Well, a whole school year’s gone by since we started the marvelous mayhem that is Spark-O-Matic in early September of 2016 at Medgar Evers Library. And fittingly enough, it’s been most educational, both for mentors and for students, in the exciting months since.
Together, even without a bright, shiny digital creativity lab, we’re exploring how to design websites, make videos, produce soup commercials, delve into logo development (see this post’s featured image), create captivating personal stories with Lida Burris that get seen up on the big screen, and much more.
We’re also learning that sometimes, it’s important to put away your digital devices, even during a digital arts class (maybe especially during digital arts class). And that it’s good to unplug for a while — perhaps do some letterpress at the Mississippi Ag Museum and regain your connection to the real world. After all, one essential key to achieving digital literacy is knowing how to strike a healthy balance between time online and off.
Most importantly, though, the students are discovering how to collaborate together, make connections, share ideas, find their voices and freely express themselves in an increasingly loud, noisy world that can all too often drown them out and mute their creativity. In fact, my favorite times at Spark-O-Matic are when a few students who are inspired and passionate about something—like transforming their own illustrated sketches into digital art—take the lead and share their skills with others. There is such talent in this group, such incredible potential.
These are the times, too, when the class becomes a true melting pot, simmering with ideas that are made better with each new insight offered up by the students themselves. This is peer-to-peer education at its finest. The way the kids guide each other in solving problems, overcoming technical issues, troubleshooting, and tackling details like shading and perspective is amazing.
And now we’re embarking on two new projects that could top them all: One, a cool music video project propelled by the theme, “What Medgar Evers Library means to me…” Kicking things off a couple weeks ago, we discussed what form such a music video would take. Together, we made a list of what we like best about this library, which included: Talent shows, Game day, Movie Flick Saturday, Spark-O-Matic, Creativity, Community, A place of peace, A place to speak your mind, Family, Superheroes (drawings and people), Voting, Babysitting, Volunteer, Conversation, Escape, Family… and so on.
Angel, a rising 9th grader at Callaway High School, came up with a winning idea: Have the words and phrases from our list illustrated on handmade cards that students, in groups or individually, hold as they pop up around the library. The plan is to get those action-word pop-ups on camera, then create a soundtrack with masterful music assistance from Will Jolly over at Brown River Sound. Will’s already stopped by to scratch beats and get us going on the music track.
Another big project underway is something in partnership with James Bridgeforth from the Mississippi Heritage Trust (mississippiheritage.com).
The Heritage Trust is about preserving Mississippi’s historic places. One of those places is Medgar Evers’ home. So, this summer we are embarking on a Spark-O-Matic documentary about Medgar Evers’ home that will created by our students.
Medgar Evers: Where he lived then. Where he lives today: In the hearts and minds—and lives—of the children and families served by the Medgar Evers library.
We will tell that story through: 1) A visit to Medgar Evers’ house where we will gather video footage, and 2) Interviews with the families and kids who come to the library, talking with them about Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
Starter questions for our patron interviews:
Who is Medgar Evers?
What did he do?
How does what he did live on today?
In our first lively discussion about Medgar Evers, his family and his home, the students added the question, “What is civil rights?” to the mix. That’s a huge question we’ll continue to explore through the project. Once complete, the students’ documentary will be shown at a Mississippi Heritage Trust gala event in December of this year.
We’re going to keep the creative sparks flying over the summer at Spark-O-Matic. While the school doors are closed, the library’s will be wide open. Big things are happening. And you’re invited join this crazy, creative melting pot, Tuesday nights from 5:30 to 6:45.
“You can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea.” — Medgar Evers
“You have a freak flag, you just don’t fly it.” — Luke Wilson’s character Ben in Family Stone
With the holiday season upon us, it feels fitting to start things off with a good quote from a nice, cockle-warming holiday movie. At that particular moment in Family Stone, Luke Wilson as Ben is offering advice to Sarah Jessica Parker, whose character Meredith is so tightly wound she doesn’t know how to be herself anymore. She’s forgotten that every so often, you gotta cut loose and unfurl your own personal banner of weirdness. Besides, as Ben says, “Keeping your lid screwed on so tight… it’s exhausting.”
One place where they’re certainly not afraid to let their freak flags fly — en masse — is in New Braunfels, Texas every November. Wurstfest is an event that begins with “The traditional biting of the sausage,” and culminates with hordes of people scarfing down bratwurst, drinking from frothy pitchers, listening to polka music, dancing the chicken dance, and decking themselves out in their finest Lederhosen.
I had the chance to bask in Wurstfest in all its glory this year, and it was a pretty creatively-energizing experience. It reminded me of the importance of making time for pure silliness, polka music optional. To have some fun, maybe with spicy mustard on the side. And above all, to shut down the VOJ — that pesky Voice of Judgement that tells you that you’re doing it wrong. That whatever it is, it’s not a good idea. And that some might think you look quite foolish holding a 2-foot bratwurst on a stick while wearing uber-manly knee high stockings (I purposefully cut off this shot above the waist).
Honestly, in any endeavor, we all do some of our best work when we let our freak flags fly. For example, when tasked with coming up with a campaign to provide high school students with the facts on STDs, we let our odd streamers loose and conjured up an infinitely gruff-but-watchable, stretch pants-wearing pro wrestler as the very personification of STD himself. To help people quit smoking, we set free the Banner of the Freak and came up with the KwitKone. And, we just finished a project aimed at getting everyone waving the flag of fun in Jackson.
So, no matter what line of work you’re in, you can sometimes find yourself in a creative slump, or as The Kids In The Hall used to say, a rut deep enough to hang up posters. When that happens, don’t worry. Just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and as they say at Wurstfest: Sprechen Sie Freak Flag! (Actually, that’s Speak of the Freak Flag, or something, but you get the point.)
Until next time, enjoy this story about a certain freakish misfit who, yes, saved Christmas:
(Originally posted to Medium… but this is especially applicable to today).
I have a ton of stuff to do today. Since I awoke the list has gotten twice as long. Then I began thinking about how manic I was becoming (a good thing for me) and I needed for follow the proverbial Anglo-Saxon advice to “strike while the iron is hot”… which is why I dropped everything to write this post.
Seriously, based on my workload and mentally manic morning I wanted to get these thoughts logged down. You see, I’ve spent over 15 years working in this creative company that exists within a innovation economy, for the most part. In doing this, I’ve learned two things about myself:
- Procrastination is OK when the “mood” isn’t right.
- Procrastination is the biggest buzz kill of all time when the mood is right.
I remarked about my “manic morning.” I arose from bed, started answering emails, tweeting, Slacking colleagues and texting clients about new projects (they LOVE when their phones start buzzing around 6:30 a.m.). On the way out the door, I remarked to my wife how “amazing it was how much I could get done in a short time in the morning.”
Then I paused, and corrected myself:
It is amazing how much I can get started in the morning.
Because I didn’t really get anything “done.” But it didn’t matter. I felt the creative juices flowing, and that was fed by a nice bump of productivity.
The Doppelgangers of Creativity and Productivity
Productivity is quite an animal. In regard to creativity, it is at best it’s an indignant cousin, at worst it’s an evil twin. Productivity – which has quite a cult following in corporate America – can sometimes be killer of creativity. In rare instances – what I call my “manic” states – the two can co-operate in a Shakespearean-strange-bedfellow type of way to satisfy the objective of creativity (producing something original that has value) and the methodology of productivity (make more…better…faster). I think this was just such a morning for me.
Just Go With It
Which bringth us to the lesson. Just go with it. Strike while the iron/muse/coffee is hot. Don’t let the “tasks” that have piled up behind you get in the way of a rare moment of the twins playing nice together. These moments don’t happen very often, and I promise those tasks will still be there.*
*Caveat: Author’s note…these “tasks” do not include such things that can cause irreconcilable harm. In today’s day and age, I feel it necessary to disclaim that I am NOT advocating leaving your child unattended in the bathtub while penning your latest blog article. : )
Alex Mullen at the MWB office. Photo by Tate Nations.
Alex Mullen is a medical student at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine who, in 2015, became the first American to win the World Memory Championships, ranking as the highest point scorer in the competition’s 24-year history.
Alex holds the Guinness World Record for most digits memorized in one hour (3,029), and he can memorize the order of a deck of cards in 17 seconds. In 2016, Alex launched Mullen Memory, an initiative he started with his wife, Cathy, to promote the use of memory techniques in school classrooms and universities.
What’s your background? How did you get interested in memory techniques?
MULLEN: I was born in New Jersey. But then I came down to Oxford when I was four. I went to Oxford High School and then Johns Hopkins for college.
The first time I ever found out about memory techniques was when I was a junior in college. Before that I had an average memory, and didn’t really know much about memory techniques. I dabbled with acrostics and stuff like that.
But I came across this TED talk by Joshua Foer [TED Video: Feats of Memory that Anyone Can Do], and I was just kinda blown away by the ingenuity of it. I learned about the “memory palace” technique, and just I couldn’t believe that this kind of thing existed and I hadn’t heard of it or that it wasn’t a bigger part of education. I was a little frustrated with my own memory at the time, and I think that’s part of the reason why I latched onto it. I read Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstein” and some other books.
So I was originally interested because I wanted to improve my memory for school. I felt like if I had a better memory, it would be helpful. And, then, I thought maybe I’ll do this competition type thing where you memorize numbers and cards and lists of random words, names and faces – I’ll do that and then try to get a better understanding of the techniques, so I can go back and use it in school.
I competed at the U.S.A. Memory Championship in 2014, and I got 2nd place there, which was way better than I expected. I’d been training, but I didn’t think I’d do as well as I did. So it was definitely exciting for me and motivating to continue practicing and doing bigger competitions.
I competed a few more times, I think five or six in total now. Then I had a lucky run and won the World Championship in China last December.
When I got to med school, I struggled at first a little bit, which was disheartening because I was having a hard time applying the techniques to what I was learning. So I struggled a little bit, but then I experimented. My wife also uses the techniques – so we sort of experimented together and worked some things out. Eventually, we got to a point where we were using them for pretty much everything we were learning and finding it very helpful since med school is obviously heavy on memorization.
We’ve been using the techniques for med school for about a year and a half now. I’m still competing. My next one is probably the U.S. Championship again in May.
I saw you have a record for memorizing digits?
MULLEN: Yeah, I have about six or seven U.S. records and one world record, which is the “hour digits” event. It sounds incredibly boring – and it is. You sit for one hour and they give you a big long number to memorize, and I was able to memorize 3,029 digits. Just the process of sitting down for an hour and then spending another two hours to recall it, which is how the event works, was pretty tough for me – someone who’s slightly ADD and can’t really focus and sit still for a long time.
Using the memory techniques has helped me develop my concentration. I don’t think I would have otherwise been able to sit for three whole days in China just memorizing the entire time. So the numbers were definitely a challenge, much harder, from a concentration standpoint, than memorizing one pack of cards.
You did get there very fast, though. How were you able to go from reading a book to being a memory champion in such a short period of time?
MULLEN: I think I trained well. I trained consistently, which I think it an important thing – between 30 minutes to an hour a day, usually. You do that over three years and you get pretty good.
There are a lot of people who do that also, who haven’t done as well as I have. And I think that’s just a matter of training effectively. Trying to identify weaknesses and improve, just the same as with sports. But that’s really it. I don’t think I have a very special memory. I forget where I put things all the time.
What’s your technique for memorizing cards and numbers?
MULLEN: For a lot of the events, you’re using basically the same technique, which is the memory palace technique. Most of the events are “sequential events” where you have to memorize the order of a deck of cards, the order of a long number, or the order of a list of 300 words. It’s all the same technique, which is the memory palace. You imagine a physical place that you know – you can pick these places ahead of time and have pre-planned routes, like sort of stops on the way in the memory palace. Then you visualize things in those places. Then you go back and see those images, as you go through the palace and recall the information. [Editor’s note: This technique is demonstrated in Mullen’s video, “The 20 Word Challenge.”]
There are differences in the way that people do it – how they convert cards or numbers into those images. Because, obviously, it’s not enough to just visualize the two of spades. Some people will turn that card into, for example, Michael Jackson. In my case, I’ll take each pair of cards and combine them into one image. So there are differences like that, but the general technique people use is the memory palace for most of the events. That’s basically how I do it for studying for school, too. There are a few others events that aren’t sequential – there’s a names and faces event. What people do there is just look at the face and try to find some sort of distinctive features, and then they’ll visualize something that represents the name and attach it to that feature somehow. So like if I were to do you, for instance, I might look at your hair and imagine Randy Johnson, the pitcher that played for the Diamondbacks for a while – maybe he’s throwing a baseball, and it’s zooming right across your hair like that. It’s really just about trying to be imaginative and creative with your visuals.
Anything that gives some meaning to an otherwise abstract thing is useful. But, in general, pictures are especially helpful because our minds tend to think that way. Pretty much everything in terms of the mnemonics that I do is based on some kind of visualization. Occasionally, I still use acronyms. Occasionally, I still use acrostic type sentences of phrases that have some sort of mnemonic meaning. But at least for me, the bulk of it is memory palace or just visualizing something in an empty space.
I still use repetition. I don’t think any memory technique is perfect. Even if I encode something in a memory palace, I’ll still go back and review it. If I come back in three weeks, it’s pretty much gone. But if you revisit it a couple days after, maybe a week after that, a month after that, then you’ve pretty much got it in longterm memory. The “spaced repetition” review process is helpful, regardless, even if you’re not using mnemonics. Using it in combination with mnemonic memory techniques really kinda kicks it up a notch.
A lot of people don’t really see the practical value of memorization. What real value does it offer?
MULLEN: At first glance, I think a lot of people would think, sure, it would be nice to have a better memory. You could use it to remember people’s names, presentations, facts – you know, it would be helpful. But at the same time, we live in an age of Wikipedia and smart phones, the Internet – does that really matter anymore?
Keep in mind, it’s not about trying to memorize everything. I don’t memorize the numbers in my phone. I don’t have any interest in doing that. I use memory techniques for specific things like remembering people’s names, which is helpful. But the real benefit to me is learning. When you encode, for instance, everything you’re learning in microbiology, for example, into images that you can recall easily, as you move forward, you recognize connections between the things you’re learning more easily.
But then there are plenty of details that, at the time, seem out of context. You can’t really understand them intuitively, they’re just facts. So what I like to do is convert those things into these visual images and remember them that way, and then down the line when you’re able to recall that information and keep it at the front of your mind, you can give context to those things that didn’t have context before. It’s all about seeing connections between things.
How do you think memory techniques could be beneficial for students?
MULLEN: One thing that I think is really the cornerstone of memory techniques that I think is helpful just to understand is this idea that creativity matters. When I was in school, in high school, I would use acronyms and I would feel that’s it’s helpful. But in a sense, I was unsure as to whether or not is was “cheating.” Nobody told me “you should use this” or “you can do this” or “you can visualize things that are sort of weird and help you remember things. Nobody really tells you that’s okay.
Trying to associate things with seemingly disconnected things is an important skill and students should know that it’s okay to do it. So just encouraging people to think creatively or try to associate connections between things, I think would be helpful and I’d like to see more of this type of thing in schools. Not even getting into the whole memory palace technique necessarily – that’s obviously very helpful, but there are more basic techniques than that.
So what do you hope to do with Mullen Memory?
MULLEN: I’ve been at this for about three years now, and pretty much from the beginning I wanted to start putting materials online so that I could have to have a platform to teach people how to use the techniques. Even though the book, Moonwalking with Einstein and Foer’s TED talk are so successful, the idea still is not out there enough and still not being used in schools.
Memory techniques are one of those things that are easy to understand but difficult to master. Take the “20 Word Challenge” video I did. It’s something that pretty much everybody can do. But then – and I’ve talked to some people who have done studies on this – at some point, people start to run into roadblocks trying to actually apply the techniques to learning. And they just give up.
That’s understandable. It happened to me. I obviously had a little more motivation to keep pushing on it. But it’s nice for people to have somebody in front of them who can say, here are some things that I struggled with. Here’s how to fix it. When I was coming up, trying to learn this stuff, there were plenty of videos out there saying here’s how memorize a list of 20 words. They may show you how to memorize somebody’s name, but they don’t teach you how to learn exam material. So I wished that I would have had some real examples of people doing that. And that’s something that I struggled with. But there are certain tricks that we use to make that process as easy as possible. So that’s what I’m trying to do with the website – to give people real-life examples and tutorials to solve some of those questions and basic roadblocks that I ran into.
Is it going to be a business for you?
MULLEN: That still remains to be seen. I really was motivated to get it going because of the world championship, and so it’s still getting off the ground. But, just in the first few weeks, the feedback has been really good. People like the videos. I get a lot of messages – every day. We’re taking a year off of med school next year, and I’m hoping to do some presentations and workshop seminars. I’m doing one actually in two days. Just to start to get the word out there just as much as I can.
My main passion with this is trying to get it into education because I think it can be really helpful. It’s certainly changed my life academically. I’m really focusing on schools and universities, rather than businesses, which is different from what a lot of other people do. My big message is that people can do it. A lot of people see me and think, okay, you can do it – you’re the world memory champion. And that’s really the reason why I made the 20 word challenge video. Just take 5 minutes, try it, and you can do it.
At the risk of the MWB Blog looking increasingly like a tavern, I feel compelled to write a postmortem on our latest #MWBeer30 event. Jon Fisher, Donnie Brimm, and Bethany Cooper from Oxford-based FNC gave a great talk reviewing many of the practices and protocols their company has put in place designed to stir innovation and creativity. I think attendees of this event (4/17) will agree that it really was inspiring to hear a Silicon Valley-esque approach to innovation being undertaken by a company who is committed to being headquartered in Mississippi.
Like I’ve said a million times before, Silicon Valley was an apple orchard 60 years ago. There’s no reason we can’t turn the Delta, red clay hills, pine woods, gulf coast, and mini-Appalachian landscapes that are Mississippi into something at least equally as impressive. And I don’t want to gloss over the fact that FNC – like so many other thriving entities – is committed to a robust corporate headquarters in our state. The company counts the majority of the top 20 banks in the U.S. as clients utilizing their applications. They are rapidly expanding operations into Brazil and Canada. I have a feeling new products are in the offing. FNC basically invented a category and is the market leader. Not bad for Oxford, Mississippi. Heck, that wouldn’t be bad for Oxford, England.
But back to the main point, the latest #MWBeer30. We had a great crowd attend representing Innovate Mississippi, the Mississippi Development Authority, the Clarion Ledger, EatShopPlayLiveJXN, C Spire, and various other highly innovative individuals. After a brief announcement about TEDxJackson 2015 (coming 11.12.15) and watching the newest Star Wars Trailer (yes, it looks uber cool) the folks from FNC took the floor. Here’s what we learned from their 6 minute 40 second presentation:
1. A 6-minute, 40-second, 20 slide presentation is called “Pecha Kucha.”
Here’s Jon Fisher from FNC getting into their talk. Many of you may be familiar with the “Pecha Kucha” approach. I was not. This is a presentation that consists of a total of 20 slides and each slide lasts no more than 20 seconds. Jon’s pictured here taking us “through the wormhole” that is FNC’s innovation process. The story I was told was that #MWBeer30 was the first time these guys had used Pecha Kucha in a talk… and they didn’t practice, either. They really had it down seamlessly, so I don’t know that I necessarily believe that “we didn’t do a run-through” story. Either way, they nailed it. This was a highly effective and engaging way to present information, so three cheers on the style points!
2. Play-Doh isn’t just for kids anymore.
Bethany Cooper of FNC talked specifically about some of the (dare I use the phrase) out-of-the-box exercises that the company utilizes to get the creative juices flowing. These include actual Play-Doh planning sessions. Don’t be skeptical. There’s a reason four-year-olds think they can do anything.
Other hyper-cool practices FNC has implemented include developing and maintaining their own internal Innovation Team, an annual all-night hackathon called The Forge (props to Jon Fisher for having a product from The Forge now in development), and their implementation of the “80/20” work principle. The latter of these, being a concept pioneered by 3M and really made famous by Google, roughly states that an employee has the freedom to spend 20% of their time working on pet projects they believe will contribute to a company’s mission, outside of “sanctioned” job functions.
3. People will show up and talk… for beer… (and for other reasons, too).
Many, many apologies to FNC, but I didn’t learn until they pulled into our world headquarters about 2:45 p.m. that they had actually missed out on the annual FNC crawfish boil to some speak to the attendees of #MWBeer30. I hate the thought of making someone miss their own event like that, but I will also say that we’re not BYOB. We had great craft beer (much of it brewed here in the great state of Mississippi) on hand for sampling. There are so many innovative people in Jackson and across Mississippi that we feel honored to provide a forum to evangelize the growing nature of our state’s knowledge economy, the great creative assets that we possess, and the how companies, organizations, and individuals are really fostering a culture of innovation.
Tasha Bibb (top) and Lynlee Honea (bottom) were among a contingent from Innovate Mississippi who attended #MWBeer30. Innovate Mississippi is a great organization who are champions of innovation culture and entrpreneurialism across our state. Always very glad to see these folks in attendance.
4. Mississippians are engaged and ready to support our knowledge-based companies.
Plain and simple, we (Mississippians) get a bad rap. “We’re a backwater…” “we really can read and write…” “thank goodness for Arkansas…”. Well we say phooey on all that nonsense. And apologies to our friends from the Travelers State, no disrespect intended. I’m just trying to convey the point here that we’re poised and ready to springboard into a prominent place in the 21st century.
Here’s Donnie Brimm from FNC talking. Donnie and the rest of the FNC crew got peppered with questions after their 6 minutes and 40 seconds were done. And I don’t mean peppered in a “Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes GOTCHA” kind of way. The people at #MWBeer30 were genuinely curious and supportive of great knowledge-based business like FNC and wanted to know more about the industry, the development aspect, and especially what kind of stumbling blocks had the company encountered in implementing a real culture of innovation.
They say that an indicator of creativity and intelligence is the ability to ask great questions. That being said, we certainly had a highly creative and intelligent group of people who attend #MWBeer30. Being a connoisseur of great craft beer is simply a plus. By the way, our craft beer is courtesy of the great guys at LD’s Beer Run, serving a huge selection of local, regional, and national craft brands. Stop by and see them if you’re ever in the neighborhood.
5. Star Wars The Force Awakens looks super cool.
One of the warm-up acts for FNC’s presentation was screening of the new trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. To quote Mississippi icon Marshall Ramsey, “I watched it at least a dozen times and I felt my heart swell when Han said, “Chewie, we’re home.” To quote MWB VP Keith Fraser, “OhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGod.” Yes, it certainly sends chills throughout your spine. The folks gathering at MWB world heaquarters gave a standing ovation after the trailer. Well, technically they were already standing, but I feel certain if they could have levitated, they would have.
6. It’s ok to hire people with purple hair.
This was actually a happy little coincidence of parallelism. A couple of years ago FNC CEO Bill Rayburn was giving the luncheon keynote talk at Innovate Mississippi’s annual luncheon. During his impassioned delivery (those of you who have ever heard Mr. Rayburn give a talk know exactly what I’m talking about), he made the statement – I’m paraphrasing here – that in the new economy we have to get over not hiring people because of things like tattoos and purple hair and instead be meritorious in our approach. Basically, hire the most creative, innovative, and driven person for the job at hand.
Well MWB new hire Erica Robinson just happened to show up at her first #MWBeer30 sporting a rather glamorous “Friday wig,” as she calls it. Everybody loved it. She’s a great addition to our creative staff and innovative culture and certainly the embodiment of how not to let individualism and self expression be an impediment to raising your organization’s intellectual talent. Can’t wait to see this Friday’s colour-de-jour.
In fact, one of the best TEDx talks I’ve heard was given by purple-haired Heather Crawford at the TEDxAntioch event I also spoke at in 2014. Check out Heather’s talk here, titled “You really ARE what you eat.”
Correction, 1:37 P.M. Also do not be afraid to hire people who’s names are spelled in unconventional ways. I just realized her name is actually “Hether Crawford.” Our apologies, Hether.
So anyway, a great time at April’s #MWBeer30. Again, many many thanks to FNC for sending down some of their most impressive folks to give a great 6-minute, 40-second presentation. We’re already working on the agenda for #MWBeer30 in May, so if you want to keep up with this and other #MWBeer30 events, please opt into our MWB Tap special alter system. Cheers!
Ray Harris (MWB), Tasha Bibb & Lynlee Honea (Innovate Mississippi), various unidentifiable pairs legs.
All photography via MWB’s Tate Nations.
In this edition of the MWB Podcast, Tim talks with MWB CFO Mike Booth. After a trip to the village of Assisi, Italy, Mike was inspired to build his own architectural show place in rural Mississippi. And we mean literally build it himself…. down to planning his own 2x4s from trees on his own land!
We’ve often said that creativity permeates every person and function at MWB. Even an accountant-by-trade has creative inspiration flowing through his veins at MWB! Listen to Mike recount his moment of inspiration overseas, how a miscalculation led to a signature feature of his home, and newest project… a self-built windmill to aerate his fish pond.
It’s all in this week’s journey into creative chaos and enigmatic innovation that is the MWB Podcast.
(check out a couple of photos of Mike’s self-built creative home)
Brought to you from the Creative Cafe at Maris, West & Baker, we’re excited to launch the MWB Podcast! The show, dubbed a weekly 17-minute exploration into the world of creative chaos and enigmatic innovation, debuted it’s inaugural episode with special guest Dr. Sumesh Arora of Innovate Mississippi. Show host Tim Mask and Dr. Arora discussed the theory of diffusion of innovation and how it can be used within and extension model to spur creativity and economic development.
New MWB Podcasts will be posted weekly to the SoundCloud podcast platform and will be available via the MWB website. Each week a special guest will discuss some aspect of creativity and/or innovation relative to a wide range of topics including digital literacy, art and architecture, economic improvement initiatives, technology, and many, many more. Semi-regular show segments include monologues, feature profiles on companies and organizations that are engaged in innovative projects, and “The Coolest Thing I’ve Seen” series.
We invite you to tune in each week to the MWB Podcast. If you’re interested in making a guest appearance on the show, by all means please contact us.
At MWB, we’re always doing fun things that also substantively spur creativity and innovation for ourselves and our clients. Creative Director/Short Order Chef Marc Leffler institutionalized Friday breakfast several years ago. A group of us meet at lunch to watch/discuss/speculate about what’s happening with Game of Thrones. We’ve invested our resources in promoting innovative companies and aspects within Mississippi with our Innovation Article series. And as of today, we’re opening the MWB Creative Caffeine Café.
We’ve documented the association between caffeine and creativity. So what better way to spend a little time than rapid fire of innovative ideas over a cup ‘o joe? So, conveniently located downstairs in the office of Tim Mask, we’ve opened a creative café. And the best part is, you’re invited. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, feel free to stop by 8:30 – 9:00 a.m. and we can discuss new and innovative ideas on economic development, healthcare, education, etc. (might want to tweet me first if you’re coming by… just to make sure I’m in the office that day). The only catch before you can partake in caffeinated goodness is that you must write one innovative idea on the big white board conveniently located to the right of the coffeemaker.
Let’s enjoy a good cup of coffee and generate some valuable, creative, and innovative ideas. See you soon at the MWB Creative Caffeine Café!
Mitchel Resnick, PhD, is a LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT Media Lab. His research group developed the “programmable brick” technology that inspired LEGO MindStorms robotics kits. More recently, the group developed Scratch, a popular programming environment for kids. Dr. Resnick received the 2011 McGraw Prize in Education and was listed by Fast Company as one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business.
We spoke about the importance of creative learning, effective strategies for digital literacy, and the impact of initiatives to introduce computer science into more classrooms.
Dr. Mitchel Resnick. Photo by Joi Ito.
What is the Lifelong Kindergarten Group?
RESNICK: My research group, the Lifelong Kindergarten Group, develops new technologies and new activities to engage people in creative learning experiences. So we help people learn through designing, creating and expressing themselves.
We call the group Lifelong Kindergarten because we’re inspired by the way children learn in kindergarten. In the classic kindergarten, children are constantly designing and creating things in collaboration with one another. They build towers with wooden blocks and make pictures with finger paints—and we think they learn a lot in the process.
What we want to do with our new technology and activities is extend that kindergarten approach to learning, to learners of all ages. So everybody can continue to learn in a kindergarten style, but to learn more advanced and sophisticated ideas over time.
I understand there’s a long history at MIT of using computers as a tool for education.
RESNICK: It goes all the way back to the 1960s with Seymour Papert, who started working on the Logo programming language. It was a way for kids to be able to write computer programs to control things. Now, at the time, most people thought it was crazy because computers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Seymour recognized that computers were going to become less expensive and would proliferate throughout the world. So he saw there was an opportunity to use computers as tools for young people and that young people would have access to that technology. He knew that the best experiences would result from not just using computers to deliver information, but letting kids take control of the technology so they could create things.
Seymour would say it’s important that you don’t want the computer programming the child; you want the child programming the computer. You want the child to be in control. So Seymour started these ideas all the way back in the 1960s. His ideas then started to get out into the world when personal computers became available in the late 1970s into the 1980s. The Logo programming language became one of the most popular ways children were using personal computers in schools in the 1980s.
I was deeply influenced by Seymour. He was my most important mentor, and I continue to be inspired by his ideas about children learning by designing and creating things. Our work on LEGO Mindstorms and Scratch were deeply inspired by the ideas from Seymour Papert.
Why is it important to provide kids with opportunities for creative learning?
RESNICK: The process of making things in the world—creating things—it provides us with the opportunity to take the ideas that we have in our mind and to represent them out in the world. Once we do that, it sparks new ideas. So there’s this constant back and forth between having new ideas in your mind, creating things in the world, and that process sparking new ideas in the mind which lets you create new things. So it’s this constant spiral of creating and generating new ideas.
We live in a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before. Things that you learn today could be obsolete tomorrow. But one thing is for sure: People will confront unexpected situations and unexpected challenges in the future. So what’s going to be most important is for kids to be able to come up with new and innovative solutions to the new challenges that arise. That’s why it’s so important to develop as a creative thinker. Just knowing a fixed set of facts and skills is not enough. The ability to think and act creatively will be the most important ingredient for success in the future.
You’ve spoken about “learning to code” versus “coding to learn.” What’s the difference?
RESNICK: Many people are starting to get interested in learning to code, or learning to program computers. One reason a lot of people are interested is because it provides opportunities for jobs and careers because there’s a growing need for professional programmers and computer scientists. So that’s one reason for learning to code—there really is a need and there are economic opportunities.
But I think there’s a much bigger opportunity. I often make the analogy to learning to write: Some people who are learning to write will become professional journalists or novelists, however most people aren’t going to make a living just through their writing. But we still want everyone to learn to write, because once you learn to write, it lets you organize your thinking, and it helps you express your ideas in new ways. I see it as being the same with coding. Although coding does provide some economic opportunities for jobs and careers, I think the most important reason for learning to code is it lets you organize your ideas and express your ideas.
Coding lets you learn many other things. So that’s why I think what’s most important is not just learning to code, but coding to learn. As you’re learning to code, you’re learning many other things.
What kinds of skills does coding teach?
RESNICK: You learn how to organize your ideas. That is, you take complex ideas and break them down into simpler parts: How to identify problems and then “debug” the problems. How to take the ideas of others and reformulate those ideas to meet your needs. Those are all common things that people do when they’re coding. But those are also common things you do in all types of problem-solving activities and design activities.
Even if you’re doing something that has nothing to do with coding—if you’re organizing a birthday party for a friend or developing a new marketing plan for your company—you use some of those same ideas. So those approaches, which you can learn through coding, can then be applied to all different kinds of activities both in your personal life and your work life.
Should every child learn to code? Should coding be a school subject like algebra or chemistry?
RESNICK: I do think every child should learn to code, and I would approach it similarly to writing—the same way we teach children to write and then let them use their writing in all other courses. You learn to write and then use your writing in writing book reports and writing science reports—you use it in all other subjects. And I think similarly, it would be great for all kids to code and then use that knowledge in many other classes.
Events like Hour of Code have raised the visibility of coding and given people an opportunity to get some sense of what coding is all about. But it only will be meaningful if there’s a follow-up and follow-through. If people take that initial spark and turn an hour of code into a day of code or a week of code or a month of code where they continue to explore the possibilities of coding.
So it’s the same thing. If you just spend an hour learning to write, it wouldn’t be so useful. On the other hand, if that sparks your imagination and then you continue to do more things with it, then it becomes meaningful.
How is Scratch changing the way people think about computer programming?
RESNICK: We emphasize that Scratch is a way to express yourself creatively, to express your ideas. It’s also a social activity: You can share your projects with others and learn from what others are doing. Many other organizations that are trying to help people learn to code don’t focus on those ideas. They often are just focused on students learning the concepts of computer science or learning how to solve puzzles with programming.
We take a different approach with Scratch. We see Scratch as an opportunity to express yourself creatively and to work collaboratively. I think it’s really important to have that as a core underpinning for what coding is about. Our ultimate goals with Scratch are to help young people think creatively, reason systematically and work collaboratively. We think those skills are incredibly important in today’s society.
In Mississippi, we have some big challenges relating to education and poverty. Can computer science be a game-changer for us?
RESNICK: I think it’s always dangerous to assume that there’s any one thing that’s going to make a big cultural change. But it could be one element.
Before you can think about changing living standards, you need to change learning standards. I think computer science provides new opportunities to help people become better learners. I think the thing that’s going to guarantee success in the future is people developing as creative thinkers and creative learners. Doing creative work with technology through learning to code is one pathway to that. It’s not the only pathway. But I think what’s probably the most important thing is having young people grow up with opportunities to think and act creatively. That’s the key.
Would you say that computer science can engage students that may otherwise be not that interested in school?
RESNICK: I do think it’s incredibly important to build on young people’s interest. People are going to be most interested in learning when they’re working on things that they really care about. The computer, if it’s used the right way, has the opportunity to engage kids in doing things that they really care about. But I want to add that doesn’t happen automatically. The computer can also be used in a way that kids won’t be interested in.
So it’s not just about using the computer—it’s the way in which it’s used.
There aren’t very many credentialed computer science teachers out there. Are credentials necessary for teaching computer science to young people?
RESNICK: I agree with you that there’s a challenge. Many teachers don’t have much background in this area. I think further into the future, we’ll get more teachers over time with more expertise. But, for now, I think there are great resources for teachers to learn enough to help young people get started with coding and using computers in creative ways.
I would also encourage schools to support teachers in learning new things so that they can help support these young people—and also hiring new teachers who can bring new expertise into the schools. This isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s a long-term process.
How should K-12 schools approach the teaching of computer science?
RESNICK: We should make sure all subjects are taught in a way where kids get a chance to learn through creative expression. And not just computer programming. In a science class or physics class or biology class, teachers should allow students to have creative learning experiences.
We should rethink all school subjects so there are opportunities for children to learn by designing, creating, experimenting and exploring. That’s also true when we use computers. We should use computers to design, create, experiment and explore. But we should apply those ideas to all classes and all media.
So you’re saying more hands-on learning?
RESNICK: Well, it depends on what you mean by hands-on. I would emphasize learning by creating and experimenting. If you put your hands on something, and you’re just following the instructions to build a model, then that’s not a very good activity even though your hands are involved. What’s important is to give kids the opportunity to create things and experiment with things, to use their imaginations and to think creatively.
What are your thoughts about getting more women and minority students involved in computer science?
RESNICK: I think that’s linked to what we talked about earlier with supporting people and building on their own interests. Often, in all school subjects, including particularly computer science, you’re taught in one way which might be appealing to some people but not others. We need to make sure we provide multiple pathways into activities.
For example, when we developed Scratch, we made sure that people can use Scratch to do all types of different things. You can make a game, you can make a story, you can make an animation, you can compose music. That’s because different kids have different interests. If we only had computer programming for making games, that would be appealing for some kids and not for others. We wanted to be sure to provide multiple pathways so that kids from all backgrounds and all interests are able to follow their interests and become creative learners.
We’ve launched a new digital magazine focusing on creativity and innovation in the world of marketing. MWB staff Tim Mask, Randy Lynn, and Marc Leffler are the magazine’s primary content wranglers. The magazine is created via a platform allowing for optimized viewing via tablet or smart phone. New editions will be available every 7 – 10 days, and will chronicle the innovation happens that make advertising one of the world’s most rapidly evolving industries. The publication, called INNOVATIONS is available by subscription or can be viewed by clicking here. MWB’s Twitter feed will also note when a new issue has been posted. We all hope you enjoy!