Seeing Things

So I’m meeting again with one of my science tutees. As usual, I started off by asking what he wanted to work on that day.

He didn’t know. Not because he’s a slacker. But because, he explained in earnest and slightly frustrated confusion, because he wasn’t sure what precisely it was that he was having trouble with.

It took some reassuring on my part that This is okay, and that figuring out where one is having problems is part of the whole learning and tutoring processes. You have to be able to identify where and how things aren’t going well before you can address the issues.

So we sat down with the materials and started going over different ways of reviewing things, as I asked him what had or hadn’t worked well for him before as studying techniques. And not surprisingly, he couldn’t say. Meaning, he wasn’t able to answer that question simply from my verbal enquiry. It was also difficult to pull up random examples just off the top of his head. His experiences had not been encoded into his memory as analyses, so the search came up empty. And I quite understood that. After all, if he already knew what he needed in the way of study methods that worked well for him, he wouldn’t be in such need of tutoring! Sometimes we tutor content, and sometimes (like here) we tutor process. And process is trickier, because people don’t learn things the same way (e.g. flash cards don’t work for everyone).

Further into the session, the stress levels were getting reduced, and we were able to focus on a particular issue. He had to be able to distinguish between pictures of different kinds of human tissues, and in the study lab had run into frustration trying to explain to someone else that he “couldn’t see” what they were talking about.

Ah-ha … now I understood what was going on. He’d had one of those circular conversations that results from two people using the same word to mean different things. Our conversation detoured from ligament tissues to brain processing.

So my explanation went something to this effect:

The two of you are using the word “see” to mean two different things. That’s because there are two different parts to seeing things. The first part is sensing, where you use your eyes to see, and your ears to hear, and your skin to touch. Your sensory organs interact with the environment, and send the signals to your brain. That’s what the other person was referring to. The second part is perception, where the brain interprets what those signals mean. That’s what you referring to when you said you couldn’t “see” the pictures.

Unlike sensing, perception is learned, which is why babies and toddlers sense things in so many ways, like putting things in their mouths. We learn what things are like, and learn how to make sense of them and to identify them. To do that, we have to figure out what details are important to identifying them. So if you’re able to tell different makes of cars apart, you’re looking at the shape of the windows and bumpers and so on. If you’re learning to identify different birds, then you look at the shape of the beaks and tails and so on.

Once you learn which kinds of features are useful to distinguish and identify different things, then the process becomes more automatic. It goes from conscious effort to unconscious identification, and it becomes easier and much quicker. So in the case of different tissues, we look at the pictures and compare how they are the same and how they are different, and what different kinds of parts we can see. For example, there are different shapes of cells, and different arrangements of cells, and also different accessories in the tissues, like collagen fibers.

And from there, we identified how the textbook pointed out specific components of the tissues, noting which kinds of components were in which kinds of tissues, and we traded different descriptions of what familiar objects the different tissues looked like. We looked at several examples of each type of tissue, because you cannot generalise from a sample of one; looking at only one picture means that you only learn to identify that specific image, not the concept that picture illustrates.

I took this detour for several reasons. One reason was to help him understand just how the confusion had happened between himself and the other person, so he could identify and resolve such issues later on (self-understanding and self-advocacy). Another reason was to help him understand a bit about how the brain works, so he could more readily identify other similar kinds of learning situations. And the last reason was so we could return to the content studying by analysing what it was that we were doing, so he would have that as a concrete and more conscious process for other situations.

Ultimately, getting all the data stored in his brain is his job. But along the way, we were able to identify some of the speed bumps in that process, how the learning process works, and hopefully we’ve laid some groundwork for being able to identify and analyse difficulties in the future.

1 Comment

  1. medrecgal said,

    3 September 2007 at 22:06

    A familiar distinction, indeed, between sensation and perception…I, too, had definite issues with histology, so much that it was the only part of courses like pathophysiology and anatomy & physiology that gave me absolute fits. The microscope was NOT my friend, and it made more than one instructor a bit befuddled when I was so totally confused by situations where cells, tissues, and even specific body parts were taken completely out of their normal context. It was my own “perceptual glitch” (recognized as such by one spectacularly observant prof) that was causing so much trouble. Luckily we found other ways to get the information in and properly processed…speed bumps, indeed!

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