The Compass Of Meaning

The mission of new computer-based educational technologies is to help learners follow the lead of their own needs for meaning

One of the articles in The Learning Revolution (IC#27)
Originally published in Winter 1991 on page 34
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

The other night my five-year-old son Daaron and I went out for one of our evening walks. We like walking at night. It blends high energy and subtle-mindedness, and helps us tune in to being together.

Normally when we walk we avoid bringing any toys or things which might be distracting. Walking is a special discovery time, and we both enjoy discovering who we are and whatever else we encounter as we trek around the neighborhood. But on this particular night, Daaron was rather set upon bringing his latest "Construx" creation. He was very enthusiastic as he told me that he had "a new invention to share." So I said, "Okay – bring it along."

The "device" (his word) had a body like a jet cockpit, wing-like struts which proceeded from its sides, a small spinning cylinder for a nose and a curious handle connected to its rear end. On first sight I wondered if it was a space ship, a magic sword or, possibly, a "pk valence meter" (the Ghostbuster meter for detecting slime).

At first he said nothing about his new invention. But when we encountered a roly-poly bug, Daaron and his device sprang into action. Dropping into his curiosity crouch, he placed the invention, as if it was some kind of magnifying glass, between his face and the bug. As he got closer, strange whirling and clicking sounds came forth, and in Daaron’s best imitation of synthetic speech, the invention began describing all that was known about roly-poly bugs. At points, Daaron stopped to show me "visuals" on the device’s make-believe display – how the bugs’ legs worked and how great the idea of rolling into a ball was, much better than a snail’s shell.

As I crouched alongside rather speechless, Daaron went on to describe the device as his "radar helper." He said that it would work on anything – telephone poles, cats, stars, trees – no matter what it was focused on, he would get pictures and sounds and be able to ask questions and immediately understand whatever it was he was curious about.

For reasons that will hopefully become clear as this article progresses, I was delighted and stunned. Over the remainder of our walk Daaron stopped dozens of time to use his "radar helper" and, I think, make sure that I understood the significance of his invention – "Dad, don’t you think every kid should have one these?"


About two years ago I used a VCR and microphone to record a group of three- to five-year-olds as they were playing Nintendo games. I wanted to understand what made the Nintendo experience so engageable for children – why it was so easy for them to become deeply involved. Having wired them up, I asked them to describe what they were doing and then made myself invisible.

From previous observations it was clear that themes (i.e., Batman, Turtles, etc.), whizzy sounds, and sophisticated color graphics were not the real issues. While they attracted the child’s initial interest, some of the most apparently spectacular games were missing something that others far simpler had – the ability to sustain the child’s engagement. My hunch was that underneath all the multi-media whiz-bang engagement was a relationship quality between child and game that emerged if the game’s deeper rhythms of play were compatible with the child’s nervous system.

What I discovered was that the most engagable Nintendo experiences shared certain "deep dynamics." They all involved moving through a matrix of challenges and obstacles; learning certain movement skills and dexterities; using one’s "energy" or "lives" judiciously; and most importantly, learning when and how to freeze the game playing, jump "off-line" to a resource screen, select a resource with which to overcome an obstacle, re-engage the play screen and employ the resource to move ahead (resources might include ladders, hammers, magic potions, jewels, rafts, money, food, or a consulting wizard).

I still remember how I felt as I started to see beneath the surface of the game-playing. The conceptual dexterities of these kids were stunning: here they were manipulating a rich tapestry of logical types, levels of inference, multiple contingencies, numerous specific meanings – doing it all very dynamically – and all with an effortlessness that was breathtaking to behold. I couldn’t help thinking that they were practicing the future. Somehow, I felt, they were practicing not the game’s content, but the future process of processing. How was it that these kids could deal with so many interrelated contingencies and meanings at once?

Asking that question and reviewing the tapes, I saw cycling rhythms of challenge, frustration, creative resource application and renewal that were at the core of why they enjoyed playing the games. Yes, the sound and graphic effects were important components; but it was the way the games allowed the children to act creatively upon their own frustrations – the cycle of relevancy, challenge, frustration, and resolution, all happening in real-time compatibility with the actual child’s attention, that I found to be the key.


Just as our eyes see optimally only a particular range within the frequencies of light and our other senses particular ranges within the frequencies of matter, what if our nervous systems have an overall optimal range for resonating meaningfully with our environments? For co-implicating the not-nowness of our memories and the all-at-onceness of our senses into the stream of our consciousness? What if underneath all the issues of content, logic and pedagogy, there is a more basic issue – the inner dynamics of how a multiplicity of meanings implicate one another and punctuate the rhythms of engagement?


About four years ago I began asking some of my friends: When you’re reading a book and encounter a word or term that you don’t understand do you (a) put down the book and dig into your references, (b) just move along and hope it’s not too important or, (c) hope that, if it is, further reading will fill in the meaning? In other words I asked: What do you do when you have a "need-more-meaning" impulse? I wasn’t surprised to find them saying that if the material wasn’t critically related to their jobs they just skipped over whatever they didn’t understand. Stopping to look things up, even when the references are handy, is just too distracting.

Questioning literate adults about what happens while reading a book is almost like asking about their breathing. So I took the point one step further. I had them remember back to when they were a child in school and asked: "How many times did you raise your hand when you were curious or uncertain?" Like my own memory of being in school, my respondents all said "Not too often." I then asked, "How often were you uncertain or curious in class?" Again, like me, they tended toward "A lot more often than I raised my hand."

What I was fishing for was how these "learning environments" unintentionally stifled the expression of a person’s curiosity or uncertainty. I was keenly interested in this because, despite being a highly motivated learner, I often found myself disengaged from learning. How was it that I could be moving along, engaged and full of interest one moment, and disengaged and drifting the next? I discovered many reasons, but the only ones I could do anything about (short of food, sleep, or a soundproof room) were ones relating to how I resolved my own "meaning needs."

If I didn’t follow up on something I was uncertain or curious about, two things happened. First, I passed over something I arguably needed or at some level desired to learn. Second, and more importantly, in doing so I was tacitly dulling myself to feeling uncertain or curious. The more I thought about the latter point, the more I was convinced something was wrong. How could I ask questions, how could I participate in my own learning process without a sharpened sense of my own uncertainties and curiosities? What other "compass" do I have?


It’s 2010, and your 7-year-old grandchild has just returned from a vacation in Yosemite where she discovered the wonder of trees. She is watching a clip on environmental consciousness with her INVISOR ("information advisor") when a beautiful tree in the background reminds her of the questions that flooded her mind at Yosemite. The invisor tracks what she looks at and so when her eyes pause to look at the tree, and she says "more", it knows exactly what she means. The invisor zooms in on the tree and informs her through familiar icons that she can explore "trees in general" or explore this particular "kind of tree."

By slightly moving her finger she selects "trees in general" and a new series of icons appears that offers her half a dozen ways to travel further. The "time machine" icon, she knows, will allow her to look at the broad scale evolution of trees or at the comparatively short scale growth and development of an individual tree. The "shrinking machine" icon will allow her to become a "virtual shrunken observer" and travel inside the tree, examining its inner forms and processes. The "space ship" icon will allow her to examine the macro role of trees from a global, "orbital scan" perspective. Just in case she doesn’t want to explore such depths, three "advisor" icons allow her to watch and listen to a "storyteller", a "scientist", or a "tree expert" who will walk her through the major significances of "trees."

After a quick jaunt through the time machine where she watches in time-lapse the seed grow out of and into the ground – witnessing the intelligence of the tree as it grows in response to the sun and the terrain and other trees which make up its environment – she selects the "storyteller." Because she is interested in practicing her Russian, she also sets her invisor for bilingual (Russian/English) operation. If she gets stuck in Russian, the system will have an English "safety net" ready to help her. Moving on, she sees that there are many stories and myths available. As she encounters the one entitled "gravity dancers", the word gravity causes her to pause and when she says "more", a new series of icons appear.

These new icons deal with different classes of reference support. One is for quick, concise help similar to an old dictionary or thesaurus, another is for elaborations similar to old encyclopedias, the "in context" icon will clarify the word’s specific use, and still another will cause the invisor to reorient itself and make "gravity" the central thematic domain. After having gravity pronounced (the voice in her head had trouble with it), she decides to really explore gravity and come back to trees later.

The "time machine", she knows, will allow her to see gravity at the broad scale, evolutionary level….


By nature, whether for knowing, doing, or being, learning is a process of extending the capability to be relevantly present to what is being experienced. If we could re-craft our relationship with information so that it better corresponded to the way our nervous systems have evolved to learn – that is, have evolved to process relevancy – that new relationship would be based on responding to the immediate (micro time) meaning dynamics of the individual who is learning. This is the destiny of technology in education.

(The roots of the word "technology" are quite interesting. In root, "tech" means to show or to guide. If you add the letter "n", the root "techn" means art or skill. When at last you add "ology", in root meaning discourse or study, you end up with the word "technology" being composed of some pretty appropriate "modules of meaning" for a discussion on the role of educational technology.)

It must be remembered that everything about our relationship with information is technological anyway. These words printed on the page you’re reading, what they mean to me and what they mean to you, are all technological processes. You and I have both learned an "inner interface", an inner technology which transforms symbolic information (also a technology) into a process within us, wherein various past experienced meanings converge into relevancy. We invented it all. There is nothing to be romantic about.

What we do need to be careful about is the distinctions we make between the roles of interpersonally-facilitated learning and technology-mediated learning. From a learner’s perspective, there are areas of the educational curriculum – and more importantly, life – that are best facilitated by interpersonal and direct contact processes. Technology is not a substitute for (though it can at times augment) collaborative learning, co-mentoring, team teaching, group dialogue and of course, one-on-one relationships. Similarly, actually contacting and caring for other forms of life, from flowers to livestock, is entirely different from learning about them in textbooks or on video disks. But just as there are aspects of learning we need to mediate minimally, there are aspects of knowledge which by their nature are so abstract that they are best facilitated through a technologically-mediated relationship with that information.

As I have tried to point to with each "jump", the real issue is relationship. The relationship a learner has with the environment that is supporting or actively facilitating learning is the single most important aspect of learning. In order for a learning environment to facilitate learning, it must be responsive enough to the actual individual’s needs for meaning to encourage him or her to employ those needs in driving the learning process.

For a learning environment to steward the learner’s sensitivity to his or her own meaning-needs (internal) while at the same time facilitating an integration with rule-based critical thinking skills (external), it will need to employ, in addition to explicit pedagogies, a new general relationship model. This requires a different conceptualization of the relationship between learners and information – one in which access to knowledge, everywhere possible, is organized and made available according to the relationship-with-meaning needs (in time and context) of learners rather than the structural conveniences of the subject material or the mediating technology.

This is the significance of Daaron’s invention and the Nintendo observations. Essentially what he conceived of is a companion that responds to his immediate curiosities and uncertainties. Nintendo confirms that the "disen-gagement" issue isn’t just an artifact of the classroom or textbook. Special media effects aside, if children can’t resolve the tensions produced by the uncertainty surrounding an obstacle, in time they become too frustrated and disengage. If, however, the environment does provide them with ways to resolve their tensions, through resources available to them in time, they can apply their significant conceptual dexterities for as long as the subject/activity remains relevant and challenging (and their teachers or parents let them).

We all need INVISORS.


There are not yet any "radar helpers" or "invisors" as envisioned here, but the technical capabilities to provide learning environments capable of dealing with any subject-content in ways consistent with the relationship principles that they both imply exist today. Learning Insights, a company I founded to explore these issues, is developing just such a learning environment.

The "learner interface" and information processing systems we are developing will provide the same navigational, representational, and referential dexterities as those of the invisor. Our goal is to develop a learning environment that can be run on existing personal computers and that will ultimately define a new class of machines – machines designed entirely to respond to, empower, and enliven the learner.

Toward these beginnings, I spend part of my time with Learning Insights and part of my time at Apple University learning about, experimenting with, and creating virtual learning environments. And I spend all of my time trying to learn about the depths of the significance of learning and how to change our relationship with learning environments.

And, of course, I take plenty of walks with Daaron.

David Boulton, a developer of technologies exclusively for learners, is President of Learning Insights Inc. and a special consultant/contractor to Apple University. His interest is in "understanding the ‘inner interface’ we all learn in order to mediate ‘what is.’" He is developing technologies which will model a new relationship between humans learning and their learning environments. Contact him at Learning Insights Inc., 150 Almaden Blvd #760, San Jose, CA 95113, 408/984-2880; E-Mail CIS 76357,341; AOL Learner2.

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