The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature – Steven Pinker

(en español)

The Blank Slate - Pinker 2002 I have recently engaged in several conversations with people from outside of the field of early childhood education in which the conversations turned to the topic of nurturing.  These conversations have caused me to stop and think.  What does it mean to be a nurturing teacher?  How does that differ from the role of a nurturing parent?  How does my maleness impact both my ability to be nurturing as well as society’s interpretation of the nurturing role that I play?  What forms of nurture occur outside of the family and instructional environment to impact children’s growth and development?

A Nurturing Family

In his book, The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker argues that there may be no impact of nurture whatsoever on a person’s personality development.  He suggests that “the nongenetic component of personality is the outcome of neurodevelopmental roulette” (2002, p. 397) and that personality is shaped largely by random chance and not by any environmental factors.  While the idea that environment has no impact on personality may seem a bit extreme, Pinker makes the point that we need to view children not as “lumps of putty to be shaped,” but instead as “partners in a human relationship” (2002, p. 399).

Does this mean that we should not nurture our children?  Of course not.  Pinker suggests that a nurturing parental role is an essential part of this human partnership.  As a teacher, I see my students as my family, my children.  I see the children’s parents as extensions of my own personal family.  This bond is so strong that I am still in touch with the families of students even from my first year of teaching, now nearly seven years ago.

Pinker warns that “Family love indeed subverts the ideal of what we should feel for every soul in the world” (2002, p. 245) because “the balancing of competing interests that governs all human interactions does not end at the door of the family home” (2002, p. 251).  But he also suggests that, as with my extension of my students as part of my family, human beings in general have this capacity to widen their circle of definition for family, and that this capacity can ultimately serve a globally unifying purpose.

According to Pinker, “The observation that people may be morally indifferent to other people who are outside a mental circle immediately suggests an opening for the effort to reduce violence: understand the psychology of the circle well enough to encourage people to put all of humanity inside it” (2002, p. 320).  In answer to the question of what it means to be nurturing, I see it as having the emotional sensitivity to widen that circle and provide care for others as though they were family.

The Male Nurturer

With this definition of nurturing in mind, it should come as no surprise that human males have nurturing capabilities, particularly when Pinker points out that “the male of Homo sapiens differs from the male of most other mammals in a crucial way: men invest in their offspring rather than leaving all the investing to the female” (2002, p. 252).  In other words, one of the characteristics of our uniquely human nature is the nurturing capacity of our males.  This would seem to run counter to many of the ways men are encouraged to view themselves.

If asked to list the characteristics of masculinity, most people would probably be unlikely to include ‘nurturing’ on that list, whereas it would likely be one of the first characteristics of femininity.  In fact, if the two lists were to be put in a Venn diagram, the overlapping section would likely have little, if anything, written in it.  The reality, as Pinker points out is actually strikingly different.  “Men and women have all the same genes except for a handful on the Y chromosome, and their brains are so similar that it takes an eagle-eyed neuroanatomist to find the small differences between them” (2002, p. 344).

So why, then, is there a fear of men in nurturing fields?  I have repeatedly been advised to be wary of physical contact with children.  Sometimes it has come in the form of cautionary warnings, and other times it has come in the form of direct mandates not to allow the children to sit in my lap or not to change diapers or assist at potty-time.  It always comes from a benevolent place where they are providing me these cautions “for your own protection,” but I can’t help but wonder what message it sends to the children when the men who care for them are not engaging in a number of inherently nurturing acts that are regularly engaged in by women in the same position.  If people are trained from childhood to view gender roles in this manner, the discriminatory values will be passed on to the next generation.

While I disagree with Pinker on a number of his interpretations of contemporary cognitive theory, there is one point he makes that I absolutely agree with him on.  “One ought not to assume that the default human being is a man and that children are an indulgence or an accident that strikes a deviant subset” (2002, p. 358).  When we delegate nurturing roles solely to females, particularly in a society that, by and large, does not place value in those roles, we are creating a division that promotes discrimination and subjugation.

Next month I will be discussing the book Nature Education with Young Children, edited by Daniel R. Meier and Stephanie Sisk-Hilton.  If you have a book that you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Meier, D.R. & S. Sisk-Hilton. (2013). Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution – Morris, Collett, Marsh, & O’Shaughnessy

(en español)

Gestures - Morris, Collett, Marsh, OShaughnessy 1979fWhen TLCThinkLiteracy suggested that I write a blog post about common gestures and their meanings in different languages, I excitedly rummaged through my gesture literature to find the most-cited book dealing with this topic.  That book is Gestures: Their origins and distribution by Desmond Morris, Peter Collett, Peter Marsh, and Marie O’Shaughnessy (1979).

Gestures - Morris, Collett, Marsh, OShaughnessy 1979b

20 Emblem Gestures

This book is primarily an anthropological analysis of emblem gestures used throughout Europe.  According to the authors, “Emblems are actions which replace speech and can act as substitutes for verbal statements” (1979, p. xx).  Illustrations of the emblem gestures they used for analysis were printed on the back cover of the book, which I have scanned here.

I am currently in the process of analyzing video data that I recorded of eight of my students as part of a research project examining what children’s nonverbal communication reveals about their developing understandings of gender concepts.  Out of 422 gestures I recorded, only 11 of them were emblems.  The most common emblem, comprising nearly half (45.5%) of the emblem gestures used by these children, was the raising of a hand to get a teacher’s attention.  Perhaps because this particular emblem would seem to be one that would tend to be restricted to classroom environments, it did not become part of Morris et. al.’s cross-cultural analysis of middle-aged European males (1979, p. xviii).

Blocks are O.K.

The only gesture which I recorded that was discussed in this text was the “thumb up” (#16 in the illustration), the primary feature of this gesture being that “the clenched hand is extended, with the thumb vertically erect” (1979, p. 186).  In my videos of Tanish (age 4 years; 4 months), I noticed that this gesture was used once by Kimberley (4;10) while she was playing with Tanish, then once a week later by Tanish himself when he was playing alone.  In both instances the child making the gesture was working on building something out of blocks, and the gesture was made just after a previously precarious block was made to balance so that it would not fall down.  The similarity between these two instances leads me to wonder whether this is a common gesture used by the children in block-building, or whether it was an example of delayed imitation on the part of Tanish.

If it is true that this gesture has become common to block-building, then the gendered implications of Kimberley’s usage of this gesture is significant.  Often teachers consider block play to be the domain primarily of boys, but we see in this instance that not only is a girl engaging in block play, but her gesture usage in such play demonstrates that this is not an isolated instance but rather that that she has internalized a gesture associated with this type of play.

It is possible that the gesture is not common to block-building, but rather that Tanish was engaging in delayed imitation of Kimberley.  Perhaps he was creating a personal association with the gesture and block-building such that he repeated the gesture even when Kimberley was not present.  In this instance, we again we see a gendered significance.  This is an example of a boy choosing to imitate the behavior of a female peer.  Another common view held by teachers is that children tend to prefer play with children of their own genders, but the fact that Tanish internalized a behavior demonstrated by a peer of a different gender indicates that his interaction with Kimberley meant more than just the single instance of block play caught on video.

The meaning of this gesture in both of these instances would seem to be consistent with the “O.K.” meaning of the gesture as identified by Morris et. al. (1979, p. 186).  This meaning is used in every area studied by the authors, though in the Greco-Italian region the usage was less common.  In Greece, Corfu, and parts of Sardinia, it is likely that the reason it is not as common with the “O.K.” meaning is because the gesture also holds an alternate meaning of an obscene insult.  The authors point out that “although both the insult meaning and the O.K. meaning are present in these countries, in southern Sardinia and northern Greece the obscene insult is dominant” (1979, pp. 195-196).  As for the rest of Sardinia, Sicily, and mainland Italy the lack of usage is probably related to the fact that “the O.K. ring [#9] is more popular in Italy” (1979, p. 195).  In mainland Italy in particular, the thumb up was considered to be more tied to American culture.  “At every location we visited on mainland Italy, at least one person identified it as ‘The American O.K.’” (1979, p. 193).

Other meanings for the thumb up gesture, which did not hold significant frequency in any region, were the number one, hitch-hike, and indication of direction (1979, p. 195).

Spiderman called you a cuckold

Though none of the other emblems discussed in the text appeared in the video data of my gesture research project, I do occasionally notice children in my classrooms making a gesture which resembles “the horn-sign” (#10 & #11), in which “the hand is [held up/pointed forward] with the forefinger and the little finger extended [vertically/horizontally].  The other two fingers are held down in a bent position by the thumb” (1979, p. 120, p. 136).  This gesture tends to occur when children are engaging in superhero play, specifically with regard to Spiderman.  In the 2002 movie starring Tobey Maguire there is a scene in which Spiderman experiments with different hand positions for shooting his webs, and one of the positions he tries is the vertical horn-sign, before finally discovering a similar hand position, in which the thumb is also extended while the hand is held palm-up horizontally.  This is the hand position typically recognized as being used by Spiderman to trigger his web-shooter.

I recall at one point overhearing a conversation between a young 4-year-old boy and his mother in which the child modeled both the thumb-extended versions of the Spiderman web-shooting gesture along with an upside-down version of the horizontal horn-sign as a thumb-retracted version of the web-shooting gesture.  He explained to his mother that girls use the thumb-extended version while boys (including himself) use the thumb-retracted version.  Personally, I’ve noticed that it tends to be younger children, regardless of gender, that use the thumb-retracted version, while older children, regardless of gender, tend to use the thumb-extended version, which requires greater fine-motor coordination.  The child, however, was projecting his own preferred method onto his same-gender peers.  In preschool classrooms, both hand formations have come to be emblematic of Spiderman.

Out of curiosity, I consulted a comic book expert known as TheDissilent, who helped me to skim through the first seventeen years of Spiderman comics (from when it began in 1962 until 1979, when Morris et. al. published Gestures) to see what hand positions Spiderman was depicted as using when shooting or attempting to shoot his webs and how frequently Spiderman was depicted as using the thumb-retracted horn-sign in such a context.  Of course, the large majority of the time he used the thumb-extended version of the gesture (61.9% of left-handed webs; 65.6% of right-handed webs).  It turns out that he positioned his hand in the true thumb-retracted horn-sign only about 3.4% of the time with the right hand and about 3.9% of the time with the left hand over the course of this period.  The highest frequency use of this form occurred in 1973, when the right hand used it 23.1% of the time and the left hand used it 25.0% of the time.

This would place Marvel Comics’ prime use of the gesture about halfway between when it was first introduced to rock music culture by the band Coven in 1968, and when Black Sabbath popularized the gesture as representative of heavy metal culture in 1979.  This use of the gesture in popular music probably stems from its meaning as a form of protection or a curse, in which the horns are acting “as symbols of power and aggression” (1979, pp. 128-129).  Prior to 1979, however, this usage as protection or curse was very minor, even in the parts of Italy, Malta, and Yugoslavia in which it was found.  Instead, Morris et. al. documented the gesture’s primary usage to be “the sign for a cuckold.  Its message is: your wife has been unfaithful to you and has given you the horns of a cuckold” (1979, p. 120).  They found that for the cuckold insult “as a commonly used gesture, we found it restricted today largely to Portugal, Spain and Italy” (1979, p. 129).

This meaning of the gesture has particularly interesting ramifications with regard to gender roles in society, and even this highly gender-biased study finds itself looking at rape culture as a major factor in this gesture’s history.  For they deduced that “we are dealing with a gesture of declining popularity” (1979, p. 129), and in seeking out the reason for this decline they found themselves examining the relative seriousness of the crimes of adultery and of rape throughout history.  At a time when the objectification of women was much more overt in society, in that women were viewed more as property of men than as individuals, adultery was a much more heinous crime than rape.  “The reason for being more lenient with the rapist was that he had only stolen the woman’s body, while the adulterous seducer had stolen both her body and her mind.  This attitude is based on the theft of the husband’s property – his wife – rather than on any consideration of the woman’s feelings” (1979, p. 131).   The authors attribute the decline in use of this meaning of the gesture to a waning view toward women as property, resulting in lower stigmatism toward adulterers and greater stigmatism toward rapists.  Unfortunately, nearly 35 years after this book was published, women are still being objectified and we continue to live in a rape culture.

There are some areas where the gesture is used as simply a general insult, not specifically associated with cuckoldry.  The authors point out that, “This is rare… but we have included a map of it because there is one site – Yugoslavia – where it becomes the dominant meaning” (1979, p. 134).  The horizontal horn-sign has one additional minor meaning not present in the vertical gesture, in which “it is also employed as a savage threat, with the meaning ‘I will poke your eyes out’” (1979, p. 143), but this meaning seems to be restricted mainly to just northern France.

This book analyzes another seventeen gestures not addressed in this blog post, and I would be happy to answer any questions readers have about the origins or distributions of other gestures depicted in the illustration.  What gestures do you find yourself or your own students using?  How has the meaning of these gestures changed over time in nearly 35 years since this book was published?  Please feel free to comment on this post with your responses or questions of your own.

Also, if you have a book that you would like to see me discuss, please comment on the new Recommended Reading page.  Next month I will be discussing Daring to dream: Toward a pedagogy of the unfinished by Paulo Freire (2007).


Freire, P. (2007). Daring to dream: Toward a pedagogy of the unfinished. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Morris, D., P. Collet, P. Marsh, & M. O’Shaughnessy. (1979). Gestures: Their origins and distribution. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day.

Thought and Language – L.S. Vygotsky

(en español)

Thought and Language - Vygotsky 1962 Thought and Language - Vygotsky 1986Several years ago I became enamored with the work of Marxist developmental theorist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky.  I have read and cited multiple articles by him as well as two of his most prominent books, including an English translation of Thought and Language (Vygotsky 1986).  I was later given a copy of an earlier translation of that same text (Vygotsky 1962), and only now have I gotten around to reading it.  This post is not a comparison of the two translations (though where the wording differs between translations I include footnotes with the alternate wording), but rather a discussion of Vygotsky’s theory of concept development and my application of that theory specifically to how children develop an understanding of the concept of gender.

Vygotsky believed that language is a mediator for thought, and that inner speech emerges from external speech by passing through an intermediate stage known as egocentric speech.  For the most part, this is not particularly relevant to the discussion of gender concepts and I mention it only because Vygotsky himself states that “Learning to direct one’s own mental processes with the aid of words or signs is an integral part of the process of concept formation” (1962, p. 59; 1986, p. 108)

So when Vygotsky states, “the word to the child is a property, rather than the symbol, of an object” (1962, p. 50)[1] at the end of the chapter immediately preceding his discussion of concept development, he is setting the stage for a discussion of children’s understanding of the properties of objects in which the word for the object becomes an integral part not only of the child’s conceptual understanding of the object, but of the object itself.  (While Vygotsky uses the general term “object,” I am applying his theory to the concept of gender, which is a property of people.  When I therefore use the term “object” in this post to refer to a person I do not intend it in a demeaning or objectifying manner; I am simply utilizing the terminology of the author of the text being discussed.)

In gender development, the words “boy” and “girl” are the ones that children are coming to understand.  What does it mean to a young child to be a “boy” or to be a “girl”?  How do these words as properties of people influence how the child sees the person, or indeed how the child sees themselves?

Phase 1 – Syncretism (The Pregendered Stage)

Vygotsky tells us that “The young child takes the first step toward concept formation when he puts together a number of objects in an unorganized congeries, or ‘heap,’ in order to solve a problem” (1962, p. 59; 1986, p. 110).  He identifies several stages within this phase, starting with trial-and-error.

I have seen this to varying degrees in toddlers who use gender pronouns interchangeably, refer to me as “Ms. Jeff” just as often as “Mr. Jeff”, and who see nothing wrong with boys playing princesses or girls playing superheroes, though they may tend to gravitate themselves toward neither.  In some ways, this stage is the feminist ideal, in which the concept of differentiation between genders is virtually nonexistent.  I would call this the “pregendered” stage of gender concept development.

Of course, as anybody who has worked with children will undoubtedly recognize, toddlerhood is not quite the universal feminist utopia that I would seem to be painting here.  Nonetheless, the pregendered stage, while still marred by the cultural influence of gender imposition, does exist in my experience, to a greater or lesser degree, as can be seen in the following interaction in one toddler classroom I taught in several years ago:

Liam (age 2) is underneath the climbing structure with the chimes.  Any time another child comes near, Liam tells them, “This is my house.”  Seeing the reactions of the other children to being rejected, I decide to intervene.  When Liam rejects Mario (age 2) I suggest that maybe Mario is the Daddy in Liam’s house.  Liam says, “No, I’m the Daddy.”  I start to suggest that Mario could be the brother when Mario decides to take the role of the Mommy.  With Mario as the Mommy, Liam has no qualms with letting him play in his “house.”

Phase 2 – Complex Thinking (Gender Exploration)

Following the syncretic (pregendered) stage Vygotsky describes what he calls “thinking in complexes.  In a complex, individual objects are united in the child’s mind not only by his subjective impression but also by bonds actually existing between these objects” (1962, p. 61; 1986, p. 112).  The stages that Vygotsky identifies within this phase culminate in what he calls pseudoconcepts, in which “the generalization formed in the child’s mind, although phenotypically resembling the adult concept, is psychologically very different from the concept proper; in its essence it is still a complex”  (1962, p. 66; 1986, p. 119).  He goes on to point out that pseudoconcepts dominate in preschool because “The lines along which a complex develops are predetermined by the meaning a given word already has in the language of adults” (1962, p. 67; 1986, p. 120).

In other words, upon hearing gendered language used frequently, children will try to make sense of the meaning of gender, but their understandings will be incomplete and framed by the contexts of their interactions.  They will try to create categories and group their subjective impressions into defining categories of “boy” and “girl.”  “Such spontaneous complex formations,” reveals Vygotsky (1962, p. 70; 1986, p. 127), “make up the entire first chapter of the developmental history of children’s words.”  This can be seen in another example from the same toddler classroom:

As the class is preparing to go outdoors, I inform the children that I will put my hair in a ponytail because it is so hot outside.  Missy (age 3) seems incredulous that I would put my hair in a ponytail since I’m a boy.  I tell her, “I’m a boy with long hair.”  Liam (age 2) interjects at this point that he’s a boy with short hair, and Mario (age 2) agrees, identifying himself as a boy with short hair as well.  Missy points out that Mario’s hair is even shorter than Liam’s, and she then acknowledges that my hair is longer than hers.  The conversation then turns to the hair lengths of the children’s family members.  Throughout this conversation Ayiana (age 2) merely sits by and listens, absorbing the discussion.  Two months later, after Missy has moved on to the preschool classroom, I have my hair tied back while carrying Ayiana when we are outside.  Ayiana reaches out and touches my hair, saying, “You’re a lady.”

Phase 3 – Potential Concepts

Vygotsky found that “the development of the processes which eventually result in concept formation begins in earliest childhood, but the intellectual functions that in a specific combination form the psychological basis of concept formation ripen, take shape, and develop only at puberty” (1962, p. 58)[2].  Children remain in the phase of complex thinking (gender exploration) for a large part of their childhood, though such complexes undergo a development of their own.  Nonetheless, these complexes remain fluid and malleable to varying degrees until children become capable of greater abstraction as they reach adolescence, laying the groundwork for the formation of true concepts.  In Vygotsky’s words, “Only the mastery of abstraction, combined with advanced complex thinking, enables the child to progress to the formation of genuine concepts” (1962, p. 78; 1986, p. 139).

However, he does not call his third and final phase one of true or genuine concepts, but rather of potential concepts, I think in large part because he recognizes that thinking in complexes never fully goes away.  He is careful to point out that “the adult constantly shifts from conceptual to concrete, complex thinking.  The transitional, pseudoconceptual form of thought is not confined to the child’s thinking; we too resort to it very often in our daily lives” (1986, p. 134)[3].

As a teacher, this is where the greatest challenge comes in.  Even with in-depth study of gender theory, it is a struggle to abstract what gender truly means in a way that can be said to be a true conceptual understanding.  I find I must constantly question my own attitudes and whether they are coming from a conceptual framework of gender definition or from a complex that has built up in my mind through exposure to mass culture.  If I myself struggling on these fronts, how can I help my students make sense of this?

The answer would seem to lie in Vygotsky’s statement that “a concept can become subject to consciousness and deliberate control only when it is a part of a system” (1962, p. 92)[4].  In other words, I need to help children bring their gender complexes to the level of conscious thought in order to examine them at a deeper level.  I must also recognize that this is not something that should necessarily wait until they have already developed the abstraction necessary for potential concepts because “the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it; it must be aimed not so much at the ripe as at the ripening functions” (1962, p. 104; 1986, p. 188).

I welcome and encourage comments and discussion on this post.  Also, if you have a book that you think would interest me and would like to see me discuss in this blog, please feel free to comment with your recommendation.  Next month I will be discussing the book Literacy Through Play by Gretchen Owocki (Owocki 1999).


Owocki, G. (1999). Literacy through play. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962 [1934]). Thought and language (E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar, Trans. & Eds.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1986 [1934]). Thought and language. (A. Kozulin, Tran. & Ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[1] “to a child the word is a property, rather than the symbol of an object” (Vygotsky 1986, p. 92).

[2] “the development of the processes that eventually result in concept formation begins in earliest childhood, but the intellectual functions that in a specific combination form the psychological basis of the process of concept formation ripen, take shape, and develop only at puberty” (Vygotsky 1986, p. 106).

[3] “the adult constantly shifts from conceptual to concrete, complexlike thinking.  The transitional, pseudo-concept form of thought is not confined to child thinking; we resort to it very often in our daily life” (Vygotsky 1962, p. 75).

[4] a concept can become subject to conscious and deliberate control only when it is part of a system” (Vygtosky 1986, p. 171).