January 2014
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Month January 2014

Play As A Serious Solution To the Challenge of Fostering Vital Skills In Children & Preparing Them For Today’s World

Play As A Serious Solution To the Challenge of Fostering Vital Skills In Children & Preparing Them For Today’s World | rethinked.org


” [ Play is ] one of our brain’s favorite ways to learn. When children are active participants in their education, they gain more from the experience, are more engaged in the learning process, and do better in school. Play allows us to test our capabilities, as all forms of learning should. It stimulates children’s learning abilities by fostering creativity, building critical thinking, sparking intellectual curiosity, and facilitating learning by doing. Learning by doing deepens our engagement and understanding significantly, and strengthens the most important pathways our brains use to learn and develop.

The way we see it at LEGO Foundation is that play is not a luxury; it’s the way to support brain development and our children’s potential. This is why we see play as a serious solution to the challenge of fostering vital skills in our children, and preparing them to navigate today´s world.” – Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, CEO of the LEGO Foundation

Head over to Forbes.com to read the rest of the interview with Dr. Grob-Zakhary: The Transformative Power of Play And Its Link To Creativity, published January 25, 2014.

{ Rethinking the Nature of Learning, Part III } Hi, Anxiety

I don't remember any of this

Print studies for a thesis project responding to my high school notebooks

{ Previously: IntroductionPart I, and Part II }

To better understand the factors at stake in learning, in my thesis research I delved into constructivist learning theory, self-determination theory, self-efficacy theory, multiple intelligences, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, limbic hijack, grit, play, and more. (In case you’re wondering, it’s not uncommon for an MFA in graphic design to explore disciplines considered distant from design. Effectively a vessel for content from other realms, graphic design by its very nature interdisciplinary.)

As I worked my way through countless psychology studies, my theory — that making was a secret sauce for intrinsically motivated learning — was gaining traction.

And yet, as we entered our second year in the program and the thesis process shifted into high gear, the evidence around me got more complicated. Something was shifting. We would design layouts on one monitor while streaming Netflix on the other. We rejected our professors’ feedback more often. We were still working like dogs, yet somehow we weren’t making very much. A lot of us were spinning in place, just like students in any other discipline when they get stuck.

So much for those self-determined thesis topics providing intrinsic motivation. So much for hands-on studio classes unlocking experiential learning. So much for the secret sauce of making.

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Everything I had come to understand about learning up to that point began to coalesce in this way: Whether you are a thinker, a maker, a scientist, a whatever learning requires an embrace of the unknown, and the unknown is scary. 

What had probably looked like stubbornness, laziness, and lack of focus was in fact, beneath the surface, indecision and avoidance. Under that, pure anxiety around learning itself.

Don’t misunderstand me. Novelty is exciting. At the neural level, it’s wildly engaging. But when your education requires you to try new things, and to try to master them; when you’re being judged on that attempt; when your future rides on that judgment — that is a lot of unknowns to prevail over. (And those are mostly epistemological unknowns. There are also social unknowns when we try new things in front of an audience: is my idea ridiculous? does it expose me too much? will it once and for all reveal how much I don’t stack up?)

When learning is subject to these unknowns, especially for an extended time, it begins to feel high stakes. And if my recent experiences and research have suggested anything to me, it is that high-stakes contexts are toxic to learning.

To be clear, by “learning” I don’t mean a superficial command of disconnected pieces of data that eventually disappear without a trace. [See the photograph above.] I mean new lenses of understanding and experience that fuse with (or alter) existing lenses and make lasting impressions. This kind of learning is organic, nonlinear, and multichannel. It flourishes in a state of curiosity and a willingness to experiment.

By contrast, a high-stakes learning environment can heighten the anxiety of the unknown to such an uncomfortable and inconducive degree that learning is reduced to a right/wrong proposition. Many learners respond accordingly: taking pains to avoid “wrong” answers, conflating learning with having the right answers, and viewing curiosity and experimentation as risky approaches.

Unfortunately these responses seem like a fairly natural and predictable result of high-stakes learning. Moreover, they seem to be the default outcome in many educational settings.

Next: How I Learned to Embrace the Unknown

{ Rethinking the Nature of Learning, Part II } For the Love of Making

A Labor of Love Isn't Labor

{ Previously: Introduction and Part I }

In design school, most classes take the form of “crits” — three hours or more in which everyone’s work is displayed on the wall or screen and individually reviewed. Unlike Hollywood versions of art school, where someone runs out sobbing and the rest of the class simply scoops their bruised egos off the floor, crits at Pratt were constructive and relatively friendly.

Nevertheless, for 9 or 12 hours a week, your progress (or lack thereof) is laid bare for all to judge. You present what you have no matter how you feel about it. There’s no sitting back during discussion or speaking vaguely about the week’s reading. You’ve got to show them the goods. Multiply that times three or four, add a seminar or two on theory, and you’ve got a seriously demanding course load.

Working around the clock was par for the course. Though I had a toddler and spouse with whom I tried to eat dinner most nights, at 2 a.m. I was as likely to be up and working as classmates who were 15 years my junior and regularly spent the night at the studio. School had always demanded a lot of time, but I had rarely experienced anything as all-consuming as this.

After surviving the first semester, I wanted to understand why were were willing or able to stick to this brutal pace. The most obvious answer came quickly. Being privileged enough to view college as routine, we were experiencing voluntary education for the first time effectively.

Two subtler explanations eventually emerged:

First, design is hands-on. Except for a minority of seminar classes that required “only” writing and reading, in design school you learn by doing. The emphasis on studio classes means that you’re constantly making things — turning cerebral ideas into material artifacts. That process is inherently experiential. Design educators call this thinking through making.

Second, design-school projects are almost entirely self-determined. You’re usually free to choose your topic and your medium. For this reason, it’s almost impossible not to be invested in the work. This assures a strong degree of intrinsic motivation.

My best moments as a design student (which, admittedly, rarely occurred at
2 a.m.) inspired intense energy. In one project, I designed a book of conversations that my daughter and I had while getting ready for school one morning. Transcribing and proofreading the 13,000-word manuscript took 12 hours. Designing the layouts took 20 hours. Printing and producing, at least 6. This all happened while I was also working on design projects for three other studio crits.

Marathon sessions like that were not new to me: I’d spent most of my school years laboring above and beyond my parents’ and teachers’ expectations. Back then, though, my motivation to work hard was extrinsic to the work itself: I worked hard to succeed within the structure of school.

Twenty years later, my motivation to work hard was the work itself — not my professors’ approval, not grades, not some hazy notion of future success. The work mattered to me intrinsically, just as my classmates’ work — which addressed very different topics — mattered to them.

Eventually I realized that the precise circumstances of the book I described above — its deeply personal subject matter, and my intense determination to get it right — allowed the project to transcend the sensation of work altogether and instead become a labor of love.

Experiences where intense effort is more joyful than painful — which psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi coined as flow — were few and far between in my prior years of schooling. I have to reach back pretty far — past years and years of essay writing — to the dioramas and poster presentations of elementary school.

There is one exception, however. In my last semester of college, when I should have been pumping out pages of my senior thesis, I stayed up night after night applying printed excerpts of Thoreau’s “Walden” by hand to strips of balsa wood I had built into a 3D cabin — for a class in typography.

Even then, it was obvious that this graphic design elective felt like fun and my English-major requirements felt like work. What wasn’t obvious was the significance of that fact. If my education had taught me anything, it was that school was supposed to be hard. It was supposed to feel like work.

If I had known otherwise — that school should also be hard and feel like fun — my life so far would look pretty different.

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These reflections swarmed around for some time, and I began to rethink the liberal arts education I received in high school and college.

I acknowledge my ability to think and speak analytically is entirely due to those years of schooling. I can’t begin to quantify how valuable — intellectually, materially — those skills have been for me. But I still consider some aspects of that schooling to be problematic.

If you asked me, How would you characterize the learning you did during those years? I would say, Receiving the work of intellectual giants. Yes, my ideas were valued and encouraged but — for the most part — only as responses to minds greater than my own. In those intellectually formative years, I don’t recall anyone suggesting that I might have an idea that was both worthy and original.

To be clear, I have no interest in liberal-arts bashing, a trend I find disturbing and anti-intellectual. But having been privileged enough to attend selective schools my whole life, and having sincerely shared their embrace of the liberal arts, I’m struck by the realization that the best learning experience of my life was in design school.

I don’t mean to suggest that I was never intrinsically invested in a single school project that didn’t involve making. Nor do I think that investing in a topic at age 38 can look or feel the same as investing in a (necessarily different) topic at age 15. Or that it should.

But I do know that intrinsically motivated learning — which I experienced in design school and which (in a neat QED) birthed a deeply satisfying research topic — often leads to the deepest engagement and the most sustained effort. And so I’ve come to believe that K-12 educators need to design more experiences that allow students to find and nurture their own sources of intrinsic motivation within existing curricula. And I think that the thinking-through-making paradigm from design education offers a powerful and sound framework for bringing intrinsically motivating experiential learning to K-12 schools — including schools committed to the liberal arts.

Next: My love affair with making hits a snag


{ Creative Confidence } Shantell Martin on How Unlearning Is Harder Than Learning …*

{ Creative Confidence } Shantell Martin on How Unlearning Is Harder Than Learning ...*  | rethinked.org

“If you ask a kid, ‘Can you draw?’ They answer, ‘Yeah, of course. Where are the pens?’ But if you ask an adult, they often say ‘Oh, no. I can’t draw.’ or, ‘I can only draw stick men.’ Through this infrastructure that we call the school system, or just the social system, we’ve trained creativity out of people. When you’re a kid, and if you can’t draw a house that looks like a house, then you fail. If you can’t draw a person that looks like a person, you fail. All those kids that had a crazy imagination, that were doing their own creative thing, and had their own unique style, they’re told ‘You fail, you fail, you fail.’”

“We all have that voice inside that says, ‘You can’t do that.’ And you have to overpower that voice. It’s definitely about patience and confidence. Unlearning is harder than learning.” -Shantell Martin 

Source: Shantell Martin: Why Being An Artist Is Fundamentally About Hard Work via PSFK, published January

{ Rethinking the Nature of Learning, Part I } Re-education of a Schoolaholic


{ Read the Introduction }

Attending graduate school in design was a transformative experience. Soon after I started, I found myself completely fascinated by the role that motivation plays in learning.

Given that I was a teacher for six years, it’s odd to realize only now that I never probed the motivation of my own students very deeply. I suppose I assumed that if they generally accepted the notion that school was important, then that was motivation enough. Indeed, a problematic assumption in several ways.

So why, a decade later, did I become fixated on motivation and learning?

Returning to school, full-time and in my late thirties, was a privilege and a sacrifice. I was committing two years of intensive work while in a relationship and raising a daughter — not to mention giving up an income. Those two years really needed to count. As you can imagine, this attitude put some pressure on my experience — and on my professors.

At Pratt’s Communications Design MFA program, I spent our three-hour, 11-student classes obsessively observing the shifting dynamics in the room. I assessed everyone, including myself — our variable attention, engagement, and affect. I created lists of the innumerable circumstances — many of which were completely extrinsic to the curriculum — that would sharpen X’s focus, blunt Y’s enthusiasm, or shut down Z’s receptivity.

I developed an acute awareness of classroom practices I felt were not successful, and curiosity around those I felt were. As I became aware of the delicate, fluctuating nature of student engagement itself, I set out to protect it if I could. I became the squeaky wheel of my class. If the purpose of an assignment felt murky, I spoke up. If class time wasn’t being used efficiently, I spoke up. If a classmate was confused but didn’t ask for clarification, I spoke up. And to their credit, my professors tolerated this admirably. Some of them even welcomed it. Regardless, I wasn’t looking for their approval.

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It wasn’t always thus.

At age 12, I went to an independent school in New York City, and I’ve long considered those the intellectually formative years of my life.

I was a schoolaholic. A highly functioning schoolaholic: hard working, academically successful, and eager to please.

Luckily, the very nature of school — its structured challenges and transparent hierarchies — worked for me. As though reflexively, I developed winning formulas for success in school.

And I received constant approval and praise — which I quickly developed a taste for. Indeed, my teenaged self never dreamed of voicing criticism to my teachers. Sure, I occasionally disliked their requirements, but I didn’t question them.

In fact, I wasn’t especially interested in questions. I was interested in answers — right answers, and having them. Those of you versed in the work of cognitive psychologist Carol Dweck will recognize symptoms of a fixed mindset.

In short, my motivation in school was to be a good student. I didn’t think much about the world beyond school. When I did, I assumed that my successes in school would translate into future successes, ones that would automatically be meaningful to me.

It wasn’t until I went to design school that I embraced the difference between being a good student, which is a winning formula for being in school, and being a good learner, which is a lot closer to a winning formula for living your life.

Next: How and why design school made me rethink…* 

Karin Storm Wood joins the team

Karin Storm Wood

Hello, world.

I’m very pleased to be joining the rethinked…* team.

I’m an interactive designer, design educator and newly minted MFA, though my career path initially resembled more closely those of my rethinked colleagues. Left-brainy and interested in the humanities, I went to Yale knowing I wanted to major in English. I spent the better part of my twenties teaching English at the middle- and high-school level — coincidentally at Riverdale Country School, the birthplace of rethinked…*

After six happy years at Riverdale (all before Dominic Randolph began his tenure at the school), I left teaching to pursue graphic design. I had always been interested in design and even took a few design classes in college, but I had never considered it a viable career choice for me. Design seemed like something for other people: namely, more creative people.

Fortunately, design is a profession that requires no formal education or certification. On the strength of some strong undergrad and continuing-ed classes, and confidence in my communication skills in general, I landed positions at a boutique studio in New York and later at NYU. I worked successfully as a graphic designer for seven years.

Eventually, my on-again, off-again flirtation with having the imprimatur of a formal degree won out. In 2011 I enrolled in the MFA program in Communications Design at Pratt Institute, a research- and practice-based graduate program in (primarily) graphic design. My day-to-day experiences as a design student — quite different from my previous experiences as both a learner and a teacher — directly influenced my research. Seen with new eyes, the topic of learning itself fascinated me. Last spring I completed an interdisciplinary Master’s thesis in design that investigated parallels between the learning process and the creative process, as well as similarities in the optimal mindset for each.

At rethinked, I hope to lend the perspective of an educator and a designer, and — as you’ll see — someone who has recently revised her understanding of learning itself.

In installments throughout this week, I’ll be sharing how I reached this perspective.

Until then, I’d like to share a perspective on problem solving that I especially admire — from TED founder and Information Anxiety author Richard Saul Wurman:

When you approach a problem, you must go backward to find the beginning before going forward to find the solution. Seldom, if ever, is the problem correctly stated. The classic, pervasive seduction to designers has been to find a solution instead of the truth.You must be a few steps behind where others usually start when solving a problem if you want to discover the forces behind the problem. Only then can you ask yourself the questions that will lead to productive solutions.

Richard Saul Wurman, Design Quarterly, No. 145, Hats (1989), pp. 1-32

Barbara Kruger On How We Define “Artist” & How That Affects Who Considers Becoming One …*


“I think one of the reasons that I thought about art is that I was one of the few kids in my class–there are always a few–who knew how to draw. And of course it had to do with this replication of the real–that if you had that talent, then you were an artist, which of course is a very simplified way of being an artist. It’s a skill set but it’s not necessarily an art. 

I didn’t think I’d be an artist because I didn’t know anything about art and came from a very poor working class family in Newark, New Jersey. And no one in my family had really gone to college and I certainly didn’t know about the art world or what it might mean to have the luxury of objectifying my experience of the world, stuff like that.”  – Barbara Kruger

How might we reframe the definition of the artist so that all students– not just the few that possess a specific skill set or parents who can afford the time and resources to take them to galleries and museums–may consider and embrace their artistic potential?

How might schools democratize creative confidence?

Source: Barbara Kruger – Design Matters with Debbie Milman Archive: 2005-2009 via Design Observer, published April 13, 2007

{ Happy Friday …* } The Vegetable Orchestra – Exploring & Refining Performable Vegetable Music

The Vegetable Orchestra, photograph by Heidrun Henke

The Vegetable Orchestra, photograph by Heidrun Henke

Infuse your Friday with play, wonder and whimsy thanks to this video recording of The Vegetable Orchestra‘s brilliant performance at TEDxVienna.

Source: Who Says You Can’t Play With Food? The Vegetable Orchestra at TEDxVienna – via TEDxTalks, published January 11, 2014.

“The Vegetable Orchestra performs on instruments made of fresh vegetables. The utilization of various ever refined vegetable instruments creates a musically and aesthetically unique sound universe.

The Vegetable Orchestra was founded in 1998. Based in Vienna, the Vegetable Orchestra plays concerts in all over the world.

There are no musical boundaries for the Vegetable Orchestra. The most diverse music styles fuse here – contemporary music, beat-oriented House tracks, experimental Electronic, Free Jazz, Noise, Dub, Clicks’n’Cuts – the musical scope of the ensemble expands consistently, and recently developed vegetable instruments and their inherent sounds often determine the direction.

A concert of the Vegetable Orchestra appeals to all the senses. As an encore at the end of the concert and the video performance, the audience is offered fresh vegetable soup.

In artistic, aesthetic and infrastructural decisions of importance all members of the orchestra have their equal vote. The ensemble is a mix of people with different artistic backgrounds – musicians, visual artists, architects, designers, media artists, writers and sound poets all come together here.

The further exploration and refinement of performable vegetable music is a central part of the orchestra’s aesthetic quest. Every individual background that is brought into the project is of vital importance in sustaining the fundamental artistic objective of the Vegetable Orchestra.The broad variety of creative approaches at the same time secures the artistic autonomy of this unique ensemble. “

What If In All Domains of Experience, the Working Definition of the Individual Were His|Her Capacity for Growth & Change?

Here at rethinked…* we are all about experimenting with and developing strategies to empower individuals to lead fulfilling fluid lives across all spectrums of experience. Some of the biggest obstacles we run into in pursuit of this goal are the limiting cultural dichotomies that result from contexts not geared towards human growth– student versus lifelong learner [knowmad], employee versus individual. Yes, our identities are composed of myriad facets that come into greater focus based on the context in which we are operating, but our experience of self is fluid and does not discriminate between a classroom and a hiking trail or the office and our kitchens. The problem is that, so often, we evolve in contexts that acknowledge only very narrow slivers of our abundant selves. Schools, for example, tend to have rather rigid definitions of students, promoting and encouraging certain character traits at the expense of others–obedience, patience, memorization. Same with companies and employees. The issue with creating these rigid and reductive definitions of human beings based on context is that it forces us to suppress much of who/what we are, and as a result we disengage from the present moment. What if there were a better way? One where we did not keep staring at the clock, waiting impatiently for the “work” or “school” day to be over?

Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey and Andy Fleming’s concept of Deliberately Developmental Organizations— seems to offer a promising alternative. DDOs are organizations that seek to fundamentally rethink…* the  company-employee relationship and eradicate the false “work-life balance” we have been taught to strive for, by focusing on their employees not simply as workers, but as individuals and nurturing their need for personal growth and development.

How’s that for a powerful what if–what if in all domains of experience, the working definition of the individual were his or her capacity for growth and change? How much more fluid and salient could all aspects of our lives be?

“As one executive in a high-performing company we have studied explained, “If work and life are separate things—if work is what keeps you from living—then we’ve got a serious problem.” In our research on what we call Deliberately Developmental Organizations—or “DDOs” for short—we have identified successful organizations that regard this trade-off as a false one. What if we saw work as an essential context for personal growth? And what if employees’ continuous development were assumed to be the critical ingredient for a company’s success?

The companies we call DDOs are, in fact, built around the simple but radical conviction that the organization can prosper only if its culture is designed from the ground up to enable ongoing development for all of its people. That is, a company can’t meet ever-greater business aspirations unless its people are constantly growing through doing their work.

What’s it like to work inside such a company? Imagine showing up to work each day knowing that in addition to working on projects, problems, and products, you are constantly working on yourself.  Any meeting may be a context in which you are asked to keep making progress on overcoming your own blindspots—ways you are prone to get in your own way and unwittingly limit your own effectiveness at work.”

Source: Does Your Company Make You A Better Person? via Harvard Business Review, published January 22, 2014.

Free Webinar Series On Harnessing the Power of Neuroplasticity for Greater Happiness, Stronger Resilience & Peak Performance …*

Free Webinar Series On Harnessing the Power of Neuroplasticity for Greater Happiness, Stronger Resilience & Peak Performance ...* | rethinked.org

It starts in the brain: harness the power of neuroplasticity for greater happiness, stronger resilience, and peak performance. Learn the most effective strategies to change your brain, and transform your life. 


From the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine comes the free 2014 Brain Science Webinar Series. Featuring the likes of Daniel Goleman and Kelly McGonigal, the six week seminar will explore topics such as:

  • Happiness and Neuroplasticity: Simple Strategies for Rewiring Your Brain
  • Focus: Why Concentration Can Make Your Brain More Powerful
  • Epigenetics: What Really Controls Our Genes and Why We Don’t Have to Be Victims of Our DNA
  • The Neurobiology of the Teenage Brain: A New Way of Looking at Adolescent Behavior

A new webinar title will be released each Wednesday at 5:00 pm EST, from January 22 (tomorrow!) to February 26, and will be followed up by a “TalkBack” segment– a panel discussion between Kelly McGonigal, Ruth Buczynski, and Ronald Siegel which will focus your attention on how to apply what you’ve just heard to your life.

learn & rethink …* 

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