in search of patterns

[estimated reading time 12 minutes]

the most important skill you will ever learn as a human is pattern-recognition. it’s what you’ll spend your entire life doing whether it’s speaking and hearing language or doing academic tasks or sorting objects in your kitchen. everything we do as humans is based on the application of pattern-recognition. it’s one of the hardest parts of writing code for artificial intelligence systems. it’s incredibly complex, trying to make a machine good at something we do completely naturally.

but we don’t all have the same skill level for the task. and that’s a problem. because if you’re good at it you have a much, much higher intelligence. there are many ways to measure intelligence but i think the most effective and useful one is to simply measure someone’s ability to recognize and process new patterns — that’s the fundamental skill for all things requiring thought, the thing that separates humans from other animals, symbolic thinking.

and here’s something that people seem to forget very quickly. humans aren’t naturally intelligent. they’re not even naturally anything we would recognize as human. when a human child is born as an infant, it can’t think symbolically. it can’t speak or understand language. it can’t function in a human world. it is human society that makes us intelligent, interaction with other humans. we don’t innately have any of that knowledge or ability. it’s evolutionary, certainly. but it’s not biologically evolutionary. it’s something we have evolved as a spices over millennia and developed as a collective consciousness. if all the humans died and new humans were born without the ability to interact with previous generations, they would be reset to the level of barely-removed-from-other-primates in intelligence. we are standing not only on the shoulders of giants but the shoulders of literal thousands of generations of gradually-more-intelligent ancestors. we are building on their legacy. if you’re ever wondering why so many societies venerate their elders and think it’s a bit silly, i promise it’s not. they might not know why it’s important. this, however, is why it’s important.

but where do we get our huge difference in pattern-recognition ability if it’s not biological? it’s our experience. our training. intelligence might be a good word to use as a proxy for “ability to process patterns” but it’s just as good as a proxy for “the sum of our experiences”. we are as intelligent as our history lets us be. if we want. and some people choose to be dumb. it’s a conscious decision to turn off your brain. i don’t recommend it. but it’s all too common, especially in contemporary western society — it can be summarized with the pseudoword “chillax”. binge-watching netflix or drinking a six-pack is the death of intelligence because being smart requires training. and training requires effort. stop effort and you stop being smart. it really is that simple.

there’s far more to it than being always-on, though. we can’t do that. we will burn out. humans can’t constantly function at a high level of pattern-processing. believe me. i’m severely (and clinically) obsessive-compulsive. i can’t stop for a second. and it both tortures and exhausts me. i envy those who can turn it off. but those who can tend to do it far more than they should. there is a happy balance. it’s probably about 80% on. and people seem to seek about 80% off and end up … well, let’s just say they won’t be winning any prizes that require trips to sweden any time soon.

some of this isn’t about time, though. actually, most of it isn’t about time. it’s about being smart about efficient training. someone probably told you it’s easier to learn a language as a young child and the older you get the harder it is. that’s technically incorrect in some ways but the practical truth is there. some of this is because older students are more distracted and less willing to commit and apply effort. but some is because knowledge and processing is cumulative. the longer you’ve known something, the more likely it is you’ve thought enough about it to get a deeper and more natural understanding.

so we teach young children languages (ok, outside the western, english-speaking world we teach young children languages cause outside that world we’re not all insular, reactionary, conservative fuckups living in a drug-addled haze of artificial nationalist superiority complexes — a tangent for another article, i suspect) so they can spend the rest of their lives using them and becoming more and more native-like. and it works. if you’ve ever met someone who moved to a new country where a completely different language was spoken as a young child, you’ll realize they don’t sound like they learned the language — they sound like they always knew it. how many americans have you met who sound like they’re from new york or los angeles but at first glance you thought were from beijing or seoul? most of them were probably integrated in an english-speaking environment at a young age. it’s possible to learn a language like this later in life but it’s far easier to do it as a child — preferably seven or younger but that’s a flexible approximation and there are many reasons for this, none of them biological, all societal and cultural.

these are all things you probably already knew, though. so why am i rehashing all these old ideas? just because i’m a language teacher, i’m not only interested in language learning. actually, i’m probably far more interested in learning in general than i’ve ever been in languages. practically speaking, my favorite thing to teach is history but that’s a whole other topic to get into — remind me at some point to write about why history is the most fun thing in the world to teach. i swear it is. it’s the most fun thing to study, too, because it’s actually all about creativity and narrative. and that’s what humans (mostly) do best. but that’s not the answer to the question. this, dear reader, is about math.

i know what you’re thinking. what the actual fuck? math? what’s that got to do with learning languages as a young immigrant child? everything. i swear. everything.

math is taught badly. not just badly. math education in the west (and to a large extent in the east) is so bad it actually makes shit look good by comparison. there is no other discipline where education is so far off on the wrong track. this track leads to hell. the best education system in the world (i’m prepared to back this up and so are hundreds of international studies if you’re curious) is in south korea. it is unquestionably more effective than any other. the second is a bit more of a debate — it’s either japan (i think it’s japan) or china (which i think is probably a close third). after that, no other country comes close. like not even in the same ballpark — or at a ballpark in the same state. education is summarily awful in most of the world.

you can think of there being four groups of educational quality. if you have a choice of where to go to educate yourself (or more importantly your children), this might be useful. the top group is east-asia. south korea, japan, china. these places have comparatively (this is important) excellent education systems. the next group is far, far worse. it’s north america — america and canada, really, though the mexican education system is surprisingly good despite its lack of funding and generally functions along the same lines as those in canada and america. and this is the key. it’s not the information but the structure of the system that is effective. another huge drop down the list and you get northern and western europe, though there is a lot more variation in those countries. northern countries (finland, sweden, denmark, norway) tend to have results comparable with american and canadian institutions while france, germany, spain, austria and switzerland simply don’t compare very favorably. there are elite institutions, especially at the university level, in most of these countries. but they are not representative of the general norms there and it’s not a good argument to say “but the sorbonne!” or “berlin’s got some awesome universities!” — these are both true but exceptions rather than disproof of the normal rules. there’s a fourth group that barely qualifies as education — it’s far closer to childcare. nothing wrong with childcare, of course. but it’s not education and it would be better to do both rather than only have one. that’s the british model, which is so summarily useless for education it’s probably worse than just giving the student a tablet and letting them browse the internet for a dozen years. actually, that would be such an improvement compared to the british education model i’ve often proposed it in educational contexts as a totally-viable alternative and a temporary solution to the problem. this model is present in the united kingdom, ireland, australia and new zealand. these are places where education is so useless it’s actually worse than not going to school. don’t go there. people are friendly in ireland and both people and weather are awesome in australia and new zealand. if you’re going to school or taking your children to be educated, it’s a sacrifice not worth making.

that being said, this is the precursor to a far bigger issue. education in the modern world is broken. it assumes the wrong target and aims at it. it misses the target, which is bad. but even in its aim it’s dangerous. what’s worse is it misses its target and doesn’t get closer to what it was supposed to be aiming at. education should make us more able to process information — huge quantities of information. our modern education systems were developed as ways to train the population and teach them knowledge or raw information and, as a secondary skill, how to use that information. we no longer need that type of education system. we have continuous access to more information than we know what to do with. knowledge is mostly useless because we can search for anything we need to know and those things we use frequently will automatically be stored in our heads without having to learn them through explicit educational methods. school has become useless unless it’s something other than learning information. and schools are stuck in a model where knowledge is important, information is key and processing massive quantities of information is an afterthought or, in the case of most schools, simply not a thought at all. this has caused confusion and overwhelm — people don’t know what to do with the information present in the always-on, connected world that surrounds them without a break. they get burned out. they can’t handle it. that information isn’t inherently overwhelming. but you have to be able to process it. and that takes practice and training, which should be done from a young age in schools. that’s their only purpose. and they’ve not just failed to do it. they’ve failed to recognize that’s their role or even begin to try.

and yes. even in south korea, japan and china. it appears this is being recognized in china more than anywhere else at the moment and i wouldn’t be surprised if schools in china by 2040 are unquestionably the most effective in the world. but it’s hard to predict. other countries could catch up — i mean, even the british system could be completely replaced with a new one that is completely capable of meeting the contemporary need for mass-symbolic-pattern-recognition. and it would then go from being worse-than-useless to top-of-the-world, something it’s always seen itself as being and has never been close to.

while i’m at it, i should probably take a moment to address something missing from my grouping system — there were certain parts of the world left out and it was intentional but i suspect i will be accused of racism if i leave it at that and that’s not why i left out south america, africa and the middle east. it’s actually because there’s nothing to say about those places that is generalizable. why? because they are places without distinct group systems of education. they are locations where generalized education systems were actually modeled on those in other places. so, for example, south africa modeled its education system on the dutch model so it can be treated the same as the netherlands (upper section of group 3). morocco and algeria have education systems in the french model (lower group 3). brazil uses portugal’s model and colombia uses spain’s (lower group 3). saudi arabia uses both the american model (group 2) and british (group 4) in various parts of its system. i didn’t dismiss these countries because i think they’re unimportant, only because their educational systems are actually just applications of models i’d already described elsewhere. i will, i assure you, be accused of racism anyway. it won’t be true. but that doesn’t stop the internet from being the internet and spreading hatred. because, though it was designed to be a tool for academic and military use… oh, right. academia is where hatred is used as a tool to keep the status quo. and the military is about turning hate into violence with a justifiable excuse. my bad. the internet was designed as a hate tool from the beginning. that explains a lot.

with so much failure in education, though, what’s the answer? we need a new system. and that’s not even why i started writing this article. i’ll have to write more (and i’ve written things before — even academic articles and book sections, if not whole books, depending on how you look at how wide the topic is) about what a contemporary education system should look like. but the momentary topic is math. math education, to be precise.

when you learned to count, you probably used your fingers. and that set you up for mathematical failure in the rest of your life. it’s not your parents’ fault. it’s not really anyone’s. it’s idiocy compounded by idiocy but it’s innocent idiocy. what the school system has done, though, is accentuate that problem and it should, unlike your parents, know better. we need to stop teaching children to count things. right now.

making math about the existence of a one-to-one relationship is the problem. math is a symbolic pattern. why does 5+5=10? it’s not because five fingers and five fingers make ten fingers. it’s because there is a symbolic pattern. if that was hex, it would look like 5+5=a. if it was binary, it would be 101+101=1010. these may seem like meaningless distinctions but they’re incredibly important. your fingers aren’t going to tell you 5+5=a or 101+101=1010. and we need to stop letting them tell you 5+5=10, too. because that means children get an understanding of math that is inherently linked to a physical representation and that’s artificial.

most math isn’t like that. it doesn’t play in the real world. and the math that does does it as an afterthought or, in many cases, more like a coincidence. being able to think coherently about math is based on pattern processing and recognition. doing it quickly and getting good answers (perhaps more importantly, getting good approximations) is a function of separating the numbers from any sense of physical or spatial reference. if you want to be able to do math well, you have to divorce the math from the world it applies to, even if you’re trying to solve a realworld problem with it.

what this means is quite simple. the more you try to make math relevant to a child and the more you teach them to rely on crutches like fingers and charts and spatial representations (and even diagrams and geometric models), the more difficult you are making it for them to actually become good at manipulating the patterns by keeping them purely theoretical.

there is a knock-on effect of this, too. students who do well in symbolic math do better in other areas of education — they learn to understand language better, read more quickly, write more coherent and internally-consistent papers, memorize information vastly more thoroughly and without all the mental blocks of other students. and here’s the real key — students who have good symbolic unlinked processing abilities are dramatically less likely to get distracted, bored or walk away from educational tasks. in a world where adhd and other attention problems are more virally-distributed than a certain pandemic that shall not be named and we have a culture that spends literal trillions of dollars on preventing boredom — and summarily failing despite netflix-and-chill being the preferred replacement for cinema-and-a-quick-fuck — don’t you think it would be good to tackle the problem when we’re children and avoid it before it gets worse?

by the way, better symbolic programming also helps to prevent other learning issues — unlinked symbolic reasoning changes how students read letters, words and language in general, making dyslexia and dyscalculia (and other related issues) practically impossible to occur before they have a chance to appear — there are other solutions to these problems and i’ve discussed one of the more radical ones before, switching writing systems to non-linear featural phonetics like hangul or idiographic like hanzi, either of which i would strongly support as an alternative to the arcane and deprecation-worthy latin alphabet that was never particularly useful for english and should be disposed of, burned and forgotten as a historical relic like so many bones in a long-buried temple.

the simple answer is we need better education. the complex answer is we need to stop teaching children one-to-one relationships as a foundation of math and start drilling symbolic methods and pattern recognition to train a new generation of people who can think both better about math/numbers and apply that improved patterning and information-sorting to the stream of data from the internet they now have access to — if you’d told me as a child i would be able to have a fraction of the information now available in just wikipedia without difficulty anywhere, at any time, in my pocket, i’d have thought you’d gotten high and binge-watched star trek but i’d have been hooked on the idea despite disbelief.

is this a change we can make? absolutely. is this a change we will make? in some ways, i think it’s already in its infancy of happening in china. it’s definitely being thought about by educational theorists in other places, primarily south korea and japan. will the west yet again be left behind? will british education spend the next hundred years scraping the bottom of the barrel of knowledge the way it’s spent the last two hundred? probably. will american and canadian education systems join it there? if asian education systems make this massive leap and western ones don’t follow or innovate and get there first (unlikely but possible), it’s an absolute certainty.

so think about it for a few minutes. what could you do if your pattern recognition was dramatically better? if you weren’t overwhelmed by the volume of information on the internet? if you could do mental complex math and apply that to everything you’ve ever wanted to understand for nearly-instant comprehension? these are reasonable goals if you want to achieve them — and they’re reasonable goals for your children without much effort if the right training was put in place every day.

you can fix this problem for yourself in a matter of a few years with the right approach to training your own symbolic processing abilities, by the way. ask me how. i’d love to tell you but i’m not sure people really want to know and it’ll probably have to be a book. or at least enough articles to fill one. i wonder… do people think they’re smart enough or do they want more the way i do? thanks for reading!

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.