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.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The One and the Many

“Wherever you are and whoever you are and whatever you are, you’e in the middle.  That’s the game.  Your senses extend in all directions and therefore give you the impression of being in the middle… Everything in the world feels like that.”
Alan Watts

David O’Reilly’s game Everything stretches our sense of what constitutes a game and supports Huizinga’s Homo Ludens serious play as critical practice for life.  In the game you can transfer perspectives going around the world as a bear, microorganism, mountain, planet, as the lectures of Alan Watts unlock like new awakenings.  Each organisms’ viewpoint teaches new ways of thinking, moving the play between themes of small and big, short and long lifespan, and the one versus the many.  This latter theme has been a struggle for philosophers over the ages.  For educators, the lens of the one and the many provides a window into our theory of learning and how that manifests in Learning Design for individuals and communities of learners.

Why do most people do the right thing most of the time?

In Restorative Practices training three attendees, a director, a principal, and a teacher, sat in a circle to discuss  the question posed by the facilitator, “Why do most people do the right thing most of the time?”  

The director, a leader in the Mormon Church, took the spiritualist approach and explained that God gave us the gift of right judgement.  

The principal laughed and said, “No, people do the right thing because they are afraid of the punishment when they get caught doing the wrong thing.”  Pure Hobbesian.  

I was the classroom teacher, first year at the school, and was hesitant to speak my mind, but the groundwork of openness had already been established by the director beforehand in multiple democratized circle discussions.  I took an evolutionary approach explaining that we are products of the African savanna and cooperative effort is in our DNA.  The megafauna group hunt, the harvest, animal herding, language, cities, music, Wikipedia, schools, etc. - all of these are co-creations.  Our three viewpoints were not mutually exclusive, collective wisdom could be the work of a Creator, law and order were necessary to check us all as long as the individual saw him/herself as co-creator within the system.  The ultimate goal was not punishing perpetrators, but restoring community.

That day I walked home mentally rolling over the idea that schools are often a discordant mixture of learning theories and methods where our cognitive biases, default modes, and cultural mythologies manifest according to the individual’s experiences, beliefs, capabilities, and goals.  The system itself, derived from a Prussian Industrial Revolution, inspired a linear processing model where the individual is object rather than subject of learning.  Combine this with a culture of individualism, learning based on mono-psychometrics, and a transactional “banking” approach to schools - then the fact that we still talk of cooperative learning, Restorative Practices, distributed teaching, empathy, diverse perspectives, inclusion, and global awareness is testament to the co-creative human potential.  

one racist rabbit
"Here - we - are," said Rabbit, very slowly and carefully, "all - of - us, and then, suddenly, we wake up one morning, and what do we find? We find a Strange Animal among us."  
In Christopher Robbin’s world, even though none of the animals knew where they came from, Rabbit regards these new “strange animals”, Kanga and Baby Roo, with xenophobia, classism, and sexism.  An easy parallel can be drawn to our current whistle calling isolationist media blitzing president.  Rampant otherizing accelerated by social media has turned a digital co-created world into threats on individual privacy, an onslaught of disinformation, and new manifestations of collective hate.  Now is a great time to reflect on how schools validate the one while providing the learning purpose of the many.

In the last year teacher strikes across twelve states surged like never before in my lifetime.  Within the next year we will have presidential elections.  Three democratic candidates approached what is normally political taboo.  Beto dropped out of the race this week, but in his Senate campaign he often spoke against testing culture in schools.  Michael Bennet, also no longer running, proposed universal free preschool, pay raises, and leveling disparates between school spending.  Warren’s ambitious plan would eradicate high stakes testing, bolster salaries, and would provide one million in funding for every school over the next ten years.  Regardless of whether any of this can happen, the promising sign is people are starting to wake to the collective responsibility of education.

20/20 Vision
We are almost 20 years into this century, a great time to refocus and define a “2020 Vision” for the next 20 years.  Here I will explore seven themes as they apply to the question of the one and the many - sensory experience, schemata and constructivism, new literacies, cooperative goals, identity validation, the dialectic versus the debate, and a culture of Design.

Finally, I will work toward the calling of what Achille Mbembe calls a Planetary Curriculum as means of combatting the radical individualization of the current moment that corrupts our co-creative potential.