Friday, October 26, 2007

get yourself an imaginary friend

Thinking about thinking

This article argues that the world is made of mappers and packers. Mappers are better thinkers but are seriously outnumbered, the general culture is packer culture. I'll write a summary for my own benefit but its best to read the whole thing. It's well written and contains many pithy aphorisms which made me smile.

Packer traits:
  • procedural thinking, we have a problem, what is the procedure for solving it?
  • draw up action based balance sheets
  • assembly line approach
  • pushing bits of paper around
  • deal with complexity by developing more complex procedures
  • stop asking "Why?" and get on with it
  • overly concerned about certainty
  • knowledge is made of up of discrete packets - which packet applies to the current problem, do I have it, if not, who does?
  • experience learning as task driven by external forces
  • can be blind to or excuse flaws in their own logic when they are pointed out

Mapper traits:
  • reflection is important
  • take personal responsibility for problems and explore the options self reliantly
  • develop rich, strong self connected knowledge structures
  • experience learning as an internal process
  • continually modify internal map based on incoming knowledge
  • mapper learning requires higher investments
  • aware of the comparative reliability of knowledge, less thinking in terms of absolutes
  • play around with ideas in their head continually, in their spare time, on weekends

The section on the American led Japanese revival following WW2 is amazing. They argue that mapping can be reawakened by trauma ("nuke them twice") and that the "Total Quality Management" (TQM) ethos that developed masked the underlying real reason for Japan's success. When TQM was transferred to other societies it did not always work because the packers, who are the majority, treated it like a checklist to be ticked off.

Packers and mappers don't understand each other. Mappers think packers are cynical or lazy. Packers think mappers are irrational.

The section on reflection is good. Reflection is often mistaken as daydreaming and can be discouraged by school and many parents. Reflection is hard to teach and hard to assess. Many social pressures work against reflection.

Description of the worst case scenario of packer thinking:
"In pathological situations, this can lead to an infinite regress wherein every problem is addressed by attempting to delegate it to someone else, a procedure, or a blame allocation mechanism. It's rather like holding your toothbrush with chopsticks - if you are holding the chopsticks just like on the diagram, the brush up your nose and the paste all over the mirror are not your responsibility!"
Recommendation about how to develop mapper skills:
Get yourself an imaginary friend, as smart as you are, but totally ignorant of the world. Whatever you feel you could relate to - you don't have to tell anyone that you find it easiest to talk to the 1960's cartoon character `Astronut' hovering about in his little UFO with a VHF television aerial on his head. Or maybe Sean Connery's canny medieval investigator in The Name of the Rose would be more fun. Explain everything to your imaginary friend. What it's for. Where it comes from. Where it's going.

At first your full attention is required for this exercise, but after a while the logic between knowledge packets becomes as automatic as driving, and your attention is only drawn to unusual situations: pieces of your map that need filling in or contradictions resolving. It works. With your maps building, discussion of techniques is possible, because we all know what we are talking about

It's very well written and the packer culture does remind me quite strongly about how Schools are run. The two main strong points that are made about mapper culture are:
  • the importance of reflection, aka slow, deep thinking (one of alan kay's non universals)
  • everything (the knowledge packets) is connected and you have to work hard to develop good packets and good connections
In parts it is self congratulatory and I think perhaps the philosophical base of "the mappers" could be broader and deeper

No comments: