Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Cultural frames and cultural property -- part five

The photograph above is of a classroom at a business school in India. Can you spot the nonconformist? Look at how the colours of the decorative panels on the wall are reflected, not just in other aspects of the interior design, but also in the student's dress.

My wife worked as a substitute teacher when we first met, and she told me a story about a very memorable assignment. She had been called to work at a Jewish school and she heard that other substitute teachers were very reluctant to do so. This was not because of any anti semitism, it was just that most of her fellow substitute teachers found that assignment too chaotic. They liked to see their students sitting orderly at their desks, quietly waiting for their instruction, and then raising their hands to ask a question. Of course, at just about any high school, that is not typical of the scene that the substitute teacher encounters when entering the classroom, but Order is usually soon established.

So when she entered the classroom, she already knew what was awaiting her. In the Jewish school, the students were quick to interrupt the teacher if something was said that they did not agree with, and this often erupted into lively debate. The noise level was extreme, and she soon understood why the other substitute teachers avoided the assignment. But Carrie was adaptable and she loved it. She saw a greater level of enthusiasm for learning, and that learning was not just a single directional flow from teacher to student but a collaborative action -- the teacher was also in greater touch with the true feelings of the students about what was being taught. She was so enthused by the assignment that when our own daughter came of school age we tried to enter her at a Jewish school which allowed a certain number of non-Jewish students. Unfortunately, there were far more applicants than spaces available -- it had an excellent reputation, and our daughter did not get in.

Some years later, I was designing and producing emergency evacuation maps for worst-case scenario floods from dam breaches on two rivers in Alberta. In most similar cases, flood maps are "imposed" on those who might have need of them later, but I had decided that I really needed to know how my maps would be received and how problems with them could be resolved. In emergency situations, minutes can equate to lives and all actions must be calm and efficient. At first I thought that the maps must not produce too many questions as answering those questions would waste valuable time. I soon came to realize that this was wrong. Emergency workers are well-trained before any disaster takes place, so they are are already familiar with the maps. The Alberta government had decided that the previously-used evacuation maps were inadequate and were insisting on something better. Those maps had been produced by an international engineering company and their response was that they could not do any better. There had been some miscommunication -- the engineers knew that the data could not be improved, but the government's concerns were not with the accuracy of the flood levels (such things cannot be precisely predicted), but with the comprehensibility of the maps. Knowing that any flood levels would be variable, the engineering company had drawn them with a broad line. The maps had been produced by superimposing the flood levels over a photocopy of ordinary government maps.

I knew that the government maps had to be simplified and only essential information should be included. There would be no need to be aware of a picnic ground or ski slope half way up a mountain, but a locked gate on a forestry road certainly had to be clearly depicted. I also believed that the flood line should not be "fudged", but accurately depicted -- even though the computer-generated line was only an estimate -- floods carry a lot of solid material and this can produce "accidental dams" that affect the flow of water downstream. What is swept away, and what is not, cannot be predicted.

The first test was with dam workers at Ghost Dam on the Bow River. This dam produces electricity from its gigantic turbines and has a very large lake. It is fed from an even bigger lake and dam in the mountains -- Lake Minnewanka (that dam was critical in the recent Calgary area floods although most of the population did not know that). Being an earth-dam, it could not be allowed to overspill as subsequent erosion would then cause it to fail and that would have been a far greater tragedy.

I got the report from a presentation of one of my maps made to the dam workers. With the old maps, after a presentation, the workers were always asked if they had any questions. Almost always, there were not, and the presenter went away thinking that the presentation was a success. With my map, everything was different. Not only were there many questions, but lively debate also ensued --much like as it had at the Jewish school. What was really happening was that the earlier maps had been incomprehensible to most of the workers, and they had attributed that to their own failings, and not those of the engineers who had produced the maps. They had all gone to quiet, orderly, schools where no one stood out from the crowd. Each worker thought that he was the only one who did not understand, and as he did not want to be embarrassed, he kept quiet. The flaws in my own map were easy to understand, they were not mistakes per se -- it was just that the workers were more familiar with the actual terrain and saw where the maps did not reflect that properly. I was thus able to make the necessary adjustments like removing locations of gravel piles that had been depleted, and the workers were able to make different arrangements about locked gates and the like.

A very different scenario ensued at the First Nations Stony Reserve, on the other river, at Bighorn Dam. At that presentation, many of the resident just got up and walked out when they encountered something they could not understand. They knew that it was not their fault, but the fault of the maps or the presentation -- they were just wasting their time being there. They were not subject to the embarrassment factor prevalent with the dam workers at Ghost. There were major cultural differences between the two scenarios. It had been previously thought that the First Nations people could not understand maps very well, but that was just cultural prejudice -- they actually probably understood their own terrain better than the other dam workers who did not live on the same land - they knew the maps were no good.

When you read what UNESCO has to say about education, it all looks very reasonable -- at first. Then you encounter such things as IQ testing to eliminate students unsuitable for higher education. I suppose that if you were to submit IQ testing to Bushmen of the Kalahari, they might not score so well as the average high school student in a large city, but were you to take one of those students and drop them in the middle of the Kalahari, it would be unlikely that they would even be alive a week later -- unless they encountered a helpful Bushman.

In attempting to classify some Celtic coins, it did not take me very long to see a number of fatal flaws in classification, itself. Apparently, this realization did not happen with the folks who put together the UNESCO International Standard Classification of Education, or perhaps, if it did occur to one or two of them, nothing was said for fear of embarrassment for standing out in the crowd, or perhaps they just got up and walked out of the room, never to return. I wonder what this classification will look like in another ten years -- in typical bureaucratic fashion it will probably be even longer and with many more divisions. Bureaucracies do that sort of thing, they grow, cancer-like, until they collapse under their own weight, taking down the society that gave birth to them.

Learning, or acting upon, a classification system can be likened to building neural pathways in the brain -- like wagon ruts on an ancient road, they make travel easier along that route, but impossible anywhere nearby. As I constantly emphasize, variability and adaptability are essential for survival. All are equal in death. I will leave you with something I have given in an earlier post, but if you are not reading all the posts, you might well have missed it: it is Aaron Lynch's Units, events, and dynamics in the evolutionary epidemiology of ideas. Although much of it is too technical for most (myself included). Lynch presents enough for the average reader to grasp its essentials. The pertinent part being:

"Practical implications may follow from the above model of population creativity for ideas. For example, proposals to make education highly uniform and enforced by nationwide testing may tend to limit creativity by reducing the variability of combinations of important ideas. Creativity in an organization or a society might alternatively be enhanced by encouraging the acquisition of highly unusual combinations of ideas and fields of learning. Cultural, educational, and experiential diversity might turn out to increase population creativity by increasing the occurrence rates for extremely rare combinations of ideas that could lead to the formation of new ideas. In particular, this might result in higher creative output for universities, research institutions, and other organizations that deliberately strive for a culturally diverse mix of people. Yet even a 1000-fold increase for an idea combination that exists at a prevalence of 10-9 only involves one person in a million, representing only a tiny dent in the prevalence for extremely common combinations of ideas that would form the mainstream of a society or a subculture. Factors such as that might even be investigated as sources of different creativity rates in different countries. Such practical implications also warrant separate papers in their own right. The focus here is on the role of quantitative processes in a population affecting population creativity, and thus the evolution of ideas."

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