Learning from mirroring

During our early childhood development, we can play "monkey see monkey do" long before we can speak words. John Medina, in his book: Brain Rules, tells of the rapport he developed with his new born son by each of them getting the other to stick their tongues out. Neuroscientists have labeled the locations where this occurs in the brain "mirror neurons". The same brain cells that fire when we pick up a toy also light up when we see someone else pick up the toy. It's as-if we learn by pure imitation - no thinking required. This function is easiest to detect with our imitating others' actions because motor functions light up only small portions of the brain. Memories, speech, thought processes and learning -- fire neurons scattered all over our complex brains.

It seems likely that we also imitate sounds and initially acquire language by making the same sounds as the people around us. Most parents have experiences of getting quoted verbatim by a child that cannot yet tie his or her own shoes. The toddler will suddenly utter "get a life" without knowing what it means -- if that's a parent's over-used expression. I know from my own travels abroad that my "Americanese" gets a slight British accent when I've been surrounded by the Queen's English. Likewise my French accent improved dramatically when I was living around Paris for a couple weeks. I've also noticed my speech gets a bit of a southern drawl when I've worked for extended time periods in Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia.

As I reflected on our mirror neurons this morning (pun intended!), I wondered if we also learn other's unspoken premises by imitation. What if we cannot help but give others "a taste of their own medicine", "a show of what they're showing us" or "a return of their favor"? Perhaps our mirror neurons fire up when our minds have "nothing better to do". That suggests several ways that pro-learning ecologies respond effectively to our mirror neurons and support imitation learning-- while anti-learning ecologies do the opposite:
  • When learners need to reason something through more effectively, an exemplar is provided to imitate who can externalize his/her thinking. The learners mirror what they see in the exemplar's conduct and self awareness. When learning is opposed, a bad example is put in front of the learners or a hypocrite is put in charge of getting learners to "do as I say -- don't do as I do".
  • When learners need to interact, socialize and experience other viewpoints, opportunities are provided for discussions and collaborative problem solving. The learners mirror each others ability to be conversant, interactive and understanding of each other. When learning is opposed, the anti-social instructor does all the talking and penalizes the imitators who anti-socially talk at the same time.
  • When learners need to play devil's advocate to develop a balanced perspective, they are presented with extreme positional stances that provoke opposing arguments. The learners mirror each other's use of contrarian viewpoints and non-conformist positions. When learning is opposed, the learners seem like monsters who constantly confront, antagonize and dismiss any reductionistic proponent of one right answer, bigoted stances and one-sided solutions.
  • When learners need need to cultivate their own leadership traits, they are provided with playful situations where their initiatives get feedback, their reasoning gets reflected upon and their "acting out their frustrations" gets mirrored back to them. When learning is opposed, they get told how to be a leader, given lists of respected traits and tested on the right way to take charge of a situation.
As I explored this different facets of mirroring, it became clear to me that learners not only replicate what others are doing, they show educators what's missing, one-sided or in need of more mirroring. In a pro-learning ecology, the learning dynamics are holistic and capable of revealing the complexity of what the learners need right now. We then learn what we need next, not only what is obviously available to imitate.

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