Teaching, Learning and Mazes

The COTEN project is gaining momentum and there are some excellent discussions going on. A lot of the conversation is about different teaching and institutional structures and the styles of learning they encourage or discourage.

I just wrote a response to a post, which delves a little bit into my PhD subject, which is about understanding interactivity through play. As I came to the end of my PhD I realised that the principles of interactivity that I developed (more on this soon) held true for a number of other areas, including teaching and service design. I posted a response on the COTEN forums, but I’d like to air it here as a blog post in its own right:

Teaching, Learning and Mazes

Over my years of teaching I’ve tried all sorts of approaches, from leaving things very open to having things very structured. I have found it to be totally context dependent. Some students love to be left to their own devices while others crave structure. The challenge is to cater for both. It also depends on individual courses and the backgrounds of those taking them.

I also realised that the more I hands-on helped, the more helpless my students became because I was doing all the learning on their behalf. When I first started teaching, it took me a semester before I realised that helping them less actually helped them more because they worked things out for themselves and learned by doing.

Finding the right balance is the main skill of teaching I think and you really have to go with your intuition combined with direct student feedback and ignore most of the other pedagogical literature. I’m sure colleagues will shoot me down for saying that, but I found this when I did study the literature and work on this on a short post-grad course in teaching at higher education level – in the attempt to create the perfect course, it just got over structured and sapped the life and energy out of it for both me and the students.

Writing my PhD on interactivity and play, I developed a set of principles for understanding interactivity through the lens of play that I think applies here. Bear with me, because it’s going to sound like I’m going way off topic, but we’ll come back to the point:

The central principles, among others, are about finding the “magic circle” – the space of play that defines being in play and out of play (such as the lines on a football pitch, the sides of a cardboard box, etc.) and the rules of play. These rules allow for different behaviour during play (e.g. you can tackle someone holding a ball to the ground) than during “normal” life. One of the things that I argue is that knowing these two things is essential to any interaction – from interpersonal through interface to society. On the interactive interface front, users need to understand what game they’re playing and the interface needs to be set up in the right way. In this way you can explore, analyse and design for both tightly controlled UI environments such as an iPhone app or a part of an operating system, but the principles also allow for the same analysis of an interactive art installation. The key is understanding the context. In the latter example, it might be desired that the interactor is deliberately tricked or gets lost or that the interface is ambiguous unlike the clarity of an iPhone app. On the other hand that iPhone app might have playful elements that encourage you to explore the boundaries of the play space (the magic circle) and help you to learn the interface without ever really feeling like you’re learning at all, such as the iPhone’s “one free interaction”.

In the art installation example, the critical aspect of getting the interaction right is that interactors understand that they are meant to be lost. That is, they understand that they’re supposed to not understand the interface straight away and that discovering how it all works is part of the experience. Experienced videogamers will understand this idea straight away, because in most videogames the point is not to read the rules and then play the game, the point is that finding out what the rules are is part of the gameplay experience.

It struck me a while ago as I was deconstructing all of this how much it parallels the learning experience. Learning, by definition, involves a journey into unknown territory, otherwise you would not need to learn it (because it’s not unknown). This is often and usually inherently uncomfortable – nobody likes to feel stupid or confused. It’s rather like being in a maze – at least it is if the teaching and learning experience is going well, because when you are in a maze you know that you are meant to be confused and that somewhere there is a way out and/or if you yell out, somebody will come and help you. This kind of learning experience is usually very positive and why we hear so much terminology of good teachers being ‘guides’. But simply giving someone a map would be “cheating” in play and game terminology and we all know that this takes the fun out of playing.

Another kind of learning experience that is extremely negative is feeling lost, but not knowing you are in a maze that you are supposed to work your way out of. When that’s the case, you just feel lost and confused and it’s all pretty scary because wherever you turn it seems like a dead end. In this example, a map of the maze is equivalent to the tools and methods and technology or techniques that lost students often cling to at the expense of the learning experience they might have if they could work out their own way out of the maze. It’s a completely understandable emotional state, but it doesn’t lead to much lifelong or long-lasting learning.

In both cases you are in a maze, so the context is the same, but the overarching difference is the conceptual space you are in mentally. Setting up this space – the magic circle and the rules of play – seem to me to be the skill that not only the teacher needs to bring to the learning experience, but also that the institutions structures need to encourage.

Most of the time it seems that a lot of effort is spent on making maps to the maze and not on trying to develop the mental space. I think this is because the former is concrete and feels manageable and measurable, while the latter is highly personal and not directly measurable (but the results do show). It’s rather like the difference between Apple’s approach to usability and Jakob Nielsen’s obsessively warped understanding of it (in which he exclaims that, “users don’t know where they can click” when referring to a multitouch device).

Archetypes and Metaphors

There is an interesting piece over at Johnny Holland by Rahul Sen titled Archetypes and Their Use in Mobile UX. It’s probably worth reading it and coming back here, but the introduction gives you an idea of where he’s headed:

“Have you ever needed a user manual to sit on a good chair? Probably not. When we see a good chair, we almost always know exactly what to do, how to use it and what not to do with it. And yet, chairs are made by the thousands, and several challenge these base assumptions to become classics in their own right. The chair is one of the most universally recognized archetypes known to us. In light of recent events in the mobile realm, I believe that the stage is set to probe notions of archetypes in the mobile space.”

As does the last pull quote:

“Thinking in archetypes gives us a unique overview of interaction models and their intrinsic behavior patterns, making it possible to ask interesting what if questions and examine consequences.”

There is lots to like and he makes some great observations here, but hanging them onto the term “archetype” is problematic. Rahul gives a brief nod to the differences between metaphors and archetypes, but muddies rather than clarifies. This moment of slippage defeats the whole archetype argument, but if you replace the word archetype with metaphor in the piece, then it all makes great sense.

The reason why metaphors are so important to understand in interaction design is precisely because there are very few, if any, archetypes. It’s easy for us as savvy users and interaction designers to presume there are original ideas or symbols universally recognised by all, but they’re simply not. It’s the reason why so many people don’t ‘get’ interfaces that should be blindingly obvious. They don’t understand the mental model behind it, thus it’s not an archetype.

Metaphors are useful because they bridge this gap. One thing to note is that metaphors are not “analogies between two objects or ideas, conveyed by the use of one word instead of another,” as Rahul says. Those are similes. I’m not saying this to be grammatically pedantic, but because there is an important distinction. A metaphor isn’t saying “it is like“, but “it is“. It helps you understand a concept you don’t know by expressing it in the form of a concept you do know, not just saying it’s like the other one. Life is a journey, it’s not that life is like a journey.

An interaction design simile would say, “this file on the desktop is like a real paper document on your desk”. A metaphor is saying, “this file on your desktop (in fact, the icon of it) is a real file”. It makes a difference because it makes a difference to how we interact with those things and to the mental models we form. It makes a difference to how much we can stretch and/or break those metaphors. Delete your most precious file and decide whether it was like a file or really was one.

Lakoff and Johnson’s work on metaphors is essential to bring in here, because they demonstrate that our entire language and understanding of our experience in the world is based on embodied metaphors. When you start to pick apart language, you realise it’s all metaphors (such as “pick apart” – the metaphor being that language is a thing made up of other things that you can pull apart).

They also talk about how metaphors collapse into natural language without us thinking about them anymore, but they’re still metaphors. When we say we’re close to someone, we learn this metaphor from actually being physically close to someone (usually our mothers). Physical and emotion closeness are the same thing at that point. Later, we use the metaphor of being close to someone to express emotional closeness, but it because so commonplace and universally understood (in most languages) that we cease to perceive the metaphor anymore.

On the other hand, poetic metaphors, such as “the sun was a fiery eye in the sky”, are designed to make us perceive the metaphor and appreciate its discord or imagery. Most interface design is still on the poetry side of things, screaming out the metaphors, which is why they are far from being archetypes.

The interesting thing about multitouch devices is that the interface seems like it disappears. You feel like you are just interacting with the content in many cases, such as scaling or moving around digital photos that have never had a physical form. The interface is still there, of course. You’re not really stretching or pinching anything, you’re just making those movements with your fingers over a piece of glass, but the direct manipulate feeling that it affords tricks us enough. This still happens to a lesser extent in desktop metaphors – it really does feel like you have lost a file when it gets accidentally deleted, but actually it was never really a file, but a bunch of pixels on the screen pretending to look like a file and in fact just being a visual reference for a scattered set of magnetic impulses on a drive. Like theatre, we willingly suspend our disbelief in order to believe in the metaphor because it’s easier that way.

The strength of Rahul’s piece is in the various examples of something-centric “archetypes” that he gives and the “what if?” questions he asks about them. They’re insightful, but they’re just not archetypes by the definition he sets out. Ironically, having pointed out in a note right at the start of the article that he his not referring to Jungian archetypes, I think Rahul’s examples are much more closely related to Jung’s understanding of archetypes than the other definitions he refers to.

Higher Education is about to crash and burn, says Seth

I couldn’t help but agree with Seth Godin’s summary of the coming melt-down in higher education – it’s an almost perfect echo of the themes I have been harping on about for ages. I also happened to read it shortly after finding the short video of me talking about the dysfunctional nature of education at DOTT Cornwall (I was very jittery – too much coffee before speaking and a sand glass with only four minutes to get it all out). It’s nice to know it’s not just me thinking this way.

You should read Seth’s complete post, but here’s the summary of the main reasons:

  1. Most colleges are organized to give an average education to average students.
  2. College has gotten expensive far faster than wages have gone up.
  3. The definition of ‘best’ is under siege.
  4. The correlation between a typical college degree and success is suspect.
  5. Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.

Out of all of these, the last point is key because it contains the other four. Higher education institutions have based the value of their currencies (the degree you leave with) on the quality of its education and what you can do with the proof of that education afterwards. That currency’s value, like any currency, is entirely based on its reputation and scarcity – it is pretty much divorced from the reality on the ground. The convergence of the points Seth lists – along with shifts such as aging populations, changing business structures, the shift from industrial command and control thinking to a more networked, service and knowledge mode of thinking – are very real and most likely to coagulate into a big shift behind most of the major player’s backs. Seth sums it up well:

The only people who haven’t gotten the memo are anxious helicopter parents, mass marketing colleges and traditional employers. And all three are waking up and facing new circumstances.

Does this mean there is no future for higher education (and that I am out of a job)? I hope not. It’s not that places like Cambridge or Harvard are going to die out, it’s just that they’ll end up the way that most people view politics (in the UK at least) at the moment – highly bureaucratic monoliths that don’t appear to be very relevant to anyone’s lives anymore. That doesn’t sound to exciting to the average teenage school leaver if you ask me.

I think there is a place for higher education, but I think institutions must think radically for them to remain relevant. Instead of thinking about accreditation – either of themselves to government or of the students – they need to think about the service experience they offer. It’s the experience of higher education that has real value, not the delivery of knowledge. That’s the reason behind the COTEN Project that takes a service design approach to thinking about innovation in higher education.