J. C. R. Icarus: Nugget for “Man-Computer Symbiosis”

Set the controls for the heart of the sun.

Set the controls for the heart of the sun.

No one knows what it would do to a creative brain to think creatively continuously. Perhaps the brain, like the heart, must devote most of its time to rest between beats. But I doubt that this is true. I hope it is not, because [interactive computers] can give us our first look at unfettered thought.
J. C. R. Licklider, “Computers in the University,” in Computers and the World of the Future (1962)

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”

“I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.”
Stanley Kubrick

Yes, it’s all about human intellect, that strange product of a decisive moment in our evolution in which we got just enough working memory to begin to generate counterfactuals, to imagine that things could be different, and then to invent symbols–language, of course, but also art, math, music–to be able to share those imaginings with each other. We even came up with a word for the concept of “symbol” itself, a way of talking about how we were thinking, and thus generated what Douglas Hofstadter calls “an infinitely extensible symbol set.” As we shared our symbols, we began to be intentional about what we could build together, and what might persist beyond our own deaths.

So much extraordinary capacity, and we take most of it for granted.

And now come computers, with the promise of helping us generate, store, retrieve, share, and more fully understand the rich symbols that form the record of our species.

In “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” Licklider talks about all of this symbol-use in pretty straightforward ways. The essay reads very much like a project outline, at times almost bureaucratically so. There’s the research (on himself), the conclusion, and thus the problem description. There’s the itemized analysis of what will be needed to realize the vision of intellectual augmentation he imagines. By the end of the essay, he’s outlined all the engineering and seems well on his way to putting a budget together. I’ve always found the end very abrupt, oddly so, given the highly metaphorical way the essay begins. It’s very different from Vannevar Bush’s poignant, almost plaintive ending to “As We May Think.”

The passage I’ve chosen exhibits both the project-oriented Licklider (he preferred to go by “Lick”) and the dreamer Lick. It’s interesting to see how they don’t quite go together:

In short, it seems worthwhile to avoid argument with (other) enthusiasts for artificial intelligence by conceding dominance in the distant future of cerebration to machines alone. There will nevertheless be a fairly long interim during which the main intellectual advances will be made by men and computers working together in intimate association. A multidisciplinary study group, examining future research and development problems of the Air Force, estimated that it would be 1980 before developments in artificial intelligence make it possible for machines alone to do much thinking or problem solving of military significance. That would leave, say, five years to develop man-computer symbiosis and 15 years to use it. The 15 may be 10 or 500, but those years should be intellectually the most creative and exciting in the history of mankind.

Lick simply assumes that AI will be developed, and that when it is developed, “dominance” in “cerebration” (meaning “thought,” I believe) will belong to “machines alone.” We will invent our own obsolescence. Yet the 15, or 10, or 500 years during which we invent our obsolescence “should be intellectually the most creative and exciting in the history of mankind.” The note of excitement is familiar and thrilling. And we are living in that time as I type these words on my computer’s keyboard, which makes Lick’s pronouncement doubly thrilling.

Yet I hesitate to say with Lick, “I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.” Moreover, I don’t think he’s being very careful with his own argument. In the essay, he distinguishes “formulated” thinking from “formulative” thinking. The latter is more about problem-finding, about using the algorithmic powers of the computer in concert with the goal-setting and meaning-making activity of the human being to refine the human’s questions and enrich the scale and depth of the human’s powers of imagination and analysis. Does Lick believe that computers will eventually become superior meaning-makers? (Does the Netflix recommendation engine create meaning, or simply reveal it?) Does Lick believe that computers will identify problems for us to work on, optimizing the work for our messy associative brains? Does he believe that creativity itself will take on a new meaning independent of human input or judgment? Hard to say. I don’t think he’s consistent in the essay. And in truth, as John Markoff notes in What The Dormouse Said, the split between the AI researchers and those who, like Doug Engelbart, imagined that computers would augment human intellect, not replace it, was eventually unbridgeable.

And yet the dreams were similar, which brings me back to the epigraphs. From cave paintings to epic poetry, there’s strong evidence that ever since human beings became symbol users and symbol sharers (really two aspects of the same thing), we have found our minds to be spooky, paradoxical, oddly free, and strangely limited. And in the midst of that feeling, we aspire to greater heights of ingenuity and invention. It is our very minds that drive us to enlarge our minds, since somewhere in our minds we find we have not reached the end of what we can imagine grasping.

That’s a strange thought, a troubling thought, an exhilarating thought. Many cautionary tales have sprung up around this thought. Many dreams have emerged from it as well. Given the nature of our ingenuity, I’m not sure we have much hope of stalling this thought.

Might as well see what we can build with it.

As Pete Townshend once sang, “No easy way to be free.”

Reviewing our shady past: Nugget #1

Satan Overlooking Paradise

Above is a many-layered photograph of Gustav Dore’s illustration of an episode from Book IV of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I say “many-layered” because it’s a photograph of a blacklight poster that uses the Dore image as a starting-point for a psychedelic vision of a psychedelic poem published by a blind genius in 1667.

The poster is in fact illuminated by a blacklight in this photograph, which is why the colors give off a strange and compelling glow. I took the photo during an all-night Paradise Lost readathon at the University of Mary Washington March 23-24, 2007. The photo has been viewed on Flickr 537 times since then. I did fourteen of those readathons from 1980, when I did my own first reading of Paradise Lost all the way through, overnight, in one sitting, to the summer of 2008, when I taught the last Milton seminar of my tenure at Mary Washington. One of the students who came to that final readathon had done the readathon ten times over the years.

The second readathon I did, and the first as a professor, was at the University of San Diego. During the later books, the sky began to rain. Because rain was an unusual occurrence in San Diego, the students got very excited. They ran outside during the break so they could play in the rain. I found this strange and weirdly engaging, too. Rain is to SoCal as snow is to Virginia, or so it seemed to me at the time.

I bought this poster from a head shop in Bristol, Tennessee in the fall of 1970, ten years before I would read the poem it came from. I had no idea what it was a picture of. The caption said “Overlooking Paradise,” and the picture looked to me like an angel overlooking a landscape of such extraordinary beauty that I hoped one day I might be able to climb inside the picture and explore that country. I didn’t know that the angel was really a fallen angel, and that the figure was that of Satan as he overlooked the Paradise that would break his heart and harden it, too, as he resolved to bring ruin and destruction, war and hatred and death, to a country in which, to quote Milton, “spring and fall danced hand in hand.” A country with a garden at the center, one that was “wild above rule or art,” a country of “enormous bliss.” That’s what this angel wrecked.

In 1970 I was building an associative trail without any knowledge that I was doing so. Maybe I was continuing it. I had no idea at all that the blacklight poster I bought in one of the coolest stores I’ve ever seen (the house was painted purple, and it was called “The Spirit House”) was a picture from my future commitment to a poem from centuries past. I did not know that I was at that moment making good on Milton’s words that “books are not absolutely dead things.” All I knew was that the poster was shopworn and a little tattered, so the shop had it on sale for a dollar. And I had a dollar to spend, so I bought it.

In “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush writes,

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.

Reviewing our shady past better, analyzing our present problems more completely and objectively: is this a way forward, or a moment in which we will overlook the Paradise from which we are now excluded, the Paradise to which we can bring only destruction. We have indeed built a complex civilization. The building we have done together makes the words I type at this very moment able to appear and move on a screen as I push tiny switches on a keyboard. The complexity allows me to turn every bit of nearly everything into a bit, thus to send it at the speed of light around the world, discoverable by that world, reviewed perhaps by some part of it. What do we see as we look over this complexity in this civilization we have built? What do we overlook and what do we overlook? Vannevar Bush writes of pushing our experiment–presumably, the experiment of “civilization”–to its logical conclusion. Will the machines we have invented, these personal interactive networked Memexes, bring us a happy conclusion for our experiment? How will we know the experiment has ended?

These are important questions. At this moment however I write not of them, but of a moment from my own past, shaded by years but lighted by memory, that proved important on a scale I could not then imagine, but which now I can share, with a whole heart, and with you.

How does it feel when I think?

I’ve always associated thinking with feeling. I’ve always known that thinking makes me feel a certain way. I used to wonder if other people thought that way, felt that way. One of the great pleasures of getting to know the world and my fellow human beings a little better over the years has been learning that however idiosyncratic I may feel (or be) at any given time about my thinking and the emotions it brings, I am never really alone.

Those times I feel that the way I feel when I think is not unique … those are good times. Sometimes those times last a while. Sometimes they come in flashes. Either way, those times are truly meetings. Each of those moments is what Richard Linklater’s characters in Waking Life call a “holy moment.”

I remember those moments. I remember the moment Dr. Roman read us T. S. Eliot’s words describing the way the Renaissance poet John Donne felt when he thought (or what Eliot believed was true, given Donne’s poetry and other writings): “For Donne, a thought was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” Those words are just as thrilling (ah, there’s one feeling I’ll come back to at the end) today as they were when I first heard them, age 19. They suggest that thinking is not just detached, ethereal, or impractical. Thinking is an experience. It changes you. Thinking changes your mind, which means that thinking changes the way you think. As one neurologist put it in the title of his recent book, we human beings have a Brain That Changes Itself. It’s like that great Escher drawing of the two hands drawing themselves. It’s recursive, and gloriously so.

And then it turns out that interest, which is the brain reaching in and out to experience the glorious trails of wonder and puzzlement within and without its hard-boned boundaries, is an emotion.knowledge emotionlike confusion and awe. Just thinking about that idea fills me with joy. I’m listening to Pandora (The Buckinghams channel, if you’re curious) as I type these words, just to keep my brain in the happy state that allows the joy of these ideas to permeate every axon, jump every synapse.

Thinking doesn’t always feel great, of course, even for someone like me who’s frankly besotted with it. Sometimes thinking is unpleasant, hard, regretful. When I worry, for example, I’m thinking about things that either a) make me anxious or b) consume me with an urgent set of problems, the way we say a dog “worries” a bone. Actually, now that I think about it (heh), “b” can feel unpleasantly focused sometimes, but other times it feels like good exercise. By contrast, I try to avoid the “a” variety of worry, sometimes with more success than others.

But leaving aside that unpleasantness, I believe there are other varieties of thinking that are pretty much unalloyed pleasure, though of different kinds. (Anyone who tells you that all pleasures are really the same needs to get out more.) Here’s a partial listing of my thinking pleasures.

Musing is a great relaxed pleasure as long as “a” worries don’t intrude. Musing is that state when the mind floats free, playing with associative trails the way a child plays with soap bubbles, balloons, or sticks in a brook. When musing gets very intense, it gets even dreamier, at least for me; it becomes a reverie, which to my ears is one of the loveliest words in the language, though obviously we borrowed it from the French. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Mulling is a somewhat more arduous pleasure. “Mulling” means thinking hard but without any single goal in mind. Mulling is like a great conversation that grows more intense by the moment, but without any agenda or “takeaway” that has to be agreed upon or accomplished. I once did a talk on mulling (the thinking kind, not the vintner variety), and because I had to do the talk, I ended up learning what it was I wanted to say. It came to me in the course of my research (see, there’s inquiry for you). I learned that the words “mull,” “meal,” and “muddle” were all related. Irresistible words. Alliterative, and nicely balanced between two monosyllables and one disyllable. Best of all, they gave me the grand finale that I hoped would also give the audience something to mull over as they thought about my talk on thinking: I concluded that “mulling” was what we did to make a “muddle” into a “meal.” Ok, two disyllables there, but I’m an amateur poet only.

Worrying (“b” type), musing, mulling: all are pleasures, though all feel different. But for the tip-top pleasure, the one that keeps me moving through uncertainty and courting more (heaven knows–for a fact–that there’s no lack of uncertainty in life and in this weary world), is the feeling I get when an idea comes to me. When that idea arrives, it sometimes feels like moving through a door to see a splendid sunlit landscape on the other side. Sometimes it feels like I’ve spotted a long-lost friend while music plays in the most exquisite foreign land I’ve ever visited (the choice of which, music and land and friend, would depend on the day). Sometimes it feels the way I felt when I saw my newborn children and the exhausted joy in their mother’s eyes. Sometimes I get the feeling and I don’t know why, because some part of my brain has registered the insight, has felt the charge of the connection, before my prefrontal cortex has had a chance to say to itself, “Whoa! I see!”

Roger Penrose describes this last sensation so perfectly that I leave the last word in this post to him, as given to us by the superb immortal filmmaker Errol Morris:

Permission to wonder

From the film by Errol Morris.

Stephen Hawking at work. From the film by Errol Morris.

Doug Engelbart Well, strangely enough, I feel the same. It’s part of the thing of the easy to learn and natural to use thing that became sort of a god to follow and the marketplace is driving it and it’s successful and you could market on that basis, but some of the diagrams pictures that I didn’t quite get to the other day was how do you ever migrate from a tricycle to a bicycle because a bicycle is very unnatural and very hard to learn compared to a tricycle, and yet in society it has superseded all the tricycles for people over five years old. So the whole idea of high-performance knowledge work is yet to come up and be in the domain. It’s still the orientation of automating what you used to do instead of moving to a whole new domain in which you are going to obviously going to learn quite a few new skills. And so you make analogies of suppose you wanted to move up to the ski slopes and be mobile on skis. Well, just visiting them for an afternoon is not going to do it. So, I’d love to have photographs of skateboards and skis and windsurfing and all of that to show you what people can really [do] if they have a new way supplied by technology to be mobile in a different environment. None of that could be done if people insisted that it was an easy-to-learn thing. So, moving your way around those thought vectors in concept space – I’d forgotten about that.

Alan Kay You said that, right? 

Doug Engelbart I must have, it’s so good. [laughter] It’s to externalize your thoughts in the concept structures that are meaningful outside and moving around flexibly and manipulating them and viewing them. It’s a new way to operate on a new kind of externalized medium. So, to keep doing it in a model of the old media is just a hangup that someplace we’re going to break that perspective and shift and then the idea of high performance and the idea of high performance teams who’ve learned to coordinate, to get that ball down the field together in all kinds of operations. I feel like the real breakthrough for us getting someplace is going to be when we say ‘All right, let’s put together high-performance, knowledge-work teams and let’s pick the roles they’re going to play within our organizations in some way in such even though they operate very differently from their peers out in the rest of the organization they can interact with them and support them very effectively. So there are roles like that that would be very effective and everyone else can sort of see because they’re interacting with these guys what they can do.And suppose it does take 200 hours of specialized training – that’s less than boot camp. [My emphases.]

From the Vannevar Bush Symposium at MIT on the 50th anniversary of “As We May Think.” The official conference title was “50 Years After ‘As We May Think’: The Brown/MIT Vannevar Bush Symposium,” and transcripts of the panel discussions are at this ACM website. The excerpt above is from a blog post by Greg Lloyd on the Traction Software website. The post celebrates Doug’s 85th birthday.

On the ACM event site devoted to the symposium, the phrase “thought vectors in concept space” comes up in another spot, a journalistic bit juxtaposing Engelbart’s phrase and explication with Kay’s admiration, annotation, mild uncertainty, and explication:

In Engelbart’s view, augmentation of human powers makes possible better handling of complexity, greater ability to shift paradigms, and enhanced capacity to see farther and deeper into any issue. Engelbart’s theories on the nature of the human mind are a logical extension and expansion of Bush’s dual vision of cognitive and associative processing. Kay describes one aspect of Engelbartian thought:

One of the phrases that he [Engelbart] used that I particularly
liked was ‘thought vectors in concept space’. I’m not sure I
understand what he meant, but what I think is that you are
creating an extension of the kinds of spaces that you think in
terms of inside of your head. So, you are creating an
augmentation of the ways of thinking, the ways of representing,
the ways of associating that was now going to be extended
in a way somewhat analogous to the way writing has extended
us but somewhat more like the way we actually think.

Engelbart describes it as a method:

…to externalize your thoughts in the concept structures that
are meaningful outside; moving around flexibly, manipulating
them and viewing them. It’s a new way to operate on a new
kind of externalized medium.

My own interpretation of “thought vectors” also brings in something implicit in both Engelbart’s and Kay’s vision but, in my view, at some risk of being lost unless it is stated explicitly (this is something I’ve always worried about with regard to connectiVISM, though not so much with connected). For me, the “thought vectors” are largely about each learner’s agency as a thinker, with “vectors” describing the aiming or directing of those thoughts. This implies that “concept space” may be inside one’s own head, which I think is true, though as Vygotsky, Francis Jacques, Bruner, and many others have demonstrated to my own satisfaction, at least for now), “inner speech” (Vygotsky’s term) is empowered and directed by the world of speech into which one is born, the concept space shaped by what Bakhtin calls (to my joy) Great Time. Empowered and directed, but not wholly constituted or constrained, though freedom can feel very much like a kind of dissociation, as Bateson dwells on both beautifully and chillingly.

So we must not lose Ted Nelson’s compass either:

Ted Nelson described his approach to collaboration (or its absence) and its relationship to Doug Engelbart’s approach in this way:

The fundamental difference between my wonderful and very
great stepfather Douglas Engelbart and myself is that he
wanted to empower working groups and I just wanted to be
left alone and given the equipment and basically to empower
smart individuals and keep them from being dragged down by
group stupidity. The amazing thing is that our designs have
converged to some degree, showing, I think, the fundamental
validity of this whole approach.

See “Collaboration” on the ACM website. I think Nelson’s words may have influenced what I understand was Engelbart’s shift away from the language of “collaboration” to the language of “co-working.” The latter preserves the idea of personal agency within the collective work space, the concept space into which thought vectors may most powerfully flow, and in which their most powerful lives are realized. Publishing is one model of gathering one’s own thought vectors, themselves emerging alongside, from, and within other thought vectors (and concept spaces–yes, a bit of a Babushka doll here), and launching them into yet another concept space. As the concept space of “publishing” grows–if we will allow it–the boundaries and the very nature of what we recognize as a “thought vector” will also change. I believe this is something Engelbart envisioned when he spoke of the very complex symbol structures that could emerge from the concept space opened up by increasingly sophisticated and powerful modes of computer-mediated communication.

The happily challenging Roving Librarian has shared with me a book called Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art To Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines, by Philip Yenawine. Chapter One is called “Permission To Wonder.” Building on the work of a neuroscientist of learning named Abigail Housen, Yenawine (formerly director of education at the Museum of Modern Art) has developed a VTS methodology that seems to me a very powerful way of thinking about thinking, especially about pursuing modes and paths of inquiry in a computer-mediated, networked environment imagined as “thought vectors in concept space.” Yenawine rings the Big Bell several times in this chapter. Here are examples:

Reflecting on this [VTS project] at some distance, it’s easy to see something we didn’t recognize at the time: we weren’t teaching viewing skills. Both adults and children already have them. They simply need to be activated (or reactivated), honed, and directed. (p. 12)

Given the combination of accessible information and elements of mystery, finding meaning in art is a form of problem solving: as we develop skills at viewing, we simultaneously learn how to find and solve problems…. What we need to start are eyes, memories, openness, time, and encouragement to engage in mind-stretching exploration–in other words, permission to wonder. (p. 13)

The second chapter continues the theme:

Art is the hook that engages students…. The subjects are familiar so that students have much to recognize but they also contain elements of mystery so students have observations, ideas, and emotions to puzzle over [my emphasis]. (p. 24)

It’s this combination of aspects–clearly readable information alongside ambiguity and diverse subjects and techniques–that makes art so useful in starting a deep and rigorous discovery process…. (p. 24)

[T]his engagement initiates an array of habits ranging from skill at observing to comfort in extracting meaning from complex problems. Once learned with art, the ability to learn from discussions carries over to other inquiries: VTS as a method is easily redeployed by teachers in other lessons. (p. 24)

This much is plenty exciting. In fact, I’d substitute “a sense of exuberant discovery” for the word “comfort” above. But the next section becomes even more exciting, especially for someone who cares deeply about the textures and vectors of words. (The remark “it’s only semantics” has always puzzled me, even when I’ve said it; what else is there besides semantics? I mean, it’s like saying “it’s only intelligible life as lived by symbol-making creatures.” Only?) It turns out that the questions that “set the students … into an active discovery mode” must be “carefully crafted.” Yenawine writes,

The VTS questions in fact provide a beginning strategy–a structure–for examining and reasoning about any unfamiliar object. The specific questions as well as the phrasing of each are based on Housen’s research:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

The first question–What’s going on in this picture?–initiates the inquiry into the meanings contained in the image: not just what’s depicted but also what it conveys. The question’s phrasing is familiar. We ask ourselves this question frequently. It is open-ended enough to suggest that all sorts of responses are acceptable. Still, it challenges students to move beyond observations to figuring out what they add up to. (p. 25)

Yenawine goes on briefly to discuss the neuroscience of narrative-making, another crucial part of the VTS methodology.

But here’s the real kicker–the moment when “it’s just semantics” is replaced by the good ship Thought Vectors as it rises from the launch pad:

At first Housen and I thought that “What do you see in this picture?” was an equivalent question, but in fact we saw that it produces a less complicated way of thinking…. (p. 25)

The activity of meaning-making must start with what’s going on in this picture?–or “what’s going on in this class, or in this major, or in this education you are pursuing–or that’s pursuing you?” Such a slight difference, looked at one way; looked at another way, the difference is enormous. Don’t just make a list. Knit together a context that will bootstrap inquiry.


The second question–What do you see that makes you say that?–is a nonthreatening way to introduce reasoning…. Even four-and five-year-olds can, after a short amount of time, demonstrate this remarkable thinking skill when the task is phrased this way. (p. 26)

The author goes on to write about how “paraphrasing each [student's] comment and linking one comment to others,” along with “using conditional language, no matter how certain students were of the fat of their statements,” teachers can facilitate discussions that are not simply exercises in guessing what the teacher wants you to say, or simply empty debates that polarize and eventually stop the process of inquiry (pp. 27, 29).

The wording of the third question, “What more can we find,” is also vital. Yenawine writes,

The third question–What more can we find?–is asked often during VTS discussions and deepens the meaning-making process. Observing how long babies can stare at a single thing might remind us that the capacity to stay focused is operative in infancy and early childhood, and with this question we simply reawaken a behavior that is innate. While people bemoan the short attention spans of children (and perhaps the occasional grownup), what VTS teachers see is that, given something worthwhile to examine and pertinent prompts to follow, students will examine a subject for longer than most teachers have time….

Originally we had additional questions or variations but, again, the field research indicated which to use. Debra Vigna … gives insight into the kind of data we accumulated in class after class, reporting that “When I tried asking my class ‘What else can you find?’ they shut down. They thought I was asking them to find something specific that they weren’t mentioning. When I went back to ‘What more can you find? they opened back up. (pp. 26-27)

What’s going on in this blog post?

I keep trying to articulate my discovery, my belief, that there’s an extraordinary opportunity to grant, exercise, and strengthen “permission to wonder” as we contemplate and launch thought vectors in concept space, the uniquely, weirdly powerful prospect of thinking within and by means of personal, interactive, networked computing.

What do I see that makes me think that?

I keep writing versions of the same blog post again and again, typically by bringing in new writing, evidence, and observations from other people who appear to me to share this belief or to share a set of beliefs about learning that could lead (and I think do lead) to similar conclusions, once the promise of personal, interactive, networked computing becomes more clearly understood.

(Yes, and the perils, too, though I wish we could expend more hopeful, optimistic effort on realizing the promises.)

What more can we find?

That’s not entirely up to me to answer, of course, but I believe the connections have intriguing and perhaps mysterious potential. Vectors for thought, now launched into concept space, with both Chuck Berry and Glenn Gould on board.

Intimate, connected, open

scooby dooOver the last few weeks, our cMOOC team has continued to articulate and explore the dreams we’ll start living with our students on June 10. Some of the living’s already started in fact–the #thoughtvectors hashtag continues to light up the Twitter stream, and we’ve already got one playlist going, courtesy of our Creative Paradox. Shortly our course porch will be ready at thoughtvectors.net. Tom Woodward and Alan Levine are our prime porch wranglers. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

A couple of weeks ago, the team discussed the idea of intimacy in learning. The discussion was set in motion by one of my favorite quotations from my favorite learning scientist and philosopher, Jerome Bruner.

Man’s working image of himself is anchored in his sense of intimacy–in the events and relations that are the fabric of his immediate experience and make up his way of life. Change in the individual is a function of how much and in what manner an intimate way of life is altered.
“Fate and the Possible,” in On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand, 160 (1979), emphasis mine.

Several fascinating and wondrous responses emerged from our discussion, responses I am belatedly but gratefully recognizing here: Laura‘s, Bonnie’s, Jason’s, Patty’s. I am humbled by their commitment and thoughtfulness. And I do not believe I am alone in feeling that in the meetings that have followed, we have found a greater ease and playfulness, as well as a deeper sense of adventure, in our work together. Bruner’s words struck a chord. I would hazard a guess that they did so because we are all vitally interested in the transformative potential of education–of school at its best, what I have long called “real school.” I would further speculate that each of us has had some experience of that transformative potential in our own lives as learners. (I don’t have to speculate with Bonnie, as she’s already blogged about it–and my associative Bonnie trails are now even more richly complex–thanks, Bonnie).

I will speak for myself, without speculation, and swear on a stack of Bruner’s collected writings that the primary reason I keep slogging on, trying to make something out of my own stumblings and hallucinations, and trying to navigate the shoals and shoot the rapids of contemporary higher education, is that my college education altered me forever, and I believe for the better, and I am sure because of the devoted ingenious efforts of professors who also roamed the halls of wonder and “exuberant discovery” in the real school that Bruner so magnificently limns.

Can this intimacy be risked? Much of contemporary education at all levels resists the question itself, let alone the risk. My answer is that it must be risked. Can this intimacy be found online? My answer is that my own personal learning network, linked to again and again on these virtual pages, demonstrates my yes.

Can there be rigor in the learning in real school, or is this a cheap fairground Scooby-Doo, the kind where the neck wobbles and the fake velour wears off by the end of a sweaty superficial amusement-filled day?

A 2012 article in the International Journal of Learning and Media helps me keep my eyes on the prize of real school, the self-generated, self-rewarding goal of connected learning. Here’s the abstract:

Efforts to understand the dynamic processes of learning situated across space and time, beyond the here and now, are presently challenging traditional definitions of learning and education. How can we conceptualize learning in a way that is able to respond to and explain the increasing complexity, connectivity, and velocity of our times? We elaborate on the notion of “connected learning” as a conceptual heuristic that has recently received recognition as a potential lens and a model through which to research and promote learning as a holistic experience that stretches beyond formal and informal communities. We reflect on the methodological challenges of describing, defining, and analyzing connected learning across young peoples’ everyday “learning lives” from the sociocultural and dialogic perspectives. We discuss such key notions for connected learning as understanding, tracking, and tracing learners; chronotopes; boundary crossing; intertextuality; and learning lives.

“Learning lives”: this phrase stirs me very deeply. At the micro level, it was what college helped me discover that a life could be: a learning life. I had always hoped to find such a thing. The very word “college” had always sounded to me, a first-generation college student and the son of working-class Appalachian parents, as if something like a “learning life” might just be possible. At the macro level, college also taught me that “learning lives” was the story, hopeful at times and desperate at others, of the species homo sapiens and what we have both built and destroyed, together, on this lucky little life-filled planet called Earth.

“Connected,” then, becomes for me an even more powerful word than “open,” for it speaks of relationship, the exuberant discovery that personhood is both irreducibly unique and inevitably interwoven. We are open so that we may become more powerfully and profoundly connected. Our learning lives are ours, a manner of speaking  that can be read in both ways: they belong to us, as well as to each of us. Each of us writes our selves into being, and thus each of us writes our selves into being.

“Efforts to understand the dynamic processes of learning situated across space and time, beyond the here and now” (my emphasis)–efforts to conceptualize: good enough for a peer-reviewed research-focused article published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but too “mushy and subjective” to guide learning outcomes? My fragment-question echoes like old Fred Neil once sang, sadly and a little angrily and most of all plaintively.

Connected, intimate, and open, through this course of study we call our works and days.

My first teaching machine

No, it wasn’t a computer, though it was built on the principle of programmed learning. It was a World Book Cyclo-Teacher. The kit came with big printed instruction-question-answer wheels that fit onto the machine’s hub, as well as smaller blank white-paper wheels that fit atop the larger wheels. As I recall, once the big wheel and smaller wheel were in place, you closed the Cyclo-Teacher lid, took up your pencil, and began the circular journey. Some windows gave you information, some proposed a question, and there was a space for you to write your answer (the questions were multiple-choice, as I recall). After you wrote your answer in the midst of this exciting multi-screen display (I confess: it did look kind of cool to me at that time), you pushed the little plastic lever in the midst of the machine to the right, thus advancing both wheels to reveal the correct answer, new bits of information, and a new question.

I may have some of those details wrong, but you get the idea. Step-by-step instructions, chunked content, all clear as can be, with frequent instant feedback. Not adaptive, to be sure, but not so far from the idea of clear instruction, clearly articulated learning outcomes, and rock-solid assessment.

From this Cyclo-Teacher I learned the rules of chess, but I did not learn how to play chess. I did not learn to play chess until I began to play chess. This may seem like a subtle distinction. To me, it made–and makes–all the difference in the world.

Real school must support both the rules and the playing. And the greatest of these is the playing. One can learn rules by trial-and-error within the playing, if one’s opponent knows the rules. But that’s very slow. Much faster to use some kind of instruction–faster, but not better, not unless learning the rules is always in the context of the playing. That observation, I take it, is at the heart of Lockhart’s Lament, and at the heart of Bret Victor’s “Kill Math” as well.

The playing not only manifests but encourages and empowers understanding, for it is the mode in which knowledge becomes not simply procedural but generalizable. Jerome Bruner puts it this way:

The child first learns the rudiments of achieving his intentions and reaching his goals. En route he acquires and stores information relevant to his purposes. In time there is a puzzling process by which such purposefully organized knowledge is converted into a more generalized form so that it can be used for many ends. It then becomes “knowledge” in the most general sense–transcending functional fixedness and egocentric limitations.

A puzzling process indeed, but one we cannot ever overlook, for this puzzling process is also the mode in which meaning emerges, since meaning emerges not from procedure, but from relationship (also a puzzling idea, but irresistible). My complaint about the culture of “learning objectives” and “learning outcomes” is that it seems to me very often to be a sophisticated and indeed frightening recipe for “functional fixedness.”

But didn’t I have to know the rules of chess to be able to play chess? Of course. And the Cyclo-Teacher worked for me because I already wanted to learn to play chess, and because there was no context to confuse me about what I was doing. No classroom, curriculum, well-meaning instructor, grading scale, tuition, degree, or cultural capital. I was using a teaching machine as an elaborate set of flash cards so I could commit some procedures to memory. I knew that’s what was happening. I didn’t think I was playing chess, or watching someone play chess, or learning about playing chess.

All analogies will break down, and this one will too. Before it snaps, though, I’ll say again what I tried to say here: confusing the rules with the playing is a big mistake, and it’s a mistake that seems to me to be propagating throughout school because of a narrow emphasis on the structure of instruction and a desire for rapid, consistent, scalable forms of assessment. The result is all too often a paradigm (even a recipe) of instruction purpose-built to fit into rapid, consistent, scalable forms of assessment. My belief does not necessarily contradict or even oppose a belief in the value of learning times-tables or any other procedural knowledge. My aim is to argue against models of learning that implicitly or explicitly assume that understanding proceeds in a linear or predictable fashion from procedures, or that we can afford to relax about “understanding” because we all believe in it while at the same time we say that it’s “mushy” and therefore able to be omitted from our discussions of particular modes of instruction. My claim here is that any time we omit “understanding” from our discussion of learning or teaching, we do so at our extreme peril. It’s too easy to get into the habit of such omissions.

In Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach For A Complex World, Sharon Parks makes an exceptionally important observation:

In all educational experiences, people to one degree or another model themselves after the teacher, learning things that are not in the explicit content of what is being said or read, but that are implicit in the way the teacher goes about teaching. It is easy for teachers to underestimate how much is taught about ‘how to be’ that goes unexamined. Students unconsciously drink in, for example, the way a teacher models the resolution of conflicts in class, solves problems, handles the introduction of deviant, innovative, troubling, or confusing points of view, and exercises authority. Lessons about professionalism and expertise are absorbed and reinforced class after class–year after year.

Parks’ words remind me why I find it so painful to hear about “delivering” the “content” of a course. Every choice the teacher makes, from the way the syllabus is written to the way the requirements are described to the way grading is explained to the way she or he demonstrates and confronts her or his own uncertainty, curiosity, interest, awe, and wonder to the students, models something about what it means to be human, what it means to learn. Every choice a teacher makes elicits, and answers or evades, the biggest question of all: “so what? Why does this matter?”

My experience also leads me to conclude that the culture of “learning outcomes” that anticipate or imply linear paths from LOTS to HOTS (lower-order thinking skills to higher-order thinking skills–yes, those are the acronyms) reveals a culture that also believes in the fool-proof curriculum, the sequence that will lead to learning as repeatable, predictable, and reliable as the trajectory of a ball dropped from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Thus curriculum becomes a technique rather than an experience (or rather than a good, strengthening experience of meaning-making). Robert Evans tells a tale of his own mistake in this regard, a tale that certainly rings true in my own experience of schooling:

In 1968 I joined a team of teachers that sought to develop a high school English curriculum that would be both highly relevant for students and “teacherproof,” with content so engaging that it would make students want to learn and lesson plans so clear that no teacher, however dull or incompetent, could fail to conduct an interesting class. As comparatively simple as our reform was, it proved futile…. One of the central lessons we think we have learned about previous rounds of innovation is that they failed because they didn’t get at fundamental, underlying, systemic features of school life: they didn’t change the behaviors, norms, and beliefs of practitioners. Consequently, these reforms ended up being grafted onto existing practices, and they were greatly modified, if not fully overcome, by those practices. Dull and incompetent teachers taught the new content dully and incompetently.

The flaw here, as some see it, is that most of these projects aimed at first-order change rather than at second-order change. First-order changes try to improve the efficiency of effectiveness of what we are already doing…. They do not significantly alter the basic features of the school or the way its members perform their roles. Second-order changes are systemic in nature and aim to modify the very way an organization is putt together, altering its assumptions, goals, structures, roles, and norms…. They require people to not just do old things slightly differently but also to change their beliefs and perceptions.

Heifetz and Linsky reach similar conclusions about failure to change in their classic study Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through The Dangers Of Leading, They call “first-order change” technical change, distinguishing it from adaptive change, which corresponds to Evans’ “second-order change.” (It’s interesting to consider learning as a special case of leadership, or vice-versa, as becomes clear in Sharon Parks’ analysis of Heifetz’ approach in her book Leadership Can Be Taught.) In both analyses, the greatest risk of highly damaging “functional fixedness” comes when we shrink from the challenge of second-order or adaptive change by simply falling into denial and calling “second-order change” what is really only first-order change in disguise. Note that the “functional fixedness,” the inability to generalize, occurs at all levels if we do this. The sad fact is that teachers will be as damaged by functional fixedness as the students they teach. That’s the awful, malignant self-feeding nature of this beast. This is part of what I was trying to get at in my “Personal Cyberinfrastructure” piece as well as its predecessor, “No Digital Facelifts.”

How shall we assess our students’ learning if the outcome we seek is stronger and more effective modes of meaning-making from our fellow human beings, especially those who trust us to shape their brain’s capacity for shaping itself over a lifetime? Those who trust us not only to awaken them to a high-def world that surrounds them, but to awaken (or at least not to dull) their appetite to build worlds and not simply to endure them? Now that’s a learning outcome. It’s a complex ambition, to be sure, but I believe we must hold it in mind at all times and communicate it in everything we write, speak, or build in support of learning. This is not the 30,000 foot level. It is the ground upon which we build. Yes, it is also often a ground made of paradoxes:

Does this mean that there is no use taking biology at Harvard and Shreveport High? No, but it means that the student should know what a fight he has on his hands to rescue the specimen from the educational package. The educator is only partly to blame. For there is nothing the educator can do to provide this need of the student. Everything the educator does only succeeds in becoming, for the student, part of the educational package. The highest role of the educator is the maieutic role of Socrates: to help the student come to himself not as a consumer of experience but as a sovereign individual. (Walker Percy, “The Loss of the Creature”)

I’m confident Percy’s absolutes are designed to make us think, but for me and perhaps for Percy as well (I have a sneaky suspicion about this), “nothing” is too strong, as is “everything.” After all, we have Percy’s essay, itself a meta-maieutic experience, or perhaps a commentary that helps one think more intensely and ably about the highest role of the educator–and that’s a long way from nothing, at least for this student.

As Jerome Bruner writes in a slightly different context, “It is too broad a task I have set for myself, but unavoidably so, for the question before us suffers distortion if its perspective is reduced. Better to risk the dangers of a rough sketch.”

I understand and support the need for maps, for rules, for procedures, for precision. At the same time, I believe these are means to an end, and the desire for them springs most authentically when the teacher keeps the end in sight of both the students and him or herself. Keeps the end in sight, and understands that it is the end, in its other role as a beginning, that brings the procedures, maps, rules, and precision into being.

Understanding and learning outcomes

Cutting off the branch on which he sits. From the Catalog of Illuminated MS at the British Library

Cutting off the branch on which he sits. From the Catalog of Illuminated MS at the British Library: BL Stowe 955 f. 15 Man cutting down a tree

I trust we can see what’s happening in this illustration, which comes from a manuscript written in the early 1500s in Europe. This is obviously a problem of considerably long standing for our species. I believe the problem emerges from the same place that our truly good ideas come from: that fascinating place we call the human brain. The situation we see in the picture is not just a bad idea–It’s almost a good idea. It’s a classic case of an insufficient dose of ingenuity.

Tricky thing, ingenuity. Sometimes anything less than a full dose is poison.

Take for example the seemingly endless fascination with “learning outcomes.” Who could argue that we should not think about what our students learn? The whole idea here is to move from a “teaching” paradigm to a “learning” paradigm. Barr, Tagg, Chickering, Bloom, Boyer, and a flotilla of other writers have insisted that it’s all about the learning. If a teacher teaches but no learning occurs, then teaching hasn’t really occurred either. This all seems painfully, even hammeringly obvious to me, but I know there are indeed professors who believe their responsibility is simply to show up and talk in a way they themselves understand as they “cover the material,” an activity something like pulling the sheet all the way up over the deceased’s head. In this case, the cadaver is both the subject of the class and the subjects in the class, both of which (whom?) become not subjects but objects.

So the ingenious idea emerges: teachers should think about what they believe should happen in the student as a result of the class. Teachers should think not about what they are teaching, but about what the students are learning. There are even extraordinary efforts to refine the idea of ‘learning outcomes” by distinguishing “learning outcomes” from “learning objectives,” as the latter are still not sufficiently student-centered.

Yet something is deeply amiss, in my view. As we seek to perfect the language and institutionalization of a culture of “learning outcomes,” it seems we are necessarily moving toward a strictly behaviorist paradigm of learning, away from what Jerome Bruner refers to as the “cognitive turn” in learning theory and ever more deliberately toward a stimulus-response paradigm of learning. This behaviorist turn can be very sophisticated and refined. The behaviors specified, measured, and tracked can be cognitively demanding “smart human tricks.” There can even be qualitatively measured learning outcomes, though it appears these are less frequent than quantitative metrics, for reasons I think are obvious. Yet these are still behaviors, specified with a set of what I can only describe as jawohl! statements, all rewarding the bon eleves and marching toward compliance and away from more elusive and disruptive concepts like curiosity or wonder: For example, here are pretty much canonical examples of learning outcomes from the University of Toronto’s Center for Teaching Support and Innovation:


  • By the end of this course, students will be able to categorize macroeconomic policies according to the economic theories from which they emerge.
  • By the end of this unit, students will be able to describe the characteristics of the three main types of geologic faults (dip-slip, transform, and oblique) and explain the different types of motion associated with each.


  • By the end of this course, students will be able to ask questions concerning language usage with confidence and seek effective help from reference sources.
  • By the end of this course, students will be able to analyze qualitative and quantitative data, and explain how evidence gathered supports or refutes an initial hypothesis.


  • By the end of this course, students will be able to work cooperatively in a small group environment.
  • By the end of this course, students will be able to identify their own position on the political spectrum.

Learning outcomes should use specific language, and should clearly indicate expectations for student performance.

I see these examples and admonitions everywhere. Students will … students will … students will … students will. (Meantime the students’ will becomes defined for them, or ignored, or crushed.) Each of the above statements assume a linear, non-paradoxical, cleanly defined world. The sun shines. Experience is orderly. Tab A goes into Slot B. Problem solved. Please note that I am not arguing against specific knowledge. I love engineering and many engineers as well. Expertise is vital. But there is more to the story than repeat-after-me. One item of specific knowledge that’s vital for all learning is the knowledge of complexity and the emergent phenomena springing from it. Another is knowledge of ambiguity and the fluidity of concepts articulated so beautifully by Douglas Hofstadter in Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies. Another is that interest, wonder, awe, and curiosity themselves are vital preconditions and outcomes of any learning experience. They shape the complex readiness (cognitive, affective, social, etc.) of students for the learning experience at hand, and that learning experience in turn shapes the students’ readiness (cognitive, affective, social, etc.) for the next experience.

The soldiers-on-parade list of “students will” statements characterizing “learning outcomes” may be necessary, but it’s also crucially, even tragically insufficient–yet that is where our ingenuity seems to be stopping as we whack away at the branch we’re sitting on.

For it turns out that two of the words we must never, ever use are “understand” and “appreciate.” These are vague words, we are told. Instead, we must use specific words like “describe,” “formulate,” “evaluate,” “identify,” and so forth. You know, action verbs that we believe we can measure with confidence. This is the doctrine, repeated faithfully across multiple contexts, that defines much of the practice of those in higher education (and K-12 as well) who seek a more learning-centered environment. Chronicle blogger and math professor Robert Talbert provides a recent iteration in his blog post about flipped classrooms in calculus:

A clear set of learning objectives is at the heart of any successful learning experience, and it’s an essential ingredient for self-regulated learning since self-regulating learners have a clear set of criteria against which to judge their learning progress. And yet, many instructors – myself included in the early years of my career – never map out learning objectives either for themselves or for their students. Or, they do, and they’re so mushy that they can’t be measured – like any so-called objective beginning with the words “understand” or “appreciate”. [Hyperlink in the original.]

Clear objectives vs. mushy objectives, the latter kicked to the curb with the scornful phrase “so-called,” because they “can’t be measured.” As he continues his post, Talbert cites the familiar Bloom’s Taxonomy. Oddly, “understanding” appears as level two of the pyramid, but Talbert doesn’t note the irony or indicate the complexities and divergences around this taxonomy, including the fact that the version he cites is a frequently cited revised version, and that it coexists with a digital version, etc. Many questions have emerged about this taxonomy. Perhaps it should be inverted? Perhaps it maps the learner’s progress toward higher-order thinking in far too linear a fashion. Does understanding really precede creation? Or does creation facilitate understanding, in a weirdly recursive way? If a writer says “I write in order to discover what I have to say,” where did she begin on the taxonomy, and where does she arrive? Or does she arrive? Is this taxonomy a pyramid or a wheel?

At this point the reader may object that I am introducing far too many complexities into what was intended as simple advice for professors who want to flip their classrooms. Unfortunately, these complexities matter. When confident, simple, plain, orderly advice is given about a complex matter, I hear the sound of the hatchet replaced by the sound of wood snapping as the branch I’m sitting on gives way. Again quoting from Talbert:

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a standard means of categorizing cognitive tasks by complexity, with the simplest (Knowledge, or “Remembering”) at the bottom and the most complicated (“Creating”) at the top. Go through each of your learning objectives and decide what level of Bloom they most closely correspond to. Then shuffle them around so that the higher up the list you go, the more complex the task is.

Compare this advice to the observations John Carroll and Mary Beth Rosson make in their essay “The Paradox of the Active User” (download here):

A motivational paradox arises in the “production bias” people bring to the task of
learning and using computing equipment. Their paramount goal is throughput. This is a desirable state of affairs in that it gives users a focus for their activity with a system, and it increases their likelihood of receiving concrete reinforcement from their work. But on the other hand, it reduces their motivation to spend any time just learning about the system, so that when situations appear that could be more effectively handled by new procedures, they are likely to stick with the procedures they already know, regardless of their efficacy.

A second, cognitive paradox devolves from the “assimilation bias”: people apply what they already know to interpret new situations. This bias can be helpful, when there are useful similarities between the new and old information (as when a person learns to use a word processor taking it to be a super typewriter or an electronic desktop). But irrelevant and misleading similarities between new and old information can also blind learners to what they are actually seeing and doing, leading them to draw erroneous comparisons and conclusions, or preventing them from recognizing possibilities for new function.

It is our view that these cognitive and motivational conflicts are mutually reinforcing, thus exaggerating the effect either problem might separately have on early and longterm learning. These paradoxes are not defects in human learning to be remediated. They are fundamental properties of learning. If learning were not at least this complex, then designing learning environments would be a trivial design problem (Thomas and Carroll, 1979).

One may immediately object that Carroll and Rosson are analyzing a very specific learning situation, that of someone trying to master unfamiliar software. But look again, especially at that last paragraph. “These paradoxes,” ones in which prior learning, motivation, etc. both propel and block learning, “are not defects in human learning to be remediated. They are fundamental properties of learning.” Carroll and Rosson are discussing learning, period, even though their analysis focuses on a particular learning task. Moreover, they approach the task of design for learning as a set of “programmatic tradeoffs” within a shifting field of paradoxical encounters. The last sentence quoted above is bracing and entirely to the point: “If learning were not at least this complex, then designing learning environments would be a trivial design problem.”

Much of the “learning paradigm” discussion, like the discussion around “analytics” and other current instructional interventions, treats designing learning environments as a trivial design problem. The effort required isn’t trivial, mind you. It can be hard work building out complicated environments based on straightforward design concepts. There are all these rubrics to write, all these Standards of Learning to formulate, revise, vote on, adopt, and implement. These are indeed complicated processes that take a lot of time. The effort and the time involved can convince us that we’re doing something very complex, rigorous, and highly responsible. But note that Carroll and Rosson are arguing that the problem of designing learning environments is non-trivial. It must engage with paradox, not seek to remediate paradox. By extension, Carroll and Rosson are implying that to attempt to remediate paradox (taxonomies are typically anti-paradoxical) is to end up with something far less complex than learning. In other words, when we “solve the problem” of learning, we simply substitute a simpler question for a harder question, a process mapped out by Daniel Kahneman in his recent book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Now read the advice from The Chronicle again. Count the number of times the word “paradox” is used. Hmm. Instead, there’s this voila! (or perhaps a QED):

Further down the line, the lists of learning objectives are also a ready-made topic list for timed assessments like tests and the final exam. Want to know what’s on the test? Just take the set union of all the learning objectives we’ve seen up to now.

As they used to say in the TV pitches, “it’s just that simple.”

I certainly do not intend to demonize Bloom or anyone using his ideas or anyone’s ideas deriving from his ideas. There’s plenty of demonization out there without my feeding the beast. Teaching and learning are difficult, sometimes bewildering activities, and it’s natural to want to have clarity about it all. It’s also natural, and to some extent a good thing too, when we seek accountability for our professional activities. Asking “what do we want to happen, and how will we know if we get there?” is an entirely fair and just thing to do. It’s when we’re forbidden to use “mushy” words like “understand” and “appreciate” because “they can’t be measured” that the trouble begins. And it’s when we believe that an “ordered list” will take us through the paradoxical encounters of meaning-making, curiosity, awe, and wonder so that we safely arrive at “student success” that we end up with what Ted Nelson famously termed “a forced march across a flattened plane.”

The Chronicle article clears the way for systematic learning that could easily be programmed into a sophisticated Computer-Aided Instruction machine. This means that one day it will indeed be administered by a computer:

This is far from a perfect system, but it’s a reliable way to align learning objectives with the actions you want students to perform and the means you want to use to assess them, and it gives students a key ingredient for self-regulated learning: A clear set of criteria that will tell them what they need to know and how to measure whether or not they know it.

If a thing can be automated, perhaps it should be automated. If we are going to argue that human beings who teach have an important role to play in learning, even in areas like mathematics (and why not especially there? see Lockhart’s Lament, an essay that I return to again and again), then we are going to have to engage with paradox and start talking again about “learning outcomes” that are beyond algorithms.

Without a strong view of the way in which “understanding” and “appreciation” (which I’d say means “something that gains in value for the learner because of the learning”), what can we possibly have to say about Spritz, a new instantiation of an older idea about computer-aided reading? How can we as educators mount a challenge to a learning design paradigm in which reading turns into what Ian Bogost aptly calls “Reading To Have Read“? Some excerpts from Bogost’s article (I urge you to read the whole thing, slowly):

In today’s attention economy, reading materials (we call it “content” now) have ceased to be created and disseminated for understanding. Instead, they exist first (and primarily) for mere encounter….

If ordinary readings are read to be understood, to be pondered and discussed and reflected upon rather than to be completed or collected, then perhaps it’s best to think of Spritzing as reading that is done to have been read. Indeed, the idea of Spritzing is the apotheosis of speed reading: reading in which completion is the only goal.

Spritzing is reading to get it over with. It is perhaps no accident that Spritze means injection in German. Like a medical procedure, reading has become an encumbrance that is as necessary as it is undesirable.

The Spritz FAQ snickers a bit at the German meaning, a nasty little snicker I’d say, acknowledging that they embrace the meaning and view it as a witty little mnemonic device for effective branding. The whole FAQ has a weird hipster vibe that seems to make the whole thing into competitive eating or sack races: “Hehehehehehe! Do you know what Spritz means in German? ROFL! LMAO! One of our founders is from Munich, so yes, we know. We bet you won’t forget it though, will you?” No, I don’t suppose I will, though I will CMEO, not LMAO.

Back to Bogost:

Spritz hasn’t stepped in to sabotage comprehension, but to formalize and excuse its eradication.

In other words, Spritz avoids mushy words like “understanding” and “appreciation,” the sort of things for which one creates opportunities for pondering, discussion, and reflection. If we as educators subscribe uncritically to the typical “learning outcome” paradigm, though, how can we possibly criticize Spritz? We have sawn off the branch we’re sitting on.

In a blog post responding to Bogost’s Atlantic article (which is how I found the Bogost piece, in fact), Alex Reid poignantly notes that two questions emerge from any analysis of reading (especially if reading is broadly construed as meaning-making arising from symbolic expression):

First, an ontological one, which is what are we or what are we capable of being? And second an ethico-political one, what should we be? Inasmuch as we are intertwined with symbolic behavior, the question of how we produce and consume symbols will be involved in these concerns.

To which one might add a third question: does a learning paradigm that avoids “understanding” and “appreciation” reduce symbolic behavior to indexicality alone? Poets (and mathematicians like Lockhart, Hardy, and Hofstadter–artists all) know that symbols not only contain representation but also stimulate representation. As a Miltonist very dear to me once wrote, symbols are not simply reiterative. They are generative, too.

One metric for that generative outcome might be called “civilization.” The best kinds of generative outcomes might be called “wisdom.”

School as Technology: A Cum Laude Talk at St. Catherine’s School

I was privileged to speak at the St. Catherine’s School Cum Laude honors induction on April 3, 2014. My dear friend and former student (yes, it can happen) Doug Bader teaches at St. Catherine’s and invited me to share some thoughts with the audience of honorees, friends and relatives, and the entire upper school. The event took place in a chapel, and the audience filled it. We sang several hymns together. I usually like to sing out, especially when I’ve got a good bass line to sing, but this time I tried to sing quietly, as there was an undeniable magic to the way these young women’s voices rang out, clear and energetic, in that space. When at the end we sang the two verses of “Jerusalem” together, the moment deepened, a “sacred and home-felt delight,” as Milton has it in A Masque.

During the talk, I looked out over the room at the faces of these teens, in school and on their way to more. I thought about the world they live in and the world they will soon be shaping, internally and externally. On a clear warm April morning, I tried to let them know how dear their springtime was to me, how important their springtime will be to the world. In my mind’s eye, I saw my teenage daughter, now a second-year student at UVa, and soon to leave her teen years behind forever. I saw my own springtime self, impetuous, brash, no doubt overbearing and facile but with such driven wonder that I could hardly bear to sleep sometimes. I wanted these young women to know that their worlds matter, and that the history of their futures is written in the dreams of the past–in this case, the dreams of human potential that bequeathed us, for better or worse, the digital computer. I hinted that the “better” part might still be something we could work on together.

Afterward, several of the young women came up to say hello. They talked excitedly about their work, their fanfictions, their networked lives and enthusiasms.

Cum Laude Selfie 1

And at the reception, even the adults got into the spirit of the event.

Cum Laude Selfie 2

A great day.


A quick thought about web syndication

I’ve been working with some mighty stellar colleagues (including Bryan Alexander, not pictured, as few cameras can contain his multitudinousity) on a new EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative “7 Things You Should Know About…” piece focusing on web syndication. We’re closing in on the final form of the document, and it’s been very exciting to try to articulate this rich, elusive conceptual foundation to “thinking like the web.” (My best teacher in this area, as in many others, has been Jon Udell–though he bears no responsibility for my errors, of course. My errors are original.)

This thought just came to me, and I wanted to record it here:

Web syndication really does think about the web as a vast database, and each site on the web as potentially a dynamic, curated representation or slice of that database. But the database is itself constantly refreshed because the web that feeds the database of the web is the web of human curiosity, expression, and meaning-making.

Yes, recursive.

My student asked me a question

I think of this post as a sequel to “The Reverend Asked Me A Question.” It’s even more poignant for me, if that’s possible, because there’s a certain fresh and meta quality to the question of “how did you think about teaching our class when you were teaching our class?” when it’s asked by a sophomore just one year after the class, a sophomore who’s now trying to do something of the same thing in another schooling context.

The exchange was so powerful for me that I asked the student for permission to reproduce the emails here. She has graciously consented. I’ll have a few bits of commentary along the way, but mostly I’m letting the conversation stand on its own. I think my answer to her question may illuminate some of my practices as a teacher. If so, and anyone finds that useful, that’s great. Yet for me the even greater value is emotional, or spiritual–hard to know the difference, perhaps. It’s a little window onto the heart of one part of one teacher, and even more poignantly, a window onto the heart of a student who has gone up one more meta-level, one she ascended by herself with some bread for the journey she found–helped to make–a year ago in a very special class I was very lucky to be part of.

Her name is Brooke Baugher. She was one-half of the “meta team” in “From Memex to YouTube: Cognition, Learning, and the Internet,” a course I taught last spring (2013) at Virginia Tech. The course was cross-listed as a 400-level Honors Seminar as well as a 500-level graduate course in the Preparing the Future Professoriate program. We had two freshmen, one sophomore with senior-level credits earned, and two engineering graduate students. It was a truly extraordinary, transformative experience for me. You had to be there and I wish you had been–but you may (probably will) get some of the flavor of it by looking at the project the meta-team (Brooke and Nathaniel Settle) made. The course description? They wrote it, once the course was done. Or rather, they wrote them, as the course could be described in many aligned yet distinct ways. Here’s one: “4 Months. 30 Classes. 17 Readings. 6 Learners. One Mission: Take The Deep Dive.” Please note that five students were enrolled in this class, but when these two students did a headcount, they counted six. You see? Ah. Oh, and by the way, the essay on this page is one of the most brilliant pieces of student work I’ve ever encountered. Analysis, synthesis, demonstration, performance: it’s all there. I’ll leave that exploration as an exercise for the reader.

For further context, here’s the syllabus. And here’s the class motherblog.

And now here’s the exchange, which begins with this email from Brooke:

Mar. 5, 2014

Subject: haaaalllppppp

Hi Dr. C!

So I am TAing (of sorts) for a class that I took last year. I talked about it a lot in our class; I’m not sure if you remember it, but I ranted about pink time a couple times.
Brief background: it’s a project where the professor cancels class three days out of a semester, and the students are encouraged to go learn about whatever they want. Then, the next class we come back and talk about all of the projects, make connections, etc.
So I am in charge of trying to improve out of class engagement, and I am using social media. So I have a twitter account, and we have a facebook page. BUT. I am having so much difficulty getting the students to participate and ask questions between each other outside of class that isn’t a requirement.
I just have one question for you: how in the world did you make us so involved?! I am hitting a wall with what else I can do to increase this. Any advice that you have would be super greatly appreciated.
Miss you!

Brooke :)

It took me awhile to answer, as the question stirred me to the core. Eventually I regained my gumption and took the leap.

March 11, 2014

Hi Brooke,

I miss you too. :)

You’ve asked me just about the hardest question you could ask. Any
answer I can imagine would probably seem either silly or overly simple
or crazily complex. But maybe that’s just me being self-conscious. I
struggle with that.

What I always try to do, whenever I teach, is to arrange the class as
a shared project. We’re making a movie together. We’re making a record
together. We’re building a house together. The whole meta-team idea
was an extreme version of something I now recognize I’d been doing for
decades. The idea of the course as a series of meetings, all
self-contained, has always been boring to the point of hysteria for
me. I’d have a similar reaction (have had, in fact) to a PowerPoint
presentation full of inane and obvious bullet points and nothing
else–no images, no video, no sound, nothing out of the ordinary. Same
thing. All inert lists.

Over time, inert lists have come to be expected by many students,
maybe even most students. They actually come to prefer it, very often.
Inert lists make everything so much more manageable. Stuff in stacks.
I didn’t want stuff in stacks. I wanted art or mystery or eureka or
games or symphonies or laboratories or studios.

So when I teach, I try to convey, in every way I can imagine, that
this is not going to be an experience of stuff in stacks. And every
time I sense a student is going along with the idea of
no-stuff-in-stacks, I try to reward that right away with attention and
commitment and equal blends of zaniness and intensity. When one
fishes, there’s an art to landing the fish: the line has to be taut,
but not so taut that it snaps or the fish gets away somehow. It takes
a lot of patient back-and-forth and an art of the line as subtle as
how a violinist holds her bow to make the strings sing. (Not to worry:
I’m a catch-and-release kind of fisherman, though I do eat fish, I
will confess.)

What’s never worked, in my experience, is making 90% of the experience
stuff-in-stacks and making 10% “freedom to learn,” because the 90%
just overwhelms the 10%. Truth to tell, “stuff-in-stacks” can
overwhelm “freedom to learn” even at the 5% level. Stuff-in-stacks is
a poison and it doesn’t take much to kill the learning.

I don’t know if any of that is helpful. All I can say this morning is
that I try as hard as I can to help nudge the class forward in its
journey, its project, its writing-itself-into-being. I try as hard as
I can to let the class nudge me forward, too, because I’m also in it
for the learning. And I try to do this with an absolute minimum, as
close to zero as I can make it, of stuff-in-stacks. This is one of the
reasons I love the internet. The web, at least so far, is full of what
Walt Whitman calls “barbaric yawps.” These yawps can be like throwing
a window wide open in the early spring, just before it’s really warm
enough to do so, but just when you really want to because the stale
inside winter air is just too stifling. So we shiver some, and we take
in the cold air, and we smell some of the mud and early growth of
just-spring, and our brains clear and our hearts beat faster for just
a little while. And sometimes that’s enough to get everyone over the
school-as-stuff-in-stacks hump and we can get another magic moment and
recapture that feeling of determined yes.

I don’t mind syllabi or semesters. I kind of like final exams. I love
projects and highly refined and purposeful zaniness. When creative
thinking and critical thinking marry and have a child, the child’s
name is joy–it’s the same child born to Cupid and Psyche in the old
tale by Apuleius.

You’re working very hard to push a huge rock up a steep hill. When I
teach, I have the opportunity to frame the whole encounter very
differently. You don’t have that opportunity. But you do have
extraordinary shining eyes and a heart for adventure and a mind for
keen insight. So I’d say you should talk with the students, heart to
heart, and tell them what your dreams are for this experience, and
then see if anyone responds. If anyone does, then find a way to
celebrate that, and keep on hoping that the response will catch on.

Remember: shining eyes.

Dr. C.

P.S. Would you mind if I put this whole exchange up on my blog? Your
question is so powerful and beautiful, and my answer comes from the
heart and might also be of some use to other folks. If you’d rather
not, I think I will put my answer up there anyway, with just enough
context (no identifiable items though) to explain why I’m writing
this. It would be very powerful to have both up there, though, if
you’re willing.

Did I tell you already how much I miss you–and our class? I learned
so very much. We had us a time.

And then Brooke responded:

March 12, 2014


I have much more to respond, but I just have a few minutes as of now-I’m heading in for my first job interview, yikes!

I wouldn’t mind at all if you shared this on your blog! But thank you so much, that definitely helps. I’m gonna keep working with what I’ve got, it seems like some of then are growing keen to the conversation, so we will see!

You should come back and visit us!

Brooke :)

Yes, I should. I hope to someday.

Thank you, Brooke. Thank you, vtclis13. Thank you, all the dear people unnamed here who made all of this possible and, against some odds, more likely. My teachers, my friends, my colleagues.