Sunday, 13 October 2013

Which to Teach, Procedure or Understanding?

When I’m showing a colleague how to do something on their computer and I try to explain why it works that way, often they’ll say: “Don’t tell me how it works, just tell me what I need to do.”

The reason I try to explain how it works is that referring back to the underlying system is how I myself remember things. It is, I think usually a better strategy overall: it equips one better to cope with unexpected situations, such as a software upgrade which moves the buttons or changes their names. But what I have to remind myself is that many people really don’t want to know all that; they just want to know what to do.

The trouble is that it’s sometimes very hard to devise a procedure – what the mathematicians call an algorithm, or sequence of instructions – which is really robust so that someone without any understanding at all can follow it and get the desired result every time. For example, what instructions would you give someone to enable them to get across a city by bus, if they don’t really understand what a bus route is or what governs a bus’s starting and stopping?

In the magnificent from-the-inside book about autism Send in the Idiots, that was the problem which confronted Henry and Sheila, who wanted to teach their autistic daughter Elizabeth (age 23) to get from their house to the public library, which she loved, by bus on her own. They’d shown her the way to the bus stop and explained the bus numbers and how the motions made by people at the bus stop attract the driver’s attention and make the bus pull over. “She might not have realized [that there was a correlation between people sticking out their hands and the bus pulling in], not because she lacked deductive reasoning but because she might have noticed the green stain on the person’s sneakers instead, the misplaced apostrophe in the advertisement on the side of the bus.”

Next they had to teach her when to get off the bus. They started with a street map and a bus route map, and she understood the differences between them. But when they tried the trip together, with a portable copy of the bus map, she couldn’t follow their route. “Each time the bus stopped, Elizabeth thought that she was to count off a dot, except that the bus stopped for traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, as well as to pick up or let off passengers. And, to make things worse, it also didn’t stop every time that it was supposed to. There weren’t passengers to let off or pick up at every point designated on the map.” Trying to follow the bus map, she became increasingly confused and distressed, to the point where Sheila had to take her off the bus.
The next strategy was to teach her to count streets, to use just the street map and to count the streets to her [destination]. However, when they tried this, she disputed their interpretation of a street. She wanted to count everything that was paved as a street. Again the map didn’t match what she was seeing. Elizabeth’s parents tried to wean her off this by telling her to count only those paved routes that had street signs. This had the potential for excluding entrances to parking garages and walkways. She was good at noticing details, so it seemed safe to assume that she would notice every street sign and cross-reference it with the map. However, not every street on the map had a sign – far from it, especially when they got downtown. They also tried by counting only streets that had white lines drawn on them. But some of the wider streets had several lanes – so several white lines – and some of the narrower streets had no lines. This didn’t work either.
They’d been trying for three weeks, when Elizabeth’s distress during another unsuccessful attempt Elizabeth’s distress forced them to get off the bus early yet again. They were feeling a deep sense of failure. Blind people travelled on buses. So did children. But their grown-up daughter couldn’t.
‘Where are we, anyway?’ exclaimed Sheila.

‘Twelve,’ replied Elizabeth….

‘What?’ asked Henry. ‘Why twelve?’

Elizabeth pointed to the bus stop.

She had worked out that the bus map wasn’t at all abstract. It was only abstract if you were comparing it to the street map, or if you assumed that the bus had to stop at every dot. Instead, the bus map was a map of all the bus stop signs with the same logo as was in the bottom righthand corner of the map. In fact, you didn’t even need the map. You just needed to know the number of signs from the point of embarkation to the point of disembarkation. They were at twelve. They needed to get to fifteen.
So a triumph of sorts. But what a distance there is between Elizabeth’s algorithm for working out when to get off the bus and anything like a systemic understanding of the situation, in which the counting of bus stops relates to her progress across the city. And how good is her algorithm really? Would she know how to adjust it, if say a bus stop was suspended due to road works, or the bus route was diverted? Nevertheless, this story was a reminder to me that, if what you’re most concerned about is a practical outcome, it may be a good idea to abandon the goal of teaching understanding: even with non-autistic people, the effort may simply not be worth the benefit, for everyone concerned


Kamran Nazeer, Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism (Bloomsbury, 2006), pp 147-150.

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