Hans Rosling’s creative teaching technologies – realia, boxes, Lego

I’m thinking through how useful I find using small manipulable toys like cuisinaire rods and Lego to visualize information, to explain and teach things in a small classroom, for example in one-to-one training. Recently I’ve joined a group exploring the terrain of using Lego, and so I’m thinking back to how I have used these tools with various clients over the years.  Now I’ve stumbled upon a video of Hans Rosling using Lego, an opportunity to ponder quietly what the effect is on the learner.

Hans Rosling is unquestionably one of the best international presenters in the world, having captured the visual essence of development in his moving bubble charts (Gapmminder).But he’s also given  a mind-blowing presentation of progress using a washing machine. He has presented using Ikea boxes, and now, in a new video, he uses Lego. First, here are the three presentations with realia, boxes and Lego:

Washing machine:

Ikea boxes:


I frankly really appreciate the use of real life realia, they evoke emotion the way a multifunctional building toy simply can’t. I use things or at least pictures of things quite a lot. Saying that one abstract box represents one thing and placing it next to an identical other box representing a different thing places additional cognitive load on the viewer. That can be good or bad, depending on whether the load is rewarded in some way. It helps if you add visual distinction to the box, the way Hans Rosling does with the realia he pulls out of his Ikea boxes, like some magician. That adds a lovely element of play and surprize.

Bare Lego on the other hand without playing clown or dress-up will divide the public. It can be charming to those with happy memories of the building toy, or with lots of practice building with their kids. That charm can be harnessed to focus attention. I think, however, that the blocks need to be very well connected visually to stories as they are told. I once saw Mark Powell use cuisinaire rods that way, and it got me down the road of storytelling with little blocks and rods. I’ve found that once those stories start to materialize and are understood, there is a creative spark that you can kindle and develop as you hand things over, step by step, to the students. And then I think the additional cognitive load is actually exactly what you need, because the learners are more engaged and working harder at the same time.

Beyond that, however, what these presentations show me at least is that it’s easy to visualize the big picture with simple tools, or to tell a simple story, but to see and remember the details, e.g. ratios between groups or development over time, and in fact figures of any kind, you really need graphics. Nothing replaces complex graphics for communicating complex data, and in turn relating that, when it is well done, to a big idea.

Michael Wesch on…

I keep going back to Michael Wesch when I want to understand media, and have posted his work of 2009/10 here before. Here the first part of a very short talk from the same period is very engaging (especially min. 3:45-7:15).

He summarizes here how in the pre-media (no-books) Papua New Guinea culture he had been studying, when disputes needed resolution, “the relationship was put on trial”. This changed when individuals became literate, and state laws were instituted, and suddenly in disputes the individuals themselves were being held to the letter of the law. Wesch relates how unhappy the members of the culture were with these changes, how they were struggling with what they had become.

Wesch generalizes this experience of (new) media clash, saying:

  • Even when we try to use media, the media actually uses us.
  • These changes affect everybody. There’s no opting out.
  • Media are not just tools, not just means of communication, they mediate relationships.

He foresees battles about privacy, security, who will and won’t have a voice, and what we will and won’t know, but doesn’t leave it at that. In a leap of faith, he energizes himself and his students to engage with the mediated world and make it their own.

I’m just thinking through, going back to his Papua New Guinea culture, how aspects of the cultures we have lost can be brought back in a new way. Recognizing that relationships going on trial was a fundamental principle in their old culture suggests to me that they will need to integrate that knowledge into the books in some way.

Likewise, reflecting on my disenchantment with Facebook, and having deleted my account though I’m fully aware that this has made me become disconnected to some extent from the mainstream of my professional connections, I’m pondering: In our new media age, we need to find new ways to protect our right to privacy, which to me is – still! –  as much an element of our right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as connectivity is.

I’d like to try to find ways to – once again – engage with mass new media, but on my own terms.

Goodbye, Facebook

I don’t like friending. I don’t like following. I don’t like liking. I don’t like the faceless, fake culture of having loads and loads of super duper friends, patting each other on the back and saying how fantastic everyone is. I was on Facebook for a few years and today left. The reason was that I had joined a private list of people in my profession who share music, and I admit I really loved learning from the others and remembering my own favorites, and the cautious opening up that went with that was quite charming. It was almost like walking in on a group of colleagues you admire from afar in someone’s living room.  But relationships online are two-dimensional, or even one-dimensional, and it is all too easy to feel a sense of communality where there isn’t one. The incident: I posted a Jiddish song performed by a German group, and unfortunately a Lebanese member of the group took offense and posted a disturbing video. It was not the first time things I felt a troubling disconnect. People have strange sides that come out in disconcerting ways and sting you when you wear your heart on your sleeve and don’t know how to cover yourself, and I suddenly felt very uncomfortable, vulnerable, out of place. Face-threatening Facebook. Not good for my emotional life. Goodbye, and good riddance.

Now, how to reorganize my online connections with other teaching professionals, my memberships and online services? How to keep up with my extended family, old neighbors, classmates? Onward, and upward.

The real Tatort story

Opening the New York Times supplement to the Süddeutsche this week on page 4 there is a story by Michael Kimmelman on “German TV Viewers Love Their Detectives“. I was thinking: Great job, NYT, you really pick up on stories quickly. Of course I was thinking of the scandal that hit the presses this weekend: Doris Heinze, director of the NDR TV film program, was sacked after she was discovered to have written many of the film scripts herself, along with her husband, under assumed names, with both of them cashing in on the scam. As the TV scripts are mostly miserable, a sigh of relief has gone through the arts world, and there is some slight hope that the quality might perhaps improve just a bit.

But what does the NYT write? None of that. Simply that the Tatort series is very regional and that ordinary relationships are what it’s all about. Ok, but… Newspaper lead times can really kill a nice article.

The stolen election

Persepolis” cartoonist and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi says Iranians were robbed of their votes. Along with renowned filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Satrapi asked the European Union not recognize President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Satrapi read from a paper allegedly from the Interior Ministry in Iran that stated opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi had received 19,075,723 votes compared with 5,698,000 votes for Ahmadinejad.


Pictures on Boston Globe’s Big Picture. Videos on SasanShah1‘s channel. 60 minutes Twitter downtime, a news break feared by activists, has already been postponed by a day… It’s down now.

Internet for everyone

The USA ranks 15th in broadband adoption, which is key to getting more access for rural areas. Germany, where I live, has dropped from rank 10 to 14. The table is from a publication by InternetforEveryone.org called One Nation Online. Also see the OECD report, The Future of the Internet Economy.

Of course, the US, Germany, Sweden etc. are still doing comparably well in terms of overall Internet access. World internet usage statistics showing general access add perspective.

Here is the Internet for Everyone official call:

Robin Chase on internet access in rural areas:

Robin Chase mentions her green web-based companies zipcar (car rental) and goloco (ride sharing).

Launch of InternetforEveryone.org at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City (June 24, 2008).

White House online

young and restless

Aren’t they lovely? The average campaign donation for Obama was 83 dollars. This time you know who the money came from.

The picture is ripped from the print edition of the article “Young and Restless” in the Financial Times of 24 October, which sweetened my ride home last night. Here is one section that will be interesting to those of you involved in media democracy and e-government:


Barack Obama has used the power of the internet to transform the way election campaigns are run – and if he wins the White House next month he is thought likely to use the web to transform the presidency, writes Rebecca Knight. Continue reading White House online