On Forming Habits

whirl and reach out
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I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately in light of my digital storytelling class. I had a minor epiphany that was brought about, in large part, by the start of the Daily Shoot assignment.  I’ve known about Daily Shoot for quite some time, and I’ve always wanted to get my act together and do it, but somehow I’ve always managed to put it off. Having it as an assignment for the class was a great gentle nudge to get me to commit to the project for at least two weeks.

Jim had told me how fantastic this assignment ended up working in past semesters of DS106, and, intellectually, I could understand why this was. But, it wasn’t until this week that I really began to understand the meaning of the assignment.

I often like to describe myself as a frustrated artist — the frustration stemming from my total lack of actual artistic talent. The truth is while I am by no means an artist, I do recognize that I get a great deal of pleasure out of creative activity — and it’s taken me a long time to realize that creativity can be fostered in all kind of activities that we don’t usually think of as “creative.” When I served my division as director for two years, I learned that even being an administrator could incorporate creativity — thinking creatively about long-term goals, fostering creativity among staff, bringing a creative eye towards difficult challenges.

And yet even as my understanding of creativity has evolved, I think I’ve still been enamored with the idea of the “Creative Act.” The Creative Act, in my mind, is all about tackling creative activity within the context of creating some THING. It’s about buckling down and making some thing — a product that involved a linear process, a beginning, a middle, and a distinct and final end which I can then point to as “the creation.” For a long time, this is how I tended to approach Web sites. But, increasingly, I like to see the work I do on Web sites as more of an evolution, a constant process of tinkering, toying, and improving. (Programmers might compare this to the difference between waterfall and agile programming — one approach focusing on sequential, linear workflow and the other focusing on an adaptive, iterative process. )

I think a lot of us have a tendency to think about creativity like this — a precious process that ends with a “Ta Da!” as the final creation is revealed. But what I’m realizing now is that creativity isn’t about precious acts but rather about developing habits. The model of Daily Shoot is a fantastic way to foster and grow those habits.

Creativity isn’t something we should set out to do in order to just create some thing. Creativity is a habit we should build into ever day of our lives. Along the way, we will create lots of things–some beautiful, some messy, some boring, some transformative. But, more importantly, we will exercise a creative muscle that will grow stronger and more adaptive.

One of the hardest aspects of teaching Digital Storytelling for me is that my class meets once a week for three hours. At class we talk about the week’s upcoming assignments. For the next seven days, I monitor students’ activities through the course blog, and I see a pattern emerge. A few students work fairly regularly at the week’s assignments, but most of them wait until Wednesday or Thursday, when suddenly a flurry of posts appear. I can understand this tendency: Students have increasingly busy lives, (particularly as more and more of them have to take on part-time jobs just to pay for their higher education), and building time into each day to work on Digital Storytelling is a challenge. But I keep trying to emphasize that their engagement in this class needs to be more consistent. Daily Shoot is a great way to encourage that kind of pattern — take a moment out of every day and develop a creative habit. Give yourself permission to pick up your camera, put down everything else, and go look for something that you want to share with the world.

So I think we need to be talking to students about the creative habit as much as we need to be talking to them about specific projects or assignments or products that they’re working.

I’ve begun to wonder how this idea of habit relates to education and learning, in general. I hear faculty complain about students approach classes and education as a checklist of things they need to complete, rather than as a community, process,  and conversation in which they are participating. But to what degree does our approach to teaching foster habit-building? What do we need to do to get students to develop other habits in their lives — habits of thought, habits of learning, habits of sharing? How would we structure courses, curriculums, and schools if our goal wasn’t so much about credit hours and general requirements, but about building curriculums that emphasized the habits of the mind that create life-long learners?