Monday, January 7, 2013

Myth #6: Digital Learning is Creative

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8 Myths About Digital Learning

The myth is not that digital tools can be used creatively or to create. The myth is that digital creativity is essential in the k12 classroom.

As long as Creativity is one of the 3 C's or 4 C's of 21st century learning, the myth will persist.  When it became a C-word, creativity was raised to mythic level in the k12 world.  It sits there now as a goal of digital learning.  But what does that involve?

Creative thought and innovation do not require a digital environment, re. Bruce Mau's Manifesto #29: "Think with your mind...Creativity is not device-dependent".  My thinking leads me to believe that creativity and innovation require, in order:
  1. the ability to access the whole of one's experiences and learning (obviously the more of both the better)
  2. the inclination to think about the whole of one's experiences and learning
  3. intuition - the ability to recognize the right combination of these experiences and learning to apply to the project or problem at hand
  4. introspection - time for ideas to percolate, collect, and coalesce - time for intuition to happen
Ron Berger of Expeditionary Schools would argue that persistence is also a necessary part of creativity. I agree, having taken it off of my list because persistence transcends the digital world. Read Ron's excellent post about Deeper Learning.

I would argue that, in most k12 classrooms, digital learning is - should be - more about developing than creating, and in this I suspect that Ron and I agree. Each item on the above list is a skill, or mind-set, than can be developed and enhanced by digital tools.  Without the skills, innovation and creativity will not happen in the student's post-HS world.  We need to alter the digital focus - let students go about the business of developing and take the focus off of creative product.

The digital environment certainly applies to #1 - the ability to access the whole of one's experiences and learning. It enables a curious or diligent student to expand experiences and learning through the internet. The digital environment is not the only way, perhaps not even the best way, as the movement toward PBL and experience-based learning suggests. Realistically, however, it is trending.

Additionally, digital tools used to catalog, collect and share learning or information objects can certainly enhance a student's access to what has been digitally explored. Pinterest,, Wikispaces and similar sites and apps are widely used for this purpose. What makes these especially cool tools is the crowdsourcing of ideas and experiences that they allow. Students are no longer limited to their own catalog.  

The best case scenario is that students will move from collecting/accessing to #2 - thinking about the ideas.   Listen also to NPR's mashup of three different TED talks that relate to the relationship of groups to ideas, Where Ideas Come From.  Matt Ridley and Steven Johnson (they have their own TED talks) talk to the need for access to ideas from a diversity of others.

Often enough, however, the apps used to provide this access, and the assignments made, encourage a superficial sense of accomplishment, not unlike an adult might feel after pinning 20 web images of crystal ice buckets.  Using the tools effectively in education, on the other hand, makes them about developing ideas, whether the topic be vocabulary, characterization, or close literary analysis.  

[There is hope. Check out this list of 27 Ways to publish student thinking [my emphasis]. Making the process more important than a (creative) product is the right road for k12 learning.]

The digital environment applies also to #3 - intuition, the ability to recognize the right combination of these experiences and learning for the project or problem at hand. Viewing "creation" tools as a means of exploring combinations of experiences and understandings/learning, rather than as platforms for final expression, is important.

Students need to learn the depth and value and uses of multiple tools so that they will be able to best employ tools of the future. Tools for mashing up collected information and media in visual, audio and multimedia environments are readily available for any 1:1 platform (see, for example, this review of Screencasting Apps for the iPad, and other excellent apps, such as Prizi, Haiku Deck, Wixie, DoodleCast (Pro and for Kids), Animoto, iMovie and Drop'n'Roll/V.I.K.T.O.R).  

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Teachers, however, often mistake engaging presentations full of  original artwork and music for creative and innovative thinking.  Myth #6 encourages this. The fact is that many students excel at media bells and whistles. Since most digital projects assigned are about content, not about the growth of learning, it is easy for student to do use the "fun" work of media-making rather than the hard work of thinking.

The myth-breaking fact is that most student content-products lack depth of thought, instead relaying surface knowledge that could as easily be conveyed on posterboard or a short stack of notecards.  This is also true of the polished adult products which serve as models for students. Compare, for example, this Animated History of Malaria to your student products.  Aside from the slickness of the animation, it does little more to demonstrate creative understanding of the topic than would a picture book.

A simple student audio file attached to a project, digital notes, or an oral presentation is always a better measure of thought and learning than is the project itself.

Or, better yet, have students truly create products from Scratch, as discussed in this guest blog post by Rob Ackerman.  This applies to HyperStudio and other Logo media products as well, staples of many defunct computer labs.

Which brings us to the importance of #4 - introspection, or time for ideas to percolate, collect, and coalesce.

If you have not already done so, listen to Susan Cain's TED Talk The Power of Introverts.  Cain, the author of best seller and Best Nonfiction title Quiet, is passionate about the need of individuals  - and she directly addresses both education the workplace - for isolated quiet time. In this time, ideas happen. In this time, creativity brews. She attacks the myth that "the new creativity comes from a .... gregarious place."  An extrapolation of her talk is the suggestion that the digital learning environment, although it plays a role in the development of creative ideas, is not ideal for nurturing them.

Many of my students would argue that the digital world serves as "background" for thinking, much as music helps many to read.  When we accept this as true, we also accept the vacuity of much of the digital student experience.  Learning how to disconnect, then, is a skill for our students to develop.

How to turn your classroom into an idea factory, from Mindshift, provides eight solid suggestions - not one of which includes the word "digital."  The pedagogy of reaching out to a larger-than-classroom world is, however, embedded in "the idea factory" concept. Of course, this pedagogy does not require digital devices beyond the phone. (In fact, it can be argued that a face-to-face conversation with a real person is more powerful than a tweet stream in terms of input from an authentic contributor to a thought stream.)

Creative thought just might come most often, most successfully, post-digitally.  Or altogether non-digitally.

[Note: An additional dimension of creative possibility is found in digital tools that are ONLY for creative expression. The art-focused apps found in 10 Essential Apps for the Digital Artist and Creating on the iPads, and serious apps for music (see Creating music with iPads, which could but does not mention Garageband or other basic apps), are tools with which students can, in fact, create original artworks. Students have always been able to write creatively, but digital tools (such as the screencast and movie-making tools mentioned above) open up a new dimension of digital storytelling. However, not many ELA or history students will use these same tools creatively to demonstrate content learning. Using them productively requires a level of competency and (dare I say it) talent that is outside of the mainstream in the ELA classroom, and therefore not considered in this post.]

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