Representation and Interaction Design: Initial Thoughts

This post is the first of several as part of a Design Journal for a class I am taking in Representation and Interaction Design (E19.2015) as part of the ECT Program at NYU Steinhardt.

Please note that I include some bibliographic notes only as a courtesy and reference; this is by no means a properly annotated or formatted bibliography, though it is possible it will evolve as such.

Our first week’s readings were:

  • Hall, Stuart. “Representation, Meaning, and Language.” (excerpt)
  • Robert E. Horn. “Information Design: Emergence of a New Profession.” (from Jacobson, R.E. (ed.), Information Design)
  • Plass and Salisbury. “A Living-Systems Design Model for Web-Based Knowledge Management Systems.” (from ETR&D, Volume 50, No. 1, 2002)

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First: Hall’s article. I have read selections from this text previously, though it has been several years. This kind of stuff fascinates me. It is one of the primary reasons I love teaching and learning languages. I love also that it is so abstract and philosophical — about how language and visuals construct meaning, but that it is conceptually created by the system of representation. There is a very strong argument here for teaching visual and spatial literacy skills alongside traditional textual literacy; any teacher who feels reading/writing is more important than other language strands must read Hall. Additionally, this is so crucial to understanding when setting out to design anything for learning purposes: the context of the culture, the meaning, the representation, and the language. They all work together (or against one another, at times). In a multicultural society, this makes design difficult, because meaning can never be fixed. No wonder countries like Finland have the “top-rated” educational systems; they are designing learning materials for a largely homogeneous society.

“Language can never be a wholly private game.”p.25

I LOVE this quote! The essence of language — and of communication — is that we share these representations and codes.

“This means that our private thoughts have to negotiate with all the other meanings for words or images which have been stored in language which our use of the language system will inevitably trigger into action.” p.25

Sit and think about that for a moment. To simply exist in the world, we must “negotiate” an understanding with others via words, images, and representation. That is a heavy-duty task, which we do without thinking on a daily basis.

I wonder how much better communicators we would all be if we were conscious of this challenge in each moment?*

The constructivist view of representation is also the reason, in my opinion, why things like poetry, music, and art are so beautiful — the meaning constructed at the “other” end (ie., the reader/listener/viewers’s end) is so unique. It is also the basis for the Reader Response instructional technique / philosophy in literature instruction — that there is no right answer. And, it links neatly to another reading from this week, from a different course: that of Paulo Freire‘s objection to the “banking” concept of education. Learners are not receptacles to be filled: we want them to make their own meaning.

Horn’s article was also interesting, but mostly because this is an aspect I know little about. Thus, it was a great introduction to Information Design, a relatively new “profession” and niche. I had no idea that the UK was (is?) a leader in terms of resources and development in Information Design, so this was interesting to read about. Again, I found a strong argument for teaching of visual and textual literacy in Horn’s article when he discusses Structured Writing:

“Structured writing . . . is foundational to some areas of information design. It provides a systematic way of analyzing any subject matter to be conveyed in a written document.” p. 23

Thus, the importance of learning how to organize and arrange information: it is a crucial skill in any kind of analysis. The section on p. 24 about iconic signage was also interesting (another argument for visual literacy in schools), particularly the study of international symbols. I especially think this quote is relevant:

“To create a true linguistics of visual language we need new concepts that focus on how words and images work together.” p. 28

But most interesting was the final conclusion, in which Horn basically says that this profession is still evolving. Huh. It is still evolving 10 years after the publication of this article!

The Plass / Salisbury article was the least interesting to me because it was so technical, and in the end I felt like the conclusions were a no-brainer to me, and therefore somewhat of a disappointment. Not that I think their research & development of the living-systems model is not important — it most certainly is. But their conclusion — that a design cycle to create an instructional knowledge management system works best when there is constant evaluation and regulation by participants — is pretty much a given when you come from an educational background like I do. Of course a system of learning works better when the students have a part of it. Of course a system of learning works better when you are constantly asking the question, “How’s it going?” and “What can we do better?” and then actually implementing the suggestions. To me, it is all summed up in the final sentence:

“The living-systems approach we described in this article aims to support the development of environments that not only allow individuals to regulate their learning process, but that indeed grow and change in order to accommodate learners’ needs.” p.54

I recognize that designing and implementing an instructional tool (particularly a web-based one) to do this may not be easy. Heck, judging from the lengthy process that Plass & Salisbury describe (approximately 20 pages), I have to surmise that it is major task. I get that. But in the field of education, the conclusion stated above is really old news and something that educators try to do daily — particularly if they agree in any way with philosophers like Freire.

On a related note, I was quite pleased to notice distinct similarities between the design cycle that Plass / Salisbury come up with:

Living Systems Design Model

… and the MYP design cycle:

MYP Design Cycle

* As I read articles in this course, I am continuing to find many theories and ideas that are philosophical in nature. I am constantly reminded of Buddhist and other philosophical thoughts (for example, Sikhism, and various other yogic philosophies). I often wonder if I should create a separate blog just about those links. It truly is fascinating, especially when you get even further into studies of cognitive behavioural therapy and cognitive sciences in general.

Absence = Affirmations + Aspirations

I simply cannot believe I have not posted since June.  June!  In case you hadn’t guessed, things have been rather nutty over in my neck of the Educational Woods.

Where I’ve been

Briefly — for those 3 “regular” readers who may have assumed that I’d “taken off, eh” in my true Canadian form — this is what I’ve been up to:

  • A wonderful summer of laughter, love, travel, family, and yoga.  Blissful vacation in my home province of Alberta, Canada, and my partner’s home state of California.
  • In June (shortly after my last post) I received a request to run an MYP Language A level 1 workshop in Hong Kong — my very first MYP workshop ever!  Of course I accepted, not quite realizing how much work would be involved.  The workshop dates: Sept 13-15, 2008.
  • Also in June, I began studying for my GRE (Graduate Record of Examination), as preliminary application prep for grad school in the fall of 2009.  My exam date:  Sept 26, 2008.

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  • It then occurred to me that both preparing for my MYP workshop and studying for my exam were going to have to happen simultaneously.  No problem, right?
  • Wrong.
  • Back-to-school in mid-August.  Mayhem ensued.

You’ve probably already guessed that the MYP workshop prep took priority over my GRE study.  When I look back at the past two months, I still can’t quite believe I did all of this AND taught 4 different grade levels full time, coherently (OK, OK, semi-coherently).  So, you might say I’ve been insanely busy.

How it went

MYP workshop in Hong Kong: Wonderfully!  Far better than I had expected, and with plenty of positive feedback to boot.  It was well worth the two weeks of Hardly Any Sleep (yes, that deserves capital letters), and 3 nights of mediocre room service meals in my hotel room.

GRE: In a word — notsogood. Without going into too much detail, it sucked.  I hate standardized tests. Hate them.  Really, really hate them.  They have so very little educational value, and the very core of my Teacher Being wants to rebel and take a stand!  But dangit – some of the best technology / literacy / education programs in the USA require me to take them just to get my foot in the door.  So I have relented, and scheduled another exam at the end of November.  I promise this time I’ll study for the math section, though I might need some help.  Hey, if nothing else, it’s an excuse to go to Bangkok for another weekend, just in time to do some Christmas shopping.

What’s next: Affirmations

I’ve spent the past three weeks simply trying to catch up and get into a routine.  And now, suddenly, it’s Autumn Break!  What a great time for pause and reflection.


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My goals this year (even though we’re a quarter through already) involve even more focus on the integration of technology into my English classes to best reflect MYP philosophy.

I admit it: I am MYP FanGirl #1.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think the programme has its drawbacks and weaknesses — it most certainly does.  But I believe so strongly in it because it reflects much of what I know to be true as a teacher and learner that I unabashedly put my support behind it.  I definitely see myself growing even more within this educational framework, and I’ve been with it already for 7+ years.  I do not see my MYPness (yes, I said it 😉 ) waning any time soon.

I also will admit that technology has its drawbacks and weaknesses.  But it, too, is something that I believe strongly in because I recognize that our world is changing before us, and our students need to think differently than we did.  Like Einstein said, “We cannot solve problems using the same thinking we used when we created them.”  And so, at the heart of it all, I still believe that it’s not about the technology.  It’s about thinking and learning in different ways to make sense of the ever-changing world, and technology is a big part of the thinking, the learning, and certainly the change.

Where I’m going: Aspirations

So what’s down the road?

The more often I speak to other like-minded educators, the more often I am struck with this realization: the “making sense” part of our job is the same in every “schooly” subject area, and it almost always comes down to communication.

An abridged defintion of “communicate“:*

–verb (used with object)

1. to impart knowledge of; make known: to communicate information; to communicate one’s happiness.
2. to give to another; impart; transmit: to communicate a disease.

–verb (used without object)

5. to give or interchange thoughts, feelings, information, or the like, by writing, speaking, etc.: They communicate with each other every day.
6. to express thoughts, feelings, or information easily or effectively.
7. to be joined or connected: The rooms communicated by means of a hallway.

Interestingly, the origin of this word is from the Latin, commūnicātus, ptp. of commūnicāre to impart, make common.


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What I’m dreaming of is this: a place where the finest, most important skills of communication — that is, those that involve the imparting of ideas and interchange of thoughts and feelings — are not only taught and fostered in an English (or Communications) course, but across every aspect of learning at every age, in every subject area.  (Will there even be a need for subject areas?  The world is so interconnected now; the idea of separating them feels so outdated to me.)

And that’s about as concrete as I can get at the moment.  It all starts with a vision, right?  I have no clear idea what this scenario would look like, sound like, or feel like, but I’m confident that if I continue down the path I’m currently on, the tangible will eventually accompany what is currently visceral.

I envision a time in the not-so-distant future where my current job (English teacher — that is, teacher of both English language and literature) is obsolete.  Instead, I see the language, literature, and tools of communication being delicate, abundant, and essential threads across learning of all kinds.

Where does it all leave me?

I’m just not sure yet!

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*I’ve left out some definitions here that refer to archaic uses or the partaking of the Eucharist.