Creativity and networks

How great would it be if more of our formal education incorporated some of the strategies of informal learning. I’m thinking about the Research and Do-It-Yourself approach.

Have a look at this example posed by Britta Riley of Windowfarms fame. These Do-It-Yourself researchers are apartment dwellers, learning how to make home window gardening  a viable option. If they can figure it out, this means  we can grow a little bit of our food at home, even if we don’t have a backyard in which to cultivate vegetables and fruit. Using the light from  lounge and bedroom windows, we could be growing strawberries and tomatoes enough to feed a family.

To problem solve this complex horticultural and engineering feat, they’re using the power of the internet to make connections and share information. They’re connecting and combining ideas drawn from hydroponic research and space station research, and they’re just ordinary folk like you and me with an interest in gardening. Their research potential is tremendous because they are building on the knowledge of others, not reinventing the wheel at every point.

I think this is an example of what Steven Johnson calls emergent behaviour. No one is in charge but things keep on happening and a self-organising system is growing and thriving. Or so it seemed.

There is a dark side to this unfortunately.

The economic model seems to have failed as Riley’s self-styled ‘open source community of developers of hydrophoic edible gardens for urban windows’ is unable to meet demand for their home DIY gardening kits, and their website is covered in messages requesting that orders be met and delivered. The last message on their website was 16 December 2013, and ‘Lori” said she won’t stop posting there till she gets her kit. She’s been shouting for a while. It seems like no one is listening I’m afraid Lori.

Sad. But it doesn’t mean the idea of networking is not a good one. It’s the economic model that need some renovation.

Anyway, here’s  Britta Riley with her idea: A garden in my apartment.

And, as you know, as Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody say, “From little things big things grow.” You just need patience and perseverance.

Johnson, S. (2001). Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software. London: Penguin.

Creativity and anatomy

Now this is creative. Using body paint to help students learn about anatomy. Dr Claudia Diaz, at RMIT in Melbourne, gets her students finding those bones and muscles with the stroke of a brush rather than a pen or a keyboard. She also coordinates an annual anatomy mini Olympics.

You can be creative with any subject. See her students here, and in the video below.

Anatomical Man: RMIT

Creative teams

The literature tells us that there is a difference between supporting effective teams,  supporting creative teams, and one more – supporting creative teams working online (e.g. Chamakiotis et al 2013). Context is always important.

Have you worked in a creative team? Do you know the challenges and the pressure? How do you rate as a creative team member? Perhaps you have many tips and hints for those new to the task. If you do, please add your comments to this blog!

Mark Brown has some hints for creative teams. He’s watched some teams and says it’s important to strategically step back and let the team thrive. Support others so you get where you need to go, but at the same time don’t allow good ideas to get brushed aside.

Tom Wujec has some insights from the now famous spaghetti and marshmallow design team challenge. The big lesson from the Wujec’s challenge is that rapid prototyping is the way to go. Be prepared to fail and try again, and fail and try again, and again. Be prepared to sacrifice a few marshmallows.

Tom Wujec; Build a tower, build a team


Chamakiotis, P., Dekoninck, E. A., & Panteli, N. (2013). Factors influencing creativity in virtual design teams: An interplay between technology, teams and individuals. Creativity and Innovation Management, 22(3), 265-279.



Creativity, place and time

I’ve often thought about the importance of place for writing – as both something to write about and something that affects how you write.  But what about the importance of place for someone directing a play? What does place mean in that context?

In the clip below, director Sam Strong talks about the process of imagining the play he’s about to set before a live audience.  It’s an Australian play, The Floating World, by John Romeril, which deals with racism and the effects of war (WWII). For Strong, place is very important to the process of imagining theatre. He says he goes into the theatre and  sits in the front row before working with the actors. That’s his creative space. Right up the front, there he is, almost on the stage. One step removed from where the actors will soon inhabit the space, with their own interpretations of the words, the ideas, the emotions, and the actions of the script. Soon the ideas of one will be the ideas of another and then the whole company, continually being shaped back and forth between players, director and playwright (via the script).

What an incredible chain of connected creative moments the playwright has set in motion.

From the author’s head, heart, body and soul, onto the page, out of the page, into the collective heads, hearts, bodies and souls of the director, the actors, the stage manager, the lighting director, the stage designer, and back again into your head, heart, soul and body when you see the production as it all comes together on the night.

But then that’s not the same version that you’ll see if you go tomorrow night. It’s all continually evolving. Where did the author’s ideas come from in the first place anyway?

Getting a bit existential I know, but what is this thing called a play? What is the space in which it exists at any point? There’s certainly the production itself, but think about all the creative moments around that. The threads, the lives, the processes that lead to and from it. The play is certainly the thing, as Mr Shakespeare said. A profound creative thing. It’s not the end point of creativity though, it exists along a continuum of time past, present and future.

(Aaahhh – where have I gone with this. Must be Dr Who time. Call the Tardis.)

Sam Strong, director of The Floating World, by John Romeril

Maths and creativity

I wish there were more maths teachers like Adam Spencer. He’s passionate about his numbers in a way that makes the less passionate, like me, wonder what he is on, and where can you get some.

Spencer is a mathematics geek, a comedian and a morning radio host. His TED talk shows how different we all are, which is a blessing, especially given the recent federal election in Australia. (Who’d want to be like a politician? But someone has to do it.  Again, not me.)

Difference is important. Cultivating difference is important. Teaching so that difference is nurtured is important. I’m so glad we are finally coming out of the dark industrial age of education where  everyone is expected to be the same, to come out of the system the same. Although, sometimes I rethink this when I see the annual clutch of  adolescent kids sitting, anxiety filled, in rows of desks in the school hall, in the summer heat, doing their end of high school, graduation exams. Is this what 13 years of education comes down to – performance in a 2-3 hour exam? Not a new question.

Anyway,  most  kids/young people, in Australia, in our very lucky country, have a chance of follow their passion and dreams. Not all – but many.

And some end up like  Adam Spencer. He is brilliant mathematically, but choses to share his brilliance, not within the higher education system as a professor, but as a breakfast radio host, clowning around  in the media, being a champion for numbers, particularly prime numbers, and a champion for logical thinking – and creativity.  He’s always got the mood button turned to laughter and fun and play. A truly creative person he encourages others to share his crazy passion for numbers like 7 and 9 and 11 and 13, right up to the monster numbers he talks about in this TED talk. He helps in the search for  ultimate prime numbers from his radio broadcaster’s desk, tweeting about numbers with his headset on, while we eat out toast and muesli.

“Numbers are the musical notes with which the symphony of the universe is written, ” he says. Passion is a great thing.

Adam Spencer: Why I fell in love with monster prime numbers



Teaching from the pottery wheel

This is the loveliest reflection on teaching for creativity. Chris Staley from Penn State University sits at his pottery wheel and quietly talks about creativity. The wheel turns around and around, and gradually a teapot emerges from the clay. He shows the power of demonstration as a teaching tool and leading by example.  Staley mentions the problems of fear and self dobut as inhibitors to creativity, and the need for a willingness to play if you want to be creative.

I couldn’t make anything worthwhile with clay during art class at school. Watching Chris Staley work with the clay, though, I can understand why it might be a pleasing medium to work with if you apply yourself with the right attitude and you work in a supportive environment that assumes that you can learn to be creative.

Can you teach creativity? Chris Staley


The story’s the thing: Digital fiction

Canadian author and educator, Kate Pullinger visited my university last week, and since then I have been thinking about ‘the book’ and where it is going in the digital future.

Pullinger says that stories are an important teaching tool for teachers of all subjects. How true. As a writer and lecturer in creative writing and new media at Bath Spa University in the UK, Pullinger believes that ‘the way that we read and interact with text and stories may well have changed fundamentally in 20 years’ time’ (1) , and that the ebook is only a small change in that evolution.

Digital fiction

Pullinger has written traditional fiction like The Mistress of Nothingfor which she won the Governor-General’s award in 2009.

However, her experimentation with digital fiction and the future of the novel is of increasing interest. Her digital works include, e.g. Inanimate Alice  and Flight Paths . The text is sparse and the format relies on the integration of text, image, sound and animation.

Flight Paths: A Networked Novel


Her work with digital story telling and school students is clearly influencing the direction she is pushing the traditional novel. For example in 2011 she was involved with 5 secondary schools and 5 digital writers in a collaborative arts-in-schools project called Ebb and Flow.

And an interesting outcome of her digital story venture, Inanimate Alice, is that school students are now adding to her published ‘novel’ online. She is intrigued herself that students at a US school began adding a fifth chapter to her four-chapter, pre-teen/teenage digital work. The students’ classroom teacher encouraged the kids to contribute text and images to the story and create a new adventure for Alice, which they loaded up onto the Internet, challenging notions of authorship, and demonstrating that fiction can evolve imaginatively, textually and collaboratively. Teenagers are reading books after all.

Live creative writing: ‘Memory Makes Us’

While in Brisbane, Pullinger also took part in an IF:Book Australia event, on 9 July at the State Library of Queensland. The project was called ‘Memory Makes Us’ . Pullinger explored memory as a collaborative and creative event, connecting and combining memories contributed by members of the public with her own experience to create a new work. This included text and images. As she wove together her own and others’ stories, the creative work was streamed live on the Internet and broadcast on the big screen at Federation Square in Melbourne.

Strange as it seems, to me it was more exciting to know that as the story evolved it was projected live into a living breathing city, than that it was simultaneously projected on the Internet. Why? What is the difference? It’s all out there. Is it because I can imagine Federation Square and people reading the screen as they pass by? Is it that I can imagine the particular but imagining the complexity of worldwide participation is too much? Does knowledge of a place make up for anonymity of place?


(1) Pullinger, Kate. (2011). Education: Classroom innovation: Strategy/Comment: Comment: Educators need to utilise the explosion in digital writing. The Guardian, London, UK, 11 Jan, p. 5.

Performance poetry, courage and wonder

There’s always more than one way of giving a speech or telling a story.

Sarah Kay, a performance poet, combines her two loves, theatre and poetry, and fuses them magically to be a performance poet. She is inspiring as a poet, performer and educator, because she really believes in rediscovering “wonder” – seeing the world and our lives afresh, using poetry to “entertain, educate and inspire”.

At school and college she proactively encouraged others to use performance poetry to express themselves, to be heard, and is the founder of a youth project Project V.O.I.C.E. (Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression) which supports this aim.

Steps towards creativity
Sarah’s steps towards realising her goal to be a performance artist:

Step 1: “I can” – having the courage to grow, explore and take risks.
Step 2: “I will” – enacting ideals, sticking to the task, doing the hard work.
Step 3: Finding you – infusing your work “with the specific things that make you, you”,what I would call finding your voice, using, as Sarah says, past experience to “dive into the things you don’t know”.

Sarah’s exercise to get started with poetry
1. Write down a list of ten things you know to be true.
2. Share your list with someone else – connect and combine stories.
3. Use this list to connect with what you feel passionately about. You might end up with a poem worth sharing and performing. Create poems that only you can create – these are the ones that will resonate.

Sarah Kay: “If I should have a daughter”

Sustainable education – and a touch of creativity

Education that is sustainable certainly needs an input of creative thinking, problem solving and problem reframing.

Professor Paul Kim, from the Stanford Graduate School of Education is a man after my own heart. Professor Kim has long had an interest in technology and education, and his model for educational design, for teaching now and in the future, focuses not just on the technology, but on the whole picture. This means including the idea of sustainability.

Kim talks about designing “learnable moments”, not just about distributing hardware to students in need. He also encourages inspiring students “with wisdom” – using our creative approach to education to work towards sustainability. It’s no good giving students new technology unless we have a creative plan for how that technology can be continued into the future, based on their needs and context.

He uses the ADDIES model for educational design – Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation and Sustainment.

To put this into action we need creative problem finding, creative problem solving, and a willingness to take risks and live with uncertainty. And that’s only the start.

Paul Kim – Designing a new learning environment

Connecting and combining, chindogu, keyboards and bananas

Jay Silver and Eric Rosenbaum have the Japanese art of connecting and combining objects, Chindogu, down to a fine art. Chindogu inventions are practical, but not. While at first they may seem like a solution to a problem, they are ‘unuseless’ because there is something a bit weird about them. They are not ‘appropriate’ in some way. What is appropriate? We have an idea how things should work, but might reject how they could work. And the thing with chindogu solutions is that because they are weird they might open the way to thinking in a new way about old ideas and problems, and come up with solutions that fulfil a pressing need or adress complex world problems.

Jay Silver and Eric Rosenbaum, two doctoral students, have created a kit called MaKey MaKey that gives the user tools to make a computer interface out of pizza, bananas, paintbrushes, dogs, people, anything! They see the world as a construction kit. They want everyone to be amazing. You are only limited by your imagination. Connect and combine, see what happens, and have fun.

Jay Silver: Hack a banana, make a keyboard