When one of my students loved some art form, be it animation, comic books, board games, or mime (yes, one year some kids were really into mimes!), it was my natural instinct to have them immediately create their own [comic, board game, animation, etc.].
But going straight to “create” was premature. They weren’t ready. And, as a result, the results left much to be desired.
I Jumped Over The Scaffolds
What I’ve learned is that the jump from enjoying something to creating something is too large. I’d end up with frustrated kids whose creations were nothing like what they enjoyed. They could tell their game wasn’t really that fun, or their animation was jerky and crude, or their comic book ran out of steam after two pages.
Ira Glass speaks to this problem: beginners can have great taste, but they don’t yet have great skills. When they try to make their own thing, they become discouraged because they see how much worse their creation is compared to the things that they love.
So, Scaffold The Process
The answer is to really think about how we’re asking students’ to think and carefully scaffold the creative process. If we go from “I like playing a board game” to “Now I’m making a board game,” we’re jumping straight to “Synthesize,” skipping the essential (and often forgotten) middle thinking skills of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Here’s a little framework I use (even in my own creative process).
1. Typical starting point
We see that a student likes board games/animation/comics/whatever. This is where we usually start, right? We realize a student has an interest.
2. Broaden Their Horizons
Now, don’t jump to “create your own version” yet.
Instead, push them to enjoy a wider variety of their topic of choice. Expose them to the classics. They like X, but have they tried Y and Z (and W)? Even if you don’t personally know the topic well, you have probably at least heard of the greats.
- When my students were into mime, I introduced them to Marcel Marceau. I checked out a book and found videos of him. I didn’t think of it at the time, but now I’d show silent movie stars like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.
- If students like animation, I’d grab Gertie The Dinosaur and Steamboat Willie and Fleischer cartoons.
- 8-year-olds who love games may have never played Monopoly, or Sorry, or (my favorite!) Stratego. Before they create their own, they need to try a wide variety of the greats.
- I love this story of how Andy Baio took his kid through a tour of the classic video games so that he’d better understand modern games.
Kids who get into a topic are often under-exposed to classics. They’re new! They simply haven’t had the chance to explore the field. As teachers, we get to fill those gaps. It’s so fun!
Wait. You don’t know diddly about this particular topic? No prob! It’s the 21st century! Just look up some best-of lists or ask a friend. Everything is on YouTube. Surely, you can find a few kid-friendly classics.
3. Analyze the Greats
Now that they’ve consumed some best-in-genre examples, we want students to take apart and examine the exemplars. We want them to develop an understanding of what makes something great in this field. How are they all similar? How is each one different? This is the Analyze level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
This is a key part of the creative process that all creative people can relate to: we dive deep into the great and tear them apart, figuring out what makes them tick.
- As a musician, I’d listen to Beatles songs over and over with headphones on to pick out the details. My bandmate and I would try to understand their production tricks so that we could improve our own recordings.
- Filmmakers watch classics like 2001 and Vertigo and Citizen Kane over and over (and over) to pick apart the details and figure out what makes these classics classics? Why are they great?
- I mentioned this to my wife, a clothing designer, and she nodded, explaining how she would immerse herself in the work of great designers.
Your students need to do a kid-sized version of this with whatever their current interest is.
- Why are X, Y, and Z still delighting people after all these years? What makes them great?
- What makes each one different?
- What are the weaknesses of each one?
This works whether you’re talking about Monopoly, Sorry, and Stratego or Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, and Garfield.
This step can take the form of writing or a presentation or just a little chat with you. But do not let students move on unless you’re convinced that they’ve done some real thinking about a few classics in their field.
(By the way, your kids will love this step.)
4. Now, Pick The Most Interesting One
Now we move up a level on Bloom’s. Students are going to make a decision. They’re going to pick: which of these classics is the most interesting [or strangest, best-balanced, etc]. You can use whatever criteria you’d like.
We want students to pick one of their exemplars and explain why they’ve picked it. It will be the starting point for their own creation. This could be a paragraph or a little chat, but make sure kids explain their thinking well!
5. Synthesize aka Remix (aka Copy!)
When we Synthesize, students are bringing together everything they’ve been thinking about to create a new version of a classic. I’ve called this Remixing in the past. Rather than starting from scratch, we’re starting from that exemplar they picked in the previous step. Then, kids are going to make a change. It can be as small as they’d like.
- Rather than inventing a new board game, some students will pick Monopoly and then make some changes (a new rule? a changed board? new setting?).
- Students can start with Steamboat Willie, make some changes to the setting, and now it’s Starship Willie.
- Rather than inventing their own comic, begin with a great Calvin and Hobbes strip and make some small (or big) changes.
This is how creative people work! Even the most ground-breaking creations are actually remixed versions of older classics. I cataloged a list of examples here. Professionally creative people don’t build from scratch. They copy! They pick a great starting point and make some changes and end up with something new.
I used to set my students up for failure by asking them to start from scratch. Even the pros can’t do that!
6. Now, Explain the Effects
Now, students can explain the changes they made and the effects those changes had. Were their modifications a success? Did they lead to a surprise? Disaster? Did those changes make the final product more fun? Weirder? More challenging?
Again we want thinking. We want students to analyze and evaluate. This step can take the form of writing or a presentation or just an informal chat.
Keep It Focused On The Thinking
As always, it’s about student thinking. We want to be aware of how we’re moving kids up and down Bloom’s Taxonomy. A leap from the very bottom to the very top is sure to discourage and deflate. We need to build scaffolds if we want to push students to a new level.
And don’t we always want to push students to a new level?