If you scroll back to my first blog posts in 2008 you will see that I have had a weird and eclectic teaching career. After being trained as a science teacher, I got dragged into teaching math and learned I loved it. I then became a technology teacher and coordinator because everyone else I was working with didn’t like computers, after which I segued into IB MYP Design because it sort of included technology. This led to being hired as a KS3 and IGCSE Design Technology teacher and the discovery that I had to learn a lot about materials and processes. I then spent a few years teaching ICT and working with teachers in a coaching/admin capacity, and I am now trying to put it all together as the new Head of a Design Technology & ICT/CS Faculty. And I think this one is going to stick.
To get up to speed with the world of Design education I have been listening to some great Design podcasts and lurking in a number of Facebook groups and Twitter chats. Luckily Design teachers are a passionate lot and are sharing lots of great stuff online. As I lurk and listen a number of themes/questions have started to take up space in my brain that I think are worth taking a few minutes to unpack in a few blog posts. The question that is currently bouncing around in my brain is:
How can I structure my units/classes/assessments to support creativity and innovation?
Most design programs use some form of the design cycle to guide students through a project. I created the one above by merging the MYP Design Cycle framework with the one we have been using for years at my school (green and yellow wouldn’t be my first choice for colours but that is how my current school is branded). There is a lot to like about this framework. It breaks a project down into concrete assessable chunks (some of which focus on creativity) and helps students approach the task of designing and making something in an effective informed manner.
The downside to frameworks like this is that they give the impression that design is a linear process (despite adding arrows going in different directions to the graphic) when in reality creative and innovative approaches to solving problems are usually more chaotic and organic in nature. Sometimes when coming up with design ideas students might realise they actually don’t know enough and should maybe do some more research, but since their research work is done and graded they are reluctant to go back to that task since it is already ‘handed in’. Similarly, just telling students to draw 6 to 8 design ideas doesn’t always help them be creative and innovative.
Recently I came across a great podcast and blog post by John Spencer called We Want Students to Be Creative, But How Do We Assess This? that got me thinking. In particular this quote:
By assessing creativity, I had turned creative thinking into something high-stakes. Rather than focusing on the intrinsic enjoyment of the creative process, students were fixating on the extrinsic score of the rubric. They took fewer creative risks and engaged in less divergent thinking. They were far more likely to copy the exemplars rather than find their own creative voice. In a few cases, this external pressure led to higher performance and better creative thinking. These students wanted to prove how creative they could be. The rubric seemed to light a fire in them. But even then, most of these groups fixated on how I would perceive their creative work.
The solutions he suggests in the post are to:
- Focus on the Creative Process rather than the Product or the Person (which in some ways I think the design cycle does quite well), and
- Focus on Growth and Improvement Rather than Achievement
One design skill that I think can be a good vehicle for focusing on the creative process, growth and improvement is the communication of design ideas. I see this as being a critical part of helping students to be innovative, as one of the best ways for students to share ideas, give feedback on ideas and borrow ideas is for them to be able to communicate them clearly and succinctly to others. I have always loved this video on Where Good Ideas Come From by Steve Johnson and the insight that “good ideas usually come from the collision of small hunches”. In design I think “hunches” often need to be communicated in visual form to make sense to someone else.
Having the skills to draw what is in your head also lets you start to give the idea legs and forces you to think about whether the idea is feasible and if you have enough knowledge/skills to pull it off. One of my favourite videos in the Netflix documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design is the Season 2 Episode called Cas Holman: Design for Play in which she uses sketching constantly to help her understand, communicate and refine ideas. In her words:
I think of sketching as an extension of my brain. I have an idea and I can’t really figure it out until my hand is helping. Sometimes I have an idea of what it is in my head but its usually not finished until I get it on paper.
So, I have been trying this year to develop my student’s drawing skills as a vehicle for supporting their creativity. And I have tried to develop scaffolded lessons that focus on growth and improvement rather than achievement.
I have also been trying to be ok taking a less linear approach to the design process, which is hard. It’s much easier for me to plan and feel comfortable with things like assessment when I chunk up the design cycle into discrete sections, but I know that this can hamper my student’s creativity. So my new approach is to jump much more quickly into the design sketching work with my students (whereas before we would wade through hours of onerous research and develop a full specification), with the caveat that when they get stumped they need to go back and do more research and tweak their specification. This feels much more authentic but I think it is also going to take much more in the way of 1:1 discussions/coaching. In the end, though I am hopeful my students will be able to come up with many more creative and feasible ideas for their design projects and will feel more comfortable sharing their ideas with others.