Creativity: The need for moral and social awareness

I have been reading a large book on famous people in history. They range, as does all of humanity, from the very good who developed great ideas or instituted great changes that have benefitted people to the evil tyrants who killed mercilessly, sometimes innocent children and sought power and domination over their fellow men.

It occurred to me, as I thought about the deeds that I read about, that we are indeed a very creative animal, that has used their intelligence and ingenuity to come, in a comparatively short space of geological time, from hunters and simple farmers, to the owners of our current and ever-changing technology that is allowing you to read this blog post on your remarkable device, be it computer, tablet or phone (or maybe television!).

Our creativity though has included an ability to think up better ways to be evil. The dreaming up of a plot to fly passenger planes into the side of the World Trade Center twin towers was certainly a creative act. There was planning, the need to work out complicated logistics, the foresight to learn how to pilot a plane and the result, as we all now know only too well, was a successful and deeply horrible event that has put another scar into the tapestry that represents man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man.

An earlier post that I wrote was called “How destruction is easy“. In this post I told about my own experiences, in teaching, of seeing how easy it was to destroy another person’s work that may have taken them a long time and effort in making, painting, creating. This was the “destructionist” nature that we all share, the ability to simply destroy what has been built in what seems like no time at all. This can also be a non-physical act, in that it is so easy to destroy with words and comments. Every day in schools throughout the world teachers and fellow students undermine by sarcasm and put-downs and we can all probably recall  feeling useless and disregarded as we had our efforts decried or joked about.

Thinking about the destroyers, be they tyrants laying waste to huge areas of the world’s populated surface or just the gang putting down the student for their effort in trying to paint something, we need to reflect on the real world that we live in. We say that creativity is significant for all our futures and we need to encourage children to become more creative and I totally agree with that. But we cannot isolate our children from the world that they live in and we need to understand that creativity has a negative as well as a positive side.

I feel therefore that we need to balance the creative with a social and moral awareness. We cannot just create in a vacuum. The world will be effected by changes. We hope that this will be to the better but we cannot dismiss the fact that we may be educating  tomorrow’s  tyrants who may well use the technology to achieve what we might consider undesirable ends. I am reminded of reading about the scientists who worked on the creation of the world’s first two atomic bombs that were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were driven, initially, to create this fearsome weapon, to defeat Hitler in Europe. This was understandable because many of them were or knew refugees from the murderous regime who had lost friends and family in the dreaded concentration camps. The actual bomb, as we all now know, was used to bring an end to the war against Japan. The creation of the bombs had followed a genius insight by Einstein that great energy was capable of being released from an unstable material.

After the war many of the scientists who had worked on the bombs campaigned against their proliferation. The actual pictures of the dead and dying from Hiroshima and Nagasaki must have lived in their memories for the rest of their lives.

As I continue to study and interact with people all over the world on my MOOC “Learning Creative Learning”, I reflect that we must learn how to be creative but also how to use creativity to the betterment of our fellow man. We cannot just have schools where we encourage innovation in a moral and social vacuum.There is even an argument that we should teach these things first so that students get the choice to use their talents and skills in a positive way to benefit developing nations and the poor in their own countries or communities. I have noticed a lot of this in the amazing work on mobile education that is being pioneered in places such as Stanford University and that is seeking to use novel ways to create power in countries in Africa to allow use of mobile technology in order to facilitate communication and education.

It has always been my hope that technology can facilitate real progress in our world and help us to overcome the many problems that our planet faces mostly due to our own treatment of its natural resources. I really believe that we are capable of great innovation and have proved very good at problem solving. The advancement of science has been nothing short of remarkable. We are a remarkable life form, our art and artifacts bears testament to that, but we come with a lot of baggage that we need to be aware of if we are not to have the unhappy ending to our story that many have predicted. A place to start would be social and moral awareness in the curriculum, I submit that we neglect these things at our peril.




Why the C MOOC is the way forward

I have  been on my latest MOOC, “Learning Creative Learning) (MIT Media Lab)  for the past 5 weeks. So far I can honestly say that I have found this course to be by far the best of the 3 MOOCs I have enrolled at.

The first 2 MOOCs were Coursera courses. They had a defined syllabus and you were expected to do tests and a final project in order to gain a statement of course completion. I found that I was reverting very quickly to the old fashioned model of lecture, note-taking and regurgitation for a test, accompanied by a project that would be written with the aim of gaining a grade.

The MIT Course has, from the beginning been very different. We were allocated to small groups according to where we were in the world and encouraged to sign up for Google Plus Communities. There was a wider, whole course Google Plus Community that I joined. The idea was to encourage participation, exchange of ideas and support from fellow students.

What I have found is that the smaller group , after an initial burst of activity, has ossified. The larger, whole course group though has blossomed. Every  day there are new videos posted, references to readings, examples of work with the “Scratch” program. It has become an exciting place to visit and be a part of. I am learning so much.

If I were asked how closely I have stayed to the course “syllabus” I would say that I have tried to do the assigned tasks but have found that the freedom to explore and interact with others has led me to sometimes wander away from the focus for the week. I am not alone in this, there have been many comments in our community that have extolled its virtues. We have discussed how we can prolong the life of the community beyond the length of the course and the MIT people are looking into this.

Mitch Resnick, the course director, said in a weekly discussion that our course is experimental. The first few weekly discussions were aired through Google Hangouts in real time, they had technical difficulties but a number of outstanding speakers such as Alan Kay, Joi Ito,  Resnick himself and yesterday Gerhard Fischer. They changed the format from essentially “talking heads” to some excellent slides that really contributed to the discussion.There has been a back-channel available for these weekly discussions and yesterday, for the first time, in response to student requests, the speakers were available to take questions and join in the online discussion after the main Hangout had ended.

I have the ability to watch the hangouts at another time on YouTube. There is the chance to contribute to the YouTube discussion as well as reflect or react to the discussion in our course G+ Community.

Despite the technical hitches that are so refreshing to come across from one of the world’s leading technological institutions, the course has been exciting, ever-changing and experimental. As Resnick stated, the intention is to make the course a C MOOC and not an X MOOC. The difference between these two sets of initials is that the X MOOC is very much like the Coursera courses that I first attempted and are about me being taught in some way what the course designers feel they want me to know and showing that I have “learnt” what they want me to know bu passing a number of multiple-choice tests and completing a peer-marked Project. The MIT C MOOC is about connectivity and collaboration. It is about the passing of information in a network that comes from the designers, the speakers and the students. It is well explained in the following video by one of my fellow course participants, Fred Bartels.

I have been looking into the many blog posts written recently on MOOCs and feel that I can state from my own experience that the future should be C and not X. This is surely the way forward for MOOCs. It takes advantage of the power of the net to facilitate communication and brings the idea of study into the 21st century. There is a huge amount of learning going on. How this can be effectively assessed or whether it should be or not, is part of the ongoing experiment that many of us are happily engaged in at present.

Thank you Media Lab for having the vision to start a course such as “Learning Creative Learning”. I hope it acts as a model for many other Higher Education  Institutions when they consider the how of doing a MOOC in the future.


Pi in our lives

English: German-born theoretical physicist Alb...
English: German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is International Pi Day. It happens to coincide with the birthday of Albert Einstein.
Those many who hated mathematics at school will probably only see Pi as some strange Greek letter that was used in formulas that had to be learnt by heart.
The shame and pity of this is the fact that the number that Pi represents is what makes mathematics so useful and, when you get into it, exciting.
Pi is nothing more and nothing less than the relationship of a diameter to a circumference (or a radius as half of a diameter). This may not excite the non-mathematical out there very much but it is a great discovery. If you know that the relationship does not change then you can work out a circumference of any circle, part circle and reverse the process if you know that circumference to find the diameter or the radius.
This means you can work out the measurements of anything circular or partly circular however large or small. There is so much in our world that is circular or partly circular. This also opens the way to the understanding that physical entities have unchanging relationships with one another and this ultimately leads to a simplification and deeper understanding of our world.
It was probably something like the knowledge that we can investigate and understand our world and the wider universe that it is a part of that fired the imagination of a young German boy Albert Einstein. School did not really make him wonder but the concept of a fixed relationship between a radius and a circumference may well have fuelled his daydreams and we all know where that led to.
Happy birthday Albert.

Creating a culture of learning using computers

I have been reading an article by Alan Kay, one of the most important figures in the development of the personal computer, called “Powerful Ideas Need Love Too!”

This article was one of the best I have read recently. It tackles a central issue in our use of technology. Basically, Kay states that technology is O.K. but is only a tool. It is the use of the tool that becomes the key to making changes and having developments in our lives and culture.

He is concerned that we can give schools a tool but it depends on the “culture of learning” if it is to be a success. He gives a concrete example of his own childhood where he went to  a school that wanted each of its students to learn music. It was not  just giving each child a musical instrument that made the project work. It was the development within the school of a “culture of music”.

Musical instruments are fascinating. You can be given the most expensive piano or guitar but you need to learn how to use it. From the basis of learning to use an instrument comes the much more difficult part of learning to master it. I have seen children learn to use a recorder. They become technically proficient in that they can play the right notes, but it often sounds as if it is produced by a machine! Real mastery takes a huge amount of practice and the desire to really want to explore the potential of the instrument so as to make it sound beautiful.

In the process of learning to master the instrument the learner will go through a torrid time of failure to produce the beauty that they desire. The ability to persevere through the failure is based on a desire to master… to achieve an end. The environment in which this can happen though is based on a shared culture that includes a real love for music and a desire to make beautiful sounds.

Kay gives an example of how, if a piano were placed in every classroom in the country, many students would become proficient in playing “chopsticks” but never be able to tackle Chopin! He then goes on to discuss how this relates to computers:                                                                                                                                                                                                                              “Now let me turn to the dazzling new technologies of computers and networks for a moment. Perhaps the saddest occasion for me is to be taken to a computerized classroom and be shown children joyfully using computers. They are happy, the teachers and administrators are happy, and their parents are happy. Yet, in most such classrooms, on closer examination I can see that the children are doing nothing interesting or growth inducing at all! This is technology as a kind of junk food–people love it but there is no nutrition to speak of. At its worst, it is a kind of “cargo cult” in which it is thought that the mere presence of computers will somehow bring learning back to the classroom. Here, any use of computers at all is a symbol of upward mobility in the 21st century. With this new kind of “piano,” what is missing in most classrooms and homes is any real sense of whether music is happening or just “chopsticks.”

I feel that this is a key point in his argument. Just giving the tools does not mean that we are proficient at their use. We do not want “Chopsticks” in the classroom but need the children to have the ability to explore, to have the time to become proficient in the real potential that the machines give them and this can only happen where teachers have a love and knowledge of what technology can bring to learning and create a learning environment that encourages their children to achieve mastery and that means beautiful sounds not mechanical effects.