Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Continuing dialog about creativity in schools, student technology skills and content filtering

I posted the following as a response to Corey White’s comment on my February post, “Advocating for differentiated content filtering.” This was a lengthy comment, and seemed to justify its own post. Hopefully my tone here is not too confrontational.

Corey: Like many in IT in our schools, your comment reflects an assumption that part of your job should be filtering out websites that students could use to be off task and “not productive.” My position is, that should not be the role of the IT staff. Teachers have the responsibility of designing engaging work for students, and in MANY, MANY cases, they are not doing this. See Phil Schlechty’s excellent book “Working on the Work: An Action Plan for Teachers, Principals, and Superintendents” for more about this.

As far as your idea of “leaving creativity to the art department,” I strongly disagree. Encouraging and supporting creativity should be EVERYONE’S job at school. Unfortunately many teachers and administrators have a “fill the pail” mentality when it comes to schooling. They view their job as trying to fill the pails (brains) of kids with a fixed amount of content, rather than trying to provide students with opportunities authentically engage in meaningful work with interesting content. Creativity and curiosity play a natural role in authentic learning, and that is why I continue to maintain that we should emphasize creativity in our schools.

You lament how kids can’t use a spreadsheet, create a webpage, edit an image in PhotoShop, do a mail merge, or create a formula in Excel. My questions are:

1- What problem-based learning contexts are teachers providing for students which require and invite them to use Excel as a tool, to solve REAL problems– not simply equations that a teacher pulls out of a textbook, out of context, or invents but doesn’t relate to the real world students understand? I agree students should be able to use spreadsheets to analyze and chart data, identify trends, predict outcomes, etc. How are teachers at your school regularly challenging students to do these things in meaningful contexts, where students are genuinely interested in doing the work and finding the answers?

2- In relation to students not knowing how to create a webpage… Have you checked how many of your students have profile pages on MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, and Myyearbook? Chances are quite a few of them do, certainly a high percentage should if they follow national trends like those highlighted in the summer 2007 National School Boards Association Report “Creating and Connecting.” Creating and maintaining a profile and webpages on a social networking website IS “creating a webpage.” Are you wanting students to use a program like Frontpage or Dreamweaver to create a website? Gaining experience creating content on a social networking site, keeping your profile private, and carefully monitoring the content that is published and “tagged” by you as well as your peers to monitor the electronic portfolio which Google is amassing about everyone are all important skills.

3- In terms of photo editing, has anyone at your school created and sponsored a digital photography contest for students? Having a contest like that could be pretty affordable and yield some great benefits. Setup categories for the types of skills you want students to develop. If you want them to learn photo compositing, then have that as a category. Rather than limit them to PhotoShop, which is very expensive and likely beyond the computing budget of most families, introduce students to free, open source photo editing programs like Gimp which they can use legally both at school and at home for zero dollars.

4- In regard to your lament about students apparent inability to do a mail merge, how many teachers at your school can independently do a mail merge? How many local entrepreneurs in your community can do a mail merge independently? Certainly it is great if people know how to do a mail merge, and I am a big fan of learners of all ages knowing how to powerfully manage and manipulate data not only in spreadsheet programs but also in flat as well as relational database programs. How sure are you that “doing a mail merge” is a critical 21st century skill, however? Many times in school, I think we make assumptions about things EVERYONE needs to know how to do– from memorizing the quadratic formula to writing a haiku, that really seem pretty silly and irrelevant when you consider the skill sets of people living and working quite successfully out of school.

I do appreciate your input and comments on this thread, Corey, but I continue to maintain that tiered content filtering is essential and an overall focus on both creativity as well as authentic student engagement in our schools is direly needed. You raise some points that are valid: My challenge to you is, DO something about them, rather than just lament them.

Start a digital photography contest at your school.

Help a teacher develop an integrated lesson which involves so much data to process, that students ASK for a tool (like a spreadsheet) which can help them aggregate and analyze it. Invite students to help design the project so it focuses on a local issue of real importance, in which they, their families, and/or others in their community have a genuine stake and interest. If their learning is situated in that type of context, I think you’ll find the impact of their learning experiences will be far greater, and many more of them will learn digital literacy skills alongside traditional literacy skills. Teaching in a problem-based learning environment is a lot more work than simply lecturing and delivering content to students, but it is the type of learning environment our students need to remain engaged in school work. Too many kids today are BORED by school. As the adults running our schools, it is our responsibility to remedy this situation.

As a last suggestion, please consider introducing all the teachers at your school to EduTopia. They publish a free, monthly magazine for educators and have a fantastic site dedicated to helping teachers learn about new ways to help students engage in project-based learning, cultivate digital literacy skills, and improve the opportunities for learning in our schools in other ways. The price is right, the resources are free, and chances are high if you share this with your faculty you’ll find at least a few teachers who will love some of the ideas and actually implement them for the benefit of your students.

There are many things we can lament when it comes to schools and students, but there are also lots of good things we can DO to try and improve things. We’ve all got to do what we can.

Good luck.

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8 responses to “Continuing dialog about creativity in schools, student technology skills and content filtering”

  1. Skip Offenhauser Avatar

    I don’t think it was confrontational at all. You presented rational arguments with practical alternatives and ideas. Does part of his job description include making decisions on the educational value of websites and applications? What are his educational qualifications for making such decisions? Your encouragement to do something about it other than just lament and block sites is right on.

  2. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Thanks Skip. Hopefully he’ll see it that way too.

  3. Richard Byrne Avatar

    Your second point is excellent and it reminded me of one the best tricks I know to determine how many of your students have regular Internet access. In our rural school district if I ask how many students have Internet access I about 1/3 of students raise their hand, if I ask how many use Myspace or Facebook regularly more than 2/3 raise their hand. What this means to me is if students are given an assignment that they find value in they will seek out Internet access.

  4. Gilbert Halcrow Avatar

    Winning the war one colleague at a time.

    Let’s face facts this is a street fight folks – the analogy could not be clearer; the epiphany hits as I write. We are a cult who have already embraced what others – haven’t seen, can not see or refuse to see. We fight colleague by colleague, year group by year group, department by department and school by school

    We preach an alternative code – few of us are half-heart about it – because when you realise the mismatch between current education practice and, well . . . ‘reality’ – it comes in an all consuming rush!

    While some may find the comparison distasteful – I can not see more appropriate social phenomena comparison than that of a terrorist organisation or freedom fighters (It is all a question of perspective).

    I have probably just ‘spiked a few bots’ in homeland security database stateside. At least here in HK I’m fine because they are too busy stopping people coming in to protest about Tibet (Oh now I’ve gone and got on the PLA watch list as well).

    We seek solace from the ‘great unwashed’. in the blogs, sites, conferences and reaffirming global projects of our brethren. We salve our wounds and exhaustion in baths of like mindedness. Anyone seeing a pattern emerging here?

    I’m reading Tom Peter’s ‘Re-Imagine!’ and he speaks at length about who the US military redefined itself after 911– obviously his insight are corporately directed- but there is much in there for us educators as well.

    The current motto of the US army is ‘The Army of One’. Shall that not be our battle cry ‘The School of one’?

    Because I am ‘A School of One’ with the opportunity to connected to you all, your collective wisdom, your support and our collaborative abilities to solve the problems we face in the analogue world as we attempt to shift the paradigm.

    I am sorry Wes to have turned this comment into a post (I’m new to this blogging thing) but you ask were you confrontational? I think no, but one person’s carrot is another’s stick.

    The revelation of your post for me is that you, who nearly always write, present and lecture to supposed ‘agents of change’ in our schools, engage so passionately with a single practitioner.

    See I saw the war like this; we were nation with technology on our side against a nation of ‘luddites and late-adopters’ and that was about ‘nuclear bombs of rationality and evidence’ that would force cessation of conflict.

    No I realise we are an aberrant group within the general population and we live with, respect and even love our enemy. We fight person by person. This is the way of advocacy that I know many speak of. I suggest that for the sake of our students, advocacy needs perhaps to move to zealot, with a marketing degree (always with a marketing degree).

    Rethink the game plan.

    Better to convince one colleague in the trenches than 1000 Power Points telling the generals they are wrong.

  5. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Gilbert: Wow. Thanks for your post and sharing your perspectives. Yes, this certainly is a titanic struggle with big consequences, and I think many of the analogies you suggest ARE appropriate. I definitely agree that this effort (I will call it “the learning revolution”) is advanced one conversation at a time. This is why I keep coming back to the idea of educators serving as “catalysts” for local change.

    I continue to “rethink the game plan” as you suggest. As I’ve written and said before, the tools we have at our fingertips now are far more powerful than those possessed by educational reformers at any other point in prior human history. That can, should, and will (I predict) make a BIG difference. No one need be an island.

    I do like the passion you share in asking rhetorically if we should be “an army of one,” but the problem I have with that motto in the context of school reform is that it suggests a single path forward. While I agree conversations with individuals are the only viable path forward to change and win hearts and minds, I also believe the learning revolution will look different and should look different in our schools. We are moving away from a factory mindset of rigor and a single track for everyone, to a learning culture of high expectations, differentiation, and choices. So that is why I’m not sure about an “Army of One” motto. The idea of putting our collective voices together to advocate for change is VERY strong, however. The key we must focus on is, WHAT TYPE of change? We have lots of voices “out here” and in the mainstream press advocating for change, but some of those appear on the surface to advocate for change when in fact they are staunch defenders of the status quo. Sorting out the real change advocates from the pretenders is a key challenge in our present “learning revolution” struggle.

  6. Gilbert Halcrow Avatar

    Thanks Wes – with you on the interpretation of the ‘Army of One’ – I guess I was going more for the ‘as an individual we now have the power through collaboration to make a difference’ – I think Tom Peters talks further about that ‘alone on the battlefield, but not alone’ because of all the intel and support.

    I am possibly just getting a little too Shakespearean (his favourite analogy was warfare) what I am more after is perhaps the title of my countryman Bryce Courtney’s book – ‘The Power of One’.

    I don’t believe in one solution – I believe in the notion of ‘wise practice’ (Dr Alan Walker HKU) – that is ‘best practice contextualised within individual schools’. The only way that the recontextualising will occur is through ‘collaboration’ – or letting the ‘wisdom of the crowd free’.



  7. Matt Willey Avatar
    Matt Willey

    I agree with your statement about IT staff not being responsible for filtering websites for schools to a certain extent. I feel that some filtering is necessary due to some teachers not thoroughly checking out a web site before using it. Some web sites are created by groups that can come into question. Case in point is a web site created for Martin Luther King Jr. that is created by a white supremicists group. If the filtering can involve all parties, than this can only benefit the student’s learning experience.

  8. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Matt: With respect to that website, that is a classic (if I can use that word for something that has only been around a few years) example of why learners of all ages need good information literacy skills. I would argue that site should not be blocked, because it is vital we take opportunities to discuss disinformation, propaganda, bias, etc in school.

    I definitely DO agree that a basic level of content filtering in schools is needed and good. (I’m actually a big fan of OpenDNS for home content filtering.) In most US K-12 schools today, however, the content filtering pendulum has swung too far where IT staff members filter for PRODUCTIVITY rather than objectionable content or security risks. CIPA requires that US public and private schools and libraries receiving E-Rate funding filter for objectionable content, but no where does the law say schools must or even should filter web content to try and keep students “on task” in class.