Why Computers (and Doctors) Need Narratology

Image of the StoryTellers Cafe

Image Credit: Loren Javier | Flickr

The analysis by Peter Kramer @PeterDKramer in the New York Times story “Why Doctors Need Stories” points, in part, to the challenge faced by clinical decision support systems (CDSS) — and the use of artificial intelligence in health care more generally. While CDSS adoption lags far behind its apparent value, it is true that CDSS is weak when it comes to sense-making from narrative. The latter is still a subject of much research in cognitive psychology, with much work remaining to be done. The widespread familiarity with machine learning and keyword search perhaps hides the importance of vignette-driven inference. And the point should probably apply beyond health care to other software-assisted analytics. Therein is to be found the real human role as knowledge worker.

IBM Watson? Work on your narratology.

Computer-Assisted Instruction: Long Overdue in Overburdened STEM Classrooms

Scientific American Story from 1978

Scientific American Story from 1978

This weekend the NYT is running a compassionately told story about challenges facing teachers in traditional classroom settings. I truly felt for the novice teachers.

On the other hand, having been classrooms with unruly students — especially with STEM-heavy curricula — I felt that even the tricks, tactics and cajoling described here would often fail  with some of the children. A continual return to behavior management, while necessary, is nothing short of a content pause for attentive students. Worse, in the absence of computer-assisted learning, the ability of a single teacher to track learning needs for component skills of, say 25 students — inevitably different from learner to learner — is spotty at best.

Teachers are implicitly asked to supply this missing computation in the form of homework grading, longer hours, self-produced content. What sort of person would want to accept such an assignment – with some nurtured while others just muddle through with at best intermittent attention to both subject matter & discipline? While the NYT reporter makes a good case for the importance of behavior management in the classroom, the narrative begs the question as to what works in behavior management and whether educational psychology pedagogy in teacher training is up the task.

 By analogy, what is it like to work in a factory where a constant number of products shipped are known to be flawed?

 One can hardly blame teachers for a system that begins more as child care than instruction. That it remains so for classrooms with older students here speaks to the Sisyphusian nature of the endeavor.

Image Credit: Scientific American story from 1978 provided by Steve Eskow in 2009.