Posts Tagged ‘visual metaphors’

“Going forward” – with our backs to the future?

June 6th, 2013

If you listen to the news on radio or television today I can almost guarantee you’ll hear someone talk about  going forward.

What some see as a “superfluous, meaningless, ubiquitous” phrase  has crept firmly into our language, but  this post isn’t just another rant about silly and useless sayings .

On the contrary, I want to use going forward as the starting point for a brief  and serious journey into the psychology of futures- thinking. (Don’t be fooled by the bunny pictures – I really am serious, and I’ll even leave you with some questions to ponder …going forward, if you will….).

Enough talk, let’s meet Mr Purple Bunnyman.

Going forward? Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad.

Mr P. Bunnyman, naturally, is going forward into the future.  Well, it doesn’t make sense any other way, right?  It’s illogical to think about going forward into the past, yes?

Those who talk about going forward tend to do so in conversations about planning, strategies, “where-to-from-here”, “what-next”, “how-are-we-going-to-fix-this” kind of scenarios. All of this signals that we think about the future as something we are heading towards - it’s metaphorically in front of us. The past, by contrast, all the stuff that’s been, it’s metaphorically behind us. We  ”look forward” towards the future, we “look back” to see the past.

This is all so obvious that I see why people get irritated by the introduction of meaningless and redundant jargon like “going forward”. Perhaps it’s just another pleonasm, like ”true facts” and “free gifts”  or “where you at?” that we must learn to live with.[1]

Or maybe there is something more serious to think about, going forward?

For example, what happens if we turn Mr P. Bunnyman around?

Backs to the future? Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad

Backs to the future? Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad

Although he’s now facing the other direction, Mr Bunnyman is no time traveller – he’s still diligently following time’s arrow, moving inexorably in one direction (since this isn’t a science fiction blog, we’ll stick with the conventional arrangement of  past->present->future, thanks very much). Metaphorically,  the past is now laid out before his eyes, while the future is behind him where he can’t  see it –  at least not until he gets there and it  becomes his present and later, his past.

If you stop to think about it, the second picture actually maybe makes a little bit more sense. We know we can’t “see” the future – except in our imaginations – whereas we can see, touch, feel, smell, taste, the present, and we have access to memories, artefacts, and records of the past.

We don’t often think or talk about the future this way, do we? If we did, perhaps we might spend a bit more time thinking about clever ways to engineer our way out of  our natural handicap of being unable to see where we’re going. We might  think a bit harder about what unexpected surprises we might back ourselves into. Or we might look for ways to predict the likelihood that we’ll be OK on the current path. We might actually use that information to think about changing our path or orienting ourselves in a different direction.

I’ve been thinking about this problem a lot – this problem of how we think, or maybe don’t think, about the future. I’m less concerned about this at the individual/personal level (how we think about our own personal futures), as much as how we do it collectively – how our social systems and structures orient us in relation to “the future”, and why it appears as though we humans  have a bit of a laissez-faire, don’t-worry-we-have-it-sorted kind of attitude on things to do with the future.

After several years of reading everything I can get my hands on about futures thinking – from science fiction, to neuroscience, to futures-studies and the academic discpline of strategic foresight – I’ve started to form some views on this which I’ve been sharing in different ways – on this blog, in presentations and workshops, in some of my research writing, pretty much any time I get the chance in fact.

The problem with thinking about the future, in my view, is that we overestimate our natural capability to do it. Yes, we know the future is unwritten. Yes, we know it holds a degree of uncertainty, and we know that our decisions and actions in the present are part of what actually create whatever future we  are going to encounter.

We know all of these things, and yet we sort of behave like we don’t. We persist with this mental imagery of the future being in front of us, with all the confidence and certainty of a weekend tramper off for a lovely roam around the hills. Maybe we don’t know exactly what’s coming, but we feel pretty confident we’ll see it coming,  and we kind of assume we’ll know what to do with it when we get there.

To bring home just how unusual it is to take Mr Purple Bunnyman’s contrary backwards-facing perspective on the  future, take note of this  2006 study of South America’s indigenous Aymara people which found that:

Contrary to what had been thought a cognitive universal among humans – a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies’ orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind – the Amerindian group locates this imaginary abstraction the other way around: with the past ahead and the future behind….

Analysis of the gestural data proved telling: The Aymara, especially the elderly who didn’t command a grammatically correct Spanish, indicated space behind themselves when speaking of the future – by thumbing or waving over their shoulders – and indicated space in front of themselves when speaking of the past – by sweeping forward with their hands and arms, close to their bodies for now or the near past and farther out, to the full extent of the arm, for ancient times. In other words, they used gestures identical to the familiar ones – only exactly in reverse

Read more at:

This study is now about 7 years old, and I don’t know whether there has been more work done in this area, but reading the article you’ll see  that the linguistic experts certainly thought it was a pretty big deal to find a human culture – possible the only one – with a reverse orientation to the past and future embedded so deeply in thought and language.

Where I’m going with this is to encourage you to take a moment to think about those things we do all our thinking with – our minds. I think we need to understand better how our minds work if we are to become better future-thinkers. The Aymara reverse-view of time provides one opportunity to think about the consequences of certain ways of thinking, and I find it a particularly interesting one. Note that at least one researcher speculates that this different way of thinking had profound consequences

This cultural, cognitive-linguistic difference could have contributed, Nunez said, to the conquistadors’ disdain of the Aymara as shiftless – uninterested in progress or going “forward.”

Read more at:

Going back to going forward, I also invite you to think further with me about what all this “going forward” language and thinking tells us about our strengths and weaknesses as futures-thinking beasties. I can assure you that the invitation to think together is real – I certainly haven’t got it all figured out yet, but I want to keep picking away at these ideas and see where they lead.

In the next posting I’ll pick up where I’ve left off with some more interesting research I’ve been reading.

Not quite so sure any more. Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad

[1] For the record, I do use, and will continue to use “where you at?” or maybe “wher u@?” when I’m in a hurry.

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The Creation of Visual Metaphors: A Workshop

October 27th, 2009

Workshop 19/10/09Last Monday at NZCER 13 staff members participated in a visual metaphors lunchtime workshop. We looked at deconstructing visual metaphors to interpret their complex meanings, and used this understanding to create our own visual metaphors.

We used the well known sign of Adam and God’s touching fingers from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, which has been reproduced and appropriated in many different contexts to create visual metaphors with a variety of meanings, based on the original value of the sign.

Everyone worked in groups to deconstruct the messages they interpreted from a range of images that used the sign of the two touching fingers. Then each group created their own visual metaphors using the same sign, through either creating their own or reworking the one that their group had been deconstructing. This resulted in a range of different visual metaphors, from an advertisement to an educational visual metaphor (pictured).

If this is of interest to you, you might like to attend the Visual Metaphors workshop and the Shifting Thinking Conference next week (no drawing skills requried), which will explore similar ideas with an educational context.

Conference: November 2009, Shifting literacies , , ,

Look, I drew a picture of you!

July 17th, 2009

(Yes, that’s right…I’m talking to you!)
Actually, I should say I drew a picture of us.

See? You, and me, and everyone else – we’re all represented in my diagram of the shiftingthinking community.

The Power Law Distribution

I drew this after reading Here Comes Everybody: The power of organizing without organizations by Clay Shirky. The book has influenced my thinking A LOT recently and I reckon I’ll probably write a few more blogpostings based on its ideas. In this posting I just want to share just one of these ideas, because I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately (No, don’t look over your shoulder, I’m still talking to Y-O-U ), and I want to show you exactly how you fit into this shiftingthinking community.

The curve in this diagram represents something called a “Power Law Distribution”, which I learned about in Here Comes Everybody. The vertical axis represents the number of comments posted on shiftingthinking, and the horizontal axis represents all of us, lined up in left to right order from the highest frequency to the lowest frequency of postings. What this curve shows is that the most frequent contributor (in this case, me) posts many times more often than the next most frequent contributors, and those people post many times more often than the next most frequent, and so on, and then we have this l-o-o-o-oong tail of people who contribute just a tiny little bit – let’s say, one comment or posting.  (Then there’s the folks who we sometimes call “lurkers”, who read shiftingthinking but haven’t posted comments – I’ll get back to them later…)

So what, I hear you ask? Is there a point to all this? Well I’m glad you asked, because there is, and here is the EXCITING bit. According to Shirky, this same distribution pattern is found in all kinds of social media. Wikipedia is a good example: Although anyone can edit wikipedia pages, it turns out that there are a tiny percentage of people who make hundreds or thousands of edits each, and thousands and millions of people who only ever make say, one or two edits (and millions more who simply read wikipedia entries without ever making a single edit). So if you graph wikipedia contributions, you’ll get an even more extreme version of this same curve.

The power law distribution is also called The Pareto principle or the “80-20 rule” which basically says that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So this distribution shape isn’t just limited to social media – it appears in all kinds of social phenomenon.

The cool thing – and the point of this posting -  is when we start to ask ourselves what value we get out of the collective contributions of all 100 percent of the contributors. In the business world, the 80-20 principle suggests that organisations should focus on the 20 percent (of people, activities, projects etc) that contribute 80 percent of the “productivity”. The “costs” of carrying that long tail, which tends to generate proportionally less, can be hard for an organisation to carry. But if you lop off the long tail, you lose out on all those potential contributions that, when added to the collective, could add up to something really great.

Is this youThe nice thing about social media is that there is really no “cost” involved in encouraging as many people as possible to contribute. By opening up wikipedia to everyone to edit, “we” (the users of Wikipedia) benefit from everyone’s contribution. Whether someone contributes thousands of edits, or only one, each adds value to the collective whole. It’s the same thing with shiftingthinking!

I’d like to end this posting with a couple of shout-outs. First to the members of our “long tail”. Guys, thank you. We love that you’ve stopped by and taken a moment to add your contribution to the shiftingthinking community.

Or is THIS you? (CC)

Or is THIS you? (CC)

Second, to the “lurkers” – you know who you are. I want you to know that you’re welcome here too. I think I’m going to call you “foragers” from now on though. (I like to picture you as adorable little hedgehogs – shyly nosing around the edges of our community, nibbling surreptitiously from the cat’s dish, drinking water from the puddles of our drain-pipes, but leaving no trace of your presence). We promise not to shine a bright spotlight on you – but maybe just think about joining our long tail every once in a while? We’ll be here waiting, with a nice cup of tea and a gingernut biscuit.

**PS. I know time is a big factor making it hard to add comments. We’re still looking into other ways you can signal your presence without having to think too long and hard or compose the “perfect” comment – watch this space!

Shirky, C. (2008) Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. Penguin: New York.

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The future focussed issues project

June 23rd, 2009

Josie Roberts and I are beginning a new research project called “Future focussed issues in New Zealand education”, or FFI project for short. We’d like to use shiftingthinking as a forum for developing and sharing some of our thinking as we get into the work of this research. If you’d like to be part of this thinking (or at least take a peek at where our thinking is going), please read on!

The backstory to the FFI project lies partly in previous contract research work in two areas of “future focus”: education for sustainability, and education for enterprise. If you’re familiar with the New Zealand Curriculum, you might recognise sustainability and enterprise as two of the four “future focussed issues” mentioned in the section on Principles for New Zealand curriculum. (The other two FFIs are globalisation and citizenship).

Original drawing (c) Josie Roberts 2009

Original drawing (c) Josie Roberts 2009

Although some work has been done to support futures thinking in New Zealand education (for example, Secondary Futures), our experience suggests that many people within the education sector still have reasonably limited familiarity with the idea of futures thinking in general, and of these four particular FFIs in the New Zealand Curriculum in particular. We think there is something very important in these ideas, and we want to spend some time exploring them, looking at the relationships between them, and researching their relevance to (or possible contribution to transformation of) curriculum, teaching, learning, schooling, and communities.

As educational researchers we spend a lot of our time looking at what is happening within the formal education sector. But lately we’ve become interested in looking at pockets of innovative thinking and development that are occurring on the margins of the formal education sector, and in the spaces where education intersects with other sectors. We want to explore these pockets of thinking and innovation to see whether they could provide us with new insights that might also speak to audiences within the formal education sector.

One of our initial aims is to look for examples of what we’re loosely labelling “self-generating networks for knowledge building, learning, and change”. We are interested in how such networks form around the future focussed issues in both formal and non-formal education, with particular emphasis on how new knowledge is generated in these networks, and in connection with learning beyond school (i.e. with business, communities, youth groups, web-based social networks, etc). (We’re working with a few groups and networks as mini-case studies, but we won’t be talking about them here unless we have permission from the people and groups involved)

At the same time as we are working with these people/groups/networks, we are also reading as much as we can to help braid together our own understanding of what we mean by a “self-generating network for knowledge building, learning, and change”. Over the next few months we are going to try to post blogs about what we’re reading and what we’re thinking. If you want to follow this thread, look for blogpostings that start with “FFI”.

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Disciplining and drafting, or 21st century learning?

March 25th, 2009

In most developed countries over the last couple of decades we’ve seen a lot of different pressures that have resulted in certain kinds of changes and shifts in the ways secondary education is organised.  Here is one quick example:  in the past, only the minority of students stayed til the final years of secondary school, and they were almost all planning to go onto higher education. Today, a much larger proportion of students stay on til the end of high school, and there are now many more pathways and possibilities for further education and work once students do leave school. In New Zealand and other countries, these kinds of pressures have lead to changes  designed with the hope of  better meeting the needs and demands of present-day students in the present-day world. Examples include: the development of new subjects or cross-disciplinary areas for learning that weren’t part of the secondary curriculum in the past (like education for sustainability, for example), or  changes to assessment and qualification regimes designed to recognise and accredit a much broader range of learning (like New Zealand’s introduction of the NCEA, for example).

There have been lots of other pressures  too – like economic and social changes, technological changes, and so on -  and secondary school systems have changed in various ways in response.

In 2008,  a book Jane Gilbert and I wrote  called Disciplining and drafting, or 21st Century Learning? Rethinking the New Zealand Senior Secondary Curriculum for the Future was published. One of our goals in this book was to look back at the way secondary education has changed over time, and to provoke people to think about whether we’ve yet reached a point where our system really promotes and supports the kinds of learning that we think are going to be important for life in the 21st century world.

In the book we drew a series of pictures to think help us about some of the shifts that have happened to secondary education over time. We call them our river metaphors:

The Forked River

The Forked River

The Forked River is our metaphor for the traditional senior secondary system. Here we have students paddling along through their senior secondary years, navigating through the “rapids” of exams and qualifications, and gradually getting sorted towards one of two pathways – the academic, and the vocational. If a student has been heading towards one fork of the river but decides they want to change to another, this can be difficult (though not impossible).  Indeed, in decades past, students were often told which pathway they were best suited for, usually based on how well they did (or didn’t) perform in their academic subjects.

The Braided River

The Braided River

The next metaphor, the Braided River,  is  is quite similar to a lot of senior secondary education systems around the world today. This  braided river metaphor acknowledges that people will take different pathways when they leave school, but the ‘rapids’ (i.e. qualification structures) are organised so that people’s options are not closed down early by early subject choices, and to allow people to change courses. Students can follow their interests, but also change their minds and work towards a different post-school pathway, all the while continuing to move down the secondary school river. They can mix academic and vocational learning throughout their secondary education, whatever they think they will do after secondary school.

Our third metaphor is similar to the braided river one, but it adds in a stop-off point—or safe haven—for students who are having trouble navigating or even staying afloat. These could be students with learning difficulties, or students with other difficulties in their lives that have meant that school has either not been a priority or has not met their needs. To avoid allowing these students to drown, or be washed up on an uninhabited part of the riverbank, a camping ground area is set up to give these students a different, non-‘mainstream’ senior secondary experience, the eventual aim being that they have the skills and confidence to go back into the river. The camping ground teachers are more like mentors and the students spend time learning together as a group, mixing work experience learning with programmes designed to develop life skills, personal development skills, and the educational basics.

Campground for "drowning" students

Campground for "drowning" students

In countries with these types of systems, educationalists are asking questions, like:  is it desirable to separate these students off in ways that are likely to limit their future options? Alternatively, aren’t there aspects of these non-mainstream programmes that all students would benefit from—like the focus on learning work skills, working and learning together in teams, different studentteacher relationships, and so on? Are the students in the river going to miss out on these?  Metaphors One, Two and Three maintain the traditional screening and sorting function of senior secondary education, but you can see how each new change is designed  in ways that genuinely attempt to better meet the needs of all students. With minimal disturbance to the traditional university-bound pathway, they broaden the choices and pathways available to everyone else, and provide more support for students who are struggling. However the traditional secondary subjects are maintained, as is the traditional notion of senior secondary assessment as a key adolescent rite of passage.

However in Disciplining and Drafting Jane and I explain why we don’t think Metaphors One, Two, and Three allow us to make the shift to the 21st century educational aim of building everyone’s capacity to learn.

The Networked Camping Ground metaphor below is our very beginning effort to represent quite a different idea about how we might think about organising our schooling systems (including the senior secondary system) to truly promote learning for 21st century for all students.

In Metaphors One, Two, and Three the river was central. It represented ‘the system’: a one-size/one-speed-for-all system that students must fit into and keep up with if they want to ‘get anywhere’. However, in Metaphor Four the river’s importance is greatly reduced. Its only role really is to bring students to the camping ground, and maybe carry them away later, when they are ready to move into the world beyond school.


The Networked Camping Ground

Metaphor Four represents a more personalised approach to learning in which it is possible to get somewhere by a variety of different routes, at a speed that suits the individual. Because, in the 21st century, we are less sure that we know exactly where that somewhere is (and what it looks like), we can no longer be so sharply focused on the one best way. Metaphor Four thus refocuses the traditional educational landscape. The river system moves into the background, as do the old hurdles and the old emphasis on subjects. Lifting everyone’s game is in the foreground. The central goal is to develop certain key competencies in everyone, to use—and build on—people’s strengths and interests, while also ensuring that everyone has the basics, via a system that allows people to follow personalised learning pathways.

The centre of the campground picture is the place where students and their teacher/mentors plan their learning personal programmes. The camping ground could have several different ‘loop tracks’ that lead to a variety of different learning experiences. Some of these could resemble traditional work experience programmes; or they could involve researching the skills and knowledge required for different kinds of jobs. Other experiences could involve designing, setting up, and carrying out a research project that investigates and recommends solutions to a real local issue or problem.  The purpose of these experiences, together with others, is to provide contexts which will develop students’ overall capacity to learn: to do things with knowledge, to be curious and questioning, to think and learn independently, and to evaluate—and improve—their own thinking and learning.

There is lots more we could say about our metaphors – but really the idea here is to use them as a stepping-off point for discussion. What do you think?

Shifting schooling , , , ,

Drawing pictures to shift thinking

February 24th, 2009

When I’m trying to understand something in a new way, or trying to communicate my ideas to other people, I often start by drawing a picture. In my experience, visual metaphors are great for generating discussion, and they can enable us to take our thinking in interesting and unexpected new directions. Below is a metaphor I’ve created to represent ideas about “shifting thinking” in education from the 20th century to the 21st century.
ship metaphor

The boat represents the education system, which is sailing from left to right – that is, from the 19th and 20th century, into the 21st century and beyond.
What moves the boat along? Well, this boat is special because it has several methods for propulsion. (However, as we shall see, this doesn’t necessarily help the boat to move more efficiently! In fact, it can have the opposite effect). These are:
The wind –what we might call the influences of “the 21st century world”. For example, all the shifts in society, economy, new technologies, and so on, that inevitably influence the direction our education system is sailing.
The propeller – Educational policy, which can also propel us towards change – sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes with the wind, and perhaps at times, in the wrong directions (or even backwards!).
The oars – These are the influences of the people “on board” the system. This could include teachers and school leaders, as well as students, parents, and society at large – in other words anyone who has an opinion and a voice about how education “should” be. As you can imagine, we might have people rowing in different directions, or “putting the oar in” to steer the boat to port or to starboard, or to create drag to resist the efforts of the winds and the motor…

There are two other significant things in the picture: the anchors, and the buoys.

The anchors are meant to represent certain ideas about the education system that we’ve inherited from the past – again in this metaphor they show up as something that is maybe creating “drag” on our boat, keeping it from moving in spite of the wind and the motors which are trying to push us forward. One example of such an idea is that education is most efficient as a “one size fits all” system, much like a factory or production line.

Out in front of the boat we’ve got our buoys, representing aspirations for the future of education. These represent the goals and ideals that are often articulated about what kind of education we think matters, and what kinds of young people we want our education system to help shape. For example: “developing lifelong learners”, “developing active citizens”, “developing learners equipped to deal with the challenges of the 21st century”, and so on. So we’re tossing a line to these buoys to help pull our ship in a bit closer.

The question this visual metaphor is designed to provoke is: how is the ship going to move towards these aspirations? Do we need to cut our anchor lines in order to get there? If we do, what would happen? Would the wind, the motor, and the oarsmen and oarswomen start to carry us in the right direction, or will we end up travelling in confused circles?

Maybe the answer is that we people on the ship – all the oarsmen and women, and the policymakers – need to get up on deck with our telescopes, barometers, and other navigational equipment. We need to study the winds carefully, and plot our course intentionally. We need to pull up our anchors and see whether they are holding us back, whether it’s time to cut some of them loose. Then maybe can start to agree what direction this boat should be moving in, and actually start to head it towards our goals…..

What do you think?

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