Learning From Reality — A Conversation with Susana Tosca

This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews exploring the notion of Nordic creativity and innovation. To find out more about the project, please click here.

At a time where leading scholars, business leaders, and advocates are pushing for fundamental reforms of established teaching methodologies and school systems, encouraging a transformation of the current approach to education that can better equip children to face the challenges of the emerging world, as well as helping them identify and nurture their creative potential, I thought it’d be interesting to have a look at how some Danish schools are using technology to bring about some of these changes.

So, I reached out to Susana Tosca, Associate Professor of Digital Media at the Department of Arts and Humanities at Roskilde University. What you’ll find below is an excerpt of an hour-long conversation, lightly edited for lenght and clarity. I hope you enjoy it.

HRM: Hi Susana, can you please tell me a bit more about you and the work you have been doing?

SUSANA: I’m a Digital Media researcher and that means I have been, for the last twenty years, trying to trace the changes in how people communicate with each other using digital media. In the beginning, I researched what was called at the time hypertext, which had to do with how we read. For example, when reading websites, instead of doing it linearly, we read hopping around so I was interested in understanding how that process affected comprehension and if people could understand what they were reading.

Then I moved on to computer games. What is playing a computer game? How is it different from reading a book or seeing a film? Again, it was about the experience of people and how their engagement with this kind of media was different. Then, in the last chunk of my research, I have been working on something called transmediality or how people engage with different topics and different stories across different media.

Also, on the side, I have worked with other researchers on a project — and I guess that’s why you are here — which was about how the introduction of tablets at schools changed the way kids worked creatively.

HRM: What was the purpose of that particular project and what were your main findings?

SUSANA: What we wanted was to develop a methodology to see how technology could be used to steer creative processes in a way that encourages self-direction. Our kids got there, so I guess the finding is that you can actually teach this to kids.

Before, there was this assumption that processes that involved too many “unknowns” were bad for teaching at schools because kids needed instructions for how to get from A to B to C, but our project showed that they can also be put into very open situations and actually navigate them if you teach them how to do it.

That is, in a way, a crucial aspect of creativity, right? The fact that there isn’t just one solution to a problem; you need to be able to evaluate a context, make some choices, discard some options… all these activities that we maybe take for granted if we work with design as adults.

HRM: The outcome of the project, as you say, was to propose a methodology on how to approach digital production. Does that mean that there was no methodology in place before this, or was it more a case of improving an existing way of approaching these tasks that was maybe a bit outdated?

SUSANA: In the Danish school system, there has always been this willingness to put a lot of technology in schools. They had bought all these iPads and given one to each kid, which is a bit crazy, but the teachers didn’t really know what to do with that because they had been trained in the old ways, so there was this mismatch between a huge acquisition of technology by a good number of schools in Denmark and teachers that have never had any training whatsoever in how to use these devices. What we did was to borrow methods from the design discipline and try to see if they made sense in a school setting.

So, I guess it was a question of technology being quicker than the actual method development, and the government wanting to do something to pat it up. Also, the idea of design is something very Danish, right? Now they are really trying to push that design thinking into schools and there is this intention of transforming old subjects like woodcarving and sewing, which are a tradition in schools here, into a design discipline. It’s always been about making things but now all those projects have to be put into a design context; you have to think things before, you have to create your own specifications, and then you can go ahead and build it. The sort of meta-reflection about the actual making of things is now part of the school curriculum.

HRM: Where did the study take place and how long was it?

SUSANA: It took place over a 3-year period in five schools across Denmark; one in the north of Zealand, one in Copenhagen, another here in Roskilde and two others in Jylland. In each school, we observed two classes (one class was in first grade when they started the project and the other group was in fifth grade), each researcher had a school as a center of operations, and we simply followed these kids.

Every semester, I’d be there for about twenty days and be part of the teaching. It wasn’t only about the days when they did specific projects about being creative with these sort of technologies but the idea was to see if working a lot with creative processes also had an influence in whatever else they were doing. We can’t really say it did — that was really challenging — but we certainly saw these kids grow, over these three years, from being kids who never really used digital media for anything other than playing to being kids that really had a huge repertoire… they could make films, they could program computer games, they could program robots, and they were really at ease with the technologies and the design processes.

HRM: Can you tell me more about the kind of tasks the students were asked to do?

SUSANA: In everyday teaching, they used the iPads for a lot of things but there were mainly six interventions, which were bigger projects. The first one was a multimedia assignment where they had to make a book using texts and visual materials, and the iPad was used to imitate a print book. The second intervention asked them to make a film with puppets, using an app to make an animation in which they had to consider scenography, dialogues, scenes and all that. The third one was… maybe I’m not getting the order right, but there was also one about making a computer game, one about making a robot, then there was a web-based one in which they had to use websites and social media specifically created for the project to interact with other classes, and the last one was an “innovation intervention” in which they had to identify a problem and then try to solve it.

HRM: How were those creative processes you are talking about presented to the kids?

SUSANA: Well, the first two or three interventions were simple; everything was very directed, and at all times we were very clear in letting them know what they were supposed to be doing. It was only in the last intervention that the process was completely open.

HRM: Were there any inventions that you thought were a smart way of solving a particular problem?

SUSANA: Definitely. In the school I was, for example, the problem was that a lot of people were throwing thrash around so they had to figure out how to nudge other kids to throw the trash in the bin through a communication campaign or an invention to solve this problem. This one was so much fun because it was an issue that touched their daily lives so they really poured their hearts and souls into it.

At that point, they were third-graders, so about nine years old, and they developed a complex system of tubes with holes in them where you could throw in the trash, and they put them under the handrails in the staircases of the school. The problem was that nobody wanted to wait until they got down to the trash bin but they figured that if you could just throw in the trash in many places along the way, then it would all be taken down to the main bin. They measured, they did a lot of complex drawings, calculated how they should make the holes, which materials to use, made a 3D model of the system… it was so good.

At the same time, they had a communication campaign about this in which one of the kids played the role of a “rubbish” scientist; a guy who had spent all his life investigating rubbish (laughs)… and he had glasses and a lab coat and they made these videos, put them on YouTube…it was crazy, they really went all the way. They came up with an invention and then recognized that part of it was also educating the other kids.

HRM: And all that came from them?

SUSANA: Yes, we didn’t do anything. We just said to them, “you have used media and innovation processes for many things where we have directed you, now you have this problem you need to solve… what do you do?” We had meetings where we said to them, “well, now you should have an idea of what you are doing,” and the next day, we would say, “now you should have a drawing of whatever you are doing so we can see what’s your plan,” and so on, but it was very undefined. That was just one of the groups but the other groups also had really cool things.

HRM: Were there any aspects you were surprised they had considered, even though maybe they hadn’t tried to do any of those tasks before?

SUSANA: What I think was fun, and I have actually written an article about it with one of the other researchers, was what we called Imitatio. In the old Latin world, when you learned rhetoric, one of the exercises at the beginning was always that you tried to imitate what other people had done because then you learned it. So, if you had to write a speech, you read all the great speeches and then you tried to write the same. These kids were using this method even though nobody had trained them on it.

For example, some of the kids decided they wanted to do a news program to teach the other kids, but what is a news program? How is it? They sat down, watched a lot of news programs and wrote down their observations, like, “usually, there has to be music and a logo, and there has to be someone sitting at a table with some papers and having an authoritative voice.” (laughs)

They picked up on all of this. Of course, the things they decided were important were a bit weird or random, but the process of learning from reality and then trying to imitate it was very interesting. In a way, it’s like an analysis of a particular field, in this case, news reporting. The same happened with the group that made a YouTube video; they tried to imitate their favorite YouTubers and learned from watching a lot of content, then they agreed on which categories were important and reproduced them. It’s a very smart way of learning a genre, and it doesn’t mean they didn’t innovate because along the way, they took their own decisions. This process of imitating and once you have the knack for something, being comfortable enough to change it… that occurred nearly spontaneously.

HRM: Did you notice any significant difference between kids in each of these particular schools?

SUSANA: Yeah. We tried to pick schools that were different… one of them was in Hellerup, which is one of the wealthy neighborhoods in Denmark and then another one was in a low-income area in Jylland, so initially, the kids had very different expectations and attitudes towards technology. Some kids had never touched an iPad whereas the rich kids had three iPads at home, you know, so they had very different starting points in relation to the technology but none of them had really any experience using the technology creatively. In that, they were all equal.

We also found differences in how the parents talked to us about things; some of the parents, especially the highly educated parents, were worried that there was too much technology involved and that it could be stealing time from “real” teaching, whereas more disadvantaged parents thought it was a great opportunity because their kids were shown into a world that they otherwise couldn’t provide themselves and because they thought kids would gain some competencies that are really good in the job market.

There was another difference… one of the schools, the Hellerup school, operates without classrooms. It’s one of those open schools where there are basically no walls, you sit around somewhere and then you are sent to do things. In this school, they were used to creative processes, design, disruption… that’s how they do their teaching. But in the other schools, where there was a more traditional style of teaching with classrooms and all the kids in rows, they had a more difficult time getting started with these processes where you don’t really know what you have to do until you have done it. It was clear that the Hellerup kids had more competencies in open processes.

HRM: You mentioned that the kids had different starting points, did the ones that were behind at the beginning manage to catch up quickly?

SUSANA: Yeah, they did. Definitely. We also collected the projects they made and some of the best projects we saw were actually from the sort of disadvantaged groups.

HRM: Creativity is not only about coming up with ideas, it also involves making critical judgements about them, often having to reject some ideas to pursue others. However, I think that Danes’ aversion to conflict can sometimes get in the way of that assesment so I’m curious to know… how were the interactions between these kids when discussing their ideas and how did they arrive to a solution they all agree to pursue?

SUSANA: It’s interesting you say that about the adults because I think the kids are partly socialized into that, but not completely. What we observed many times in these groups is that most kids already had that attitude; they let everybody speak, then they would choose something and when they couldn’t agree, they would very often say “let’s vote.”

The groups had four to six children, so you could usually vote. They had this internalized. But then, what happened was that the ones who got voted out, of course, got unhappy. They didn’t completely accept it but they knew those were the rules. What we also observed is that there are some individuals who are more powerful, either because they are dominating or because they talk more than the others, and very often they could get the others kids to support them.

In my school, there were actually two girls who were really good at getting the others with them. One of them was very manipulative; she would say, “if we don’t do things this way, then I’m not doing it anymore” and then the other kids would go, “yeah, yeah, let’s do what she says because she’s the clever one,” while the other girl was more convincing because her ideas were really good. And we were all wondering, was it just by chance that it was girls? Because usually you would expect boys to be more assertive but in this case, it was girls.

HRM: Was it the same in other schools?

SUSANA: The whole “let’s vote” approach was common in all schools, and in all schools adults had to intervene and play a socializing function into accepting democracy, but I’m not sure if there were other girls displaying the same behaviour. One of the things that happens when there are so many researchers is that you agree on some categories we all watch — in this case specifically related to creativity — but we didn’t agree on looking out for this kind of behaviour, these were just my own observations, so when we came back and pulled the data, the others hadn’t got any notes about it to correlate it with. They had impressions but they hadn’t focused on it so in that particular, we don’t know if there was a pattern or if it was just chance.

HRM: In your opinion, how does play influences creativity?

SUSANA: I’m not a play researcher so this is just a hunch, but if I have to try linking it to some of the empirical research I have done, for example, with the kids and the tablets… some of the things that we saw, was that kids love to play — we know that — but even when you are putting kids on to direct processes of creativity, like making a game or a website, they would get lost in trying to choose the colors they were going to use for a website or they would get lost playing different games to try getting inspiration on what their game was going to be like. Play would often take over whatever they were doing, and when they were in the middle of a directed process, the teachers would always stop the kids and ask them to stop playing to focus on the task at hand but the kids would always try to diverge from that and play with something. That was really interesting, observing that adults always try to stop the kids and get them back on track.

There was a really funny case, where they had to do a news segment, and they spent a lot of time choosing the kind of makeup and clothes they were going to wear, getting the right voice and things like that. The teachers were desperate! They were worried the kids were never going to do the assignment within the time they had allocated for it so it seemed that play, for them, was something dangerous because it got kids absorbed and prevented them from reaching the goal of the activity.

At the same time, there were a lot of discoveries along the process that were very interesting from a researcher’s point of view. If you cut them off and try putting them on track, you get boring projects and you don’t get a lot of learning but if you allow them to play a little bit, then you give them an opportunity to get into the project and explore whatever they think is interesting and then they learn; maybe not what you thought they would learn but then they learn something else. Opening up to play and then bringing the kids back into the activity was a really hard exercise for most of the adults and teachers.

HRM: Would you say adults were more concerned with the results than with the process of the activity?

SUSANA: Yeah, definitely.

HRM: What are the consequences of that approach? Could it be that teachers are unknowingly undermining children’s creativity?

SUSANA: Well, I think the problem is that teachers haven’t really learned how to tackle a creative process. If you are a maths teacher that suddenly uses computer games to get kids to learn about maths… you know what they have to learn when they are in fourth or fifth grade, so that’s what you worry about. But if by doodling with the program they learn something else, then you don’t know what to do with that. Teachers are very much fixated on their preexisting categories and they find it difficult to open up, but they also don’t really have any tools for steering a creative process so what we realized halfway through the project was that if we trained the teachers in design methods, then the teachers could facilitate creative processes without closing them.

So, we did a turbo course where we met with the teachers before they actually had to do things with the kids and taught them about iteration, what is a development process, how can you open up and close… you know, all these concepts from design processes.

HRM: What was that experience like? Were there any misconceptions regarding how the teachers perceived the creative process?

SUSANA: I think they were mostly worried about discipline boundaries, like, if you open up, then the kids will do something that doesn’t really belong in school… how useful it’s that they watch a lot of YouTube videos and things like that. They were very much into their boxes. I’m a maths teacher, I’m a language teacher… that made them less prone to experimentation because experimentation is always going to involve introducing things from all sorts of areas and then you don’t know what to do with it. That’s one thing they were really worried about.

As for us, we were surprised that as soon as the teachers understood these design methods and tried them out, they got spectacular results. For example, there was this lady who had to teach kids how to make a computer game… she was in her fifties and she was a good teacher but she had never played a computer game before. But she had now learned about the design process so she went to the class and told them, “you need to build a computer game, I don’t know anything about computer games… so you tell me, what is a computer game? What are the elements you think are fun?” She had this incredible discussion with the kids, where she stood by the board and wrote things like, “a computer game has to be challenging, but not too challenging.” These kids were ten years old and they came up with this long list of specifications for the perfect computer game that you often find in game design books, I was mind-blown!

I think that is a good example of how an adult can actually facilitate a creative process in a very constructive way. I don’t know if she was just very good at tuning in to the kids but I guess we can all learn from it, like not having this expert attitude when you try to help others be creative. How do you actually let them be creative and not put them in these boxes all the time? I have used this example in so many papers because I think that what happened there was so good.

HRM: Speaking of helping others be creative, do you think the education system in Denmark help kids identify their unique skills and creative potential?

SUSANA: Oh, that’s difficult. I was at this school for three years, doing this research project, and I also have three kids in the school system so that is another source of experience, and I think there is a lot of stress on the group mentality. The kids all have to get along, the teachers have to make sure that everybody understand what is being said… so, in the classroom, I have seen teachers have a lot of focus on the kids that were maybe a little bit behind, getting them to do some exercises and giving them extra attention.

But I have also seen bright kids, on the other end of the spectrum, not being given a lot of attention. It’s not a criticism because I understand teachers have a limited number of hours and a lot of kids in the room, but I think the focus is very much on the middle ground. They seem to have these measures of success — which are, of course, average — and they really work hard to push those who are not at that level and ensure they get there, but then if you are different or particularly quicker, then I don’t think… for example, in the school I was, there was this kid who was bilingual because his mother was from England so he spoke English and Danish, and he was really bright. He was eight years old and he was reading Harry Potter books in English, so they had this agreement in class that whenever he was finished with his assignments, he could just pull out his Harry Potter book and read it.

That’s fine, of course, but in a way, that kid could have probably shown more if they have had time to actually say, “okay, now that you are done with maths from first grade, let’s give you a problem from third grade,” so I think teachers are very much about the average; the average has to be OK and if you are a little bit better, then they don’t know what to do with you. I don’t know if that answers your question but this thing, about the potential of each kid, I think it gets a bit lost in this idea of the “general good.” And the kids are also socialized into this, they sit back and patiently wait because they know everyone needs to be part of it.

HRM: Do you think that’s a case of Jante’s Law at play?

SUSANA: Yeah, I think so. My kids, they all three go to different sports: one goes to football, the other one trains badminton and the third one is a swimmer, and when I compare it to the way we were trained in sports in Spain, which was like, “we have to win!” and the couch would be angry if you did something wrong on the field and during the break you’d be told off and you’d be terrified to go out and play… I have never seen this here. It seems like competition is something dangerous. I mean, it’s probably different in professional sports but, you know, it’s like they don’t want kids to be too competitive.

The other thing is that everyone has to play. The trainer is very aware that everyone has equal playing time so the kids that are not so good get to play as much as the best kids, which is nice, but some of the parents of the best kids have taken them out of the team and tried to find another team where they can be pushed to become better players. Even my kids, you know, sometimes they win and I’m like, “yeah, you’ve won!” and they are like, “yeah well, that’s not the important thing…” and I’m like, “of course it is, you won! Come on!” (laughs)

HRM: For what you describe, it seems Danes have a sort of healthy attitude towards failure and I wonder if that creates an environment where they can explore ideas, odd as they may be, without being concerned about being wrong or ridiculed by their peers. What do you think?

SUSANA: Actually, that’s a good point. I think it’s good that kids are not afraid to speak up and believe me, they are not. I have seen it at all levels, even here in the university. They challenge their professors. They are not always right, sometimes they are just wrong because they simply don’t have the knowledge and they are maybe a bit cocky about it, but I think that’s better than not speaking up. Here, you build up a common environment where everybody is safe and can ask questions, and even silly questions are not met with mockery but understanding, and I have seen teachers really turn things around really well.

Even the way they are trained in democratic processes… for example, let’s say a couple of kids have fought during the break over some toy they both wanted and they maybe hit each other, then they come into the classroom and the teacher uses the first ten minutes to talk through the incident, and they only start teaching when everybody is OK. This is not a show, they actually make the kids reflect on what happened and the kids get into the idea that this is a safe space and they are all in it together. And when they move out into other kinds of areas, they have that expectation that people are fair, that you can be heard, and that it’s OK to be wrong. That’s the positive side and I think that’s really good.

But the negative side, I think, is that maybe there’s not a lot at stake. If you fail, nothing happens. My daughter, for example, she’s very competitive. I don’t know why, that’s just the way she is. She gets really annoyed in class when all presentations get the same amount of praise. If she thinks her presentation was the best, she wants the teacher to say it was the best and if not, she wants to hear why it wasn’t that good. She wants this and she feels cheated because if everything’s the same, then why bother? I’m not saying she is always right, of course, but I can recognize where she’s coming from.

HRM: Was that something you noticed during your research, too? Were teachers always trying to equalize the students’ contributions, and if so, what impact do you think that had in the way kids approached their tasks?

SUSANA: Well, the positive aspect was that everyone dared to perform but I’d say the negative side of it was that the bright kids wouldn’t really push themselves because they knew what they had was good enough. They felt they didn’t need to do any more work because they knew that was going to fly, anyway.

I remember one particular case where the oldest kids, who were around thirteen at that point, had to design a video game. They had a big bug in the program, it was not working as they wanted, there was something with the timer and without the timer it didn’t work so one day before deadline, they had to start all over. I remember sitting with them and telling them they probably should try repairing the timer because otherwise, all the work they had done with all figures and backgrounds was going to be lost; they didn’t have the time to make a good, full game in one day so it was fixing the timer or presenting a game that was only half-baked. They believed, however, that what they had was fine and told me the teacher wasn’t going to notice anyway, so they presented a game that was unfinished and yeah, nothing happened. Everyone said it was great.

HRM: Do you think is hard for the bright kids, or the ones that are a bit more ambitious, to strive in an environment where they are constantly encouraged not to stand out?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, all these teachers are good — I really don’t have any complaints — and there are after-school programs for bright kids and science camps where kids can get that extra kick, so there are initiatives in place, but generally, I think schools are good for the average. However, if you are a bit behind or if you are too bright, then you’ll fall out a bit because there are not enough resources for everybody.

HRM: One last question. In your experience, are there any defining features or characteristics of Danish kids in regards to the way they approach creativity? In other words, is there such a thing as a Danish or Nordic creative mindset?

SUSANA: That’s a good question, I had never thought about that. I don’t know.

For example, my kids are half Spanish, right, so at some point I made them go to school in Spain, one month per year; in June, we would go to Spain and they would go to school there just to give it a try. As a way to thank the school for the opportunity, I said I wanted to help and suggested we did a workshop so we organized a few things.

This was not research, this was just me one day going into the school and trying to do something with Spanish kids, and they couldn’t do anything. They couldn’t do project work because they had never done a project, they had never worked in groups… in this school, they had a very traditional and old fashioned approach to teaching where you sit in rows, the teacher speaks, you make your homework, and everything is about repeating. Parrot teaching. This idea of having a group of four kids and saying, “well, now you have this challenge, do it together”… they had no clue how to go about it. Again, maybe it’s because this was a very small village in a rural part of Spain so I don’t know, maybe you go to Madrid and it’s different, but these are things any Danish kid would just do.

The same goes with sending kids to do group work outside the classroom. At the beginning, here in Denmark, I thought it was going to be chaos. I was convinced that if the teacher was not in the room, they were just going to go around the school and not do anything but the other teachers here were like, “yeah, of course they will, why not?” I checked on the kids later and yes, they were working! I was amazed.

These kids had internalized that when they were at school, they were there to learn so they did it, whereas in Spain, as soon as the teacher was out of the room, nobody would do anything. They’re not supposed to be independent and self-directed at all, so when they’re put in a context where they have to do it, they just don’t know how. Of course, these kids are as bright as any other kids so I’m sure that if they were taught, they would do it but they have never tried it. They just didn’t know what was expected and how to go about it.

In my experience, Spanish kids seem to be doing their work because they know there is an authority and there is a punishment if you don’t do it, while Danish kids have accepted that it’s a school situation and they are there to learn. It’s impressive how much it would actually happen, even without adults in the room.

So, to answer your question, I guess that self-direction and the fact they don’t need an authoritative figure for them to engage and complete the tasks… but I don’t know if that’s particularly Danish or Scandinavian, maybe it’s just civilized. (laughs)

Want to read another interview discussing creativity in the Nordics? — Check out my conversation with Klaus Thomsen, co-founder of The Coffee Collective, Denmark’s favourite micro roastery, where we talk about entrepreneurship, and the connection between coffee and creativity.

You can read the interview here.

Hr. Meaner is a Copenhagen-based visual artist from Venezuela, currently on a quest across Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, talking to experts in different fields to get a better understanding of the forces and attitudes that are shaping creative thinking in the region and try finding out if there is indeed a connection between this part of the world and its most innovative ideas.

Follow his visual diary on Instagram or find out more about his work at hrmeaner.com

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