Sunday 28 October 2007

Teaching blindness

Is it possible to teach blindness? You bet.

Case 1. The other day I bought a piece of software which came in a number of files, altogether several hundred megabytes large. There were problems with downloading so I asked to pay the extra charge for a CD burn and shipping after the software itself was already paid for. That's when the trouble started. Their website didn't allow for ordering the burn for that version, and naturally I didn't want to order - and pay for - the whole thing again. I am still involved in trying to explain the situation so that I may get an answer that makes sense in terms of what their system allows a customer to do.

Case 2. While working on the OtoomCM computer program there was the need to save certain screen areas for later reference as the program was running. The bitmap file format suited fine, but for several reasons I had to write and slightly modify the bitmap-file producing function myself. The way Microsoft designed this function is a case study in obscurantism, and so I hunted around the internet for some hint on how the reading of pixels is actually accomplished. There were dozens upon dozens of web pages offering advice about the use of the MS function per se, essentially useless because the parameters make that rather obvious anyway. Yet not a single one explained the weird system used by Windows. It took many frustrating hours trying to figure out how they did it.

Case 3. In various discussion groups I tried to explain my use of the word 'functionality', its understanding essential for an understanding of the Otoom model itself. Although I abided strictly by the definition Webster's, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Macquarie Dictionary offered, I couldn't get through to certain people because they stuck to the more specific meaning developed later by researchers in the fields of artificial intelligence and others. Using the general meaning common in the English language just didn't work with them.

Case 4. In an article submitted to a journal I was criticised for not dealing with a number of hypotheses that seek to explain in various ways how the mind works. None of them had proven useful, and therefore wasting precious space on things that do not apply seemed futile. Still, those conceptualisations were so ingrained in the minds of the reviewers that stepping outside their bounds was just too much to ask.

What do those cases have in common?

There is a mindset trained to process a given template and not more. Such a mind had never been given the opportunity to deconstruct a scenario in terms of its inherent elements, so that a reassembled version could be applied to the purpose at hand. If that template happened to be appropriate the information was processed, but anything even slightly outside such a norm constituted a challenge. Since the challenge cannot be taken up the situation is not responded to and a constructive outcome proves elusive.

For many decades pupils and students have been faced with a fundamentally different teaching method, one that is "outcome based" and "holistic" rather than concentrating on schematically organising one's thoughts. Information is presented in chunks, and those chunks are interpreted and reinterpreted without giving the learning mind the chance to understand the underlying bits and pieces.

The result is the mind's inability to reorganise an overall concept to suit the moment, and so university lecturers have to teach new students basic maths while education departments focus first and foremost on sociology and social justice rather than on literacy and numeracy, turning schools into "quasi-sociology departments". Of course sociology and social justice are important, but how can you properly evaluate an event if the capacity to critically evaluate its components is missing?

In programming the current development platforms enable the quick and easy assembly of functions - just drag the icon into your form and it's done. Nothing wrong with that, except there is now a whole generation of programmers who simply don't know what stands behind those functions and what's more, don't even see the need to understand their finer points.

Academic journals have settled into well-trodden paths of endlessly repetitive concepts, with no freedom to step beyond the rut no matter how promising such an escape could be.

And simple questions about payment methods turn into a frustrating cycle of emails that in no time escalate into ridiculous complications.

A corollary to the above would be the inability of people to appreciate the detailed mapping out of results as a confirmation of one's message. How can they if the functional detail of a concept had never been the subject of their mental processes to begin with? I strongly suspect this flaw played a considerable role in the evaluation of my thesis at Griffith University.

No wonder that in the UK synthetic phonics is reintroduced into the classroom, and in Australia the government has recognised the serious problem of many graduates being incompetent in basic science, math or history.

Under Otoom the inherent pattern of a given cognitive process - whatever its representative nature - gives rise to further complexes. If those patterns are insufficient or too coarse, the resultant applicability of the complexes will suffer too.

It is high time the post-modernist and feminist habits of mindless chunking are given the flick.

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