If we are helping to build a non-linear world then why do we often insist on starting at step one?
This thought came to mind because I was coincidentaly privileged to be a part of two different projects which were experiencing very similar problems at exactly the same time. It was a moment in which I found myself challenging my own basic assumptions and the results were both eye opening and freeing.
Project number one – Roxana Hadad, an AEL in Chicago was working with students under Greg Hodgson, an AEL in England, to teach Greg’s students game creation using Flash CS3. She was looking for volunteers to assist and I offered to cover using Flash’s drawing tools. The online session was fabulous, the conversation dynamic and the students were wonderful. The prospects for success looked solidly positive. I followed up a few weeks later and learned that apparently the students were very engaged when actually game building but were opposed to planning and storyboarding. Hold that thought.
Project number two – my own grade eleven students were planning their first full Flash animations. With lots of support and more than a little “nudging” by me they got their so-called storyboards done. There were a few well done boards but for the most part they were pretty haphazard – a poor showing with very little enthusiasm for this whole planning business. Hmmm-mm – this sounded a lot like Greg and Roxana’s experiences. Two entirely different groups of high school students were behaving in very similar ways when faced with a problem – was I missing something?
As I pondered this situation I realized a few things. First –I have years of experience doing this type of work. The students have very little experience. I not only know the software I also know the role and importance of the planning process, the problems these projects will likely encounter and how to solve most of those problems. In other words, I have learned on many, many levels, all about these projects. And – I did a lot of that learning by doing projects. I did not learn by reading books, watching tutorials, or listening to podcasts, I learned by doing. I freely admit that these supports were used occasionally but for the most part, I learned the most by doing, by falling flat on my face and by starting over – a little bruised but also a little smarter. It took years to learn the required lessons. If this was my process, then why should it be all that different for our students? Add to that the element of the creative process by which we come to our initial ideas and this situation becomes even more complicated.
Many seem to like using logic to find solutions to challenges. I have used that from time to time, but I have also had many solutions simply “appear” in my imagination, from out of nowhere, and I am not alone in this experience. If I ask my classes there will always be many who think logically and just as many for whom answers simply appear. What I love about this is the number of students who use both techniques – logic married happily to sudden insight. Shouldn’t we teach using both techniques combined with a lot of hands on experiences so that our students can slowly but surely build the skill sets they require in order to properly plan and storyboard? Does everything have to be done in the “correct order”? Would this approach work equally well with teachers who are just starting to learn this technology?
Twenty years in the ad agency business taught me the full value of planning, storyboarding, scripting and everything that goes with that. It also taught me to respect the creative process, a process that can be contradictory to the logic of planning followed by doing. Perhaps in this awkward reality there lies a better approach, an approach which tests some of my baseline assumptions about proper work flow.
What if students were required to create an initial, rough storyboard as a broad guideline for their project, followed by an intense period of hands-on building, experimenting and risk taking. Through this process they would generally follow their game plan while also trying and therefore learning, new techniques and ideas. Because they had to create an initial, rough plan the teacher should be able to avoid that dreaded student comment two weeks into a project… “I don’t know what to do, draw, write, build, create…”. (The comment that makes teachers crazy when it is repeated many, many times!) This is the approach I am currently trying with my grade eleven class, and the results so far have been encouraging. They are following their early ideas, for the most part but they are also allowed to revise those plans on the fly if they discover a better idea. The hands on process puts them to work quickly and they discover in very short order that their first plans may have sounded great but were not as great as they had hoped. There will be gaps, problems and issues galore but those will surface as the work unfolds. I will offer comments, support and critiques as they continue to put their projects together. At the conclusion of the project they will be required to do a reflective review of their project including a fully detailed storyboard for the “better version” of their project. That storyboard will not go into production. Instead, it will serve as an articulate statement of their learning and experience. It is a backwards way to teach storyboarding but I am hopeful that it will be a more engaging and fruitful process.
What if we were to not teach teachers, but engage teachers, when presenting this technology? What if we were to get them to use Photoshop to work on personal pictures and then turn those images into posters they create for themselves. What if we were to show them this technology can be fun and engaging as well as productive before we told them how to use it as a teaching tool? Would having fun reduce some of the barriers thrown up by fear and worry? I suggest, it would help to do so. Does getting people quickly engaged overcome other barriers to learning? My experience says, yes, but I freely admit to being a hands on person so I know my answers are skewed by this.
I know I am not alone in considering this backwards approach. The idea of backwards design, by which you first define the goal and then figure out how you are going to get there, has been around for a long time. Thinking up a solution through sudden insight and then working backwards to confirm that the solution really does everything you need it to do is yet another approach like this. If it engages the learner, prompts them to move forward on their own, to ask new and old questions and to actively learn in a positive environment, then I am for it. Whether it puts step one first matters les and less to me as I continue to test my basic, baseline assumptions about people, learning and school. I invite you to challenge your assumptions… it can be engaging, revealing and freeing. Do not just cut the grass.