Culture and Cognitive Development: Studies in Mathematical Understanding

By Geoffrey B. Saxe | Go to book overview

1
CULTURE AND COGNITION: A METHOD OF STUDY

Some years ago, I visited a Papua New Guinean highlands group, the Oksapmin, for the purpose of studying the development of mathematical understandings in a non-Western culture. As a student of cognitive development, I was struck by the differences between the Oksapmins' indigenous mathematical practices and my own. In house building, arrowhead making, string bag weaving, and counting, the Oksapmins' approach to solving mathematical problems of measurement and numeration involved very different ways of thinking and very different procedures for accomplishing everyday problems ( Saxe, 1982). For instance, Oksapmin often conceptualize numerical and measurement problems in terms of an indigenous, 27-body-part number system with no base structure. A number is expressed by pointing to a particular body part (like the neck) and saying the body-part name.

I had two initial reactions to the mathematical practices of the Oksapmin which were linked to my graduate training in developmental psychology, training in the structural-developmental tradition of Piaget and focusing on mathematical cognition. The first reaction was an intellectual excitement: The same mathematical operations of correspondence and measurement captured in Piagetian psychogenetic analyses that I had studied in Western children were apparent in the activities of a people from an extraordinarily foreign culture. The second was an intellectual frustration: The aspects of cognition and the texture of everyday life in Oksapmin that seemed so marvelously different from that of the West -- like

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