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Creative Spaces

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.

Learning About Creatives

Clay Shirky, one of the best thinkers, writers, and presenters on living in a digital world, recently posted a wonderfully engaging talk about his work with the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Think MIT Media Lab for the humanities.

His topic is what we can learn from people considered to be “creative”, and after considering five very different student projects at ITP, Shirky comes to the conclusion that there is not one definition for that term.

The problem with the conversation around creativity, as it is often put forward in this country, is if you can find someone who is creative, and you can get them to describe what it is that they do, either a person or an organization, and then you emulate it, then you too will be creative. And it’s as if creativity is something sold by the yard, and you would simply like to pull more of it off the spool than you were currently doing.

The conversation around creativity goes off the rails when we assume it’s a thing. What creativity is, is valuable novelty, it’s the ability to produce valuable novelty. And the question of what’s valuable and the question of what’s novel are always up for grabs, always up for renegotiation.

I love that phrase “valuable novelty”. Not just that some product or idea is new. It also needs to be of some worth to someone, somewhere.

Many of our education leaders (and wannabes) talk about how we need to teach students to be creative. It’s often lumped with three other Cs (collaboration, communication, critical thinking) in slide shows, sometimes used interchangeably with innovation. Creativity is also part of those ambiguous collection of skills kids need in the 21st century (and seemingly required by no one prior to 2001).

However, can we really teach creativity? Isn’t this really more about allowing students to be creative? Providing opportunity, guidance and space for kids to explore and discover for themselves? To exercise the creativity that comes naturally to most of them?

Anyway, watch the whole thing. It’s worth 15 minutes of your day.

 

The End of Publishing

Scott pointed me to an interesting interview with Clay Shirky, part of a series of posts called How We Will Read, in which he discusses the future of publishing.

I love the same section Scott highlighted in which Shirky responds to the question of how publishing is changing.

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install. [emphasis mine]

However, Shirky also has something to say about the business of digital publishing that directly reflects the textbook industry to which we in public education are so wedded.

The original promise of the e-book was not a promise to the reader, it was a promise to the publisher: “We will design something that appears on a screen, but it will be as inconvenient as if it were a physical object.” This is the promise of the portable document format, where data goes to die, as well.

Institutions will try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution. Now publishers are in the business not of overcoming scarcity but of manufacturing demand. And that means that almost all innovation in creation, consumption, distribution and use of text is coming from outside the traditional publishing industry.

So far, the digital textbooks I’ve seen from the major publishers – and certainly those our overly-large school district has adopted – fit that description of inconvenience, scarcity, and lacking innovation.

Anyway, Shirky’s larger message about “social reading” is much more interesting. Go read the whole thing.

Nothing Sacred About School

I’ve just started reading Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus but in the first chapter he makes this interesting observation.

Although the internet is already forty years old, and the web half that age, some people are still astonished that individual members of society, previously happy to spend most of their free time consuming, would start voluntarily making and sharing things. This making-and-sharing is certainly a surprise compared to the previous behavior. But pure consumption of media was never a sacred tradition; it was just a set of accumulated accidents, accidents that are being undone as people start hiring new communications tools to jobs older media can’t do.

He could make the same claim about school.

Gathering hundreds of children into buildings, grouping them based on chronological age, seating them in rows, and delivering a one-way stream of information is a relatively recent structure in human history.

Learning for most people, for most of human history, was more an interactive, hands-on, practical process.

And although society for the most part treats the current education format as sacred, many of the same new communications tools Shirky refers to are starting to cause those traditions to unravel.

Too Big Not To Fail?

Some ideas from a recent post by Clay Shirky have been running around in my head for more than a week, although I’m not sure have enough of a grasp on them for this rant to make complete sense.

He starts with a book by an anthropologist and historian titled The Collapse of Complex Societies in which the author theorizes that past civilizations collapsed because they became too complex.

Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

Shirky sees a direct connection between those collapsing societies and some of the complex organizations with which he consults, particularly media companies that are largely in denial about the collapse of their traditional corporate models.

The focus of his entry is business, of course, but I wonder if Shirky’s thesis could also apply to public institutions that grow too large and inflexible to respond quickly to changes.

Like American education, an increasingly complex system that seems to define the concept of “too inflexible to respond”.

In discussing bureaucracies, Shirky notes that “it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one”.

That observation might very well apply to our overly-large school district, where we seem to spend a lot of time trying to write regulations to cover every possible contingency while discouraging individuals from experimenting with new ideas.

So, am I being too pessimistic in thinking that our educational bureaucracy (both local and not) is fast approaching that point where it’s too large to re-tool in less complex ways?

Have we grown too big not to fail?

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