Sunday, June 17, 2012


I was recently in New York City for the SLJ Day of Dialogue. I love going to New York, but I also find it overwhelming. I have lived most of my life in rural areas, and I spend so little time in cities (especially big cities) that I often feel a bit of sensory overload.

However, I had an "ah ha!" moment while walking around Sunday afternoon--I find New York overwhelming because, for me, it is all figure, no ground.

I'll admit I have a very basic understanding of figure-ground organization (I had to look it up to make sure I had the right terminology for my insight), but the easiest way to understand it (at least in the way I'm using it) is in optical illusions like the Rubin Vase. An observer can either see it as two faces in profile, or a vase. The definition of what the image is depends on the interpretation of the observer, not on the image itself. Again, I am not an expert in this; it's just the analogy that helped me make sense of my experience.

For some reason, thinking about how overwhelming my current surroundings were brought to mind a (for me) completely opposite experience. This was many, many years ago--if I had to guess, I'd say I was in middle school. Some of my cousins were visiting our house in upstate New York. I grew up in the Adirondacks, surrounded by fields and mountains, with our "next door" neighbors about a tenth of a mile down the road. A few of my cousins--most of whom lived in the suburbs--were visiting, and they were absolutely fascinated by the cows that lived in the field next to our house. And all I could think was, "What's the big deal? They're just cows; they smell and they attract flies."

For me, the cows were ground; for my cousins, they were figure. For me, everything in New York City was figure; for everyone around me, it was mostly ground.

As I was thinking about and contrasting those two experiences ("so many people! so much to look at! so many sounds/smells/sights!" vs. "what's the big deal, they're just cows"), I started wondering if there are professional conversations in which we've made things ground that really need to be figure--or are making things figure that really should be ground.

Kristin Fontichiaro's recent blog post What Admins Think of Librarian Messages highlights a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Maybe our advocacy efforts aren't as effective as we like not because our messages are being ignored; maybe the messages are being heard, but they're not the right messages.

I wonder, too, if it goes deeper than that. Are there situations in which we've made "the problem" ground, when it's really still figure? When we meet failure in our advocacy efforts, are we staying with the same definition of the problem even though the reason we've met failure is because we're trying to solve the wrong problem? If we've misidentified the problem, there is no chance of identifying the right solution.

On a different level, I wonder how much these figure/ground (mis)perceptions affect our teaching. I don't think we do this consciously, but many teachers (and I include myself in this) often make the process of learning ground, when for many students it is still figure--or, worse, the students have made it ground without actually having a solid understanding of the learning process and themselves as learners. This can range from the "good student" who has become adept at absorbing information and returning the "right" answers at the right time to the "bad student" who has given up on themselves as a learner because this process that seems to come naturally to others--which their teachers don't teach explicitly, further reinforcing the idea that students should naturally know how to do it--does not come naturally to them.

I hear again and again from teachers, "I don't have time for XYZ skill, I need to cover more content." We have, in many ways, made content figure, while keeping the process of learning ground. But is that what education is about? We tend assume (particularly as students get older) that the process of learning is ground for our students, that they have well-established habits of mind. But this is not necessarily true--and even if students have mastered the process of learning when they're younger, as brains mature they become capable of different kinds of thinking. And, as with any truly valuable and complex skill, learning takes practice. If you'll excuse the pun, by assuming that the process of learning is ground for our students, we may be building on a weak foundation.

I also wonder how figure/ground (mis)perceptions impact our teaching of technology. I know many teachers (of all ages) who assume that students just naturally know how to use technology of all kinds effectively. Students may have grown up around these technologies, but that does not mean they have any natural, innate ability. We all grew up around books and print, but I don't know of any "print natives" who had a natural, innate ability to read just because they grew up around books. Letters, words, and their meanings had to be raised to figure for all of us to learn to read. We need to help students raise the technology they're surrounded by from ground to figure in order for them to learn to be thoughtful, effective users of the tools available to them.

The same goes for all sorts of skills--just because a student is good at hanging out with friends does not mean they intuitively understand how to effectively collaborate.

For some of us, these skills have been ground for us for so long that we forget that they used to be figure for us. This is a big part of why I think ongoing learning is such a vital part of being an effective teacher--it makes it easier for you to stay in the mindset of your students, and remember how challenging the process of grappling with new information can be.

It's important for us to step outside ourselves and make a conscious effort to move our assumptions--about all kinds of things--from ground to figure. If we don't try and see things from another point of view, we risk losing all perspective.


  1. Hi, SKM! I was nodding my head at this even before I scrolled down and saw myself. That day at TASLA was so transformative for me. I have not heard administrators be that forthright ever. As I continue to muse over those powerful words -- and adjust my thinking to them -- I have to remind myself that those administrators were, essentially, speaking on behalf of the politicians and reformers who made "the system" the way it is. So it isn't just about how we talk to administrators (those who are reacting to policy) -- it's about how we are able to impact those who take the action -- the policymakers themselves. We have to get in the habit of thinking like a telescope -- zooming out to see the larger forces in action, zooming in to do our day-to-day practice. It's hard work, isn't it?

    1. I'd been working on this post for a while, trying to put some of my thoughts into words--and then I saw your post and thought, "Perfect! That's exactly what I'm trying to talk about." Don't you just love synchronicity?
      It is hard work, and so, so important--both professionally and personally. I think we need to remember the advice we give students about why we seek multiple sources of information.