What Can *Making It* Teach Us About Creativity in the Classroom?

I’m a huge fan of Parks and Recreation because of a surprising element: being earnest. Yes, the show is goofy and the city of Pawnee can feel cartoonish at first glance. However, the characters feel surprisingly real. Most comedies move their characters further and further toward caricatures until they are essentially cartoonish. Dwight Schrute became outright mean and Kevin became such a bumbling buffoon it was hard to watch in the last few seasons of The Office. But with Parks and Rec, the writers kept surprising the audience with unexpected kindness. The characters grew as a result of one another, in a steady character arc of redemption. This is why my eyes got a little watery when Jerry became the mayor or when Ron and Leslie became friends again.

So, when I heard that Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman were going to co-host Making It, I was excited. It hasn’t disappointed. In a culture of irony and satire, Making It is surprisingly earnest. Now, I get it. Making It is an escape. It’s a positive, feel-good competition, where contestants craft amazing works from scratch. However, if the show is an escape, it’s less of an escape from reality and more of an escape to reality. It’s a reminder, for thirty minutes each week, of the creative impulse. In a world where a troll can mindlessly hurl flames at creative work, this show reminds us of the sheer joy in being a maker.

For years, we’ve seen the ugly side of humanity in our reality shows. Folks manipulate each other on Survivor. They trash-talk on Chopped! But this show is different. It’s a reminder that there is beauty in our broken world if we are paying attention to it. Check out my reflections on this show in the video below:

Seven Things We Can Learn from Making It

The following are a few things we can learn from Making It as our students engage in creative projects.

#1: Encourage Creative Risk-Taking

One of the key elements in Making It is the way they encourage creative risk-taking. It’s a core element of what the judges assess and it’s a part of the ongoing commentary. There’s a sense in which the contestants are being pushed each week to take their creativity to the next level, no matter how scary it might feel in the moment. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes people try and fail. However, even when it doesn’t work perfectly, the judges will acknowledge the courage of creative risk-taking. Likewise, when they play it too safe, the judges will point out the need to take a bigger risk.

As teachers, we can develop a culture of creative risk-taking in a few ways. First, we can model this approach by trying new strategies and openly admitting when something isn’t working. Other times, we might share stories of our own creative work and what we are learning from our mistakes. Furthermore, we can also encourage creative risk-taking by asking students to explore plenty of ideas during ideation in a way that focuses on reducing risk-aversion. When I taught middle school, we used to stick with a “no judgment” rule during our brainstorming process. Later, during the revision phase, students can then go through a critical friends approach and see that mistakes a part of the design process.

However, this requires a shift in the way we assess. Traditional grading tends to emphasize getting the right answer quickly while punishing students for making mistakes. Mastery-based grading, by contrast, focuses on helping students see that mistakes are a part of the process and that creative risks are always experiments that may or may not work. When a student then has the permission to revise, improve, and resubmit their work, they grow less risk-averse while also learning resiliency.

#2: Encourage Voice and Choice

Each contestant on the show has a different area of expertise with a different approach and a different set of materials they prefer using. They’re not just allowed to have a different style. They’re encouraged to have a different style. The truth is, they’ve spent years developing their craft and finding their style. I love the fact that you could point to a specific artifact and I would likely be able to pinpoint who created the work.

This idea of voice and choice is at the heart of project-based learning. The Buck Institute for Education defines it as one of their key elements to PBL. But voice and choice go beyond a sense of style. It’s built on the idea of learner agency. It’s what happens when you empower your students to own their learning.

This is why I love the concept of a Genius Hour. When we did our Geek Out Blogs, students would begin the school year by selecting their own preferred topic. Some of them chose fashion or skateboarding or biology or sports or mid-century history or their favorite novels or video games.

While voice and choice are vital to creativity, there’s also power in embracing creative constraint. Which leads to the next point . . .

 

#3: Power of constraint

Creativity thrives in open spaces, where you can play and goof off without feeling much pressure. If you feel too many limitations, you grow risk-averse and shut down. However, there are moments when limitations can actually open up opportunities. I love the way Making It pushes contestants to use materials they wouldn’t normally use to design crafts that they wouldn’t typically create. This constraint often leads to creative breakthroughs. This is the core idea behind creative constraint – that the right kinds of limitations can lead to problem-solving and divergent thinking.

True, creativity is often a blank canvas. But it’s also a bit like MacGyver. Think of the scene from Apollo 13, where they dump out the items onto the table and have to work with limited supplies and a tight time constraint to get the astronauts back home. As educators, we can incorporate these ideas of creative constraint and divergent thinking. One small example is a divergent thinking challenge that you can use a warm-up, team-builder, or transition activity.

 

#4: The power of lo-fi

Notice how each episode of Making It begins with a description of the power of low-fi, low-tech, hands-on making. It’s a powerful reminder that the maker mindset and the maker movement are as much about duct tape and cardboard and felt as they are 3D printers or CAD machines. Similarly, some of the coolest materials in the classroom are vintage and some of the best teaching strategies are timeless.

However, there’s actually a decent amount of newer technology on the show. There are moments when they bust out a newer gadget to amplify some aspect of their low-fi creation. This is a key idea of vintage innovation. It’s what happens when you take old ideas, materials, or approaches and combine them with new technology or contexts. Have students do Socratic Seminars and interview experts but then take it to those experiences and apply them to podcasts, blogs, and documentaries. Curation is an old idea that can take on a powerful digital spin. Hand-sketched videos combine sketch-noting and video content creation.

 

#5: Connect with Experts

I love watching the interactions between the Making It contestants and the experts. Although they are supposed to hold their feedback to the end, the judges often provide reflective questions that allow contestants to modify their work and take it to the next level. I’m often surprised at the sheer amount of formative feedback that happens on the show and the way contestants use that feedback to monitor and adjust.

I love the idea of having students connect with experts in their field, not just to do research, but to also get feedback on their process and products. It could be an engineer that helps them with problem-solving or a group of entrepreneurs in a Shark Tank-style project. Or it might be a resident artist who helps students with a larger art project.

With the connective power of technology, it is easier than ever for students to interact with experts who can guide them in their creative approach.

 

#6: Iterative thinking

Contestants on Making It often face roadblocks that push them to pivot and iterate. They have a picture in their mind of what they will create and then suddenly it doesn’t work or something small goes wrong and then they have to change their design.

Sometimes students struggle with this idea of iterative thinking. They’ll turn in work too early or they’ll stick with an idea that’s not working and there’s this sense that they can’t deviate too far from their original plan. Many students feel like changing course is a sign of weakness. If you really knew what you were doing, you wouldn’t have to pivot. But Making It is a reminder that experts often have to pivot. Iterative thinking isn’t a sign of failure. It’s a sign that you’re moving forward.

 

#7: The Sheer Joy of Making

Although I often talk about design thinking and the power of creating something for an authentic audience, Making It provides a counterbalance, reminding me that it’s not about job skills for the creative economy. Creativity doesn’t have to be a means to an end. It can be an end in itself. We create because we are human and because there is joy in the act of creation.

I recently created a video writing prompt about making a to do list for a villain:

This video won’t help develop students for the creative economy. It won’t change the world. It won’t help students learn project management or iterative thinking or any of that. But it is fun. And if this video can help students learn that writing can be fun, then I consider that a win. My big takeaway from Making It is that we need creative spaces because we need play and laughter and joy.

However, this type of playful environment can actually lead to more creative breakthroughs. Think of your best moments of creative collaboration. Chances are, you were working in an environment that was somewhat playful. There’s a relaxed element to it, with laughter and inside jokes. In Essentialism, Greg McKeown argues that play is vital for sparking exploration and boosting creativity.  He cites Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute of Play, ” Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity. Nothing fires up the brain like play.”

 

A Little Nuance

Now, I get it. Making It is a reality t.v. show and classrooms are . . . well . . . classrooms. You teach a captive audience with lots of people in a small space while Making It involves a small group of experts engaged in creative work for their own internal motivation. There are some parts of the show that really conflict with authentic creativity, including the competitive element of creativity. I’d argue that we are better when we collaborate and form guilds where we do our craft in a community rather than small group competitions.

Still, there are some important lessons we can glean from a show like Making It. It’s a powerful reminder of what it means to incorporate creativity into the classroom.

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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.

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