Learning in the Negative Space

 

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I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of negative space and the beauty that can be found there.

Artists and photographers often make use of negative space to starkly highlight what is represented in the image or create subtle second images receding in positive space. Take this illustration for example, entitled, “The Philosopher,”  by graphic illustrator Tang Yau Hoong:

The-Philosopher

The human cognitive process is trained to first take in the positive space, meaning the space that is filled with a familiar representation. So most people first see a question mark. But the artist has also created an image of a man’s face, visible within the negative space if we look a little closer. The negative space, no longer seen as a void in the image, takes on equal importance and often greater meaning.

So what does “learning in the negative space” mean?

The conventional way of understanding and measuring what children are taught in the school environment relies heavily on what is visible, recognizable and obvious to adults. In this way, the information that teachers impart to their students is “teachable.” The student’s grasp of this information, in the form of testing, is therefore recognizable as either right or wrong. With the implementation of standardized testing, there is no longer room for a child to look at a question in a unique way, see it from a different angle and provide a creative or alternative answer. This approach is ALWAYS seen as a wrong answer.

When our society talks about learning, we are no longer able to see the beauty or value in the negative space. Institutionalized learning has all but abolished the white canvas of possibility, and systematically dismisses the individual thinking that blooms around the edges of information. Abstraction is no longer valued, play is on its way to extinction, and creative expression is regarded as superfluous. Instead, we are marching our children down a sparse and sterile hallway of fact-filled, unfulfilling days, promising that if they trudge along like good soldiers, the key to freedom will one day be brandished, unlocking the door to a bright and successful future. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Real learning, for both children and adults, takes place in the negative spaces of our lives, and is often imperceptible, immeasurable and a direct result of a seemingly unrelated representation (the positive space).

My daughter spends a lot of time and effort making Brazilian friendship bracelets. She learned how to make them by reading craft magazines and watching videos on Youtube. Anyone watching her would see the obvious: a happy and focused little girl weaving a bracelet with colored string. Some might say, “she’s not learning, she’s playing.”

Not visible to the eye, but equally important is what’s happening in the negative space. In the weaving process, my daughter is employing complex algorithms that she learned on her own and by her own initiative.  Algorithms are essentially how computers process data. (“Using doubled strands start the bracelet with a loop and arrange the colors in a mirror image: colors 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1.”) She is also developing  hand-eye coordination as well as a sense of how colors work together.

* * *

Information in the classroom is presented as linear and is broken down, sorted and categorized into subjects which are addressed within short time-frames with little room for deviation. Learning in the negative space happens when we take the root of a piece of information and have the time, interest and freedom to explore where its many branches lead and how they ultimately intertwine.

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Artist: Priya Nair

 

My son can often be found exploring the farthest reaches of the world. He recently discovered the small island of Jan Mayen off the coast of Norway using Google Earth. He’s pretty obsessed with Geography, which in school would most likely be taught as an isolated subject according to grade level. But discovering Jan Mayen also led my son to venture out onto the branches of geology, meteorology, volcanic science, the arctic whaling industry and Dutch history.

I’m pretty certain this small volcanic island, visited centuries ago by seal trappers and largely uninhabited, didn’t make it into the standard school curriculum. But it exists–in all its glory– in the negative space where my son’s curiosity brought it to life (for anyone who’s willing to listen).

If we give our children the time and freedom to explore around the edges and borders, to push the limits of learning and venture into the negative space, the void becomes a beautiful repository of infinite possibility.

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Learning in the Negative Space

  1. Beautiful article. I have a daughter who is obsessed with the musical “Hamilton” She knows it backwards and forwards and it is turning into a serious love of history.

    Like

    • Hi Jill, thanks so much. It’s always interesting to see the connections our children make and see how when we allow them to pursue their passions, it can lead them to unexpected and rich learning!

      Like

  2. Pingback: Learning in the Negative Space – Pretty Much All I Know…

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