Sunday, 8 June 2014

#2 Nu Lessons on PBL & Creativity from Cambridge, MA

Nuvu Studio, Cambridge, MA

Can creativity be learned? Yes is the unequivocal answer from NuVu Founder and Chief Excitement Officer (brilliant title) Saeed Arida.

Started as a partnership with progressive private high school Beaver Country Day School, NuVu offer an opportunity for students to undertake a series of creative interdisciplinary projects inspired by the pedagogy of MIT architectural engineering courses. 20-25 students of varying ages opt to attend Nuvu from their conventional middle or high school some for a Semester, others for an academic year, with their original school picking up the tab for the fees, 

Driven by the potential for creative interdisciplinary Project-based Learning to cultivate vital 21st Century skills: creativity, problem solving and analytical thinking, NuVu run PBL projects focused on the toughest real-world problems with the broadest design briefs.

The Creative Struggle

During his PhD studies he became interested in the notion of creativity, how it can be defined and taught. For Saeed, having an idea is only 5% of the creative process. The rest he says is the capacity to "... look the idea from many different perspectives. This means, when you have an idea for a solution, a really creative person will be able to see the potential problems and limits. They are able to think several steps ahead, like in a game of chess. The faster you can do this, the more creative you are." With a PhD in Design and Computation from MIT Saeed has been through the often painful part of the creative design process more than once.

This type of creative capacity, he says, is a real weakness for many students who are used to being guided through worksheets and textbooks. Therefore, NuVu was set up to teach students "creative thinking", in particular how to navigate the "rigorous, intense, iterative process that happens next" (after the initial idea) as a design is refined, prototype made, tested, revised, re-tested, until eventually a final product of real quality is created. This informs the approach to designing the PBL projects at NuVu. 

'Messy' problems & creative projects 

Saeed is clear that when choosing a project theme they pick a problem that is ‘open ended allowing for multiple solutions’. This ensures students have to go through the ‘painful’ part of being creative as they grapple with the problem, make constant revisions and undergo honest critique to eventually arrive an innovative and original solution. 
Projects are taught in two-week blocks and are inspired by a whole range of real world problems and scenarios from global warming to re-designing the Boston subway system. Students are first given a design brief, before working mostly in groups of four or five to solve the real-world problem and create a final product that is subject to a final review by peers and sometimes the community. 
However, the 'messy' process of refining, building prototypes and undergoing constant critical evaluation has to happen first.

Coaches + Critique = Quality Products

Coaches play an essential role in the studio process. Coaches, like Saeed, have all been through a creative design or architectural degree. These courses were often "highly pressurised" with "very open ended" problems to be solved. Saeed, Andrew (architect) and Saba (architect and urban designer) work with the students to refine their ideas, providing honest constructive feedback.

Students receive feedback on their initial ideas, designs or prototypes every 30 minutes to one hour due to the nature of the work. This makes the effectiveness of the coach vital as students navigate (often for the first time) the difficulties of creating a high quality original product that needs to go through several iterations.

This is why Saeed is clear that an effective coach will:  
  • Know the material and subject matter well
  • Be a 'creative' person (as defined by Saeed - see earlier)
  • Establish a common understanding with the student so that they act on feedback
  • Find something in the project that is interesting
Students do find the feedback process difficult at first. One NuVu student Katie found that the feedback at NuVu was nothing like her previous experiences in High School: "We were not used to it. I was not used to getting feedback that didn't say 'this is awesome, well done!'" Saeed agrees, stating that "... at first students cannot take the critique very well. There is a lot of crying… but after one or two years of this process they understand what it means to receive critical feedback and improve their work." The impact of such coaching is evident in the high quality products that impressively are completed within a two week studio (examples below).  

Incredible student documentary on Homelessness in Boston

Portfolio based assessment

Students document their journey through the project daily using video, photography and journals. To facilitate portfolio based assessment, NuVu have developed a slick online platform, which is beginning to garner some interest beyond their studio from top universities including MIT.  All past projects (along with the vast array of impressive and creative student products) can be found on the NuVu site and including final products in answer to problems around broad themes such as ‘fantasy’, ‘cities’ and ‘illusions and the brain’. Students create a curated version that becomes their portfolio piece. This helps students to see how far they have come and better understand the rigorous and 'messy' process of creative design that takes place in the real world. 

How does this relate to schools?

Being at Nuvu makes me wonder if a focus on the rigorous creative process is possible in mainstream schooling given the constraints of knowledge-based high stakes testing common to public school education on both sides of the Atlantic. After all Nuvu ‘operates outside the system’ to an extent, with no public examinations to worry about. 

However, as Saeed mentioned, when making decisions about curriculum the big questions we need to be asking are: “what is the value proposition? What are we getting out of this?” If we wish to see the development of critical thinking, problem solving and creativity amongst students in our schools then we will need to prioritise it. This necessitates some deep thinking about what we want our students to get out of their time at school followed by some tough decisions around curriculum breadth and depth. 

For those schools already moving in this direction there are many practices at NuVu that will be of interest to teachers at Studio Schools in the U.K. and progressive PBL centered schools in the U.S. Judging by the impressive array of final products that display a level of creativity, innovation and technical knowledge far beyond the years of these high school students, constant critique, skillful coaching and guidance, portfolio based assessment and a relentless focus on quality are vital ingredients to true real-world PBL for deep learning.

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