Finger Patterns (Gears from my childhood)

This is my reflection for the #medialabcourse on #learningcreativelearning. For this week’s assignment we’re supposed to write about an object from our childhood that interested and influenced us. This was a bit of a challenge for me, because I couldn’t think of a physical object that impacted me the same way that gears impacted Pappert’s thinking. My way into this assignment was to think about things that I loved as a child. As he states in his introduction,

A modern-day Montessori might propose, if convinced by my story, to create a gear set for children. Thus every child might have the experience I had. But to hope for this would be to miss the essence of the story. I fell in love with the gears. This is something that cannot be reduced to purely “cognitive” terms. Something very personal happened, and one cannot assume that it would be repeated for other children in exactly the same form.

The thing that I first loved in this world the same way Pappert loved gears was music. Listening to music, hearing music, dancing to music, and playing the piano or organ—these were all activities that fired up my little mind. Here is a small glimpse into my 3-year old world.

I dug a little deeper and reflected on what it was that attracted to me to music, to the piano, and what it was that kept me interested, especially when I was too small to sight read music. I remembered a game I used to play with my fingers. The first time I played it, I was so excited, I told my mom all about it. I’m sure she thought I was crazy. Here, you can play it too. It’ll be fun. =)

Hold out your two hands and start counting with your fingers, starting with your right pinky. Count by tapping your fingers in the air or on a desk. Let’s play “eights” and figure out how many times you can go back and forth from pinky to pinky in segments of eight until we start over again with the right pinky.

I’ll demo this for you.


with 2 counts of 8, you will land on the Pointer Finger of Right Hand, going right
with 2 more counts of 8, you will land on Thumb of Left Hand, going right
with 2 more counts of 8, Land on Middle Finger of Left Hand, going right
with 2 more counts of 8, Land on Pinky of Left Hand, going left
with 2 more counts of 8, Land on Middle Finger of Left Hand, going left
with 2 more counts of 8, Land on Thumb of Left Hand, going left
with 2 more counts of 8, Land on Pointer Finger of Right Hand, going left
with 2 more counts of 8, Land on Ring Finger of Right Hand, going left
with 2 more counts of 8, Land on Ring Finger of Right Hand, going right

…and we start all over again with Pinky of Right Hand…

Oh, the sweet mystery of it all. It takes 18 counts of 8 to return to the start of the pattern again with my right pinky. Why? Well, there’s probably some awesome mathematical expression for this that I never learned (Pappert probably would have), but the logic in my head (at age 8 or something) was that my left and right pinky fingers only get counted once while all of the other fingers get counted twice, so somehow it would reduce the number of sets from 10 to 9. 9×2=18. I was able to observe a similar pattern with other numbers. See, mom? The key to the universe!

But anyway, back to my story.


These types of finger patterns are the same ones that young piano players learn as they play Hannon, Czerny and all the other wicked composers of finger dexterity exercises. With five fingers on a hand and 7 notes in a scale, you learn finger patterns that make it possible to play full octaves up and down the piano by muscle memory. These exercises are designed to help you develop finger independence, and are especially demanding of the pinky and ring fingers on each hand. But a secondary effect of these piano drills is a deep understanding of counting patterns and an intuitive sense of when the pattern is going to start all over again.

These keyboard exercises can be exasperating, by the way, because your mind very quickly understands the pattern, but your hands won’t necessarily obey! And this would lead to a whole bunch of other lessons I learned by practicing the piano: must go slow to develop your muscle memory and finger independence, conscious repetition, discipline, patience. Deep breath. Once again. Perfect practice makes perfect…

(p.s. I was NOT this child)

Well, what struck me this time around is how my appreciation for patterns started with playing the piano and playing these finger pattern games. What was it that I liked so much about patterns? I know more now. Patterns are balanced and symmetrical. Patterns are logical. Patterns are fair. Patterns are just. Patterns are predictable. Patterns can be repeated and applied to new problems. Patterns make sense. Patterns are a kind of mental model that help me make sense of the world.

And here’s where it gets kind of eerie and a little personal. I made a short list of some of the projects I’ve worked on and interests I’ve pursued and many of them relied heavily on patterns or mental models:

  • Communication/Translation Theories for a deeper understanding of the nationalist classical music of Argentina (an 8-year journey)
  • Color Theory for deeper understanding of how light and pigments mix (ongoing)
  • Temperament/Cognitive Theories for a deeper understanding of people and how they learn (ongoing)
  • Music Theory for a deeper understanding of why the same note a different emotional effect depending on its harmonic context (college)
  • Pedagogical Patterns (from Architectural and Software Design Patterns) for deeper understanding of the learning interactions that leave a lasting impression on learners and all manner of learning theories (ongoing)
  • Instructional Design Patterns for a deeper understanding of online course design that is intuitive and engaging (ongoing)

This is kind of astounding to me, actually, as I think about it. What if I hadn’t had had that simple experience with my fingers and hands to help me appreciate and begin interpreting patterns in the world around me? A whole piece of my being might be missing today if I hadn’t had the opportunity to experience the world on my terms. And I think there’s something else here about the body, about the kinesthetic connection we have with the world and the important work we do with our hands.

Incidentally, here’s a picture of a glass sculpture I made two years ago celebrating the creative power of the hand, a child’s hand actually, which seems really perfect for this post:

I hurt a little when I think about the personal learning experiences that children *aren’t* having, that they might be having, if they weren’t stuck in a system of compulsory education that squeezes out the time they need for personal sense making. I suppose that’s one reason why I am so committed to education and learning, because I can appreciate what a huge impact these childhood “Ahas”—however simple—can have on a person’s life.

Ok guys, now let’s do “threes”. It’ll be fun!!

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