Sunday, October 8, 2017

Tales of Unexpected Thinking Moves 1: Why Stuart Little was a Progressive Educator

Stuart Little Substitute Teacher

When Stuart Little became a substitute teacher for a day, he quickly did away with subjects and asked the students for some suggested laws, since he would like to to be Chairman of the World.  What follows is not exactly socratic, however Stuart does model elements of “thinking moves” and engages students in a bit of participatory improv theater to demonstrate design agency of their environment…

"Never poison anything but rats," said Anthony Brendisi. "That's no good," said Stuart. "It's unfair to rats. A law has to be fair to everybody." Anthony looked sulky. "But rats are unfair to us," he said. "Rats are objectionable." "I know they are," said Stuart. "But from a rat's point of view, poison is objectionable. A Chairman has to see all sides to a problem." "Have you got a rat's point of view?" asked Anthony. "You look a little like a rat." "No," replied Stuart, "I have more the point of view of a mouse, which is very different. I see things whole. It's obvious to me that rats are underprivileged. They've never been able to get out in the open."

E. B. White has Stuart Little demonstrating thinking similar to The Explanation Game, Circle of Viewpoints, Tug of War, or What Makes You Say That found in Making Thinking Visible.  Project Zero defines “thinking moves” as having simplicity of steps and being a replicable process across various forms of content.  Thinking moves create a fabric of individual metacognition and collective thought.  They are the building blocks of a collaborative culture, and incorporate essential New Literacies - distributed cognition, collective intelligence, negotiation, performance, and transmedia navigation.  When made visible though post-its and mental mapping they provide framing, reference points for reorientation, a path to purpose in a circuitous discussion.  Applicable across disciplines, they can unlock rich forms of metaphorical transfer.  Stuart set out to proactively circumvent discipline management by “making the work interesting, and discipline will take care of itself.”  In E. B. White’s mind that meant activating student thinking and voice.

Diaspora of Thinking

Last summer at the School for Poetic Computation, Zach Lieberman was explaining the Parsons School of Design critique system, a method carried over from Hunters College.  Zach starts a critique by having students describe physical characteristics of a piece without liking, disliking, or interpreting in oder to validate the artist and gets everyone synched into descriptions most agree upon from sensory observation.  Then, as the group moves into interpretations, critical discussion on meaning and aesthetics evolve.  Finally they all push the artist further with probing questions.  What Zach had described was identical to what Project Zero calls “See, Think, Wonder”, not so far from the d.School’s “I like, I wish, I wonder”, Luma Institute’s “Rose, Thorn, Bud”.  Thinking moves, like West African Polyrhythms manifest in different interchangeable variations like a kind of thought diaspora.  The steps to thinking begin simple and quickly move to explore depth.

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Thinking Moves are cognitive tools and like good technology tools, as Papert described when creating Logo, they need “low floors, wide walls, and high ceilings”. - an ease of low threshold entry, varied use for multiple disciplines, potentially encouraging interdisciplinary metaphoric bridges and integrative thinking, and no limitations on extended thinking.  New thinking moves should develop from the core routines.  Entry should be simple enough for children to grasp with no parameters on how far it goes.  Papert saw this in children, the same problem solving toolkit and inquiry methods as adults… 

“…subdivide the problem, split the difficulties, make a procedure out of sub-procedures, make a whole out of parts, and understand each separate piece.  Everybody knows that but they don’t do it.”

Project Zero’s move, Parts, Purposes, and Complexities makes Papert’s thinking explicit and facilitates a group of thinkers to quickly focus on collaborative discussion goals.  E. B. White went to Cornell, but in Stuart Little’s thinking, he exposes children to building empathy for the rat through a PZ move called The Explanation Game, then has them roll play using Circle of Viewpoints (COV).  There is a hint at some adaptations from the d.School’s Mindsets and Methods using Powers of 10 (small size, big ideas), and Show Don’t Tell through interactive roll play - although to be fair for simplicity of fitting into a narrative page, E. B. White, like Roald Dahl, Kate DiCamillo, J. K. Rowling, and others, engages in thinking moves that would look more like Show Show Show Tell, or Tell Show Show Show.  It provides a low threshold through repetition, like a calming rhythmic quality.

Democracy of Thinking

The difference between demonstrating thinking or revealing the thinking of authors and applying thinking moves is that thinking moves are meant to be participatory, promoting the democratization of voice in a community, unlike the call and response, fill in the blanks of teacher’s thinking that students most often attend to.  This is exhausting, spend time shadowing a student and measure the time where sitting and being attentive is expected.  Thinking moves promote agency, a bias towards action, immediate applicability to what one thinks he or she knows.  And they are meant to be open ended and messy kind of tinkering where students discovery a meaning behind their learning as opposed to passively working toward no clear purpose. 

“When I was in school they told me I needed to learn long division because I would need it when I grew up, and I think I knew it was a lie, and the effect was to make me despise the teachers a little more.” - Papert

Modality of Thinking

Elementary age students may use different language, may not elaborate to the extent as Lieberman’s Art students, but the same patterns of logical processing are evident.  The lack of words to describe something does not equate lack of knowledge and understanding, a child may not know the words vertices, angles, or obtuse but can certainly “get” the properties of a triangle observing and handing physical models.  In the discussion prompted by thinking moves, the transference from tactile, spacial knowledge will come forth, maybe through the dispersed knowledge in the group sharing strengths in the transfer between modalities.

Another danger is that thinking moves are meant as means not ends.  The ever so efficient applauded teacher will slap these on worksheets with rubrics and have them exported as homework in no time.  But the goal is to provide grounding for launching points of unexpected thought to arise, the “neural instantiations” as Lynn Hunt explains as purpose found in the process.  Purposeful, concentrated thought begets purposeful, concentrated thought, and the depth of this metacognition will enable recognition of patterns of thought… everywhere.
Thinking moves are not all about language.  The MIT Lab recognized that origami folding patterns led to breakthroughs in nano-technology, in the construction of polyhedral DNA, and in inflatable 3D structures.  The Root-Bernstein’s clarify, referencing Science-fiction writer Ursula Leguin and mathematician Werner Karl Heisenberg …

“‘The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.  The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words,” which, she goes on to explain, ‘can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphoric usage.’  Words are, in other words, both literal and figurative signs of interior feelings, but not their essence.  They are, as Heisenberg said of mathematics, expressions of understanding, not its embodiment.”

De-Commodifying Thinking

Learning as a commodity in schools attempts to proscribe premeditated outcomes in thinking - starter phrases for children to explain thinking, lists of questions for teachers to follow while conferring with students on writing, Restorative Justice question cards, design thinking method cards - none of which are inherently bad, unless they are approached as an end game or check list.  Thinking moves, like Oblique Strategies, should invoke, agitate, and conjure thought and inquiry until meaning and patterns of thought suddenly emerge from somewhere as unexpected as Stuart Little, or as the following blog posts will explore, from a video game, a photograph, or looking up at the ceiling!


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Anderson, M. (2017, January 01). Low floor, high ceiling, wide walls in ELA classrooms. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Ball, L. (2017, August 14). Conferring: Writing Workshop Fundamentals. Retrieved October 09, 2017, from

Davis, C. (2015, June 11). Spotlight Audio Poems 1. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Davis, C. (1970, January 01). Why Tweet Part 4: Collaborative Learning Standards. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Davis, C. (2016, May 22). #improv theatre front loading cognition for #writing #CircleOfViewpoints #edchat @dtk12chat #makered Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Davis, C. (2016, April 20). @AgencybyDesign how #parts and #purpose make this system #complex - the systems within #makerEd #dtk12chat #edchat Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Davis, C. (2016, April 20). @AgencybyDesign #Parts immersion by close looking and tangible crowdsourced observation #makerEd #dtk12chat #edchat Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Davis, C. (2017, May 29). From Barthes "Myth Today" #Media #MediaLiteracy #transmedia #transcoding #edtech #edtechchat #edchat #makerEd #edlit #literacy #artsEd Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Davis, C. (2017, May 29). From Barthes "Myth Today" #Media #MediaLiteracy #transmedia #transcoding #edtech #edtechchat #edchat #makerEd #edlit #literacy #artsEd Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Dodd, M. (2017, October 06). “Machine City” patterns, pathways, and symmetry. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Falk, B., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). Documentation and Democratic Education. Theory Into Practice, 49, 72-81. Retrieved October 8, 2017.

Hardesty, L., & MIT New Office. (2017, June 21). Origami Anything. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Hunt, L. (2010, February). How Writing Leads to Thinking. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Jen, N. (2017, October 08). Natasha Jen: Design Thinking is Bullshit. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

McNamee, D. (2009, September 07). Hey, what's that sound: Oblique Strategies. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

MIT Media Lab. (2016, August 01). Professor Emeritus Seymour Papert, pioneer of constructionist learning, dies at 88. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Montessori, M. (1914). Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook. New York City, NY: Frederick A. Stokes Company.

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Ou, J., Skouras, M., Vlavianos, N., Heibeck, F., Cheng, C., Peters, J., & Ishii, H. (2016). AeroMorph. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

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Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Root-Bernstein, R. S., & Root-Bernstein, M. (2001). Sparks of genius: the thirteen thinking tools of the worlds most creative people. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Sean, L. (2017, August 23). Yes, Design Thinking Is Bullshit...And We Should Promote It Anyway. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

Trafton, A. (2009, February 25). Knowing when to fold: Engineers use 'nano-origami' to build tiny electronic devices (Video). Retrieved October 08, 2017, from

White, E. B., & Williams, G. (2005). Stuart Little. New York: HarperCollins.

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Zhang, F., Jiang, S., Wu, S., Li, Y., Mao, C., Liu, Y., & Yan, H. (2015, July 20). Complex wireframe DNA origami nanostructures with multi-arm junction vertices. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

On Slowness: The Sense8 Potentials of Instagram

"There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting…  …A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down…"

Milan Kundera

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Bridging Across Time

A few weeks ago I met an old friend for dinner.  We walked, and sat, and talked, for hours - slowness - while the New York cityscape around us moved in Baraka-like stop frame frantic pace.  Once upon a time, in this lifetime, she and I wrote ten to twenty page letters to each other, letters that had drafts and multiple revisions, paper and ink carefully picked out, selected stamps licked and meticulously placed.  If you made a mistake you simply wrote the page again.  I never mailed anything until sleeping on it and reading it again the next day - one letter could take a week or longer.  I drafted mini-stories, parts of days, reflections on readings, music, dreams, nightmares...  I was living in Poland at the time so it took two weeks for a letter to arrive, at least six weeks before a response came, and when it did, that night after dinner, I lit a candle, poured a glass of wine, and spent time with this person, no distractions.

She lamented the insane world around us, zombies with cell phones, dopamine addicts.  I argued that our social medias were not inherently stupid, but people use them in idiotic ways, dumbing themselves down, becoming their lowest common denominator of self, but that it didn’t have to be like that.  I teach with technology, document, reflect, iterate with kids in their learning process, and I think all kids should learn to deconstruct their transmedia landscape, it’s part of being literate today.  The fact that we were even having dinner was due to our social networks placing us both in New York.  But she was right, I don’t know any twenty somethings that go home at night and work on drafts of letters, maybe they are too busy swiping left or right on Tinder, “where sadness goes to  

Our “always on” connectivity has us all skimming across rapid-fire emotive responses to images and short bursts of text that are increasingly what is happening now, less the series of events that has led up until now, and rarely a contextualized synthesis of events.  That night I biked back across the Williamsburg Bridge, thoughts suspended between now and a former way of being, on how digital technologies connect and isolate simultaneously, on how a slow exchange of text was more immersive than the encompassing sensory of a thousand swipes.  Racing the downhill slope of the bridge, back toward this Brave New World where all of us are hooked on speed, few of us feeling the drudgery of the climb, the earned euphoria of the descent, I realized that we may not just be the last generation of letter writers, we may be the end of a slow, deep, contemplative form in which two people connect and sense one another.

The Power of Ten and Our Collective Intelligence

Cultures and all the "micro-climates" within, over time, fade, mashup, remix, or get forcibly exterminated.  But what is different here is the rapidity in which cultures, languages, ecosystems, climates are being disrupted.  We were merely two people talking over dinner slowly realizing that in a small wrinkle in time, something disappeared from the world.  Zoom out a few powers of ten, extend the timeline, and there is a world trend of the disappearance of the "original peoples".  Jon Lee Anderson recently reported on the Mashco Piro, an isolated people who have rarely been seen for nearly a century, but are now initiating communication with civilization beyond the Amazon due to contact with drug traffickers, loggers, and epidemic diseases.  He reflects...

“What I felt I saw on this trip was a glimpse of the original world as it’s ending.  People in the urban world, metropolitans, Peruvians, everywhere, are losing primary experiences.  We are no longer having direct contact with the original world.  Where I was, this is still there, the very original world, before all of our history, before Columbus, before Christ, before all of that stuff, how we were when it was just us and nature - it's disappearing.  It will disappear if not in our lifetime, in our children’s lifetime.  It’s going.  The Mashco Piro are coming out of the jungle.  There’s only 100 isolated groups left in the world, 70 of them live in this area of Peru and Brazil.  This is it, this is the end, that is an extraordinary thing.”

The Mashco Piro, like the Nukak migration in 2006, stem partly from drug traffickers invading their ancestral lands and fighting with military or paramilitary groups - because of an attempt to eradicate or control the drug transport lines - because the war on drugs has made the northern routes more costly - because the U.S. does not view drug demand as a problem but instead decided to militarize zones of the world that have been demilitarized since... maybe forever.  The same systems thinking could be applied to lumber cutting, farming, strip mining, etc.  Yet this systems literacy has not evolved with our digital connectivity.  By viewing a satellite time lapse of forest cuttings, my third graders can develop an understanding that the animal species' habitat they are studying is threatened, but that is hardly "knowledge" until they can break it down into actions in their immediate environment such as food waste, material waste, or other consumptive habits.  Ultimately, it won't only depend on an individual's ability to work cooperatively with immediate community to solve problems, but will depend on developing empathy through digital medias, awareness of dispersed knowledge, and development of collective agency.

In my lifetime the world population has doubled.  As a problem solving species capable of collective intelligence on a massive scale, we are often reduced to thinking of immediate gain and survival without the foresight of global repercussions, meaning more blast fishing, deep sea trolling, mountaintop removal mining, slash and burn clear cutting, destruction of mangroves and estuaries, and disappearance of our oldest surviving cultures.  Education, international/interdisciplinary communication, and yes, technological evolution could prevent this imbecilic Trump-train wreck from happening.  The land bridge between Barranquilla and Santa Marta in Colombia instantly killed an entire ecosystem of estuaries and mangroves, but if canals and waterways had been part of the design, then the spawning cradles for fish and the species endemic to the mixture of fresh and salt water would have survived.  I believe the same kind of systems thinking can be applied to the rapid growth of digital technologies and cultural evolution.  If Mayan urban planning preserved green tracts of land, and conductive thread resuscitates a new interest in the studies of ancient weaving technologies, then our social medias can incorporate endangered written and oral traditions as they innovate transmedia forms, and the decoding of the multitude of systemic factors leading to the "original peoples" leaving their homelands could possibly be prevented.

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Homo Sensorium

When Lana and Andy Wachowski with Michael Stranczynski crafted Sense8, they wanted to focus on how technology connects at a distance, but separates those in our immediate proxemics.  Straczynski used his experience with friends living in different parts of the world who would meet online to watch a film together and discuss it.  The Wachowskis wrote half of the chapters, Straczynski the other half, and then they swapped and rewrote each other’s chapters.  In describing the process Straczynski said… 

“Michelangelo said that the way you sculpt a horse is you cut off a large block of marble and you chip away whatever isn’t the horse. We start off with a block of marble, which are all the ideas of where it could go, and I’m a structure nut. I think things have to go, if you have something over here, it has to make sense down the road.”

Their narrative is complex, eight Sensates in eight different locations around the world begin to realize their connectivity, sometimes through an isolated sense, feeling what another feels, sometimes through shared physical space.  Sense8 is LGBTQ eye candy pop, and appreciating it is about engineering around the purpose and making of the series, the world building logistics of filming parts of scenes across incredible distances of time and space, and how this complex creation reflects on our own current digital connectivity.  Straczynski explains, 

“We are all our world-builders and you have to ask every single logical question to create a mythology, the history of it. Our feeling was that we actually all started off as Sensates originally and that [not being a sensate] is like a mutation.”

Photographic Networks

We, the smart-dumb-phone carriers of the world, are stuck in a crossroads, oversaturated with stimulus and choice, not sure whether to swipe left or right, caught in a strobe of inertia.  The real step in human evolution is developing purpose to our connectivity, to not sink into narcissism and individualism, but to explore another's point of view so deeply that you collect bits and pieces of what the other senses and feels.  When Flickr first came out I spent about thirty minutes a night traveling online, feeling a bit like a Sense8 in the space between my own emotive responses to image, often beyond my comprehension, and the contextualization of images into my own mythologies.  Similarly, Instagram serves that function, and because of its immediacy, creates collective digital narrative, often conflicting with mainstream reporting - like in 2014 when CNN looped footage framing tanks and flaming cars in Kiev, but simultaneously searching #Kiev showed young people riding bikes around, smiling for cameras.  

Photographs enable an empathy often not accessible in live time and drastically different than the being there sensation of film.  I wondered what I could learn from access to all these people’s streams of photos.  I found myself following people I didn’t know, and would never meet (or so I thought), and explored whether I could develop empathy for their lives.  Around this same time I was taking on online course from Project Zero called Making Learning Visible, and I gravitated toward people that were narrating a learning trajectory through Instagram - a photographer, a classical guitarist, an artist, a designer, a bass player, a dancer…  My goal was to follow them over time, watch for reflection of progress, goal setting, how community interacts through comments.  But then seeing that the photographer was in New York where I was about to spend a couple of months, I reached out and invited him to a podcast session to talk about his learning process and experience documenting it with social media.

Learning About Learning

Roy Savoy, a street photographer works across the five boroughs.  He agreed to meet me in Washington Square Park for a podcast session.  It took us a while to find each there since I had no idea what he looked like.  There are people with cameras everywhere in the park.  After standing next to people and saying, “Hey Roy,” he finally spotted me.  We took a seat on a bench and recorded the following…

After recording, we went and got coffee and talked for another hour, mainly about his process in learning photography.  I had originally been attracted to Roy’s stream of photos by the quality of the work, invoking what Barthes calls “punctum”, emotive repose, and “studium”, contextualizing images, in this case by juxtaposing them with backdrops, objects, and other figures.  There is also a chronological progression as he sharpens technique while developing style and voice.  Roy explained not just his learning journeys, but outlines a kind of blueprint for self driven learning in the digital age.  By starting from square one, creating community, researching the masters, owning the media, knowing himself as a learner, and hacking his surroundings, he designs his own learning environment.  

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As I reflect on this process, I hope to find clues in how our digital technologies potentially transform us into Sensates, how we can develop a deeper form of slow transmedia communication paralleling letter writing, and what schools can do to include the spectrum of modalities in our media landscapes.


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