Figure it out

My critique of: Stephen P. Anderson; Karl Fast; Christina Wodtke. Figure It Out: Getting from Information to Understanding. Rosenfeld Media.

Cover of the described book

It is a wonderful book about understanding. There are rich, comprehensive, very plausible descriptions of how we understand by associations, with external representations, and through interactions. It does not merely reiterate the popular ideas about associations and visualisations but it clarifies why these are so important. A central statement is “Associations among concepts is thinking” (p. 43), and there is an entire chapter about “Why Our Sense of Vision Trumps All Others”.

Even more special is the notion of information as a resource that can be interacted with. And this interaction is not the usual sequential one such as in: “action and then the response” (p. 255), or read then think then write, or the question then answer dialog by teachers (or their digital simulation in H5P interactivity, which may help retention but perhaps nothing else). Rather, it is simultaneous and a “tight coupling”.

Interacting with information here also means interacting with external representations, and it has to do with the idea of the Extended Mind which I found very plausible already in Annie Murphy Paul’s book. Bring ideas out into the world, and see them anew — vision trumps, which is one part of the trick that draws on one of the two modes of brain operation. The other mode, and the other part of the trick, is ‘manipulating’:

“Computers became an everyday technology only with the widespread adoption of windows, icons, and mice for controlling the cursor. Being visual was important, but the big shift was being able to directly manipulate information through our hands.” (p. 254)

This is where the notorious Post-It Notes come in which play a major role in the book’s recommendations. But also, ‘rearranging’ and ‘connections’ play a major role.

“While all these interactions, from the beginning of this chapter through the end, play a role in understanding, there is a strong case to be made that rearranging is the essential one” (p. 283)


“In a sense, this book has been all about connections. While this is a book about how we understand, this fine thread of connections has run throughout this book: the connections between neurons that become perception. The connection between prior associations and external representations. The connection with our environment. Connecting with each other. Connecting with and through technology.” (p. 390).

And here is a problem, since connector lines between Post-It Notes don’t work with rearranging. (This became the rationale of my own tool).

Now one might think that digital versions of ‘whiteboards’ would overcome the problem, and I do think that they could. But it is not easy to mimic the affordances of the analog murals. For example, “Being large, it was easy for many people to gather around the board” (p. 303), “With the pens, the decision to have people use a Sharpie marker or something with a finer tip will affect not only how much can be written on a sticky note, but also how visible that note is from a distance.” (p. 317) — these quotes hint at the wicked problem:

How does a large mural full of post-its fit on a screen? When you zoom-in so much that you can read the small print, the famous overview gets lost.

This, IMHO, needs a shift from the one-page paradigm to a more intelligent way of combining overview and details.

(Further info: My free open source tool implements this basic idea but there is no team version. Note that it contradicts the obsolete but influential doctrine of the “Split Attention Effect”.)

This entry was posted in 51, Visualization and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Figure it out

  1. x28 says:

    Thanks to Stephen Downes for the comment


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