Roundup No. 2


I’ve been watching and rewatching Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk on creativity in schools. Like most TED speakers, Robinson is very engaging, and blends in a good deal of humor with his commentary. His diagnosis is that our schools are designed with a hierarchy, with subjects like math and language at the top, and the arts at the bottom. Looking to the future, he vaguely points out that creativity is an asset we need to develop, more or less insinuating economic consequences for neglecting creative development. I think he is right that creativity needs more nurturing, but there is probably more to education than creating an economically viable society. We’re also people and individuals who need to navigate the waters of our humanity, and I don’t know a better companion than creativity.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman talk about the realities of teaching creativity in “The Creativity Crisis”, and make some good points. Math and science require a kind of creative thinking as well, and Bronson and Merryman outline a process of creative problem solving:

When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.

Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.

Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.

The idea of problem solving is an intriguing one, as it applies to creativity, and one common justification for edifying creative education is that all problems worth solving require a great amount of creative effort, whether they be social, political, scientific, or economic. Again, however, I wonder where creative work that is not as obviously about solving problems fits in. A wonderful dance piece may not be intended to solve an obvious problem. In my view, the problem being solved by a choreographer has to do with communicating something to another person.

Bronson and Merryman offer an inspiring story of a charter school in Akron, Ohio where students are set on a group project to propose plans for reducing noise in the library, learning about the relevant science and people skills along the way. The results are remarkable:

Two weeks ago, when the school received its results on the state’s achievement test, principal Traci Buckner was moved to tears. The raw scores indicate that, in its first year, the school has already become one of the top three schools in Akron, despite having open enrollment by lottery and 42 percent of its students living in poverty.

This kind of work requires dedicated educators, but as I recall it, my greatest learning experiences growing up had similar qualities. I learned material better when I was working on something that required that I understood it, rather than simply memorizing it for a test. The best way to learn Shakespeare is to perform it, the best way to learn programming is to write working programs. The best way to learn about ideas is probably to have to explain yours to someone else.

As far as math goes, Dan Meyer has some good ideas along similar lines: make problems real (for real), and give students less of a framework to solve problems in so that they can build the framework themselves - an important step in solving hard problems is guessing how to break them down into pieces. Meyer calls it “patient problem solving”:

So I hope you can see. I really hope you can see how, what we’re doing here is taking a compelling question, a compelling answer, but we’re paving a smooth, straight path from one to the other, and congratulating our students for how well they can step over the small cracks in the way. That’s all we’re doing here. So I want put to you, if we can separate these in a different way and build them up with students, we can have everything we’re looking for in terms of patient problem solving.

Based on his talk, I’d say it’s possible the best way to learn the fundamentals of math (arithmetic, algebra, and calculus) is through explaining physical phenomena.

Vanity Press

I’m performing right now in a nice outdoor production of Susanna Centlivre’s The Busybody, which has been very rewarding so far. (We close this weekend.) Richard Grayson came to last Saturday’s performance, and wrote a wonderful overview and review. My friends Raney Cumbow and Meaghan Cross put together this venture, with Raney directing and Meaghan performing, along with more friends old and new. It has been a delight.

Pleasure Viewing

If you haven’t seen it, “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” is something special. Bradbury himself seems to think so.

Annals of Type

I recently came across this essay on ESPN,1 “The Franchise” by Patrick Hruby. The essay itself is interesting, but I was excited to see a mainstream publisher like ESPN throwing their weight behind web-based editorial design. Outfits like Fray published online this way before the advent of content management systems hit full swing. Efforts have been going to revive it for a few years now, including Khoi Vinh and Liz Danzico’s A Brief Message and Jason Santa Maria’s current website. In introducing his new site in 2008, Santa Maria2 said:

We’ve made so many advancements in how we publish content that we haven’t looked back to what it is we’re actually creating. Many of us see the clear separation between things like print design and web design, but I’ve really been questioning the reality of why things are this way.

I don’t believe it has as much to do with time and capabilities–the notion that it takes too long to achieve the same design fidelity we enjoy in slower print endeavors–I think it has more to do with us merely having convinced ourselves it does. We’ve developed so many ways of creating and coding websites faster, but we really haven’t scratched the surface for art directing them in that same light.

David Cole and Tag Savage started Sleepover in the past year as “a very earnest attempt to make the world of online publishing better.” One service they offer is editorial design:

Sometimes content demands new forms, sometimes content is just so special it needs an extra layer of love. Sleepover can design individual articles or serial features to make the most of your content. We’ll work with your publishing system and draw on your existing design to expand the possibilities of your content.

Seeing so many of these art-directed essays (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) under ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” certainly encourages me to think that the “extra layer of love” may not be just a micro-niche of web design work for much longer.

  1. was also one of the first major websites to be built using web standards like CSS for layout. ↩︎

  2. The best art direction on Jason Santa Maria’s site is probably to be found in the Candygrams he published for Halloween in 2009. Each piece was written by a guest author - I imagine that the spark of collaboration is what gives these pieces their special flavor. ↩︎