Encouraging students to recognise their own skills

30 Apr

It can often be difficult to get students to recognise that they have acquired new cognitive skills, and that it is a skills that others might not possess. For the last couple of years I’ve been using an example aimed at demonstrating to students how unusual their rational thinking skills are.

In 2009 the world’s media picked up the story of a Belgium man , Rom Houben who had been diagnosed in 2006 as suffering from Lock-in syndrome, when for the previous 23 years he had been treated by doctors as if he was in a persistent vegetative state. Put simply, he had been conscious for 23 years, but un able to communicate with those around him. This story ran in the media around the world, including the USA, Australia, the UK and Germany.

What made the story particularly compelling was the quotations from Mr Houben, explaining how he felt during the 23 years of his isolation. The following is a selection of the quotes reported:

“Powerlessness. Utter powerlessness. At first I was angry, then I learned to live with it,”

 He told doctors he had “travelled with my thoughts into the past, or into another existence altogether”. Sometimes, he said, “I was only my consciousness and nothing else”.

“I’ll never forget the day that they discovered me,” he said. “It was my second birth”.

 “Just imagine,” he wrote. “You hear, see, feel and think but no one can see that. You undergo things. You cannot participate in life.”

At this point, having talked students through the story I stop and ask them what they think about it. The usual reactions are ‘horror’ at the impact on Rom Houben, and ‘anger’ at the medical profession for allowing it to happen.

At this point I show the students a video of the BBC NEWS report of this story, and ask them if they notice anything unusual. This is usually enough of a prompt that the students will ask about Mr Houben means of communication, in particular that he is using one finger to type on a keyboard, but that finger appears to be being directed by a health care work. This process is known as ‘facilitated communication’. I usually then give the students a break and invite them to see what they can find out about ‘facilitated communications’. 

Given that most students are in possession of at least one internet-enabled device, it doesn’t take long for them to begin questioning the validity of the quotations from Rom Houben. I then conclude by showing them an article from the BBC website some months after the first report, in which they retract the original story and say that sadly Mr Houben could not communicate after all, and that the quotations produced where coming from the health care worker involved.

All of this leads to two discussions with students, the impact on Mr Houben’s family of having their hopes raised and the dashed, and the fact that the students were able to recognise an issue that the BBC (and all the other media outlets) seem to have missed. Hopefully this excercise encourages students to realise that they are gaining valuable skills in learning to think rationally, and that these skills aren’t very widespread

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