Sunday, 25 May 2014

Designing & Making & ICTs = Creativity Cubed

There can't be many activities that come closer to the essence of what it means to be human than the sheer art of making, the magnificent process that links the mind to the medium. The ability to take nothing but a notion and to translate that into a tangible product that is as real as as the hands that made it.

As someone whose life is dominated by screens, I would be the first to extol the virtue and legitimacy of pixel manipulation as a creative medium, in fact most of my work is predicated around precisely that. But it still doesn't come close to literally getting your hands dirty, the assault on the senses of the noise and smell and sweat of actually cutting and shaping and forming with your bare hands. Nothing like it.

Real vs Virtual? You don't need to choose

Which is why I started up the Designers & Makers Activity with Carl Waugh (Head of DT Dover Campus) this year. You see, I think the most exciting use of tech is the kind that does not make puerile demarcations between the 'real' and the 'virtual' - yes sawdust is more 'real', more tangible, than symbols on a screen, but, and this is critical, you don't have to choose. Just as with the stop-motion activities we use in Art lessons and in Kindergarten, arguably digital technologies are never more exciting than when they is used in the service of 'real life' making and creating.

Clearly our kids agree. When I gave them the choice halfway through the ECA, between continuing working in 'resistant materials' (wood metal & plastic to you non DT types) with their hands, or manipulating a 3D model in SketchUp to export to the 3D printer, half of them declined, favouring the fervency of cutting and drilling and forming instead.

Pure focus.

Creating vs creativity

Which brings me to a concern I have here—the relentless emphasis on, creativity, yes it has it's place, but sometimes, sometimes it's enough to just have an excuse to shape something, without a care for it to be validated or endorsed by a 3rd party, let it be what it is. So often the kids come asking me 'is this OK?' or "is this finished?" and I tell them, again and again, you decide, you are the creator, you conceived of it, you are creating it, it's your choice whether or or it not it meets your expectations or not.

Create - to cause something (anything!) to happen (small c) 
Creative - the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something (big C) 

(Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future)

I won't lie to you, some, maybe most of their solutions, are not particularly 'creative' but they are creations, their creations—see the difference? That is enough. So they're not creative products that I would rush to purchase (actually, a few are) but that doesn't matter, when you see their beaming, ecstatic faces as they strut out of the workshop and later around the school) proudly displaying their designer bag/key/pencil-case fobs.

Howard Gardner explains:
"Creativity as a generalisable capacity [...] has distinct limitations. We recognise a variety of relatively independent creative endeavours. A Creator can solve a hitherto vexing problem, formulate a new conundrum or theory, fashion or work in a genre, ...
We also [need to] recognise a range of creative achievements—from the little c involved in a new floral arrangement [or designing and making a bag fob] to the big C entailed in the theory of relativity." (p80, brackets mine)

According to Csikszentmihalyi, (try saying that without Googling it) creativity occurs when—and only when—an individual or group product generated in a particular domain is recognised by the relevant field as innovative and, in turn, sooner or later, exert a genuine, detectable influence on subsequent work in that domain. This perspective applies to the full range of creations, across spheres and across varying degrees of innovation (from the littlest c to the biggest C).
Well I can't see how we can have the critical BIG C conversations until we've given our kids loads and loads of 'small c' experiences—time to explore, experiment, and make loads and loads of mistakes, and enjoy it. What I do know is that regardless of your opinion or mine, these kids are solving 'vexing problems' (to them), 'formulating new (to them) theories', in the pursuit of 'generating products' that are 'recognised (by themselves and their peers) as innovative'.

That's good enough for me.

Creativity Cubed

ICTs + Powerful Pedagogy + Traditional Tools = Creativity Cubed

Creativity as making (small c), Creativity as innovation (big C), Creativity as problem solving.

Creativity with breadth, depth and height—Creativity Cubed

I have to confess that, I am slightly biased towards Design & Technology (DT) as a field of human endeavour, that's my background. My first degree was in 3D Design, along with the PGCE in DT that followed it, which led to my first 5 years in teaching as a Secondary School teacher in South London, back in the 90s, while continuing freelancing as a Web/Graphic designer during evenings, and weekends.

Design Tech is, in my humble opinion THE place you should look if you want to see how digital technologies can really work seamlessly with traditional tools and skills. Even back in 1990s, the only area of the school I worked where you could expect to see computers in use for learning other than the IT Lab, was the DT lab; only in DT they weren't being used to 'teach IT'. No. They were actually needed as powerful tools for enhancing teaching and learning, and most importantly creating.  No one was even talking about an integrated model then, but in DT you wouldn't work any other way. From Graphic design on early Apple Mac black & White Classics, to robotic control with old BBC Micros, and CNC milling with Applications running in MS DOS, you couldn't really be an effective DT teacher without embracing the transformative opportunities afforded by ICTs.

Nothing has changed, except that the tools just get better, faster, more capable, and easier to use, in a process of iteration, or evolution, but certainly not obsoletion, and the DT facilities at UWCSEA are certainly no exception. The 'dream' behind this ECA was to see what could be done with some of the recent technologies brought in by Carl Waugh, the Laser Cutter and the 3D Printers, while also introducing kids in Grade 4 and 5 who have never set foot in a workshop their first experience at creating with  resistant materials like wood, plastic and metal.

ICTs & Synergy

So how did this work?

SketchUp Modelling of their TouchDraw Design
Gallery below:

For the first 3 sessions, the students focused purely on designing, using the vector graphic TouchDrawApp on iPads, this allows the kids to use some powerful vector features like subtraction and merging, but especially allowing them to export their designs as SVG files that the DT machines can handle. They had to design two versions, one to be made my machines, the other to be made by hand—the latter needed to be simpler to allow for their inexperience with working with resistant materials.

The fact that their designs were digital meant I could easily print them for transfer to the materials they would use, as well as export their machine designs to use with the laser cutter, before they commenced work on the hand made designs.

4 or 5 session later ... (making by hand takes a LOT longer than making by machine, something these students have a profound appreciation of now...) the students were given the option of modelling the design in 3D using SketchUp, before making it by exporting it to the 3D printer. As mentioned earlier, many students opted instead to stay in the workshop, so much for tech trumping traditional tools...

So, once again, the tech served to enhance the 'real world' experience. An approximate ratio of screentime to make time in this activity would be at least 1:5, one session with digital tools on screens for every 5 sessions with traditional tools in the workshop, less for those who opted out of the 3D printing.

So there you have it, the human propensity to make remains undaunted in the 21st Century, far from negating it, tech tools transform designing making, just as it always has with traditional tools, it's not either/or, it's both.

Gardner H (2006). Five minds for the future. Harvard Business Press.