Thinking With Things: Evocative Objects

In this post I want to add another dimension to my previous post about thinking with things. Three examples come to mind of well-known people for whom evocative objects literally shaped their life’s work. Notice that the objects are important, but it is the feelings these three people had about the objects they manipulated and how what they were doing guided their thinking that is what makes these instances so remarkable.

Seymour Papert, MIT mathematician, computer scientist and educator, is well known for his creation many years ago of the computer language Logo. Papert often tells in what he writes about how, as a child, he was preoccupied with gears—turning them, matching them up, manipulating them with his hands and later in his mind. He talks about how those gears stayed with him for years, helping him to think about and come to understand a whole range of mathematical ideas.

Richard Feynman, the world famous, outspoken, often funny American physicist and Nobel Laureate has commented in many places about the impact of the little floor tiles of different colors that his father bought for him to play with as a young child. Feynman recalled that his father would set the tiles up next to each other and then allow him to push one end and watch them go down. He says that later the game improved and his father had him set the tiles up according to color patterns. Those tiles and those experiences of handling them somehow stayed with him throughout his life.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the well-known twentieth century American architect, as a young child was given a set of Froebel Geometric Gifts. A number of the gifts involve cubes and other rectangular solid shapes with which to build and explore. In his autobiography, written when he was in his eighties, he comments about how those experiences with the Froebel blocks influenced his architecture. He said simply, “I can still feel those blocks in my fingers.”

What I find compelling about these experiences is what each man did with his special objects. Each man not only saw the objects, he manipulated them with his hands, he wondered, noticed, questioned, and explored the objects: taking them apart and putting them together. In each case, the men attributed these objects, and their handling of them, a lasting influence and understanding.

In his book, The Hand, Frank Wilson, a neurologist at the University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco, explains and illustrates why hands-on experience is so important to learning, thinking, and understanding. I believe it helps explain the influence of objects in the lives of Papert, Feynman, and Wright.

Wilson explains that if we were to draw the human body with each body part in proportion to the territory of the human brain connected to that body part, what we would get is a very strange looking creature with disproportionately large ears, nose, mouth and eyes;–but by far the most disproportionate parts of this body would be the hands.

Sensory Homunculus

While neurology apparently has yet to explain how the hand came to be connected to such a large portion of the human brain, the fact that this occurs helps to explain what many of us have come to know through our own learning experiences and our experiences with teaching using hands-on activities. It helps to explain why it is that interacting with objects by manipulating them and thinking with them is such an important way in which we come to understand new concepts.

Have you heard the phrase “grasping a concept”? Why grasping as a metaphor for understanding? Don’t we grasp objects and understand concepts? Given what we know about the hand-brain connection, these metaphors, object–concept and grasping–understanding, take on a whole new meaning.

What are those provocative objects that we have handled and manipulated that have helped us understand concepts and relationships? What kinds of objects might our students handle, engage with, and think with? What are those objects that they might keep coming back to with new questions and new concepts and new relationships?

This post originally appeared here.

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