February 16, 2011

By jleffron

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The Mooreeffoc Effect: Learning Through the Wrong Side of the Door

Through a glass darkly…Through a door backwards

I’ve been familiar with the Mooreeffoc Effect but hadn’t given it a lot of thought recently until I started working on world building for a digital learning project.

Mooreeffoc is taking the familiar but looking at it through a new angle, shining light into a cobweb laden, dusty corner, taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar. Dickens makes reference to the term as coming to him when he abstractedly noticed the words “Coffee Room”, backwards, on the wrong side of a glass door. It transformed the familiar and prosaic into something new and captivating.

Mooreeffoc allows you see the same world through new eyes, it strips away the dulling film of paradigms and assumptions and lets you really see what is there.

Why it Helps

When we try to teach something (or learn it) we’re usually burdened with the familiar – with thick layers of assumptions and generalizations (based on experience) wrapped around us like down cushions so thick we’re well insulated from any real impact.

It is difficult to learn new things when the “space” or “subject” is one we’re quite at home with. The mental filters are up; one will only see what they ever and and always see… And in general will do what has always been done. We anticipate what comes next and are planning our responses well ahead, based on what we know.

Brains are like that – they find efficiencies so that there’s space left for the tricky bits; that’s great if you’re in the forest wanting to avoid becoming dinner for the local mountain lion, but not so good for workplace innovation.

When building a learning environment, the trick is to not to have the situation so foreign that all of a participant’s mental energy is used up in managing/processing the environment but just foreign enough that it’s possible to see new details, form new connections, do things differently. Mooreeffoc.

To do this, requires a learning environment that’s real enough that participants can immerse; if they can easily “see outside the walls” the illusion can quickly break down and the Mooreeffoc effect can lost before its done any good. It also helps if the environment allows discovery, not imposition or exposition of the discoveries of others. The flash of understanding that Dickens’ got from his coffee shop door was a very different experience to what you or I receive just reading about it.

In a Walled Garden

Now, that’s not as tough as it sounds, you don’t need a 3-d immersive environment, just some careful and thoughtful learning design (using the words “careful” and “thoughtful” quite literally, here).

What helps in this effort is that our lazy brains actually don’t WANT to see outside the walls… I see this in myself all the time.

I can read Vilenkin’s “Many Worlds in One” (physics for the non-academic) and the book might be right, or it might be pretty much rubbish – but it’s just enough beyond my inherent knowledge base that I can’t see over the walls to know for sure. And I’m really pretty happy to stay that way – I’m not bothering to do the mental equivalent of fetching the step ladder and a spy glass. It jibes enough with what I do know, and I find Vilenkin’s conclusions appealing. So it doesn’t actually matter to me if I don’t pull down the math texts to verify… Or does it matter?

I occasionally catch a popular technology talk online. Some of them are okay. Some of them pretty much annoy me, because I do know enough to spot the false rigour, unsupported assertions, or the selective presentation of facts to support a thesis. It makes me think of Dr Fox or the Sokal affair. I know the talks aren’t supposed to be deep research, and people like an appealing assertion with an engaging delivery, and happily accept the conclusions (much like me with my book). But in this case my knowledge is often sufficient to see well outside the walls.

And I realize that an intriguing, attractively presented error really is a problem.

Back to the Right Side of the Door

Which comes back ’round to the Mooreeffoc effect. Creating a compelling learning environment may help with creative thinking, but there are times you need look beyond the illusion and see what emperor’s tailors are really making….

In a well designed Mooreeffoc space, you’ll not quite be able to take anything for granted; the moment you do you’ll be put off balance by the results or effects. It may be that building that habit of looking for the unexpected in the environment will waken us enough that even if we are not looking outside the walls, we can at least ask good questions about what we’re seeing inside of them; and transfer that knowledge beyond the walls later on.

But if we’re really trying to foster self-directed learners, it’s defeating the purpose to keep them confined in a walled garden of someone else’s making. The learning environment may be bright and enchanting, and realisitic, but isn’t quite real, which makes it quite easy to lead someone, quite literally, down the garden path.

In the end we have to go back to the origins of Mooreeffoc – it’s not just possible for it to work when we look beyond the walls; it’s imperative that it does work.

Done right, a learning environment will push us to look outside the walls, once we’ve enjoyed our time in Mooreeffoc. You can’t always be sitting inside the coffee room- at some point you need to step outside look at the world with fresh eyes and new ideas.

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