Following up on the previous post, a few more thoughts on Clay Shirky’s talk about what he’s learned from working with creative people.

A major theme of his presentation is about how the space, the building itself at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), plays a role in fostering student creative work. However, he’s really talking more about the ITP culture, one that’s been developed over many years within that space.

Shirky notes that ITP has always been an evolving organization, having been formed in the mid 70’s as a program to leverage the new portable video tape cameras and cable access television. One of the common elements of student projects is how they are very comfortable taking existing technologies, often whatever is available in the building, and using them in new ways to solve existing problems.

Shirky also says that, unlike many organizations, ITP is “world class at stopping things”. When something outlives it’s usefulness, they make changes without a hint of nostalgia.

When I think of groups and institutions grappling with creativity, particularly institutions, one of the odd things about institutions, and the larger they are, the bigger a problem this is, is that the often reverse the second law of thermodynamics. It becomes easier to start doing something that to stop doing something.

Because it’s great to think up interesting new kinds of things to try, that in many people’s minds is what creativity is. But a big part of it is also knowing when to stop doing stuff that used to work but doesn’t work any more.

If you consider the overly-large institution that is American education, Shirky is exactly right. We are very good at adding new tasks for for schools, teachers and kids, but the culture has almost no desire or capability for dropping… well, anything. Most of the K12 curriculum is full of crap that needs to go. 

Finally, Shirky discusses how students at ITP use the building and everything it in as raw material for their learning and their projects. The physical space itself contributes to creativity.

So this is the fourth lesson of creativity that I’ve taken from ITP. Which is if you design the space to reward serendipity, if you reward the ability to do these kinds of [student generated] experiments and to do them in public, where people can see, you get a huge boost over what it would take to plan something like that.

One telling example came a few years ago when the administration decided that most of the fixed computer labs were no longer needed since students were largely working on laptops. The students, empowered by the culture of the program, didn’t wait for the faculty to reallocate the space and decided on their own how to make best use of the physical resources.  In most schools, can you imagine students even being involved in a decision like what to do with a vacated computer lab?

Shirky’s stories of how the ITP spaces contribute to the creativity of the people using them got me thinking about the new middle school our district will open this fall. In a word, the building is boring.

With few exceptions (the art rooms with high ceilings and large banks of windows), it consists of the standard closed boxes connected by bland halls that have defined most schools for at least the last half century. Spaces designed for rows of desks pointed at the interactive whiteboard (that probably won’t be used interactively) and largely isolated from the other boxes.

Sadly, there is very little about the building that will foster collaboration, creativity or either of the two remaining C’s.

Serendipity? Sorry. There’s very little about either our school buildings or the culture inside them that tolerates that kind of chaos.