Creativity in the Digital Age

Several years ago, I read a book titled The Rise of the Creative Class.  As a poet, the title intrigued me.  Although, I don’t consider myself old, I grew up in a world where being creative was synonymous with the starving artist cliché.  Perhaps many still operate in that cliché, as, if you read Curriculum 21 by Heidi Hayes Jacobs, she discusses the idea that schools are still largely run in the industrial revolution fashion.  However, the world has changed dramatically in just a few short years with the development of the Internet and social networking sites, and this has led to tremendous changes in how we operate and live.  In fact, in The Rise of the Creative Class, the author discusses the idea of change, both technologically and culturally, in an interesting vignette.

Say you place a person from 1900 in the 1950s and a person from the 1950s in 2000.  Who would feel the most foreign, he asks?

At first glance, this would be the person from 1900 going into 1950, since the innovations in technology had totally changed the household in those years; cars replaced horses, household machines such as the washer and refrigerator replaced manual labor, and a myriad of other inventions existed.  Still, the author argues, society was much the same.  In a way, the 1950s was a time when we were “doing old things in old ways” and while it might have looked very different from the 1900s house, society still operated in much the same way.

In that vein, the author states, the man from the 1950s placed in 2000 would experience drastic culture shock.  Society would be completely revamped with equal rights, the Internet, and changed societal values and norms.  This he argues, is in large part due to the rise of the creative class, an economic movement in which we live in a world where creativity and innovation are valued and esteemed.  Of course, in this scenario, creativity is not limited to poets.  Creativity and innovation are important in every field.

Yet, in On Assessing for Creativity: Yes You Can and Yes You Should by Grant Wiggins, we see that teachers are still hesitant to assess creativity.  Wiggins argues that we can assess anything, and yet we fail to assess creativity, perhaps for fear of hurting students.  Some state that creativity cannot be assessed, but Grant gives us a rubric from which to work, and frankly states that creativity is a far less abstract skill to assess than organization in writing or even working collaboratively.  It seems that we fear assessing creativity, less because we can’t and more because of the connotation of the word.  Perhaps we still believe in the starving artist cliché.  Perhaps we believe that creativity cannot be taught, thereby labeling students as creative and not creative.  Perhaps, it is not something we value yet.

However, as evidenced in The Rise of the Creative Class, creative individuals are the new success stories and the economic powerhouses.  And, in Bloom’s New Digital Taxonomy, creating is the highest order of thought.

I believe creativity is an essential skill that we must foster in our students.  Part of it is my own bias as a poet; writing is therapeutic and good for the mind.  However, I also believe creativity is a skill that can be developed in everyone.  Julia Cameron has written a series of books, beginning with The Artist’s Way in which she takes readers on a journey to unlocking their creativity.  Everyone is creative, she states, and everyone can unlock his or her creativity.

This belief can be proven simply by observing young children.  Children play imaginary games.  They run away from monsters in the bathroom.  They make pretend soup and cookies and feed them to you via the air.  They pretend to eat the floor and then jump over big crevices in the living room.  They talk to their dolls and to themselves and to just about anyone.  In this imaginary world, children role-play and learn how to solve problems.

As children grow up, the creative child gets replaced, perhaps as the academic child, the athletic child, or the shy child.  Is the loss of creativity and imagination a natural phenomenon, or is it the way we organize schools?  The way we present information?  The way we assess knowledge?

If we value the creative process, if we teach creativity in problem-solving, writing, lab reports, and presentations as the essence of understanding, will we perhaps start to see the imaginative child re-surface?  Will we see students re-engaged with school?  Will fostering creativity naturally develop critical thinkers?  Curious learners?

Wiggins recounts an incident whereby he observed student presentations that were remarkably better than average.  When he asked why, he saw that there were only two criteria:

  1. Was it factually accurate?
  2. Did it keep everyone fully engaged the entire time?

In this example, the less specific the criteria, the more creative and engaging the presentations produced by “average” students.

We all have the same goal: to inspire students to succeed and do well in our contents and in our schools.  The means vary and I will argue that valuing students’ creativity, fostering it, and developing it, will serve to reinvigorate schools and will result in better understanding, more interesting results, and more engaged learners.

Staying Behind to Get Ahead

Eight years ago, I assigned a video project to my students.  They had to create, design, direct, film and edit propaganda commercials.  Today, this is a fairly commonplace assignment and we often require students to create videos.  Eight years ago though, movie-editing software was just coming out into the mainstream, and frankly, I did not know how to use it.  But my students did, and as their teacher, I saw its value.

I was their English teacher.  I gave them the tools and the skills to create and develop the commercials.  I also grouped them so that there was at least one person with experience editing videos.  They had the assignment, the skills, the tools and the expertise.  And they designed some phenomenal commercials.  I am still not very adept at this, and that’s okay.  As an educator, it is my job to facilitate learning and recognize the strengths of my students.

Last week, Jeff wrote, “Give up the dream of ever ‘catching up’ it ain’t gonna happen. Sit back, relax and smile. You will forever be behind.”  As educators, I think it is essential that we recognize this and give up the idea that we will ever know everything.  As Jeff said, information is growing exponentially, and if we are ever to learn, we have to experiment.

Too often, we don’t experiment in the classroom for one of two reasons:  1) we don’t know enough about it and believe we need to be the experts in order to teach it to students step by step, or 2) we fear not knowing enough and being unable to answer student questions.  If we operate from either of these beliefs, we will forever fall further and further behind, hence disconnecting our classrooms even more from the digital age and our students’ lives.

It is exhilarating to be given a project and be given the freedom to think it through and create the answer.  In Bloom’s New Taxonomy, creating is the highest order of thought.  Hence, we can give our students tasks that we have yet to master and then learn along with them.  I find that the less step by step we give them, the more motivated they get, creating work that far exceeds any expectation we could have placed on them.  And as teachers learning along with students, we model what real life is, a constant process of learning, trial and error.

Siemens writes that “technology is altering (rewiring) our brains.”  The following link talks about this new iGeneration and states that these kids “don’t remember a time without the constant connectivity to the world that these technologies bring.”

Interestingly, when googling the topic of rewired or tech-savvy kids, there were more links reporting on the damages of social media, the Internet and such.  Here is one example:  However, even in this article, he does address the fact that perhaps this re-wiring is a good thing, making us more adaptable as learners.

Whichever side of the debate you stand, one thing is certain.  Our children are more tech-savvy than most adults.  Therefore, we will be forever behind unless we embrace their knowledge and learn along with them.

Living Online

The idea of connectivism versus a content based Internet has redefined my view of the Internet.  After this week’s readings, I now more greatly appreciate its potential and the capacity for increased connections.  However, I have to say, this is also a bit intimidating.  The ideas presented in “Living and Learning with New Media” report that the “new media provide…a venue that renders intimacy simultaneously more public and more private” (17).  In the context of the article, this was seen as a positive as it allows for more casual experimentation among youth.  However, in the article, it also addresses the fact that as youth operate in a more public venue, it “makes the ‘lessons’ about social life (both the failures and successes) more consequential and persistent” (14).

Living within a more public context and operating in a “full-time intimate [online] community” (15) also creates a sense that there is a lack of privacy.  I am of the age whereby we were warned of the Internet, told to protect ourselves and be careful of what we post and how we present ourselves.  However, as social media becomes more pervasive, and people become more involved, more and more is revealed.  There is now a digital record of everything.  With regards to youth, how does this affect them as they experiment with growing up in an online environment?  With regards to myself, I will say, I am still slightly intimidated.  What if the tone doesn’t translate?  What if words are misconstrued?  I have to say, I have, of late, taken to answering many e-mails in person, as a quick interaction face-to-face can often clarify what might take many e-mails.

On the other hand, the idea of “hanging out” online is fascinating.  I agree that we certainly do not support students’ digital lives.  A simple “no cell phone rule” at school basically extinguishes their social life as they cannot connect with BBM, Facebook, Twitter, etc. during the school day.  In a sense, with such rules, we are making them go underground, and yet, one could pose the question, is it so bad to hang out and interact face to face?

This debate rages and I think this certainly reveals the generation gap.  People of my generation lament the fact that students live in this constantly connected world at the expense of developing person-to-person social skills.  However, in my own life, I am starting to see more and more value in this digital world, which in turn makes me understand how necessary it is for young people.

A simple example that highlights this is my recent discovery of Words with Friends.  Prior to having children, my husband and I loved playing Scrabble together.  Now, we are lucky to get the scrabble board out a handful of times each year.  If we tried to play while the children were awake, we’d likely lose half of our letters.  By the time they are in bed, we are simply too tired.  Yet, we have revived our Scrabble competition online, and we are having a great time and connecting again through this game, albeit digitally.  Some say they think it sad that two people sitting in the same room are engaged in their media devices instead of talking, and yet, how much talking really occurs across a real Scrabble board?  It’s a pretty quiet game.  So now, we have a constant game going, and we can play while doing all those real world things we have to as adults.  And we maintain a verbal dialogue about it, much the same as youth must as they connect in their online worlds.

As I said, it’s a pretty simple example, but if I can discover quality relationships online that enhance my real relationships and keep me connected to people more constantly, then this must also be what this report is addressing with regards to youth interaction.  The idea of “hanging out” online is not so different from when I was a teen and we “hung out” on the phone, especially once three-way calling came into being and there would be 6-7 of us on the line at once (my how far we’ve come).

The report concludes that adults see “these new practices as mystifying and, at times threatening to existing social norms and educational standards” (35), yet, are we not constantly evolving and changing.  Social norms twenty years ago were far different than fifty years ago.  We are in constant evolution, so we may as well embrace it.  And if schools become more similar to how youth operate, perhaps they will no longer need to live dual lives…perhaps, they will become more engaged with school again.