Braille Monitor                                                                                                           October 2004

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Teaching Exploration: Correcting a Glaring Flaw
in the Education Of Blind Children

by Geerat J. Vermeij

Dr. Geerat Vermeij
Dr. Geerat Vermeij

From the Editor: Dr. Geerat Vermeij is distinguished professor in the Department of Geology at the University of California at Davis. Last summer he generously contributed his time and expertise to take part in our first science camp for blind teens interested in science. His reflections on that experience and his recommendations to those charged with instructing and inspiring blind young people will be of interest to everyone committed to training them to engage in effective reading, thinking, and tactile observation. This is what he says:

A few years ago I was sitting in David Hillis's office at the University of Texas at Austin. Hillis, a preeminent evolutionary biologist and MacArthur Fellow, was telling me about his research on a small Asian clam that was accidentally introduced by people to North America during the late 1930's. Today this quite ordinary-looking little clam is found in lakes and streams throughout the United States. Researchers once thought that all the Asian clams in North America belonged to a single kind or species; but when Hillis began to analyze the DNA sequences of the clams, he discerned two genetically distinct species.

Hillis leaned forward in his chair. "I wonder if you can tell the difference between these species from the shells," he said.

"Let's have a look," I said, always ready for a challenge. Hillis handed me six specimens, each a little less than an inch long. There were, of course, no labels; it was up to me to decide how to divide these six shells into categories.

I set about my task. First came a quick reconnaissance: I took each shell in my hands, manipulated it with my fingers, and put it down, all in less than a second. Much previous experience with Asian clams and with thousands of other clams allowed me to conclude that, yes, these shells belong to the genus Corbicula: ovate shape, coarse and somewhat irregular growth lines, right hinge characteristics, somewhat eroded beak without well-developed lunule or escutcheon. But all these shells sure looked alike, so a more thorough examination was called for.

The pads of my index fingers traced the outlines of the shells, probed the growth lines for their sharpness and spacing, noted how deeply cupped the valves were, and gathered a dozen other details. With my nails I observed the precise shape of the growth lines--were the lines sharp or flattened, reflected or erect, widely separated or close together, and so on. I repeated these observations, all quite unconsciously, with each shell. I picked up the valves again and again, comparing, contrasting, forming hypotheses in my mind, and putting them to the test with additional observations. I had to decide which features were meaningless variations and which might denote characteristics that distinguish one species from another. I had done this exercise hundreds of times previously, for careful observation of form, life habits, and other aspects of shell-bearing animals lay at the empirical core of my scientific work.

After a minute or two of this directed exploration, I had divided the shells into two groups of three each. The differences were awfully subtle, but I thought they might indeed indicate two distinct species.

I announced my conclusions. My colleague was impressed. "Right on the money," he declared. The distinction I had perceived through careful tactile observation of the shells precisely matched the distinction Hillis had discerned from the DNA that he had extracted previously from the tissues of the clams whose shells he had given me to examine.

I tell this story, not to pat myself on the back, but to make an important point about exploring objects by touch. Quite simply, many blind people could extract far more information from the objects they touch if they developed and perfected techniques and skills for the most effective use of the hand--that exquisite and sensitive organ of touch that we humans have inherited and evolutionarily modified from our primate ancestors.

I was confronted with this larger issue when I was privileged to take part in the National Federation of the Blind's summer science camp for a dozen blind middle-school students. Mark Riccobono of the NFB and school teacher Robin House had invited me to talk about how to do science, how to think in a scientific frame of mind, and how blind people can be scientists. I would not just tell them about my research on shells but would have everyone examine shells so that we could then talk about how to ask scientific questions of these wonderful objects. I would also tell them about the larger scientific questions I have tried to tackle in my own career, questions about how evolution works, about evolution as fundamentally an economic process, and about the role that enemies play in the many directions evolution has taken over the course of the history of life.

We gathered at the Naturalist Center, a first-rate educational museum just outside Leesburg, Virginia. Thousands of specimens from the Smithsonian Institution are available for visitors to handle in a spacious setting where curiosity and free inquiry are the order of the day. I had arrived early to pull out some shells to demonstrate to the students and their enthusiastic adult entourage. Once everyone was settled and I had made some preliminary remarks about myself, about the etiquette of handling specimens, and about science and the blind, each participant was given a shell to examine.

As always happens when I am working with a collection, I was terribly pumped up to see such wonderful objects, even if they were all quite familiar to me. I never tire of looking at shells because I always expect to observe something new. On this occasion I was certainly not disappointed. Picking up a large Triton's trumpet (Charonia tritonis), I happened to notice some small tubercles near the front end of the shell that formed a continuation of a row of sharp teeth along the shell's outer lip. I have frequently handled specimens of this striking species, but somehow this interesting feature had escaped my notice.

But this exercise wasn't for me; it was for the children. I invited everyone to offer a description of the unfamiliar object in his or her hand. What could each person tell me about what he or she had observed?

It became clear that most of the students had spent at most a few seconds of unsystematic exploration and then put the shell down. The verbal descriptions offered were so rudimentary that I felt unable to proceed to the level of thinking about these objects in a scientific way. The point of departure for honing the scientific state of mind is to observe carefully and to be puzzled by the observations that make no sense. If we can articulate what does not make sense, we are well on the road to translating the puzzle in the form of a scientific question. Once we have reached this point, we can proceed to the more standard scientific stages of proposing a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis against alternative explanations, and placing all our findings together with those of others in a coherent theory that will explain, not just the things we know, but many things we don't know yet.

I came away from this encounter with the strong conviction that society--parents, teachers, the blind, and all the rest of us--have largely and dismally failed to teach the skills of exploration. Our hands are powerful sensory tools, capable of discerning fine details, integrating those details into a whole representation, and making sense of the things we touch; but if we don't know how to use our hands in this way, our ability to extract information from the objects we touch is severely compromised. Tactile exploration has been part of my life for so long that I had in many ways taken it for granted. Insofar as I had thought about the matter at all, I held that learning about objects with the fingers came naturally, whatever that might mean. But I have come to believe this is wrong. Tactile exploration is a skill that must be taught and honed.

How does one do this? Although I have no experience teaching blind people, I have thought about how the hand works as a sense organ. The broad outline of the technique I describe briefly below comes from an idealized dissection of how I use my hands, fingers, and associated tools to gain a coherent concept of the things I touch.

Let's think about those Asian clams again. I began with a cursory examination. The hand as a whole--or, if the object is small, the tips of several fingers--scans the object for general shape, weight, and texture. This gives us a general idea of an object, a tactile image we can then use to place the finer details we are about to uncover. The nearly random touching of the first stage is replaced by a much more systematic exploration, mainly using the tips of the index fingers. I may trace the object's contours, noting every detail--angles, roundness, texture, protrusions, openings, and any other peculiarity.

My fingers trace specific paths, informed by the object's overall form and by my hypothesis of the object's orientation. With completely unfamiliar objects, it is helpful to be oriented: where is the front, the back, the left, and the right? If I have handled more or less similar objects before, this orientation, achieved almost instantaneously during the first phase of exploration, comes quite naturally. The pads of the fingers are sensitive but are rather large. If we want still finer details, we need finer instruments. I use the ends of the nails, especially those of the thumb and index finger, to characterize and count small features. If I need to examine the features inside openings too small or narrow to insert a finger, I employ a stiff pin or needle. Vibrations from the pin as I slowly pass the shaft of the pin along the surface of interest will tell me the number, location, size, and shape of the ribs, bumps, and other protrusions I encounter.

The entire examination may last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, but by the time I am finished, I have a detailed, coherent, and I hope accurate representation of the object in my mind's fingers. Further examination would surely yield still more information, as I illustrated above with the Triton's trumpet, but completeness characterizes all scientific efforts.

The key features of this process of tactile exploration are, I believe, accurate initial orientation and systematic (as opposed to random) touching and tracing. As exploration proceeds, we go from the large scale--overall shape, size, and weight; temperature; thickness; and the like--to a finer scale.

This recipe applies equally to tactile illustrations. We must begin by acquiring an overall sense of shape and size, which we do by using the whole hand and as many fingers as the illustration will accommodate. Once this stage is completed, we can begin to trace individual features, note the position of particular items, and observe how features are arranged relative to each other and to the whole.

Years ago, in a letter to the scientific journal Nature, a Canadian research group reported a study of the way blind subjects should read maps. The authors had their blind subjects first trace outlines. According to their data, it took thirty seconds or longer for the average blind subject to trace a given outline. In a comment published later that year in Nature, I pointed out that it would be very difficult to gain an accurate representation of the map if it took half a minute or more to complete the initial exploration. Integration, the key to gaining a representation of illustrations and objects observed by touch, is hard to achieve over time intervals as long as this. No sighted person would ever read a map by first following a country's borders by eye; he or she would quickly scan the map, acquire a general orientation and a sense for its large-scale features, and then concentrate on the details.

The principles that apply to touch apply to the other senses as well. It takes experience and some practice to gain a full appreciation of a piece of music or a bird's song we have heard, a painting we have seen, or even of the foods we taste and smell. Our senses have enormous potential to inform us about the world and to enrich our lives; but we must learn how to use our senses to best effect, how to observe, or to become more aware of our surroundings. This is as true for the sighted as it is for the blind, but for the blind there is the additional obstacle that we lack sight, one of the most integrative of the senses, the one that permits a nearly instantaneous, large-scale, and often distant orientation.

I no longer remember how or whether I really learned to observe, but I do know that my parents and brother were twenty-four-hour tour guides, describing everything and anything wherever we went. More important still, they showed me every imaginable thing--plants, insects, mushrooms, doorways, window frames, walls, brickwork on old Dutch buildings, rocks, models of buildings--the list is endless. In doing so, they stimulated my already substantial curiosity. Yet I wanted more; I hungered to become acquainted with my surroundings, to make sense of them--in short, to understand the world in a scientific frame of mind. I wanted to be aware, not only of the pleasures of my surroundings, but of its dangers and pitfalls.

I could not observe everything first-hand, of course, so I began to read. I read and read and read and read some more, and I still read voraciously. And in order to read and to retrieve all that information, I had to have superior Braille skills. What do superior Braille skills amount to? Rapid and accurate Braille reading, like rapid and accurate print reading, means quick recognition and processing of pattern, attention to detail, and engaging the mind as the fingers or eyes briskly move line by line across the page. There is, I am convinced, a direct connection between learning how to gather information from objects and learning how to read quickly and accurately. This is true for everyone, not just the sighted and not just the blind.

Nothing would help blind children more than being taught the techniques and pleasures of exploration--touch, sound, taste, smell, and whatever vision remains. It is hard to be curious about things if we do not know what those things are like. It is hard to avoid dangers if we are unable to interpret the cues our senses provide about our surroundings. It is hard to gain a sense of aesthetics if we feel, listen, taste, or smell carelessly and casually. And it is hard to get a job if we lack the skills to gain and process information by effective reading and effective use and interpretation of our senses.

We must make exploration a habit, a good habit, a pleasant and rewarding habit. We must educate parents, teachers, and the blind themselves how to observe with the mind engaged. This is not rocket science; in fact, it requires no technology at all other than the biological technology we have inherited from our evolutionary ancestors. How can anything be more important?

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