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THE TECH EFFECT: Playing Around With Technology

By Johanna Riddle - Posted May 1, 2011
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“Schools can nurture creativity in children, but they can also destroy it, and all too often they do. Ideally, schools exist to preserve and regenerate learning and the arts, to give children tools with which they may create the future.”

Stephen Nachmanovitch

Most media instructors know the drill. We introduce a software application to our students, with a particular product in mind: a document, digital story, website, video, digital image, animation, podcast. Or, we may focus on a specific skill—how to combine text and graphics—then introduce a variety of apps built to accomplish that purpose. That’s followed by the assignation of a small project, designed to demonstrate understanding. We monitor our students to be sure that they are using tools and resources correctly and appropriately. Students, in turn, supply a sample of work. We assess their work, check off that benchmark, and move on. Quickly.

It isn’t that we fail to embrace the importance of our work. We understand the vital relevance of technology skills for today’s learners. We hope that our students will have an opportunity to apply their technology skills to some discipline-specific project in a classroom other than our own. But time waits for no teacher. Not only do we have an entire smorgasbord of tech skills to impart and standards to address over the next grading period, but we have five additional classes composed of 30 students each coming through the door after this one.

The truth is, many of us are working within a structure and are delivering content designed by someone other than ourselves—someone who may, or may not, have recently spent time with real students in a real classroom setting. It may not be the way we would choose to teach. There are many teachers—and students—who find the traditional format frustrating and obsolete. Despite this, the beat goes on.

Students Pave the Way to Better Teaching

But there is hope. Educational research is on our side. The latest and greatest in investigative research clearly communicates that traditional formats are not the way that today’s students prefer to learn; nor are they the way that students learn best. “Digital Youth Research: Kids Informal Learning With Digital Media” is a 3-year investigation carried out by educational researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of California–Berkeley. These researchers clearly communicate the ways that today’s independent learners move fluidly from watching and listening to other creative producers, to experimenting collaboratively with concepts, apps, and processes, and finally, to producing their own work and sharing it through the range of media portals such as YouTube, Facebook, and Deviant Art. These out-of-the-box learners develop skills and identities as media producers along the way and revisit their work to modify it as they master new dimensions of creation and production.

They may not do this in a particularly linear fashion but, instead, may master and apply a set of skills, turn their attention to another area of media, and then revisit a process or project. Some educators argue that the most successful media education programs should replicate this—allowing students to work with peers, to receive frequent feedback from audiences, and to rework their products and processes multiple times. It sounds substantial, but how does that translate within the context of the classroom? How do teachers—and schedules—allow that to unfold? And what teacher might actually receive the opportunity to craft a learning program in concert with those tenets?

A Case in Point

Meet Ross Wallis, head of creative arts at Sidcot School in North Somerset, U.K. The Sidcot School, established in 1699 by a group of Quaker families, was founded on the dual principles of academic excellence and a belief that learning should be a joyful experience. Twenty-eight years ago, Wallis arrived at Sidcot as a first-year teacher and established an art department of one. Today, the art department has evolved to include a full-time faculty of five, four part-time instructors, an artist in residence, three trainee teachers, a brand-new state-of-the-art facility, and an art center manager. These days, Wallis concentrates his talents in teaching creative digital and interactive media. An Apple Distinguished Educator and Adobe Education Leader, he teaches digital photography, film, animation, and web to students ages 10 to 18, “with the odd under 10 and adult class thrown in.”

Sidcot’s youngest students experience what Wallis describes as “a circus of art” in both traditional and digital media, aimed to seamlessly integrate the wide array of art tools and processes. The result is a true multimedia experience, with students expressing a theme in a flow of materials and processes. For example, a class of 7-year-old students created paintings of insects after a visit to the Natural History Museum. They then transformed their paintings into digital work with a simple two-step animation sequence that sent their bugs scurrying over a grassy background. Within the experience lay real-life lessons in research, science, art, and technology, as well as practice in fusing skills and experiences from a variety of disciplines.

Sidcot’s advanced students are free to select the media that best suits their interests and talents. Included in that concentration is a 2-year course—without a set syllabus—in Digital Arts for students ages 15 and 16. At the end of the 2-year study, students emerge with a rich repository of knowledge, skills, and experience and an impressive website portfolio. In keeping with the spirit of creative exploration, the portfolios are presented in many formats—as virtual galleries made with PulpMotion software, as blogs, as online publications created with ComicWare or Scrapblog, as well as in other formats.

Letting Go, for Learning’s Sake

How do you approach teaching a 2-year course without a syllabus? “There is always a conflict with me,” admits Wallis. “Creative teaching is a leap of faith. It can be scary. Sometimes, I think I should be doing more in the way of traditional teaching. But I’ve learned that, if you let go, then it will happen.” He gets substantial support for his methodology from Sidcot’s administration. “Our headmaster is very visionary. We can be innovative here. It’s very in keeping with the Quaker tradition.” Wallis uses the phrase “playful” in its truest context. “I am not advocating childish behavior, or befriending students as equals. This would be foolish; I am an adult and a teacher. But I can, perhaps, bring something of the essence of play energy into my classroom, elements of improvisation, chance-taking, perhaps even risky play; sessions unhindered by rigid lesson plans, schemes of work, aims and outcomes, learning objectives, mark schemes, and all the other ‘quality control’ metrics that measure the ‘product’ that schools offer and produce. I intend to explore the relationships between creativity and play, play and learning, and learning and creativity, from the perspective of both teacher and learner. The experience that I have in my classroom is that of total engagement. Students come in, get the devices, and get playing (and learning).” The results of this brave philosophy bear out in the extraordinary quality of student work and in the innovative inquiry evidenced through their work.

Though the techniques vary extensively, the emphasis in all of Wallis’ classes is in the creative fusion of technology and art with other disciplines. “I’m not a ‘computery’ person,” explained Wallis. Rather, he encourages his students to begin with simple tools and to apply them in innovative ways. Straight shot digital self portraits are photographed from creative perspectives—a mirror immersed in water, the lens of an old overhead projector, faces and objects pressed against a scanner. Later, students discover filters and tools in photo software and apply these elements to their work. Wallis shows the students how to create composite images—a technique that they employ in a rich range of 2D and 3D outcomes. Creative animation also employs simple tools and techniques. For example, a whiteboard drawing is photographed as it progresses, with the resulting photographs dropped into a video program. A pencil-drawn self-portrait along with a variety of lip shapes are scanned into Adobe Photoshop. The student then creates a series of two-layer images, with his or her portrait as the first layer and the various lip shapes as second layers. Sequenced and dropped into a video program, with a voiceover added, the drawing springs to life. (You can view these projects, as well as a hyper-speed tour of the Sidcot art studio, at

The Collaborative Classroom

How did this get started? “Initially, I brought computers into the classroom—in the late 1980s—because I had a class full of boys that year, and computers seemed to be the thing that interested them. They were completely sucked in by technology. I played around with the technology, and I encouraged them to play with me. That hasn’t changed, really. I’ve been very lucky in finding a teaching post that allows me to play, and to learn as I teach. This is, perhaps, the reason for my interest in the realm of digital media, where change is rapid, and little is concrete. Because technology is changing so rapidly, they’re never bored, and I’m never bored.”

Wallis’ enthusiasm certainly seems to light a fire underneath his students. He collects ideas from everywhere—gallery exhibits, YouTube, field trips with students, connections with colleagues, his own work as an artist, processes made possible by new applications, and peripherals. He transforms those connections into creative possibilities and is generous about sharing his finds with students and colleagues. His development of Photoshop Ping Pong ( is a case in point. Anyone is free to register on the site, to find a partner against whom to play, and send an image in to get a game started. Participants in the game send a digital photo back and forth, altering the image each time, and creating a new challenge for response for the other players on the project.

“It takes learning out of the constraints of the classroom,” notes Wallis. “Some of the work that has been created on this site is stunning. [There are] two things that I have learned through this experiment that I had not anticipated—one is the way in which the game becomes a narrative, the images tell a story. The game becomes a digital dialogue. The other comes through adding a flash movie, which … morphs [the frames] into a moving image. We’ve created a new art form, which can only be digital.”

Photoshop Ping Pong is one of many ways for students to collaborate and share their work. Wallis has also established a student gallery that combines social networking with artistic production. Registered members may view, share, and comment on the work of their peers through a protected system.

Learning and ReLearning

It is obvious that this teacher creates a framework for his students to master and apply new skills and processes, as well as to share their work. The school website also provides abundant evidence of the students’ motivation to revisit and refine previous experiences and processes and to find new applications for those skills. The technique of scanning simple images evokes a newly sophisticated interpretation when paired with translucent materials and Photoshop filters. The concept of a self-portrait taken through an overhead lens gains dimension with digital layering. Polarized photo options lend new depth to a photo series on transportation. Digital video and animation becomes increasingly sophisticated and eventually segues with music and drama to create interdisciplinary art pieces.

The extraordinary work of Sidcot students and their success with art, graphic design, and digital arts before and beyond graduation is testimony to the success of Wallis’ leap of faith. This art-rich environment nurtures and challenges inquiry, initiative, implementation, and imagination. Even Wallis was impressed with the depth of learning made possible by such a learning environment. “I look at their [photographs] and it makes me wonder … if they are creating images as impressive as this at 16, where do they go from here?”

Education, Creativity, and Risk Taking

There’s a lesson here that reaches beyond the discipline of art. Though the U.S. is currently focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, we might well be advised to broaden our focus to include STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) education. Creativity is the global fuel of tomorrow. Nurturing creativity—the real and rigorous brand that can lean into problems and garner fresh solutions—requires focus, time, training on the part of teachers, and a supportive learning environment. Unlike our current focus on core skills, creativity is a nebulous concept, evidenced through time, mastery, and products, rather than a one-size-fits-all multiple choice exam. Nonetheless, it’s a leap of faith we must all be willing to take if we are to authentically prepare our students for success in a global world.

Ross Wallis sums up that reality nicely. “Teaching creativity implies teaching creatively. Teaching creatively involves risk. Often, it’s the possibility of failure that spurs innovation.”

Contact Johanna at

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