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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

Getting Picasso on Learning Technologies


my version: bull with wifi

A few weeks ago I was in one of my favourite Twitter chats – #EDENchat – with Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth) as host. The topic was “Which Personal Technologies?” (check out the Storify), and overall was lively, helpful, and civil.  But something about the conversation struck me about halfway through – it occurred to be suddenly that a preoccupation with devices, hardware, and software persists.

Don’t get me wrong – I think most people have moved into a “device agnostic” zone and focus on tools that can be used by any brand of laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Moreover, there is an established rhetoric throughout the education world that it’s “not about the technology/device”, but rather, about the pedagogy and “best practices” associated with these technologies and how learning and living has changed as a result.  (I plan to pen a post to challenge the former assumption a bit but the latter did inspire me to write “What if We Ditch ‘Best Practices’?”). This is undeniably a good move forward, but I still feel we are not seeing the big picture, and that, as Marshall McLuhan might say, we need to look forward into the past. 


I’ve written about how we might draw comparisons between “mobile tech” and the Impressionist Art movement, and even made a 20 second animated summary of why I think the essence of learning has not really changed since the time of Socrates. My thinking is assuredly influenced by my belief in the Gutenberg Parenthesis Theory, which links our behaviour in this post internet media environment to that of pre-printing press times (the Gutenberg era and all its contraptions a mere parenthetical blip in history). But I want to dig further back…

I want to pull a Picasso

The artist Pablo Picasso (one of my favourites as you can tell by this video), was a master of simplification – of distilling things to their utter spirit…of getting to the “-ness” of things. This is an artistic and philosophical technique called


The most famous example is his “Simplification of a bull” series viewed as an animated gif here, or as a suite of images here:


lithographs made over a period of a month in 1945

I once heard on an art history documentary of some sort that when Picasso entered the caves at Altamira, Spain, his reaction to man’s Paleolithic art was

“we have learned nothing”

Even more fascinating in my studies of creativity was that Apple has used this bull exercise as inspiration for their designers. Steve Jobs was fond of simplicity and clean design, and this type of iteration-to-abstraction has apparently become fundamental to “the Apple Way”.

In my own artwork I tend towards stylization and minimalism, and have found that the more I erase the better it can be. Picasso commented a few years before the bull series that

“A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case a picture is a sum of destructions”

So let’s take the “kill your darlings” approach and apply that to any discussion of what we so lovingly refer to as edtech. How do we break things down into their mere essence – into “learning -ness” as it were?

While we’re at it, let’s apply it to other activities we engage in as well – to

“loving-ness”, “thinking-ness”, “living -ness”…

My first reaction was to tweet:

what is it we are trying to do

The more I thought about it the more McLuhan’s thoughts rang true, that


This, by the way, is why I actively advocate for students to be able to use personal technologies such as smartphones and all the accoutrements that come with them in all classroom scenarios (though “classroom” is really a silly word, since learning happens in all areas at all times). If students’ devices are extensions, or parts of them, we do them a disservice and undermine positive culture if we “ban” them (this holds true for the business world too, btw).

I began to think,

Can we boil down our human-ness?


What is it we humans in particular do with any new technology?

We communicate

We collaborate

We connect with others on an emotional level

We share information and knowledge, and try to perpetuate wisdom

We create – for purpose or for aestheticism

We love, we laugh, we fight and hurt others…

The last point reminds me of something I often say that’s a bit off colour but true:

When you want to find out about the future of tech, look to the military and porn


Yes, good old sex and violence. And when you think about any new apps, for example, think about often ingenious ways people have “hacked” their use for nefarious reasons – either to bully or shame others or facilitate sex or sexualization in some way. It’s indeed one of our greatest fears as teachers integrating tech into the classroom, no?

It turns out that we humans really do hit another level when it comes to creating, collaborating, and communicating, and throughout time we’ve built the technologies to prove it. This BBC article, The Traits That Make Human Beings Unique, narrows it down even further to “curiosity” (our persistent asking of “why?”). Our ability to wonder, to dream, to question, to think symbolically…all led to sophisticated forms of assistive technologies, such as language and writing.


Yggdrasil, the Norse World Tree, imagined as comprised of human DNA linking us all

The article stresses something else, however:

“We have a fundamental urge to link our minds together”


Wow. There you go – we are not at all living in a digital age, to paraphrase Julian Stodd of Sea Salt Learning in the UK (@julianstodd), we are living in a

Social Age

It just so happens that Julian has recently published a blog post entitled Beyond Digital: Into the Social Age, and in it stresses that the Digital Age has left a legacy – has altered the way we do everything..but that we are through it, rather than in it. He feels the focus on digital technology – the “gadgets in our hands” -is an “intellectual cop out”.

Kind of like my childhood obsession with these guys:


Yes, our hyper-connectedness, increased access to information, disintegration  of time and space has indeed constituted a revolution (or evolution?). Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99), in his Smarter Than You Think, reminds us that


Julian calls us back to what really matters – US! He pulls a Picasso and claims that the things we should be considering are all things social – how we interact, lead, and follow…our responsibilities to one another…and how we can leverage technology to

amplify our efforts and endeavors as humans.

Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming, as Vincent Van Gogh once mused:

“Slaves to our model”

I continued in #EDENchat with a few other assertions:

pointisanytime learn

In this one I was trying to move away from the hardware/software dialogue…

we are the smartphone

And in this one, I allude to my conviction that we will soon be legitimate “cyborgs” (metaphorically we are already, as “cyborg anthropologist” Amber Case says at the end of this video). It won’t be long before talk of devices and apps will seem archaic and silly –

WE will be the device..WE will be the app.


We will, I think, quickly move through the Internet of Things and Virtual Reality and Haptics/POV to be biologically fused with our assistive technologies.

And when we do, we had better figure out – and pin down so that we don’t lose – what it means to be human. What it means to be distinct from out nearest relatives in the animal kingdom, and our soon-to-be-relatives in the robot and AI world.

I hope we decide that we are defined by love, art, empathy, and knowledge – that when you “butcher the bull” down to its simplest form, beauty remains.


#abstraction #edtech #AmberCase #art #julianstodd #vincentvangogh #edenchat #mobiletech #cyborgs #humanity #technology #GutebergParenthesis #SteveWheeler #education #McLuhan #apple #futurism #stevejobs #picasso #amyburvall #learning #devices

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