How digital humanists might help close gaps in learning experiences (draft)
Little Basho: a story-game that helps children become haiku poets
Topic and claim
How might digital humanist educators close gaps in learning experiences? Research from the Center for American Progress shows that educational achievement gaps appear even before a child’s first day of school. By age six, children from wealthy families will have spent 1,300 more hours on enrichment activities than their low-income peers. Can digital humanists help close this gap by creating reading experiences for children that synthesize books and games?
Benjamin Franklin is an exemplary role model: a humanist whose inquiries and work transcended boundaries between scholars and general audiences. Today’s printing press exists in interactive design, a primary medium for digital humanities projects. This medium often focuses on users, gamification, and interaction. What if interactive design focused on readers and literacy as well? These experiences would allow readers to correspond with the story. Correspondence indicates a more generative experience than interaction. The reader can engage in a dialogue with the text and even create new projects from interactive games and prompts.
My paper takes the form of a visual essay that responds to these questions. First, this paper discusses six right-brained themes for the next millenium, which children will need in a Conceptual Age led by creative thinking. These themes need to become as palpable as many material, yet educators today too often present ideas as abstractions rather than shareable prototypes. I argue that educators need to create learning experiences that pull students over gaps of curiosity and mysteries, and the best way to do that is to ask questions and tell stories. Games meanwhile, draw a magic circle where children willingly submit to obstacles that make their tasks more difficult. Contrast that mindset with childrens’ experience in school, where few would willingly make achieving their tasks more challenging. Educators can learn from game designers in designing learning experiences that balance student-centered learning with the need to impart rich funds of fact-based knowledge.
The essay will document and reflect upon the creation of a minimal viable prototype for “Little Basho,” an interactive app and reading experience. In this app, which I’m making for young learners age 8–12, readers meet the haiku poet Basho as a child. Users of the app can follow along as they and Basho learn how to create renga, a form of collaborative haiku poetry. At certain moments in the story, users of the app step into the shoes of Basho’s collaborative poetry team. They create collaborative poems in the renga framework with a host of whimsical characters, including a rabbit, a woodpecker, a frog, and other natural entities in Basho’s world of curiosity. I will present artifacts from my creative process: an outline, a script, storyboards, and character designs. These artifacts attempt to prototype a way of design thinking that digital humanists might consider in expanding their circle of stakeholders, similar to Benjamin Franklin’s way of working with inventive ideas. In particular, this essay will examine how this minimal viable prototype can point toward convivial new tools of sensemaking in reading.
Six humanist themes for the next millennium
Author Daniel Pink presents six humanist themes for flourishing at the individual and collective levels in the modern age. Written ten years ago, his popular book A Whole New Mind defines these themes: Design, Story, Symphony, Play, Meaning, and Empathy. Pink describes overlooked themes that neuroscientists broadly affiliate with right-brained thinking. At their own peril, US schools neglect the right side of the brain.
To illustrate the right-side way of thinking for a popular audience, Pink presents a dichotomous view. The reality of cooperation between the brain’s hemispheres continues to reveal nuance. But Pink’s broad oppositions provide a useful conceptual framework. In the right hemisphere of the brain, we find simultaneous thinking; in the left, sequential thinking, or what British classicist Eric Havelock called the “alphabetic mind,”() which reads sentences from left to right. The right brain is the picture; the left brain, the one-thousand words. The right brain processes contextual thinking; prosody, the how of speech and writing; synthesis; relationships; the big picture; significance; and faces. The left brain processes text; what you say; analysis, categories; details; and utility. Left-dominant thinking aligns with science and math; right-dominant thinking aligns with the arts and the humanities. Pink sets up oppositions here and champions design above function, story above argument, symphony above focus, empathy above logic, play above seriousness, and meaning above accumulation.
The first useful reason for promoting right-brained thinking: we’re all born with the ability to engage with the right brain. In essence, design is the rendering of intent, a fundamental act that shapes the world around us every day. Consider how we learn to not touch the hot stovetop, pour hot water from a tea kettle, and grasp a brimming teacup’s handle. Each of our interactions in this scenario is a design. We think and observe, ask questions of others and our environment, test out an idea, receive feedback, and then try again with a new action. As everyday citizen designers, we all “hold in conversation” the current and future states, the real and the ideal, to paraphrase the poet John O’Donohue in his book Beauty.()
We’re also empathic by nature. Witness the mirror neurons triggered when a horse falls during a classic “Cowboys and Indians” gunfight on television: we grimace in pain as if we’d been shot. Symphony, as we’ll soon see, provides one of our two metaphorical modes of problem solving, working alongside the clockmaking model. As infants, play helped us to discover how to operate in the world: object permanence and animism are developmental stages researched by leading educational psychologists such as Jean Piaget. And yet these life stages have the qualities of magic: when an object disappears from view, will it reappear? And that stuffed animal by the bedside comes to life in animism, as in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. Researcher Stuart Brown of the National Institute of Play has even linked the development of empathy to play through interviews with twenty-six convicted murderers. In a 2015 NPR interview, he noted:
“The lack of rough-and-tumble play in all twenty-six of these young murderers we studied and their lack of empathy appeared to me — and I say appeared to me — to be linked. And when you listen closely to a developmental trajectory in a person who has a real sense of putting themselves in the shoes of another, you go back into their histories and you hear them say, you know, when I was on a playground I punched a kid once, and he started to cry, and I began to realize that if he did that to me it would hurt, so I didn’t do it again. And there is this sort of learned empathy that comes from interaction — direct interaction — with others.” He continues that at any age, “When you are in a state of play, part of your frontal lobe gets unhooked, and a lot more associations that are all over the rest of the brain kind of join in like a symphony.”()
Finally, without meaning, life would be all sound and fury, signifying nothing, to paraphrase William Faulkner.
The second useful reason for promoting right-brained thinking relates to the times we live in. Our new economy dawned during the mid-twentieth century and the Information Age. Information, once accessed only by the elite, became more ubiquitous: on television, radio, and film screens, and then supercharged by the advent of computers. In 1965, Gordon Moore predicted exponential growth in the powers of computing every two years, and we’ve seen exponential growth in the onramps we have to information. In 2016, designer Dan Roam presented three startling facts to distill the Information Age, which has also become quite visual:
1. IBM says 90% of all data has been generated in the past two years.
2. Cisco says 90% of all online information is visual.
3. Amazon says that the fastest-growing sales segment is adult coloring books.()
With so much information to sort through, reading has diminished in importance compared to visual activities, which include searching for patterns, distributions, relationships, comparisons, and trends. The need to create interactions in support of information-seeking — overviews, filters, zooms, and details-on-demand — became apparent as well. Information Architects appeared to manage this content. Richard Saul Wurman, a founder of the TED talks, coined this term for those dedicated to building the web and implementing data-driven experiences. In the past, architects worked with bricks, glass, and stone; now, they might also work with bits of information. However, even the work of these virtual architects faces disruption: much of this logic-based work faces automation and can’t compete with the power of algorithms and artificial intelligence. Indeed, web sites already exist where we type in preferences and a designed website appears in response. Where factories swapped robots for humans in repetitive with tasks, computers can leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to replace tasks that demand rules-based logic.
We’ve entered the Conceptual Age, according to Pink, which privileges creators, inventors, and generative thinkers. The Conceptual Age relies upon qualities so often termed “soft,” which in fact sharply distinguish humans from hardware.
Yet our schools have yet to adapt from models created more than a century ago. Our current educational system does not reflect the Conceptual Age or even the Information Age. Rather, our educational system reflects an Industrial Age economy from a century ago. Rules and procedures dominated factories and attendant models of education. However, our present-day knowledge economy privileges and secures safety for those comfortable with working in fuzzier spaces, where set rules and procedures become fungible. Here, empathy and passion propel projects forward.
How might we, as digital humanists, respond to the challenge that’s beckoning our future generations into fuzzier conceptual work? And how might we model ways of thinking and acting that promote the interpendence needed to guarantee our mutual flourishing as a people? We could begin by looking closer at Pink’s themes for the next millennium: Design, Story, Empathy, Symphony, Play, and Meaning.
In the past, design began at the end of a process of content creation and curation. Designers showed up to make a product more readable, shareable, and charismatic. And designers still do this. Yet the meaning of design has expanded immeasurably in the Conceptual Age, and it’s merged with invention. An Industrial Age inventor might focus downstream, on the novelty of the features in an invention. A Conceptual Age inventor begins upstream, with an empathic attention for human needs. This inventor practices design thinking, a term popularized by the Stanford University d-school (a play on the b-school nickname for business schools). The design thinker admits that she doesn’t have all of the answers; instead, she searches for meaningful questions. Design thinking is participatory design, where the designers distributes her thinking to the stakeholders who benefit from the design.
The words design “goes back to the Latin de + signare and means making something, distinguishing it by a sign, giving it significance designating its relation to other things, owners, users, or gods. Based on this original meaning, one could say: ‘design is making sense of things.”() To make sense of things, designers must understand themselves, the world and the times they are designing within, and the stakeholders for whom they design. Pink introduces three reasons why design is more important than ever:
“Design — that is utility enhanced by significance — has become an essential aptitude for personal fulfillment and professional success for at least three reasons. First, thanks to rising prosperity and advancing technology, good design is now more accessible than ever, which allows more people to partake in its pleasures and become connoisseurs of what was once specialized knowledge. Second, in an age of material abundance, design has become crucial for most modern businesses — as a means of differentiation and as a way to create new markets. Third, as more people develop design sensibility, we’ll increasingly be able to deploy design for its ultimate purpose: changing the world.”()
Stanford University design professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of the 2017 popular book Designing Your Life, believe that designers practice ways of being that can benefit anyone. Ideally, designers notice, observe, and describe the world around them with a sensitivity to those pre-conceptual Aha! moments that others might stereotype. They connect, appreciate, relate, and extend those observations. Today, designers value participatory projects that put human needs at the center of every essential question that yields those observations.
Designers are often more aware of their mental models — our given assumptions of reality, shaped by our experiences, judgments, theories, and beliefs. Because designers can contextualize their worldview and not mistake that limited view for reality, they have a practiced ability to listen and attend to the pain points of others. The best design thinkers today hold their beliefs lightly and reframe them as needed. Designers reframe problems into opportunities. With a bias toward action, designers distribute their thinking to a group by making their thoughts spatial, tangible, and enjoyable to share. Vivid and shareable design prototypes help answer questions people might have about a project. Beyond synthesis and analysis — our primary modes of problem solving — designers also imagine what could be through these prototypes. They try to make that potential new idea more real through swift and iterative prototyping, evolving alongside feedback from design stakeholders.
Designer Dave Gray details how a prototype’s fidelity to its final form depends on contextual variables. Consider a designer of a new type of airplane, who is working with an audience unfamiliar with the form. Is the questioner intending to open an idea up, explore it, or hone-in on a solution? Are the stakeholders experts or non-experts? In response to those variables, a designer might prototype a paper airplane to open the idea, a balsa-wood and rubber-band airplane for more fidelity while exploring that idea, or model a 3-D airplane and its cutaway components on the computer to close the idea out. Everyday prototypes include any small tests, rendered at an appropriate level of fidelity, that we make to try out an idea. An action, a conversation, a gesture — all might be considered prototypes if they attempt to model an idea of change. The child who learns not to touch the hot stovetop, but rather than handle of the teakettle, is beginning to design her experience in the world. The key here is to leverage our innate designer, in service of new ideas that heal pain in others.
Story hews closely to design. Design and storytelling have beginnings, middles, and endings, with a change occurring during that process. Writers, in fact, design stories. As historian Clive Dilnot writes, “What design, as a mode of transformative action, allows us to see is how we negotiate the limits of what we understand, at any moment, as the actual. In design, in other words, we begin to see the processes whereby the limits of the actual are continually formed and re-formed.”()
Story works the same way.
In a story, the reader encounters a character who begins with a goal, faces an obstacle, and most often, a setback. Conflicts stem from at once external events and characters. In works of artistry, conflict also flares from the deeply engrained values, however flawed, within the character. The character must react to her setback, engage with its dilemma, and make a decision. Unless it’s a lyrical or poetic story, in which time is paused, each scene needs to present a crucible of change to move the overall arc of the plot forward.() As in the design process, a character continually explores the tensions between what they seek and the reality that limits them. Character forms and reforms in the crucible of these story encounters. A reader wants to see proactive and reactive characters because stories are prototypes, tangible propositional ideas, of given realities. We want to draw closer to characters who seek to change themselves and the world around them because we want to see ourselves as change makers too. When a character reflects upon their setback, a reader can slow down and read into these moments with their own emotions and empathy.
In Pink’s terms, like design, story is high-concept and high-touch. Pink cites Don Norman, a design researcher and Professor at the University of California at San Diego, well known for his books the Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design. In his book Things that Make Us Smart, he writes:
“Stories have that felicitous capacity of capturing exactly those elements that formal decision methods leave out. Logic tries to generalize, to strip the decision making from a specific context, to remove it from specific emotions. Stories capture the context, capture the emotions….stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context, and emotion.”()
Stanford University Marketing Professor Jennifer Aaker notes that stories are more than twenty-two times more memorable for audiences than arguments, facts, and figures alone. In a TED talk, she notes, “Our brains are hard-wired for stories.”() In one study, students in a classroom gave a one-minute pitch to their peers. On average, students used 2.5 statistics in their pitches, while only one out of ten students presented a story. After the pitches were complete, researchers asked students to write down everything they recalled about the pitches. Only five percent of the students cited a statistic, while sixty-three percent of the students recalled the story. Most app and web site designers pair statistical research with the primary voice of their stakeholders. While statistics might reveal patterns, distributions, categories, and trends, the user stories provide the holistic vision and the key decisions that need to occur.
As a primary designer for the GoGlobal site at Stanford, which would become an online hub for Stanford’s international activity, I prepared for my work by first reading through user interviews. These were the people who would benefit the most from the site I was working on. These interviews read like stories, and they served as a flag of common understanding as the site was designed and developed. Every feature we created needed to lead back to the original user stories, and would help alleviate pain points that appeared in those stories. Some designers even pin the pictures of the top three stakeholders near their computers as they design so they never forget their audience. A logical approach may have dealt with the information alone, which can be gathered from site statistics. But a numerical approach alone would have made it difficult to prioritize and emphasize certain design features over others. It helps to have a face and story that tell a paint point. The designer figures out how to alleviate that pain point in the user.
Pink asks us to consider the evolution of the phone as an example of how stories create a flag on the horizon, a shared understanding between those who might be more reactive or proactive in their approach to design. Reactive designers focus more on how to improve features, while proactive designers generate new ideas and possibilities. In reactive design, one looks at the details in the designs that already exist and reviews engineering documents and other standards. In proactive design, the designer needs to begin in the big picture, by asking if the right questions were proposed in the first place.
At the time Pink wrote his book, the iPhone was a new invention. Phones, once an object of utility that had rotary dials, coils, and even in mobile form resembled obsidian stone shards, have now become sleek and streamlined, vessels of beauty and personal identity. Wisely, Apple markets its phones so that people can connect with its benefits: it’s more than just a miniature computer in your pocket with internet services — it allows you to see and connect with distant relatives during the holidays. Here, the design of the phone becomes so personal that many people cannot imagine living without their phone. The phone has evolved into a medium for storytelling and story sharing.() “Stories can provide context enriched by emotion,” Pink writes, “a deeper understanding of how we fit in and why that matters.”()
Like Story, Symphony is about how we relate ideas and bring them together. Symphony is synonymous with synthesis, a complementary tool alongside analysis, the breaking apart of ideas. In a complex world, learners need to understand how to contextualize overwhelming amounts of information and relate parts within a whole. “What conductors and composers desire — what separates the long remembered from the quickly forgotten — is the ability to marshal these relationships into a whole whose magnificence exceeds the sum of its parts.”()
Symphony is also called systems thinking, the enactment of synthesis to understand complex relationships in an organization. The symphony that Pink describes relies upon an easily understood ontological metaphor. A metaphor is defined as the relating of one idea to another, to bring clarity to the first idea’s attributes. Here, we can’t quite picture a systems thinker, but most can readily imagine a conductor on a stage, wild-haired, gesturing toward players of strings and percussions.
Our experience with physical objects and entities in the world gives rise to most ontological metaphors, defined by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson as “Ways of viewing events, activities, emotions, ideas as entities and substances.”() Lakoff and Johnson write about how much of our discourse is structured by metaphor, and how these metaphors provide a basis for how we think and act every day. They give the example of an argument. In our culture, argument is often conceptualized as warfare: “Your claims are indefensible…He attacked every weak point in my argument…His criticisms are right on target…He shot down all of my arguments.”()
Instead, they propose a culture where an argument is “viewed as dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way.” They continue, “In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all.”()
Since the time of Enlightenment philosopher Rene Descartes, the left-brained mode of thinking has often been called the clockmaking mode. To understand how things work, we can take them apart like a clock. The symphonic thinker might be alarmed by the state of the disassembled clock here — to understand how it works, we murder to dissect, to paraphrase William Wordsworth. A symphonic thinker reassembles the parts into a whole, only to attend to the invisible vectors between the parts, the dynamic relationship flows that animate the whole. In this way, the whole in any living system is always greater than the sum of the reducible parts.
We could frame the contrasting worldviews between the clockmaker and the conductor as an argument. We can structure our thinking about this argument in terms of war, but the alternate metaphor rings true: the analytic and holistic views dance with each other instead. Synchronizing these dance steps requires a nimble mind. It asks for an educational model where students switch between two ways of thinking and making while understanding the benefits of each mode.
Symphonic ways of working correspond with what had been my primary definition of what designers do, adapted from designer and author David Sibbet’s AEIOU framework. Sibbet intended this framework for conducting meetings, but it works well in any designed experience. Designers, I mused, are flow conductors. Since one can argue that we’re all designers, then we’re also flow conductors in a symphonic environment. We conduct Attention (0-D space); Energy (1-D space); Information (2-D space), and Operations (3D space). Our attention is unseen, beneath the threshold of the visual, and it often moves with the speed and mercurial pathfinding of a hummingbird. But sensory contrasts, the breaks from any pattern of form, color motion and position in space, catch our attention. We notice a butterfly fluttering amidst still leaves, and a blueberry in the green shrubs. Energy is like the emanata lines in a comic book, indicating perceptual phenomena like team from a cup of tea, speed, anger or excitement. For involved projects, designers must be aware of the attention and energy in three fields: self and other, self and nature, and self and self — even if those forces are unseen.
Information is all the data we collect and display, often in print and on screens — qualitative and quantitative observations that have the potential for meaning. Operations are how we engage with the physical, imaginary, and virtual worlds around us. Even in comics, a 2-D medium, it’s the sensory details that make super heroes seem tangible and real, as if we’ve imagined a 3-D space. The U is You, at once the designer and the participant engaged in this reciprocal correspondence of looking, seeing, imagining, and showing our understandings.
However, Lakoff and Johnson strongly critique the conduit metaphor of communication:
“Metaphorical imagination is a crucial skill in creating rapport and in communicating the nature of unshared experience. The skill consists, in large measure, the ability to bend your worldview and adjust the way you categorize your experience. Problems of mutual understanding are not exotic; they arise in all extended conversations where understanding is important. When it really counts, meaning is almost never communicated according to the conduit metaphor, that is, where one person transmits a clear, fixed proposition by means of expression in a common language, where both parties have all the relevant common knowledge, assumptions, values, etc. When the chips are down, meaning is negotiated: you slowly figure out what you have in common, what is safe to talk about, how you can communicate unshared experience or create a shared vision. With enough flexibility in bending your worldview and with luck and skill and charity, you may achieve some mutual understanding.”()
With that germane critique in mind, perhaps designers are not flow conductors in a symphony, but rather, flow negotiators with a symphonic mindset. Designers travel across vast distances between people to reach edge cases and design for underserved communities, so I might also call designers flow diplomats. Notably, when I taught a liberal arts course about the Designed World, most of my students were designers. I asked them to take the Myers Briggs MBTI test, which helps categorize students not by personality, as commonly understood, but by how one tends to act in certain situations. In a class of twenty students, sixteen of them fell into the metaphorical category of Diplomats: INFJ, INFP, ENFJ, ENFP.
As diplomats, designers travel between worlds. There is no us and them, no subject and object. At the highest level, designers merge with their object of inquiry. They might agree with the Italian novelist Italo Calvino when he said, “The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.”() On this boundary-crossing stage, the themes of design, story, and symphony all correspond with each other. Like kite flyer on a windy day, these themes all tug at each and relate to each other. Together, they hold in conversation the real and the ideal, and negotiate the incoherent elements of our world to give them meaningful relationships, significance, and form.
Information Age thinkers, we learn how to debate the views of opposed camps and download facts to support the sides. Conceptual Age thinkers are more comfortable working in another mode: dancing and playing with ideas.
Play is another practice affiliated with right-brained thinking. Stuart Brown describes play in a way that resembles design and storytelling. In the NPR interview, he says,“The exploration of the possible…is one of the cliches about what play does. The capacity for play seems to me to allow us to take in novelty and newness, use it to adapt and become more flexible, and also have a good time in the process.”()
Even in environments that prize utility and functionality, aspects of games spring up. We can begin with the people and the workplaces that negotiate our interactions every day. As any reader of Charles Dickens can still imagine, play and its subset, games, fell upon hard times during the Industrial Age. Once frowned upon in factory settings — with its demand for replicable results — play flourishs in the Conceptual Age. Play engages the parts of our mind that call forth serendipity and creative thinking. Consider Google, which furnishes its offices with pool tables, arcades, and toys. Many startups are now offering unlimited vacation time, with the understanding that employees value flexible arrangements and will work just as hard understanding that their employers value the human need for play and time away from the office.
Gamification has settled into design buzzword ubiquity, a way to make interaction feel less like a utility and more like a personally engaging experience. User experiences that once were tedious have now been gamified, as exemplified in apps such as Habitica, where users role play fantasy characters and accumulate rewards based on tasks completed in real life.
In more subtle applications, many shopping sites now attempt to make the user the hero on a customer experience journey, from browsing items to purchasing them. New apps and sites, meanwhile, focus on onboarding, a way to enlist new users to frequent their site that’s reminiscent of how we might get on board with a game. In on boarding experiences, a guide helps users familiarize themselves with the interface and provides incentive levels for future use. A mistake might receive immediate feedback, but that feedback should immediately be paired with gentle encouragement in writing and design, with an opportunity to try again. All of these interactions in utilitarian contexts harken to concerns of game designers.
Like Easter Eggs, humor pops up in unexpected places when systems break. Anyone who has experienced a faulty internet connection on the Google Chrome browser can discover an 8-bit image of a Tyrannosaurs Rex. The designers could have made a yellow-and-black warning sign, signifying a system failure. Instead, they present a surprise dinosaur, a playful note that alleviates the stress and frustration of a broken digital experience.
As a goal-oriented subset of play, games are serious business these days, in an economic and interpersonal sense. Game designer Eric Zimmerman writes, “Meaningful play emerges from the interaction between players and the system of the game, as well as from the context in which the game is played.”() This meaningful context occurs within a magic circle, defined by John Huzinega in his classic book Homo Ludens as a space where players willingly suspend reality and submit to the rules of the game. Unlike in school, where many children welcome shortcuts to accomplish their assigned tasks, in a game, players willingly submit themselves to obstacles that make achieving their task more difficult.
Jane McGonigal, a game designer, believes in the enthusiasm in which game players enter the magic circle and confront obstacles. Their play does not need to be frivolous. In her book Reality is Broken, McGonigal argues that people gravitate toward experiences inside the magic circle of a game because a game is better than reality: “A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.”() The trick: negotiate that energy outside the magic circle and toward real-world applications. If possible, McGonigal advocates for enlisting a collective of gamers to co-create projects that benefit individuals, communities, and the greater good.
Pink claims that the search for meaning is at the core of all humanity — though we have the luxury to focus more on that search in wealthier societies. The search for meaning occurs in our daily interactions with the world while we are also pulled along to situations of discomfort and even peril by deeper spiritual needs. Meaning is more than an accumulation of facts. It’s the kindling of as flame, not the filling of a vessel, to quote Plutarch.
In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, University of Chicago Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted a longitudinal research study of creative types across disciplines. He concluded that creative types understand that setbacks are not failures. When reality doesn’t meet expectations, they break a habit or pattern in our thinking, and we attend to that break. Failure falls into another category. One could reframe failure simply as a “will not to learn.” In the Conceptual Age, we can welcome setbacks when they’re meaningful. When a setback is an incident — not fitting into a story pattern — it might be a meaningless setback, one we all seek to avoid. Nevertheless, the participant must find meaning in how she reacts to such an event. Every threat becomes an opportunity; every weakness becomes a strength. One finds meaning in day-to-day setbacks or failures by reframing them as learning opportunities or learning experiences.
While we conduct small experiments day-to-day in our lives, we also sense a pull toward a more long-term meaning for living. Consider the dominant role of branding in our culture, where companies create tribes that identify with a product. Those who cling to a brand often see no other viable alternative — I’m a Mac person, or I’m a PC person, for instance. One could see branding as a cynical form of storytelling, where consumers identify with a product and gather around it in a tribal way. In this cynical light, the brand tells a story it wants people to hear, while obscuring less savory elements of its story. For instance, Coca-Cola wants to teach the world to sing, but it doesn’t want us to focus on what carbonated sugar water does to our teeth. Apple wants to tell the story about how it’s a bicycle for our minds, and how the iPhone connects us to our interests and loved ones. But Apple doesn’t want consumers to see the Chinese laborers making our phones in stressful conditions.
Instead, I choose to define branding in terms of belonging — perhaps our most meaningful life quest. Brands understand this fundamental human need but redirect that need toward consumptive ends. Those in educational spaces need to foster a sense of belonging in students thats first points inwardly. When a person truly feels like they belong, it’s a form of spirituality, a transcendence from the confines of the self to the something greater. Social scientist Brené Brown notes the paradox in our quest to belong. In finding our individual voice, we stand out more and also become less lonely. During an interview with Krista Tippett of the On Being podcast, Brown says,
“If you look from the lens of neurobiology or even evolutionary biology: as a social species, to not be wanted and to not belong to the tribe or the clan or the group meant death. We are wired for this. It is — John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who does this incredible work on loneliness, says that the only real biological advantage we have over most other species is our connection, our belonging; our ability to collaborate, plan, be in relationship with in special ways. And so that desperate need to belong is not a neurosis; or it’s not an ego-driven thing. That need to belong and be a part of something greater than us is who we are in our DNA…And I think we all know… that experience of being surrounded by people and feeling completely alone — because I think you can be alone and with people, because you’re not connected to those people. There’s no connection there.
And so I love, again, Cacioppo’s definition of loneliness as being on the outside, looking in. When I stand up alone in the wilderness and take a stand on something I believe in, or stand up for something I don’t think is right or I do think is right, I feel connected to every other person who’s made that pilgrimage through the wilderness — people I know, people I don’t know but admire. I don’t feel lonely.”()
Brown distills this mindset as, “Strong Back, Soft Front, and Wild Heart.” To belong in an authentic way, a person must have strong values, but a softness and openness to the world. She must be comfortable with her own distinctive voice. In a state of authentic belonging, she encounters the world with a firm yet open viewpoint. She might even share her vulnerability without fear of being misunderstood or unappreciated. With a strong identity and a sense of belonging in the world, she can write her own story and overcome obstacles in pursuit of her beliefs.
At the heart of all of these right-brained themes introduced by Pink, one finds Empathy. Like a high-powered telescope that allows us to observe distant spaces, empathy is an instrument that allows us to “bend the beam of observation back upon ourselves”() and then extend ourselves into the lives of others. Through empathy, we understand what it feels like not to understand — a fundamental quality of negotiating flows of information as a designer, storyteller, symphonic thinker and meaning maker.
There’s nothing more marginalizing than not being heard or understood. The empathic person stands with the marginalized. In design school, for example, user experience educators often recommended that students begin their user research with the edge cases, the outliers, rather than the average user. If one can design a solution for the edge case, then the needs of the average user might be met in surprising ways. For example, one might consider the wide-handled Oxo potato peeler, created for arthritic hands but now the standard today for all those who skin tubers. The journey to these edges often requires empathy as a compass. The journey from self to other requires a willingness to stop, consider, and listen without judgment. And then the two participants merge and go on a journey of imagination together. Think, feel, say, do, and listen as one — however much that is possible. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk describes empathy and communication as the same practice:
“We communicate to be understood and to understand others. If we’re talking and no one is listening (maybe not even our own selves), we’re not communicating effectively. There are two keys to effective and true communication. The first is deep listening. The second is loving speech. Deep listening and loving speech are the best instruments I know for establishing and restoring communication with others and relieving suffering.”()
Loving speech means to hold another person in a non-judgmental space; to reflect what they’re saying in words that create a social commons between people from different backgrounds. Empathy and attention in our forms of communication make possible Design, Story, Symphony, Play, and Meaning. These right-brained themes provide a north star for future generations as they negotiate their voyage into the Conceptual Age. This north star provides some guiding light for children setting forth into a world of social, ecological, and spiritual tumult.
To help children in educational settings grasp and begin to work with the “soft” themes of Design, Story, Symphony, Play, Meaning and Empathy, we need to pull these themes down from the stars and into their hands. They need to become non-abstract. These themes need to be as physical, spatial, and tangible as any design prototype of balsa wood, rubber bands, and glue. Like an effective story, these themes also need to be vivid and enjoyable to share. The problem: the factory model of education tends not to support human-centered experiences of making and co-creating. Math, science, English, and history classrooms don’t resemble art studios, where students identify their primary task as making and drawing from subjective experience. In the early twentieth century, educational theorist John Dewey presciently identified the inherent flaw in the factory model of model:
“The problem with school education, in (Dewey’s) estimation, was that it has a way of isolating what is taught from the crucible of lived experience in which real knowledge is generated. The result is a tendency to reduce knowledge to information, conveyed by means of verbal and other symbolic forms the meanings of which are lost upon those who have no opportunity to participate in the practices that may, in past times and remote places, have originally given rise to them. Hypotenuse might have been part of the everyday vernacular for ancient Greek builders, but it is no longer so for today’s schoolchildren.”()
Pythagorus and his followers founded mathematics well before the Industrial Age. They were speculators in the nature around them in ancient Greece. They studied form, the pattern in nature. They could see the golden rectangle in the nautilus shell and the patterned spiral sequences in sunflowers and pinecones. Yet students today often encounter these principles in their abstractions — the Fibonacci sequence divorced from the direct expression of the phenomena in the pinecone.
The goal in a factory model of education: transmit ideas in a replicable, quantifiable, and validating way. To do that, educators give primacy to the finished idea over the mystery that once sparked a thinker to question and explore that idea. Many of us were educated in the type of school that relies upon deductive reasoning. Here, the lecturer begins with an abstract idea, demonstrates its universality, and then requests that students practice exercises and identify examples that lead back to the idea, ultimately validating the theory.
Even inductive reasoning, where students might examine specific examples before arriving at an abstract theory, ultimately leads to ideas outside the realm of a student’s direct, lived experience. Empirical modes of inquiry that began in earnest with Sir Francis Bacon during the Enlightenment claim objectivity, but still rely upon conceptual frameworks that transcend phenomena children can readily observe. A founding father of empirical observation, Francis Bacon (1521–1626) advocated for putting nature “on the rack,” so that it might reveal its secrets. This conceptual structuring of nature as an object to be interrogated has shaped destructive encounters between humans and nature for centuries.
Colorfully, Isaac Newton left another vivid example of how conceptual lenses filter empirical observations. With his prism, Newton broke apart light into Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. He added a hue that can’t even be detected today as a wavelength: Indigo. Why did Newton add Indigo? He fulfilled a need at the time to arrive at a mystical number seven for his new idea. Even though Newton claimed pure empiricism in his work, the conceptual lens through which he filtered his thinking remained.
In the nineteenth century, Goethe, the German poet and polymath, offered an alternative approach to science, where the participant practices a delicate empiricism with nature. Theory is no longer abstract; it becomes a stage for bringing the subject and object into a reciprocal relationship. Goethe was the ultimate symphonic thinker and maker. In Goethe’s work, science, poetry, and art correspond with each other. For instance, Goethe believed in observing a plant precisely yet in-depth. All was leaf, he thought, a Proteus, a generative source that created every part of the plant. Each part of a plant was a manifestation and representation of the whole. After a period of observation and vivid drawing of the plant forms, one could enter the mode of exact sensorial imagination.
Here, the observer of the plant can imaginatively recreate the plant, growing and unfolding. The process would play out in the imagination like a stop-motion video of a plant from seed to flowering: the leaf archetype contracts into the stem and unfolds as leaf; then expands from leaf to sepal and petal; then contracts again of the stigma and stamen. This process can run in a non-linear way as well. The vital difference in Goethe: he focuses on growth and change, not categorization and the finished forms.
Goethe dwelled in his observations. The stamen of cultivated roses, for instance, sometimes appear as tiny petals — evidence that each flower part points to the same source of leaf. Ultimately, by participating in the phenomena, one could become one with the plant or flower in a correspondence with it. Goethe spent more time with the phenomena than thinkers such as Galileo and Newton, who left the world of tangible observation, for which they richly describe, to point toward universal principles of math that make the phenomena we encounter possible. Goethe was skeptical of placing abstract theory at a higher level than observation.
For a long time, Goethe’s scientific ideas lacked a hospitable home. They were critiqued as too poetic for science and too scientific for poetry. Yet Goethe’s way of thinking serves as an inspiration when not considered too literally. Goethe attempted to create a method for dancing with ideas. He listened to the symphonic way of thinking, participating, and negotiating with the world. He also kept pace with the clockmaker’s reliance on deep observation. Goethe’s practice points toward a sustainable way of learning that can question old habits of thought, heal divides, and help us become present to the particulars of nature, without turning nature into a commodity to be controlled.
In his essay Speaking Nature’s Language: Principles of Sustainability, systems thinker Fritjof Capra describes how the symphonic mindset shifts our inquiry from abstraction to the phenomena around us: from parts to the whole, from objects to relationships, from objective knowledge to contextual knowledge, from quantity to quality, from structure to process, and from contents to patterns:
“Here we discover the tension between two approaches to the study of nature that has characterized Western science and philosophy throughout the ages. One approach begins with the question: what is it made of? Traditionally, this has been called the study of matter. The other approach begins with the question: What is the pattern? And this, since Greek times, has been called the study of form…Because the study of patterns requires visualizing and mapping, every time the study of pattern has been at the forefront, artists have contributed significantly to the advancement of science.”()
Capra mentions Leonardo daVinci and Goethe as exemplary artists who studied the nature of patterns. “This opens the door for educators integrating the arts into their curriculum.Whether we talk about literature or poetry, the visual arts, music, or the performing arts, there’s hardly anything more effective than art for developing and refining a child’s natural ability to recognize and express patterns.”()
The more we make these patterns tangible, easy to share and manipulate, the more we enhance a child’s appreciation for form. And since our actions begin with our thinking, and our thinking begins in structures of metaphor and language, what better form to make real for children than language?
Goethe also observed the world from multiple perspectives. Like designers, poets, and storytellers today, Goethe was mindful of the subjective nature of observation. In his work with plants and color, he provided a model of participatory observation that turns flat pictures into virtual sculptures one can walk around.
Participatory observation seems like a contradiction. However, one can consider it a symbiotic term that accurately describes how we engage with the world. Imagine a student who needs to describe the ocean. She can read a text written about the ocean. Or she could read a text with images included — perhaps more vivid — but not more participatory, if the images rob her of the ability to imaginatively be in the scene. Or she can stand on the beach’s shore to observe the surface qualities and environment. Then, she could swim in the cool ocean, diving below the surface to see reefs, dragging her knees against their rough surfaces. Bright tropical fish appear in plumes of sand and salt, amidst shimmering shafts of blue-green light. She can return to the surface and document that experience as well.
Traditional pedagogy tends to be about a subject, the view from the text and shore. Design, and other forms of visual art, tends to be in the subject itself. A student who only stands on the shore might know about the subject. But she lacks the depth of understanding, the deepening and quickening of memory, carried by the swimmer. Neither view is the entire view. Today, thinkers need to imbibe a multiplicity of views.
In a letter sent later in life during his travels in Italy, Goethe would describe this inquiry into plants as a single fertile idea that would grow richer over the decades.
Educators typically present fertile ideas in Plato’s terms, which informed mathematical thinkers such as Galileo and Newton. Ultimately, Plato distrusted the sensory world. Instead, he saw the sensory world as instances that point to more pure archetypes from another unseen world. While idea means “to see” in Greek, in Plato’s conception, that sight occurred in the mind’s eye encountering another world of archetypes. For Goethe, ideas and insight were sensory, observational, and participatory. His mind’s eye remained in our world and the suprasensory Proteus, which represents dynamic change. If we apply Goethe’s way of seeing to schools, we can only present a fertile idea to students if it is not abstract. Like a seed, it must be planted in rich soil: the student’s own life and experiences.
If the educator can’t access those life experiences in the student, then a story provides the only other viable substitute. In their essay Making Teaching Stick, Stanford researchers Chip and Dan Heath discuss why stories, even boring ones, are so effective for students:
“The answer starts with some fascinating research done on “mental simulation.” Brain scans show that when people imagine a flashing light they activate the visual area of the brain; when they imagine someone tapping on their skin they activate tactile areas of the brain. The activity of mental simulation is not limited to the insides of our heads. People who imagine words that start with “b” or “p” can’t resist subtle lip movements, and people who imagine looking at the Eiffel Tower can’t resist moving their eyes upward….
…Mental simulation can also build skills. A review of 35 studies featuring over 3,214 participants showed that mental practice alone — sitting quietly, without moving, and picturing yourself performing a task successfully from start to finish — improves performance significantly. The results were borne out over a large number of tasks: Mental simulation helped people weld better and throw darts better. Trombonists improved their playing and competitive figure-skaters improved their skating. Not surprisingly, mental practice is more effecctive when a task involves more mental activity (e.g., trombone playing) as opposed to physical activity (e.g., balancing), but the magnitude of gains from mental practice is large on average: Overall, mental practice alone produced about two-thirds of the benefits of actual physical practice.”()
At the Nature Institute in Ghent, New York, I spoke with Craig Holdrege, an educator and Goethean science expert. Holdrege offered a vivid example of how another person’s story can provide grounding for a fertile idea. His brother teaches high school history. When his brother presents the spread of Communism in Eastern Europe in class, rather than begin from the distant viewpoint of a textbook, he shares a story of Josef Tito and his band of guerrillas plunging into the dark caves of Yugoslavia. He draws his students into those moments of the men in the caves. The Heath Brothers would say that the story of Tito in the cave is like a flight simulator for the mind. The students imagine what it would be like to be in that band of guerillas.
The cave offers a vivid and timeless metaphor for curiosity and learning, one that Plato famously used to illustrate his conception of the illusory world of our senses. Leonardo da Vinci, who reveled in the senses and nature’s patterns, described his explorations of a cave:
“Bending my back into an arch I rested my left hand on my knee and held my right hand over my downcast and contracted eyebrows: often bending first one way and then the other, to see whether I could discover anything inside, and this being forbidden by the deep darkness within, and after having remained there some time, two contrary emotions arose in me, fear and desire — fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there were any marvelous thing within it.”()
Author Ian Leslie reflects on this moment: “This is what being human entails. We spend our entire lives at the entrance of a cave, caught between the safety of the familiar and the yearning for novelty, the peace of home and the thrill of travel, the tonic and dominant chords.”() In other words, as learners, we’re protagonists in the adventure of our own lives.
In the story mode of education, one feels pulled toward the information, rather than having the information pushed down upon them. The storyline is akin to a rope, with which the educator pulls children up the slope of a mountain. An intertwined story with a fertile idea at its core creates a stronger storyline. This intertwining, or layering, resembles a symphonic approach to music. In fact, most Beatles and Disney movie songs rely upon layering. First, the theme of the song is introduced in a simple way. Gradually, more instruments and voices are introduced until the listener finds themselves immersed in a more elaborate song.
Stanford lecturer Norm Eng contrasts the push and pull modes of educating with two models: I, We, You, and You, Y’all, and We:
“One concrete way to see the difference between traditional lectures and active learning is through the I, We, You and the You, Y’all, We instructional paradigm. Both are used in K–12 classrooms.
I: Today, I’m going to show you how to add fractions with different denominators. (Teacher teaches a strategy.)
We: Now, let’s try a sample problem together. (Students try another problem with the teacher’s guidance — i.e., guided practice.)
You: OK, now that you know how, you can practice more problems in the worksheet! (Students practice the strategy on their own.)
Eng acknowledges that this approach is valid at times. But educators need to follow another approach more often to engage their students with the You, Y’all, We approach:
Instructors act more as a guide. Here, the teacher presents a dilemma or situation for students to grapple with individually (You).
This allows them to think first without peer influence. They then work together in pairs or groups to come up with a solution or explanation (Y’all).
Finally, the teacher brings the class together to share and discuss their answers and reasoning (We).
At this point, the instructor may decide to lecture, if at all. Authentic tasks that arouse student curiosity up front, where students can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again, are critical to in-depth learning.” (46)
Eng begins with the individual because recent research suggests that classic brainstorming as a group is ineffective. Given the belonging fostered in schools, which takes the form of averages rather than outliers, students might be more reluctant to share their “wild heart” ideas with the group. They can generate more ideas on their own at first, and then if they feel a sense of belonging in the classroom environment, they share with their peers and then with the teacher.
Here we see the benefits of integrating games and stories into classrooms. Games and stories can reach students as individuals. They promote reader rather than user experiences. Such experiences involve readers through correspondence, a dynamic tenet of learning, rather than interaction, a fixed pillar of utility. Both games and stories follow the You, Y’all, and We framework by placing the You at the center of the experience. A game pulls participants along — what will happen next if I try this? A story also pulls readers along with two types of scenes: proactive and reactive. In proactive scenes, the protagonist wants something, faces a conflict, and often confronts a setback. In reactive scenes, the protagonist reacts to what happens, examines the dilemma, and decides what to do next. When game makers and writers found these conflicts and dilemmas within a richly developed character — with values, aspirations, and worldview — the reader corresponds with the story. The more transparent the author can make that character, the more the reader can empathize and walk in their shoes.
Traditionally, games and narrative stories differ in some important aspects. We proceed through verbal and written communication in a linear way, where games lose their “gameness” the more linear they become. This type of thinking contrasts with right-hemisphere thinking, which sees the big picture and context. Researcher Greg Costikyan describes a story as “beads on a string,” a linear narrative. Meanwhile, he likens a game to a triangle of possibility, “with the initial position at one apex, and possible conclusions along the opposite side, with myriad, ideally, infinite paths between initial state and outcome.”()
Games tend to be more like puzzles than mysteries. Of the Six W’s introduced in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics — Who/What, How much/many, Where, When, How, and Why — puzzles tend to respond to How Many and Where questions. Mysteries tend to investigate questions related to How and Why. The sequence of these questions map to our preattentive visual system. When we encounter a new visual scene, we rapidly attend to the who/what and how much/many, then almost at the same time, we position what we see in space and sequence events. Only then do we consider how the events relate to each other by cause and affect, and why they happen. One could argue that the How and Why questions that mysteries inspire are higher level in order for this reason.
Writer Ian Leslie describes the difference between puzzles and mysteries:
“Puzzles and mysteries correspond to different types of curiosity. To illustrate this, let’s return to stories. Agatha Christie constructed puzzles, in which a key piece of information — the identity of the murderer — is withheld until the end (in this sense, the term “murder mystery” is a misnomer). The reader’s desire to discover who committed the murder is transient — when he finds out that it was Colonel Barker with strychnine, he gains the pleasure of discovery, but, at the same moment, his curiosity dies. The truly ambitious artists are more interested in mysteries than puzzles.”()
Here, infusing games with storytelling can help elevate the puzzle-like nature of a game into a mystery. To help students not feel the fear of entering a chasm, educators introduce a gap of curiosity but also anchor that introduction in what the students already know. Stanford researchers Chip and Dan Heath show the value of anchoring in their essay Teaching that Sticks:
“Eric Beasley, a 3rd grade teacher in Sherwood, Oregon, was struggling with how to communicate the concept of an “onomatopoeia.” The dictionary definition is: “The formation of a word by imitation of a sound made by or associated with its referent.” Well, that’s ridiculous. No 3rd grader will understand that. What knowledge do they have that you can anchor in? You can anchor in examples, obviously: Boom. Cuckoo. Sizzle. And Beasley took it a step further, showing clips of old Batman shows where the Dynamic Duo are ghting goofy-looking villains. With each punch thrown by the masked crusaders comes a fresh onomatopoeia: “KAZAM!” “POW!” Beasley said it was a home run in class.”()
The mystery works in educational settings because it presents the unexpected. The Heath brothers tell the story of Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist at Arizona State University, who scoured science articles to find out what makes the effective ones work:
“He found one striking consistency: The good articles used mysteries. One article began this way: ‘How can we account for what is perhaps the most spectacular planetary feature in our solar system, the rings of Saturn? There’s nothing else like them. What are the rings of Saturn made of anyway?’ The answer unfolded like the plot of a mystery. The teams of scientists pursued promising leads, they hit dead ends, they chased clues. Eventually, after many months of e ort, there was a breakthrough. Cialdini says, ‘Do you know what the answer was at the end of 20 pages? Dust. Dust. Actually, ice-covered dust, which accounts for some of the confusion. Now, I don’t care about dust, and the make- up of the rings of Saturn is entirely irrelevant to my life. But that writer had me turning pages like a speed-reader.’”()
The essay elaborates how mysteries work in a conscious experience:
“George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist, says that curiosity arises when we feel a gap in our knowledge. Loewenstein argues that gaps cause pain. When we want to know something but don’t, it’s like having an itch we need to scratch. To take away the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap. We sit patiently through bad movies, even though they may be painful to watch, because it’s too painful not to know how they end.”()
The Heath brothers warn that educators must open gaps of curiosity before they close them. By presenting facts first, we close a gap that a student could have explored for herself.
A final lesson that we can draw from Design and Story: Both themes involve making and collaborating, even co-creating — imagining new worlds. We need to find a way for children, no matter their background, to see themselves as creators and creative types.
Educators debate the extent of putting student exploration at the center of the learning experience. Ian Leslie writes, “The fault line in these debates is this: Should schools be places where adults transmit to children the academic knowledge that society deems valuable? Or places where children are allowed to follow their own curiosity, wherever it takes them?”() Student-centered experiences seem problematic for students who lack basic skills in the classroom.
Before I began my work as a post-secondary educator, for a semester in 2007, I was a student teacher of English literature at a public urban high school in Providence, Rhode Island. Many of my students read and wrote at a third-grade level. They also transferred from other more traditional schools in the system where they had failed. At our school, students created portfolios in their classes to demonstrate their learning process, and I also sought to integrate visual art into the English curriculum to help engage students with texts. I struggled during the semester. Some of the students could read and write relatively well, but they lacked empathy for the characters in the books we were reading. Yet I had one student, Ralph (name changed for anonymity), who struggled with literacy but loved to read and write. He often stayed with me after class to share with me comic books he was reading on his own. He wrote the following letter to me, which haunts me to this day. For even though he calls me his hero, it’s difficult to read the text and understand it. It’s as if Ralph’s first amendment right to free speech stopped at the page:
Dear, Mr. K
When I came to school that day I took the day as a normal average day. You know me not going to talk to any body just silent (only when friends are not around) and just do work. Of course I new that miss lurch was going to teach that day but when I step in and she said she was not going to be are teacher until May 1st it was like god and final answered after all these years but then came to the part of a new teacher a student teacher I almost sank but I didn’t I kept cool because there must be something different to you then there was her.
“And look I was right!”.
I of course always have to get used to my teachers and get to now them and some times even befriend them; you now become friends idiotic right. It helps only when I have question and I need to now what I need to now order to pass or use full information to help finish work. So of course I came and started talking to you and things started to come together like you liked what I liked like drawing some manga and sometimes music if the accusation offered, but this is not what makes him a hero what makes him a hero is his idea to make possible choice.
Giving a person a assignment to read and due journals and they are done with the book dose not seem like work to me but when I can ask some one that it doesn’t and that they can accept my changes make me pleased .to know that you are one just make me my hero and not just that but making it easy to understand the work we are given and just not given and expected to understand what’s there and leave us hanging because its not you you take the time to listen and understand us so we can get done in the time we have .there are more to explain like since he is a student he like what others like like drawing you use it some times in his explanations and that what makes you unique and my hero.
Ralph and many of his peers held passionate viewpoints, yet they couldn’t translate those viewpoints into writing. What is the value of placing students at this end of the literacy spectrum at the center of the learning experience?
Since the Romantic era, alternative voices have emerged stressing the innate curiosity and will to learn that all children possess. These voices contrast with the factory model of education in prizing freedom for children above all else. But they don’t seem to address learners in the most need of strong mentorship and guidance.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Romantic, who sought to reclaim nature, emotion and passion from the cool and urbane logic of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. In his classic book Emile or On Education, published in 1762, Rousseau imagines what it would take to raise a young boy. To this end, he created a fictional character named Emile. Rousseau was an early advocate for a student-centered mode of education — one far outside the confines of a classroom. Rousseau believed that Emile, as a representative of children in general, could learn what he needed without adult intervention. Curiosity, a quality innate in children, would guide the child. Rousseau wrote that Emile should learn “no verbal lessons; he should be taught by experience alone.”() Information estranged from personal experience would have no meaning for children; worse, it would offend a child’s natural way of being. “If nature has given the child this plasticity of brain which fits him to receive every kind of impression, it was not that you should imprint on it the names and dates of kings, the jargon of heraldry, the globe and geography, all those words without present meaning or future use for the child, which flood of words overwhelms his sad and barren childhood.”() These facts, alien to the child’s direct experience, would interfere with Emile’s ability to learn for himself.
Rousseau’s ideas would serve as inspiration for Polish pediatrician, psychologist, and educator Janusz Korczak (1878–1942). Korczak ran an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw, where children held their own tribunals, with justice meted out in terms of leniency and compassion. Children also ran their own newspapers, staged plays, and generally flipped the dynamic between adult and child. Korczak echoed Rousseau in his belief in the student as self-educator. “Children are not the people of tomorrow,” he wrote, “but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. ‘The unknown person’ inside of them is our hope for the future.”() Tragically, Korczak would perish with the children under his care during the Holocaust.
In his time, Korczak was a highly regarded children’s book writer akin to JK Rowling. Kaytek’s translator relates a story of how one of his well-read books came to be: “‘Who would you like to be when you grow up?’” Janusz Korczak asked a class of boys. ‘A wizard,’ one of them replied. The others started laughing, and the boy felt embarrassed, so then he said: ‘I’m sure I’ll be a judge like my father, but you asked who we’d like to be.’ That was in 1929, and four years later Kaytek the Wizard was published, the story of a wayward boy who develops extraordinary magical powers.”() In Kaytek the Wizard, a boy hero with a scar attains magical powers that become ever the more dangerous. In this boy wizard, Korczak appealed to any child’s dream of shaping reality according to their wishes, away from the agendas and machinations of adults:
“Kaytek was wrong when he thought he’d find everything out at school and that he’d discover it all by reading books. No. He’ll have to do it all by himself. It’s going to be hard. But never mind. He just has to make a start. Once he gets started, he’ll finish. Yes! He wants a Cap of Invisibility and a pair of seven-league boots. And a magic carpet, and a bag, and a lamp, and a hen that lays golden eggs. Not regular ones, golden ones. He’ll be able to cast spells on whomever he wants, anyone who’s disobedient. He’ll be the most powerful ruler of all, so they’ll have to obey him. He must practice his magic gaze. Somehow he’ll discover his first spell — just one magic phrase, in Indian or Greek. He has made a decision. He has made a vow. He has started, so he’ll finish.”()
Though Korczak granted remarkable freedom to the children under his care, he does stress self-discipline in his pedagogy and writing. Literary scholar Hanna Kirchner writes, “Korczak wants to give children rights, to put them in charge of themselves and the world, but at the same time he implies that first there must be a tough lesson in self-discipline.”() This mix of whimsy with a call for self-development appears throughout Kaytek the Wizard, as in when the hero dives to the ocean’s floor:
“Through a green curtain of water he sees a whole new world, hidden from human sight. Startled fish dart away in all directions. On the sea bed lies the black wreck of a ship resting against a large rock. He sees the transparent veils of jellyfish, the tentacles of octopuses, snail shells, starfish, crabs, sponges, and corals. “How much life there is on Earth that no one knows about!” But Kaytek is wrong. People do explore the bottom of the ocean and its secrets, and they write countless books about it. As a heroic explorer, man reaches every corner of the globe through his thoughts, words, and deeds. He encompasses the stars, the past, and the future.”()
How best to shape these thoughts, words, and deeds? These sympathetic and eloquent advocates for freedom from school resonate with mainstream approaches to student-centered learning. Yet where mainstream educators seek to reform school from within, the alternative thinking of Rousseau and Korczak were some of the opening salvos for an unschooling movement. Thought leaders in unschooling seek childrens’ emancipation from traditional school environments. Leaders of this movement include Ivan Illich, John Holt, author of How Children Fail and How Children Learn; Grace Llewelyn, Teenage Liberation Handbook; and Peter Gray, Free to Learn. In recent years, the discussion has turned to technology’s role in supplementing or replacing traditional classroom pedagogy. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke predicted this movement when he said, “Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer, should be.”()
The movement began with bricks-and-mortars schools. Scottish educator A.S. Neill founded the Summerhill School in England in 1951. Many consider this school the world’s first truly “free to play” school. The school also believed in civics. “If a boy doesn’t want to study mathematics,” Neill says during a 1964 interview, “It’s nobody’s business. If he wants to play a drum while people are sleeping or studying, that’s everybody’s business….” He continues, “No child in humanity has ever had enough play…So I thought I’d have a school where children are free to play as they like. They can play for twelve years if they want to, knowing quite well that the child would gradually associate play with work…To be free, you must be free in all ways. There are no compulsory lessons. The three points of Summerhill are freedom to be yourself, freedom to play, and freedom in general.”
Children reigned at Summerhill, but they still participated in a setting that resembled school. Sugata Mitra, a Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, conducted a Rousseaun experiment with children outside the walls of any school. To do this, Mitra used technology in the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke, who said, “Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer, should be.” He put a computer in a hole in a wall in an impoverished part of Delhi, an area frequented by children who lacked access to extended formal schooling opportunities and computers. Children there quickly learned on their own how to use the computer and the programs on it. They learned how to manipulate a mouse, use inputs and outputs, and even critique the computer itself. Mitra found the same results in a village in Northeastern India. With significant funding, he then scaled this experiment across places in the Himalayas and in the deserts, where children were remote from educational opportunity and technology. In all of these locales, Mitra noted how children were able to teach themselves how to operate the computer and the engage meaningfully with the applications on it.
Mitra’s 2007 TED talk about the experiment’s results, Kids Can Teach Themselves, has been viewed by more than 1.5 million people. Mitra believes “Remoteness affects the quality of education. Educational technology should be introduced into remote areas first, and other areas later. Values are acquired; doctrine and dogma are imposed — the two opposing mechanisms. And learning is most likely a self-organizing system. If you put all the four together…it gives us a goal, a vision, for educational technology. An educational technology and pedagogy that is digital, automatic, fault-tolerant, minimally invasive, connected and self-organized.” Mitra sees technology as a tool that helps extend childrens’ innate precocity and need for growth.
Mitra makes sweeping claims from his research:
“What did we find? We found that six to thirteen-year-olds can self-instruct in a connected environment, irrespective of anything that we could measure. So if they have access to the computer, they will teach themselves, including intelligence. I couldn’t find a single correlation with anything, but it had to be in groups. And that may be of great, you know, interest to this group, because all of you are talking about groups. So here was the power of what a group of children can do, if you lift the adult intervention.” In a later interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, Mitra even questions the value of education’s traditional emphasis on acquiring facts and skills, which accumulate into knowledge.”()
The journalist Peter Wilby writes,
“The status of reading, writing and arithmetic as fundamental skills — that, too, must be questioned, Mitra argues. Though ‘not usually a particularly aggressive fellow’, he has become aggressive about this, he says. ‘I can find on my phone a piece of Japanese and the phone will read it to me in English. So can I read Japanese? No. But if you imagine me and my phone as a single entity, yes. Very soon, asking somebody to read without their phone will be like telling them to read without their glasses.’”()
Author Ian Leslie believes that Mitra may have gone too far in embracing the swiftness of technology in answering students’ questions. And he may have overdrawn conclusions in emphasizing informal, self-organizing systems of learning, free of a teacher. First, the immediate access to information closes curiosity gaps too soon. Ben Freeman, a writer for The New Yorker, complains that the Internet has a “tendency to turn mysteries into puzzles and puzzles into instantly answered questions. Our children are used to finding definitive answers to even the most indeterminate questions, such as “What is beauty?”()
Also, some research indicates that play without rich funds of fact-based knowledge fails to promote mastery. Consider the game of Chess. In his article How Experts Recall Chess Positions, University of Illinois Psychology Professor Daniel Simons examines a common mythology around Chess masters. It’s typically assumed that those who’ve mastered the game can predict more moves in advance than their opponents, and that they have a special insight into multiple responses to an opponent’s move. And masters do have more “computing” power than other players in their ability to weigh options and process positions on the board. However, researchers found that funds of knowledge come into play more than we generally acknowledge:
“This question, how do chess experts evaluate positions to find the best move, has been studied for decades, dating back to the groundbreaking work of Adriaan de Groot and later to work by William Chase and Herbert Simon. According to De Groot, the core of chess expertise is the ability to recognize huge number of chess positions (or parts of positions) and to derive moves from them. In short, their greater efficiency came not from evaluating more outcomes, but from considering only the better options…In de Groot’s most famous demonstration, he showed several players images of chess positions for a few seconds and asked the players to reconstruct the positions from memory. The experts made relatively few mistakes even though they had seen the position only briefly.
Years later, Chase and Simon replicated de Groot’s finding with another expert (a master-level player) as well as an amateur and a novice. They also added a critical control: The players viewed both real chess positions and scrambled chess positions (that included pieces in implausible and even impossible locations). The expert excelled with the real positions, but performed no better than the amateur and novice for the scrambled positions (later studies showed that experts can perform slightly better than novices for random positions too if given enough time; Gobet & Simon, 1996). The expert advantage apparently comes from familiarity with real chess positions, something that allows more efficient encoding or retrieval of the positions.”()
Master Chess players have stored in their memory many game configurations. They’re able to recall which ones might apply in certain situations, and they prioritize their decision making that way. One could say that when they look at a Chess board, they don’t see elaborate configurations of individual pieces any more than we see a face as a collection of eyes, nose, ears, and a mouth. Rather, Chess masters apprehend the Chess board the way we might recall a familiar face.
We take for granted how sensitive we are to faces, an ability affiliated with right-brained thinking. Imagine walking through the middle of Times Square in New York City. How often do you mistake a face of a stranger for someone you know? Out of thousands of faces, this might occur only once awhile. The average person has an astonishing archive of faces stored away; the Chess master possesses a comparatively astonishing archive of gameplay configurations, which they can recall in correspondence with the game.
Ian Leslie writes,
“Learning skills grow organically out of specific knowledge of specific domains — that is to say, facts…the wider your knowledge, the more widely your intelligence can range and the more purchase it gets on new information. That is why the argument that schools ought to prioritize learning skills over knowledge makes no sense; the very foundation for such skills is memorized knowledge. The more we know, the better we are at thinking.”()
In the book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough shares the story of one student named James Black, Jr., who excelled at Chess in at Intermediate School 318, in Brooklyn. Students from his Chess team have repeatedly defeated teams from elite private school at Chess competitions. With mentorship, James wanted to take the test to allow admittance into Stuyvesant, New York City’s leading math and science high school. Yet when James took the test, he did not pass. Tough concluded that such exams require, “the knowledge and skills that a student has accrued over the years, most of which is absorbed invisibly throughout childhood from one’s family and culture.”() James had the determination that education scholar Angela Duckworth calls grit, as well as curiosity and intelligence. But he didn’t have access to the funds of knowledge about geography, literature, math, and science that his middle-class peers easily tapped into when taking the exam.
How do we negotiate the concerns of these two camps of education? Is there a way to turn the duel between two educational models, schooling and unschooling, and the models in between, into a dance? To do this, we need to put students at the center of learning experiences. At the same time, we must assure that they have onramps to rich funds of fact-based knowledge. This need becomes especially critical when we look at the academic achievement gap in US schools between students from low-income environments and their middle-class peers.
By the time many of these low-income students reach their first day of school, they’ve already fallen significantly behind. Consider the following research from the Center for American Progress. Academic achievement gaps are, in part, produced by income inequality. A host of factors influence a child’s performance in school, but research has found that a family’s income level plays a significant role as well. By age two, children from low-income families are six months behind their peers in critical language development and learning skills. By age six, children from low-income families will have spent 1,300 fewer hours on enrichment activities, such as music lessons. The gap between high and low-income children on math and reading achievement test scores is higher today than it was fifty years ago. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, is an international test that measures high school students’ reading, mathematics, and science ability.
Today, racial gaps correlated to income in these PISA test scores persist across the United States.
Students from more stressful home environments receive less per capita funding than their peers, enter struggling schools, and fall into reinforcing negative feedback loops. Why should a student born into a wealthier zip code receive more funding than a student from a low-income zip code? And yet this inequality is so entrenched, we no longer truly see it.
Is there a way for technology to play a role in closing the unfairness of this system, and the gap that creates a feedback loop of negativity? Sugata Mitra believes that the more dire the need, the more technological intervention can help — though we have seen some of his points sparking controversy. In low-income families, research does show an increasing rate of digital media consumption. In his 2013 book, Average Is Over, economist Tyler Cowen relates research and an interview:
“The Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-care nonprofit, has been surveying the media habits of Americans for more than a decade, and it has found that children in the United States now spend at least ten hours a day with digital devices, an increase of more than 50 percent since 1999. The poorer a household is, the more time its children spend glued to a device; according to the Kaiser study, children and teenagers whose parents do not have a college degree spent ninety minutes more per day exposed to media than children from higher socioeconomic families. This divide is widening; in 1999 the difference was sixteen minutes. It turns out that when most people get their hands on a computer, rather than pursue their curiosity, what they want to do is play Angry Birds. ‘Despite the educational potential of computers, the reality is that their use for education . . . is minuscule compared to their use for pure entertainment.’”()
This research suggests that if more digital media could educate and entertain like Sesame Street, then perhaps new technology could help students spark and sustain learning even in stressful environments. Technology need not be a passive device that robs us of our imaginations, the individual voice we develop from reading and writing literature. Technology can also become a tool that extends our purposeful thinking and actions in support of core values.
Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine, demonstrates a nuanced understanding of technology, poised between the poles of skeptical luddite and eager technologist. In his interview The Universe is a Question, recorded on Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being, Kelly defines technology as any product of the living mind that is itself not living. Beaver dams, for instance, are a technology for the beaver. And we’re surrounded by technology that we no longer recognize as being technology. “And it’s not just the hard, physical things that would hurt you if you dropped it on your toe,” he says. “It’s things like a calendar. It’s institutional things like a library. It’s — as you say, it’s aspirin, it’s cotton clothing. All these things are as technological as your phone, but we don’t see them that way, and they have, in some ways, far more impact on us than we realize.”()
The Amish community in the US, a religious group which traces its ancestry back to Northern Europe, stands out for their horse and buggies, their butter churners, and a seeming rejection of technology. But Kelly sees this community as embracing technology — applied mindfully for human needs:
“(The Amish) are not that much different from most of us, because most of us are at the point where we can’t use all technologies. There’s just too many. So we make decisions. And from the outside, our decisions look kind of crazy, irrational. OK, so I have state-of-the-art internet, but we don’t have TV… And the Amish will have — they’ll have no cars and no bicycles, but they’ll have skateboards. They don’t have zippers, but they have disposable diapers. You kind of look, and you say, ‘What’s the strategy? What’s the theory there?’
Well, the theory is, very simply, that unlike most Americans — we’re individualistic, so we decide individually what we’re going to do or not going to do. We’re gonna use email, but we’re not gonna use Facebook. But the Amish are different in this way, in that they decide collectively.
And here’s what the criteria that the Amish use implicitly, to decide whether they’re going to adopt a technology. And the criteria are basically two things. One is, will this technology strengthen my family, increase my family? So the Amish, their ideal is to have every meal with their children until they leave. They want to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day with their children. And then the second one is very similar, which is, does it strengthen the community? How much time does it bring them and keep them in the community?
So the reason why they have horses instead of cars is because the horse can only go fifteen miles away, so they have to go shopping, go to church, go to visit, all within fifteen miles. That forces them to pay attention, to support their local neighborhood, their community. And so when they’re looking at new technology — like, they say, LEDs or whatever — does it help them do that, or does it not? So they’re not rejecting technology. They’re saying: We want technology that serves our purposes.
And the way that they do this is also interesting, is — they don’t think about the technologies. They have Amish early adopters. And these are guys, usually, in any community, who are eager to try new things. And they have to get permission from the bishop. And so the bishop will say, ‘OK, Ivan, yeah, you can have a cellphone in your truck for work.’ And so, for the next year, they watch — his community watches Ivan to see how that affects his family, his community, his work, and if they don’t think that it’s a positive, then he has to give it up. So it’s a community decision.”()
The Amish show how at a collective level, we can chose to use technology to support our values. If we value educational growth over idle entertainment, then we can welcome ecosystems of technology that bolster learning. In this sense, the iPad or computer screen is akin to a pencil — which when seen with fresh eyes, is an elaborate piece of technology involving wood, graphite, metal, and rubber that evolved over time. A pencil can be used to write algebraic equations or aimlessly doodle. It’s not the technology itself; instead, it’s how we design the technology with human needs in mind and adapt to its proliferation. Like the Amish, we must remain mindful of why we use that technology. And while the US stresses individualism over the collectivism of the Amish, we share with the Amish a deep need for belonging, a core value that technology supports only when it also promotes the “Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart” model introduced by Brené Brown.
The problem with much of our digital media is not that it’s ubiquitous. It’s that it creates addicted consumers. What if addictive technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, and game apps could integrate experiences that support human values, alleviate pain points, and encourage consumers to become producers? In his book The Art of Communication, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh gazes into the pain points within, the source of digital media overconsumption:
“The amount of suffering inside us and around us can be overwhelming. Usually we don’t like to be in touch with it because we believe it’s unpleasant. The marketplace provides us with everything imaginable to help us run away from ourselves. We consume all these products in order to ignore and cover up the suffering in us. Even if we’re not hungry, we eat. When we watch television, even if the program isn’t very good, we don’t have the courage to turn it off, because we know that when we turn it off we may have to go back to ourselves and get in touch with the suffering inside. We consume not because we need to consume but because we’re afraid of encountering the suffering inside us.”()
From Gilgamesh to Parcival, and from Anna Karenina to Yossarian, literature has been a way for readers to examine the suffering within us. Literature, a comparatively reflective and individual medium, defies the “tribal drum” of new media that anthropologist Marshall McLuhan predicted in 1960. McLuhan’s continually sounding tribal drum sounds like this: “Everybody gets the message all the time. A princess gets married in England and — boom boom boom! — we all hear about it; an earthquake in North Africa; a Hollywood star gets drunk — away go the drums again.”() The connectedness that we have now should not be mistaken for community. In a medieval sense, community could also entail a verb, a type of social commoning where diverse voices come together. McLuhan discusses the archetypal reversal in our culture from the reader of texts, comfortable in an individual’s interpretation of an experience, to the tribal consumer of digital media. This reversal presents a significant challenge when locating digital media in educational spaces.
In his book The Medium is the Massage (a typo deliberately preserved in the title), McLuhan sees a primary role for poets in the new media landscape. “The poet, the artist, the sleuth — whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely ‘well-adjusted’, he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists between antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are.”() McLuhan seems to point toward Brown’s paradoxical “Wild Heart,” needed to achieve authentic belonging. The environment that would foster such belonging would be a social commons that preserves and cultivates diverse voices and worldviews.
These ideas of belonging and the social commons subscribe to an ideal of democratic education. Tim Ingold explains, “Democratic education, in short, is the production not of anonymity but of difference. It is not what makes us human, for as creatures born of man and woman we are all human to begin with. It is what allows us humans collectively to make ourselves, each in his or her way. It is a process not of becoming human but of human becoming.”()
Ingold argues that the purpose of education is not the transmission of facts, but rather attention. Our attention, what we attend to, creates a bridge between pedagogical camps that espouse lectures, student-centered learning, or complete freedom for students. No learning would take place in any camp without a student’s attention. Ingold on the cloud of meanings around the word attention: “We say we don’t just hear but actively listen. That is one meaning of attending. But the word has a host of related meanings that are equally important for what I shall have to say. These include: caring for people or for things, in a way that is both practical and dutiful; waiting, in the expectation of a call or summons; being present, or coming into presence, as on an occasion; and going along with others, as in joining or accompanying.”() In a purposeful education, then, students don’t receive knowledge, they seek it out. They become present in their search for knowledge and become productive citizens in turn.
John Dewey inspired much of Ingold’s writing here. In his essay, John Dewey, Eros, Ideals, and Collateral Learning Toward a Desciptive Model of the Exemplary Teacher, Ronald Lee Zigler of Penn State writes, “The active, dynamic nature of Dewey’s conception of self-knowledge is best illustrated by this principle: the self is found in work. For Dewey the meaning of self-knowledge can only be understood through a consideration of the activity to which one is drawn — activity that is found intrinsically worthwhile (that is, is conducive to personal growth). The activity to which one is drawn is a reflection of one’s interests. Interests, according to Dewey, are particularly significant in so far as they betray the “active or moving identity of the self.”()
Even as the US privileges individualism over the collective, consumerism challenges the sense of self. People tend to coalesce around brands. What one consumes, defines. In some cultures, such as Confucianism, a sense of self only exists in our roles and relationships with other people. The teacher, brother, and son might all be the same person, but in each role this person inhabits different identities. By indicating a dynamic sense of self, we may move closer to a pre-consumerist idea of the individual growing and changing, shaped by the activities they undertake and undergo and whom they encounter along the way.
We locate ourselves in living experience. Our relationships and attentiveness to our own interests creates the conditions of the soil in which ideas take root and grow. This model resembles Goethe’s view of plant metamorphosis.
Why should scholars concern themselves with children’s writing and games, which seem far afield from the work of serious scholarship? Today, digital humanists and designers are poised to co-create opportunities that promote literacy in a social commons. Digital humanists help us understand what it means to be human and direct our attention to the relevance of art creating a life of design, story, symphony, play, meaning, and empathy. Humanists today work with digital tools and reach worldwide audiences by publishing their work online. These digital humanists already work in interactive media. Consider Ben Franklin’s Republic of Letters, by Stanford University, which maps Franklin’s historical correspondences and allows users to interact with them. Librarians, meanwhile, engage with interactive design experiences every day: cataloging, searching, and tagging literary works. Interaction design helps scholars and librarians navigate their information, contextualize it, and communicate that information at a level appropriate for their audiences.
Just as Albert Einstein advocated for expanding our circles of compassion, digital humanists can expand their circles of participation in the world by listening to the needs of young learners today — many of whom may never get the chance to enter the classrooms of digital humanist scholars. Digital humanists need look no further than Benjamin Franklin for a role model. Author Ian Leslie details Franklin’s unbounded humanism:
“My favorite person in history is Benjamin Franklin. He stands for all the virtues of curiosity. He was interested in everything. He was interested in what electricity might be, what the lightning in the sky was. He was interested in ocean tides. He was interested in how to run a city. And he was curious like that right into his 70s. He was really interested in other people. He was a people person. In his letters and conversation, he was always picking the brains of other people. He wanted to talk to scientists and writers and engineers to know what they thought. Franklin was able to think big and think small. It means having a grasp of the small detail as well as the larger picture. He was able to think philosophically about the role of democracy and how to build a just society. He wasn’t an intellectual shuttered to the world. For those reasons I see him as an icon of curiosity.”()
Franklin shared his insights with the fledgling United States via a printing press in Philadelphia. His Almanacs embodied authentic reading experiences. In a reading experience, readers don’t merely interact with the text on a page, they correspond with it. They can respond in writing to text prompts, or scrawl notes on the margins of the page. Interaction entails a point-to-point transaction. A correspondence engages the reader in an elliptical conversation with the author of the text. Tim Ingold likens a correspondence to kite-flying. Benjamin Franklin flies a kite, which might also be affected by variables such as the wind and weather. The kite-flyer, sensing these tensions in the kite string, adjusts accordingly.()
One might also see correspondence in a more traditional analogy: pen pals exchanging letters. The reader considers the author’s writing, indexes it in the archives of their own experience, and participates imaginatively in the completion of the text from their own worldview. Tim Ingold compares correspondence to story sharing: “Far from coming with their meanings already attached, the significance of stories — just like the significance of instructions in the recipe book — is something that listeners have to find for themselves, by drawing them into correspondence with their own experience and life histories.”()
It’s crucial to understand the difference between correspondence and interaction. By reframing interaction as correspondence, we ask new, generative questions about how to co-create digital humanities projects today. These questions reimagine users as readers, acknowledging the worldviews and rich experiences they carry with them, and their willingness to participate in new experiences. The transactional connotations of the user fall away in favor of the generative connotations of the reader. We elevate these readers to the most salient central point of digital humanities projects.
Without doing this, we’re neglecting the call of the children all educators ultimately serve. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky concerns itself with the human condition. The novel shows how very different brothers relate to a neglectful parent. One of the brothers, Aloysha, is the spiritual and emotional protagonist of the novel. He also happens to share a name with the author’s recently departed son, suggesting the deeply personal experiences that underlay the novel. At the end of the novel, Aloysha gathers a group of schoolchildren around him to sing the praise of a recently departed peer. This speech by his yardside closes the book:
“You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.”()
Aloysha grew up in poverty and unhappy conditions. He had discovered that his family played an indirect role in the suffering of the dead child’s family. In fact, it’s possible to trace a line from that action to the child’s demise. Dostoyevsky suggest that we pay attention to our inactions and actions; even minor instances of inattentiveness or callousness can have long-term, unintended repercussions.
Our actions, experiences, and memories from childhood create the conditions from which fertile ideas spring forth. While schools focus on averages and categories, great literature calls us back to the individualism that we all share. Goethe wrote a poem that he hoped would popularize his theory of the metamorphosis of plants, and it seems relevant here:
The rich profusion thee confounds, my love,
Of flowers, spread athwart the garden. Aye,
Name upon name assails thy ears, and each
More barbarous-sounding than the one before —
Like unto each the form, yet none alike;
And so the choir hints a secret law,
A sacred mystery. Ah, love could I vouchsafe
In sweet felicity a simple answer!
Gaze on them as they grow, see how the plant
Burgeons by stages into flower and fruit,
Bursts from the seed so soon as fertile earth
Sends it to life from her sweet bosom, and
Commends the unfolding of the delicate leaf
To the sacred goad of ever-moving light!
Asleep within the seed the power lies,
Foreshadowed pattern, folded in the shell,
Root, leaf, and germ, pale and half-formed. ()
Can the sacred light of growth be found in digital screens? Many people, weaned on games that promote values of consumerism and alienation between peoples and nature, would strongly disagree. What if children could play digital games that support literacy in reading and writing instead? Such a digital game-story hybrid could create memories that might help to sustain a child in their subsequent years of education. I don’t know if this project will yield the results I seek, though I certainly will try. I see this project as a model of propositional thinking, one that I can share with my peers and students as a type of thinking to consider. Alongside analysis and synthesis, as humanists we can promote the value of simple “What if?” and “Would you consider?” questions. We don’t have to respond immediately with answers, but the very act of posing and reflecting upon questions benefits the social commons.
As a designer, I know that my first draft of script, storyboard, and prototypes must by necessity be produced in a sprint, so that I can receive feedback from the people who would benefit from my project. The mantra: don’t get it right, just write it down. I developed the script for the story so that its simplicity could be layered upon as my understanding of this fictive world grew deeper. The drawings of the characters and the storyboards are all produced in a thumbnail style, each one taking no more than thirty seconds to create. Rough drawings invite feedback and participation more than ones that appear finished. They seem to open up a space of possibility that others attend to, even inviting non-artists to connect with the ideas presented and draw out alternative situations.
This process is called co-creation. I believe language is for thinking, communicating, collaborating, and co-creating. Collaborating is a form of planning, where co-creating happens in the generative dialogue between people. Co-creating is an enactment of correspondence.
Notably, Janusz Korczak worked in correspondence with his audience long before designers introduced concepts of user interviews and user research:
From the very start Korczak based the book (Kaytek the Wizard) on suggestions made by children with lively imaginations about how they would behave if they had magical powers. For instance, he had come across educational methods at a school for “morally neglected” delinquent boys, where the students were asked what they would do if they were invisible. “If I was invisible I’d play tricks on policemen,” said one boy, “I’d take his gun and kick him.” “I’d go to the movies for free,” said another. But a different boy said: “If I was invisible I’d help everyone… I wouldn’t play tricks or make people sad.” Their replies are recognizable in the behavior of Kaytek, who sometimes uses his magic powers to do people favors, and sometimes to cause willful mischief….
The story took several years to form in Korczak’s imagination, and clearly underwent change while it was being written. As becomes obvious in Chapter Eighteen when the author addresses the readers directly, Korczak consulted the orphanage children throughout the creative process. The memoirs of a colleague named Czesław Hakke confirm this: “For many evening…the Dear Doctor invited the children after supper to read the next chapter of his book. I was a witness to some of these meetings between the author and his future readers. After reading an extract, they started to discuss if it was all right, or if something needed to be changed. Generally the children accepted Korczak’s exploits, but there were also critical voices, and conclusions that some events should be ‘corrected.’ Sometimes Korczak justified a particular situation, saying it had to be like this and not different, and sometimes he agreed and made a relevant note.”
Given the fact that I’m proposing a digital app, several concerns arise regarding desirability, viability, and feasibility. Would young people actually try out this app? I believe they would, as young people enjoy gaming and statistics bear out. The trick will be to infuse the game so that it’s whimsical and playable, and allows young people ages 8–12 to demonstrate their creativity and independence without overwhelming them with too many options. Apps geared toward this age group achieve these goals when they’re working well.
Right after college, I worked in the Art Department at National Geographic Magazine. We communicated complex information to a wide audience. But our goal was to have all of the information graphics communicate at a sixth-grade level. If our work could communicate to a bright sixth-grader, it can also reach older cohorts. I found this goal to work well in graphic design. And I also believe that if we reach back into our identity, most people would say they loved to play games, they loved cartoons, and they loved storybooks. Why not try to leverage that tide of universal emotion, even if the attempt seems a propositional idea at first?
As a designer who applies the design mindset toward the digital humanities, I’m interested in creating bridges between the lives of stellar creative minds and my students. When I taught in the English classroom, I wanted my students to not just read a book by an author. I wanted them to imagine themselves as authors too. It struck me how alienated my students were from their attentiveness toward a text, and to their identity as readers and writers.
I wanted to create a prototype that could help make an idea for a hybrid story-game more shareable, but I didn’t know where to begin. I realized that I had a lot of questions and very few answers — an alarming prospect for a newly minted Assistant Professor, who in theory could fall back on more familiar terrain for creative research. Yet like a firestarter I needed to follow the path of my questions and emergent discoveries.
Curious, I looked up the sacred memories that influenced creative geniuses across disciplines later in life. I wanted to see these figures undergoing transformations in a living pursuit of learning. I found some notable anecdotes that could turn into stories. Albert Einstein’s father gave him a compass at the age of five, and he would explore magnetic fields for the remainder of his life. Einstein was late to verbal communication; he thought in pictures, and he was misunderstood for this reason. Goals, obstacles, and setbacks all presented themselves as stories here. However, I wanted to explore literacy in reading and writing, rather than the mind-bending world of astrophysics that Einstein introduced. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The child amidst the baubles is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force…”() Replacing the qualities of physics with the eight parts of speech in magnetic poetry form and a goal, one can imagine a game applied toward literacy.
I turned to Shakespeare for more literacy baubles. Even a figure as elusive as William Shakespeare suggests the influence of childhood experience. A description of a dolphin by King Oberon appears in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou rememberest/ Since once I sat upon a promontory/ And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back/ Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath/ That the rude sea grew civil at her song/ And certain stars shot madly from their spheres/ To hear the seamaid’s music?”()
This passage eerily evokes a real celebration that took place near Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford-on-Avon, when the bard was about twelve years old. That celebration also featured a dolphin and other whimsical maritime themes. Was it possible that Shakespeare recalled the event he attended as a child? Did he remix the memory and re-apply as a passing reference in his enchanted comedy?
Could I leverage the empathic power of storytelling, and write a short story about twelve year-old Shakespeare on the way to the celebration? Could I engage readers by allowing them to step into Shakespeare’s shoes, and play poetic games from his point-of-view? These questions intrigued me, but I had difficulty breaking up Shakespearean sonnets into the ludemes, the fundamental units, of game play and mechanics. My idea languished.
Next, I looked at more compact poetic frameworks, such as haiku. I found a character with a compelling story: The 17th- century Japanese poet Basho, an innovator of what would become haiku poetry. Notably, Basho was no Mozart. Scholars agree that his early haikus are pedestrian and only fully flowered later in life. Following the death of his father, Basho was sent away at young age to live in castle at Ueno, about thirty miles away from Kyoto. In this castle, Basho befriended a boy his age named Yoshitada. While Basho was likely apprenticed in the kitchen of Yoshitada’s samurai father, the two boys displayed an affinity for nature and poetry-writing, especially renga, a form of linked verse. As a young man, Basho would fall into grief when Yoshitada died in his early twenties. Soon he would leave the world he grew up in, beginning a life of asceticism, pilgrimage, teaching, and poetry-writing.
Later in life, Basho returned to the castle, the scent of cherry blossoms reminding him of years past:
How many, many things
they bring to mind —
US Zen master Robert Aiken understands this poem in a deeply personal light:
“In this verse…Basho arrived at his birthplace in Iga and arrived at the castle of Ueno, where he had served as a young man. Twenty years before, he had renounced the world when the young lord died and he lost his intimate companion and fellow poet. After a very long time, he was home again, now asa poetry master. The cherry trees he loved as a boy are now in full bloom, and as he walks beneath them, he recalls many things he cannot bear to put into words…When he walked beneath the trees of the castle garden, he was living once again those youthful days with his long-dead companion.”()
In haiku poetry, though the pronoun I is rarely present, each line concerns itself with participant observation in the world. The personal connections are not explained, but rather vivified through precise yet descriptive language. Goethe wrote, “Every object, well contemplated, opens up a new organ of perception in us.” In other words, imagine our creative participation in the world as a spiral: Basho’s creative mantra could be similar: let the world forming around you inform your world.
In Basho, I had found at once the compelling rudiments of a story and a poetic framework, the haiku, that needs only a single breath to pronounce. On a deeper level, I touched on a theme of attentiveness to the world around us at the heart of student-centered education. By introducing young learners to the haiku vocabulary in a story context, I also help enriched the funds of fact-based knowledge students need to succeed in the classroom.
My only problem: I had no formal experience in game design, and no experience writing for children. In a sense, I would draw on my sensibility as humanist to work through those obstacles, keeping in mind the students I once taught as the stakeholders, the early adaptors, for this project.
Designers can transform forms of play into learning games by devising systems. These systems have common attributes: a meaningful space, tangible artifacts, shared rules and goals. In a game, players connect and manipulate artifacts to achieve a goal; in school, learners connect and manipulate facts. A typical student might seek the most expedient path to fulfill an assigned task. To learn about a topic, a student no longer needs to comb through a volume of Encyclopedia Brittanica. The answer lies at their fingertips through a quick Google search. However, in a game, that same student might embrace burdens that make achieving their task more difficult. At the same time, many video game players dedicate fifty to one-hundred hours mastering games — roughly the length of a college semester. () Players often step inside a magic circle and suspend reality, and when the experience meets their needs, they stay inside that magic circle.
Since 2009, Quest to Learn, a New York City public school, has founded their curriculum on game design principles, and their principles offer concrete guidance on designing a game with learners in mind. Navigators to the Quest to Learn web site can see a north star, a guiding light, in their 7 Principles of Game-Based Learning:
Everyone is a participant A shared culture and practice exists where everyone contributes. This often means that different students contribute different types of expertise.
Challenge Challenge is constant. A “need to know” challenges students to solve a problem whose resources have been placed just out of reach.
Learning happens by doing Learning is active and experiential. Students learn by proposing, testing, playing with, and validating theories about the world.
Feedback is immediate and ongoing Students receive ongoing feedback on their progress, learning, and assessment goals.
Failure is reframed as “iteration” Opportunities exist for students and teachers to learn through failure. All learning experiences should embrace a process of testing and iteration.
Everything is interconnected Students can share their work, skill, and knowledge with others across networks, groups, and communities.
It kind of feels like play Learning experiences are engaging, student-centered, and organized to support inquiry and creativity.
One can see how gameplay overlaps and complements design, story, and the metaphor of symphony.
The Huffington Post describes how a classroom typically functions:
“Students in each class undertake a series of “missions” through the semester, broken up into smaller “quests”. (Think of it as one large problem broken up into a series of smaller problems.) Missions and quests are designed by the school’s teachers, and are in line with state-set standards…. High school students at Quest are given harder missions, and they ‘level-up’ faster than middle-schoolers. The gaming terminology also extends to grades — there’s no A, B, or C grades at Quest. Instead, it’s Novice, Apprentice, Senior, and Master. The idea is that this holds more meaning for the students, motivating them in a way that random letters can’t….One art and design mission involved energy-efficient food trucks. In ninth grade biology, students spend the year as workers in a fictional biotech company, where their job is to clone dinosaurs and create stable ecosystems. As in many games, there’s also a ‘boss level’ mission. It usually takes place before the end of a semester, and involves teams of about 15 students undertaking a weeklong challenge. Last semester it was a recycled fashion show; before that, to create a functioning Rube Goldberg machine.”()
The design intent of these learning experiences: provide a meaningful context, a twinned game and story, for students to immerse themselves within.
In his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster defines fun as an emotional response to learning. Koster writes, “Fun in games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. With games, learning is the drug.”() In his words, Koster defines games as systems that help us learn patterns, with fun being the neurochemical reward that encourages us to keep trying. Koster cites Plato, who wrote, “The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.”
Research backs up games’ role in learning. Research at East Carolina University’s Psychophysiology Lab showed that subjects who played casual games for thirty minute periods showed an 87% improvement in cognitive response time and a 215% increase in executive functioning, measures of perception and attention.
In formal aspects, Koster doesn’t believe that an author driven, linear story has a formal role in games. Like the beads on a string versus the triangle of possibility, which suggest fundamentally different experiences, games and story need to weave together to create a new form. Games also require a clear action to outcome unit, so it’s clear at all times what the player is supposed to do.
Taking these ideas into consideration, I began to see that while I am writing a story and weaving it together with moments of interaction, in a way similar to Disney Episodes, available on the iPad, these experiences need to become integrated with each other. I also want to emphasize the experience of reading text.
Little Basho, a story-game idea
At the beginning of any design project, it’s important to survey the ecosystem of digital learning games. I found several games dedicated to literacy and improving children’s encounters with reading and words.
My first source of inspiration gave me ideas for a core game mechanic, and it’s not technically a game, though it works with gamelike elements. Scratch, cofounded by Seymour Papart and Mitch Resnick of MIT’s Media Lab, helps teach young children learn how to program through a sprightly, cartoon interface. Scratch is an online app with a cartoon cat mascot. Users can manipulate bricks to create programs that control movable and scalable sprites. The bricks are color-coded and shaped by their programming attributes and functions so that all loop blocks resemble each other, for instance, and all if/then blocks resemble each other. Children can also remix other Scratch programs so that they can see how a program is put together.
This creates an ecosystem of children sharing their Scratch programs with each other, the type of unprecedented collective creativity our modern technology affords. Here one can see the benefits of the learning game to promote literacy and even fluency in coding: like a foreign language, coding is easier to learn and reinforce the easier it’s introduced. Scratch turned what was once an onerous, abstract task into an experience as playful as snapping together legos.
With the real world example of magnetic poetry adorning our refrigerators, I could imagine a Scratch game used for constructing poetic sentences rather than computer programs. Madeha Shadid, one of my students in a liberal class I teach called Designed World, is a computer science major. In one of her essays form y class, she reflected on the relationship between code and poetry: “I realized that they (code and poetry) were kind of similar — both have syntax, form, and repetition. Both are abstract and form something through instruction. Both don’t always ‘work,’ it can sometimes feel wrong and fail.”() Both forms also tend to value economy and precision in word choice. However, code remains literal, whereas poetry can rely upon figurative language. In fact, figurative language might be what defines poetry from prose. A game that helps children write poetry should have utility but also appeal to beauty, the bringing forth of a new, vivid idea into the world. Don Norman has completed research about the role of beauty in functionality. It seems people think beautiful objects function better, even though the two attributes don’t have to be related.
My research into games that promote literacy yielded a few gems. Elegy for a Dead World evokes the worlds of famous Romantic poets — lord Byron, Shelley, and Keats, by creating ruined, mystical alien landscapes for players to explore. The aesthetics of the game immerse the player, while the game mechanic itself is relatively simply: the player moves through the landscape, stops at specific milestones, and writes. The game prompts the players to write letters back to Planet Earth to help describe what they see. Like the classic video game Oregon Trail, which connected game players to the tribulations of Western Expansion in a role-playing environment, it’s possible to imagine that young learners playing this game will involve themselves in the Romantic worldview, and they will forever associate their experience of writing in the game with these poets.
I wanted a similar takeaway from my game. By introducing Basho to children at an early age, they may forever affiliate themselves with being an author in his world — and the world they’re stepping into today.
The next game that resonated with me, if only in descriptive form, was Loop, by Eric Zimmerman. This game from the early 2000s was framed inside of a storybook and used a minimalist, flat aesthetic that evoked children’s book writer Eric Carle. In the game, the player can draw loops around butterflies, collecting them as they go. The time pressure: sunrise to sunset. Because haiku is imagistic and based on an appreciation for nature, I could easily imagine Basho collecting butterflies. Once these images are stored away, the player can flip them over to reveal a word, increasing their vocabulary. A player could also also zoom-in on a collected item, such as a leaf, to gain more descriptive words.
I found the iPad games of TouchPress fruitful for learning experiences. Specialists in learning experience, TouchPress has two games where wordplay becomes the core game mechanic. The first, MasterWords, is set in the Middle Ages and uses scrabble tiles in battles. The player can roam a game map to acquire spells, potions, shield, and armor that will augment their tiles, protect themselves, and degrade their opponent. As in Scrabble, each tile has a value. In a battle setting, the player faces off on a monster and constructs a word. The word then fits into an insult and an attack, and points are subtracted from the enemy in combat. This games works by creating a story and an opportunity to explore a world set in a storybook format, and it allows opportunities to reflect on the meaning of novel words a player might create.
Another game, Wordrunners, is especially clever. The core game mechanic involves a screen full of text, describing events such as the Olympics. The game player runs along the top of the text and can jump on words to turn them into images and useful objects. For instance, a player might attempt to run along the top of a line of text, but a fire is in the way. The player can jump on a word for water, and then return to douse the fire. This game works in introducing a visual and kinesthetic aspect to reading, similar to Chinese poetry which played with the imagistic nature of the Chinese characters that also informed Japanese script. In Wordrunners, I found a model for integrating Basho’s story with moments of interactivity.
For my game system, I applied a symphonic way of remixing some of the ideas from these other games with ideas that had been incubating in my imagination for years. I also attempted to keep the core mechanic close to the actual act of writing haiku. Haiku means “play verse” in Japanese, and it began as hokku, the opening three lines of a renga, a collaborative linked poem. In Basho’s time, all he wrote were hokku — the haiku form would come into its own after his lifetime. This lineage to linked poems hints at the potential of turning haiku poetry into a collaborative game.
Formally, the structure of haiku is simple. Most of Basho’s haikus fit this pattern:
* Someone (the poet) is somewhere
* Something happens
* Someone learns something
The parts of speech within the three-line pattern are also very simple:
Yet this simplicity enables a breadth of potential readings and creative possibility. US Zen master Robert Aiken believes that Basho’s haikus cannot fully be understood without understanding Japanese Zen Buddhism, which Basho practiced. Certainly, these brief poems become more comprehensible with expansions from Aiken in his book A Zen Wave. This cultural specificity, however, is not needed to decode much of Basho’s haiku — especially for those who wish to write haiku themselves, and apply what they learn from haiku toward their lives.
With little background in Japanese culture or appreciation for the complexity below the poetic form’s surface, a Westerner can understand the rhythms and motivations of haiku. One can think of haiku through the lens of schema, a generalized understanding of a topic rich in people, facts, events, and cultural contexts. In the essay, “The Schema,” Ben Martin writes about the history of schema, beginning with Plato’s definition of the word as “important rather than exhaustive information…A schema acts as a reduced description of important aspects of an object or event.”() Working with Immanuel Kant’s formulation that “knowledge can only come to us through schemata,” schemas build our knowledge about the world. In a game design sense, schema can fit into culture, play, and rules. Game designer Eric Zimmerman defines cultural schemas as “the relationship between a game and the cultural contexts in which it is embedded.”()
In his essay The Aesthetic Coordinates of Haiku: A Ginko Towards Mount Fuji, Dietmar Tauchner provides a cultural schema in illuminating three essential attributes of haiku: formal, shibumi, kire, atarashimi. Yugen and aware are attributes relating to the correspondence between reader and text.
Shibumi is brevity, like inhaling and then pronouncing a poem in an exhale. Shibumi contracts to the essential idea. While haiku do not tell stories on their own, they allude to the subjective author taking in the experience, and they distinguish themselves from aphorisms in this way. Haiku also feature a kire, a juxtaposition or caesura. This break in the poem can be either a line break, a punctuation mark that signals a moment of awareness, such as an em dash or appositional phrase. Or it can simply be the juxtaposition of two surprising images or ideas, as in George Swede’s poem, “stars crickets.”()
A verb can also provide the juxtaposition by signaling an element of time, a before-and-after event. Of the haiku spring light fills the hollow tree trunk, Tauchner writes that the verb could be omitted: spring light in the hollow tree trunk. Yet the verb serves to heighten the juxtaposition of the hollowness trunk with the filling of light.
Atarashimi means the introduction of novelty into the poem, either through new subject matter, an unlikely subject for a haiku, or by providing a new view on old subject matter. Basho’s famed frog poem, an old pond…a frog leaps in,
the sound of water becomes in the words of another haiku poet, Ryokan, a new pond….not even the sound of a frog jumping in. This can attribute can be a remix on one level, but at a deeper level, Basho wanted a world of perpetual reinvention. Basho wrote, “Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets; seek what they sought.”() The attributes of shibumi, kire, and atarashimi provide the space-time dimension of haiku and create what the author calls “three-dimensional haiku.”()
The final two-attributes, yugen and aware, dwell in stillness and appreciation.Yugen refers to the ineffable and mysterious, qualities that make a poem. This attribute partially evokes wabi-sabi, a Japanese concept that’s impossible to translate precisely into English, but which entails solitude in nature, a hint of sadness, and finding the soul in the rusticated, weathered and imperfect world. Taken together, these attributes can create aware, a sense of timelessness and deep appreciation of nature.
Though haiku in their brevity may seem irreducible, Tauchner uses these attributes to analyze the effectiveness of haiku. He considers the poem the girls eyes green behind the barbed wire to apply all three qualities of brevity, juxtaposition or caesura, and novelty. For brevity, most haiku poems pace themselves at less than twenty syllables — a single breath for most people. The green of the poem can refer either to eyes or to grass, setting off a juxtaposition. The novelty of barbed wire appearing in haiku fulfills atarashimi. The author contrasts the three-dimensional haiku with a two-dimensional one, “created by the author ad hoc and certainly not a masterpiece:
the entire garden
full of them
Coordinates one and two are fulfilled, but coordinate three, atarashimi, is already missing, mainly because the text deals with an often-used topic that leads in this case to no surprising or touching perception. The text suffers from a lack of surprise.”()
It’s up the reader to decide the qualities of yugen and aware in either haiku poem, a process that dwells within the mind of the reader and her generative correspondence with the poet. The author concludes, “What does the writer/reader know, where does she or he come from, what are her or his values and experiences? The effectiveness of the text may result from the sum of all the answers to these questions. It seems most important that an appealing haiku offers something new in form or content or both. An appealing haiku works beyond the “ratio,” leads the mind into the wild woods of wonder where everything has its own unique language. Words turn into images again, turn into the pure energy of reality in a kind of unio mystica.”() On a cultural level, haiku crystallize a moment, an encounter with nature, but they also point outside the poem. Entering into the minimal space of a haiku, the reader can fill in her memory and imagination to participate in the poem’s completion. This correspondence makes the thought space of the poem, suggestive and compact, anything but remote from the reader’s personal experience.
Play and experiential schema
In The Heart of Haiku, writer Jane Hirschfeld described the poetic world Basho lived in with terms today’s readers can easily understand. She also points toward a play-based and experiential schema for turning haiku into a game. Basho and his companions reveled in creating the linked verse poetry that originated haiku:
“In 17th century Japan, linked-verse writing was as widespread and popular as card games or Scrabble in mid-20th-century America. A certain amount of rice wine was often involved, and so another useful comparison might be made to playing pool or darts at a local bar. The closest analogy, though, can be found in certain areas of online life today. As with Dungeons and Dragons a few years ago, or Worlds of War and Second Life today, linked verse brought its practitioners into an interactive community that was continually and rapidly evolving. Hovering somewhere between art-form and competition, renga writing provided both a party and a playing field in which intelligence, knowledge, and ingenuity might be put to the test.
Add to this mix some of street rap’s boundary-pushing language, and, finally, the video images of You-Tube. Now imagine the possibility that a ‘high art’ form of very brief films might emerge from You-Tube, primarily out of one extraordinarily talented young filmmaker’s creations and influence. In the realm of 17th-century Japanese haiku, that person was Basho.”()
How might we recreate the schema of play from 17th Century Japan? Zimmerman defines this schema in games as focusing “on human experience and interaction in its many dimensions.”() First, it’s clear that for Basho, haiku was not a solitary activity. Since haiku evolved from the opening three lines of extended, collaborative linked verse renga, children learning to create haiku today could benefit from playing alongside others. Since digital games can provide their own lexicons and algorithms, it’s possible that the game player could play alongside other people or even more whimsical creatures, such as animals. In a digital game environment, I believe allowing children to play alongside animals makes the playful and experiential side of haiku writing more open to surprise and serendipity.
Because haiku poetry reunites humans with nature, to make this concern less abstract, a modern haiku game could set the poet down alongside animals with their distinct worldviews. In fact, a form of linked-verse haiku called Gunsaku works upon this principle. Each stanza takes the same idea but represents it from multiple points of view. Imagine an indigenous person on a seal hunt in the frozen tundra. One stanza would imagine the hunt from the human’s eyes; the next, from a flock of seagulls above. Japanese literature also plays with the human-animal worldviews. The Japanese writer Soseki, for instance, wrote an entire novel from the point-of-view of a cat, titled I am a Cat.
The Dalai Lama once advised that the best way to teach compassion is to teach children to be nice to insects. I once witnessed a friend’s three year-old daughter notice caterpillars beneath her shoes while we are out on a picnic. The child, in her innocence, began stomping on the caterpillars. We intervened, and I was surprised until I reflected upon how we’re raised to believed that we’re not part of nature. At the same time, this experience reminds children that we too are part of nature. We’re active participants in co-creating nature. The act of sitting down to make poems with other animals repositions children from seeing themselves as passive observants of nature or masters of nature.
At the same time, my idea entails making a hybrid story and game for haiku. Here, the story can provide a platform or a template that can be adapted for varying game levels and levels of literacy in children. First, I anchor users of my app in a familiar world, the storybook environment. Pictures set the scene: Ueno Castle in Iga, Japan, during the seventeenth century Edo period. Japan at this time was closed to the outer world and feudal in nature. This was a time of samurai. They donned armor that would inspire Darth Vader’s look in Star Wars — lending an element that could appeal to young readers otherwise uninterested in haiku. Japan’s Shinto spirituality infuses nature with living spirits. A rock, a tree, a leaf — each of these could be inhabited by kami, spirits of nature. In Shintoism, people build shrines to these kami, or they might tie protective ropes around trees to placate the tree spirits. I know that many low-income students lack access to unbounded nature, and they might not identify with a village in Japan and Shintoism. However, from my experience, young people do enjoy fantasy, and in this spirit world of Shintoism and Japanese folklore, I found my inspiration for a narrator. The tree spirits, called komada, make a notable appearance in Miyasaki’s classic films Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. These spirits, invisible to the human world, can also be all-knowing. One of these spirits can be the narrator of the story, able to enter the imaginations of the characters as well.
With the setting and narrator established, the reader enters the story and the game world. The reader can chose their own avatar to join in the story, either a tree or rock spirit, or a small animal from outside. It’s winter, 1656, and twelve-year old Basho is apprenticed in the kitchen of his friend Yoshi’s samurai father. His own father has recently died. Basho has leftover snow carrots, which remind him too much of his father. Basho sets off to the edge of the fields and forest to feed a rabbit. For Basho and Yoshi frequently wander in nature, and they’ve begun to discover an unusual rapport with the rabbit, who they call Majjiku, the Japanese word for magic. I had also considered a zenko as an emissary from nature, the shape-shifting fox from Japanese folklore, who tends to join up with samurai families.
However, I decided that this character might make my first foray too complex. For now, it’s Majjiku, the emissary between humans and other animals. Majjiku knows all of the animals in the fields and the forest. The gameplayer meets the woodpecker, protecting her babies in a nest overlooking the castle and the village. There’s also a frog in an old pond. This winter, the villagers have begun to cut down the trees and dam the steam that feeds into the pond. The village is growing, and the villagers need a place for their homes and a source of drinking water. Majjiku alerts Basho and Yoshi to this danger. Yet as animals, they lack the ability to share their appreciation of nature with humans, who don’t take them seriously.
The narrative itself is written in haibun format, prose that introduces haiku poems. Basho worked in this format, and it helps to balance the forward momentum and a context of a narrative with the Aha! Moments of distillation that haiku provide. As this narrative unfolds, words appear on the screen. Words that will soon become magnetic poetry elements are highlighted in colors according to their parts of speech. The reader can tap on the word, and a picture appears above it with a popping sound. By tapping on the word, the reader stores it away for use in the interactive tea room sessions to come.
This form of correspondence with the text could evoke the haiku experience in reading, revelation, and attainment. Here’s a poem by Basho in that spirit:
In plum flower scent
Pop! The sun appears —
The mountain path
Basho, Yoshi, and the animals gather together in a tea room to write poems that might help people in the village stop and appreciate the nature around them before it’s too late. This is the interactive moment where the game player can collaborate in making magnetic poetry with the animals.
This renga style of linked poetry introduces an element of surprise into the game play, as the animals throw magnetic poetry units into the mix that encompass their worldview. For instance, the rabbit might have a lot of words for flowers, grass, and leafy greens, while the woodpecker would know more about tree bark, insects, and headaches.
The frog is from Basho’s most famous poem, and adds a meta element to the game for that reason:
The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water
The magnetic blocks will be categorized into the eight parts of speech, so game players will familiarize themselves with subject and predicate, prepositions, adverbs, conjunctions, and tenses. While Westerners emphasize the 5–7–5 syllable count of haiku, in truth, this constraint doesn’t need to be in the game. In Write Your Own Haiku for Kids, poet Patricia Donegan says it’s enough for the haiku to be pronounced in a single breath. Longer than that, and the syllable count feels off. This keeps the syllable counting aspect of the game potentially in reserve. However, syllable counting could provide incentives for bonuses as the game develops.
The player can begin with just two words to make a poem, like “stars crickets,” by contemporary poet George Swede. The player then has the opportunity to rearrange the magnetic poetry at the center of the experience, as the poem grows and the poets take their turns. Players can overwrite, edit, create variations on a poem or theme, swap words around and move lines.
This follows the renga pattern of poetry, which Robert Aiken brings to life:
“One poet would write a line of seventeen syllables, and another would cap that with a line of fourteen syllables. A third poet would add another line of seventeen syllables that would be linked to the previous lines in poetical intention. A fourth poet would cap that, and so on. The result would be along poem of verses linked with associations shared by the participants, and the movement in imagery, intention, and implication would, when successful, be fulfilling for the entire party. Certain conventions kept the practice in bounds. Basho himself participated in many such sessions with his students and friends, and these formed an important part of life as a poet.”()
When the player is happy with the poem they’ve made, they can take a screen grab of it, style the font, and add a picture, creating a haiga, a picture poem to share with the world.
This haiga could be uploaded to Instagram or a curated online wall of poems that could lead to a service like Instagram. Here, the readers shift their use of social media from consuming images and brands to producing poems. With each like they accrue on the social media platform, tree spirits in the game world assemble to protect the woodpecker’s tree and the forest. In subsequent levels, the player can protect the frog in the old pond, and then other creatures.
The story is broken up into a single year, in keeping with the way Japanese poets structure haiku books, usually by order of season. The game player can depart from the main storyline and the tea room to expand their vocabulary in special ginko, walks in nature. During the spring, for instance, the player can collect cherry blossoms; during the summer, blueberries from a patch in the forest; in fall, the player can collect maple leafs. The gestures here could be a loop, as if casting an et around these elements, or a pinch. Bonus points can also be given for players who notice elements outside of their assigned task. For instance, while collecting blueberries, the player might notice a butterfly flitting amidst the patches. This encourages more awareness of types of attentiveness, alternating between focused and unfocused tasks.
I believe the type of attentiveness a game space can provide could help players adjust to the haiku frame of mind, even if they’re not directly encountering the nature around them. Hirshfeld writes about Basho’s way of being in the world and his attempt to “renovate our vision”:
“Basho set forth a simple, deeply useful reminder: that if you see for yourself, hear for yourself, and enter deeply enough this seeing and hearing, all things will speak with and through you. ‘To learn about the pine tree,’ he told his students, ‘go to the pine tree; to learn from the bamboo, study bamboo.’ He found in every life and object an equal potential for insight and expansion. A good subject for haiku, he suggested, is a crow picking mud-snails from between a rice paddy’s plants. Seen truly, he taught, there is nothing that does not become a flower, a moon. ‘But unless things are seen with fresh eyes,’ he added, “nothing’s worth writing down.’”()
Like any idea created a designer, this one will involve. As Marshall McLuhan noted, we create the tool, and then the tool shapes us. It’s possible that all of the gameplay I’ve described could adapt to augmented reality, bringing the player’s direct world into the world of Basho. But for now, my imagination might be limited by present-day tools.
The important lesson to impart here: model propositional thinking, collaborate with humanist scholars, writers, artists, and designers, and show the potential benefits of bringing young learners into immersive learning experiences.
I would like to design this app for the phone given the high adoption rate of smart phones, and their greater accessibility for low-income students and schools. However, I opted to work on a larger screen first to play out my ideas, in the hope that this game could work on a desktop browser and then reflow for iPad screens. This larger screen size would allow me to put ideas for the user interface down and edit them as needed.
It might seem an impossible irony to imagine screens as tools to help readers see the world as it is, with Basho’s fresh eyes. After all, in later years, Basho lived in a hut of banana leaves, his life devoted to long walks and poetry. Basho slept under an open roof and sky. Arguably, our modern lives could not be more alienated from such an immersive relationship with nature. MIT lecturer Otto Scharmer identifies three divides that need healing today: self versus Self, our highest potential self, self versus nature, and self vs other. Relationships define life; these divisions oppose a meaningful life. If a digital tool can help a child walk alongside a long-ago poet, who lived in a world of persimmon trees, samurais and tree spirits, then this enhances her life. In sharing Basho’s story, we share his life sustaining beliefs.
Buson, another haiku master, wrote:
The light of a candle
is transferred to another candle —
Children can play alongside Basho and cultivate an affiliation with haiku poetry that passes his light into their world. Children can write inside the experience of haiku, rather than about the experience. Perhaps this memory can kindle an attentiveness to words as the student progresses through school.
Basho wrote the following haiku at age forty-three, on a pilgrimage to the Ueno Castle and the place where his poetry began:
Let my name
The journey of life involves many setbacks. Yet when we’re learning, we’re in motion. We have a bias toward action. Even the rain is meaningful because it sharpens our attention to the specifics of the journey. Setbacks become learning opportunities. My proposition will evolve, shaped by the limits of what I can feasibly co-create in council with stakeholders. I acknowledge that Little Basho, even if completed, likely won’t close measurable learning gaps between students. Yet some educators believe we needn’t begin by focusing on gaps. University of Texas, San Antonio Education Professor Sofia Bahena explains,
“We can talk about differences without resorting to deficit language by being mindful and respectful of those we are speaking or researching about.” She continues, “We can shift the question from ‘how can we fix these students?’ to ‘how can we best serve them?’ It doesn’t mean we don’t speak hard truths. But it does mean we try to ask more critical questions to have a deeper understanding of the issues.”()
Kevin Kelly expands on this idea in his On Being interview by talking about the unique human provenance of asking questions:
“I actually did some research, because I heard a quote that was attributed to Pablo Picasso, which he said, “Computers are useless, because they only give you answers.” And I actually did some research, and I found out he actually did say that in the 1960s. And that was a real prompt, because it appears that, more and more, that if you want a good answer, you’re gonna ask a machine. It turns out the machines are actually really good at giving you answers — and not just simple answers. I think they’re gonna increasingly give us answers to complicated questions.
But it does appear that, so far, machines are not very good at asking questions. So we have this world where, basically, answers have become cheap and ubiquitous and pervasive, and they’re everywhere, and so what’s much scarcer are good questions. And good questions are kind of like a discovery. They’re kind of like a way of exploring ‘what if?’”()
And I think that’s — as the robots rise and the AIs rise — that’s one of the answers to the questions about what we’re gonna do, and I think there’s plenty of room for us to explore, curate, invent, innovate, love, chat, experience things, all of which are inherently inefficient and not things that machines are good at. And I think, ultimately, there’s a — as you’re suggesting, there’s a kind of a larger resonance of this idea of asking a question, of asking “why?” — not just “Why?” the first time, but “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” all the way down, as far as we can go.
And I think, in some ways, that does echo some structure of the universe — that it’s probably built on a question, rather than an answer; that it’s very likely that the universe is really a kind of a question, rather than the answer to anything. And so I think that’s why we resonate with a question — a good question…rather than just with a smart answer.”()
For the Conceptual Age, digital humanists can collaborate with designers in asking resonant questions. Like Ben Franklin, digital humanists can leverage new technology to expand their circles of inquiry and care. Digital humanists model the type of curiosity and generative thinking that children need to practice in their education. And our focus needs to behold the unique individuals in the future generations we serve, like the flowers in Goethe’s poem:
Like unto the each, the form, yet none alike;
And so the choir hints a secret law,
A scared mystery. Ah, love could I vouchsafe
In sweet felicity a simple answer!()
Humanists don’t turn individual stories into abstract statistics. They dwell, restless, in the human condition. Design is a human-centered activity as well. Designers don’t settle for understanding the world as it is. In designing for the digital humanities, we can look to the past for fertile experiences and stories, and we can prototype new ideas that help heal divides faced by future generations. “If one has only one good memory left in one’s heart,” says Aloysha at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, “even that may sometime be the means of saving us.”()