We Are Made to Explore (With Childlike Wonder)
Why Explorable Explanations Have The Potential to Revolutionize the Learning Process
Reading Time: 10 minutes
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to build a complementary website for an augmented reality app and interactive learning experience that this startup DAQRI built, called Elements 4D. Each block face represented a different element from the periodic table. Beaming the app’s viewfinder onto the blocks instantly transformed them into 4DIt was called “4D” because the product cube had the same make-up as a three-dimensional object, with an additional interactive fourth dimension provided through the lens of their augmented reality app. It was a marketing term that the DAQRI team came up with. representations of that element, and clicking on that block in the app brought up detailed information about that element. I was immediately struck by the potential of this concept as someone who has been an experiential learner his whole life. I just didn’t realize it had a name, an “explorable explanation.”Also called “EE” or “Explorable”
Learning From Experience
Think of examples in your own life where you have learned something from experience (or experimentation) in a way that you could never have learned conceptually. A classic example of “learning from experience” is when a parent tries to teach their child not to touch fire. They can try to teach them conceptually, but the child won’t understand why until they learn by getting their hand too close to the fire.
In the early 1900s—around the same time the industrial revolution was beginning to gain steam—Maria Montessori just graduated from medical school. She was starting to formulate a hypothesis about how children are driven genetically to learn their culture. In her observations, she noticed that children were naturally curious, eager for knowledge, and fully capable of initiating learning in a sufficiently supportive and well-prepared learning environment.
Around the same time the Henry Ford assembly-line process rolled onto the scene. With its focus on efficiency and output, it quickly gained steam and began to bleed into our education system. Shunting Montessori’s efforts by creating a “factory model” for learning, it treated children as raw products (instead of curious individuals) that are to be shaped into products to meet the various demands of the economy.
Fast forward half a century to Silicon Valley, where a small group of well-intentioned engineers started exploring the use of technology to revolutionize learning, augment human intelligence, and help us work together to solve some of our species’ most pressing problems.Check out some of the magic that happened at Stanford Research Institute and Xerox PARC Unfortunately, similar to what happened with Maria Montessori, these early visionaries’ efforts were thwarted by the remnants of national policies designed to ramp up the US economy after the Second World War. A retailing analyst named Victor Lebow unknowingly forever changed the trajectory of the United States’ economy, claiming that “[its] ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.”He said: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.” (Via: The Story of Stuff)
Falling in line with the focus on consumption, technology use has tilted more and more in the direction of passive consumption (entertainment and pleasure) and less towards experimentation and creation. Leisure and intrinsically enjoyable activities are an integral ingredient for living a fulfilling life, but modern technology companies have morphed their platforms and technologies to leverage our deeply embedded survival instincts against us. They prey on our need for social approval; their intermittent reward systems have turned our phones into slot machines; and their algorithm-driven feeds calculate which emotions keep users most engaged with no regard for their time or well-being.I touch on this point in How Are You So Organized?
In order for learning to be able to compete for our attention with these apps that exploit our worst tendencies, we need to have an interactive medium that allows people to explore things they are curious about. I believe that part of the solution can be found in these interactive digital articles called Explorable Explanations. They take advantage of the dynamic nature of our digital tools (screens) to help people learn and engage with complex ideas in a way that they weren’t able to previously.
Explorable Explanations provide a platform that encourages engagement, guiding and nudging the reader as they actively test their own hypotheses leads to much more knowledge than simple text with static images thrown in.
This interactivity and dynamic visualization provided by this medium facilitates active participation and experimentation that can allow the reader to build an intuition about the behavior of a system. This leads to a fundamentally different understanding compared to a traditional (static) medium (like marks on paper). This increased engagement creates a connection with the material that can influence both attitude (towards learning) and the amount of time spent learning, both (time spent, emotion towards) of which are proven ways to improve learning outcomes.Communicating With Interactive Articles
Dreams of Computer (R)evolution
Prior to the development of the internet, digital pioneers like Alan Kay and Douglas Englebart worked to build technological concepts that aimed to empower individuals and enhance cognition.
Over the last century, we have developed these incredible digital devices with power to “outrace [our] senses of sight and hearing, enough capacity to store for later retrieval thousands of pages-equivalents of reference materials, poems, letters, recipes, records, drawings, animations, musical scores, waveforms, dynamic simulations, and anything else you would like to remember and change.”The father of mobile computing is not impressed: A Q&A with Alan Kay
Computers have fundamentally changed the way we communicate. Yet while the technology to share our ideas has grown exponentially, the interfaces have remained largely unchanged. Today (through our screens) “we have the power to simulate arbitrarily complex dynamic behavior, but we still think in static symbols and use linear tools.”What is Bret Victory Trying to Do?
Via: Notion We are computer users still thinking paper thoughts.
In our rush for the future, we let technology run over the human and the humane. We increased our productivity by supercharging the old tools, the old representations and the old paradigms, instead of inventing new ones that are native to the new medium.What is Bret Victory Trying to Do?
Technology is not what’s holding us back. There is a need to think beyond computer interfaces the way they are designed today, not through the lens of a product or service but as a new medium for thought. We need to think about moving from a static medium (marks on paper) to an interactive, dynamic medium that allows the learner to actively participate in the thinking process.
Fortunately, a new digital medium—an explorable explanation—has emerged with the potential to make learning more accessible to a broader range of people using active learning techniques. It makes systems intelligible, and complex behavior visible and useful; it allows direct manipulation of dynamic representations. It is based on the principle that we must have immediate feedback and direct access to the artifacts of our learning processes—we need to see, deeply, when we try to understand.
“The power to understand and predict the quantities of the world should not be restricted to those with a freakish knack for manipulating abstract symbols.” - Bret Victor
Diving Deeper into Explorable Explanations
Think about your favorite writers. When you read their stuff, they seem to have an uncanny ability to be writing just for you, and answering questions that they somehow know you have. First they entertain you, pulling you in and simultaneously educating you on a subject. Once they’ve set the stage, they pull the rug out from under you and say: “Hey, we’re not just going down your garden trail. We’re actually going down another garden trail and here’s another.”
If we think about media from this standpoint, wouldn’t it be beneficial to have a book that helps you read it? Helps you learn it somehow? Maybe what we need is “some form of mentor that’s an integral part of the user interface.”The father of mobile computing is not impressed: A Q&A with Alan Kay
“The power of the unaided mind is highly overrated… The real powers come from devising external aids that enhance cognitive abilities.” - Donald Norman
Bret Victor argues that readers will learn and remember better when they are engaged in the learning process as “active readers.” This active reading requires “reactive documents” with text and visuals enriched with interactive “handles” for the user to play around with and develop an intuition for how the system at hand works. The visuals give direct feedback when the controls are manipulated. “A reactive document allows the reader to play with the author’s assumptions and analyses, and see the consequences.”What is Bret Victor Trying To Do?
Here are some use cases for Explorable Explanations:
- In newsrooms, data journalists, developers, and designers work together to make complex news and investigative reporting clear and engaging using interactive stories
- Educators use interactive textbooks as an alternative learning format to give students hands-on experience with learning material.
Via: Omar Rizwan
Explorable explanations utilize visualization as more than just a tool for finding patterns in data. This visualization leverages the human visual system to augment our intellect — we can use it (our visual system) to better understand these abstract processes. With this technology we can walk people through space and time (visualizing something across time), and take advantage of what Ian Bogost called “procedural rhetoric,”[In his book, he explores how] videogames are an expressive medium and a persuasive medium; they represent how real and imagined systems work, and they invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them. (Via: Persuasive Games) which pointed out the comparative advantage a game/interactive system has over other types of media.
Critiques of Explorable Explanations
There are a couple things that hold back the mainstream adoption of Explorable Explanations, mostly surrounding the resources and research required to create and further develop a new medium for thought.
Similar to the hurdles that Kay and Englebart ran into, the conditions for researching and developing this new medium is left up to researchers and passionate open-sourcers and not corporations because this kind of long-term research that benefits humanity rarely happens within settings that are obsessed with quarter-by-quarter financials.
Companies like Observable and Khan Academy are trying to bridge this gap of providing educational opportunities while simultaneously creating sustainable business for themselves. There are libraries like Tangle and other frameworks (like scrollytelling “Scrollytelling” is when content (e.g., a graphic) is revealed or changed as the user scrolls. It does not alter scroll behavior, but simply monitors it) that are trying to provide the building blocks for others and lower the barrier to entry to creating an Explorable Explanation.
In a similar vein, if the concept does indeed prove effective (for retention) there is a potential for exploitation of the idea (moving away from education towards consumption/consumerism) in a way that makes the concept mass-produced and superficial.
Currently a huge barrier to entry exists for creating an explorable explanation, as it requires a certain level of expertise in a slew of different fields:
Explorable explanations are highly multidisciplinary. They draw on, in no particular order, data visualization, information design (and graphic design, and video game design, and user interface design, and design generally), programming, mathematics, journalism, education, nonfiction writing, storytelling, museum studies, and artistic expression. EE’s are the confluence of all these previously-independent fields.Exploring “Explorable Explanations”
Another critique of explorable explanations comes from Andy Matuschak, in that they are not true sandboxes, “That’s because such environments are primarily designed to help the author get their point across-rather than as a generally-useful environment to help the reader (or the author) think about problems in that domain.”Most dynamic representations developed for communication aren’t very enabling
A counterpoint: as explorables grow in popularity, authors will develop frameworks for creating “enabling” environments for different types of learners, and different depths of learning/experimentation. Continued success and maturation of the medium will depend on enabling creation of more Explorables by:
- Creating pipelines to populate Explorables with data that is either interesting or personal/“relevant”Roam Research is attempting to do this by allowing its user’s to create custom components within their note-taking environment that uses data from their knowledge graph (Via: Twitter)
A demonstration of how different visualizations can provide insights that a wall of text cannot (Via: Conor White-Sullivan)
- Explorable Explanations (Bret Victor)
- Communicating with Interactive Articles (Aggregation of examples)
- How can we develop transformative tools for thought? (Andy Matuschak, et al.)
- Neurotic Neurons (Nicky Case)
- The Structure of Standup Comedy (The Pudding)
Next Steps for Explorable Explanations
Even though we seem to have lost our way with our present day technology, there is a huge opportunity—especially with this burgeoning creator economy—to invent the future by thinking deeply about the intent behind the designs of past computer pioneers. Bret Victor has inspired a generation of engineers (including myself) to imagine a future where our media and modes of communication (and collaboration) are dynamic and expressive.
If we can upgrade our tools and techniques to help us understand the complexity of our world, we’ll be able to develop new thoughts and new solutions to the most pressing issues we face today.