The Costumed Character “Buford Beaver”

For my summer job while in high school, in 1977 I passed a stage audition at the Busch Gardens theme park, in Williamsburg Virginia, to perform as the costumed character “Buford Beaver.” Just today, I found a long-lost photo that shows me, in costume, with my mother and grandmother, check it out!

Keith Sawyer performing as Buford Beaver 1977I stumbled onto this job by accident. I originally auditioned to be a pianist in one of the theme park’s many stage shows. I didn’t get the gig, but somehow they thought I might make a good costumed character, so they invited me back for that audition. I was on stage with about 40 people who were hoping for the job, and the directors put us through a series of non-verbal improvisational exercises. We did group improv, and then we each did a solo improv. For mine, I was asked to improvise being a piece of bread, going into a toaster, popping up out of the toaster, and then being spread with butter and jelly. I had no experience with acting or improvising, and I’d never been on stage before, but I was too far along to say no. So I went all out!

When unexpected zigs and zags come your way, embrace them and own it!

Computer Games and Learning

There’s been lots of research lately on how computer games can be used to inspire new educational software–software that’s aligned with what we know about how people learn. Most scholars who study this are learning scientists, and there’s a chapter summarizing this research in my 2014 book, The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.

Here’s a review of a new report called Impact with Games: A fragmented field, taken from the ProfHacker blog. The report emphasizes a problem I’ve often noted: There’s a disconnect between learning sciences research–which tells us exactly how people learn–and policy and evaluation research, which measures learning outcomes.

I’ve written a lot about using and making games for the classroom here at ProfHacker, as while games and learning have been around for a long time our ability (and interest) in realizing their potential is on the rise. One of the continuing challenges for bringing games into education is assessing the impact of games on learning. Often, it’s hard even to agree on what we want games to accomplish: are we most interested in raising student engagement? Reaching learners who are alienated by traditional lectures? Increasing critical thinking and analysis skills? Or getting content memorized or absorbed?

Games for Change and the Michael Cohen Group just released a report, Impact with Games: A Fragmented Field, that addresses some of these questions. It’s a great read for those of us thinking about the ramifications and challenges games present for higher education. Today I’m going to take a look at a few of the highlights that might be particularly of interest for ProfHackers working with digital pedagogy.

The group found five sources of disconnect within the field that contribute to the challenge of measuring impact: of those, two that strike me as particularly important are that ”Impact is defined too narrowly” and ”Evaluation methods are inflexible.” These are some of the frustrations with assessment that accompany any digital pedagogy, as we may default to using comparative measures (does this game “teach” better than a lecture?) rather than defining new metrics for a different type of learning

Defining games by their impact is one way to find great games that become the imitable standards for socially conscious or serious gaming. However, these games don’t all “teach” content in an expected way, and the impact of a game might even be entirely unrelated to knowledge-based outcomes–for instance, a great game might bring a team together for collaboration and problem-solving in new ways. The team observes that: ”When evaluators and researchers stick too rigidly to their preferred methods they lose the flexibility required to tailor assessment to unusual and complex games. Such rigidity can be dangerous, sometimes leading to games based on evaluation methods (rather than methods based on the game).”

If you’ve ever played a game that feels more like a test (the perennial favorite classroom Jeopardy comes to mind), you’ve probably experienced some of the consequences of making games based on clearly assessable outcomes. When I work with teams of educators making games for the first time, often the very first game idea that comes out is something with a string of questions or challenges with right and wrong answers that map easily to assessment: right answers let the player move forward, while wrong answers keep them stationary. But as their ideas progress, educators shift away from games that resemble assessment: take a look at Parable of the Polygons, a game exploring biases by Nicky Case & Vi Hart, or This War of Mine, a war survival simulator from 11 bit studios, and it becomes apparent how different “impact” can be.

What Criminals Can Teach Us About Creativity

A few weeks ago, I posed the question “Is Creativity Research Elitist?”. I pointed out that creativity researchers have studied high-class Western European creativity, but they’ve neglected working class creativity–like custom motorcycle mechanics, or small-town preachers writing sermons.

Right on cue, a new book’s just been published making basically the same point. The Misfit Economy argues that criminals can teach us a lot about creativity: pirates, hackers, gangsters, and prisoners. Here’s what their web site says:

What do pirates, terrorists, computer hackers and inner city gangs have in common with Silicon Valley? Innovation. Across the globe, diverse innovators operating in the black and gray economies are developing solutions to a myriad of challenges. Far from being “deviant entrepreneurs” that pose threats to our social and economic stability, these innovators display remarkable ingenuity, pioneering original methods and best practices that we can learn from and apply in our own worlds. The Misfit Economy seeks to unveil and leverage this new well-spring of ingenuity. Join us in exploring the dark side of innovation.

The book describes the creativity of Somali pirates, Amish camel-milkers (?), and moonshine bootleggers. But you won’t find studies of them in the creativity academic journals. I think it’s the same reason we don’t study small-town ministers–they aren’t elite enough. (I’m guilty, too–right now I’m studying fine art painters and elite designers.)

Most creativity researchers have defined creativity as a new product that’s both novel and also valued by society. In the latest issue of the Creativity Research Journal, Robert Weisberg argues that researchers should define creativity without requiring that the product be valued by society.* If creativity researchers take this to heart, then we should start studying working class creativity and criminal creativity. Otherwise, we risk publishing findings and developing theories that only apply to upper-middle class people. Speaking as a psychologist, I think it’s obvious that all these forms of creativity are based in creative mental processes and behaviors. So as a scholarly community, we need to do additional research to confirm that our research claims aren’t limited to educated elites.

*My own definition of individual creativity, unlike most of my colleagues, doesn’t include “value,” and for some of the same reasons that Weisberg uses (see my book Explaining Creativity).

How to Foster Creativity in the Primary Curriculum

For the fifth and final talk of my European lecture tour, I gave the keynote at a meeting of primary school educators, the Association for the Study of Primary Education (ASPE):

Creativity in the Primary Curriculum. Planned in collaboration with the Open University, the University of Exeter, and the BERA Creativity SIG, the seminar seeks to explore cutting-edge research which considers both teaching creatively and teaching for creativity in the primary phase both within and beyond the classroom.

I talked about the need for creativity in today’s society, and the importance of innovation to the society and the economy. And then, I drew on creativity research, and learning sciences research, to give some practical advice for how to design classrooms that foster creative learning. It was great to be in front of a group of early childhood educators, because in my first research project, I studied creativity in children’s pretend play.

It was an exhausting trip! But it was so stimulating to meet others who believe in the power of collaboration and creativity to drive learning.

Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology (CREET)

On the fourth stop of my European tour 2015, I gave the annual CREET lecture at the Open University. The room was full of brilliant colleagues that I very much respect. So I used the opportunity to report on a very new analysis I’m now doing, using a new data set, on creativity and learning. I was hoping for suggestions and feedback–I believe in the power of collaboration! So I was delighted that we had a great discussion afterwards.

In the afternoon, I did a smaller workshop on the methodology I use to study group creativity; it’s called “interaction analysis.” It’s a way to analyze large data sets of transcribed talk, and that’s exactly what I have from this new project: about 75 hours of transcribed interviews and classroom observations. In a two-hour workshop, I only had time to show about ten minutes of videotape; we spent the whole two hours talking about those ten minutes. (That’s what happens when you get a group of researchers together!) So you can see that 75 hours is a massive amount of conversational data. Making sense of it has taken me a few years already, and probably will require a couple more years to finish.

Creativity Research at University of Plymouth, UK

On the third stop of my European tour, I was invited to give a talk to the CogNovo research group at the University of Plymouth. I was impressed to find one of the top research groups in the world, studying creativity with an interdisciplinary approach.

CogNovo brings together over 40 participating scholars and artists to study creativity and innovation. The group includes cognitive neuroscientists, developmental psychologists, and practicing artists, dancers, and musicians. In addition, they have EU funding for 25 doctoral students, who have moved here from all over the world to study creativity. The University of Plymouth is a great place for this interdisciplinary work, because it has a medical school, an art school, and a strong psychology unit. It was cool that during a break, I got to visit the final degree exhibits of the Media Arts and Design, and the Photography programs, in the building next door to CogNovo.

The EU funding is part of the Creative Europe initiative, with a budget of 1.46 BILLION Euros through 2020 (yes, that’s “billion” with a “b” and not an “m”!). As a creativity researcher in the United States, I’m envious. We don’t have anything like that kind of support for creativity research, even though our political, business, and corporate leadership all agree that creativity is the driver of our future global competitiveness, and that our culture and creative industries are one of our biggest international successes.

The Improvisation of Teaching

I just spent three wonderful days at the conference “The Art and Science of Improvisation in Teaching.” My visit to the University of Stord, Norway, was sponsored by a project funded by the Norwegian Research Council, “Improvisation in Teacher Education.” I was honored to be invited to give the keynote talk, because the project was inspired by my 2011 book Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching. Creative Teaching

I published this book to argue that good teaching is always creative and improvisational. That it’s impossible to “script” teachers. That if policy makers try to overly control teaching, then students won’t learn much. I’m a learning scientist, so I grounded my argument in scientific studies, and in well-proven recommendations for effective teaching.

What’s really exciting about the book is that it shows how we can prepare teachers for this kind of teaching. Each chapter is written by a different teacher educator, who is using improvisation in their teacher education classes. These chapters are important because it’s really hard to teach students to learn in a creative way. You need a high level of professional expertise and improvisational ability. What makes it even harder is that teacher improvisations are always guided by structures that are important to effective teaching–curricular sequences, research-grounded learning trajectories, and government-mandated learning outcomes and assessments.

The Norwegian research project is driven by music educators, who are studying new ways to teach improvisational music performance. Then, they’re going to use this research to enhance teacher education in all subjects. It’s a brilliant group of scholars, and I look forward to the results of their research.