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How The Mind Works by Steven Pinker

How The Mind Works by Steven Pinker

Author:Steven Pinker
Language: eng
Format: mobi
Tags: Non-fiction, Popular science
Published: 2011-04-08T13:19:25+00:00


342 | HOW THE MIND WORKS

practice, the routes to automaticity, are called “mechanistic” and seen as detrimental to understanding. As one pedagogue lucidly explained, “A zone of potential construction of a specific mathematical concept is determined by the modifications of the concept children might make in, or as a result of, interactive communication in the mathematical learning environment.” The result, another declared, is that “it is possible for students to construct for themselves the mathematical practices that, historically, took several thousand years to evolve.”

As Geary points out, constructivism has merit when it comes to the intuitions of small numbers and simple arithmetic that arise naturally in all children. But it ignores the difference between our factory-installed equipment and the accessories that civilization bolts on afterward. Setting our mental modules to work on material they were not designed for is hard. Children do not spontaneously see a string of beads as elements in a set, or points on a line as numbers. If you give them a bunch of blocks and tell them to do something together, they will exercise their intuitive physics and intuitive psychology for all they’re worth, but not necessarily their intuitive sense of number. (The better curricula explicitly point out connections across ways of knowing. Children might be told to do every arithmetic problem three different ways: by counting, by drawing diagrams, and by moving segments along a number line.) And without the practice that compiles a halting sequence of steps into a mental reflex, a learner will always be building mathematical structures out of the tiniest nuts and bolts, like the watchmaker who never made subassemblies and had to start from scratch every time he put down a watch to answer the phone.

Mastery of mathematics is deeply satisfying, but it is a reward for hard work that is not itself always pleasurable. Without the esteem for hard-won mathematical skills that is common in other cultures, the mastery is unlikely to blossom. Sadly, the same story is being played out in American reading instruction. In the dominant technique, called “whole language,” the insight that language is a naturally developing human instinct has been garbled into the evolutionarily improbable claim that reading is a naturally developing human instinct. Old-fashioned practice at connecting letters to sounds is replaced by immersion in a text-rich social environment, and the children don’t learn to read. Without an understanding of what the mind was designed to do in the environment in which we evolved, the unnatural activity called formal education is unlikely to succeed.



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