Part I: Art, Making, and Designing as Access Points for Learning
After visiting our fabulous, district-wide student art exhibition with me, Ira Socol (@irasocol) wondered where students’ work with print, design, font, and typography might fit into such a show? That question led to an exploration of projects that kids had created, mixing artistic media and design think for art’s sake as well as a way of learning in content areas. We considered how the art work represented in a school’s portfolio provides insight into a school community’s value for developing lifelong learning work, collaboration efforts, and communication competencies among students and educators.
I’ve walked a lot of school “wallpaper”, looking at things differently inside and outside the walls of classrooms along with administrators, teachers, and the occasional student. We’ve often discussed how what’s shared in hallways or posted on classroom walls represents regard for students’ work – or not. Walking the art show and looking at the work from a school community collective portfolio point of view reflectively challenged my assumptions about what we include and what we exclude as art from our learning portfolios.
Ira wondered that day how we might extend the reach of art and design think in our crib of engagement tools far beyond the walls of art and CTE (career/technical education), learning spaces that build construction and creativity relationships that otherwise might not be seen. I was reminded in the discussion that work occurring within the National Writing Project to link writing with the “maker movement” offers a similar perspective of connectivity.
Walking the artwork of twenty-some schools also added depth to my understanding of the relationship of the arts to the lifelong learning competencies we aspire to embed in our pedagogical, content, and technology integration work. It’s apparent in students’ work that art teachers understand the complexity of those competencies and how art as a “way of learning” embodies many of them. For example, I loved this fourth grader’s piece at the show, showing the use of traditional art media to capture a perspective of jumping through time from early American history into today’s world.
Despite my love of traditional art, I also am concerned about the omission of contemporary media tools from the engagement tool crib of some teachers and learners. It struck me that all of us in the business of teaching and learning need to consider the value of integrating art, maker, design thinking, and digital tools as key to full spectrum learning for all.
Kids create interesting digital media reflective of their learning work in our schools. I observe examples almost every day, from black and white digital photos of simple machines taken by third graders to movies made by middle schoolers. In one middle school I visited recently, a hallway gallery of amazing film posters designed by students advertises their film projects as a part of an annual school-wide, student-created film festival. The posters span several years of movie making through which kids develop team-driven, collaborative projects to create, design, and communicate stories to an audience of their peers.
At every level in our schools, some learners also get the chance to use digital fabrication software and printers to create, design, print, and construct 3-D structures that meet the tests of both utility and design think. The high school girls in this video designed and built guitars with 3-D printed elements, wrote, performed, and videoed a song, then uploaded the result to You Tube. I’m not sure where the art began and the STEM ended but their exploration of how to “make” represents a different kind of learning; a deeper learning, a more accessible learning than that of the “test prep” curricular strand kids often experience in today’s classrooms.
Part II: Access for Whom to Create, Design and Make?
The quality of trans-disciplinary learning opportunities afforded to learners often depends upon a learner landing by chance in the classroom of an “academic” teacher who values art, design and construction as a way of learning through “creating and making.” This kind of work most often occurs in what we label as exploratory or elective classes, learning some consider as parallel play to “real” learning work, especially after the primary grades. How might our expectations for all our learners be different if we saw design thinking and artistic processes as tools for learning rather than as something extra?
I’ve noticed in “petri dish” learning spaces where construction, creativity, and design play out as routine ways for young people to show understanding of their learning, the playing field of academic capability is far more level for all learners than in those teaching places where instruction and testing occur more traditionally. This leads to a real conundrum question in schools today: How do we create school agar, a culture medium, upon which our pockets of excellence will go viral? What entry points can help spread creativity and design think into all learning spaces?
What if we had a continuous strand in all curricular areas that set forth the expectation that kids make, design, and create in school? What then might we see occurring in our learning spaces? Would kids create both for purposes of utility and aesthetics – and in their work find key pathways to access learning across all content areas? Would more learners pursue learning for learning’s sake, not just for the purpose of passing tests? Would we generate more inventors and designers capable of powering up a new “maker movement” economy and culture?
Steve Jobs dropped out of college after one semester, choosing to take classes on a drop-in audit basis that reminds me of the current “walk out, walk on” philosophy described by Frieze and Wheatley. After dropping out, Jobs began to pick and choose courses that were interest-driven and consistent with his own determination to learn. His choices changed his life – and the world of technology.
I suspect Jobs couldn’t find a space in school or college to practice design and making work. Instead, he took his designing mind to the work world, a place where he created the design ethos of iEverything and partnered with brilliant generators and makers to breathe life into ideas that others didn’t see. While few students will grow up to become a Jobs, many do have the potential to offer much more to our communities and the workforce than they do. We do have the capability to influence their potential.
Part III: The Will to Make, Create, and Design Access Paths for All Learners
Yong Zhao also caught my attention recently when he wrote that perhaps it’s not so much that America’s schools have encouraged creativity as much as that they haven’t suppressed it, as in China. In America’s schools of recent decades, we’ve mostly ignored the potential for kids to make, create, design, build, and engineer unless it’s in art, CTE, or gifted classes – or those magnet academies and schools that cater to a specialized, by application, cohort who obtain access by lottery or overt talent.
“What we can do — what America does better than anyone else — is spark the creativity and imagination of our people.” State of the Union 2011 … President Barack Obama
Despite the call by everyone from the POTUS to corporate heads that we elevate imagination and invention work to bolster our economic future, recent school budget downturns have decimated the arts, library, physical education and CTE staff and courses across the U.S.
The very spaces in our schools where the kind of thinking occurs that will lead to creative ideas, inventions, and innovations to fuel this century’s economy and make our young people more self-reliant are the most at risk in today’s public education system. Matt Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soul Craft , speaks in this Ted X East video about the difficulty of being self-reliant in contemporary society.
He says the “modern personality is getting reformed by passivity and dependence.. less responsibility for physical environment..”
Unfortunately, our value for consuming as an expression of having made it to middle class has denigrated in our schools the value of “making” work, the kind of hands-on invention work that used to reside under the shade trees, inside garages and even in classrooms. (Counselors say that many college bound kids today don’t see much value in arts and/or CTE – courses perceived as not adding value to transcripts or as with CTE courses seen as ones for so-called “low-level” kids.) Is it possible to turn this attitude around? I’m heartened when I read that even the education commissioner of Texas thinks the current testing climate is a “perversion.” One of the first steps we must take is away from the test prep curriculum.
Water over the Dam or a River still to be Freed from the Dam?
Some ask, have we reached a point where it’s water over the dam or do we still have the potential to free the educational river from the constraints of the test prep dam? If we had put national energy behind creativity and design think learning goals in the last decade, we would be well on our way to a different kind of learning experience, outcome, and trajectory for students than we predict today through tests that are labeled as rigorous, but increasingly are designed to fail.
Despite the past and current thinking about what’s important to measure in schools, I believe there’s a wellspring of hope and desire for something different brewing. It may still be an undercurrent in the river, but I feel an energy in a younger generation of teachers to make a difference with kids that doesn’t look like 20th century learning. I hear passion in the voices of our experienced educators who have always known that the best learning occurs when kids are driven by challenging hands-on, minds-on work, not multiple choice tests.
When I walk an art show, visit schools and see the amazing project work of kids in some of our classrooms, or talk with educators and parents across the country about their desire for learning that inspires rather than “dis-spirits” our children, I believe we can, and will, take down the dam and free the educational river – not to sustain industrial model schools as teaching places, but to invent new schools that are learning spaces.
Imagine how different the learning passions and possibilities of our students and educators would be if creativity was encouraged. And, imagine how the United States might flourish in the coming decades if we constructed the full learning curricula with a “creating” strand that built upon the “maker” culture we once saw as critical in our communities? What products and projects might result from that work? How many generations would it take to effect a curricular shift that would perceptibly change us back to the “maker” society that fueled the genius of America over the last two centuries?
What if we abandoned the consumer-driven, test-prep strand that dominates our curricula today for one that set expectations for engagement in designing, creating, making, building, and engineering opportunities, what might result?
Maybe – at least more interesting wallpaper?