Guest Post: Junlei Li considers the possibilities of the tail wagging the dog

“I wonder to what extent your technology ‘tail’ is wagging the dog.” wrote the reviewer in the rejection letter of my first grant proposal.

“I wonder to what extent your technology ‘tail’ is wagging the dog.” wrote the reviewer in the rejection letter of my first grant proposal.

At the time, I was a graduate student studying cognition and instruction at Carnegie Mellon University and part of a team consisting of interactive artists, robotic engineers, space scientists, and educators.  The goal of our proposal was to use 3-D visualization tools to virtually transport middle school students onto remote places like Antarctica or Mars so they could explore like robotic rovers – something fancy and fashionable back then.  The astute reviewer, however, recognized that our penchant for technological gadgetry belied a lack of substantive understanding of how children might actually learn and grow with gadgets like these.  I sheepishly thought to myself, “Okay, I see the tail now, but what is the dog?”

Fast forward ten years.

I was sitting in a toddler room of an orphanage in a southern China boom town.  It was near the end of a particularly unfruitful day, after I had gone from room to room hoping to catch a glimpse of meaningful interactions between any children with any staff.  Exhausted and frustrated, I sat with my notebook closed and pen capped.  Around the room, two uniformed workers were chatting and doing household chores, a few toddlers were crawling around, and even more lay still and silently in their cribs.   Right in front of where I sat was an orphan girl in her teens, with short-cropped boyish hair and an obviously immobile left arm, and a little orphan boy perhaps less than two years of age.  She held him confidently and comfortably with her right arm.

They were playing.  She leaned in and made a funny face, the little boy dodged her and giggled.  He reached out to touch her face, she playfully turned away, and he giggled again.  With fingers from the same hand that’s holding him, she tickled him, making him squirm and giggle more.

One of the uniformed staff intervened, “Don’t hold him! He’s going to make a fuss when you leave.  If you want to play with him, put him down.”

The girl said nothing – it did not seem that she could speak at all.  With neither defiance nor resistance, she bent over gently and placed the boy on the floor mat.  He clung to her legs.  She feigned a playful “surprise” expression and made him cheerful again.  He turned and crawled away on all fours a few steps away before stopping, turning his head to check on her.  Her eyes beamed with exaggerated surprise and delight at his small accomplishment.  He laughed and shuffled back to cling to her leg once more, before setting off in a new direction.

At that moment, what struck me was not the stark contrast between the drab setting and the warm and joyful interaction between two orphaned children, but the instinctiveness with which the two of them got along.  What made this interaction so right, so natural?  I could not articulate, but I could feel it.

Months later, I was reading Urie Bronfenbrenner’s classic work “The Ecology of Human Development” (a required reading for many in the social science disciplines), the following passage recalled me to that moment in the orphanage –

Learning and development are facilitated by the participation of the developing person in progressively more complex patterns of reciprocal activity with someone with whom that person has developed a strong and enduring emotional attachment and when the balance of power gradually shifts in favor of the developing person. (italics added)

Human interactions embodying these properties – “reciprocity, progressively increasing complexity, mutuality of positive feeling, and gradual shift in balance of power” – are termed “developmental”.

That little boy in the orphanage was learning and growing because at least one person – an unschooled teenage girl with little education or training – formed a developmental relationship with him.  In my very first grant proposal (and several since then!), I let the fervor to inject the latest technology into children’s lives – be it computer tools or cognitive science or social service – overshadow the necessary, painstaking, and deliberate consideration of how any intervention, whether technological or human, can improve and enhance the interactions and relationships emanating to and from a child.

It is through these interactions and relationships that our work ultimately touches and impacts a child.  Having put on many a “tail”, I think this was the dog that I missed all along.


About the Author

As a developmental psychologist and applied researcher, Junlei Li leads an interdisciplinary community initiative called “Something Worth Giving” to capture how ordinary people – teachers, mentors, staff, volunteers – give of themselves through everyday interactions to help children learn and grow.

Published August 30, 2012