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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