This article is part of a larger series on design thinking. Students begin with Look, Listen, and Learn, which is all about awareness and empathy. They move into Ask Tons of Questions, an inquiry phase. This leads to research in the Understanding  the Process or Problem phase. Next, they Navigate Ideas, which involves ideation and project planning. Then, they Create a Prototype and Highlight and Fix. Afterward, it’s ready to launch! Today’s article is the final phase.

Creativity Is All Around Us

A few years ago, someone placed a pair of hipsterish glasses on a museum floor as a prank. Within minutes, a crowd gathered to take pictures of the new “work of art.”

Untitled 2.001You could read this as a throwback to the Dada movement or you could view it as yet another ironic, cynical, postmodern statement about creativity and taste in a culture of pastiche.

And you’d be right.

But I can’t help but wonder if there is another take on this situation. See, those glasses are, indeed, a work of art. A team of people spent days on the design, with a sense of intentionality and artistic taste that you might miss as a casual consumer. Perhaps placing those glasses on the museum floor actually transformed the crowd from casual consumers to intentional appreciators. They became temporary curators of everyday design. I know, I know. That wasn’t the intention. However, maybe that was a side effect. Maybe those people left with a deeper appreciation for the elements of design in their world.

This is why I’m a sucker for flash mobs. I love the idea of a song breaking through the subway station, interrupting the monotony of a long ride and reminding the world that art doesn’t need to be confined to the walls of a museum. I love the disruption that happens when you least expect it and you realize momentarily that that art, wonder, creativity, design, beauty, and intentionality exist in our world. Magic is all around if we’re paying attention to it.

We live in a world packed with creativity. Look around you at every object. Someone designed that. Someone put hours into it before it ever made its way into your hands. The fact that this feels ordinary or even mundane says more about humanity than it does about creativity. The world is amazing. Creativity abounds. We just have to open our eyes.

Share the Product

I mention this because I believe in the power of the launch. I love what happens when kids create work and it doesn’t just end up on the refrigerator. I love to see the change in motivation and student agency when they get to choose the audience.

Too often, though, we hold back on the launch. Some of this comes from a genuine sense of humility. We don’t want to brag. Yet, we forget that when we are promoting our students’ work, we aren’t self-promoting. We’re saying to kids, “The world needs your creative voice.” But I wonder how often the motivation is different. We are so used to these amazing things that we forget that they are amazing. They’ve become normal to us but they are still amazing to someone else.

Now, what if the work isn’t perfect? What if kids struggle? What if the finished product is flawed? I  wrestled with this idea a few years back when we did our Geek Out Blogs. It was easy when Isabel wrote beautiful posts about biology and ecology or when Miguel wrote hard-hitting, honest, thought-provoking pieces about his lived experience as a biracial boy and the larger issues around race and racism. But then we had one boy, Marco, who struggled as a writer. It took him a full class period to write one paragraph. He was nearly silent each class period, saying nothing when they engaged in cooperative learning activities. One day, Marco pressed publish instead of “save as a draft” and his unedited work showed up in a Gamer group on Write About. He had sent his work to a massive audience. My heart sank. Kids can mean. I was sure there would be at least one snarky comment. But that’s not what happened. Instead, there were ten comments affirming his post and asking questions about video games.

For the rest of the semester, he shared his knowledge, his hidden expertise, and the cheat codes he had discovered, with an authentic audience. It was powerful  to see him go from the “quiet kid who struggled with reading and writing” to  “the video game expert.” His blog posts weren’t perfect. But that didn’t matter. He had changed in small ways. He was more confident and more social.

That’s the power of the launch. You’re saying,  “I’m not afraid to be known.”

Share the Process

While I believe in the power of an authentic audience, I also believe in the power of sharing your creative journey. I love the idea that Austin Kleon shares in Show Your Workthat we we should become documentarians telling the story of a creative journey. And, while he spoke of it in a more individualist lens, students can share their collective story by telling the story of an idea from start to finish.

My friend Tim Lauer does this all the time on Instagram and Twitter. As a tech director, he walks the hallways always taking snapshots of the creative work his students are doing. This is something he began years ago as a principal. This affirms the creative voice of the students but it also honors the creative work of the teachers who work as architects to design the spaces where innovation can thrive. It’s not self-promotion. It’s not branding. It’s simply storytelling at its core. And it’s awesome.

There is a powerful narrative right now telling the world that our schools are all broken and teachers are merely powerless pawns in the system. Cogs in a wheel in a factory style education system. It’s a popular theme in articles and news stories and even keynotes. But I don’t buy it. I think there are amazing creative things happening all around us if we’re willing to look . . . and when we’re willing to share.

When we share the creative process and the final products, we change the narrative and remind people that each classroom can, in fact, be a bastion of creativity and wonder.

Letting Students Determine the Audience

While sharing your journey makes a lot of sense, we have tight schedules, rigid curriculum maps, and valid concerns about the issues of privacy / oversharing publicly. Here’s where it’s helpful to have conversations about where and when to share your journey. So much of this is dependent on age and human development.  For example, older students might want to share globally or with peers but are less excited about sharing with parents while younger students might want to share with their parents but shouldn’t share too much to a global audience. Context and subject also make a difference. But you can think about audiences in layers:

Level 1: Private
Students reflect alone. Even the teacher doesn’t get a chance to read their reflections and insights.

Level 2: Semi-private
Students might share with their pairs, small groups, or teacher. In some cases, the students might share their work with their family at home. For the most part, the sharing stays within the confines of the classroom walls.

Level 3: Semi-public
Students engage in multi-class collaboration (global projects), the whole school, or other classes within their school (other class periods). Although it’s not totally public, the audience is still bigger than the immediate classroom.

Level 4: Public
Students share with the world.

Note that students should be a part of this conversation from the very beginning. In the Look, Listen, and Learn, they begin to build empathy with an audience. They clarify this yet again as they find the PARTS in the Navigate Ideas phase.

Getting Past the Fear of Launching

However, sometimes when they’re afraid, we have to provide some gentle guidance. We have to say, “The world needs your voice.”

I ran into that recently with my daughter. She spent hours working on a sketch-note animation writing prompt about adopting a dog that turned out to be a labricorn (part puppy, part unicorn). She had this idea a year ago when she asked me to create the video for her. Instead, I said, “Why don’t you try making one?” The idea sat on the shelf for months until one day, she said, “I want to make that video.” She sketched it out by hand and edited each frame in Photoshop before eventually recording her script.

However, when she first heard her voice, she said, “I don’t want anyone to see it. There are mistakes that I don’t like.” So, we had a long conversation with tears and hugs and we ended with a solution: she would come back to it in a week and see how she feels about it. Three days later, she said, “I want to re-record my script. I’ve been practicing it and  I think it sounds good now.” So, she recorded three more takes and then edited her video.

Finally, she smiled and said, “I think it’s ready to publish.”

To be honest, I felt nervous letting her publish this video.  Online spaces can be mean and we, as the adults, need to protect children and keep them safe. At the same time, we also need to let them know that sometimes people will hate your work. Which is exactly what happened. Within a day of the video’s release, there was already one dislike. Seriously, who clicks “dislike” on a third-grader’s sketch video? Trolls, that’s who. But there were also twenty likes and we were able to have a conversation about finding intrinsic value in your work even if some people don’t like it.

My favorite moment was a week later when I got to share an email from a teacher who had used the prompt with her class. My daughter was beaming, knowing that her sketch video had inspired other kids to want to write.

What happens to Students When They Launch?

It’s easier not to ask students to launch their work to an audience. There are moments when the world ignores your work and times when they don’t like it.

The following are a few of the things I’ve noticed when students share their work:

  • They grow more empathetic because they are thinking specifically about their audience from a humble perspective.
  • They work harder because the work has a deeper meaning.
  • They develop a growth mindset. As they engage in the revision process, they develop resiliency.
  • They learn to listen to criticism. In fact, they explicitly seek it out as a part of the revision process.
  • They become fearless in their creative work.
  • They engage in iterative thinking as they work through revisions to improve their work
  • They make connections between the learning and their world.
  • They find their creative voice.

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Note: parts of this article first appeared on July 15, 2016

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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