Discussion: Amazon tribe studies and deschooling?

This body of studies seems to assume, and base conclusions on the assumption, that the tribal people don't get education - any education. Unless they go to a Western school. Even though the study results in the US and South America plainly show that schooling makes no difference, other than dampen non-Euclidian skills...

Supporting information: http://www.pnas.org/content/suppl/2011/05/19/1016686108.DCSupplemental/pnas.201016686SI.pdf

The researchers concluded that geometric understanding may not be dependent on language, but then extended their conclusions too far (or maybe I am misinterpreting it):

"The responses of Mundurucu adults and children converged with that of mathematically educated adults and children and revealed an intuitive understanding of essential properties of Euclidean geometry. For instance, on a surface described to them as perfectly planar, the Mundurucu's estimations of the internal angles of triangles added up to ∼180 degrees, and when asked explicitly, they stated that there exists one single parallel line to any given line through a given point. These intuitions were also partially in place in the group of younger US participants. We conclude that, during childhood, humans develop geometrical intuitions that spontaneously accord with the principles of Euclidean geometry, even in the absence of training in mathematics."

This stress on "spontaneous" discounts situated learning the tribe provides for its members. Even the BETTER performance of Mundurucu people on some geometric tasks (geometry of the sphere) did not convince the researchers the tribe's learning methods may actually work well; instead, they concluded that Westerners mess up their kids' innate intuitions. The youngest Western child they studied was five, I think - by this time, a lot of learning already takes place - and yet, again, what these younger kids knew was considered intuitive, compared to schooled US people.

Early exposure to math in the US not extensive compared to, say, exposure to language, but there is a lot going on in our culture geometrically, even if it's situated. In both cultures, success did not change much with age. But why does it mean that the geometry intuitions are innate, rather than developed within the culture before the age of five? After all, a five-year-old is typically fluent in her native language, but we don't conclude it's intuitive or innate on the basis of that evidence. I think the data, instead, confirms geometric intuitions don't change much with formal schooling. This reminded me of the paper, "School: Not where Americans learn their science" http://www.scribd.com/doc/44790217/Falk-and-Dierking-School-is-Not-Where-Americans-Learn-Science

I really liked the methodology of Socratic dialogues, where questions to Mundurucu were presented in terms of their surroundings, e.g. lines connecting villages or the geometry of a casaba rather than "sphere" (the word they don't have). I think the data researchers got was extremely valuable, and a lot of interesting things can be done with it going forward.

The site of the PI, Pierre Pica, is quite worth exploring: http://www.pierrepica.com/


What do you think?

Task Discussion

  • Michael McCarthy   June 8, 2011, 11:51 a.m.

    This material is fantastic.

    To parallel the findings with the tribe, I think its no cooincidence that the majority of genius mathematicians do their best abstract work when they are young.

    I can see the counterargument to this already, something that would pragmatically state "so, we shouldn't teach math at all then hmm?" As with everywhere else in the U.S., we are struggling in my state (RI) against the wave of testing that is coming in. Despite holding very little evidence, there is this huge industrial push to get technology into the classroom to better the English and Math scores. I can't help but think how put-off, in my cosmology, Einstein or Euclid would have been to have to be subjected to this kind of testing. Industrial test case in point: http://careers.northropgrumman.com/getting_started_earl.html

  • Maria Droujkova   June 8, 2011, 6:08 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Michael McCarthy   June 8, 2011, 11:51 a.m.

    I had the pleasure of interviewing Pierre Pica for the Math Future series - the recording is here: http://mathfuture.wikispaces.com/PierrePica

    We talked about the issue of nature, nurture and education. It came up in the context of Mundurucu (the tribe) not having the abstract words or notions for numbers, but rather separate terms, say, for "three bananas" and "three fish." Pierre suggested that maybe we should use the term "technology" instead of learning or education, because the language different cultures use, representations, and objects define what the people can learn to do. Such as count a set consisting of a banana, a fish and a stone as "three objects" - which Mundurucu apparently can't do.