Rules or patterns

Stephen Downes’ contribution to the Online Connectivism Conference impressed me especially because of his plausible distinction between

  • patterns (based on similarity), from
  • rules (based on equality).

This makes ostensively clear why it is so futile to try to treat the patterns of complex cognitive structures as (complicated) rules.A severe example for such an attempt happened in my country: an orthographic reform. The problem is so obvious that I think I can summarize it even for those who are unfamiliar with our language.

  • Before the reform, there was a principle about when to capitalize Words: all substantives, plus some other words if they were used like substantives. The latter included a diverse collection taken from word types such as adjectives, indefinite pronouns, and numerals, and excluded some apparent nouns in lexicalized idioms where the substantive-like usage had faded away.
  • The ambition of the reform was to abolish all lookups in dictionaries (or in one’s mental lexicon) and to abolish most considerations about meaning, and to allow a mechanistical deduction of the capitalizing decision solely from rules.

These rules are mostly based on outer appearance and formal properties, e. g., as soon as the word in question is preceded by an article it is regarded as a substantive. Example: das Folgende (the following) is handled equally as das Schöne, Wahre, Gute (the beautiful, true, good). Except for some exception rules. So, a labyrinth of rules must be processed and evaluated for matching conditions (equality!), whereas before, a similarity decision was allowed (“the following” being similar to the non-substantive “below”, but “the true” being similarly used like an abstract object such as “the value”).The rules are probably easier to be implemented in word processors, but likeness relationships are much easier for humans than for machines because they are more appropriate to the connections in natural brains, and more adequate for processing in the complex system of thought and language.

I could go on and on railing against this reform, because it dared to legally prescribe us what served for 100 years as a mere stocktaking of the living language usage; because it neglects its task of being a cognitive tool that has to obey usability principles like “don’t make me think”; because it brutally distorts the fine balance of the statistically determined connection strengths of the neural pathways (for instance, the inclination to capitalize adjectives is so much increased that the superlative degree is now more and more misspelled); and because I bewail that this part of the humanities is sort-of chumming up to the exact sciences without need.

But I think it is even worse what the reform’s effects in school are. Superficially, there is success: Very basic spelling is easier done. But at the expense that pupils will never learn how to recognize the patterns that are necessary to adapt to advanced spelling issues. Since the pupils from more priviledged homes will know more words and spelling patterns from their reading, i. e. without any rules, these new rules emerge to become sort-of poor-man’s orthography that ceases at a certain level where the entwined rules become too complicated.

And perhaps a similar tendency is one of the reasons for our low score at the Pisa ranking where our pupils are good at applying rules but not at problem solving like maths text problems. Perhaps it is too difficult to equate a concrete part of the text problem to an abstract part of a formula. But if they haven’t learned how to cope with patterns, they won’t be able to see the similarity of one concrete part of a text problem to another concrete part of a similar problem.

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