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a bicycle because a bicycle is very unnatural and very hard to learn compared to a tricycle, and yet in society it has superseded all the tricycles for people over five years old.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.

Similarly,

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.

One thought on “Permission to wonder

  1. Wonderful post, Gardner. I have been contemplating these same issues and mulling over much of the same material for some time – though the VTS is new to me, and fascinating. I have been digging into the past a bit and re-tracing the tracks of those various movements that sought to inspire real wonder and curiosity (Dewey’s “genuine problems,” Rogers’ “freedom to learn,” etc.) I am continually struck by what a subtle art it is to create a true space where wonder flourishes. One word (“more” instead of “else” in the example above) can make the difference. The subtleties of the art have made me skeptical of technique and methods. They can be helpful, but if not employed by a truly engaged mind with a “a sense of exuberant discovery” (open to discovery about the world, the self, others, etc.) they go awry so easily. Right now I am reading “Freedom to Learn for the 80s” (an update to the Rogers original) which includes some remarkably thorough studies on the effects of Rogers’ “person-centered” pedagogy. Some of those studies shed some light on the need for more wonder and curiosity among teachers. Here’s a gem: “In one sample of 692 hours of secondary school teaching provided by ninety teachers, the total time devoted to thinking behaviors by all teachers combined was one hour three minutes.” The researchers conclude, “They neither modeled nor requested thinking from their students” (p. 205). btw, your post reminds me of the essays by Mark Edmundson in Why Teach. Have you read it?

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