Making Learning: Creativity or Platforms?
Improving teaching and learning in the current upheaval
Kids are fed up with sitting in front of screens watching teachers lecture all day. Is that a surprise?
And an even more important question: is watching a teacher lecture from a desk in a classroom really all that much better? Was it better when you were the student sitting in that desk? How many of those lectures made a meaningful difference in your life? How many of those facts do you actively remember or use regularly? How did those lectures develop your potentialities or kindle agency in you?
Now spin it back around. How many of the lectures students are fidgeting in front of today — either on-screen or in-person — will make their lives fundamentally better, more resilient, more genuinely enfranchised, or more fulfilled? Is that ratio any better than it was for you?
Most of us remember relationships, projects, team and club activities … parts of school that engaged, connected, and empowered us. So if delivered information is not primarily what we carry with us afterwards, why do we keep building schools like this?
It’s an Abilene paradox. Most students don’t really want to sit through that series of lectures, and deep down, most teachers want to do more than just deliver them. The limitations of COVID-19 have put this in even starker relief. We all hunger for something better.
But if we tear down the way school does school, what do we build instead?
It can’t start with nothing.
Human enterprises like teaching and learning require humans on both sides of the equation. Not algorithms. Not scripts. Humans. They’re the foundation.
Of course some of these humans are mediated: we meet them in books and audio interviews and instructional videos. Algorithms may help us find these, but most people want and need something more. We want a guide to intervene when we’re going off the rails or to answer questions that are sometimes as much about reassurance as they are about information. That’s one reason in-person school is marginally better — and why people miss it right now. The content of the lectures hasn’t changed in the zoom to virtual class, but the lack of direct human interaction with teachers and fellow learners has made them feel even more bankrupt.
Teachers offer a lot: knowledge, experience, wisdom. They help us grow by setting a path we can follow and by challenging us with initial projects. Yet their most important work is in modeling how to learn about the subject they’re teaching. They’ve trod the same path as their students, and the best of them demonstrate how they continue to walk that path. This is why canned scripts don’t work. We need to witness teachers modeling how they’re still learning about their field regardless of their current expertise. Teachers who do this give us a chance to envision ourselves in their place even as they work to remember and put themselves back in ours. It’s a dialectical reflection that can’t be mimicked by a machine or dictated by a teaching handbook.
Learning starts with a relationship.
I’ve previously written about the oppressiveness of standardization — how expecting everyone to produce the same educational outcome yields a toxic, destructive hierarchy of insiders and outsiders. But an unfettered creative approach doesn’t get it quite right, either.
Imagine the scenario: the teacher says, “Do something creative! Apply what you’re learning to anything that interests you!”
That may sound like a blast initially, but the reality often doesn’t live up to the promise…
Even if a teacher scaffolds the assignment with required initial proposals and regular check-ins, the situation can quickly prove chaotic. The diversity of projects, approaches, and abilities can massively fragment the learning community. Even if a few learners choose similar or related projects, it won’t be enough to minimize the complexity. Some teachers and learners might thrive on the chaotic energy of this kind of openness, but it often proves unmanageable over time. For the teacher who is attempting to offer meaningful guidance, support, and wisdom, the preparation necessary to give engaged feedback on so many different applications can be overwhelming. And fellow learners are unlikely to fill the gap since their own projects will differ so much. So rather than depth of support, teachers will likely only have time and energy to offer superficial guidance.
It’s no one’s fault; it’s an innate product of the structure’s openness. More in-depth engagement simply isn’t feasible or sustainable. At some point, despite teachers’ best efforts, they’ll be overwhelmed and support will break down.
And this collapse reveals an even more pernicious problem. Since the chaotic fragmentation is likely to leave learners effectively on their own, spreading teacher and co-learner support thin, those learners who already have some form of special access — to materials, to experience, or to outside support — will be amplified and rewarded. The rich will get richer. Those without such connections? Well….
What might seem to be a ‘democratic,’ learner-centered approach at first glance can demonstrate another kind of built-in, hierarchical privileging. Those from social, cultural, economic, or ethnic out-groups can suffer significant disadvantages in such a situation — made worse because this teaching method masquerades as a neutral and equitable learning opportunity. ‘Falling short’ here can naturalize and legitimize out-group status in devastating ways. Those who don’t succeed ‘must not be trying’ — or ‘must simply be incapable…’
Yet there’s another way to proceed.
The chief problem with ‘standardized’ approaches comes from their treatment of projects as a ‘test’ that must be achieved (usually independently) without room for individual engagement. Learners are taught to eclipse themselves, follow the recipe, and end up with identical projects. If their project doesn’t look pretty much like everyone else’s, it receives bad marks or poor evaluations. But the idea of a shared initial project can be helpful so long as it doesn’t permanently preclude individual adaptation and engagement. After all, a shared experience can bring people together to form a community. Done properly, a shared project can provide a helpful starting point and platform both for those who don’t know how to begin and for those who do and can help their fellow learners.
The key is to picture and design these projects as a platform.
Platforms have three primary characteristics: they provide a safe surface you can’t ‘fall through,’ they offer a better vantage — ‘elevating’ your view, and they’re structured so you can build on top of them.
“true ‘platform’ projects aren’t a test; they’re a safeguard”
The first characteristic is critical to conceiving learning projects in a new way. True ‘platform’ projects aren’t a test; they’re a safeguard. They offer a solid surface learners can always return to, giving them a safety net for experimentation and growth. Without this kind of safety, most learners don’t feel free to explore — and until they genuinely explore, they won’t really understand or internalize what they’re learning.
What’s important isn’t, therefore, the uniformity of learners’ projects; it’s that they all have a shared base to support, stabilize, and protect their exploration. These projects aren’t an end; they’re a beginning.
When legendary developers Bill Atkinson and Larry Tesler began designing the Mac’s graphical operating system for Apple, they fought hard to incorporate a command many of their colleagues argued was unnecessary: “undo.” But Atkinson and Tesler knew that fear would be the greatest impediment to people trying this new kind of computer. And if users were afraid, they wouldn’t experiment — and therefore wouldn’t end up adopting and using the Mac. As Atkinson argued, “How can you ask ‘What if?’ if you can’t ‘undo?’”
By providing a preliminary state that learners can always return to, ‘platform’ projects offer the safety learners need to ask questions, try out hypotheses, and experiment with small changes. All of this helps them develop the mental models or ‘schemas’ that Piaget and others describe as essential for learning.
A good ‘platform’ project also offers the second feature of platforms: an improved vantage. For many school assignments, learners are, in effect, expected to be automatons, programmed to follow a recipe meticulously. They’re often passively or actively discouraged from asking about the recipe’s details or structure because the emphasis is almost always on attaining a uniform result. Partly, this has to do with a particular vision of classroom authority: the learner ‘voicelesness’ that Paulo Freire critiques in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Yet if our goal is to support and develop learner agency — the ability to perform and practice outside of the learning context — learners will have to go beyond the recipe. In fact, they’ll have to know enough eventually to make their own recipes.
The problem is that novice learners don’t yet know enough of the details, procedures, and relationships to go beyond. They might not even know enough ‘vocabulary’ to articulate a question. So until they have some experience, most learners simply don’t know what they don’t know. And learners can face such fissures again as they climb to new strata within a discipline. Lost in the rubble of new information, unfamiliar practices, and nascent skills, it can be hard to see a path. It’s disorienting.
“a well-crafted ‘platform’ project designed to introduce disciplinary issues and skills can offer an overview that helps learners see where to go”
However, a well-crafted ‘platform’ project designed to introduce disciplinary issues and skills can offer an overview that helps learners see where to go. Since the goal is to expose them to key knowledge and provide them with the experience necessary to use it later, learners don’t need to work independently. In fact, ‘platform’ projects offer excellent opportunities for relational networks to develop organically as leaners look around, consult with one another, and offer assistance and feedback — networks essential to professionalizing and preparing learners for the future.
While most ‘recipe’ projects are static, one-off opportunities either to apply or to test concepts that have been delivered separately, ‘platform’ projects are the beginning of an exploration based on experience. Considering the knowledge and literacies learners must develop in order to proceed, ‘platform’ projects are designed to introduce learners to concepts, skills, and frameworks through hands-on practice in order to help them see and understand these disciplinary characteristics more clearly.
“true ‘platform’ projects provide free spaces where learners can try, experiment, tinker, and transform”
And this means these projects must also be designed to demonstrate the third characteristic of platforms: the ability to serve as foundations for new structures. True ‘platform’ projects provide free spaces where learners can try, experiment, tinker, and transform. Rather than dictating the same result, their shared beginnings provide support while learners build new elements that fit their own questions, interests, or talents.
Rather than a highly detailed project where a teacher or guide has worked out every particular, well-designed ‘platform’ projects offer significant space for learner interventions. In effect, these projects present ‘minimum viable products’ rather than full-blown solutions. The more ways learners can intervene, the better…
For example, a ‘platform’ for coding designed by educator Bea Leiderman starts with a very rudimentary ‘game’ that involves only a sprite one can move about the screen, an ‘objective’ — a barrier, a ‘power-up,’ or an ‘opponent’ — and a basic scoring system. Coding these minimal details offers learners an introduction to some basic computing concepts: user-interaction functions for moving the sprite, variables to dictate behaviors when the ‘objective’ is contacted and to aggregate the score, and basic logical structures for organizing the functions into a running program. It’s so minimal that it hardly counts as a game at all. However, its spaciousness — its hospitable openness — makes it an ideal ‘platform.’ Given the expectation and opportunity to build on this rudimentary base, some learners might focus on the visual art of backgrounds and sprites. Others might think about what makes gameplay fun or engaging, altering the behavior of elements to add surprises and challenges. Some might focus on music, sound effects, and auditory interactions. Others might develop a story in which to situate the game’s details, adding meaning and richness. Some might consider how users interact with the hardware or software, easing interactions (or making them more challenging or unique). Others might consider how their game fits into the pantheon of existing games, tapping into nostalgic or novel ‘looks,’ ‘feels,’ and behaviors…
Yet the most important principle is that all of this diversity is built on the same platform — a shared foundational experience that makes experimentation safe, that offers learners an overview of core concepts, and that gives them the space to build what they choose.
“those who develop various specializations can serve as resources for their peers, and the structures they’ve built can be exchanged for adoption or adaptation by others”
What emerges from this sort of ‘platform’ is not the fragmented chaos of a ‘creative’ project, but a self-reinforcing discourse community or community of practice. Because learners have all shared the same foundational experience, those who develop various specializations can serve as resources for their peers, and the structures they’ve built can be exchanged for adoption or adaptation by others. In such a collaborative community, compelling solutions ascend to prominence based on the engaged choices of both individuals and the larger community, and all ships rise.
The co-creation promoted by such ‘platform’ projects also encourages learners to see ‘recipes’ in a more robust and mature way. Rather than following them rigorously and unquestioningly to achieve a standardized result, the learners’ roles in creating diverse structures helps them understand more clearly how and why the initial recipes were structured as they were. In the process, the ‘cause and effect’ learners witness reveals new paths they might follow as they explore and experiment further, offering increasingly rich opportunities for learning and development.
Ironically, although many teachers and schools are trying to replicate monolithic classroom experiences in this time of remote learning, creating a ‘platform’ experience is actually a far easier proposition. Lacking the shared context and uniform equipment of the classroom, many teachers are struggling to incorporate projects at all, reinforcing a problematic emphasis on lectures.
But there’s a better way.
Designing a ‘minimally viable’ ‘platform’ project with space for learners to incorporate resources, approaches, and perspectives from their own individual contexts is a great way to transform learning during these difficult times. In fact, the current upheaval makes it easier to design ‘minimally’ since we can’t assume the uniformity of a ‘classroom experience.’
A biology teacher might offer learners an initial call to record information about conditions and plants in their yards, in a nearby lot, or along a sidewalk or road — then ask learners to change some factor: putting a shade over some of the plants, adding coffee grounds to part of the soil, watering some of the plants daily, all while recording the impact their interventions are having and sharing them to develop a comprehensive guide. A social studies or literature teacher might give learners a skeleton structure for collecting recollections or stories from family members or friends — then ask learners to prepare these narratives for presentation or performance, with opportunities to alter the skeletal structure, experiment with media forms, or illustrate them with objects, food, or artwork to augment or recast their message. A mathematics teacher might present learners with a formula for some generic geometric shape and then ask learners to find examples in their daily contexts, modifying the formula to generate the specific instances they’ve found, using the shapes to create a design or tessellation, or asking them to develop a way to demonstrate or communicate the formula to someone else in their sphere — a younger sibling, a grandparent, a friend — perhaps even without using math…
School doesn’t have to consist of fed up learners fidgeting in front of screens. In fact, we’d all be much better served if it didn’t.
Incorporating ‘platform’ projects provides an opportunity for teachers and learners to apply concepts in real contexts, to participate in meaningful experiential learning, and to celebrate and nurture many forms of diversity. But, of course, just saying, “Incorporate ‘platform’ projects” might feel about as chaotic as saying, “Do something creative!” To incorporate new learning approaches successfully, it’s therefore often helpful to use a framework — and FTPS (‘follow’/‘tinker’/‘play’/‘share’) is just the ticket for making ‘platform’ projects really sing.
Unfortunately, that’s another post…