Making thinking visible: Layers of permanence in an agile environment.

How does using this instead of that change where we end up, or our experience of learning along the way?  This is one of my favourite pictures of tool use. It was taken about half way through my time in the Zone and as it played out alongside me I had a hunch that it was interesting. However, it wasn’t until I stopped to think about it quite recently, that I realised how it opened a window into one of the many ways in which learning is supported in this unusual environment.

This student had been working on a web based maths activity.  She had a go online, then got up, fetched a small whiteboard and sat back down. Balancing the whiteboard on a clipboard, she manually did her workings before typing the answer into the space provided. This seems so very ordinary, and in this space it is. But if you stop and think about what is going on in terms of materials, permanence, visibility and independence it is quite remarkable.

An independent online task, with no way of making her working visible or external, just a box into which the correct (or incorrect) answer has to go. So instead of getting things wrong, she gets up finds a whiteboard and a marker and sits back down to do her working, not on the paper she has to her right on the couch, but on the whiteboard. Yes this had been modelled by the teachers, but I think there is more going on here than meets the eye. The whiteboard holds the information in a semi-permanent state. Somewhere between the relative permanence of scribbling on a bit of paper and the fleeting moment of seeing it typed in the little white box before hitting the return key.

I’m not advocating a return to a purely paper-based ecology of learning. What I am suggesting is that visible traces of learning and layers of permanence are worth considering when designing a learning environment.  This student self-selected a medium in which to work that provided her with a way of visually holding information long enough for her to be satisfied with the answer, type it in, assess the feedback and when satisfied start again; which she did after using the outer edge of her right hand to clear away her previous workings – making space for the new.


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