The Day I Met Edith Ackerman’s Beautiful Mind

Edith Ackerman prepares to answer a question after her Fablearn 2016 keynote, October 16th, 2016. That’s my grey, balding head in the lower-left center foreground.

She sat, alone, at the table in front of the auditorium, fielding questions after her mesmerizing keynote at Fablearn 2016.

An audience member pondered:

“I’m interested in the nexus of purpose and play, as someone who works with numerous students, I think the idea of getting people to make and be creative is critically important to getting them involved … but at some point … what’s the purpose, not so much as the need to follow a curricular standard, but, are they being altruistic … is there a broader purpose other than making a keychain and feeling good about that? What is the balance between just being creative and and also ensuring that our students and whoever we’re working with have a greater purpose in mind?”

To which I added:

“I think the greater purpose is to make design the focus – human centered design – so they are not just making a ‘widget,’ they’re making something that matters to someone.”

Image: Fablearn

That’s when it happened. Edith looked right at me, and without a moment’s hesitation, began to deliver what some said amounted to an entire graduate program’s worth of education theory in a nine minute response.

To process it all, I have attempted to transcribe the bulk of her remarks (and, as a result, now have tremendous respect for people who do transcription for a living.) The complete video can be found here; her response starts the 54 minute mark and ends at about 1:03.

So, here’s Edith’s response:

This is an important point, I think that there has been a big shift in view … if I look at the history of active learning or constructivist approaches to learning … the important shift I think came with scholars and practitioners that suddenly realized the very notion of constructing new knowledge is about a process of abstraction, from concrete to abstract, and the process of decontextualizing … it’s like how to move from ‘here and now’ to more generalizable ideas.

So, the essence of making, effectively … the process of abstraction … making ideas into knowledge. She continues:

And, to a certain extent, certain constructivists like the sort of Jean Piaget, the older generation, or Vygotsky, they still had this idea that cognitive development – superior ways of thinking – are ways of thinking that actually enable you to sort of ‘disentangle’ from context and to allow you to interject or internalize your experience and draw lessons from it. The big reversal I see coming, I saw it myself in the 1980s, when most people who were interested in design, I think of Seymour Papert, I think of Donald, who wrote The Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schön, all of a sudden people started realizing, wait a minute, there has not been enough focus paid on the opposite of reflective abstraction, which is intelligent form-making. It’s the process of externalization or projecting out project-added (?) design, in order to precisely turn ideas into some tangible artifacts that can then be taken and as shared ground for conversation around.

I love the word ‘disentangle’ – it sounds like the learning in my lab – a discrete, personalized experience where kids interact with tools and technologies as they ponder, experiment and create.

I think it’s from the moment on when people start paying more attention to that process, that’s a huge change, and Seymour Papert played an important role in that. Because, what he said is that ‘we have to put this Piaget on his head,’ and what he said is even more interesting, because Piaget was so obsessed with the genesis of becoming a formal thinker, that his contribution to the world, was to actually help us understand that sensori-motor grounding, and concrete operational grounding, is required to teach these formal ways of thinking.

All new concepts to me…

Now there has been a lot of water going down the river since then, we have had the whole tradition of more situated approaches to learning, of more embodied approaches of enactment series of learning, and what they have in common is exactly what you say, is that, the idea is projecting out is as important as introjecting. To my pleasure, because Jean Piaget was my master, he already had this insight. Because, the way he said it, if you want anybody to construct cognitive invariance, what was this more abstract that you pull out of these situations, offer variation in the context.

“Projecting out” – meaning, making things that matter to others. Yes!

This is very close to the idea of Marvin Minsky, is that to understand something, you have to understand it in at least three different ways. And the whole work that he did for example on the way to help children understand concepts such as numbers, it’s not just to make it concrete, like, you know, now the fraction becomes a pie, but it’s precisely to look at different aspects of numbers, of numerosity, that actually experts – mathematicians – have come up with like ordinal aspects of numbers, cardinal aspects of numbers, inclusive aspects of numbers … and then you give concrete situations, in which those different aspects  of numerosity are manifested, and you let the children play around with them, and when they are ready to make the connections between these different aspects, the conservation of numbers, then you have actually allowed them to be more abstract or be cognitively invariant by offering variation, and this seems a little bit of a paradoxical idea, but it’s absolutely key I think.

Learning things in one way through play, which then results in learning it in different ways. Whoa. Did I get that right?

And actually there was another shift, I noticed it at the school of architecture, because I work a lot with architects, and designers, is the second shift came like five years ago, everybody was talking about learning as design, designs for learning, and it was Don Schön, and design was still considered project direct, we had to have prototypes, rapid prototyping became important, this whole notion of co-creation of artifacts, then all of a sudden everyone talks about fabrication, and that’s another important shift. I think this shift has to do, and I said it yesterday, with the fact that this very cycle of projectari (sp?) and building prototypes, and then sort of manufacturing, is getting accelerated and broken down because in a way what happens is that no more prototyping is needed, almost, with the technologies that allow you for a single project or idea, to create a single product. That completely changes, again, the ways in which people think about the role of these intermedial objects (I like to call them intermedial objects and not models) in actually trying to sort of evolve your design or sharpen your ideas.

The power of prototypes as a pathway to fabrication, of course, until the prototyping tools become so sophisticated that prototyping itself becomes ‘instant manufacturing’. A vision of our possible future, playing out before us as we speak. Talk about a visionary.

I didn’t know when I met Edith at Fablearn that it would be the last and only time I’d ever get to see her. She passed away just a few days ago – December 24th, 2016 – at age 70. I’m glad that I got to personally thank her after her talk (and our exchange) at Fablearn. I look forward to learning more from her as my own career, and program, evolves.