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Putting Creative Transformation into Practice

We are in for a revolution and it can’t come too soon - otherwise the young will continue to be inadequately prepared for the rapid changes we are experiencing and which accelerate every year. Who can predict what the world will look like in five years, let alone through multiple career paths unknown territories?

Practical solutions for transforming the teaching/learning process appear daunting within the confines of traditional institutions.  In fact, the real forces of change in the future will come from client demand, the rapidly changing social networking infrastructure and from the professional environment rather than from new initiatives generated by institutions of higher education. 

We are in for a revolution and it can’t come too soon - otherwise the young will continue to be inadequately prepared for the rapid changes we are experiencing and which accelerate every year. Who can predict what the world will look like in five years, let alone through multiple career paths unknown territories? Solutions won’t come from simply adding new technologies to existing educational practice. In fact the technologies of social networking have already caused changes in connecting and learning that are truly revolutionary. We are preparing learning and ourselves for the unknown. 

In the last post, I outlined some of the key practices that I (and others) believe will mobilize the transition to a 21st Century framework for life-long learning and professional development.  It amazes me that with all the depth and breadth of the research and literature that’s available, many evolving and well-researched techniques haven’t yet been adapted to mainstream practice.  A few have found their way into emerging strategies for on-line and mentored approaches, but I haven’t yet found a holistic learning framework in animation training that attempts to integrate a broad and comprehensive approach using the latest research on learning. 

So what would be a good starting point if we could design a learning system from the ground up given the notion that it would need to be flexible, transformative, evolutionary and at the same time accountable to the professional environment?

And here I am talking about learning that comes from interactions within formal institutions and not the real-world skills and wisdom that comes from full participation in professional practice.

Many institutions do a commendable job of integrating professional expertise into their curriculum through advisory groups, invited lectures, part-time instructors working in the field and high-end support technologies from software and hardware companies.  However, this doesn’t address the fundamental problems we often find in traditional pedagogical approaches – primarily practices that fail to optimize best practice in learning together with emerging instructional techniques.

There is no single, ideal format for designing “the best” programs and curricula.  To a large degree, transformative designs are going to be built on shifting sand because in order to be transformative and creative they’ll need to incorporate constant change and evolution into their design and implementation. The challenge is to implement new models quickly and be prepared to improve and update them “on the fly”.  Creativity involves risk and transformation means letting go of the past and reorganizing for the future.

Authentic, real-world activities need to be the foundation for skills, techniques and practice at every level.  The educational environment should be designed and operated to mimic professional studio working methods and practice and this means throwing out the obsolete notions of weekly timetabled instruction and review.  Instead, the learner’s day should start with a critique and review of the previous day’s accomplishments (dailies) followed by the introduction of new concepts and progressively organized tasks. 

The best learning environment is one in which rapid iteration and sustained practice can be achieved without the arbitrary interruptions of formalized class timetables - except where they directly support the workflow and review process.  Compare the learning of animation with musical performance where constant iteration, practice, interpretation and critique are essential for building skill and professional performance.  

When instruction does takes place, frequent engagement with the learner is essential.  Instructors shouldn’t talk for more than about 20 minutes without involving the learners in practical exercises and creative problem solving.  I’ve seen instructors lose any sense of time and place when they “lecture”, getting caught up in profound thought, technological problems, personal anecdotes and off-topic content.  Timing and organizing instruction so that there is regular feedback from every learner guarantees engagement and helps the instructor assess each person’s comprehension and mastery of concepts and skill levels.

Wherever possible, feedback to the learner should be ubiquitous and constructive.  Professional-level critiques need to be reliable and continuously available so that learning is positive and progress assured.  Waiting long periods for conceptual or technical assistance is extremely inefficient and causes enormous frustration for the learner and major potential for wasted time, effort and material.   Much of this can be relieved by the presence of on-site studio technicians when instructors are not available. In addition, building on collaborative input through peer-to-peer mentoring is another critical way to support the learning process. How many times have I heard the phrase “I learned more from my classmates than from the faculty!” ?  It may be something of an exaggeration but there is often an element of truth in it too. 

This brings me directly to the issue of the importance of a learning environment that includes positive peer feedback, formalized study groups as well as authority-based mentorship.  These have been shown to be especially productive in on-line training and open collaboration learning environments (Animation Mentor is a good example) where all work is open to feedback, assessment and encouraging advice and critique. 

Another important aspect of an optimal learning environment is the integration of reflective practice applied to personal learning style, working methods, thought processes and decision-making.  Thinking about thinking, or metacognition, is a significant enhancement to the learning process because it integrates self-reflection and helps the learner understand the nature of his or her personal dynamics.  Formal exercises that engage the student in assessing how he or she approaches problem solving, creativity, human computer interaction and other related processes helps the learner replicate and optimize those that are successful and avoid (or at least come to terms with) those that don’t work very well.

Safe and supportive physical and psychological environments are often ignored in the formal frameworks of higher education.  Too many “lab” and workplace designs pay little attention to providing a SAFE and stimulating environment that encourages creativity, individual effort and collaborative expression.  Even some of the best are housed in overcrowded spaces with formal physical arrangements that do little to support collaboration and peer-to-peer interaction.   Not all schools can afford to mimic PIXAR, Dreamworks or Blue Sky, but with a little imagination and effort and by bending a few rules – even a stark, formal space can be made interesting, colourful and stimulating.   As for the psychological environment – there needs to be dramatic change and a shift from teacher/student tensions and the associated hierarchy to a more collaborative and mentoring relationship.

Collaboration is an important characteristic of today’s working world and is essential in animation and visual effects production and filmmaking.   True, some individual’s excel and perform best on their own terms and this works well for independent exercises and productions.   Anyone wanting to enter a production studio today would do well to remember that, all things being equal, personal attitudes, work habits, and teamwork skills are critical factors in the hiring process – sometimes valued over software knowledge and performance.  This means providing a balance between individual and group projects during the learning experience.

Eventually, we are going to see a change in demand as a result of consumer request for new approaches to learning and an increasing realization that “one-size-fits-all” programs do little to meets the needs of a wide range of learner experience, skills and ambitions.  Many talented students are disenfranchised by a lack of available space in formal institutions.  Also, customized programs and curricula geared to specific skill sets and individual aspirations must replace standardized programs and inflexible, predetermined content.  I recognize that this appears an expensive option but it need to be considered and implemented.

While I am a strong believer in standards, I am against standardization. There is a major difference.  We can build core standards in performance and skills into individual courses for example, but a standardized and rigid program design and curricula are more suited to 20th Century practice.  

Designing a training program that incorporates these ideas is far from rocket science but it does take willingness to confront the status quo and institutional reluctance to alter or revolutionize that way things are done.   It’s much easier to adjust and reform programs in the private sector – provided quality is the prime directive and profit is not the most important motive.   If you want creative transformation and 21st Century learning to prepare yourself for the future, YOU have to make it happen. We live in revolutionary time anyway!!

As a footnote, I ask you to think about the characteristics of the best learning experiences you have ever had.  How they occurred, who was involved, why they were such a positive experiences and what was the result.  Next time I’ll share my personal answers with you and I’ll give you a clue – most were not the result of formally organized educational experience. 

Next time....a personal life long journey.