Monday, March 31, 2014

The Chocolate Head Space Promotes Recognition of “Human Ingenuity” through “Play and Work”

The instruction of Aleta Hayes and the Chocolate Heads Movement Band (Chocolate Heads) increased my confidence to learn. This community encourages public exclamations of recognition, or what Erving Goffman refers to as “Response Cries”.

Just as most public arrangements oblige and induce us to be silent, and many other arrangements to talk, so a third set allows and obliges us momentarily to open up ourthoughts and feelings and ourselves, through sound, to whoever is present. Response cries, do not mark a flooding of emotion outward, but a flooding of relevance in.
- Erving Goffman, “Response Cries.”(1978, p. 814)[Formatting added]

I sit in the Graduate Community Center laughing out loud while reading, “chuckling aloud to ourselves in response to what we are reading is suspect; this can imply that we are too freely immersed in the printed scene to retain dissociated concern for the scene in which our reading occurs.” (Goffman p. 791) I make more “exclamatory interjections” (Goffman p. 800) since becoming a Chocolate Head and I feel less obliged to be silent because expressive outbursts are encouraged and appreciated among us. I approach life with more of a willingness to learn and celebrate my mistakes in hopes of inspiring others to join us. Aleta Hayes builds a company in which every artist (dancer, musician, lyricist, technologist, director…) plays a part in the overall construction of the piece. The style of collaboration used to choreograph our movement is daringly complex, and wonderfully simple. It cultivates confidence, learning to learn, and creative construction in a superior manner than I have encountered in traditional learning environments.
Ray McDermott and Jason Raley made the claim that, “the social world is built by people working together, and by their work we can know them.” (2011, p. 388) and John Dewey warns that, “It is not enough just to introduce plays and games, hand work and manual exercises. Everything depends upon the way in which they are employed.” (1916, p. 3) There are myriad activities that Aleta Hayes has our group perform, and this analysis is an attempt to connect my learning in the Chocolate Heads Space to Dewey’s ideas around “Play and Work in the Curriculum” (1916) and McDermott & Raley’s insights around “Human Ingenuity” (2011). In their piece entitled, “Looking Closely: Toward a Natural History of Human Ingenuity”, McDermott & Raley explain, “To fashion a natural history approach, we state a problem, make a claim, and promise a better way to proceed.” (p. 374)

Problem Statement
Often when teams are working together, there is a lack of trust needed to have effective collaborative interaction. It is easy to doubt oneself or others. It is difficult to allow oneself to be vulnerable. Teacher-student interactions are a prime example of work between collaborators who need to develop trust. McDermott and Raley describe the current extent of that relationship (p. 381):
From the child’s point of view, the day is spent arranging to not get caught not knowing something and/or getting caught knowing something at just the right time. From the teacher’s point of view, the day is spent finding failure while, at the same time, preaching the availability of success for all and trying not to degrade those who look less able.”
As far as ingenuity is concerned, McDermott and Raley assert that “official school environments either make ingenuity appear scarce, make ingenuity a refugee phenomenon, or bend the purposes of ingenuity toward the pursuit of being seen being able.” (p. 387) How might we increase the level of professional trust between collaborators, and will they perform with more human ingenuity once it is raised?

People want to build trust and be a source of ingenuity. People enjoy spending time with their friends, family, and acquaintances because it is more comfortable to be around others with whom we share reciprocal trust. We often behave more playfully in trusting settings. “Persons who play are not just doing something (pure physical movement); they are trying to do or effect something“ (Dewey, p. 10). Work and play are not disjoint.
When fairly remote results of a definite character are foreseen and enlist persistent effort for their accomplishment, play passes into work. Like play, it signifies purposeful activity and differs not in that activity is subordinated to an external result, but in the fact that a longer course of activity is occasioned by the idea of a result.  (Dewey, pp. 11-12)

There are better ways to develop trusting relationships in learning environments. Great teachers organize events to scrutinize people’s activities and gain what McDermott & Raley describe as ability to, “see accomplishments, critiques, and frustrations where others have seen only disorder and stupidity.” (p.375) Aleta Hayes and the Chocolate Heads incorporate methods that approach this promise and arrange events to promote human ingenuity. “Given the materials and persons and moments at hand, what a person does is ‘ingenious’ if it transforms those materials into something interesting, fun, or new.” (McDermott & Raley, p. 387)

Collaboration plays a pivotal role for dancers. If each individual movement doesn’t synch with the whole group, the effect can be emotionally discordant. However, when the movements are harmonious, the resulting expression becomes sublime. There is a lot of pressure on choreographers because dancers need rehearsal time to perfect a performance. This time constraint causes many choreographers to develop whole pieces before working with the dancers, and leaves little time to make adjustments based on the dancers’ abilities. However, that culture divides “dancers” and “choreographers”. This division makes the role of the dancer mimicry and memorization. Subsequently, most dancers aren’t allowed the freedom to contribute to or alter the performance.
The notion that a pupil operating with such material will somehow absorb the intelligence that went originally to its shaping is fallacious. Only by starting with crude material and subjecting it to purposeful handling will he gain the intelligence embodied in finished material. (Dewey p. 5)
Aleta agrees. The resulting choreography, music, and visual design of the Chocolate Heads Movement Band become an amalgam of the “crude material” that each individual’s particular talents helps mold. They develop individual parts that change with time. They mix and combine different elements from each artist's part to build whole movements. There is an overarching structure of a story, but it is loosely constructed and freely changes day to day. Aleta emphasizes the feeling of a movement over the idea of a narrative. Dancers practice and iterate on their choreography while the instructor circulates the floor and critiques each routine. Aleta recognizes what looks good; and when she sees it, she has dancers teach each other the appropriate way to perform a movement. It constantly develops through this “purposeful handling” as an artistic production being orchestrated by a great teacher. It begs the question, what is the underlying mechanism that allows Aleta to create such a creative culture among artists who have often just met?
Of course there are numerous confounds: Stanford students are motivated, artists and dancers self-identify as creative, the Bay Area is full of unrealistic optimism and positivity, but there is something different about the Chocolate Heads even when compared to other dance groups on Stanford’s campus.
Fig. 1
Chocolate Heads have a culture of connectedness.
On my second night dancing with the Chocolate Heads (and for many of them, it was anywhere from their 10-20th rehearsal), I found it interesting that when Aleta came to help this pair of dancers (Fig. 1), she noted that they were not doing as well in her presence than when she was glancing at them from across the floor. It was a very astute observation and an example of the inviting, honest, and loving way that Aleta nurtures a relationship with us. My interpretation of this was that the connection between the students was stronger than their connection to the instructor at that time. She was building trust, and after making the imbalance explicit, the dancers embraced the confidence she instilled in them. Aleta then arranged the whole group to focus on our connectedness. For inspiration, we watched a clip with professional dancers who were so connected that they moved as if they were "one body". Imagine a group of twelve dancers making uninhibited “response cries” when the relevance of connected movement hits them all at once. To help foster this among us, she had everyone move in sync through different activities: traversing the floor in groups of four with the “same foot-fall”, having each member create a movement and asking each group of four to “copy dancer ____” while maintaining the “same foot-fall”. Near the end of our rehearsal session, and in the beginning of subsequent sessions, we perform synchronous movements to get in-tune with each other’s body. We make "waves", create “seas”, and develop trust for each other.
This process is an ongoing acculturation. I produce movement with this group part-time, and started this school year late (in winter quarter). Nonetheless, I have been embraced by the group’s loving energy, and feel myself growing both as a dancer and team member. My continued involvement has exposed me to some of the ways that Aleta pushes each individual dancer to pull the desired expression out of themselves, and the qualities that make her an excellent teacher:
·    Public Recognition with Repetition: “Whoa! Look how ____ did it! Do it again, everyone watch.”
·         Fostering Creativity with our Bodies: “What else can you do? No… what else? YES!”
·      Attention to Detail, Noticing Bad Habits and Targeting Mismovements: (“Stay in your heels”, “sexy is an inside job”, “from the outside in”, “from the inside out”, “five-pointed star”, “out your toes”, “out your hands”, “flex your feet”, “point your toes”, “get up like a dancer”, “be the master of all that you survey”, “honey hands”…) 
These are important points, because it is Aleta’s expertise and ability to transform us as dancers that solidifies our trust in her and each other. She demonstrates these qualities as a teacher and successfully leads a group of artists to organically synthesize an endless array of new ideas. Her orchestration is an act of ingenuity, and as a result of it, she enables her students to behave ingeniously in turn.


Dewey, John (1916). “Play and work in the curriculum,” Democracy in Education. Pp. 194-206.

Goffman, Erving (1978). “Response Cries.” Language, 54: Pp. 787-815.

McDermott, Ray & Raley, Jason (2011). “Looking closely: Toward a natural history of human ingenuity.” In E. Margolis & L. Pauwels (eds.), Handbook of Visual Research Methods. Pp. 272-291. Sage.

Appendix A: Theory Drawings

Finite or Infinite Games?

Who is "Yourself"?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Let’s Assess Better

A critique by Evan Rushton of
Looking Closely: Toward a Natural History of Human Ingenuity
by Ray McDermott and Jason Raley

Ray and Jason, you had me at “We agree.” (p. 1)

“…people are usually ingenious, both locally in their most personal circumstances and collectively in their most distributed consequences. In coordinating with each other, people show themselves, to those who would look carefully, to be orderly, knowledgeable, and precise. Given the demands of necessity, they do well what has to be done even if under limiting, or worse, pathological conditions.” (p 1)

I agree in the contrapositive of the final statement regarding a lack of ingenuity among spoiled children: “They do poorly what has to be done, without the demands of necessity.”  I say this because I see people performing poorly (wasteful, inconsiderate, uncreative…), and draw the conclusion that we are not demanding these values (conservation, consideration, creativity…) from them. This is an argument against predominant forms of assessment, and a call to “look closely” at how we can support the development of skills our students need in the 21st century.

We demand something from our children, and I agree that “[g]iven the demands of necessity, they do well what has to be done…” perhaps too well. Using mathematics as an example, students in 8th grade honors geometry (“High Achievers”) who took Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative’s Mathematics Assessment Collaborative’s (MAC) performance assessment exam in 2012 performed well on standardized multiple choice tests (96.1% CST at or above Proficient), but poorly on free response questions (45.6% MAC above proficient) In 2nd grade, 76% of the students were scoring above proficient in both the MAC and CST exams, but over time students were trained to perform well on the only measured outcome, the multiple choice questions.  So much so that by 8th grade, only 45.6% of our high achievers perform proficiently on critical thinking tasks.

We attempt to condense the learned experiences of children onto a ballot used to measure student growth. I see a parallel between standardized tests and the way Ray and Jason speak of 20th century social sciences’ objectivity, “Even personal developments and events − even desire − get described and managed as if intelligible to a cold and calculating eye that looks on activities not as they are performed, but by their symptoms − their droppings − lined up in patterns only after they have run their course.”  (p. 2) And I believe that we can do a better job, with assessment that gets at what William James recommended in 1897, “’a more radical empiricism’ that seeks things in the full variety of their connections in experience” (p. 3)

When I drive alone, I usually make good lane change and turn decisions. But I always warn my passengers, that when other people are in the car I rely on the shared knowledge to direct us to our location. This often leads to missed streets and U-turns. I can’t control the huge shift in my personality between an empty vehicle and the “ones-with-others” vessel. But I know the latter is more difficult to manage, and is closer to the stuff of human interaction. The authors claim, “[A] natural history analysis examines organisms and environments interwoven in real time in situations consequential to their participants and beyond.”  (p 2) Ray and Jason’s goal in using a natural history approach is also what I see as the window through which we can accurately measure learning: “[I]t is ‘not the point of view of one toward the other’ that we seek, but ‘the very processing itself of the ones-with-others.’” (p 3)

How do we assess that?


Ray McDermott & Jason Raley (2011). “Looking closely: Toward a natural history of human ingenuity.” In E. Margolis & L. Pauwels (eds.), Handbook of Visual Research Methods. Pp. 272-291. Sage.

Test Data:

David Foster. (2012) Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative.