It’s easy to pit creativity and consumption against each other. However, critical consuming is vital for creative work. When you engage in critical consuming, you become more inspired and ultimately, you will create better content.
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The Vital Role of Critical Consuming
I still remember sitting in my sister’s Pontiac Grand Am when she placed the cassette in the tape deck. After a few hissing sounds, I listened skeptically to the repetitive chord progression of the sparse-sounding”Round Here,” followed by the fuller, eclectic sounding “Omaha.” Although this was a new album, it felt vaguely familiar – like sitting on the shag carpet listening to my dad play The Band and Van Morrison with a touch of the popular grunge sound of the time. Although August and Everything After would eventually become a classic, as an awkward teenager, I was able to pick up on the bands that had influenced Adam Duritz.
If you think about it, just about every band you listen to began as a copycat act. The lead guitarist cut their teeth playing “Stairway to Heaven” on an acoustic guitar. Whether they wore out records or curated a Spotify playlist, most musical artists describe geeking out on their favorite bands and singers in their adolescence.
In other words, consuming led to creativity. But that doesn’t always happen. As teachers, we see students spending hours staring at YouTube videos without ever taking the creative leap. But why does this happen? It turns out, students need to be more than just consumers. They need to be critical consumers.
Here’s what I mean:
The Best Makers Are Also Takers
That last sentence might seem a bit extreme, but let me explain. We often hear the distinction between creativity and consuming as if these two acts are diametrically opposed. It’s the idea that we should spend our time making rather than taking. But the best creative thinkers are always borrowing ideas and influences from what they consume. This is one of the reasons I love the book Steal Like an Artist:
However, creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When you look at makers, they are often critical consumers of the same type of work they create. Chefs love great meals. Musicians listen to music. Architects often visit new cities and tour buildings to find inspiration. Filmmakers watch videos. Engineers often study objects within their world. Computer scientists view other people’s lines of code. Writers read tons of books. Artists visit art museums. Fashion designers are constantly looking at other people’s outfits.
In other words, creative types consume what they love.
There’s often this ongoing cycle that starts with critical consuming. This consuming is intentional and mindful. Here, you are asking questions and seeking out new ideas. You’re curating information and geeking out on your craft. This leads to inspiration. You might mash-up multiple ideas or take a different angle or a fresh perspective to a problem. Often, you plan and design. But sometimes you play and experiment. This, in turn, leads to creative work. This could involve solving a problem, planning an event, creating art, building a system, or planning an event.
But the more you create, the better you understand your craft, which leads to a deeper ability to consume critically, where they find more inspiration, and the cycle continues. Often, students will go through specific stages from consuming to creating.
Making This a Reality
As a classroom teacher, it can be challenging to promote this type of critical consuming. However, the following are a few strategies you can integrate into your practice.
#1: Embrace student choice in all subjects
Student choice isn’t a new idea. Dewey advocated for this nearly a centurty ago. Meanwhile, one of the oldest methods for choice still exists: sustained silent reading. I once worked with a librarian who made it her goal to help each student fall in love with an author or a genre by the end of the year. She would display books in a way that represented bookstores and she encouraged students to write reviews, which she displayed by the books. Each week, when I took my students to library time, it felt like a candy store.
But this doesn’t have to be limited to reading. Dan Meyer has his “What can you do with this?” concept with math problems. In science, students can chase their random questions through inquiry-based experiments. In social studies, students can geek out on the history they find relevant as they create blogs, podcasts, and documentaries. When this happens, we are honoring student interests and expertise.
One idea is a Genius Hour project. Genius Hour (or 20% Time) projects begin with a simple idea: give students a dedicated period of time to pursue their passions, interests, and questions in a creative way. It’s an idea popularized by Google but one that has existed for years in the technology industry (including 3M). Here’s how it works:
If you want to try something smaller, consider a Wonder Day project. This project begins with open-ended student inquiry, where they get to choose the topic and the questions. However, it aligns to content-neutral skill standards that cover many of the informational reading, research, and digital content creation standards found within the Common Core ELA standards.
Here’s the prompt you can use with students:
I realize this isn’t easy. We have tests, schedules, and curriculum maps. However, as teachers, we can find the topic-neutral standards that focus on skills and processes and let students choose the topics. If you want to try something even shorter, consider a choice menu activity.
#2: Teach students critical research skills
Part of critical consuming involves curating information and geeking out on fascinating ideas. But another part of it involves looking at information skeptically. This is especially true in an era when it’s easy to spread misinformation online. When I taught middle school, I used to teach students to follow the 5 C’s of critical consuming:
- Context – Look at the context of the article. When was it written? Where does it come from? Have the events changed since then? Is there any new information that could change your perspective?
- Credibility – Check the credibility of the source. Does the site have a reputation for journalistic integrity? Does the author cite credible sources? Or is it satirical? Is it on a list of fake news sites? Is it actually an advertisement posing as a real news story?
- Construction. Analyze the construction of the article. What is the bias? Are there any loaded words? Any propaganda techniques? Any omissions that you should look out for? Can you distinguish between the facts and opinions? Or is it simply all speculation?
- Corroboration: Corroborate the information with other credible news sources. Make sure it’s not the only source making the claim. If it is, there’s a good chance it’s actually not true.
- Compare: Compare it to other news sources to get different perspectives. Find other credible sources from other areas of the ideological or political spectrum to provide nuance and get a bigger picture of what’s actually happening.
I actually use the same 5 C’s when I teach action research and social studies pedagogy at the graduate level as a professor. However, there are many great models out there, including the CRAP test (which might be one of the best acronyms in all of education). This isn’t limited to language arts or social studies, either. There’s an interesting study from Stanford about the role science educators can play in teaching critical thinking strategies to students in their content areas as well.
#3: Have students curate resources
we live in a world of instant information, where ideas go viral without much thought regarding accuracy and validity. It’s a place where content is cheap. Cheap to make. Cheap to share. Cheap to consume. The traditional gatekeepers are gone, which is great for students. They can create and share their work in ways that were previously unimaginable. But there’s a cost. The best stuff doesn’t always rise to the top and, if we’re not careful, we mistake the speed of consumption for the depth of knowledge. This is why we need students to learn the art of curation. For ideas on how to make this happen, check out this blog post.
Students can engage in curation in any subject. They might curate historical resources in a social studies class or random science phenomena in a science or STEM course. They might look at mathematics in the real world and curate statistics, scenarios, or graphical representations (I once had a student who curated an example of “bad graphs in the news”).
#4: Embed critical consuming into design thinking and PBL
When A.J. Juliani and I first developed the LAUNCH Cycle, we explicitly included two phases of critical consuming. The first was an inquiry-based Ask Tons of Questions and the second was the phase of critical research, which we called Understand the Process or Problem. While these phases were implied in other design thinking models, we chose to explicitly include these phases so that students would gain deeper background knowledge before ideating. This promotes equity and honor’s student agency.
Making This a Reality
If you are planning to integrate critical research, choice-driven projects, and content curation into your practice, you might want to reach out to librarians. They are more vital than ever before. It’s why it’s so tragic that so many schools have cut the librarian positions. Librarians are constant curators, problem-solvers, makers, and experts at media literacy / critical research. If we want students to become critical consumers, we need to partner with librarians.
The bottom line is this: we want students to be problem-solvers and makers. We want them to think divergently and be original. But this requires critical consuming. When we embed critical consumption into our PBL and design thinking units, we help students see that connection between consuming and creating.
Looking for more? Check this out.
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