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Desire lines and maps

I first heard about desire lines during a panel presentation by ZedTycho.com at the Blogtalk Downunder conference I attended back in May.

desire line (di.ZYR lyn) n. An informal path that pedestrians prefer to take to get from one location to another rather than using a sidewalk or other official route.
The Word Spy

Notice the well trodden path in the dirt on the right.

Desire lines are linked to urban planning. It all made so much sense and I immediately started thinking about how this might apply to learning and teaching. One thing that sprang into my mind immediately was the disparity between the curriculum which we are required to teach and the actual needs of the learners we teach. Is the curriculum itself an example of a desire line created by a group of experts who wholeheartedly believe this is what the learner needs to know, or is the curriculum an example of a concrete path which learners are expected to use but don’t necessarily want to?

It makes me wonder how we accommodate desire lines in our learning environments. How do we meet the needs of our learners while still engaging them in learning things they may need to know although at the time they don’t know it? How does the saying go – you don’t know what you don’t know! Should we always allow our learners to be in control of their learning desire line or do we gently help them onto the path? Who decides which is the best option?

Desire lines

In his paper Commercial success by looking for desire lines Carl Mayhill writes:

Desire lines are an ultimate expression of human desire or natural purpose. An optimal way to design pathways in accordance with natural human behaviour, is to not design them at all. Simply plant grass seed and let the erosion inform you about where the paths needs to be.

Could we take this approach in learning? Would mayhem ensue if we just planted seeds and waited to see what happened?

This is what I think today’s constructivist learning environments are actually trying to create – especially in online learning. Instead of the learning process centering on the teacher imparting knowledge we now act as facilitators of learning where the learners are learning from and with each other. They decide what to do and how to do it according to their needs. The educator sets everything up so the learner can achieve the learning outcomes while at least partially, if not fully, accommodating the desire line of the learner. I do question though whether the applications we have available are yet sophisticated enough to enable the necessary diversity within the learning environment. It is not just one pathway you have to think about – it is many.

The Walking Project is extending the concept behind desire lines to uncover the stories they tell.

The Walking Project uses the paths people make across vacant lots in Detroit and across fields in South Africa – desire lines – as springboard to explore the paths we walk and how they are formed through culture, geography, language, economics and love. It looks at how people make their own paths; how and why people’s paths cross; and how changing patterns of movement can alter perceptions, attitudes and lives.

In the past year I’ve been exploring the use of locative technologies to create alternative maps of desire lines by converting GIS (geographic information systems) data into audio and visual material for the Web, for physical installation and for live performance. Apart from the technology, I’ve been thinking about the stories maps tell, not only about the places they locate, but also about the people who make them.

This project talks about cartographers as storytellers. The stories contained within maps of a single place are different according to who is creating them.

Maps help us navigate culture by visualizing information that addresses those big, fat, universal questions: Who are we? Where are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? How do we get there?

Brian Ellis writes that the stories told about how things came to be are powerful tools for bringing geography to life.

The Dine, or Navajo, say that the landscape stalks us with stories. These stories remind us of our place in the world; that cliff or this boulder reminds us of our relationship with others, of the right way to walk in this world. The Aborigines of the Australian Outback use stories as maps to help them find their way in that bleak landscape. The stories are told at a walking pace as they cross the land. As features of the landscape come into view they are reminded of the next chapter in the story; and as the story unfolds they are reminded of which way to turn to get to the next watering hole, the next village or wherever the chosen story leads.

Aboriginal Dream Paintings are said to be coded versions of the Aboriginal world view. They contain conceptual maps of dreaming sites, with symbols for landmarks and water courses. Stories of the Dreaming are an important part of the culture of indigenous Australians.

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