Monthly Archives: October 2008

vizthink: Dave Gray


If you were creating your own alphabet comprised just of symbols, how many symbols would you utilize and what would they be? The “visual alphabet” you are designing will have its utility in being used “to represent an idea”. That is the task Dave Gray gave himself when he set out to design a visual alphabet.

Gray’s alphabet consists of twelve symbols. The first six he calls “Flows” and likens them to vowels:

  • point
  • line
  • arc
  • angle
  • spiral
  • loop

The second six are “Forms”:

  • circle or oval
  • football
  • triangle
  • square or rectangle
  • 5-sided
  • cloud

With these twelve symbols you can draw a representation of anything, according to Gray. During Dave’s vizthink session he demonstrated his point by quickly creating a number of drawings. That’s where I learned the term “sweatles” – motion lines that show energy, like little beads of sweat coming off someone’s brow or the motion lines behind a vehicle. To further his ideas, Gray has a self-published book that appears to be continually in the works, Marks and Meanings, version zero, which you can purchase on

I’ve written a bit about Dave Gray and much of my previous writing covers, more or less, the content of Gray’s portion of the Global Online Visual Thinking Workshop webinar.

Gray’s visual alphabet, along with my husband’s many SketchUp models, has gotten me thinking about the ways in which people process information and think about what they hear and see, in particular within the world of education. My next post on this topic will be more visual than textual.

Organizations/Programs dedicated to visual thinking in schools:

Organizational Culture & Professional Development

I was recently invited to participate in the Working/Learning blog carnival based on the theme “work at learning; learning at work”, which has piqued my interest because that is what I do professionally. This month’s post is hosted on the Xyleme Learning Blog.

To be a bit more precise, I teach at an independent school. A quarter of the time finds me teaching Flash electives in middle and upper school, but three quarters of the time finds me collaborating with students and faculty in the process of facilitating our 1:1 program. I even have a title, Technology Training Coordinator, though the words hardly do justice to my actual practice.

My passion for adult learning and professional development is partially what led me to begin this blog. I have been teaching in independent schools since 1982, and for most of those years have pursued my own professional development while also being responsible for providing the same for my colleagues.

I have found it to be the case that the effectiveness of professional development on a teacher can be viable, but for that impact to carry over to the institution as a whole, the institution has to have its own strong culture of professional development – of wanting the organization to grow as a result of the growth of its teachers.

I have yet to come across an educational institution that does not support individual professional development for its faculty. However, almost always the focus is on expanding the faculty member’s pedagogy or level of knowledge about the subject they teach. Just about every teacher I know, some more often than others, participates in pd in this manner during their careers.


My ideal of professional development is for teachers to engage and challenge themselves in areas outside their subject area expertise. Professional development should be multidisciplinary and feed one’s creative needs. And I believe schools should champion and subsidize these endeavors. Elkhonon Goldberg, active in clinical neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience, has written and presented on brain plasticity and cognitive fitness. At last April’s Learning and the Brain conference in Cambridge, MA, he stated that as we age, we should “turn neuroplasticity to your advantage” by:

  • Welcoming novel challenges.
  • Beware of being on mental autopilot.
  • Remain cognitively active.

All teachers can and should “work to learn” by stepping outside their comfort zones to pursue new avenues of interest. The benefits to the teacher include:

  • stimulate new synapses in their brains (which means new learning)
  • (re)develop empathy for different learning styles
  • expand one’s horizons
  • promote thinking outside the box
  • derive simple satisfaction
  • feed one’s creative outlet

The benefits to the institution include:

  • model what it means to be a lifelong learner
  • reenergized faculty
  • more interesting, well-rounded faculty
  • faculty who feel supported by their institution
  • faculty who feel their institution values them beyond their basic utility

The questions then become: 

How to convince organizations (not just schools) to pursue such a program?

Are there case studies or research that support my premise?

Are any of you at organizations where such a policy exists? And if so, please would you share your organization’s approach in a comment below.

Do any of you have alternative concepts of professional development programs? And of course, if so, please do share your ideas below. Thanks!

Pulling Rabbits out of Habits

Earlier in May of this year, Janet Rae-Dupree wrote an article about the impact of habits on creativity. Published in the New York Times, Can You Become a Creature of New Habits? mentioned a number of issues that I have touched upon in Neurons Firing. Rae-Dupree does an excellent job of making her points, so you might want to read her article before reading the rest of my post.

Mel Levine has always championed finding out what you like or what you are good at, and then forging ahead in that area. He  has written, “All students should have experience savoring true expertise, having one or more areas of deep knowledge and passion/obsession.” In his book A Mind at a Time, Levine states that “The young have a basic right and a need to develop their affinities over time.” He is “convinced that many students who appear to have significant learning problems (and in a real sense they do) in reality have highly specialized minds, brains that were never designed to be well rounded.” Levine sums up the importance of affinities and strengths:

Parents and our educational system must provide opportunities for kids to utilize and strengthen their strengths and their affinities–no matter what those assets happen to be. To deny a developing mind access to its specialty is cruel. To judge one’s worthiness in the specialties of others is equally inhumane.

Sir Ken Robinson makes very similar points in his oft-referenced TED Talk. He has suggested that schools squash creativity, in essence that we “educate people out of their creative capacities.” I’ve written extensively about Robinson, and you can summon up all the posts from the tag cloud at the right.

This brings me back to Rae-Dupree’s article. She talks about developing new habits, indeed, that it IS POSSIBLE to develop new habits, and there are benefits to doing so: “…brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.”

She concludes with a quote from one of the authors interviewed. “You cannot have innovation,” she [Dawna Markova] adds, “unless you are willing and able to move through the unknown and go from curiosity to wonder.”

Pour all of these complementary ideas into a hat, and you increase the likelihood of being able to pull out the metaphorical rabbit.

Update: sleep, schedules, Zull

As some of you may already know, I am a guest blogger at (You can see my various posts here.) My past two posts have each garnered comments, and each post had one comment, in particular, to which I replied. The topics are important enough to garner their own update on Neurons Firing.

I have written here about sleep and about school calendars. My September 5th SharpBrains post, Reorganizing School Schedules: Start Times, Light, Scheduling, received a comment from a parent who is concerned about the impact of her children’s school schedule on their ability to focus. As a result of her inquiry, here are some resources about school schedules, which include discussions of block and flexible schedules.

  • The National Middle Schools Association – research summary about flexible schedules
  • The Principals’ Partnership Research Brief on High School  Schedules


    My most recent SharpBrains post is a review of James Zull’s book, about which I have also written here. (You can use the search bar in the upper right to find all of my posts about Zull.) The author of the comment was a bit miffed at what he considered the trivial conclusion that “Teaching is the art of changing the brain”; I was compelled to respond with the following:

    Hi Michael,

    Yes, anything and everything in which we engage can change our brains. Indeed, most teachers are hoping for change that lasts and is substantive, not superficial. However, I am willing to bet most teachers do not consciously stop to think about what they do in terms of physically changing the brain of the learner.

    Zull’s book does an exemplary job of explaining what happens in the brain as it learns and changes. Teachers appreciate tools and explanations that are useful, understandable and immediately applicable. By placing the biological results of learning front and center, Zull provides an account of what is happening in the brain, giving teachers an insight into the (hoped for) results of their efforts. This may help some understand why what they do works, and may provide others with a fresh toolbox for figuring out ways to make an impact on a learner’s brain.

    The conclusion may seem trivial to those well-versed in biology, but to those whose lens is filtered by a room full of children or young adults, thinking of teaching as the art of changing the brain may seem rather empowering.


    vizthink: David Sibbet

    David Sibbet “is president and founder of The Grove Consultants International”, a firm specializing “in visual planning and organization change.” Sibbet’s hour 

    of the Global Online Visual Thinking Workshop webinar was a seminar on Visual Intelligence: 7 Keys to Big Picture Thinking. You can get a sense of his talk from this screen shot of an  early drawing.

    The essence of Sibbet’s talk is that diagrams can be used to trigger how you think. He delineated seven keys in this visualizing process:

    1. Posters – used to focus attention
    2. Lists – move that attention in a linear fashion
    3. Clusters – grouping the attention or information to “activate comparison”, though not by “linking, which does the work for you, but juxtaposing, which lets you do the work of making connections”
    4. Grids – use of a matrix to create a “series of categories crossed against another series of categories” which “forces you to analyze the information by cross-checking”
    5. Diagrams – information is linked through branching
    6. Drawings – “merge with what is known” to think “about complexity through metaphor”
    7. Mandala – present a unified, centralized, integrated view of the ideas

    Sibbet provided examples of each of these processes, and I have as yet to formulate his ideas into my own words, let alone diagrams! I did find his approach most interesting and it has made me think a lot about how ideas are presented and digested in school. 

    A comment Sibbet made caused me to smile – he said a messy desk gives you opportunity for “accidental connections” and “accidental associations that spark thinking”. There are surely many who would appreciate that view! 

    The webinar was interactive so I was able to ask if he had any books to recommend:

    On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins

    Art of Awareness by Sam Bois

    Reflexive Universe by Arthur M. Young

    Graphic Facilitation (comes with a CD) by Dave Sibbet

    Envisioning: An Interview with David Sibbet is available to read at Learning in the New Economy e-Magazine (LiNE Zine) and provides a fascinating look at Dave Sibbet’s philosophy, business, and approach to visualizing.

    I’ll finish with Dave Sibbet describing his and a colleague’s sketching of the TED 2008 conference as it was happening. This movie tells the story of their process, and on Autodesk’s site you can download The BIGVIZ as a pdf and watch some additional movies. 

    vizthink: Karl Gude (+ some)

    Karl Gude “is the former Director of Information Graphics at Newsweek, now a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism.” He was also the third presenter at the Global Online Visual Thinking Workshop webinar, in which I participated last month. In addition to Gude’s presentation, my post concludes with two additional “views” on presenting graphical data.

    During his hour, Gude illustrated how to use graphs, charts and maps to present information, and shared innumerable examples, often depicting various stages of a particular graphic as each iteration improved upon the original. Gude’s message is that “the point of charts is to clearly illustrate data and not to be creative works of art!”  and the point of design is to make “order out of chaos”, and to help accomplish that task you might want to consider using GRIDS as your foundation. Grids “are your friends” in that they provide a framework from which you can create just about any type of layout. To the right is a screen shot of a 6-column grid, which was part of a 2-page grid spread Gude used to illustrate his point. He went on to show several examples of layouts made with this grid.

    To help keep your design consistent, Gude talked about the usefulness of having a style sheet, style samples, and avoiding Word Art at all costs, going as far to suggest that it be flushed down the drain.

    Why bother with the quality of graphs, charts, maps or, for that matter, any other form of visual representation, be it graphic or text or some combination. Quite simply, to paraphrase Gude, if your data presentation looks sophisticated and can be easily understood, it leads to credibility and greater understanding. For more on information design Gude points to Nigel Holmes on the VizThink site.

    In August of this year the New York Times printed the article Lines and Bubbles and Bars, Oh My! New Ways to Sift Data. The focus of the article is Many Eyes, a social sharing site for visualizing data. Many Eyes is an interactive site that lets people experiment with some 16 different ways to visualize both their own data and data supplied by others, and get feedback on the visualizations they create. For more about this process check out Richard Hoeg’s Many Eyes tutorial and his related blog post with additional links.

    If you haven’t already watched Hans Rosling “debunking third-world myths with the best stats you’ve ever seen”, take a look at his February 2006 TED Talk. His company, Gapminder, unveils “the beauty of statistics for a fact based world view” using the Trendalyzer software developed by the company and acquired by Google in 2006.

    Prelude to vizthink

    On September 16, 2008, I stayed home from school to participate in a webinar entitled Global Online Visual Thinking Workshop, presented by vizthink.

    A Visual Thinking workshop is all about the visual, including seeing who the presenters are, so I hope the folks at vizthink will not mind my copying and pasting of the above graphic. The workshop was WONDERFUL, but before describing the sessions, I want you to have a sense of what my digital day was like. 

    I teach middle and upper school Flash animation electives, and due to the timing of the vizthink sessions, it was possible to teach my classes from home. Thanks to iChat and screen sharing between my Mac at home and Mac in the computer lab, we had two “teacher in the box” classes.

    Dave Gray’s session, which conveniently had technical difficulties (not a problem as I was able to view his presentation after the fact), allowing me to spend time with my Mom, who was here to see our older son who was home for a few days (after living in Japan for four years) before he headed off for school in Olympia, Washington

    upper school Flash class – answered questions about their current animations and showed them how to post their swf files to our class wiki; we ended 10 minutes early


    David Sibbet’s session

    grabbed a quick lunch and ate at my computer while checking emails

    middle school Flash class – explained how to scrub the playhead through frames, answered questions about their first animations, and reminded them to have someone post the Daily Scribe to our class wiki

    Karl Gude’s session

    whew, took a break from the digital!

    Nancy Duarte’s session

    I found the day rather exhilarating for its uniqueness, as compared to a typical school day, yet also rather tiring for all the time I spent sitting in my chair. All of the digital experiences were fully engaging, but by the end of the day I was more than ready for a break from my computer.

    An idea floated by my husband (who is the Director of IT where I teach) is to have our school’s professional development day be a simulation of how we might carry on school if there were a flu epidemic requiring everyone to stay home. He thought this would not only be useful for seeing that school could, indeed, take place without everyone being in the same physical space, but would also be a way to introduce folks to a wide range of collaborative digital applications.

    Faculty and students already use a number of such applications. However, a simulation would both allow exploration of a number of programs not currently part of most teachers’ toolboxes, and provide an opportunity for ideas to emerge regarding distance learning, and use of digital tools in the process of schooling.