’t back down. Cried, yes. Whimpered, yes. But she endured. That’s the kind of experience that builds character. It’s also the kind of experience that brings vitality to life and makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning.

Students need this kind of experience. And to have it, they need a teacher, parent, and school system willing to send them down the steep part and be there to catch them when they go out of control – over and over again until they master it.

Bonus story. As a scoutmaster, I once took my troop canyoneering in Moab, Utah. One scout was initially terrified of rappelling and had to start with a short 15 ft. ledge and work his way up. Well, on this trip I took the scouts to a place where you rappel down into a crack. This crack then opens into a large chamber and free hanging rappel for about 60 ft. (see picture below). I didn’t tell my scouts about the chamber, which is not visible from above. My scout with the initial rappelling anxiety starts rappelling down all confident and makes it into the crack. Then he sees emptiness below him and freaks out. “Hey! You didn’t tell me this! I’m not happy about this! I’m not having fun! Ok, I’m crying now.”

But here’s the great part. About 30 minutes after doing the rappel, he came up to me and said, “Ok, I admit. That was pretty cool.”


Wrong on Education

About the only thing Republicans and Democrats have agreed on is educational policy…and they’re both wrong.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a bipartisan effort and Obama’s Race to the Top legislation is, in many ways, NCLB 2.0. At the core of each legislation is the improvement of education by applying a business model focusing on measurement, accountability, and competition. Both legislations emphasize (a) specifying curricular standards, (b) holding teachers accountable to such standards with standardized test scores, (c) rewarding or punishing teachers and schools based on these test scores, and (d) increasing competition between schools. This business model sounds like a fairly logical approach. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

“What is wrong with the business model?” you ask. “The business model has transformed Western society. Why can’t it transform education?” To this I reply, “It’s the wrong business model.”


The top-down, incentive driven, individualistic business model works great for many companies, but it is becoming a relic of the past for today’s innovative businesses. Companies of the future, such as Google, have realized that great things happen when you stop being so controlling and give workers a sense of autonomy and ownership. The potential to create is a deep motivator. As many small business owners will attest, what drives them is not so much the money (although this is important) but the opportunity to build something. The motivation here is more intrinsic than extrinsic. It is the inherent satisfaction that comes from being part of something special, creating something new, and making a difference in the world. This is the kind of motivation that makes remarkable things happen and this is the type of motivation that gets squashed when the wrong business model is applied to education.

Conservatives have argued that over-regulation of the business world can have a detrimental effect on innovation and productivity. Their arguments particularly apply to the nature of small business. Too many regulations, arbitrary regulations, and misguided regulations erode the autonomy of small business owners. Too much top-down control eventually undermines the intrinsic motivation of small business owners and the life of the business begins to fade away.

What conservatives have largely failed to realize is that these same principles apply to education. By jumping on the bandwagon to dictate standards, obsessively measure teachers, force teachers to compete, and control teacher actions with external mandates and incentives, they have eroded teachers’ autonomy, undermined their intrinsic motivation, and helped take the life out of education. Liberals are equally at fault as they have advocated the same policies. The conservative argument for deregulation is sorely missing in considerations of educational policy.

The conservative argument for deregulation is sorely missing in considerations of educational policy.


These opinions are not just my own ramblings. Michael Fullan is one of the world’s leading experts on educational change. His conclusion? We’re focusing on the wrong drivers of educational change.

In a well-known paper titled Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform (http://michaelfullan.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/13396088160.pdf), Fullan argues that countries have been quick to choose the wrong drivers or strategies for bringing about change. These wrong drivers include (1) accountability (vs. capacity building), (2) individual teacher quality (vs. group solutions), (3) technology (vs. instruction), and (4) fragmented strategies (vs. systemic strategies). The first two are the pillars of the wrong business model. Although it seems logical to focus on accountability and improving individual teachers, “no system in the world has ever achieved whole system reform by leading with accountability” (p. 9) and “no nation has got better by focusing on individual teachers as the driver” (p. 10).

I should clarify that Fullan is not against accountability and individual teacher quality. Rather, he notes that these can be a valuable part of the reform system as long as they are not used as the drivers of the reform: “I need to be clear here. The four ‘wrong drivers’ are not forever wrong. They are just badly placed as lead drivers” (p. 5). He means they cannot have dominance in a system. If issues of capacity building (i.e., development of skill, knowledge, resources), teacher collaboration, pedagogy, and “systemness” are dominant, then (and only then) can accountability and a focus on individual teacher quality serve a useful function.

Why doesn’t accountability work as a driver? Because a focus on standards and tests for accountability purposes undermines the autonomy of teachers and the creative energy that comes from an autonomous environment. Fullan explains, “The net result of excessive testing is that, instead of teachers being swept up to ride waves of successful reform, they will be crushed by a veritable tsunami of standards and assessments…Moreover the current standards-assessment imposition is so great that it will end up squelching any possibility that the higher-order skills (which require engagement and ingenuity) will be accomplished” (p. 9).

What’s wrong with focusing on individual teacher quality? Because we then focus on rewarding the good teachers and punishing the bad teachers while ignoring the fact that real change in a system requires a change in culture and a change in culture comes from collaborative efforts. Fullan comments, “The fallacy–to which the US, with its ‘rugged individual’ traditions, is particularly susceptible–is that success does not come from ad hoc individuals beavering away but rather from strategies that leverage the group” (p. 10). Develop a collaborative culture, focus on capacity building instead of individual rewards and punishments, put trust in teachers instead of regulations, and the rest will follow.


“Nice theory,” you say, “but show me a country that has achieved excellence by focusing on such things as collaboration, capacity building, and trust.” OK. Finland. Finland redesigned its educational system over the last 30 years. Accountability and standardized tests were minimized. So was competition between teachers and schools. The results? Finland has now become one of the top-performing nations on International comparisons—with the least amount of disparity between students. That’s right, Finland is one of the highest performing and most equitable nations. All this despite the fact that they don’t care much about standardized testing, don’t give homework, and have less instructional hours and school days than almost all the other comparison nations (in contrast to, like, Japan that has more hours and more school days plus Saturday school for many students). Finland simply does what it does well. How did it get there?

If anyone knows anything about Finnish education, it’s Pasi Sahlberg. He’s been a key part of the Finnish education system and an influential Finnish scholar. His recently updated book, Finnish Lessons 2.0 (http://pasisahlberg.com/finnish-lessons/about-finnish-lessons), provides an informative and inspiring account of Finland’s transformation from educational mediocrity to excellence. A prominent theme throughout his book is that Finland’s educational system represents a stark contrast to the Global Educational Reform Movements (GERMs) that are based on such principles as standardized curriculums, test-based accountability and control, and market-oriented reform strategies. Pasi comments, “The main message of this book is that there is another way to improve education systems. This includes improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to educational professions” (p. 5).

In Finland, teachers are given are large degree of autonomy and responsibility in the schools. They help design the curriculums and assessments. In fact, they were involved in creating the current Finnish system and there is a large degree of ownership of the system by Finnish teachers. The teachers are also well prepared (all are required to have a masters degree) and well supported. Teaching hours per teacher are among the lowest of all developed nations (nearly half that of the US), which allows more time for collaboration and leadership.

Pasi writes, “The Finish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation—not choice and competition—can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charters or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement” (p. 9).

The US is not Finland and it would be naïve to believe that the Finnish model could simply be transplanted to the US. On the other hand, there is a lot we could learn from the Finnish model and it just might save us from our current GERM infection.

You Didn’t Build That! Why You Can’t Claim Credit for Your Mind

The following blog has excepts from the forthcoming book Computers, Cockroaches and Ecosystems: Understanding Learning through Metaphor.


“I built this!” Maybe you remember that slogan from the last presidential election cycle. Maybe you even have an authentic “I built this!” t-shirt from the Glenn Beck line of apparel. Then again, maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. Here’s a refresher. In his 2012 campaign, President Obama uttered the unfortunate phrase “You didn’t build that,” while trying to argue that those who succeed in business do not do so on their own. The backlash was immediate because nothing upsets us quite like being robbed of proper credit. Well, prepare your ego because it gets worse—you cannot even take credit for your own intelligence. Your very thoughts, your mind itself, is not your own. When it comes to the thing most you, you might have to say, “I didn’t build that.”


 Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a psychologist interested in studying the mind. However, doing so in Stalin’s Russia was a dangerous endeavor as it did not clearly fit with Marxist thought and tradition (Prawat, 2000). So instead of studying the mind directly, like his contemporary Jean Piaget, Vygotsky used a cultural and historical perspective. He studied the development of humans as a species and the development of human societies and reasoned the processes critical to development in these domains would parallel those central to the development of the mind. Such reasoning would have a profound effect on our current understanding of the mind.


Lev Vygotsky

So what are the processes critical to the development of humans as a species and the development of human societies? You can probably figure this out for yourself, but I am going to illustrate it through a fishing story because, quite frankly, I enjoy telling fishing stories—and this one includes a bear.

The Brooks River in Alaska is famous for its fishing. It is even more famous for its bears. Dozens of brown bears converge on the river each season to do their own fishing. Because of all the bears, there are strict rules for the human fishermen. First, you have to stay at least 50 yards away from the bears. Second, if you have a fish on your line and a bear comes by, you have to break the fish off because you do not want (a) the fish splashing around and attracting the bear and (b) the bears to start associating fisherman with an easy meal. Third, and above all, fish caught must be immediately returned to the water because you do not want to get caught holding a fish when a bear comes by.


One of the bears waiting for a salmon

Well, one day I am fishing and the river is bursting at the seams. Sockeye salmon by the hundreds are running through the river and bears are chasing them all over the place. Me, I am just trying to avoid the bears and catch the big rainbow trout hiding by the banks to avoid the stampede of salmon. Well, I happen to hook the fish of the trip; a huge rainbow trout that sends me chasing after it down river. Luckily, there are no bears in my path, and after a long battle, I land the fish on a shallowly submerged gravel bar. Elated, I scoop up the fish. And then, just as I am holding this trophy fish, I hear a noise behind me. I glance over my shoulder and there, not ten feet away from me, emerging through the shoulder high grass, is the head of an Alaskan brown bear.

So here I am, breaking all the bear rules and fearing that I am about to be the turf in a bear’s surf and turf meal. What is worse, I cannot just drop the fish in the water because the water is two-three inches deep for 15 feet in all directions. If I drop the fish, it is going to splash and make a huge commotion at my feet. So I hug the fish against my chest, where I hope it is out-of-sight, and waddle sideways upstream with my back to the bear, clinging desperately to the wiggling fish, until the water is deep enough for me to throw it in. Once the fish is released, I look back to check on the bear.

Now this is the important part and the point of the whole story. When I look back the bear is still staring at me, with a look on its face that says, “You are pathetic.” Then, as if to prove its superiority, the bear leaps in the river, pounces on a salmon, and turns back to look at me with the salmon wiggling in its jaws.

It is hard not to realize the depths of your pitiful nature at a moment like this. To even be out here, I need a pair of waders, long underwear, fleece pants, a fleece jacket, a rain jacket, a wool hat, and fingerless gloves. To catch a fish, I have a fly rod and reel plus a fishing vest with half a fly shop stuffed in it. The bear needs none of this. The bear is a brute force of nature. And this is the difference between humans and other animals. In a word, we are pathetic without our tools.

But with our tools…we rule! This is what sets us apart from the animals. We construct way better tools. Tools are also the key to the development of human societies. Think about it. The great ages of human history are defined in terms of their tools: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Industrial Age, the Information Age, and so on.

If tools are the key to the development of human societies and humans as a species, might tools—mental tools—also be the key to the development of the human mind? This is exactly what Vygtosky (1978; 1986) proposed.

Try the following task: add the five 3-digit numbers listed below without using a pencil and paper, calculator, or other external aid. Just, do the math in your head.

  • 497
  • 348
  • 245
  • 823
  • 767

Could you do it? If so, how long did it take? If you’re like me, it probably took you a while. Actually, if you’re like me, you probably forgot the first part of the answer halfway through, added individual digits wrong, and started reaching for a pencil (the correct answer, by the way, is 2,680).

James Stigler (1984) discovered that eleven-year-old Chinese students could solve this problem in just three seconds. Three seconds! At the time of Stigler’s study, these students were trained in the use of the abacus, a calculating tool involving bars and beads. Students learned to do calculations quickly and effortlessly using the abacus, and eventually, they no longer needed the physical abacus. They could just picture it in their minds, mentally manipulate the beads, and do things like add five 3-digit numbers in a remarkable three seconds.



The abacus is an example of a mental tool (Vygotsky used the term signs). Mental tools transform the nature of mental work (i.e., thinking) just as physical tools transform the nature of physical work. The abacus allowed Chinese students to perform mental math far more efficiently just as a shovel—or a backhoe—allows an individual to dig a hole far more efficiently. The algorithms we use to solve math problems are also mental tools. In fact, virtually all our mathematical reasoning is mediated by mental tools created by prior cultures. We aren’t much without these mental tools. This point applies to all our reasoning. The nature and quality of our mental activity is dependent on the nature and quality of our mental tools.

Here’s another task. Try having a deep thought without using language. In fact, try having any thought without using language. How did it go? Not easy, is it? That is because language is the mother of all mental tools. Vygotsky (1986) proposed that we first learn to use language in interaction with other people. Then we gradually internalize language and use it with ourselves. When external speech becomes inner speech, thought, as we know it, comes into existence. Consider the case of Ildefonso (pseudonym), a man who grew up without language.

The nature and quality of our mental activity is dependent on the nature and quality of our mental tools.

Ildefonso was born deaf and raised in southern Mexico without exposure to sign language. In her book, A Man Without Words, Susan Schaller describes her experience of helping a 27-year-old Ildefonso learn language. She would try to teach him simple signs but he had no sense that these signs meant anything. He simply copied back her movements. This went on for weeks. She focused on the symbol “cat.” In every possible combination, Schaller signed “cat,” finger-spelled “cat,” wrote “cat,” acted like a cat, pointed to a picture of a cat, mimed petting a cat, and acted out being Ildefonso coming to understand the meaning of cat. One day, after one her endless cat routines, something clicked for Ildefonso. He sat up straight, eyes wide. He slapped his hands on the table and Schaller signed back “table.” He slapped his book and she signed “book.” He demanded the signs for more objects and Shaller gave them. What happened next is both revealing and heartbreaking. Ildefonso suddenly turned pale. He collapsed on the table. He began to weep. Schaller writes,

Welcome to my world, Ildefonso…Let me show you all the miracles accomplished with symbols…I will show you how to bathe in the swirling, magical river called Language. You can swim anywhere, meet anyone and anything, or just float on one of those lovely names. Let me open the door to this world that refused to let you in. (p. 45)

Seven years later, Schaller was reunited with Ildefonso. He was now fluid in sign and Schaller tried to get him to talk about his life before language. What was it like to not have language? What was it like to think without language? Ildefonso never answered these questions directly. Instead he took her to meet some old friends who also lacked language. The friends communicated almost exclusively through miming particular experiences and lacked the kind of cognitive functioning that Ildefonso now possessed. For them, Ildefonso had become an awe-inspiring figure. Schaller writes, “His leap to language dumbfounded them.…They considered him a genius and treated him with great respect. He had become the leader of the languageless clan” (p. 184-185).

On a WNYC Radiolab program (2010), Schaller explained that two years after this experience, she ran into Ildefonso and again tried to get him to directly talk about what it was like to not have language. She commented that he was again evasive and then added, “But the interesting thing that he said was he can’t even think that way anymore. He said he can’t think the way he used to think.” When Schaller pushed him to give some idea of what it was like, he responded, “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”


Can we claim our mind as our own? Ildefonso’s mind was so transformed by the acquisition of language that he cannot even think the way he used to; he cannot even remember what it was like to think, to live, to exist without language. Ildefonso’s mind, as it exists today, came into being through the acquisition of language. Ildefonso did not construct language. It was given to him. Language is a gift from society. A gift developed over thousands of years and, in Ildefonso’s case, bestowed through the patient efforts of one individual who could not refrain from sharing this gift.

We are all in the same boat as Ildefonso. We owe a great debt to society for our minds. What would we be without language? What would our math minds be without algorithms? What would our science minds be without Newton’s laws, Einstein’s theories, and countless other concepts? What would our moral minds be without principles from religious or other value systems? Principles such as equality, compassion, justice, forgiveness, purity, and sacrifice. Could we even engage in moral reasoning without these? Could we engage in any reasoning without the mental tools bestowed upon us by society and culture? Can we really claim, of our own mind, “I built this!”?



Prawat, R. S. (2000). Dewey meets the “Mozart of psychology” in Moscow: The untold story. American Educational Research Journal, 37, 663-696.

Schaller, S. (1991). A man without words. New York: Summit Books.

Stigler, J. W. (1984). “Mental abacus”: The effect of abacus training on Chinese children’s mental calculation. Cognitive Psychology, 16, 145-176.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language (A. Kozulin, trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

WNYC. (2010, Aug 9). Radiolab: Words. Retrieved from http://www.radiolab.org/story/91725-words