Dreyfus, Dreyfus, and face blindness

Two thinkers who have been very influential over many years about the use of computers in education are Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus, brothers who have jointly written books and papers and who are both professors in California.  The arguments they put forward 25 years ago in putting computers in their proper place (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1984) remain relevant.  They include a closely-argued discussion of the differences in cognitive processes between humans and computers.  They also put forward a useful five-stage classification of computer skill acquistion (novice/advanced beginner/competence/proficiency/expertise) which influences my own classification of students’ competences in relation to the resources now available in the Internet. 

Hubert Dreyfus (1992) took the point about computers and people thinking in different ways further, with some robust criticism of artificial intelligence research that set out to replicate human thought processes.

Hubert Dreyfus teaches philosophy at Berkely, and his web page includes an interesting insight into his own human thought processes.  He asks people to introduce themselves to him, and warns them that he may not recognise them, even if he’s met them before, because he has a minor form of ‘face-blindness’.

Now, I’m a much less eminent academic than Hubert Dreyfus, but my work brings me into contact with a lot of students each year, and I must say I struggle to remember all, or even most, of the faces.  My suspicion is that most people who teach large cohorts of students have the same experience.  I also recognise that facial recognition (like writing philosophical treatises on computers in the classroom) is a skill where different people have vastly different levels of proficiency.  But I am sometimes uncomfortable with the idea  that merely not being very good at something should be labelled as a syndrome or a disability.  If you’re not good with the hand-eye co-ordination necessary for ball games, when do you stop being butterfingers and start being dyspraxic?  Incidentally this is not to disparage the work on facial recognition, at UCL and elsewhere, that can be reached through links from Hubert Dreyfus’s page.

Me?  I have a much better memory for stories than for either names or faces.  So if you know me from the past, and want to get in touch, but you’re not sure whether I’ll remember you, think about whether there’s some amusing or memorable incident, or something distinctive that I know about your own background, which will help me to place you.

Dreyfus HL and S E Dreyfus (1984):  Putting computers in their proper place: analysis versus institution in the classroom.  Teachers college record. 85 (4) 578-601

Dreyfus H (1992): What computers still can’t do.  Cambridge MA: MIT press



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