Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

TDA/Microsoft Creativity Futures Forum

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I was in Reading earlier this week at a ‘Creativity Futures Forum’ organised by the Training Development Agency (TDA) for schools and Microsoft, speaking about the role of social software tools and ideas in promoting creativity in education
Rather surprisingly, there was no open wifi network in this part of the Microsoft campus, so faced with a whole day disconnected from my networks (even SMS server monitor alerts were not getting through to that room) I finally found the time to blog (yay!) after having my head down in a number of fast-moving projects for so long. Microsoft made me blog – you heard it here first
I should add, by way of pre-emptive defence against perceived bias, that the Microsoft people here are lovely and have been very hospitable. They are generously supporting the TDA work among other initiatives in education. Even the tech support guy graciously and patiently installed iTunes (for Quicktime), Java and other browser add-ons to enable one of the speakers to demonstrate some creative and innovative web sites on the official laptop that is connected to the interweb. As a company we are quite comfortable using .NET when appropriate, and some of my best friends actually still use WIndows
To kick off what turned out to be an interesting day for me, Keri Facer from Futurelab gave a wide-ranging presentation that introduced some ideas and frameworks for thinking about how teachers and schools can find the time, tools and support to bring more creativity into education. Building on the thinking of Goodson and Sheehy about processes of educational change, she places this challenge within a contemporary context of ideas such as the ‘adaptive state’ promoted by our friends at Demos, with schools seen as learning organisations, not just places where learning happens. This implies rethinking schools as social institutions and relationships and supporting teachers as curriculum designers, which is in line with the more recent thinking of the QCA futures project about curriculum development, and also helping them build learning networks and pathways rather than just deliver ‘content’
In terms of tools that can be used as part of this process to foster creativity, Keri refers to

  • social software for knowledge building, sharing and community
  • digital tools to support reflection on practice (cameras, video, shareable multimedia)
  • collaborative mobile geodata and mark-up (such as mudlarking in Deptford)
  • games environments for low-cost collaborative movie-making
  • online toys such as Soda constructor for teaching
  • Youtube and other simple sharing tools such as writely.com, videoegg.com, ipodder.org
Obviously, these tools are partly informed by ideas such as co-production and social networking, and as such they will hopefully stimulate creativity among students. But what about the educators? Where are the tools for teachers to capture ideas, experiment together and develop new design processes? And can digital tools play a role in helping them unlearn inherited practice? This would be a question that we returned to later at the behest of trainee teachers who are going in to schools and facing the challenge of trying to improve the use of IT whilst at the same time facing quite rigid lesson times, targets and other policy constraints that make innovation difficult
Dr David Barlex, Senior Lecturer in Education at Brunel University drilled down deeper into creativity processes, sharing the findings of a joint Nuffield Curriculum Centre – QCA investigation into creativity in art & design and design & technology in schools. The study found that whilst children need stimulation, context, reflection and knowledge/skills to drive creativity, a key learning of the project was that attitudes to risk were a key determinant of success when trying to implement a creativity framework in practice. Essentially, teachers who implemented the framework but over-prepared and tried to minimise risk were not successful in using this approach to stimulate creativity, whereas teachers who were happy to go with the flow and tolerate disruption were able to demonstrate much more interesting results
David considered how design decisions are taken, looking at the conceptual, technical, aesthetic, constructional and marketing choices that kids are asked to consider as part of the design process. Here too, he found that in too many cases, what appears to be creative process is actually just a set of Focused Practical Tasks (FTPs) in disguise – i.e. teacher-led activities where kids are doing what they are told. Again, the message is that without a tolerance of risk and ambiguity, and being comfortable with failure, the creative process does not work. He also shared some insights from the Young Foresight design project, which gave children creative freedom and support to design new products without the constraint of having to make them, but considering the design’s impact on people, markets and society
He referred to the work of Vera John-Steiner from the University of New Mexico, who published “Creative collaboration” about patterns and models of working together to solve complex problems. She talks about the ‘family’ pattern for creative collaboration, which involves the dynamic integration of expertise through a fluidity of different roles underpinned by high levels of trust. Sustained collaboration is particularly worthwhile, in her view, when it addresses large questions that can’t be solved alone. Importantly, participants need to take the bold step of being mutually co-dependent, which is counter-cultural for many people
In considering future scenarios for applying these ideas in education, David draws inspiration from Neil Gershenfeld at MIT who has pioneered the use of Fab Labs (fabrication laboratories) to give people the tools to make sophisticated models and products using CADCAM, laser cutting, 3D printers and other tools such as pick chips. What excites him most about this is the fact that it is now becoming affordable by schools for the first time, and he will be running a FabLab with the Nuffield Foundation in early October
How these ideas and techniques are applied, though, is very much pedagogy-dependent. In a context of passive learning, low motivation, pre-digested instructional learning, with a teacher who has sole authority, the outcomes of design and technology in schools will look like they do today: “craft” that follows the existing tradition, or vocational training aimed at placing people in specific jobs. Alternatively, within a pedagogical framework that recognises socially constructed abilities, co-construction, performing tasks that are culturally authentic, in a situation of shared responsibility, and where learners construct rather than just receive meaning, then something like Fab Labs could be used effectively both in school and within the wider community. The question is: which approach prepares students for an uncertain futur
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In the afternoon, we had a good session demo’ing new Microsoft product versions targeted at the education market, and then in an unfortunate coincidence of scheduling, I delivered what was billed as a controversial and provocative session about social software as part of a sea change in thinking about IT and computing, and what this means for education. I talked about rescuing personal computing from the ghetto of crappy desktop tools, nicely illustrated with a blue screen of death to make the point, and how in an age where the network is the computer, we can ditch our office suites and roll our own apps and services through the browser, which may have come across as something of a direct riposte to the product demonstration that preceded my talk. It was intended as such, but I can see why the audience drew that conclusion. I also made the entirely sensible point that if local authorities continue procuring dumb grey boxes with outdated desktop software pre-installed and locked down then they should throw them away or send them back and demand something better – open networks and a diversity of devices. I will publish my notes and presentation here shortly
So, thanks to the organisers at TDA and Microsoft, and well done to the Redmond/Reading crew for providing generous financial support to helping schools and teachers get to grips with modern-day IT in schools. And if any participants are reading this, please feel free to add to or correct my notes by leaving a comment below.

One Response to TDA/Microsoft Creativity Futures Forum

  1. By Headshift on October 6, 2006 at 9:47 am

    Social Media and Internal Communication

    It’s somewhat difficult for me to resist the temptation of starting off with a trivial “First Post” entry. Probably a bit soon to be lowering the tone of this most excellent space, so laud my self control. Anyway, I do…