Friday, May 17, 2019

Visible and Invisible Learning: Reflections on a Talk with Hectalina Donado

Enacting the Visible

The camera was once considered a technological curiosity capable of mirroring the world.  Popular demand for portrait photography mimicked portrait painting, the capture of the idea of the person, shadows in Plato’s allegory of the cave.  Placement of camera tripods was very similar to painting easels of the period.  During Photography’s Golden Age, the photograph became expressive form.  Interpreting images meant engineering through the camera lens, the screen, into the other side of the viewfinder to reveal the perspective and ideas of the photographer.  

Two photographers that worked from everyday objects in their environment as an attempt to slow the fleeting shadows of the sensory world and reveal the unique beauty of the commonplace fork, plate, pepper, and light play.  Andre Kertesz photographed “from above” and positioned the camera in obscure angles.  He often photographed the commonplace, the every day object, the intersection of light and people moving across the plaza as seen from his window.  Edward Weston similarly isolated objects, giving new meaning to the mundane.  To achieve the depth of field in his pepper photographs, he had to use a pin hole aperture, taking four hours for an exposure.  Stare at one of his peppers for two minutes and the mind “enacts” motion, human forms, dance, or a complete loss of perception of a physical object, like the realm of Rothko’s paintings.

André Kertész
Edward Weston

Technological advancements have repeatedly served as metaphors for the brain and body function - steam and pressure tubes, electric pulses, radio signals, computer processors, the hive mind of the internet.  There is a kind of reflective logic that what we create in the world becomes metaphor for how we think of our own processing, a kind of “you are what you do”, or “make”.  McLuan went as far to say, “we shape our tools, then our tools shape us”.  Wilson Miner takes this a step further with the example of the car, which has changed very relatively little, but we have created an entire world around it, allowing it to determine how we design cities, how we interact and behave.  

I would argue that is only true of the passive user of a tool.  In the case of children, the tools we put into their hands throughout the last century show us how our whole concept of childhood, of what children are capable of, of how humans develop, changes in the interplay between culture and technology.

These ideas were churning around as I recorded a podcast with Hectalina Donado where she repeatedly the idea that child learning spaces is something we as adults design.

Childhood as Construct

“Children are human beings, they want to learn, they want to understand their world.” - H. Donado
A few years ago the MOMA hosted the Century of the Child exhibit, taking the name from progressive Swedish educator Ellen Key, who published a book of the same name in 1900.  At the beginning of the 20th century Key wrote…

"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's ideas influenced progressive education movements around the world including Maria Montessori, an Italian predecessor to the Reggio Emilia approach.  Hectalina Donado pioneered the approach in Barranquilla.  During our podcast she said...

“Childhood is not just fun and games, a time where we are waiting to be a grownup when we start doing serious things.”
The seriousness of childhood can be decoded by what adults believe are the "things" children should interact with.  The MOMA exhibit curates these objects designed for children throughout the 20th century.  Even earlier, Pre-Lock/Rousseau, children were viewed as incomplete adults.  Lock’s tabula rasa approach began this idea that are children are equal, very much a reaction to attitudes of divine providence of the noble class.  Rousseau's view of childhood as a constructivist period of innocence and play.  Children were noble savages uncorrupted by the rules of society.  Since then childhood has been a malleable cultural construction.

The artifacts in the MOMA exhibit reflect how adults have idealized childhood.

Frobel's Gifts

Dewey's Laboratory

Montessori's Geometric Shapes

Steiner Thought as Energy

Balla, Italian Futurism, speed and industry

Bauhaus, mass produced, multipurpose

Bauhaus aesthetics and color

New York City children's gardens

Sugata Mitra Hole in the Wall

Lego interchangeable pieces

Seymour Papert Logo Turtle (not part of the MOMA exhibit)

The artifacts we surround children with reflect this constantly changing belief of childhood and learning.  The tools within Reggio Emilia spaces such as Hecatlina’s EXCEL most often have “tools” in two forms, those of construction, and those of “hanging inquiry”, artifacts similar to Froebel’s gifts, embedded with knowledge waiting to be unlocked by the children.  Such learning spaces curate their tools and content artifacts in this ideal space for children.  However, it is important to realize that cultural mythologies can lay dormant and resurface in new signs.  Market forces long ago honed in on the manipulation of children, and the idea of childhood, and filled it with "fun and games" that treat the child as passive consumer.  Our over-accessorized childhoods can continue to promote ideas of children as miniature adults and entrench gender stereotypes, or reinvent them in new form.  Excluded from the MOMA's curation from MOMA’s is the larger Kinderculture of Barbies and Bratz teaching girls that “Math class is tough” or carrying dieting books titled “Don’t Eat”.

Baby-sitter Barbie 1963
Bratz 2018

Media and Children

“Our image of the child is one of being powerful, we don’t bombard them with exterior images from movies.” - Hectalina

Scroll back to 2008 and we were giddy with the potential affordances of our digital technologies, the collaborative, metacognitive, multimodal, and mindful applications seemed so... visible, tangible in these new tablets and phones.  Dewey wrote about learning experiences as "potential future selves".  My first look at the iPad and I saw nothing but a passive instrument, a clever mobile TV screen to capture even more of our attention.  Then seeing it in the hands of groups of children, beyond the multimodality of capturing thought, it was the collaborative way they constructed around the tool that gave me a glimpse of our potential learning design.

But look around in public spaces today and what is overwhelmingly evident is the dumbing and numbing effect of our digital technologies, how a populace has fallen for The Idea of Progress and been duped into being mined for data, scrolling through the attention economy’s treadmill.  It is 2019, Facebook markets to kids, Youtube fails to channel appropriate materials toward primary age, online Ed is about to target pre-schoolers, and trolls are live streaming with tweens on Tik Tok.  Note that Bytedance, the owner of Tik Tok recently settled for $5.7 million for mining data and collecting personal information from kids under 13 without parent consent.  Last August Bytedance was valued at 75 billion.  They continue.

The pressure shifts for schools to not just create an ideal protected space for young constructivists, but to teach the intelligent uses of our technologies.  Digital/Media literacy efforts should not just be reactionary, but should lead with examples of smart technologies and defense tactics against the dark arts of media embedded with emotional manipulation.  That means bridging our notion of “technology” between old and new literacies, creating the culture around the tech, not succumbing to lowest common denominator Pavlovian responses to three magnetic aspects of new technologies - interactivity, multimodality, and powerful narrative.

Storytelling has not always been text based interaction, it has deeper roots as transmedia, participatory event.  Thirty-thousand years ago the great hunts portrayed on French cave walls of Chauvet depict motion similar to futurist painting.  Storytellers would have been illuminated by torch lights, their shadows most likely dancing on the walls.  These story arenas were by design in naturally made acoustic echo chambers.  I imagine these were not solemn sit and listen events, the call and response participation must have been raucous.  And this is how our students should experience language and narrative, with space for quiet, mindful construction of writings which are then brought to cavernous, carnivalized “campfires”.  Our digital technologies bring back this multimodality of narrative.  The insistence that language development in narrative is only done alone, silently, is ignorant of pre-Gutenberg orality and non-linguistic forms of expression, the traditional backbone of literacy.  Our default experience with multimodal storytelling has been overshadowed by the goals of the entertainment industry.

Hectalina explained…
“…no Micky Mouse, that is Hollywood’s idea of what a child likes.  We take these children seriously.”

Childhood’s constant construction can be a challenge.  In Hectalina’s adopted Barranquilla, for example, children are often celebrated, dressed up, put on stage, and showered with whatever makes them visibly happy.  This can lead to incredible advantages for learning with children having little inhibition as participants in events, but can be a challenge in communicating the invisible aspects of learning.   

Barranquilla children's parade

The Invisible Etherial

“I can't quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that's how I've stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. Because when I read, I don't really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.”
Bhumil Hrabal, voice of Hanta, Too Loud a Solitude

Hanta’s realization is that he has condensed the whole of books into a few segments and ideas he connected with, like new branches to the trunk of his schemata.  Shiela Heen similarly notes that through all the programs we watch, books and articles we read, that when it comes to conversing with friends about them, it boils down to a sentence or two, often masking the real depth of why we spend so much time pursuing knowledge, the nature of our informavore selves.  Pragmatists like Dewey would say we have missed the Why of learning, knowledge is not something we fill our head with, rather it is action upon the world, that the pursuit of information is incomplete until it better informs action.  

I have been in school pretty much my whole life, as student, as teacher, coordinator, etc.  And both Hrabal and Heen communicate the problem of the “distillation” process of “schooling”.  The primary focus is on What and How to teach and learn with a minimum of attention to Why we teach and learn.  Sylvia Martinez reflects that the biggest challenge in working with schools is that teachers have no theory of knowledge, most have not engaged with the Why.  The “visible” which is often the most easily metricked presides over the “invisible” not so easily quantified aspects of learning.  

"When a flash of lightning illumines a dark landscape, there is a momentary recognition of objects.  But the recognition is not itself a mere point in time.  It is the focal culmination of long, slow processes of maturation.  It is the manifestation of the continuity of an ordered temporal experience in a sudden discrete instant of climax."

John Dewey, The Live Creature and "Etherial Things"

Vygotsky 80 Proof

In these visual distillations of Vygostsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, the depth of his ideas are lost.  Vygotsky considered multiple variables in a learning environment simultaneously (much like this blogpost).  Tools extend potential learning objectives.  Tools are multiple factors within a complex learning system.  Tools can be invisible, and what is correlated can be confused for causal.  CHAT (cultural historical activity theory) extend Vygostky’s idea to incorporate cultural rules, division of labor, community of the learning process and product.

Perhaps, Hectalina distills this more clearly…
“Go beyond what you see, bring the invisible out.”

Sometimes this means suspending our own cultural beliefs on childhood, and creating the tools and environment for child construction to happen.  Culture may prioritize language, particularly in the representational form of text, but children are decoding a world around them, most of it non-linguistic, much of it invisible.


Like the first hundred years of photography, where photograph was considered reflective mirror of reality, our tools of learning have a way of congealing, of dictating a culture of learning.  Our re-appropriation of those tools give us back the leverage in the formation of a culture around them.  This is their catalytic potential, to soften the molds, re-awaken a malleability in childhood and learning.

For example, Reggio Emilia, like many Steiner schools, rejected technology, constructions were to be from “natural” materials.  Lately, color slides and light tables, and projections have become part of the constructivist toolkit, reflecting a shift in acceptance of digital technologies.  Children continue to work with paints learning the subtractive properties of CMYK (mixing all colors makes black), but also play and learn with additive properties of RGB (mixing all colors makes white).  This marks a shift in cultural attitudes toward the tools of construction and need to differentiate between creative and passive tech.

Science or Selfie

Susan Sontag described tourists who, unsure of how to interact with a strange environment, separated themselves from it, “shooting” pictures, capturing images.  Photography affords Art, and Art affords Science, if the tool is used to enact an idea upon the environment in the pursuit of the solution to a problem.  Everyone is now a photographer, the technology is right there in the palm of your hand.  It all depends on what you do with it - narrate a story, simulate an experience, make the viewer feel an interactive part of it, test an idea... - or recede into a moment of narcissistic solipsism.  Sontag saw it coming...

"The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own."

My inadvertent “enactivist” theory of childhood coincides with this catalytic change,  and it builds upon a long tradition of constructivist theories of knowledge.  Philosopher and brother Bret Davis explains that as we grow we increasingly appropriate "technologies" in our environment, leveraging them toward our life goals.  Teaching has always seemed like an art of collective agency.  Maybe that will turn out to be our greatest technology.  I believe it is the distinct role of educators, learning communities, researchers, philosophers, artists, etc. to define the tools of our learning spaces, design the experiences within, separate technologies of constructivism from technologies of consumerism, and enact the visible from the invisible.  We define the tools and we create the culture around them.  We are the designers.

“We are a product of our world, and our world is made of things.”
Wilson Miner - When We Build from Build on Vimeo.

Galveston at Dawn

Our digital technologies are often associated with speed, algorithms performing in a microsecond what would take human processing long periods of time.  When I switched from analogue to digital photography I lost some of the slowness of producing images, the meditative feeling of watching developer wave over paper as I rocked the tray.  It was only later that I realized that I was reacting to, becoming a mirror of digital tools instead of creating the world around the technology.

On a recent visit to my hometown, Galveston, I took a series of long exposures with a tripod.  Before sunrise the surf raged and raced up the shoreline making it disorienting and difficult to walk.  Some exposures were as long as a two minutes.  The resulting series is calm, serene, scenes between worlds of mind and experience.  They serve as a reminder that, as disruptive to mindfulness as our technologies have become, we create the experience.  For learning spaces that means moving from episodic actives toward the longer goals of “events”. 

A post shared by Chris (@cdveston) on


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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Embodied Learning: Reflections on a Talk with Hectalina Donado

Recently I sat down with Hectalina Donado, my former principal where I taught second and third grade at Colegio Karl C. Parrish in Barranquilla, Colombia.  The following reflections are from my notes on this interview, part of a process in constructing a human centered learning design.

Schooled Minds

Harvard graduates and professors were asked about basic scientific concepts, for example “what causes the seasons”, and an overwhelming majority expressed gross misconceptions, citing the earth moving further from the sun in winter as opposed to the tilt of the earth’s axis exposing different hemispheres to the sun for more hours than other phases of the yearly rotation.  Probing deeper, the study revealed high school student misconceptions developed from lack of dimensionality in learning.  They developed false constructs from graphic representations of abstract three dimensional phenomenon.  Two dimensional drawings of an elliptical orbit with an earth seemingly much closer to the sun during its orbit led students to create a “personal universe”, something akin to Edwin Abbott’s Flatland.  

This recent conversation with Hectalina unpacks how theories of knowledge as a representation system within the brain continue to influence learning design, reflected in the apparent simple efficiency of two dimensional representation over the complexity of embodied experience.  Much of what we call “schooling” deals with the development of representational systems often far removed from a real world context.  

Circles and Lines

Hectalina tells two stories of circles and lines.  Students had been observing fish in an aquarium and decided to create a mural.  They had shown curiosity about the bubbles and to create bubbles in two dimensional form, went in search of a tool to create “flattened bubbles”.  They brought in cardboard cylinders from toilet paper and paper towel rolls, which they dabbed in paint to stamp circles on paper.  Moving from three dimensional observation of bubbles to two dimensional paper, after seeking out the proper tool in the world to create this representation, students then transferred the concept of circle back upon the world - a light bulb viewed from below, a looped earring, a pupil, a running pattern, a seating arrangement.

In another scenario, a teacher was going to have students draw lines across big cutouts of paper.  In the Reggio Emilia approach, teachers plan collaboratively in the atelier, normally the central nervous system of the school, surrounded by artifacts of learning - each embedding a narrative of a process in constructing an understanding.  The group talked about lines and how this activity might contextualize in students’ life.  They began by having students identify lines in the world and then create two-dimensional representations with the tools at hand, paper and pencil.  One student drew a zig-zag which almost prompted the teacher to correct.  The student explained the zig-zag represented the mountains, which on a clear day you can see from Barranquilla.  He had taken the idea of line further, breaking the idea of line to form a series of connected line segments, moving from line-land to flat-land.

Experiencing Color

The night before I talked to Hectalina I had been reading about the teaching methods of Josef Albers, student and teacher at the Bauhaus.  Josef Albers later moved to the US, and after Black Mountain College moved to Yale where he created the first Art course on color.  Albers designed his course around experiences, believing that students must sense properties of colors, understand their changes in relation to adjacent colors, essentially raising an understanding of color not as scientific fact, but as psychological experience.  The color itself does not change but our perception of it changes as it moves over different background colors.  Albers believed experience, reflection, and construct precede the teaching of theory.

Brenda Danilowitz writes…

“Albers's holistic view of the world and of life led to his classroom focus on context, contiguity, and relationships among elements as the key to understanding both the real world and the world the artist creates.”

Classrooms, I reflected that night, are our laboratories of learning, where we unlock meaning from the “tools” within the environment - “tools” being methods of experiences, social interaction, physical constructions, mental models, language… Like Albers’ colors, adjacent context is critical.  Lines and circles on paper are invitations to reflect on embodied experience, or lead to future experiences.  These two ideas, “tools” within a learning environment and the context of the laboratory to the extended world open big questions about how we construct knowledge.  How do 2D representations connect to 3D experiences?  Should 3D full sensory experience precede representational constructs, such as Montessori students “experiencing” geometric shapes before describing them with language?  How might 2D representation frame embodied experiences and reflection?  How is all of this bracketed by a larger cultural construct?

Extruded Plastic Dingus

In the Cohen Brothers’s Hudsucker Proxy three identical drawings appear, a circle with a line next to it, to represent three different innovations - a hoola hoop, a twisty straw, and a frisbee.  Norville Barnes shows his two dimensional sketch to anyone who will listen and gets incredulous stares.  They think he is an imbecile.  But as the hoola hoop, or “extruded plastic dingus”, is released, the right kid picks it up and performs waist, foot and neck hoop moves.  Mobs of screaming kids then run to the nearest toy store creating hoola hoop mania.

Norville’s sketch representation meant nothing to those he showed it to, they couldn’t extrude the shape from the page.  And even when Norville demonstrated the hoola hoop before the board of directors, their adult skepticism blocked them from seeing anything useful or marketable.  It took the children to create the culture within and around the hoop.  The Cohen Brothers are playfully fictionalizing the story of the hoola hoop, which in real life became a cultural phenomenon.  And in real life hoop culture predates the hoola hoop fad as hoops have been used as objects in trans media storytelling in which dance, gesture and hoop forms represent animals, symbols, and storytelling elements.  Circling back to Hectalina’s teacher’s inability to decode the zig-zag representation of the child and the layers of experiences recorded that lay dormant, ready to be unlocked - three layers of understanding emerge, experience of the world as 3D mountains as seen from Barranquilla, representation on paper as 2D zig zags, and the surrounding brackets of a cultural context.

Ecological Psychology

James Gibson’s Ecological Psychology develops these two complimentary ideas in how individuals learn from their environments and engage with tools.  First, it is not what is inside your head, rather what your head is inside of, the environment itself unlocks knowledge.  His second idea is that of affordances, the ability to unlock knowledge from the tools within an environment will depend on the individual’s beliefs, experiences, goals, and abilities with that tool.  The student who drew the zig zag mountain representation connected real world observation with the tools of paper and pencil in the learning environment.  The Hudsucker board whose bodies no longer wiggled lacked these affordances, while the child’s beginner mind and body used to tinkering with the surrounding world could unlock the potential of the “extruded plastic dingus”.  Zooming out, the Cohen Brothers are masters of playing with these cultural brackets.

Similarly the students studying bubbles took their embodied knowledge of bubbles, identified tools within their environment that would project a two dimensional representation, then extruded that form back out into the world exploring the multiple properties of circle, sphere, and movement.  These examples illustrate how Gibson questioned the entire mental representational system as something within the mind, but rather as our senses interpreting information out in the world.

When one sees a table, he or she does not have to walk around it, under it, above it to construct a mental representation.  The mind creates this simulation, combining information in the environment with that of collected schemata from previous experiences.  The process proceeds in an ongoing loop, decoding surroundings, constructing further schema.

Meanwhile our standardized tests often prompt our ability to slide, flip, turn objects, to recognize patterns, but we humans also come equipped to unlock information from our environment making possible the illusions within two dimensional representation, the ability to imagine and build 360 immersive simulations as simple as “Empty” to immersive multiplayer games, to imagining movement through the fourth dimension.  

Concerning is elementary students whose screen time on Fortnight far exceeds time spent jumping from boulders, climbing trees, running through the collaborative fantasy play constructed from their minds.  They are learning three-dimensional thinking from Minecraft without Making with physical tools of construction.  This is not to say that our digital environments should not play a role in developing 360 thinking, rather it should not take the place of physical world experience.

Enacted Learning

Francisco Varela goes a step further building from three movements - cognitivism, phenomenology, and mindfulness.  Appreciating the part of knowledge that is part representation in the head but negating the idea of the mind as mirror to the environment, Varela worked form the perspective of knowledge as experience, action with intent upon the world and reflection on the results of such action to inform further action.  Knowledge, then is beyond just the brain but is build through this interplay between brain, sensory organs, and the context of environments.  Our constrictions are set by what we cannot sense, what we do not believe in, what we have not formerly experienced, and what capabilities we have not developed.  These constraints determine what we afford ourselves as goals.

Varela termed this theory of knowledge, Enactivism, setting groundwork for Embodied Cognition, and more recently Grounded Cognition.  But what most differentiates Enactivism is attention paid to mindfulness.  In the West, the ultimate goal of mindfulness is the Buddhist monk completely removed from the world.  Varela clarifies that the goal of mindfulness is attuning oneself to the immediate world, to clear the clutter in order to focus on the task at hand.  For education, this means teachers are designers of environments and experiences to facilitate students attuning to active engagement in the learning objective.  Mindfulness in education then is not about escaping to this happy land of bliss, but rather to slow the mind into focus and flow, an embodied learning.

Context and Purpose

What happens when our learning labs only focus on learning as representational models?  Early primary students may learn how to draw straight lines on a page but the lines have no meaning beyond the page.  High school students may pass the test about the solar system but leave school with a misconceived private universe, unable to explain why it is hot in summer, cold in winter, or in the case of Barranquilleros, why the seasons do not change.  

Freshman college students will balk at the idea of writing for an authentic purpose because they have only been taught to satisfy the metrics of a rubric in high school.  

Grown professionals will solve the simplest of logic problems, working from rote memory examples without delaying the interpretive mind and work from a beginners mind to see the uniqueness of the problem.  

Aging voters will respond with emotional reflexes to loaded media without thinking through a system for what is best for all.

Our “schooling” is much to blame in the removal of learning from an embodied context.  In the case of international schools where I have spent most of my professional life, the import of curriculum and content extends this disconnect while the same concepts and skills can be learned through local context.  Embodied learning explores this space between mental representation, enacted experience, and cultural context.

Farr Out There

As Hectalina and I finished our tour of her learning spaces, I recognized a couple of parents from our former school, coming to pick up their kids.  It dawned on me, the age of these parents - they had graduated out of her initial Reggio Emilia spaces, and now wanted their kids to have the same constructivist experience, the cultural brackets becoming more defined.  I remembered our former director, Dr. Farr, someone I believe is a living, breathing proponent of embodied experience.  An example, upon arrival, any new teacher who was interested in buying a motorcycle, Farr would personally take us all to the shop.  In so many words, the instructions were, go out and explore Barranquilla and Colombia - something we should all do with our surrounding world to truly learn about it.  

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