How might a digital whiteboard work as a thinking tool?

In short: Interaction with “representations” on a whiteboard canvas can trigger learning processes. This phenomenon exists across age groups and is relevant among adult learners as well. 

In order to understand how cutting-edge collaborative whiteboards support cognition, one only needs to consider childhood and observe how thinking evolves during play. 

Imagine a two-year-old manipulating physical blocks. While playing, the young brain builds up mental constructs of independent objects. These are created stage by stage, integrating elementary action schemes gained from actual experiences within the environment. This is how things like tower-building can happen.

Soon after the assimilated concepts are accommodated in brain structures, it becomes possible for the child to use “abstractions” to think through actions without the need to physically manipulate objects. This is essentially where most adults are — we have a good understanding of how wooden blocks work.

The canvas of a digital whiteboard (a virtual space) makes it easy to represent real objects with pictures or other forms, such as symbols or drawings, while not being constrained by the real environment (a physical space). These are called “first-order representations”.

Watch Reshan demonstrating early algebraic concepts using first-order representations during our April 1st 10h-long YouTube livestream.

Going beyond simple abstractions

Now think of numbering objects using counters or chips, with representing each object. Using counters is a symbolic action that can be traced back at least to the 8th millennium B.C.E. Back then, counters were used to document a “one-to-one” relation between concrete objects and marks on a clay tablet.

Counters can play an important role in cognitive development. These are essentially “second-order representations”, or representations that are indirectly related to objects and actions. They are the cornerstone for the higher-order structures emerging from their usage, for example in algebra, where a set of symbols reflects arithmetical operations.

The digital whiteboard acts as a bridge between direct representation and abstract symbolic systems of knowledge. The canvas allows you to create a direct representation of any items, and, if needed, use them alongside symbolic representations in order to gradually develop understanding — from simple to more abstract and complex ideas.

Example of using a whiteboard for explaining elementary algebra. 

Using the digital whiteboard to develop thinking together 

A digital whiteboard is an amazing thinking tool, the ultimate medium to use for the fundamental processes of building understanding across different fields. It is a powerful tool to actively support cognition, one which allows the user to witness transformations of less or more abstract representations through the actions they take. 

In the end, it’s actions that shape thinking structures, which in turn become more general and applicable to ever richer content. The application of these structures depends on the context; however, the underlying process is similar to what we just illustrated using elementary algebra as our example. 

To learn more: follow ideas of Max Wertheimer and Jean Piaget, pioneers of cognitive psychology. Piaget documented the mechanism of “reflective abstractions”,  Wertheimer pioneered “constructivist structuralism” and broke new ground with his  “Productive Thinking” book as a result of his collaboration with Albert Einstein.

Article originally published on Explain Everything blog

Visual Tools for Transforming Information into Knowledge

Information does not turn into knowledge by itself. Knowledge is obtainable by putting information components together so they can start to make sense to someone. Sadly, we’re still lacking IT support in that area. There’s a running joke about Knowledge Management Systems saying that they are only good for getting in touch with someone who knows what we want to know and can explain it. So are there tools that can help us derive meaning from information, and thus allow us to act upon it? 

David Hyerle has spent more than two decades working on concepts that offer good answers to these questions. His 2015 book titled “Visual Tools for Transforming Information into Knowledge” draws from philosophical and psychological models of how human intellectual capacities emerge from information alone. His interest is strictly related to the visual tools that support structuring information which in turn allows understanding. The goal is humble—high-quality knowledge tools are in desperate demand. With all the innovative ways we communicate, processing  and filtering content better can mean the difference between mere noticing and actual comprehending. 

The book focuses on visual tools integrating different modalities—visual, spatial, verbal, and numerical—to create conceptually rich models of their meaning. Few tools, as the author suggests, provide a concrete means to transform unprocessed information into useful patterns of knowledge that are at once usable and easily communicated to others. As a primarily visual learner, I must admit I had to support myself with a visual organizer of the book contents in order to make good use of them. Here’s the map I created:

The author divided visual tools into three main categories of metacognitive aids supporting understanding—tools for thinking inside the box, outside the box, and for fostering creativity and open mindedness. 

Thinking inside the box 

Graphic organizers are visual tools for representing existing concepts or knowledge. The true value of such organizers is in the mind perceiving visual patterns and relationships and deriving new insights from patterning the information. Graphic organizers are a type of visual tool often designed for the purpose of analytically structuring and displaying information, or “chunking” it.

Thinking outside the box 

The tools that foster creative and open exploration are united within a category called “Brainstorm webs”. They are made of a synthesis of creative drawings and language—colorful, pictorial, often idiosyncratic and collaborative, rich in detail, and complex in the interconnections of symbols and meaning. These tools are descendants of the first visual brainstorming session created by Alex Osborn in 1930 that he later called a session welcoming “wildness”. 

A synthesis of inside-and-outside the box thinking

A third tool joins these creative webs and analytical organizers—one called  “conceptual maps”. It is in many ways an outgrowth and synthesis of brainstorming webs and graphic organizers. These are dynamically created visual schematic mental models of concepts, giving rise to a higher-order questioning. Users can constantly reflect on the configuration of their own maps, seeing how their frames of reference and mental models influence their perceptions. 

The books come filled with examples and science supporting each of the tools’ categories. Due to the overwhelming dominance of vision over our senses, the author sees the tools as a natural bridge between the brain and the mind and high intellectual performance on tasks requiring more than just linear processing. This belief and author’s mission pushed him to  start—a company promoting critical and creative thinking abilities that developed methodology and training materials enabling learning communities to use and share a visual language. I personally found the book illuminating—not only its contents, but also the multiple references to well-researched reasons behind the use of visual methods. Devoting serious attention to this publication isn’t a bad deal for anyone looking for ways to refine human intellectual resources and ways knowledge can be shared or accessed.