Originally drafted for a specific, potential partner, this memo has been reworked as a speculative call for partners interested in growing the critical community around creative learning

Beginning with an analogy

The basic idea of this memo is simple: An opportunity for partnership to connect and mobilize around the potential and power of creative learning. We propose starting by mining Powderhouse's nascent youth and adult fellowship programs for learning experiences and projects which could be the object of case studies, which could in turn act as linchpin for critical conversations about and advocacy for increasing the number, variety, and quality of creative learning experiences, environments, and organizations. The examples generated by this work (and the various workflows and workshops we would put together to create them) could then be used as a starting point for broadening who might contribute such case studies through courses, festivals, or other structures that might enable educators around the world to amplify examples of their own, local work through a shared structure and vocabulary for creative learning.

This kind of work excites us because despite nominally centering thinking and learning—i.e. "knowledge work"—as a sector education tends to treat its work as fungible, friable, and routine, easily choreographed and mixed and matched like shifts at a fast food restaurant. We think this is deeply mistaken, and that good thinking often starts with a good analogy, or at least a better one. This memo begins with an analogy we often return to in another creative, messy, and rigorous domain: independent film. In doing so, we hope to highlight both the immaturity of education's current perspective on adult and youth development while keeping in mind the exciting heights to which education could rise if taken seriously.

The Sundance Institute

The Sundance Institute describes itself as [emphasis added]:

The Sundance Institute is […] dedicated to the discovery and development of independent artists and audiences. Through its programs, the Institute seeks to discover, support, and inspire independent film, media, and theater artists from the United States and around the world, and to introduce audiences to their new work.

We believe that a story driven by an individual, authentic voice can awaken new ideas that have the power to delight and entertain, push creative boundaries, spark new levels of empathy and understanding, and even lead to social change. We support independent storytellers and advance the impact of their work in the world.

In other words, Sundance centers cultivation of and advocacy for practitioners and their craft. This involves four, basic activities:

  1. they must experience the fruits of their practice; e.g., at Sundance's festivals, people watch films.
  2. they must practice their craft; e.g., in Sundance's workshops and labs, directors create and workshop films.
  3. they must critically analyze their craft; e.g., in Sundance's festivals and its adjacent community of film critique, people critique film—not only seeking to evaluate it, but understand it.
  4. and finally, they must advocate for practitioners and the conditions needed for their success; e.g. Sundance provides fellowships and distribution support for marginalized creators along with advocating for the interests of independent filmmakers.

You can hear how these activities are mutually reinforcing, growing out of one another, in how Robert Redford (one of Sundance's founders) speaks about its origin.

Unfortunately, the world of learning and human development is much less mature than the world of film. Our professional community is fractured. Private schools rarely talk to public schools who rarely talk to museums who rarely talk to homeschoolers, and so forth. Our professional practice does not yet have a shared vocabulary of critique or excellence. Who are our Sydney Pollacks or Jordan Peeles? What is our mise-en-scène? Even our genres are blurry. Can most practitioners or policymakers really differentiate project- and inquiry-based learning?

What would a Sundance for Creative Learning require?

Imagine a textured story in the style of Frederick Wiseman focused on the journey of a new member into the Scratch coding community. Or a recorded dialogue between someone who developed a robotics project and a professional engineer, exploring the ins and outs of their process and mental model, accompanied by rich process and product documentation. Or a case study with the perspective and comprehensiveness of Computer experience and cognitive development, but oriented to the creative problem-solving and long-term evolution of someone's relationship to an idea like feedback and control. Or a traditional idea like metaphor. Or a metacognitive idea like debugging. When you look at virtually any intellectual or creative learning experience you might be interested in, we weirdly lack any shared picture of what that experience actually looks like. Sometimes we get micro-studies of cognition or macro-studies of the "efficacy" of various pieces of software or instructional approaches. But there's vanishingly little in between, and especially little informed by constructionist perspectives. What would it take to change this?

We believe one answer could lie at the intersection of Powderhouse’s direct work with youth and the work of partner organizations doing the same, or developing resources to support direct work with youth, e.g. educational tools and materials, strategies for legal and regulatory advocacy, community building and sharing of best practices. These strands of work offer a natural point of contact, a context in which we could together prototype answers to the question: What would a Sundance for creative learning—i.e. an initiative focused on the cultivation of and advocacy for practitioners and their craft—look like?

Practically, answering this could be scaffolded by working backwards from what would be required to successfully host an analogue to the Sundance Festival for Creative Learning:

  1. How might practitioners come together to experience the fruits of their practice? What is the equivalent of a film screening?
  2. How could practitioners practice their craft? What is the equivalent of giving notes on a scene? On a rehearsal?
  3. What does it mean to critically analyze our craft? What is the equivalent of a film review? A critical essay?
  4. What would it mean to help practitioners advocate for the conditions needed for their success? What is the equivalent of making "indie" cool? Of legal advocacy to make the tax subsidies available to big studios available to independent producers?

So much about what the answers to this question look like follow from the artifacts centered, much as so much about Sundance follows from the nature of film.

If films center stories, we center stories of learning. Because we are more interested in the truth and persuasive potential of these stories than simply their artfulness, we are less interested in the medium than the content. But capturing that content with the texture and fidelity necessary to really dig in is hard. Case study offers an apt vehicle for these stories, given the existing tradition and their proximity to ethnographic and other qualitative methods.

The objects of these case studies would be generated by:

  • in the short-term, a residency in Powderhouse's youth and mentor fellowships which centers the doing of creative work and learning
  • and in the mid-term, a similar scale residency for designers of creative learning tools, materials, and experiences, adapting and extending the work we began with High Meadows et al when putting together Powderhouse's erstwhile yearlong faculty on-boarding program.

These residencies would center projects and their facilitation. The stories of these projects and their facilitation would offer the grist for case studies. And all of this would be documented and shared through Powderhouse’s developing publication work.

Scaffolding dialogues, case studies, and festival submissions

In form

Case studies could be developed at three scales of form, proceeding iteratively depending on their promise:

  • Dialogues ⇒ Consider what extended, critical conversations like those in Lipton's Inside the Actor's Studio, Cayley's Ideas, or Moyers' Journal might look like when turned to a project or other learning experience and its facilitation.
  • Multimedia case studies ⇒ Expanding on the themes and ideas surfaced in those dialogues, thick, ethnographic case studies featuring process and product artifacts and analysis could be produced which capture in much greater detail the actual design and learning which happens in a given project or program. Consider how rare the level of detail, longevity, and comprehensiveness in something like Computer experience and cognitive development is in education, especially for non-traditional tools and environments.
  • Festival submissions ⇒ Imagining a festival where other practitioners and policymakers, e.g., might be in attendance, we could turn to the dialogues and case studies for kernels to polish and exhibit, thinking carefully about how to frame the principles and stories of learning to best advocate for creative learning to broader stakeholders. Consider what the analogue to a video like this one from Nerdwriter about The Meyerowitz Stories might be:

In content

Across these scales, case studies would focus on one of three themes in their content:

  • Understanding what happens, specifically focusing on what happens within and between people in the experience,
  • Designing the tools, materials, and environment which supported the experience,
  • And advocating for the value of and conditions necessary for such experiences.

Building on these case studies

The dialogues, case studies, and festival submissions generated by this work would themselves offer plenty of material for hosting a festival. More importantly, great examples of such materials and festivals (as well as the various tools and workshops we would inevitably develop to help people create them) would in turn offer a rich starting point for growing the critical community around creative learning. At its best, this kind of work might offer opportunities for partners and their communities to thicken and document the depth of their work and develop the framings and stories they need in their own, local contexts to effectively advocate and invite others to their practice.

Even better, this work can be begun immediately, without needing to "host a festival." We can begin creating case studies and prototypes, iterating on the form and ways we could come together in small groups to begin to develop the festival’s cultivation of and advocacy for practitioners and their craft.

Initially, these case studies could be grounded in pieces prototyped or workshops facilitated as part of Powderhouse current youth offerings. If and when these materials (and our ability to facilitate rigorous conversations around them) reaches a point we feel would befit a festival, we could host such a festival and use it as a focal point for this movement as well as a very opinionated form for the movement to emulate (a la TED v. TEDx, e.g.).

Of course, we should be so lucky as for any of these eventualities to ever become a real question to consider; the purpose of this memo is less to propose this full range and scale of activity (which is significant) than it is to paint a picture, an "Imagine if…" whose evocative qualities can help us to identify and discuss the directions, perspectives, and activities we might be most interested in centering in our work.