This recent story, Confuse Students to Help Them Learn, moved me to re-publish a post from my previous blog.
The last time Irene Pepperberg saw Alex she said goodnight as usual. “You be good,” said Alex. “I love you.” “I love you, too.” “You’ll be in tomorrow?” “Yes, I’ll be in tomorrow”. But Alex (his name supposedly an acronym of Avial Learning Experiment) died in his cage that night, bringing to end a life spent learning complex tasks that, it had been originally thought, only primates could master.
In 1977, Dr Pepperberg bought a one-year old African Grey parrot at random from a pet shop. Then, for 30 years,
Using a training technique now employed on children with learning difficulties, in which two adults handle and discuss an object, sometimes, making deliberate mistakes, Dr Pepperberg and her collaborators at the University of Arisona began teaching Alex how to describe things, how to make his desires known and even how to ask questions.
And these are the key words which attracted my attention: making deliberate mistakes! In learning mathematics, detecting and correcting other people’s mistakes is a crucial but badly underrated component. We do not give our students a chance to analyse, criticise and correct each others’ work, and we do not reward them for detecting an error. Not surprisingly, our students’ progress is frequently less impressive than that of Alex:
By the end, said Dr Pepperberg, Alex … had a vocabulary of 150 words. He knew the names of 50 objects and could, in addition, describe their colours, shapes and the materials they were made from. He could answer questions about objects’ properties, even when he had not seen that particular combination of properties before. He could ask for things – and reject a proffered item and ask again if it was not what he wanted. He understood, and could discuss, the concepts of “bigger,” “smaller,” “same” and “different”. And he could count up to six, including the number zero.
Research publications on Alex:
Pepperberg, I.M., and Gordon, J.D. (2005). Number Comprehension by a Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus), Including a Zero-Like Concept. J. Comp. Psych, 2005, Vol. 119, No. 2, 197-209.
Pepperberg, I.M. (2001). Lessons from cognitive ethology: Animal models for ethological computing. Proceedings of the First Conference on Epigenetic Robotics, C. Balkenius, J. Zlatev, H. Kozima, K. Dautenhahn, & C. Breazeal, Eds., Lund University Cognitive Science Series No. 85, Lund, Sweden.
Pepperberg, I.M., Willner, M.R., and Gravitz, L.B. (1997). Development of Piagetian object permanence in a Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). J. Comp. Psych. 111:63-75.
[With thanks to Jeff Burdges]