Thursday, January 16, 2020

Injustice, Cooperation, and Emotion as Tools in Co-Constructed Learning Design

Everything they do should be meaningful and everything should have some sort of context to it.
At every step the child should be allowed to meet the real experience of life; the thorns should never be plucked from his roses.

Ellen Key The Century of the Child

Psychological science has established that emotion intensifies attention. The present findings provide evidence for the reverse: Attention can alter the experience of perception and, in so doing, intensify the perception of emotion.
Kellen Mrkva, Jacob Westfall, and Leaf Van Boven Attention Drives Emotion

Climbing to Make Connections in Colombia
Two classes of third graders climbed up the mountain behind our school.  A creek runs down it, water from the paramos further up, pure and drinkable.  Alongside the creek the vegetation changes with spongy mosses, algae, and decomposing leaves - perfect for studying Wetlands.

#guatavita #bogota #colombia #paramo

Students unpacked their lab kits, four stubby pencils and four meters of yarn and tied off their quadrants.  After sketching every kind of plant life they could find in the quadrant, they counted the numbers of each.  Further away from the creek, trees had been cleared for some grazing cows, land appropriated by squatters from before stricter controls on constructing on the mountain (compare Bogota to Caracas or La Paz).  They repeated the same study with glaringly obvious results, the cleared field had almost no diversity of plant life, almost no insects recorded.

#bogota #chingaza #frailejon

Colombia is water rich, mostly powered by hydro-electrics, and most cities have drinkable tap water.  Protecting the paramo and the filtration system is written into environmental law.  One student’s father’s job was constructing massive hydro electric projects and working with local communities to make sure they benefit with jobs, education and health services from the projects.  Poking holes in the earth can also be a very sensitive issue for indigenous groups that consider the earth as a sacred body.  Step one of the project was getting students to experience the rich mix between culture and ecology, to realize the impact of cities, to see themselves as its stewards.

#bogota #chingaza #paramo

In class students compiled their data sets, reflected on their observations, and prepared for the next step, to find out what happens to the purity of water on the other side of the city.  We “slow watched”* Bill Nye’s Wetlands video along with documentation of the Bogota humedales.  Texts compiled from the library extended research.  Once students had brainstormed, affinity grouped, and framed an inquiry, there was a purpose to learning skills for decoding informative text.  Mini-lessons, guided and individual reading became a part of the larger quest to discover the complex ecosystems of wetlands, human impact, and design an informative event as a social action.  

Later in the week we bused across the city passing mad-made canals.  We followed the water flow to the humedales, the wetlands that feed into Rio Bogota, which from the overlook at Salto de Tequendama, reeks.  There we met out guide who would lead us on an informative hike through the wetlands.  Students discovered a map of the original quebrada water movements before the construction of the city.  Bogota’s urban development stretches like a timeline from the Candelaria colonial center along the mountain, each quebrada marking a different period.  They took a guided walk through the wetlands attuned to any plant and wildlife they could find.  The guide’s oral narratives pointed out the bird species that had recently returned as the wetlands revived, and of new species appearing, seeking higher altitudes in migration patterns due to a warming Bogota.  Our humedal was one of the success stories, but there are several others that are wastelands.  They also learned that community protests had pushed the local government to stop the rampant dumping and improper drainage.  Over time the wetland area had resuscitated itself.

This particular wetland project culminated in a live museum.  In a “glocalized model” where students compared their embodied experience with further research on different kinds of wetlands around the world.  They built a life size classroom size model of mangroves, modeled after Colombian coastal regions under threat.  In Art class students designed masks and body extensions to simulate animal adaptations to the environment.  During the museum they enacted improv theater skits of their animals while demonstrating concepts and vocabulary.  Each student presented posters of their research process from immersion, framing inquiry, research process to results to wonder.  As an introduction to the museum students performed an interactive rap on water.  As a closing, using a map of concentric rings extending from Bogota, they explained the small human moves of sustainability such as consuming more local produce, how small actions multiplied ripple into global consequences.

Learning Design
These critical learning events were a once a year occurrence and enlisted the aid of specialists within and beyond the school.  The scope of planning and knowledge was far beyond the capabilities of one teacher.  Each module pushed the learner toward the final event, to develop their own inquiry, strive for the answer to their questions, and design an experience for others to understand the human connection to the natural world.  Our goal was to design embodied learning experiences that would immerse to the point of deep emotional attachment.  We wanted them to be subjects, not objects of their learning process.  

Modules within the project moved along a spectrum of inquiry based learning models, from more teacher prompted challenge based quests, to gradual release modules of species study where students could stretch their own voice and choice, to more free design models of the museum experience and presentation of improv theater performances of animal species.  The key was to keep modules within the frame of the driving inquiry, and to maintain reading and writing development as core threads, but for the design and making to be present not as the tack on module after the reading and writing, but as ongoing and adjacent.  Design and Making encompass a broader bandwidth of thought and expression and can often get at nascent ideas not yet ready to come out as language.  

We pulled from multiple sources to understand how learning about our natural world has changed.  The New Generation Science Standards were just gaining traction which helped in designing an inquiry based project where each of six classes would study a different biome but work through the same crosscutting concepts, core ideas, and scientific practices.  Student thinking paralleled that of the Primary Years Program's key concepts, although we didn’t want to give them the questions, but rather allow experiential immersion in a natural local environment.  Mindful documentation, followed by reflection served as catalyst for provoking inquiry.  Finally because there was no text to follow, we had to be comfortable co-creating content with students through the quebrada hike, the humedales venture, interview with a parent expert, and documentary photos and video from these experiences.

Changing Mythologies 
These projects were run over two years ago and a lot has changed both in the world, and in my understanding of the co-creative potential.  Greta Thunberg addressed the United Nations after a transatlantic crossing on an environmentally sound sailboat.  The youth are getting restless and are waking up to the co-creation potentials to mobilize through social media.  Just in the last six months, Hong Kong, Bogota, Santiago, Tehran, Paris have seen prolonged mass protests.  In the case of Hong Kong, school kids are planning, coordinating, and developing agile “be water” protest methods.  Rewind to a few years ago, we got mixed feedback on teaching students about sushi and carbon footprints, the water cost of different foods, and documenting food waste in the cafeteria.  Today students want to play a part in finding local solutions to big problems.  They should be able to expect embodied experiential approach to learning where knowledge is action upon their environment.

An obstacle we faced was the media created mythologies of the natural world, a vestige of Aristotelean Cartesian dualism separating human mental worlds from the senses and connection to the natural world.  Nature documentaries that we all grew up with are basically lies.  The portrayal of these perfect worlds ignores that human impact has altered nodes in these natural systems, that we are part of the phenomenological world, but are failing to sustain its continuity.  So instead of teaching two separate units of study on systems in our natural world, and human impact on the environment, we fused the two in order to have more time to extend the project.

While we had the freedom to be agile with our standards, curriculum, and learning design and had full administrative and community support, I also realized that we were prototyping projects that would easily fit into Common Core, STEAM/STEAM’s New Generation Science Standards, Primary Years Program Essential Elements, New Literacies, Buck Institute’s Project Based Learning, ISTE Student Standards, and the d.School’s Design Thinking framework.  My concern is that any of these approaches can easily become rigid method, a pre-ordained schemata made by adults who are judged by accountability criteria by other adults, all lacking a child co-construction.

On Bullshit
Children understand injustice before they know the word for it.  They also get cooperative effort at the expense of their own immediate self gratification.  As one third grader angrily pointed out to me as we were walking down from the quebrada overlooking what would have been a perfect panorama of Bogota if it weren’t for the cloud of smog above the city, “I am breathing that!”  This project tapped into these powerful intrinsic drivers - injustice, cooperation, and emotion - but meanwhile, children are also attuning themselves to the second curriculum of adult systems and cultural mythologies that often have mixed extrinsic signals capable of overriding their Noble Savage wiring.

For example, preservation of the natural world has become just another children’s myth we perpetuate like bullying is wrong, cell phone use is bad for you, belief in democracy, equity, Santa Claus, and reducing carbon footprints.  They are watching us and while they can see through the BS, what we model is setting their cultural default mode.  We become what we do.  We teachers, as co-designers of learning, have to respond to both students emotional connections in a learning trajectory, and be authentically invested ourselves in that trajectory.  These two things work in tandem.

During the students’ Wetland Study, I was reading The World Without Us and The Sixth Extinction, and revisited my memory of a ground shaking series of lectures from Stephen Jay Gould back in college.  While my students brainstormed their biggest wonders, made affinity groups of their post-its, bracketed each group with an essential question, and framed their whole project with a Driving Question, I had created my own core motivating question - why are humans the only animal that fouls its own nest?  I also wanted an answer to my question.  

Larry Rosenstock, CEO of High Tech High, defined rigor (one of the most annoying catch phrases in education along with grit, growth mindset, best practices, and the whopper - pedagogical automaticity) as being in the presence of an adult in passionate pursuit of a creative endeavor.  Rosenstock later advised new teachers that the profession will sometimes make you feel unprepared, not adequate for the job.  His message, you are already enough, find that thing you are passionate about, and make sure you bring it into the classroom.

2020 Vision, Thoughts for the Current Decade
A human centered, constructivist approach to learning has been surging now for the last few years through experiential models like Design/Systems Thinking, Maker Education, STEM/STEAM, civic action, and activism - all of which are in line with constructivism in education, all with roots in Key, Montessori, Dewey, Vygotsky, Piaget, Bruner, Papert and countless others.  Simultaneously we start the decade with four growing global crisis looming - social discontent, the environment, and the role of technology and artificial intelligence in our lives.  

The fourth urgency brackets the other three, the lack of media literacy, which leaves the general public vulnerable to bad science, false narratives, blitzes of highly provoking emotive content, and algorithmic nudges.  The global necessity of addressing these complex problems, often beyond the comprehension by an individual, will drive us further toward the idea of knowledge as co-creation, with others, with nature, and with algorithm.  

In the next post I will explore progress in these areas by artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, educators, and bold anti-disciplinarians. 


Acueducto Bogotá. “Humedales De Bogotá Renacen.” YouTube, YouTube, 2 Feb. 2019,

amritacreate. “To Study Plant Population Frequency by Quadrat Method - MeitY OLabs.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Feb. 2017,

Anania, Billy, et al. “The Viral Artwork Emerging From Hong Kong's Protests.” Hyperallergic, 3 Jan. 2020,

Bloom, Paul. Just Babies The Origins of Good and Evil. Broadway Books, 2014.

Calma, Justine. “Greta Thunberg Wraps up 15-Day Carbon-Free Voyage to New York City.” The Verge, The Verge, 28 Aug. 2019,

Classification and Types of Wetlands. 5 July 2018,

Davis, Chris. “Chris on Instagram: "#AchilleMbembe #Subject #Object #Artifact #Data #Dataprivacy #Photoshop #Nature #Surfing #Identity #Workout #Self #You #Ethics.’” Instagram,

Davis, Chris. “Desert Animals Spotlight Presentation.” YouTube, YouTube, 27 Feb. 2013,

Davis, Chris. “Spotlight Ceremony David Sexsmith Third Grade Rainforest Animals.” YouTube, YouTube, 14 Feb. 2014,

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. Putnam, 1934.

FitzGerald, Emmett. “Sounds Natural.” 99% Invisible, 4 Aug. 2017,

Gould, Stephen Jay. “1995 | In the Company of Animals Conference, Keynote Address by Stephen Jay Gould | The New School.” YouTube, YouTube, 1995,

Graham-McLay, Charlotte. “New Zealand Schools to Teach Students about Climate Crisis, Activism and 'Eco Anxiety'.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Jan. 2020,

Ito, Joichi. “Antidisciplinary.” Joi Ito's Web, 2 Oct. 2014,

Key, Ellen. The Century of the Child. Good Press, 1900.

Kinchin, Juliet, et al. Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000: The Museum of Modern Art, 2012.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History. Bloomsbury, 2015.

Koomen, Rebecca, et al. “Children Delay Gratification for Cooperative Ends.” Psychological Science, 9 Jan. 2020,

Mrkva, Kellen, et al. “Attention Drives Emotion: Voluntary Visual Attention Increases Perceived Emotional Intensity.” Psychological Science, vol. 30, no. 6, 2019, pp. 942–954., doi:10.1177/0956797619844231.

Nye, Bill. “Wetlands.” Bill Nye,

Price, David. “Interview With Larry Rosenstock, CEO High Tech High.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Mar. 2014,

Varela, Francisco J., et al. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. The MIT Press, 2016.

Weisman, Alan. The World Without Us. Virgin Digital, 2012.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The One and the Many: Sensing the One

Sensing the One
One of my third grade students had difficulty hearing.  She could read lips pretty well and I quickly found that if I was facing her she caught a lot more.  She was more attuned to those in close proxemics.  During our daily read aloud the more gesture and facial affect I could show, the more she engaged.  

A couple of weeks into school her mother brought in a large flat panel speaker that came with a wireless headset and belt pack.  At first I was real skeptical about losing the precious wall real estate and teaching with an amplified voice.  It felt unnatural.  But in time, the affects on the auditory environment student interaction was incredible.  

Teachers often struggle to be heard over student chatter and ambient noise.  We strain our voices and that comes at a physical and psychological cost to our students and ourselves.  When I wore this headset mic, it was impossible to raise my voice.  If I turned the volume up slightly it forced me to speak in a calm collected tone.  Students were noticeably less excitable, and I was in a better mood throughout the day.  In Latin America there is a tendency to over-amplify and I think we all associate microphones with public events, one voice blasting over the crowds.  In schools we have to redefine and appropriate technologies for the needs of the learning space, often contradicting the commercial design.  In this case the point was not to overpower the many voices of the room, but to be heard in a calm tone as if I was sitting beside the one student.

That year I learned an important lesson in universal design.  By modifying my own communication through amplified voice, facial affect, gesture, and awareness of proxemics in order to include the sensory bandwidth of the one, I was able to provide a much more diverse “bandwidth of communication” that benefited the many.  The added metacognitive advantage for all twenty-five students in the class, was that we had twenty-five different sensory perspectives that were innately or through experience attuned differently.  As a teacher I began to think not only about the auditory design of a classroom, but about the whole sensory spectrum, how physical arrangement and light both natural and projected affect our learning experience. 

Do You See What I See?
In 2015 the internet broke because of the blue and black, or white and gold dress phenomenon .  Viewing the same image, about sixty percent perceived the dress to be blue and black, the rest saw it as white and gold, with a small percentage able to shift perception back and forth in a kind of duck-rabbit visual choice.  One of the explanations was that early risers were more likely to perceive white and gold, color associating with natural light, while night owls were more likely to perceive black and blue.  While this is jumping ahead into schemata, agency, perception, senses, and environment, it is important to establish that our senses may connect us to the same event, but perception may differ greatly.

Francisco Varela’s team went deeper into how different species perceive color.  Humans are trichromatic having three types of cone cells, red, green, and blue.  Honey bees are also trichromatic but instead of red cone cells, they have ultraviolet, hinting at a kind of co-evolution symbiosis with plant species.  Other species are dichromats, tetrachromats, or even pantachromats capable of sensing hues beyond human perception.  We are all familiar with dog whistles beyond human perceptive wavelength, or if you are over thirty, it is possible your students have ring tones installed that are beyond your sensory range.  Color poses the challenge to understanding the one and the many because of its apparent subjective nature, but also the with the suggestion that color is co-determined between environment, sensory organs, and the agency of our schemata.  For now, we will just leave it at there being the potential for different sensory experiences within the same environment, and that sensory phenomenon in the world are linked to perception and the agency of our schemata.  

Eye and Eye
The eye is tricky.  We come equipped with foveal vision pinpointing our direct line of sight.  Anything outside of this point is blurred periphery.  To take in a scene the eye saccades from point to point, like the terminator.  This creates an illusion of precision, a simulation playing within our mind put together from all the associated points and our story building schemata.  Comparing the sensory experience of the student in the back row and the student in the front row will be quite different.  The teacher’s face may fit into the foveal point, but the distance would prohibit decoding nuance.  The front row student can take in a teacher’s facial affect, gesture, and decode writing on a board or projection more easily.

Now consider younger children who are still creating schemata, connecting language with affect, gesture, tone, volume, and intonation - the proxemics matter in enabling all communication bandwidth.   Mirror neurons are a visible phenomenon where an adept storyteller can activate changes in facial affect of the children present.  Emotion channels across all bandwidths - prosody, gesture, and affect.  At the Dewey school in Chicago, librarians are trained storytellers and when students go to library, story time is theater, no text present.  Another example is the use of image theater where a teacher or student freezes as a statue, mimicking the strong emotions of a character, enabling group analysis of the moment.  

Eye contact is how we communicate agency, build trust and empathy in our learning community.  Our African savanna roots where bonded community had evolutionary advantage hard wired us for survival by perceiving the emotional states of those around us.  But eye contact comes at an expense, it short circuits our working memory and ability to discard irrelevant information.  

In the extreme, ten minutes of continued staring into another’s eyes can lead to complete distortion of reality.  Open plan office settings have learned that standing desks are great but not when directly facing a co-worker.  The distraction of attuning to the person in front of you is simply too great.  And yet we insist students face each other in groups of four even though campfire and cave goals conflict.

If eyes are the mirrored window, then the face and hands are the expressive motors.  When neurologically mapping the body’s motor and sensory functions into a cortical homunculus, the face and hands dominate.  It is no wonder when people’s hands tend to gesticulate as a kind of grammar when attempting to communicate something important.  They aren’t just trying to animate more of your visual field, they are activating a broader range of neurons in your brain. 

Decentralized, democratized, distributed
Physical design of our classroom layouts provide a vocabulary for how we express our beliefs of teaching and learning.  Within those spaces, the teacher is designer of the methods, the granular moment to moment human interactions within.  A broad approach is needed to collect, organize, and communicate this across the learning community.  Campfires in Cyberspace lays out four metaphors - campfires, watering holes, caves, and “life”.  The purpose of each physical or metaphoric space addresses the sensory needs of the one while choreographing the many. 

Spend a day as a student as an ethnographic study.  If that doesn’t fit your schedule go on a “learning walk” from classroom to classroom.  What you will most likely observe are teachers talking to a roomful of students spread out at “four tops” around the room.  The purpose of campfire is to bring everyone in close for moments of direct instruction, read alouds, whole class critique, collective dialectic, etc.  Circles or semi-circles around a presentation space or projected screen ensure everyone can be seen, everyone heard.  All classrooms are spatial challenges, but make this happen.  Hack the environment with whatever you have, and remove what is not learning tool.  Paint a circle on the floor.  Create stadium seating from floor to chair to desk.  Demarcate a perimeter, make the purpose of the space explicit.

The “foveal advantage” of campfires broadens the bandwidth, but interactive strategies should also come into play.  In read alouds, prompt a challenge, read and pause to think aloud.  Cold call a coupe of times for input, demonstrate critical discussion with the one, open up to pair share, and finally collectively build the idea.  Load each metaphoric space with these routines to make them both as interactive and metacognitive as possible.  By repetition these routines become ritual, the content constantly changing but through expected patterns. 

Open office space plans have been under scrutiny by some of the most successful companies.  Last week on HBR podcast Ethan Bernstein discussed the current state of open office spaces, where they have failed, and where to go from here.  The open office space plan (basically classrooms) is not an endpoint but a starting point, a malleable design that can become anything.  Introverts, for example, often need alternative auditory, visual breaks from the panopticon openness.  The “cave” of “phone booth” work areas.   Alternative sensory perception can serve the double purpose of breaking sensory monotony, and provide rhythm and cues for different kinds of thinking and behavior.  Have a starting point, such as the four metaphors for human interaction, but the more this is co-created, the more metacognitive it becomes, the less likely it becomes Pavlovian routine.  Play with lighting, music (without words), projections, artifacts, wall space, and as much reprogrammable architecture as you can get in your space.

Transmedia Centaurs
Tom Igoe, one of the creators of the Arduino micro controller, teaches his labs with a document camera projecting at all times.  Arduinos have tiny pins that often attach to breadboards.  It can be a painstaking process getting wires, resisters, LEDs into the correct pins to form the circuit.  Making the small big on screen, allowing everyone from any angle in the classroom to process in their foveal vision is not limited to tiny electronics.  

Writing, that mysterious long, dark tunnel that we ask kids to walk down alone can be a celebrated public event.  During mini-lessons, instead of facing a board with your back to students, model writing with a document camera or tablet projected on screen.  If wireless projection is possible then use your phone to live broadcast on screen what is being done in writing caves around the classroom.  

This week the Adobe Max conference broadcasted live their keynote speakers, an audio visual showcase.  As they explained the idea of creative literacy, massive visuals sometimes augmented the speaker, sometimes becoming front and center.  Thousands of foveal vision points saccaded across massive screens.  This could be your classroom.

Digital tools afford an extension of our senses and a means of communication across modalities.  Our first steps tend to be transferring the same information from one modality to another.  Make thinking graphic.  Say it.  Write it.  The down side is presenting the same information through graphic, text, and speech simultaneously is too much information and quickly fills up our cognitive load.  By taking a transmedia approach, telling a story using different modalities where each modality tells a different part of the story then we are more likely to provoke simulations across a broader cognitive architecture.  A text resistant student may reach a cognitive threshold and shut down in a text only environment whereas other modalities may enable mental simulations for a greater number of students.

Decluttering Cognition
Classrooms clutter quickly with stimuli.  Research proves that text rich environments produce better readers, that the number of books in a child’s home determines literacy.  This is often misapplied in literacy programs to mean we need a poster for every teaching concept and walls full of instructional material.  This false idea of efficiency contradicts the principles of Embodied Cognition.  It is not about the quantity of text in the visual field, but the quality of the human interaction around the text.  Language development, particularly decoding and producing text, are the business of schools and that should never be discounted.  A multi sensory approach to learning should always gravitate back to spoken language and the production of text.  

Our sensibilities toward embodied sensory experience of the individual lead to deeper metacognition and richer engagement, and a cognitive processing model attuned to how schemata is formed, as individuals and as a collective.  Moving beyond senses, the next post will discuss exactly this, the schemata of the one and the many.