Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Aesthetics of Crime (and a petty misdemeanor)

According to the stats, my post entitled “How to Cheat the Word Count” is one of the most visited on this blog, searches for “cheat the word count” apparently being fairly popular on Google. No surprises there then. Now, I’m all for the creative bending of rules and inventive alternatives to unexamined orthodoxies but borrowing other peoples hard earned deceits is surely a bit rich. Coming up with an innovative cheat is one thing, but stealing one simply heaps subterfuge upon swindle and lacks even the controversial virtue of guile. No honour among thieves indeed!

Seriously though, whilst I’m critical of unimaginative pilfering, the idea of dreaming up novel ways to cheat the system is by no means wholly distasteful to me. Moreover, the notion that creativity is somehow universally positive is clearly mistaken. Creativity’s dark side finds expression in fraud, computer viruses, terrorism, fakery, counterfeiting and many other familiar, and not so familiar, crimes. I’m certainly not about to condone such acts but it’s surely inconsistent not to be curious about, and sometimes even to admire, the human ingenuity that often lies eerily close at their heart.

A book on the aesthetics of crime would seem to be long overdue but perhaps the significant challenge for such a text would be to disentangle the principles at work in beautifully planned and executed crimes from their inherent immorality, the danger being that crime becomes unwittingly elevated to the status of art form. But there is no doubting that certain crimes have something strangely sublime - in the Burkian sense - about them that makes them all the more horrifying, and this horror emerges directly from the profound discord between the aesthetic and the moral. The same fascination can be seen in such films as Silence of the Lambs in which the character of Hannibal Lecter is portrayed as an inordinately creative but depraved monster.

As I say, this is a potential subject for a book (but not one that I’ll ever write) and is perhaps a little too ambitious for a blog post, so instead I’d like to relate a story on a much smaller scale.

Recently I was requested to attend some “staff development” training consisting of several online tasks, an online test and a day of workshops. I hate online tests, I’ll do almost anything to avoid them, and when it comes to assimilating information that has doubtful relevance to me or the things that I value, I’m also a good deal less than enthusiastic about sacrificing time that I could devote to more productive work (I’m sure I’m not alone in this respect?).

Since the online tasks were provided as independent study material, I decided to complete them as quickly as possible, which meant that I would have to devise an efficient method of cutting corners but at the same time gather the necessary data to pass the test (in education theory this is disparagingly termed “Surface Learning” but it’s something in which I consider myself to be something of an expert!).

One of the tests was audio based and required listening to an account of a fictitious event and answering questions based on information recall. I tried it once and failed. Being dysgraphic the task of keeping notes is quite a challenge for me, especially if I have to do it quickly, so this conventional solution really wasn’t applicable. How else to capture the audio then, so that I could refer back to it? My mobile phone of course! And since I’d taken this leap into the sneaky utilization of technology it was only a small step to open up each of the online learning materials in a separate window on my computer and to use this to directly access the answers to the required questions. I probably could have achieved a 100% score but that would have taken more time – I was trying to do this quickly remember – so a few incorrect answers were perfectly acceptable to pass the test.

Was this cheating? It certainly felt like cheating, but then, it also felt like being creative and in some ways the two are indistinguishable. Creativity is a process of improvising, of inventing solutions and transforming imagination into form. It frequently involves illusion (which itself is a form of deception), corner cutting and the exploitation of resources. If our ancestors had never evolved this formidable array of skills, including both their positive and negative aspects, it seems extremely unlikely that we would ever have descended from the trees.

So was it unethical to use technology to short-cut the test? If the information that needed to be assimilated was vital to my job then the answer is “Yes.” Am I therefore admitting to unethical behaviour? Not exactly. Some individuals are very good at retaining information and some are simply not – not unless it’s interesting to them that is – I’m obviously of the latter category. When we lesser mortals are tasked with the job of retaining information we often resort to tools and familiar methods: pen, paper and note taking for example, since it’s cheap and easily available.

My dysgraphia aside, why should the use of a technological form of data retrieval be more unethical than the conventional practice of note taking? I’d argue that it doesn’t. The only thing that made my use of technology ‘sneaky’ was the fact that this wasn’t envisaged by the people who put the online staff development materials together. Presumably it was their intention that these materials would slow down the process and force participants to take notes and assimilate the information at a slower rate. Slower does tend to correlate with better retention, but this begs the vital question: is information retention really necessary when technology provides us with readily available repositories of rapidly accessed information that effectively extend our cognitive capacities?

“Knowledge is of two kinds: we know a subject ourselves,
or we know where we can find information upon it.” -Samuel Johnson

Last February Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely published their research into the correlation between creativity and unethical behaviour in which they claim to have “found a robust relationship between creativity and dishonesty”. If the findings stand up to scrutiny and further research in a wider variety of settings then this would seem to create a genuine dilemma for employers in how to weigh up the potential gains as opposed to the potential losses of employing creative people in their businesses. The findings also present a dilemma for creative people themselves in evaluating their own ethical behaviour since, as Gino and Ariely point out, creative people are also more likely to come up with ingenious explanations to justify their unethical behavior.

Ah… perhaps I should go and do the staff development test again!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Design Thinking: Myth or Meme?

I attended a research seminar yesterday entitled: ‘Design Thinking - Myth or Magic’. I assumed it was a straw man argument staged to provide an opportunity for a thorough demolition but, to my surprise, it was actually being seriously considered by the presenters, even in the face of sagacious criticism in a cited online article by Don Norman.

I’ve suggested in the past that certain kinds of materials and procedures can be understood to engender certain kinds of cognitive processing that would otherwise be inconceivable. It might be thought then, that I’d be sympathetic with the idea of Design Thinking. On the contrary though, I find the term vaguely offensive.

In many ways the notion of Design Thinking sits in a netherworld between the general category of ‘Creativity’ and the more granular but nonetheless further dividable disciplines of, for example, Product Design; Illustration; Film, Graphic Design; Architecture and so on. If certain processes and materials do indeed engender certain kinds of thinking, then it seems unlikely that these different kinds of thought processes could easily be placed under a single rubric, and certainly not one as arbitrary and easily contestable as Design Thinking.

Cognitive neuroscience tells us that we’re only just beginning to understand how the brain functions, so even the term ‘Thinking’ is riddled with complexity and uncertainty. Equally the boundaries of Design itself are so nebulous as to give us serious pause when asserting a definition of what truly constitutes Design as a practice. Many languages don’t even have a word that directly translates as ‘Design’ and even the current definition of the term is surprisingly recent in origin.

No, the idea of Design Thinking simply doesn’t stand up to even the most superficial scrutiny, though, as Don Norman also points out, it might serve a useful function as a public relations tool and, let’s face it, if anyone is able to make a bankable meme out of something as abstract and indistinct as Design Thinking, then who better than designers?

“Art Thinking” just doesn’t do it somehow does it? And that probably tells us about as much as we need to know about how disingenuous the idea of Design Thinking really is.

Friday, 13 May 2011

The greatest gift an education can provide is an enduring desire to learn

What would it be like if, instead of evaluating achievement at art schools, we decided to assess fulfilment? It’d be absurd of course - fulfilment is a perception of an internal condition and, as such, it can only be evaluated internally. But the question seems to point to the heart of the problem with grading (in art schools at least) since it exposes exactly the mismatch between two conceptions of the role that art plays: one of which is predicated upon notions of performance (or rather performativity) and the other upon ‘being’.

Just imagine though, if it were possible to gather a clear picture of how fulfilled students were with their studies on completing their education, what enormously valuable data that would be. And if it turns out that students have less interest in their chosen field than when they started, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we’ve failed to do what education should strive to do above all else: to foster their desire to go on learning.


Saturday, 7 May 2011

What can we Learn from Mountains?

Despite their beckoning vastness, mountains ask nothing, yield nothing and claim nothing. They neither praise nor admonish (though, admittedly, mishaps and tragedies feel like malevolence) and they crave neither recognition nor adulation, yet they inspire determination, admiration, fear, humility and awe.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Bread of Feedback

I realise my last post may have appeared a little mean spirited. It was originally longer but I decided to post it in two parts – hopefully this one will redress the balance.

Recently I came across a pedagogic ‘tool’ known as a “Feedback Sandwich” in which feedback is framed - or more accurately one might say ‘bookended’ - by positive observations about what a student did well. In this way the student gets to hear supportive comments about what is really working as well as what requires further attention. This strikes me as a very sound form of providing feedback: by emphasising the positive but ensuring that critical elements are not overlooked. No doubt part of the reason I like this idea is because, in many ways, it’s exactly what I already strive to do with feedback. I was surprised though, when I decided to look up Feedback Sandwich on Google and the 3rd link out of thousands specifically advised against it:

“Praise (Bread)

‘Feedback’ (Meat)

Praise (Bread)

This approach is not to help us the recipient feel good – it is to soften the message for the giver. We all learn very quickly that when ‘good’ stuff is mentioned we know that “here come the message” – we hear the criticism and are so busy focused on the negative that we do not hear the follow on good stuff. This is not helped as the ‘good stuff’ is usually so fluffy that it is meaningless.”

Now, I would agree wholeheartedly with this, if only its characterisation of a feedback sandwich correlated in the least with my own. The above description is, in fact, what I would think of as a “Praise Sandwich”. Yes I know the filling is feedback so, in a sense I’m wrong, but it has always struck me as strange that sandwiches are described by the filling only and very rarely mention the type of bread used. For me the bread is just as important as the filling. So, here’s my idea of a Feedback Sandwich set between two freshly baked crusty slices:

Positive comment (Encouragement)
What needs attention and how to fix it
Positive comment (Encouragement)

It might seem as though I'm splitting hairs here but if my last post about the drawbacks of praise - specifically its low information value - are to be taken seriously, then praise sandwiches (otherwise known as "sugar coated criticism") would seem a poor substitute for the more information laden, and presumably more wholesome, variety of feedback that comprises feedback sandwiches. You see, praise is in many ways terminal (ie: it comes at the end of something) whereas encouragement is part of a process. Praise is also hierarchical (ie it's always bestowed upon someone: a child, an employee etc), unlike compliments or congratulations, that have no implicit hierarchy and can be offered across divides of authority without transgressing unspoken boundaries of power and influence.

When we start to see learning as an ongoing process, that never ends until we do, we might also notice that praise is a rather backward looking creature with a tendency to rest on its laurels. Encouragement, on the other hand, looks to the future with a glint in it's eye and a determination to strive for improvement.

“Teachers who encourage students create an environment in which students do not have to fear continuous evaluation, where they can make mistakes and learn from them, and where they do not always need to strive to meet someone else's standard of excellence. Most students thrive in encouraging environments where they receive specific feedback and have the opportunity to evaluate their own behavior and work. Encouragement fosters autonomy, positive self-esteem, a willingness to explore, and acceptance of self and others.” -Hitz and Driscoll