Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Visualizing The Olympics - Shaping An Iconic Brand

Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Olympic logo is a heroic piece of design, arguably the most identifiable symbol in the world. The simplicity of its creation, with five primary-color interlocking rings, belies a complex symbolism of continental unity. This global camaraderie in the name of sportsmanship has been broken at times, in the World War interruptions, the Munich tragedy, and the Cold War boycotts. But for the most part, the quadrennial harmony evoked by the Olympic logo fulfills the 1912 wish of its creator, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern games.

The summer and winter Olympics also offer each host city a chance to brand itself in the international marketplace, attracting tourist dollars, advertising revenue, and local pride. Smooth stagings and triumphant architecture are long remembered by athletes and television viewers. In the opening ceremonies of these London games of the 30th Olympiad, Director Danny Boyle realized the daunting challenging of living up to the visually euphoric standard of Beijing 2008.

The individual logos for each city's games have featured notable successes and failures. Several sites, such as Webdesigner Depot, feature every emblem from 1896 to the present. Featured below, in our opinion, are the five best and worst from Olympic history:





In more recent times, cities have also paired a unique Olympic mascot to complement the overall messaging. Some of these have hit perfect notes, such as the sensational Fuwa pandas from Beijing 2008. Others have been head-scratching disasters, such as the amorphous Izzy alien from Atlanta 1996. Personally, we have a soft spot for the cute First Nations animals from Vancouver 2010.

Sources: Olympic Mascots Wiki, Antiswank, Squidoo

The current London 2012 mascots, though, have been almost universally ridiculed. Named Wenlock and Mandeville, the characters are supposed to be playful and child-like. Critics and casual viewers, however, all seem to hate the baffling shapes, comparing them to everything from the secret Illuminati society to something we won't discuss on an educational blog.

London 2012; Source: International Business Times

One of the best Olympic design feats comes from Sarah Hyndman, a London-based graphic artist, who one year ago initiated the "Olympic Logo A Day" project. Each day she blogged about her newest Olympic ring inspiration. Her collection of imaginative, kooky images is breathtaking to behold. She gathered the completed designs in the video below. It truly captures the spirit of Olympic passion and talent.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Nok, Nok. Who's there?

Source: 6th Grade Student
Time who? Time to learn, time to think, time to let me ponder what’s next, time to reflect on my work, time to wonder, time to teach, but most of all time to be creative! Sure, we could present the facts to our students, but how much do they actually absorb or retain once the lesson or unit test becomes history? Chances are not much, but if we take the time to let them make something the learning changes, because they are engaged in the process. 

Source: 6th Grade Student
The Nok sculptures peppered throughout this post were part of an introductory unit on the Sub-Saharan region. This early culture with the knowledge of iron-making preceded some of the greatest West African kingdoms during the Middle Ages. Sure, the students could have memorized a list of characteristics to visually describe these terracotta sculptures, but with a little more time they designed their own Nok works of art using the artistic traits of the original pieces. It took two class periods. Not a lot of time, but worth it. Even the reluctant students, who insisted they couldn’t draw, came up with ideas to reflect the style of these ancient heads. Each one demonstrates their personal style in a different way. The sense of ownership is palpable. The pride in their creations is clear.

Source: 6th Grade Student
As with countless assignments like this, students who move up in grades year after year still recall the things they did or made as part of simple activities to full-blown project-based learning units. Kids that “do the learning” engage in the process on multiple levels. When they use visual thinking skills, they need time to look. 

We found giving our students time to be creative connected them to the content. We’ve done this in other areas as well, including designing calligraphy in Arabic, drawing maps, illustrating stories and becoming entrepreneurs. All with the same goal in mind, learn by doing to own it.

Source: 6th Grade Student
While we realize that time will always be an issue, we must, however, do our best to allow for exploration to develop ideas. Perhaps, that is our task, to think how to creatively change the way we teach content for our students to learn it. Building in time lets kids digest and think about the content. Mark Gleeson sums it up perfectly in this blog post Creativity and Quality vs Time Constraints and Quantity. Our school system is so accustomed to pushing “quantity over quality, product over process, and finishing over creating.”

No wonder our students don’t retain what they are taught. As lists of facts pass through their heads, the information slips into oblivion unless they do something with it. It is not about the amount of information they learn; it’s about coming away with ideas, with encouragement, with feedback, with desire to learn more because they are interested in it. How else can we expect to develop life-long learners?

The opening lines of the video Creativity Requires Time featured in Gleeson's post begin with: “Our clients want us to do more in less time. How can we make them understand that for new, effective ideas we need more time?” This sounds like our school system which wants us to do more in less time. As teachers, we should be asking our legislators, school administrators, curriculum coordinators, department heads, whomever: “How can we make you understand that in order for kids to learn something, to develop ideas about the content, to reflect on what we they are doing, we need more time?” 

We should all try the experiment in Creativity Requires Time with our students; better yet, do it during a faculty meeting. Going from 10 seconds to 10 minutes to create something changes everything, and it would sure drive home the point. Perhaps we should ask ourselves some of the 13 Subversive Questions that Peter Pappas proposed as we enter a new school year: When we cover material, what is it that we think we have accomplished? Is being told something the same as learning it? What would content area teaching look like if it were taught the way an art teacher teaches art?

Source: 6th Grade Student
Time is the most sought after four-letter word. When we think of disruptive technologies, or innovations, they all require time. It does not matter if it’s paper or electronic, without time to create we get the same results – mediocrity. Kids deserve more!

Check out our earlier posts on creativity, design, and visual thinking.

For other readings on creativity in education, we recommend:

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Bigfoot Of Big Data - Educational Myth vs. Reality

Source: Dell Family Foundation
Two mysteries surround the use of "Big Data" in education: 1) how statistics will affect teachers, and 2) how information will affect students. Businesses and particularly tech aggregators have been collecting consumer data for years. School districts and government agencies are now beginning to realize the potential in tapping libraries of student stats.

We've written several times about the fate of education in the era of big data. One organization quickly establishing itself as the vanguard of prudence in weighing educational data is the Dell Family Foundation. The Foundation has produced responsible research and clear graphics about the myths versus the realities of schools' numbers.

Some of the fiercest fables about educational data center on the perceived "newness" and "absolutism" of collected stats. As the Dell Family Foundation stresses, student test scores do not equal perfect data. Input comes from many sources, to inform teaching and to empower educators, parents, and children to make wise choices. Today's data problems stem from research being sequestered, denied to certain constituencies. It is released only to buttress political points and support test-based outcomes, rather than achievement-based solutions.

Source: Dell Family Foundation
Source: Dell Family Foundation
An interesting point by the Dell Family Foundation is how enlightened data can enhance teacher creativity. In fact, "data-driven insights encourage innovative approaches to teaching." By analyzing student strengths and weaknesses, educators can better know each pupil and can design unique strategies to inspire each child. This model of imaginative data is a far cry from the NCLB stencil that ranks children and schools solely on numerical scores, divorced from context and nuance.

The following articles offer informed debate about educational findings:

Source: Visual News
As companies and schools dash headlong into the data maelstrom, they are often unsure of what to grab and where to focus. A steady approach to data mining comes via a Numerate Choir post, called "Data Science Is The Old New Thing." Writer Mike Greenfield gives four profiles of information operators, from the simplest to the richest: "Null Set," "Collect Only," "Data Economics," and "Data Hacking." If schools are to push back effectively against districts and governments that want to alchemize test scores, they need to embrace their treasure troves and become data hackers themselves, differentiating facts just as they differentiate instruction.

Then, as schools grow comfortable with their Excel spreadsheets, the crucial question for students becomes, "What Skills Are Essential For Big Data?" In considering how our children might fare in their Brobdingnagian century, James Kobielus, Senior Program Director of Big Data Analytics at IBM's warehousing blog, gathered an expert panel of industry insiders to lay out the critical proficiencies for math, science, and technology. His work couples neatly with Frank Catalano's at Mind/Shift, who recently probed the question of "How Will Student Data Be Used?" James Locus at Hortonworks similarly scrutinized the differences between traditional and emerging educational analytics.

All of these informed voices agree that the verdict is still out on the future of school stats. Steve Schoettler, Founder and CEO of Junyo, echoes this uncertainty in his eye-opening talk about "Learning Analytics" at the Strata Conference 2012. He explains the importance of using data to provide individualized feedback and the confusion over how to access fertile data. This understated clip gives food for thought as we approach the daunting data buffet:

For other important readings, we strongly recommend:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Info-graphicacy: Saving Visually Self-Destructive Students

Source: The Learning Web
Many students in today’s generation face an acute barrier to learning. This obstacle is going largely unaddressed, despite the following conundrum:
  1. Most information today is delivered visually.
  2. Most students self-identify as visual learners.
  3. Many students, in fact, are not visual learners.
  4. Many students, therefore, are actively working (or studying) against their own educational self-interests.
Depending on which study you believe, anywhere from 39% to 65% of people would be classified as "visual learners." Ask a roomful of children, however, what kind of learner they think they are, and almost all will claim to be visual. This is because they enjoy pictorial engagements, such as video games, television, and movies, and because image-based learning is considered to be relatively passive and thus “easier.” Two main options exist to handle this dilemma:
  1. Teachers can restrict visual inputs, such as laptops, iPads, smartphones and SMARTboards, to only a few select students, and, at the same time, they can rebuke children for visual proclivities and enforce more inherent auditory or kinesthetic learning styles.
  2. Teachers can increase instruction in visual tools.
The first choice makes little sense. It will no doubt incite insurrection, and it disregards the unavoidable future of high-retina technology. The first choice is also destructive, denying student choice, while the second option is empowering. It meets students where they are and uses the mutually acknowledged optical space as a launching pad for broader visual instruction.

Source: Visual.ly, Cragin Design
Graphicacy is the literacy of decoding and encoding pictures. We've emphasized before (here, here, and here) the benefits of increased graphicacy teaching in our classrooms. Infographics are the quintessential vehicles through which to reach a visual generation. Not only are infographics omnipresent, but also they are vivid, contemporary, and inclusive of the key elements for visual instruction. Good infographics seamlessly blend text, images, charts, and data and, therefore, present a ripe opportunity for pedagoptics, a method of teaching with optical tools.

Source: OnlineCollege.org
A recent study out of the Cornell Department of Design and Environmental Analysis used an infrared, eye-tracking system to study how people internalize infographics. Specifically, the team mapped viewers' eye movements as they scanned infographics, recording where their eyes landed first and lingered longest. The team found that combinations of images and text, rather than single, provocative icons, were the most effective in grabbing attention. This unexpected finding highlights the need to guide children in unraveling textual and optical data.

Marc Smiciklas, a digital strategist at Intersection Consulting, has a new book about The Power Of Infographics: Using Pictures To Communicate And Connect With Your Audiences. In it, he discusses the science of visual communication. In a terrific related blog post, Smiciklas notes that in order to negotiate information overload, the brain typically discards 99% of incoming sensory information, unless it is deemed novel or unfamiliar. He also cites a study from Robert Lane and Dr. Stephen Kosslyn that claims visual stimuli have value based on their "processing efficiency" and "expressive potential." Effective images, therefore, should provide detail, lay down context, clarify complexity, and reduce learning times. Infographics neatly fit these criteria for emerging learners, especially in navigating details and enhancing learning efficiency.

Source: Marc Smiciklas
The venerated image curators at Visual.ly also recently blogged about what made their top 30 most-viewed infographics so popular. They analyzed the content type, content domain, design type, and use of data visualization. Their findings offer interesting conclusions about what constitutes a potent illustration, especially in grabbing viewers' attentions.

For teaching resources, check out our library of infographics, arranged by subject. Or check out our graphicacy page, with more articles and research.

We also recommend these resources for further reading:

Friday, July 13, 2012

Creativity Killers & Visualizing Different

The Anti-Creativity Checklist is one of those videos that hits home and requires no words to describe its powerful message about how to kill the creative spirit. It was published on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network in March 2010. The creator is Youngme Moon, a Donald K. David Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. Her research focuses on the intersection of business, branding, and culture and how it affects marketing and strategy innovation. Perhaps the strongest message is that so many of the points made in the video are reflected in the bureaucratic approach to our current education system and the lack of forward thinking on the part of legislators and administrators to make changes.

The takeaways are clear: if we stick with the list of 14 points, so carefully depicted as a series of patterned statements followed by quotations that emphasize each one, we can systematically kill creativity. Maintaining the status quo is not good enough anymore. Our students need to compete in the marketplace for their future, and it requires us to change tactics to raise innovative and creative kids to be entrepreneurs.

Creativity is a necessity. Students need time to tinker, grapple, and ponder what they are learning to develop their imaginations, artistic abilities, and ingenuity. It's at the top of Bloom's Taxonomy and the key criteria in IBM's 2010 Global CEO Study. Countless other resources, from Ken Robinson's infamous TED talk on schools killing creativity to Tony Wagner's new book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, support the idea for raising and not killing the creative spirit.  Without it, our kids will have an increasingly difficult time adapting to changes in a fast-paced, growing, complex world.

Source: Architizer
Education needs to differentiate itself from its routine, homogenized view for this century. It needs to be different, because kids learn differently. New schools look like old schools. Big deal, instead of black boards they have interactive whiteboards; most new schools haven’t taken a risk like a new one built in Stockholm designed without classrooms for today's kids. Now that breaks from the norm.

Youngme Moon addresses this, too, in her book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, about breaking with conformity. Her message:
"Get off the competitive treadmill that's taking you nowhere. Aspire to offer the world something that is meaningfully different-Different in a manner that is both fundamental and comprehensive."
The book trailer Youngme Moon produced for Different captures what it means to think differently in a mesmerizing visualization that in and of itself is creative. The design and clarity of the message to deliver her a point of view remind us of The Value of Visualization video from Column Five. Its straightforward and simplified delivery on being different is a powerful message and one we need to think about as educators.

We need to be forward thinking and not afraid to make the necessary changes for the world of learners we teach now. Technology changed the game rules, and if we don't watch out, we could be out of the game of school.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Visualizing Music - The Best Apps

Source: NodeBeat
These days, an iPad and five minutes are all you need to experiment with trippy, light-bending music interfaces. Anyone can become an instant composer. The proliferation of interactive sound apps has opened up countless lesson ideas for music instruction. Schools blessed with 1:1 tablet capability can set their students free to explore and create. Other options include BYOD meet-ups or group sharing. Even without hand-held devices, a teacher could show the functions on an interactive whiteboard to inspire children outside of the classroom. At the very least, the apps featured below are fun for anyone, whether serious musician, techy gear-head, or occasional fiddler.

Visual Music Apps

NodeBeat - iOS Music Sequencer from AffinityBlue on Vimeo.


NodeBeat is a visual music app from AffinityBlue where the user manipulates nodes and clusters to create cadenced tunes. Self-described as "intuitive and fun," the app is certainly easy to use. Check out the video above to hear a sample of the tunes.

Source: Orphion


The Orphion app combines string and percussion elements to express feelings and polyphonic music. The experience was created by a German jazz saxophonist with the Rowling-esque name of Bastus Trump. As Fast Company's Co.Design blog noted, "it's a Venn Diagram that you can play."

An Incredible Way to Teach Music Using iPads in the Classroom 

This is not an "app" per se, but Neil Johnston of Store Van Music used a combination of tablets and traditional instruments to generate an upbeat, commercial anthem from a room full of students. This article from Edudemic features a catchy video of the kids in action. The resulting song is now even available for purchase.

Source: Interval Apps


Thicket triggers sounds and images by swiping fingers across the screen. It is equal parts toy and performance tool, with stunning modes such as "Cut Whispers." You can check out a demonstration by watching the preview video.

Finally, this Leo Burnett television ad, called "Love Unlimited," does a beautiful job of showing the potential of interactive apps in a human ensemble. We're not promoting (and have no affiliation with) Sprint as a cellular network. The visual choir of devices, though, is inescapably uplifting.

Check out our other posts about teaching with visual music.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Phenomenology - Education Of The Unexpected

Source: Obey Giant
Perhaps the most effective viral visualization of the past 20 years has been the OBEY propaganda pop-art phenomenon. Long before Twitter and Facebook manufactured memes, this grassroots graffiti campaign stirred surprise and admiration from San Francisco to Brooklyn. Ostensibly an underground poster movement, the OBEY image featured a bare-bones black-and-white lithograph of Andre The Giant, the legendary professional wrestler and authoritarian powerhouse.

Starting in 1989 in Providence, Rhode Island, the image began to appear on urban alleys and billboards, urging passersby to "Obey!" in a totalitarian message of conformity. The movement was initiated by artist Shepard Fairey, who would later achieve acclaim with his WPA-inspired "Progress" poster for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Fairey imagined a street spreading of agitprop design that would enforce obedience in the absence of an obvious message. The directive and source would be unknown. Only urgent would be the aggressive dispatch, without a discernible motive.

It would succeed mightily. Soon the OBEY graphic would find itself in all pockets of the country, leading eventually to a commercial empire. The thrust behind the art movement, though, was phenomenology. As described by Fairey, "the first aim of Phenomenology is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one's environment. The OBEY campaign attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the campaign and their relationship with their surroundings."

Source: Obey Giant
In philosophy, the definition of phenomenology is "the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view." In education, the notion of "stimulating curiosity" is precisely the purview of every Early Childhood teacher. They inspire young minds through new exposures, such as a first bird's nest or a homemade pretzel. The OBEY Manifesto notes that, "people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the motive is not obvious." Yet in elementary education, the visual encounter and hands-on experience are themselves the motives. Making sense of visuals is graphicacy at its best, and there need not always be deeper rationales.

The OBEY mission, underground yet in-your-face, has been perpetuated by recent street artists such as Banksy. But don't teachers do this all the time? They craft rich bulletin boards for children to stumble upon. They show political cartoons, videos, and maps and let students reach their own conclusions. Project-based learning (PBL) is itself a study in phenomenology. PBL, of course, must be based on explicit steps and rubrics so students can meet the goals. But sometimes unexpected encounters can offer moments of illumination and teach children to deal with what is unforeseen. Occasions of self-discovery and trying to make sense of environments offer true independent thinking.

Source: Banksy
Our former English colleague, for example, used to describe a lesson where she would stage a simulated shouting match in front of a class of startled students. Two teachers would arrange to meet at her doorway and engage in a heated mock argument, yelling vaguely specific terms like "benefits schedule" and "lesson approval." After 30 seconds, the faux fight would disappear, and the teacher would ask the children to write down exactly what had happened. She would then read their accounts aloud. Invariably, the students were shocked to hear that their classmates had recorded drastically different versions of the same event. The lesson would then transition to a discussion of eye-witness accuracy in legal trials and newspaper stories. But the immediacy of wrangling with a confusing display left a lasting impression on the kids.

Source: Over The Airwaves
Other possibilities for phenomenology in the classroom could be to spring surprise evidence during a Mock Trial crime scene visit. Or, for example, our fourth-graders each year reenact a trip on the Oregon Trail, encountering new dilemmas at stations and drawing "fate cards" to deal with real-world decision-making. The art of the unexpected reinforces the benefit of simulations like Constitutional Conventions or U.S. Senate sessions. Not everything must be spelled out to students. In fact, grappling with the unexplained makes for proactive, genuine education.

For additional reading, we recommend:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Educational Style - The Self-Imagined Space

Source: The New York Times
The New York Times Sunday Styles Weddings / Celebrations page is a brilliant space. It is a coveted, scrutinized, august section that thrives in its own artificiality. The genius of the page's construct lies in its fabrication. It is always the same, week to week. Its readers expect and delight in its self-imposed consistency. The weddings page is a perfectly realized, self-imagined space that surprisingly raises a lot of questions about education.

Most hometown newspapers use their wedding announcements like obituaries, to drum up cash in a column-inch fee schedule. The New York Times is different. It has established a unique information delivery mode -- predictable, with its own set of rules, diction, and syntax. The weddings page especially succeeds in its unvarying photos, with each couple identically framed in size and expression. The NYTimes makes these standards clear, outlining on its "How To Submit A Wedding Announcement" page that, "couples posing for pictures should arrange themselves with their eyebrows on the same level and with their heads fairly close together."

Source: lolololori, ASIDE 2012
The New York Times didn't have to design its page this way. The format was completely open. But the layout has now become entrenched as the self-perpetuating gold-standard for esteemed couples-to-be. This uncontested template is much like some academic molds in our school systems that are only now beginning to be challenged. Fixed classroom designs are now opening to technology access and collaborative learning. Homework worksheets are now being replaced by flipped methods and streaming video.

The design of space and information is integral to learning. The consistency of format at once helps students feel comfortable in familiar environments, but it can also lead to staleness and conservatism. In The New York Times and in the classroom, the medium reinforces the message.

It's important to ask if some educators still rely on rigid routines in their classes. Do they recycle in-class worksheets, matching columns, PE drills, current event reports, and other time-honored but questionably relevant practices? Do some teachers create their own jargon and customs? Do they demand that students conform to their own rules and peccadilloes, and is this a good thing? Structure, or failure to update to meet current learner needs, can be both a student's best friend and worst enemy.

Source: The New York Times
Until recently, The New York Times weddings page carried the air of exclusivity, of elite access granted to a pedigreed few. Prestigious independent schools once embodied this same upper-crust status. Changing admission policies, competition for applicants, and evolving technologies in learning, though, may be refreshing their reputations. For its part, The New York Times made a deliberate policy to throw off the snobbery cloak. To wide approval, the paper began to recognize public service in its pair's resumes, just as schools now promote outreach as essential to citizenship. Even more noteworthy in 2002, it welcomed same-sex couples to its pages, just as many schools today embrace diversity and highlight LBGT affinity groups.

Source: Doug Savage, George Graham
The creation of a public space is a careful, deliberate task. Its culture and its customs must be clearly delineated. For these reasons, we give the newspaper's Style page high marks. For all its cache and mystique, it lists its expectations in black and white. Everyone knows the guidelines and where the bar is set, just like the best schools that demand much of their students, but make those standards unambiguous.

An independent school should not be a night club, with velvet-rope rules at the whim of a doorman. The applicants and attendees should understand the protocol, to live up to the caliber of academics and traditions. Instead of using aristocratic argot or pretentious patois, schools should design information delivery to reach the most and to champion everyone.
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