why schools should use digital media to build environments for children that can encourage creative production – and failure

There is no magic in becoming highly creative. Highly creative people – be those surgeons, poets, or stand-up comedians – are just excellent at making endless attempts in their fields. So highlights Thomas Oppong in the Medium, an online content provider. Simonton, Oppong continues, a psychologist who has long studied creativity, identifies, among other things, that highly creative people have the capacity to be very productive. “On average, creative geniuses aren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers, they simply produce a greater volume of work, which gives them more variation and a higher chance of originality,” says Simonton. Jack London was a prolific writer. He wrote hundreds of books, essays, and poems, even though many would associate him with Call of the Wild. Picasso, Oppong gives his own examples, made 50,000 works in his lifetime, while Thomas Edison, had thousands of patents in his name (Malta as a whole, can’t compete with that one person in the patents race). PC Mag runs an article on its website listing the numerous other experiments, projects, and attempts Steve Jobs, Apple’s creator, had initiated – and failed with – before he created the iPhone. The point to make is, in the making itself. The more you make attempts (write, compose, build, and so on) the higher the chances to get it right at least once. In between, failure is likely and that’s ok.

On a similar token, Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at NYU (author of The Four: The hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google) explains how failure often leads to success. Success is not a straight line, he says, as people tend to perceive it, but an upward one with lots of squiggly lines denoting failures along the way. Professor Galloway examines how, for instance, Amazon’s ventures in phone or auction business failed. Nevertheless, they quickly moved on to developing other projects, some of which turned out greatly.

Children, like Amazon or Apple, should try failure by making. They should be allowed room for more creative productivity: make things, fail, and go on anew, continuously.

This article is not about success or creativity per se, though these two elements intertwine with the main argument. The larger implications of creating environments in schools, which can encourage creative productivity – and failure – will have on children’s learning. Digital media devices enter the primary school classroom while how children are encouraged to learn hasn’t changed from traditional learning without before the tablets. The archaic structures remain largely intact: in most mainstream primary schools teachers tend to tell children what counts as learning (by, usually, measuring it) and what must be learned (by, usually, quantifying it, which then helps in the measuring bit).

Digital media tools are not used with the aim to foster such making-failing-making continuum in the classroom as I have found through research among primary schools in Malta during 2014-2016. While it seems nice that children learn new subjects via, say, Kahoot, in a competitive, engaging, and fun way, as Mitchel Resnick says in Lifelong Kindergarten, Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play, technologies have been added to the classroom as though one has applied “lipstick on a pig” (p. 22). Generally, children are still being told what to do – make and design, interact with or ‘research’ – with the digital tools. Children are taught the basic software packages. They practice core subjects like Maltese, maths, English, and religion, using colourful interactive apps. But children generally remain passive recipients, not builders of or participants in the learning process. Practicing Excel or making PowerPoint presentations may fascinate some eight- and nine-year-olds. The bigger picture, however, is that neither of these skills connects the child with the larger world. Neither of these skills entices an eight-year-old to talk about the subject matter more than the format in which it has been delivered. Oh, and the levels of attainment, the measurement bit, who scored what – always!

In personal interviews, many eight-to-ten-year-old children in Malta have described what they used their personal digital devices for in their spare time, outside school. They satisfied personal interests, which seemed to never find resonance in or connection with school.

“We make videos on our tablet, like when we see a new song we make like…the video clip, like there was the song Walk on Water [Eurovision Maltese contesting song] and the Russian song and we made it” (Jessica & Kaya*, 7, government school) 

“I like making things, like all the time. I’ve done creative writing a lot of times. I do a lot of stuff. Like I’m working on a project I’m trying to fix it. It’s broken so I’m trying to fix it. [It is] an iPhone 4 which was all broken and the screen is broken so I would open it up, I take on the stuff and put in good stuff to make it work” (Tom, 9, private school)

“I look at people like who have conditions, like when they have Down’s syndrome. Because I’m really fascinated because when I grow up I really want to help people that have these types of conditions” (Maryanne, 9, government school)

(*The real names of the children have been changed)

Allowing children to pursue such interests can be the first step to encouraging creative productivity. Using digital media tools to pursue personal motivations lets children to self-direct their learning. As such, learning can become purposeful, not a chore.

Children’s perspectives on digital media use seemed to often go unrecognised by the educational system. Evidence exists in the fact that children don’t have the platform in school to build upon their pursuits, least of all express them in any way – like, make a project in relation to, say, the interest in genetic disorders, or make a music video clip as a result of personal interests. This is not to say that children must be left to their own devices. This is not a call for radical restructuring to the primary school curriculum either. In reality, I’m neither the first nor the last to write critically how digital media are used in schools. However, there are small steps that can be taken to acknowledge children’s perspectives about learning specifically and digital media use in general and their personal drives as the stepping-stone to creating better environments for encouraging creative productivity and autonomy.

One such step is a practical proposition, suggesting that core information and communication technologies (ICT) lessons could be restructured. ICT lessons must make room for creative production, from constructionist perspective, with children’s personal motivations and interests as the point of departure. Such classroom environment will further respect the need for instruction and facilitation from ‘expert other’ as the steering wheel to children’s productivity and efforts at attaining greater potentials.

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‘Santa’ workshops to replace ICT lessons in mainstream primary schools (stock images)

Such lessons, I’d like to call workshops – as they remind me and the children I’ve worked with of Santa – create personalised environments in which children become highly productive, independent, and self-driven learners, while the digital media devices – the “convivial tools”, as the philosopher Ivan Illich says, that allow their user “the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision”.

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