From Pedagogy to Sociogogy

I recently watched the video of the  Independent Project and caught some of the commentary like this and this from the NYT .

I don’t know the back story of the project, but I have to say it made me very excited to see a collaborative and supportive model of learning in action.  It boiled down to responsibility and trust for me.

The discussion of the Independent Project’s significance brings me to the term pedagogy and how we have built a system of learning around a very old concept of learning that hasn’t changed much since the Greeks.  A few years ago my colleague Matt Chwierut and I forecast the need to develop social learning platforms and practices that enable “sociogogy” – leading one another.  (The forecast was for KnowledgeWorks Foundation).

The term pedagogy comes from the ancient Greek practice of assigning a slave—literally a leader (agagos in Greek) of children—to escort boys to school and generally supervise them as they prepared for life in Greek society. This paternal teacher-student relationship, of an adult leading a child through a course of study has persisted in basic form since then. The diffusion of Internet connectivity, mobile devices, and participatory media is disrupting this long tradition. The connected, open, and social media context is creating a new context for cultivating relationships among learners and teachers. Like the Internet itself, the structure of learning relationships is flattening, becoming more peer-based and networked than hierarchical, expert dependent, and “command and control” driven. Educator-learner relationships are becoming
more co-creative and self-initiated by individual learners. Many have referred to this learning relationship shift as a move from the “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side,” but in fact the transformation is more fundamental. Indeed the experimentation with networked, co-creative, peer-based relationships among learners suggests a shift from “pedagogy” to “sociogogy”—in which teachers and students are learning “companions” (from the Latin “socius”) leading one

In the video, the principal remarks how the students moved themselves through learning experiences vs being on a conveyor belt of lessons.  I hope the video sparks new ideas, pilots, and more research so that we can move toward a more sociogogical (ugh, combersome word) system of learning.

The Future of Visual Practice

Yesterday I had a great morning at the annual meeting of the International Forum of Visual Practitioners.  These are the amazing practitioners who support our collective thinking, workshop experiences and processes, and pattern recognition through graphic recording, facilitation, process design, hands-on modeling, and other forms of visual practice.

Visual practitioners help make the invisible stuff in our minds visible and sharable in dynamic settings.  As we move into a new sensory world of portable social media, smart objects, and location based information, a literacy of visualizing information, ideas, people and relationships will be increasingly important.

The Center for Graphic Facilitation made a nice summary of my talk and have it on video here.

It was really fun to spend the morning talking about the emerging strategic problem space of our clients and think about the role of visual practice.  I think we will see some interesting stuff emerge at the intersection of  visual practice, new digital publics, and large scale collaborations.

In Search of Flow: An Emerging Culture of Attention

The release of the PNAS study, “Cognitive control in media multitaskers”, sparked the latest round of debate about whether we are losing ground in a landscape of distractions or entering into a renaissance of attention.  The study by Stanford researchers Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony Wagner, reports that in various standard psychological tests for cognitive control (attention and working memory) light media multitaskers performed better than heavy media multitaskers.  Note that this study measured performance in a controlled lab context and not in the real world.  (Read the article here for the full description of conditions and results)  Nevertheless, this kicked off another round in what Stowe Boyd calls “the war on flow.”

The discussion seems to go something like this. On one side are the proponents of attentional poverty.  They argue that the emerging digital media landscape of Twitter, Facebook, email, iPhones and Blackberries and the meteoric growth of information are increasing the distractions in our environment, depleting our attention, and driving us toward a surface understanding –gaining information but losing wisdom.   The benefits of mutlitasking are a myth. (Christine Rosen ).

On the other side are the proponents of creative abundance.  This argument describes a new landscape of connection and creativity.  It argues for the benefits of distraction and overstimulation (Sam Anderson “In defense of Distraction” ).  The new media world is indeed a world of distractions.  It is nonlinear, less “efficiency” oriented and it offers possibilities for greater creativity, serendipity, and novelty.  Could Einstein have come up with his theory of relativity as a patent clerk if he maintained total focus on the job and his mind didn’t wander? Or if his job interrupted him so much he couldn’t focus on relativity? This position argues for the opportunities from “flow” and new approaches for greater understanding and knowledge creation (Stowe Boyd).

Stowe Boyd offers this perspective on his experience with digital media flow:

Perhaps what we are doing has nothing to do with efficiency. I don’t operate the way I do with the principal goal of speeding things up. My motivations are much more complex and diffused. I don’t perceive what I am doing as multitasking, really. I am not trying to speed up how quickly I shift from one thing to another. Instead, I am involved in a stream of activities, in which other people figure prominently, either synchronously through direct discussion (a la Twitter or IM) or indirectly, through their writings and my responses.

And further on he adds:

If you judge a juggler by how many times the balls hit the floor and contrast that with someone throwing and catching one ball at a time, the juggler will always lose. But the juggler is doing something different. You could argue that doing it that way makes no sense, that throwing one ball at a time is more efficient, leads to less sleepless nights, and doesn’t confuse the mind. But it isn’t juggling.

I was happy to read Boyd’s post because he brought the discussion back to the big issues that the Stanford study raises – there are distinct modes of cognition and we need to learn more about how they are developed, inhibited, and what they mean for us in terms of learning, work, relationships, and our environments.   Perhaps these distinct cognitive modes realize different kinds of cognitive gains in different contexts.  Achieving low efficiencies in single task completion may be offset by high efficiencies in other kinds of tasks.  There may be multiple kinds of cognitive goals and realizing them may require a combination of information processing modes or a selection of modes based on goals and context.

So what are our principal goals?  To what ends do we want to direct our attention, as individuals and as a society?   Maggie Jackson orients her discussion of distraction and attention in this bigger context.   She is a healthy skeptic who acknowledges the power of our technology and stresses the importance of deep reflection on who and what we are becoming when we use it.

In Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age,  published in 2008, she exposes the centrality of attention to our humanity – our sense of the past and our collective ability to reflect deeply and imagine the future.  She pushes the reader to reflect on how digital media may be affecting us and what kinds of values, and choices, they reflect. While the title may suggest that this book fits squarely in the “war on flow” camp, it really doesn’t.  She argues that we risk eroding our capacity for deep reflection, intimacy, and the potential to sculpt our future if we do not critically examine the impacts of our technologically enabled lives on attention.  She fears that we may be over valuing surface understanding and speed for depth and reflection.

I’m not angling for a return to some sort of pastoral, un-mechanized Eden in order to halt the erosion of attention.  We cannot blame technology on society’s ills.  Nor can we fall in to the opposite and increasingly commonplace trap of blindly trusting that our new tools will automatically usher us into a glorious new age.  The tools we are wholeheartedly embracing today are inherently powerful, and we ignore that truth at our peril. You can use a stick for digging potatoes or stabbing your neighbor, so how you use a stick is important, but equally important is the fact that a stick is not a wheel.  … This is the messy soup that makes up our relation to technology, and explains why technology plays a starring but ultimately subordinate role if this book.  Technology is a key to understanding our world, but it is not the full story.  Instead we must ask: how do we want to define progress?  We are adapting to a new world, but in doing so are we redefining “smart” to mostly mean twitch speed, multitasking, and bullet points?  Are we similarly redefining intimacy and trust?

However she also suggests that we may be on the edge of an attentional renaissance, fueled by our growing understanding about the science of attention (citing research by Michael Posner, David Meyer, and others).

As humans, we are formed to pay attention.  Without it, we simply would not survive.  Just as our circulatory or respiratory systems are made up of multiple parts, so attention encompasses three “networks” related to different aspects of awareness, focus, and planning.  In a nutshell, “alerting” makes us sensitive to incoming stimuli, while the “orienting” network helps us select information from among the millions of sensations we receive from the world, voluntarily or in reaction to our surroundings. A baby’s first job is to hone these skills, which are akin to “awareness” and “focus”, respectively.  In a class of its own, however, is the executive network, the system of attention responsible for complex cognition and emotional operations and especially for resolving conflicts between areas of the brain.  All three networks are crucial and often work together, and without strong skills of attention, we are buffeted by the world and hindered in our capacity to grow and even to enjoy life.

Her book takes us through each of these attentional capacities and discusses how they respond to and are affected by our current world of high mobility, fragmented time and virtual spaces. Her narrative demonstrates the broad extent of the attentional network and its impact on our wellbeing (stress, joy, happiness), its role in conditions such as autism, ADHD, and its significance to human experience.  From a new understanding of the mechanisms of attention, we may develop a language and culture of attention that can become a platform for nurturing it more broadly in our easily distractable lives.

People who focus well report feeling less fear, frustration, and sadness day to day, partly because they can literally deploy their attention away from the negatives in life.  In contrast, attentional problems are one of the main impediments to attaining “flow”, the deep sense of contentment that people find when they are stretching themselves to meet a challenge.

What I appreciate about Distracted is the shift toward thinking about the ways we can value and enable attention given the realities of the modern technological world.  Rather than advocating a complete elimination of technology and sources of distraction and fragmentation, the book concludes with a chapter entitled “The Gift of Attention – A Renaissance at Hand.”   In this chapter, Jackson shares her visit to the Shambala Mountain Center in Colorado where she observed a study in progress on the impacts of meditation on attentional skills and on social and emotional health, led by UC Davis neuroscientist Clifford Saron.  Building off of new understandings of neuroplasticity, the study hopes to shed light on the possibilities for training the brain and reshaping the mind.  She discusses other breakthrough experiments, such as the work of neuroscientist Amishi Jha,  that shows the positive impacts of mindful breathing on spatial orienting, providing what Jha calls a “cognitive rocket booster.”

The merging of our understandings of art, neuroscience, and meditation is revealing that we have greater capacities than we thought to relate to the world deeply and intensely. Perhaps we can rediscover, or reinvent, flow in this new land of distraction.  Taking sides for or against technology won’t help.  Engaging in purposeful reflection on who we are becoming with our digital media and in deep examination of our motivations and goals as a society will help us hone those capacities.

A Generation of Caregivers

All the discussions about health care reform have reminded me of a workshop I did with high schools students last summer as part of a youth forecasting project with the KnoweldgeWorks Foundation.  I developed a curriculum for teens about key trends in technology, community, health, economy, and demographics and worked with the Center for Digital Storytelling to conduct 3 workshops in which high school students imagined their lives ten years in the future.

The stories were personal, about distinct moments in their future lives, and they revealed issues that mattered to them.  One theme that came through in several stories was their recognition that they would be caregivers – not only to their aging parents – but to their chronically ill peers and to their friends and family members who had become ill as a result of toxic environments and food.  Part of their vision of themselves as caregivers involved developing personal relationships with digital para-professionals (robots), with human medical professionals thorugh social netwokring, and through online markets for medical services.

Here are two of my favorite stories.



My big take away from these workshops is how capable and insightful the teens were at imagining plausible futures and teasing out the implications that mattered for them.  It was also rewarding to see how excited they got about the present when faced with a set of possible futures. I need to do more of this work!

Who Does the Chief Learning Officer Hire?

Here is a  post I wrote for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation blog about designing education and schools by process rather than outcomes.   Thinking about the interactions and processes involved in learning can open up possibilities for imagining new kinds of roles and functions, and ultimately new relationships between schools and their broader community.  The post was inspired by a terrific blog post by Will Richardson and links to research on learning agents by KWF.

NLab: Amplified Individuals & Business Resilience

Last year I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the Nlab Social Networking Conference at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. The day focused on discussing the implications of Web 2.0 tools and applications and social networking for small business.  It was a great event, in part due to the wonderful hospitality of the folks at the University and the Institute of Creative Technologies, but also because we tried to bridge big ideas and concepts with the practical challenges of managing small business.

This year, my colleague Sue Thomas, Professor at DeMotfort University,  invited me to prepare a short video for their NLab event, Amplified Individuals and Business Resilience.  I was sorry not to be there, but at least I got to share some ideas, via video, of the opportunities for using participatory digital media to infuse communities and business with resilience – the capacity to reorganize and recover from crisis – to meet the challenges of a complex and uncertain world.

Here is a link to a page with the video and other audio clips from participants in the seminar.

What is most inspiring to me about this topic is the opportunity for local organizations to gain a bit more agency,  in the creation of information and the discussion around that information, in the ability to create more transparency in local processes and decisions, and in the ability to create, share, and direct resources.