Research & Creativity In Curriculum Design

Of the many creative projects I completed with teachers, artists and schools when I was director of the Biscuit Factory Arts Centre in Fremantle Western Australia, THE NONSENSE PROJECT holds special meaning for me pedagogically. Originally created to highlight how arts-based learning could and should encompass the development of ‘high-order thinking’ skills, it also provided me with evidence on the motivational power to focus students on complex tasks. In other words, young people and schools would enrol and re-enrol in the same project content and build on their previous achievements to develop their work further. It was, therefore, the characteristic of how the projects re-engaged my students which motivate me to ‘digitally transform’ the projects today.

Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.

When I speak of digitally transforming projects and programs, however, I’m aware that I speak of an evolutionary process which has been on-going in a technological sense since the Stone Age. To be human is to be technologically equipped. As Tiffany Schlain points out in TED book project Brain Power

…the technology we create is a direct extension of us, not something separate. As Marshall McLuhan wrote in The Medium Is the Message, first published in 1967, “The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye, clothing, an extension of the skin, electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.

Following this logic then, the digital transformation of a teaching and learning project can be described as seeking to extend the cognitive, social, emotional and cultural processes ‘of us’ with digital tools.

Design must reflect the practical and aesthetic but above all… learning design must primarily enable students achieve valued outcomes.



Over eight half-day workshops (designed to fit neatly into a term’s work),

THE NONSENSE PROJECT focuses the energies of middle to upper primary students on thinking – thinking smartly, avoiding to think ineffectively, thinking ‘what’s the difference between the two?’

The project structure is deliberately staged so that students review and explore what it means to begin a task, view its progress and arrive at a conclusion.That means that each element of the project is treated metacognitively through stage properties and costumes. ‘Thinking’ was never so much fun! As the content of the project is about making meaning, the challenge of creating comic NONSENSE is asked as a ‘big question’ aka a ‘philosophical inquiry’… ‘What do we mean when we say ‘this makes sense’ and ‘this is nonsense’?

When I first ran the projects between 2001 and 2006, I invested in the use of

  • 10 Macbook lapbooks
  • A data projector and
  • equipped the BFAC with WiFi

On the other hand, the project also used a variety of ‘low-tech’ options such as coloured materials of different textures and sizes, large geometric shapes created with cane or PVC, large rolls of butcher’s paper/ newsprint: in fact, predominantly elemental, non-constructed resources that students could safely use over and over again to characterise the location or situation that the creative project called-up for them. For instance, students ‘made costumes’ as a facility of ‘marking the body’ and ‘dressing’ chairs to demarcate a particular setting.

It would be appropriate to say that my vision of ‘digital learning’ was always contextualised within an embodied performing arts activity which used artistic processes at the core of the ‘learning how to learn’ approach I hoped to develop in my students

As I imagined change as inevitable and compelling I perhaps did ‘too much’. What I discovered in my busyness is that the use of technology in teaching is most powerful when it enables me to be reflective, in teaching as well as for students. It seems so paradoxical to be looking at this principle in order to apply a technology of such speed and power of connectivity: nonetheless, I’ve decided to re-design THE NONSENSE PROJECT to do more reflecting. Ironically, the neuroscience has only recently revealed to us precisely why in neurological terms, reflection, mindfulness and meditation are so vitally interconnected in human cognition.

For instance, the Coursera MOOC Learning How To Learn, delivered by Drs Barbara Oakley and  Terry Sejnowski at the University of California, San Diego show being reflective as a function of the brain’s two modes of working, focus attention and diffuse thinking. The important fact to grasp is that successful learners need to learn to apply both modes effectively.  One of the key readings in the course is Brigid Schulte, (May 16, 2014). “For a more productive life, daydream.” CNN Opinion.  Schulte opens her article with

In 1990, a 25-year-old researcher for Amnesty International, stuck on a train stopped on the tracks between London and Manchester, stared out the window for hours. To those around her, no doubt rustling newspapers and magazines, busily rifling through work, the young woman no doubt appeared to be little more than a space cadet, wasting her time, zoning out.

But that woman came to be known as JK Rowling. And in those idle hours daydreaming out the train window, she has said that the entire plot of the magical Harry Potter series simply “fell into” her head.

… It all has to do with something called the brain’s default mode network, explains Andrew Smart, a human factors research scientist and author of the new book, “Autopilot, the Art & Science of Doing Nothing.”

The default mode network is like a series of airport hubs in different and typically unconnected parts of the brain. And that’s why it’s so crucial. When the brain flips into idle mode, this network subconsciously puts together stray thoughts, makes seemingly random connections and enables us to see an old problem in an entirely new light.

Why Should Your Students Learn-How-To-Learn?”

The amount of content and information available to us & our students today is unlimited. As a result, we need to apply the most effective and efficient ways of handling the resources for making, writing, experimenting, exploring, creating, problem-solving and playing.  In designing the project, the latest research on forming engaging and challenging tasks and assessments is used in relation to mandated learning outcomes.

Why Use Drama & The Arts In Learning-How-To-Learn?

The project uses elements of the performing and visual arts to support the skills of learning effectively: this approach is informed by

Why Use Comedy Techniques and Comic Writing in Learning-How-To-Learn?

The project makes use of research in Matthew Hurley’s, Daniel Dennett’s and Reginald Adams’ Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind that defines a zone of experience and state of mind in which we experience a sense of pleasure in futility, chaos and incomprehension. The research shows how human fallibility arises from the process of building our working memory on ‘illusions of competence’ and our long term memory, which neuroscientists call ‘reconsolidation’, built on ‘false memory’: learning to learn thus involves us doing what  David Dennett describes coming to know how the human brain has a “Chevy engine running Maserati software”.

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