Kanban Walls, Chess, and Other Tangible Interactions

Oddly enough, it is the software teams (the folks most immersed in the world of virtual representations) who tend to favor tangibility when it comes to things such as project planning; it’s common for Agile or Scrum development teams to create Kanban walls, such as that shown in Figure 5-2. Imagine sticky notes arranged in columns, tracking the progress of features throughout the development cycle, from backlog through to release. Ask most teams and they will say there is something about the tangibility of these sticky notes that cannot be replicated by virtual representations.

There’s something about moving and arranging this sticky little square, feeling the limitations of different size marker tips with respect to how much can be written, being able to huddle around a wall of these sticky notes as a team — there’s something to the physical nature of working with sticky notes. But, is there any explanation as to “why” this tangible version might be advantageous, especially where understanding is a goal?

Kanban walls and chess—

Figure 5-2. Kanban walls[52 and chess[]

Before answering that question, first consider this question: where does thinking occur?

If your answer is along the lines of “in the brain,” you’re not alone. This view of a mind that controls the body has been the traditional view of cognition for the better part of human history. In this view, the brain is the thinking organ, and as such it takes input from external stimuli, processes those stimuli, and then directs the body as to how to respond.

Thinking; then doing.

But, a more recent and growing view of cognition rejects this notion of mind-body dualism. Rather than thinking and then doing, perhaps we think through doing.

Consider the game of chess. Have you ever lifted up a chess piece, hovered over several spots where you could move that piece, only to return that piece to the original space, still undecided on your move? What happened here? For all that movement, there was no pragmatic change to the game. If indeed we think and then do (as mind-body dualism argues), what was the effect of moving that chess piece, given that there was no change in the position? If there is no outward change in the environment, why do we instruct our bodies to do these things? The likely answer is that we were using our environment to extend our thinking skills. By hovering over different options, we are able to more clearly see possible outcomes. We are extending the thinking space to include the board in front of us.

Thinking through doing.

This is common in chess. It’s also common in Scrabble, in which a player frequently rearranges tiles in order to see new possibilities.

Let’s return to our Kanban example.

Even though many cognitive neuroscientists (as well as philosophers and linguists) would likely debate a precise explanation for the appeal of sticky notes as organizational tools, the general conversation would shift the focus away from the stickies themselves to the role of our bodies in this interaction, focusing on how organisms and the human mind organize themselves by interacting with their environment. This perspective, generally described as embodied cognition, postulates that thinking and doing are so closely linked as to not be serial processes. We don’t think and then do; we think through doing.

But there’s more to embodied cognition than simply extending our thinking space. When learning is embodied, it also engages more of our senses, creating stronger neural networks in the brain, likely to increase memory and recall.

Moreover, as we continue to learn about cognition ailments such as autism, ADHD, or sensory processing disorders, we learn about this mind-body connection. With autism for example, I’ve heard from parents who told me that learning with tangible objects has been shown to be much more effective for kids with certain types of autism.

Our brain is a perceptual organ that relies on the body for sensory input, be it tangible, auditory, visual, spatial, and so on. Nowhere is the value of working with physical objects more understood than in early childhood education, where it is common to use “manipulatives” — tangible learning objects — to aid in the transfer of new knowledge.

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