Workflow Thinking and Purposeful Friction

By stepping away from the familiar and searching for potential friction points, however, a writer can better understand how particular tools or formats shape and structure their work.

Source: Writing Workflows | Chapter 1

I’m a few chapters in and enjoying the pre-peer review draft of “Writing Workflows: Beyond Word Processing”. It looks at the workflows of three writers who work like I do: Markdown, plain text, and lots of automation and tool experimentation.

The book “introduces the concepts of workflow and workflow thinking as a way to describe, analyze, and share mediated approaches to writing and knowledge work.” I like their “workflow thinking” concept. I’ll work it into my post on Writing in Education and Plain Text Flow where I advocate for plain text and a workflow approach to writing in education.

From our participants’ practices we draw the concept of workflow thinking-the act of reading knowledge work as modular and intertwined with technologies. Workflow thinking allows our participants to break any given project into a series of shorter process steps-a perspective that is well in line with rhetoric and composition’s understanding of process and its typical pedagogical practices. Workflow thinking, however, foregrounds the mediated nature of that work. It looks at each task or component and asks a question of the writing technologies and available affordances within that component: “Through which technologies will I accomplish this task? Why? What does a change in technologies offer here?” For our participants, a shift in these practices might afford them mobility or the removal of drudgery or new ways of seeing a problem or new invention strategies. In each case, however, they are able to use this mediated and modular thinking to reevaluate when and how they approach knowledge work.

This book offers workflow thinking as a counterpoint to contemporary discussions of digital writing technologies-particularly in regards to the increasing prominence of institutional software. As more universities sign on to site licenses for platforms like Office 365 and Google Apps for Education, and as more students and faculty become comfortable with working within those applications, writers risk a “cementing” of practice-a means through which writing tasks begin and end in institutionally-sanctioned software because it is free or pre-installed or institutionally available or seen as a shared software vocabulary. A lens of workflow thinking pushes against this, instead asking “what are the component pieces of this work?” and “how is this mediated?” and “what might a shift in mediation or technology afford me in completing this?” In short, we see workflow thinking as a way to reclaim agency and to push against institutionally-purchased software defaults. This perspective has origins in early humanities computing (particularly in 1980s research on word processors), as we will more fully discuss later in this chapter.

Source: Writing Workflows | Chapter 1

I also like their concept of friction, particularly purposeful friction.

In offering the concept of workflow thinking, we diverge from the business & systems-focused concept of the workflow (one that is often used by our participants) in suggesting that workflow thinking should not privilege efficiency above all else. Just as there are compelling outcomes to automating a mundane computing task via a program or script, there are also compelling outcomes to purposefully introducing constraints to a modular workflow component—for example, writing a draft in crayon (Wysocki, 2004)—and purposefully introducing friction into process.

Source: Writing Workflows | Introduction

These writers are constantly reexamining their processes, looking at the potential of mediating technologies, and searching for friction-places where they think there’s a better way to accomplish a task, where they find unnecessary steps in a process, or where they describe software as getting in their way. Workflows allow them to search for and eliminate friction, better matching writing tools to the writer’s affective preferences and creating new ways of seeing and doing knowledge work.

The concept of friction offers one possible explanation for Word’s ascent and the general disappearance of word processing research. Friction is most noticeable when first adopting a new piece of software, as each task seems to take longer than it should. Once software is familiar and process is routinized, friction fades to the background. And once it seems normal, a specific use case isn’t frictional-it’s simply the way the software works. Over time, that friction melds into a user’s everyday interaction with the computer. (This is one way in which our participants deviate from typical computing patterns; they seek out and read for moments of friction.)

Word’s familiarity and ubiquity means that many writers can use it without problem; any perceived friction recedes to the background as a part of a typical use case. This familiarity serves a purpose, “as people prefer their technologies transparent: they do not like to think about the features of their word processors any more than they like to think about shifting gears in an automobile, and they prefer to look through a given technology to the task at hand” (Haas, 1996, p. 25). The narrowing of the word processor market facilitated this perspective-moving (to follow Haas’s analogy) writing software from a manual to automatic transmission. Today, many writers open Word, step on the gas, and go. Moving out of this mindset, as Haas argues, “entail[s] looking at, rather than through, the literacy technologies we use every day. This will be difficult, and indeed not always practical. In the conduct of most work it is important to be able to treat technology transparently; after all, we have classes to teach, books to write, and children to raise” (p. 23). Said simply: To study friction is to reintroduce friction into writing. Word became transparent and useful, and the word processor lost its luster as an object of inquiry.

For participants in the workflow affinity space, searching for friction means identifying and eliminating moments when software gets in the way. They might recommend that writers step back from familiar software and consider how friction has become normalized in day-to-day use cases.

Word will appear to be a frictionless technology until Word is no longer a readily available tool. Then, when Word files aren’t easy to open, friction will reappear. By stepping away from the familiar and searching for potential friction points, however, a writer can better understand how particular tools or formats shape and structure their work.

There is also a way to see friction as generative by purposefully introducing it to one’s process through difficult or troublesome technologies. This approach to friction departs from the efficiency-minded priorities of the writers we profile in this book, but it aligns well with the creative and inventive priorities of many writing pedagogies. This might look something like Anne Wysocki’s (2004) writing assignment that suggests instructors “give students a short (1-2 page) writing assignment-and then ask them to turn in the assignment written in crayon (any color or colors) on any paper” (p. 27). Crayons, in an academic context, are pure friction; they are difficult to work with, they smear, they can look messy or unprofessional, and they subvert expectations. However, the friction imposed by crayons might help a writer better understand mediation and see their work in a new way. This friction can be inventive and productive, and it aligns with Marcus’s invisible writing exercise: Swapping monitors won’t help a writer produce a polished draft, but it might help them generate ideas or see their work in new ways. It is purposeful friction.

Source: Writing Workflows | Chapter 1

In the introduction, the authors ask a question I’ve wondered about regarding the continued dominance of page-based word processing in education while so many hackers, writers, scientists, and screenwriters are using Markdown, a now 14 year old technology.

At the 2013 Computers & Writing conference, we (Derek & Tim) started talking about the broad Markdown affinity space: Podcasts, blogs, self-published books, and social media conversations. We were particularly interested in the absence of these conversations within our field. How could a nearly ten-years-old writing technology continue to grow in professional and enthusiast spaces but also be largely absent among those who teach and research writing?

Source: Writing Workflows | Introduction

I put some of my favorite quotes from the book on my microblog. I’ll add more as I proceed through the book and digest.

Explaining the Why of Your Ed-tech Choices

What does personalized learning mean at your school?

But what exactly does “personalized learning” mean across these varied products and contexts? And more broadly speaking, which labels and claims employed by companies can be trusted? How do the products schools are being offered differ from what teachers are already doing in their classrooms? Is personalized learning being oversold?

They’re all questions that get more complicated by the year for district officials trying to settle on personalized learning strategies and figure out which products will help them meet their goals.

“It’s become such a generic term. It’s aspirin,” said Daniel Gohl, the chief academic officer of Florida’s Broward County Schools, the sixth-largest district in the country. “Slapping on the label ‘personalized’ does not mean that [a product] helps me systematically move student achievement.”

Source: Are Companies Overselling Personalized Learning? — Education Week

I don’t really know what my school district means by personalized learning. It’s nebulous and never really explained. I don’t know the why.

Some years ago, therefore, I hatched the idea of supporting such educators by convening a brain trust of leading theorists, researchers, and practitioners to create – and then disseminate – concise defenses of various features of progressive education. I imagined a set of handouts, each consisting of a single (double-sided) sheet that responded to a common question. The idea was to lay out the case briskly, making liberal use of bullet points and offering a short bibliography at the end for anyone who wanted more information.

One of these “Why Sheets,” for example, might explain a teacher’s decision to create a curriculum based on kids’ questions. Or for setting aside time each day for a class meeting. It might defend helping students to understand mathematical principles rather than just memorizing facts and algorithms. Or it might lay out the case for avoiding worksheets, or tests, or homework, or traditional bribe-and-threat classroom management strategies.

Eventually I started thinking about creating additional Why Sheets to help administrators defend enlightened schoolwide policies: why we don’t track students; why we push back against standardized testing and never brag about high scores; why we have multiage classrooms; why we’ve replaced report cards with student-led parent conferences; why we use a problem-solving approach to discipline in place of suspensions and detentions; why our commitment to building community has led us to avoid awards assemblies, spelling bees, and other rituals that pit kids against one another.

In short, any practice that’s constructive yet still controversial would be fair game for one of these punchy handouts. The idea was to help educators explain why they do what they do – and, equally important, why they deliberately avoid doing some things. The sheets would be made available free of charge, uncopyrighted, and accompanied by an invitation to distribute them promiscuously.

The Why Axis – Alfie Kohn

Kohn presents these why sheets as a way to provide support for progressive teachers trying new things, something I’ve suggested at school a time or two.

Some years ago, therefore, I hatched the idea of supporting such educators by convening a brain trust of leading theorists, researchers, and practitioners to create – and then disseminate – concise defenses of various features of progressive education. I imagined a set of handouts, each consisting of a single (double-sided) sheet that responded to a common question. The idea was to lay out the case briskly, making liberal use of bullet points and offering a short bibliography at the end for anyone who wanted more information.

I don’t consider the mainstream ed-tech notions of personalized learning progressive, but I still want to know the why. I want to know the why of choosing behaviorism and data collection. I want to know the why of choosing, for example, platooning vs. looping. I want to know the why of many things I see in ed.

My professional culture is heavy on writing.

For organizations, the single biggest difference between remote and physical teams is the greater dependence on writing to establish the permanence and portability of organizational culture, norms and habits. Writing is different than speaking because it forces concision, deliberation, and structure, and this impacts how politics plays out in remote teams.

Writing changes the politics of meetings. Every Friday, Zapieremployees send out a bulletin with: (1) things I said I’d do this week and their results, (2) other issues that came up, (3) things I’m doing next week. Everyone spends the first 10 minutes of the meeting in silence reading everyone’s updates.

Remote teams practice this context setting out of necessity, but it also provides positive auxiliary benefits of “hearing” from everyone around the table, and not letting meetings default to the loudest or most senior in the room. This practice can be adopted by companies with physical workplaces as well (in fact, Zapier CEO Wade Foster borrowed this from Amazon), but it takes discipline and leadership to change behavior, particularly when it is much easier for everyone to just show up like they’re used to.

Writing changes the politics of information sharing and transparency.

Source: Distributed teams are rewriting the rules of office(less) politics | TechCrunch

Communication is oxygen. At my company, we build our communication culture on blogging. We create FAQs and Field Guides and Master Posts for everything. Writing and transparency are important parts of managing change and creating alignment.

Administrators are educators. Educate by writing in the open. Educate by publishing why sheets. Borrow from what works in distributed work: a culture of writing and transparency. Do some of the heavy lifting for teachers who have to defend district decisions to parents. Write. Write on the open web so that teachers can reference why sheets when communicating with parents. Default to open.

Persuasion and Operant Conditioning: The Influence of B. F. Skinner in Big Tech and Ed-tech

I would argue, in total seriousness, that one of the places that Skinnerism thrives today is in computing technologies, particularly in “social” technologies. This, despite the field’s insistence that its development is a result, in part, of the cognitive turn that supposedly displaced behaviorism.

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

Audrey Watters notes the Skinner influence in the behaviorism of big tech and ed-tech in two great pieces: “B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century” and “Education Technology and the New Behaviorism”.

B. J. Fogg and his Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford is often touted by those in Silicon Valley as one of the “innovators” in this “new” practice of building “hooks” and “nudges” into technology. These folks like to point to what’s been dubbed colloquially “The Facebook Class” – a class Fogg taught in which students like Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the founders of Instagram, and Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked, “studied and developed the techniques to make our apps and gadgets addictive,” as Wired put it in a recent article talking about how some tech executives now suddenly realize that this might be problematic.

(It’s worth teasing out a little – but probably not in this talk, since I’ve rambled on so long already – the difference, if any, between “persuasion” and “operant conditioning” and how they imagine to leave space for freedom and dignity. Rhetorically and practically.)

I’m on the record elsewhere arguing this framing – “technology as addictive” – has its problems. Nevertheless it is fair to say that the kinds of compulsive behavior that we display with our apps and gadgets is being encouraged by design. All that pecking. All that clicking.

These are “technologies of behavior” that we can trace back to Skinner – perhaps not directly, but certainly indirectly due to Skinner’s continual engagement with the popular press. His fame and his notoriety. Behavioral management – and specifically through operant conditioning – remains a staple of child rearing and pet training. It is at the core of one of the most popular ed-tech apps currently on the market, ClassDojo. Behaviorism also underscores the idea that how we behave and data about how we behave when we click can give programmers insight into how to alter their software and into what we’re thinking.

If we look more broadly – and Skinner surely did – these sorts of technologies of behavior don’t simply work to train and condition individuals; many technologies of behavior are part of a broader attempt to reshape society. “For your own good,” the engineers try to reassure us. “For the good of the world.”

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

In that Baffler article, I make the argument that behavior management apps like ClassDojo’s are the latest manifestation of behaviorism, a psychological theory that has underpinned much of the development of education technology. Behaviorism is, of course, most closely associated with B. F. Skinner, who developed the idea of his “teaching machine” when he visited his daughter’s fourth grade class in 1953. Skinner believed that a machine could provide a superior form of reinforcement to the human teacher, who relied too much on negative reinforcement, punishing students for bad behavior than on positive reinforcement, the kind that better trains the pigeons.

But I think there’s been a resurgence in behaviorism. It’s epicenter isn’t Harvard, where Skinner taught. It’s Stanford. It’s Silicon Valley. And this new behaviorism is fundamental to how many new digital technologies are being built.

It’s called “behavior design” today (because at Stanford, you put the word “design” in everything to make it sound beautiful not totally rotten). Stanford psychologist B. J. Fogg and his Persuasive Technology Lab teach engineers and entrepreneurs how to build products – some of the most popular apps can trace their origins to the lab – that manipulate and influence users, encouraging certain actions or behaviors and discouraging others and cultivating a kind of “addiction” or conditioned response. “Contingencies of reinforcement,” as Skinner would call them. “Technique,” Jacques Ellul would say. “Nudges,” per behavioral economist Richard Thaler, recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize for economics.

New technologies are purposefully engineered to demand our attention, to “hijack our minds.” They’re designed to elicit certain responses and to shape and alter our behaviors. Ostensibly all these nudges are supposed to make us better people – that’s the shiniest version of the story promoted in books like Nudge and Thinking about Thinking. But much of this is really about getting us to click on ads, to respond to notifications, to open apps, to stay on Web pages, to scroll, to share – actions and “metrics” that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors value.

There’s a darker side still to this as I argued in the first article in this very, very long series: this kind of behavior management has become embedded in our new information architecture. It’s “fake news,” sure. But it’s also disinformation plus big data plus psychological profiling and behavior modification. The Silicon Valley “nudge” is a corporatenudge. But as these technologies are increasingly part of media, scholarship, and schooling, it’s a civics nudge too.

Those darling little ClassDojo monsters are a lot less cute when you see them as part of a new regime of educational data science, experimentation, and “psycho-informatics.”

Source: Education Technology and the New Behaviorism

Autistic people keep warning us about behaviorism. Behaviorism brings the mindset and legacy of the awful men who developed it (Skinner, Lovaas, et al) into our schools. Behaviorism has history in autistic and gay conversion therapy. It hasn’t grown far enough from that history. It’s a bad lens for seeing and understanding humans. It is primitive moral development.

Autistic self-advocates are very concerned about behaviorism and deficit ideology, particularly ABA. “My experience with special education and ABA demonstrates how the dichotomy of interventions that are designed to optimize the quality of life for individuals on the spectrum can also adversely impact their mental health, and also their self-acceptance of an autistic identity. This is why so many autistic self-advocates are concerned about behavioral modification programs: because of the long-term effects they can have on autistic people’s mental health. This is why we need to preach autism acceptance, and center self-advocates in developing appropriate supports for autistic people. That means we need to take autistic people’s insights, feelings, and desires into account, instead of dismissing them.” With behaviorism, “the literal meaning of the words is irrelevant when you’re being abused. When I was a little girl, I was autistic. And when you’re autistic, it’s not abuse. It’s therapy.” “The abuse of autistic children is so expected, so normalised, so glorified that many symptoms of trauma and ptsd are starting to be seen as autistic traits.

Source: I’m Autistic. Here’s what I’d like you to know.

One of my favorite anecdotes from Asperger’s thesis is when he asks an autistic boy in his clinic if he believes in God. “I don’t like to say I’m not religious,” the boy replies, “I just don’t have any proof of God.” That anecdote shows an appreciation of autistic non-compliance, which Asperger and his colleagues felt was as much a part of their patients’ autism as the challenges they faced. Asperger even anticipated in the 1970s that autistic adults who “valued their freedom” would object to behaviorist training, and that has turned out to be true.

Source: THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: On Hans Asperger, the Nazis, and Autism: A Conversation Across Neurologies

It’s time we outgrew this limited and limiting psychological theory.” Reject it from our companies and schools.

Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism – a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement – and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.

Allow me, then, to propose this rule of thumb: The value of any book, article, or presentation intended for teachers (or parents) is inversely related to the number of times the word “behavior” appears in it. The more our attention is fixed on the surface, the more we slight students’ underlying motives, values, and needs.

It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of “behavior analysts.” But, alas, its reductionist influence lives on – in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS and Class Dojo, in scripted curricula and the reduction of children’s learning to “data,” in grades and rubrics, in “competency”- and “proficiency”-based approaches to instruction, in standardized assessments, in reading incentives and merit pay for teachers.>

It’s time we outgrew this limited and limiting psychological theory. That means attending less to students’ behaviors and more to the students themselves.

Source: It’s Not About Behavior – Alfie Kohn

Operant conditioning and the manipulation of response to stimuli are at the heart of theories that support instructional design. But more, they form the foundation of almost all educational technology-from the VLE or LMS to algorithms for adaptive learning. Building upon behaviorism, Silicon Valley-often in collaboration with venture capitalists with a stake in the education market-have begun to realize Skinner’s teaching machines in today’s schools and universities.

And there’s the rub. When we went online to teach, we went online almost entirely without any other theories to support us besides instructional design. We went online first assuming that learning could be a calculated, brokered, duplicatable experience. For some reason, we took one look at the early internet and forgot about all the nuance of teaching, all the strange chaos of learning, and surrendered to a philosophy of see, do, hit submit.

The problem we face is not just coded into the VLE, either. It’s not just coded into Facebook and Twitter and the way we send an e-mail or the machines we use to send text messages. It’s coded into us. We believe that online learning happens this way. We believe that discussions should be posted once and replied to twice. We believe that efficiency is a virtue, that automated proctors and plagiarism detection services are necessary-and more than necessary, helpful.

But these are not things that are true, they are things that are sold.

Source: A Call for Critical Instructional Design

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