Genius and Vision

The discussion of the emergent remix culture both annoys and excites me.

On one hand, I feel that the elements of participation, connectivity, and the belief that everyone can and should contribute materially to our culture are churning a simmering pot of creativity and invention that is already having a positive impact by stimulating enthusiasm for authentic, interest driven learning.

On the other hand, I feel that elements of the remix/hack/mashup culture are having a negative impact, as well. In the following excerpt from Everything is a Remix , Kirby Ferguson reduces Star Wars to little more than a mashup of various preceding films.

In my opinion, his analysis is rather cynical. Not enough distinction has been made between remix and influence, between synthesis and creation. It’s too easy to adopt a ‘film school’ mentality, analyzing a work of art until it is stripped of its substance, ignoring the overt homages and tributes to its influences, and failing to acknowledge its originality and imagination.

It’s true that anyone can apply a great deal of time and effort to a goal, like synthesizing their favorite media into a remix or mashup. By doing so, they develop skills and facility with tools and contribute positively to culture. In fact, it is the simple and intuitive nature of the new media tools that is encouraging so much participation and contribution. In many ways, remixing tools are fulfilling many promises of Equity. So why does it annoy me? What distinguishes synthesis from creation? 

What is genius?

Indeed, accepted geniuses from Edison to Einstein insist their successes were the products of hard, focused work, and determination, not any divine or natural ability. In the post, Bill Evans – Creative Process and Self Teaching, I reflect on the renown jazz pianist Bill Evans’ ideas about the creative process and creative study and assert that genius is not granted, but built. Deliberate practice, iteration, discipline, respect for the ideas and contributions of others, and appreciation of the aesthetic are all inherent in remix culture, yet I think we should do more to foster what I consider the fundamental element of genius:


Genius is the application a great deal of time and effort in pursuit of a vision. The originality of that vision, irrespective of influence, genre, or media, and the desire to share it is what produces Genius. I adore Seth Godin’s use of the words ‘guts’ and ‘difficult art’ in the PressPausePlay – Seth Godin Interview.

Fortunately, if not ironically, the high level of access, and ease of creation and publication is not devaluing ‘genius’. Artists who seek to challenge themselves and their audiences, those with the guts to produce difficult art, geniuses, benefit from this unprecedented equity.

To paraphrase Godin, in art there are no longer excuses, only opportunities. We owe it to ourselves and our students to take those opportunities.

Imagine the music Mozart would have written if he could have heard classical Chinese Opera. What would Van Gogh have painted if he could have explored an endless supply of photographs of people and landscapes around the world? That is what is happening now. The Mozarts and Van Goghs of today have limitless potential to absorb influences and cultivate their own visions and even to interact with each other in collaborative networks…

Are you ready for the Renaissance?

Autumn Leaves in Japan

On Saturday, my wife, son, and I went to the park. After arriving and eating a snack, we began wandering and playing. While chasing my two-year-old, I noticed the rich variety of autumn leaves blanketing the ground. It dawned on me that it might be my last chance to make good on a promise to my friend, Kevin Hodgson, to remix his Learning Walk Photo Blitz: The Autumn Leaves here in Japan.

It was a simple matter of taking time to notice, or allow my attention to be captured by, particularly striking leaves as we charged around the park. I photographed each leaf twice, once in the autumn sunlight and once in my own shadow, taking care to let my iPhone camera focus as well as it can.
The most difficult part was assembling the collages using Pic Stitch. I easily get frustrated trying to work on that tiny screen, and there was no practical way to rearrange the photos between collages. At any rate, I made three and I hope I managed to capture the rich colors and seemingly unending variety I encountered.

My wife, a much more experienced photographer and designer, also undertook a similar project that day as we took turns chasing our son. She shared in her post, Nature collage. During one of my turns with our son, we enjoyed triumphantly impaling some invading trees.

It was a deeply enjoyable day that I will certainly never forget, and reminder to me that learning, playing, making, creating, socializing, and any other growth activity, are not only interconnected, but are often one-in-the-same.

My beef with Facebook

When I joined Facebook, it was still just a reaction to MySpace, which had become overrun by troll accounts and spam. Facebook was refreshing because I could apply the privacy lessons I had learned (the hard way) on MySpace, and use it to keep in touch with family and friends to share news and photos, and it has such a friendly and neutral white and blue theme.

For years, it worked splendidly.

Then, news about privacy infringement began surfacing. Articles started appearing, like one I noticed on Reddit about a tricky setting for the iOS app that would steal your contacts’ information if you clicked on an innocuous button labeled ‘Find More Friends’.

Then came Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s post in November of 2011, Our Commitment to the Facebook Community admitting to making ‘mistakes’ about user privacy after being accused by the United States Federal Trade Commission of deliberately revealing information users had indicated they wanted kept private (Warman, 2011). Matt McKeon’s interactive graphic, The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook, gives a very clear visualization of the problem. Click on the image to visit his site.

To tell the truth, I’m happy to publish photos and articles and I don’t mind people being able to stalk me. It’s my responsibility to make sure I don’t reveal anything damaging or overly revealing.

My beef with Facebook is not about privacy; it’s about trust. Making an agreement and then changing it substantively is wrong, online or offline.

I still maintain a profile for three reasons. First, my mom would kill me if I stopped. Second, I really can keep in touch with friends and family around the world quite conveniently. Third, I want to have a presence on the biggest social network because I partially believe that the best way to protect privacy is to flood the web with an overwhelming amount of data beyond anyone’s or any computer’s ability to make sense of (that is until quantum computing becomes ubiquitous, I suppose).

Below is an interesting infographic from Abigail Pichel’s post, Public or Private? The Risk of Posting in Social Networks, to provide some perspective, especially to beginning social networkers.

Make/Hack/Play Together 2

When Kevin Hodgson shared his song in the post, Making a Song, for the first ‘make’ of the Make/Hack/Play Together MOOC, I was immediately impressed by its mournful mood. I thought it would be appropriate for this week’s ‘digital make’ to hack his song by arranging it for string quartet using MuseScore. Here’s a link to my work-in-progress, Hacking a Song.

I’ve only spent a short time on it, but have found some bits I like and some that probably wouldn’t make the final cut. Arranging is different that writing a song. It’s rather scientific and requires taking into account many variables such as register, the mechanics of the instruments involved, acoustics, etc.

I even started to ‘play’ at the end, but it’s getting late and I can’t tell whether those ideas are worth staying up for…

The trickiest part, however, is capturing the mood. Since the mood of Kevin’s song is what struck me, I tried to interpret that feeling for a different ensemble. It never works to copy it. It’s more like a translation than anything else. The sounds, like words, may have the same meanings, but they don’t say the same things.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading and listening to my little, albeit, incomplete piece.

Elementary Blogging – Start a digital footprint with both feet

In the past two school years, I have blogged with my classes. It has been enlightening. There are countless benefits to blogging with students and getting started in elementary school as described in Kim Cofino’s article, Blogging is Elementary!. To summarize, here are a few salient and immediate benefits:

– authentic, global audience
– engaging, relevant technology
– individual feedback and differentiation
– reading and writing with purpose

However, there is always a shadow lurking which I characterize as “YouTube Comments Syndrome”. If you want to know what I’m referring to, find a popular video and start scrolling. If those comments aren’t meaningless enough for you, try the downright offensive comments section on Ylvis’ The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?). Luckily, I believe that most people ignore the stream of semiconciousness that hangs from our favorite videos.

CC-by-SA Tim Wayne

Most people are not malicious internet users. I was encouraged to read in William Ferriter’s post, Positive Digital Footprints, that “too many Internet safety programs commonly used in schools assume that all students are at equal risk in digital spaces. The truth is that students who engage in risky behaviors offline are more likely to engage in risky behaviors online.”

Certainly, children older than my sixth graders are much more likely to visit and participate in the darker side of the internet, but that’s one reason I feel so motivated to help them build a healthy understanding of online participation and responsibility.

My rule of thumb with reference to Digital Citizenship when planning activities using social media with elementary students couldn’t be simpler:

Digital communication is not different than analog communication.

The same attitudes of respect, empathy, and curiosity still underly effective communication. I have found that blogging and commenting on other students’ blogs has had a positive impact on their communication in class, and vice versa. The impressions we make face-to-face are just as permanent as those we leave online. I believe that drawing such a stark distinction between “real” life and “virtual” life is what is driving the reckless behavior of some internet users and the timidity of those too scared to leave a bad mark online.

While I do believe in starting elementary bloggers on private sites and gradually growing more public (Kidblog provides an easy-to-use, yet robust platform), I also believe that we should have the Connected Learning Core Value of Full Participation at heart when we plug them in.

“Learning is built on a foundation of trust.”

Make/Hack/Play Together 1

During the past week, I participated in the Make/Hack/Play Together MOOC. Experience has taught me that every learner builds their understanding themselves, and very often literally. Thinking is not something that occurs ‘in our heads’. Thinking is everywhere, visibly and tangibly. This MOOC is a fantastic opportunity to explore Constructionist pedagogy as a learner and teacher.
The first assignment was to build something physical. I didn’t manage to find time to build anything myself, but I did with my son. He is two years old, and has had a set of wooden blocks for about a year. When he first started playing with them, they always represented objects. Sometimes they were spoons, sometimes trains, sometimes only he knows what.
In recent weeks, however, he has started building. Noticing his curiosity, I started building alongside him and describing my creative process. He enjoys watching and listening, and gets very excited as my creations grow. That is, before he obliterates them. He is definitely still in the ‘destroyer’ stage as a maker, but as his hand/eye coordination and fine motor skills improve, I’m sure he will finally start to make his imaginings concrete and visible.
My ‘Garage Cathedral’ moments before demolition.

Two students in my class have been making what they’re calling a ‘model mansion’ out of cardboard and other stuff as one of their independent inquiries. Independent Inquiry is a project I have been developing to try to connect learning in school and out of school, and to foster a maker mindset in my classroom.

The tube on the side represents an elevator.
I believe it is the first time either of them has ever done this. Discussions during their collaborations have been fascinating and hilarious as they suggest, debate, iterate, revise, and build. I have documented several instances of them developing critical collaboration, communication, and creative skills and can say without hesitation that this activity is having a profoundly positive impact on their learning.
Finally, I would like to share a photo I took during a field trip to the Bandai Museum. It is Rick Hunter’s mecha from Robotech, and possibly my all-time favorite toy.

Interestingly, Robotech was the US release of two Japanese series that had been hacked and edited together. The show I watched was itself a remix, so to speak, and one of my favorite features of the toys was their transformability. They had three modes, one that looks like a jet, one that looks like a person, and one, as you can see in the photo, that looks like a mix of the two. That element of choice, being able to remix as one played, made the toys very engaging, just like ‘making’.

I hope I will have more time to participate more directly during the next week, but for now I’ve enjoyed being in a maker mindset despite not making much of anything myself.

BYOT Field Trip

My sixth graders and I took a field trip to The Bandai Edison Museum yesterday and I thought it was an ideal chance for a Bring-Your-Own-Technology experiment. Our current inquiry focuses on personal histories and the primary objective of the field trip was to reflect on how the Thomas Edison Exhibition tells the story of his life.
The task was to choose three artifacts in the exhibit and deduce what invention led or might have led to it, and what inventions came after. Usually, iPads and other mobile digital devices are not allowed in school, but for the field trip, I said they can bring any technology they want to complete their assignment. I created a simple google form and posted it on our class blog for those with Internet access. Some students chose to write their reflections with paper and pencil, but a few brought their iPads, smartphones, and a couple DSs, and were excited to use them!
After completing their reflections, some students took photos or made videos of their favorite exhibits. It felt great to provide them with the autonomy to use their technological resources to inspire and motivate their inquiries. The enhanced engagement and enthusiasm to share their work was a clear benefit.
I plan to have a BYOT policy in place in the classroom when we start working in earnest on our culminating Exhibition, and the field trip experiment demonstrated to me that these technologies, coupled with independence, are remarkable learning multipliers.

In our reflective discussion, many students cited their digital products when describing Edison’s place in history and the connections between inventions. I’m considering ways that this strategy could be expounded to transform field trips into “Connected Learning Expeditions” and would appreciate knowing your experiences and thoughts!