The Daily Heller: Visualizing Learning Patterns Through Nature’s Spatial Patterns

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Alex Wolf (@na2ure) sees patterns in patterns in patterns that lead to increased cognition. Wolf is a RISD artist/designer/inventor who created the "patternABC," along with other visual systems for understanding spatial relations and how nature grows. These systems are intended as learning tools from preschool (supported by UNICEF) to Ph.D. and AI. With her team, she engages in research and develops systems for visual literacy and, particularly, spatial play tied to how vision has evolved, how the brain learns and how it is connected to natural forms, patterns and growth. Wolf co-chairs the Natural Systems Working Group at INCOSE, is an external collaborator at NASA, and wrote a chapter in the first textbook on biomimicry, to be published by Elsevier in 2022. She is also a creator of Pattern Alphabet cards that are available here. I asked Wolf to to discuss how the novel "patternABC" project is expanding spatial literacy on various sensory and cognitive levels.

How and why did your patternABC (pABC) originate?

When I created my first iconic system in 2010, the Periodic Table of Biology (Bio•Icons, for plants and animals), which abbreviates the characteristics of plants and animals like chemical elements in the vein of Linnaean Taxonomy—I realized something was missing. I needed to include more about pattern and growth in painting the full picture of the biological world, and since symmetry is both bilateral and radial in both plants and animals, it brought me to read into natural patterning to find more overlap.

I found the most comprehensive account of natural patterning in Patterns in Nature by Peter S. Stevens and was immediately inspired by his elegant depictions of natural design. Stevens’ book (Fig. 2) gave me a framework for core growth patterns, and I began to group them into my pABC in rows, somewhere between a periodic table and a keyboard, with growth, geometry, symmetry and building blocks/modifiers.

Fig. 2

There is a long history of pictorial sign/symbol languages and syllabaries. Where does this fit into, say, sign language or ISOTYPE systems?

I was fascinated with ISOTOPE Systems growing up and at RISD, though they are compound objects. Those images can be broken down further into component patterns, and you can make a formula for an object from core patterns. This was the premise of my Bio•Icons (Fig. 3)—make an animal with a formula, like salt is NaCl. My systems prove far more informative than lots of Linneaen hierarchical naming steps, and are accessible at the younger ages coinciding with initial fascination with nature.

Fig. 3

If you think of the patterns in the pABC, like spiral, it is a model—a stylized depiction of something that can manifest in various ways depending on certain variables. There are many types of spirals—fibonacci, Archimedean, Fermats, Euler and logarithmic, the forms of which are based in mathematic formulas. You use the model to represent an idea you can then tinker with in your mind, on paper and in space, much like scientists and designers like da Vinci use modeling.

In terms of gesture, we hope to create a sign language of each pattern. We already use spatial verbal language—“it spiraled out of control,” “I’m branching out,” “we meandered home”—and we gesture as well along with that. Gesture is a core feature of spatial learning, and people who gesture, or are gestured to learn better. It’s also our connection to drawing and marking, which then makes the leap into image. It’s a continuum which captures graphic, calligraphic and choreographic explicit mark-making implicit in gesture.

The pABC is cross-referencing all the above (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

Is it about teaching conventional reading, or is there another goal through shape recognition?

Our cognitive abilities are equally divided into verbal, math and spatial (Wai, Lubinski and Benbow, 2009), and yet schools ignore spatial. As the National Academy of Sciences put it in 2006, spatial is implied everywhere in the K-12 curriculum, and yet taught nowhere. Spatial is a logic to itself that also scaffolds language and mathematics, so it is more universal in that it relates to all math and every language.

Fig. 5

I believe, and want to research, what happens when we teach children to draw first, then write, because drawing is concrete and numbers and letters are symbolic systems, and so it makes sense to get the shapes and ideas behind shapes down first, and then work on the symbols. That is a field of study in COGSCI itself, the learning of symbolic systems. We have a top-notch research team for which I am so grateful, because I have read 100+ papers, and that’s a fraction of their knowledge base.

Fig. 6

There is a lot of cognitive science I don't understand. Help me out by explaining the goals of the project?

Animals and humans share spatial abilities; you can watch your cat look at a height and calculate jumping onto it. Humans added language and math to communicate the spatial experience, in my view. Language acquisition is tied implicitly to spatial learning in infants and toddlers. I made a motion alphabet to describe this process because it is how we learn to form patterns and identify them as they reoccur around us repeatedly. So in that sense, the wordless first year of a child’s life (Fig. 6) is about learning physics, space and time and gravity and motion, and they learn their own bodily sense of this, as well as navigating their environment. That’s much more interesting than them learning to say ball or DaDa. We feed the utter junk food equivalent of toys to our kids, talk down to and patronize children in general; it’s truly embarrassing.

n is a big component of spatial abilities, which include mental rotation (Rubik’s Cubes, loading a dishwasher) and paper folding (origami, laundry). And we give kids lots of manipulative toys like blocks and stacking cups up to kindergarten, and then magically those things disappear in favor of paper and writing and number systems.

But spatial skills are how we make sense of math and science, let alone art and dance. By stripping them from school we do two things: We deprive everyone of spatial, which solidifies their language and math skills, and we deprive the highly spatial of their primary modality. There’s a correlation between dyslexia and high spatial which we want to study more, because almost one in five kids are dyslexic, and not only could we maybe help their reading, but we can also give them back their spatial, their talent space, because many kids who can’t read feel dumb and shame. That’s a double-whammy as they are made to do something they aren’t good at while also being deprived of doing something they are good at. Low self-esteem in kids contributes to trends like high dropout rates, drug use, crime and incarceration. The prison population is disproportionately illiterate, according to the U.S. Department of Education. We hope to intervene in this cycle of cruel wasted talent.

The goal is to recapture those people who are dropping out, to boost the spatial of those needing it to succeed in STEM, and in the arts, design and architecture fields, but also to reinvigorate vocational work to give it the dignity and opportunity it deserves. The green economy of the future needs engineers as much as plumbers, biochemists as much as farmers, and yet there is no system in pre-K to 12 to train them. The pandemic drove much of this home for manufacturing and essential services. So we’re working on building that cluster of skills and use.

Is this system in addition to or in place of written or verbal language?

It is in addition to written and verbal language. As our research partner Kathy Hirsh-Pasek says, spatial is a continuous system, and language is a categorical system. Imagine the visual ways to express four, or 4, so many more than those two ways: four dots, ••••; four lines, ||||; a four-sided square; a cross dividing in four. It’s why design communicates so directly in that picture = 1,000 words ways.

Fig. 7

Patterns are how nature grows, and patterns are how we learn, and that is multi-dimensional learning, so we are building a bridge across this clean linkage (Fig. 7 and Fig. 8).

Fig. 8

You've tested it among the poor in Africa, but is it aimed at a broader community?

We aim to be a global system from preschool to Ph.D. and AI.

It’s taught in engineering at U Calgary by Marjan Eggermont; it’s in use at NASA in the Periodic Table of Life project run by Vik Shyam, to have machine vision recognize natural forms (Fig. 9). And it’s easy enough for a preverbal child to see. We hope to be a Khan Academy style of multi-age learning, and reinvigorate nature-based learning. Da Vinci was self-taught, from observation of nature, and we feel we can help kids see like he did, as an artist and scientist at the same time—form and function. Then we can really jumpstart bio-inspired design, for which the pABC is a natural “language.”

Fig. 9

Why were these children in Tanzania selected as the test studies?

We chose a UNICEF area that was testing the new MELQO standard for Sustainable Development Goal 4.6 on preschools’ curriculum. The Early Childhood Education team at UNICEF needed to see it was deliverable and measurable in a low-resource environment with not a lot of training. We were able to show them it was, and kids and teachers had fun, as well as showing them the gap in their then-curriculum measures for preschool in the spatial area.

How do you hope to expand or evolve the language?

We’d like to become a font, so you can use the pABC as a shorthand when typing and writing. Having grown up doing calligraphy, I believe the font would experience a really interesting component when handwritten, that might mimic character languages. There might be clean-lined single-width line, like handwritten Kanji in ball point, and more expressive line-width variant like Arabic in calligraphic nibs, or painterly brush style of Chinese paintings.

And it would also be helpful in cataloging mountains of scientific images and natural history. If you can use a 🌀 instead of using the word “spiral,” “swirl” or “twirl” or … (you get the picture), then tagging images with 🌀 patterns themselves will be a big win. There’s a site working on how to integrate our patterns in it now.

Those patterns can help AI of big databases, of collections of many types of nature objects, art objects, and objects of the everyday culture. It’s global, and local, and I want it to be a big library online. I want a child to look at a twizzler and think of DNA.