I was momentarily stumped by the question from my niece, but i suppose that’s the nature of naivety: it can be surprisingly complex. “What’s your favourite stone” she asked.
The question had been prompted some months before, when she had last visited my house and, unbeknownst to me, had deftly noted my habit of collecting stones and shells, deposited through various jars, pots, shelves and ledges around my space like heavyweight dust. Now, some time later and thoroughly out of context, it had clearly been playing on her mind.
More surprising to me was the amount of thought required to answer. My collection is eclectic: when out walking on the beach, through the mountains or in the woods my eye will sometimes be drawn to a particular object. A stone with a hole in it, a piece of sea glass, a gnarled fragment of wood from some heather. Something tactile, sensual, contextual and pocket sized. Indeed, even as i sit here today, there’s a stone in my pocket from some long forgotten trail.
This ephemera is not categorised and catalogued (surprising, really, bearing in mind my heritage in museums, where the accessions register assiduously documented the provenance of every artefact). Instead they are jumbled together in a deliberately anarchic manner, a juxtaposition of memories, an interpretation of my journey.
My answer wasn’t glib: i could easily have fobbed her off with mention of a stone from a summer walk, or a pebble from the beach, but instead i talked about a chip of rock from the Grand Canyon, excavated from my boot, where it had lodged. I love it because it’s dusty, light red, nondescript, until, like many rocks, it gets wet, whereupon it comes alive with colour and light.
Of course, our tokens and totems are not just ones from our travel. We use them everyday: favourite pens, chairs, mugs. Our offices are strewn with them. We present tokens to each other for love, for shared memories, for fun. We use badges, totems, to convey membership of certain communities and we use money, a formalised token representing value, to buy our coffee with.
But how do we use tokens in learning? Often transactionally: workbooks and certificates. Formalised echoes of dusty classrooms. Or for marketing: the tokens i collect at conferences. Squeezy balls, rulers, mouse mats and so on. USB sticks? I think i got a toy dinosaur once. These tokens lack meaning: they’re transactional, not meaningful.
As part of the choreography of learning, we can use tokens and totems: totems for group identity, for membership, to symbolise identity, tokens for memory.
Things have meaning to us, but meaning is about emotion, not transaction. Very few people collect gas bills, but some collect train tickets, part of their scrapbook of memories that narrate their travels.
Choreography is about total quality, about experience by design. Part of this will lie in physical assets associated with memory, imbued with meaning, over time. In a time of constant change, it’s worth thinking what items we may give people for the journey and why. What will they keep in their pocket?
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