you may all play music but you are not a band

[essay about collaboration, skill learning, and our current education system - published at Medea's blog 2012-05-21]

There is this one thing that strikes me from our educational system: we tend to educate individuals to stand out as such and defend their position that same way. Then again we try to make them to become team-players, we talk about interdisciplinarity as a way to bring skills together, and we believe we our doing our best.

This article reflects about possible ways to blend long term skills learning with our current education system based on what I learned during the course of the last months about collaboration and knowledge sharing.

I am going to first revise the current educational scenario at K3, Malmo University, Sweden, where I have been a teacher at the Interaction Design BA program for 11 years. I hope my colleagues will not get my words wrong as I am being self-critical to the way we are taking the challenges thrown at us by our system.

As a second case I will look into a project I am currently developing where I collaborate with a carpentry workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico. As part of that process I am learning carpentry while teaching electronics in exchange. I am somehow trying to bridge two crafts. And when mixing both sets of skills I am realizing how much more there is to learn.

Case 1: Current Education System, Sweden

My background

Since 2002 I have been committed to different educational projects, both in research and in real life settings. I have been teaching since a year earlier. Among my duties I have been responsible for creating the curriculum in Programming and in Physical Prototyping for Interaction Designers at the School of Arts and Communication at Malmo University.

In 2005 I visited the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea as a researcher in Residence. In 2007 I was a visiting Professor at the Samsung Art and Design Institute in Seoul for a 7-months-long period. During the last years I have been lecturing and teaching at many design schools and, more recently, even at engineering schools.

My experience

As part of more or less all the educational scenarios I have been into, I have observed how institutions -both on the public and on the private side- give a strong priority to the education of the individual. We engage the students in group projects, but we still evaluate them the whole way as single units. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons we do group projects is that we cannot cope with individual ones as there is not enough money to pay teachers. It is my belief that we would like to reach a one-to-one teaching scenario, specially in the design and art fields, but we know it is economically unsustainable.

Therefore we group the students, so that they can share somehow bigger tasks, letting the teacher free from some of his/her duties. This is the first of a series of misunderstandings around the idea of group work. According to my experience, it is as hard to plan a course with group projects as it is to plan a course with individual ones. In the end the tasks for the courses need to be “enough work” for getting all the students engaged in the project.

Please note that I am being almost ironic with the formulation of the expression “enough work”. A course is an educational trip, a time in the life of someone when he/she will be exposed to a block of knowledge yet unknown. Formulating a project as “enough” or “not enough work” is something I have seen a lot of times (I have even done it myself).

example of result of prototyping course at K3, March 2011

But this is not how a course should be formulated, there are educational goals and there are milestones in the educational process. Those can be lectures, interaction with external speakers, readings, or group reflection processes. Designing courses using group-work as a learning mechanism requires a serious amount of thought I think many people are forgetting about.

We also forget about the value of skills, academia has many times relegated as instruments. In a way it is true, skills are instruments and empirical work requires knowing about skills so that we can perform new experiments and test the world around us. Science is made of experiments and reflection and skills are needed for that. Skills are as much knowledge as well as craftsmanship. The Digital Craftsmanship is something many get exposed to for the first time at the university.

How we grade education

We get those people that come to our universities to learn and we group them, throw a task at them, and then look at how they solve it. We evaluate the result, sometimes the process, and we give them grades. This is our mechanism for assuring and certifying the work quality and by extension the learning experience.

I believe we grade student work the wrong way. Most of the time we give them grades for their group work as individuals. Our system lacks ways to express the soft qualities of the interaction between the students and their task: how do they approach their users, how do they behave towards each other, how they embrace the task, how much they know, how, when and why do they challenge and break the brief …

… they come in, work during five weeks, we study them, grade them with one single variable … but their learning experience covered a lot of many other things.

It is in our hands to define how all those soft qualities map into one single value. Their degree doesn’t say: Interaction Designer with a love for ethnographical studies, a skill in electronics and critical design objects. It says “Interaction Designer, G”, G in the Swedish grading system is the equivalent to “Pass”, while VG stands for “A”. Either you fail, you pass, or you make a remarkable work.

It is a common mistake, in my eyes, to think about the need of more levels in the grading system. We don’t need more depth, like the American A-F system, we need a wider collection of variables … but even so, who are we to measure? Which should be our criteria?

Case 2: The Mexican Carpenters

First contact with Mexico

I first visited Mexico in 2007 thanks to the generous contribution of the CCEMX (Spanish Culture Center in Mexico), to run a workshop about Arduino at Centro de Arte Alameda, an art center very close to the old town of the Mexican capital. Between that initial visit and 2012 I have been to Mexico about 11 times. I have been working with different communities of people. I lectured at a series of universities: UAM, Tecnologico de Monterrey, Instituto Politectnico Nacional, etc.

During one of my visits, I stumbled upon some friends of mine, Geska and Robert, who were working with an art project at a small community in Oaxaca. They run an enterprise called Performig Pictures (http://performingpictures.se) where they explore new ways of making interactive art. They are behind very interesting pieces that use simple sensor technology to render a sequence of high quality video.

Since a couple of years ago, they went into exploring interactive religious art and created different interactive icons, a chapel in Croatia, and even iPhone apps. This time they worked with a community of carpenters at Santa Ana Zegache, a small village south of Oaxaca where -during my first visit in December 2011- there was no asphalt on the streets.

About the location: Santa Ana Zegache

A high percentage of the town’s inhabitants are migrants. They are either considering leaving, are on the way from one place to the next, or came back from a stay in the US. Most are not having beyond school education. Women get kids early in their lives. A home-made meal costs about 10 Pesos (5 SEK). Connecting to the internet for 1 hour costs 10 Pesos. People use mobile phones to call and to listen to music. Not everyone has a cell phone. Cactus act as fences …

Though my description of Santa Ana Zegache might not be very thorough, since it wasn’t my goal to make anthropological studies, I think it is possible for you to get a picture of how life goes there.

Arduino workshop at Santa Ana Zegache, February 2012

The community workshop and the AIR program

At Santa Ana there is a church, and some years ago it was in ruins. Thanks to the ideas and generosity of an artist and philantropist (Rodolfo Morales) a group of locals were invited to join in creating a carpentry and restoration workshop. These people were payed to learn restoring religious images, shape the wood, paint it, and gold-plate it when necessary. They worked with their church and built a workshop behind it where to continue with their newly-born profession. Rodolfo’s intention was to bring back the craftsmanship to this community and to make them self-sufficient.

After restoring their church, the group of carpenters started a new lines of work. One of them involved inviting guest artists to come over in some sort of Artist In Residence (AIR) program and redesign one of their traditional mirrors or frames. The community would get the right to make 5 reproductions of the artwork and sell them at about 350 Eur/piece to maintain the carpentry, where nowadays 16 people work 8 hours per day 5 or 6 days per week (depending on the work load).

To keep the story short, Robert and Geska happened to come to Santa Ana as guest artists. While other residents would take a mirror and figure out a different way how to paint it or how to mount its frame, they made an interactive image of Virgin Mary that will come closer to you after spending some time staring at the screen. To them, this first Mexican experience was a great opportunity to explore how a different culture looks at religion and decided to figure out ways to further work on the site.

Arduino for carpenters

The Performing Pictures couple enrolled some other artists in the process of writing an application to the European Commission. Under the name of Euroaxaca different artists and craftsmen from the EU would develop activities with similar groups in the area of Oaxaca. I joint as a way to explore how to bridge electronics and carpentry. My goal was to establish a collaboration with the people at the workshop. From the beginning I assumed that bringing in digital fabrication (lasercutting and CNC’ing) would be a great interaction between the new and the old way of looking at carpentry. However, I didn’t express my visions, as I wanted to keep my options open and learn while doing.

I visited the workshop in December 2011 just to get an idea about the location. I realized it would be hard to get computers. I noticed there was no internet on site, even if there are two internet cafes next door. As a matter of fact, the room where the workshop would take place had only two power plugs. In my backpack I carry more electricity-hungry devices that need power to function than that!

I planned for an internet-less workshop; started the translation process of Arduino’s IDE just to have an IDE in Spanish (unfortunately I couldn’t get this done until May, too late for the workshop); gathered documentation in USB sticks an CDs; prepared the software (Arduino and Processing) for multiple operating systems; bought materials to bring with me from Europe and explored some local stores in Mexico DF for buttons, wire, and sound amplifiers.

In February 10th we (I hired a designer to help out with documentation) came to Santa Ana ready to start with the workshop. We weren’t fully aware of all the details, as one can more or less never be. For example, there was a Valentine’s festival in town, what forced us finishing the workshop earlier during the first couple of days to make sure people would have time to go with their families to the carnival. Counting all the time we spent in Santa Ana, I estimate we worked 7 full workdays with the workshop, what required 14 days of on-site work, plus another 7 days in preparations from Sweden and 5 in documentation.

Workshop’s timeline

The first half of the workshop, I performed a reduced version of an introductory Arduino workshop. I spent 3 days going through the idea of input/output, digital vs. analog, bit/byte/int/long, resistor, LED, potentiometer, LDR, button … but also keyboard and mouse, copy and paste, code and text. The computer literacy level of some of the attendants to the workshop was as low as not knowing how to copy/paste text. As I have taught at over 60 workshops, I didn’t prepare my slides in a specific order, I improvised introducing new terms as needed.

At the end of the 3rd day I introduced the idea of project: “I know when an artist comes to you, he speaks about his or her project … their project is basically how they speak about their work … it is just that work, as a word, sounds too bad”. And I continued “now I want you to come out with your own projects. I know you make beautiful frames, mirrors, boxes and wood sculptures, but can you think about fun and interactive pieces we could do together?”

During the workshop, 12 to 14 people came every day, but we had only 5 computers. So it was very natural to get people to group. They formed their own teams, and we asked them to make some sketches of their ideas. A jukebox, an interactive mirror that will give you (dirty) compliments, a small light game, a drinking game … all these ideas were conceptualized, built, and realized during the following 4 days.

The starting materials were simple. At the bottom of the workshop there was a pile of old wood. They went through it and chose pieces to glue together and make wider boards that we would then cut at the right length. Their way of using wood is extremely sustainable. I would call it additive by comparison on how we work at our carpentry at K3, where we tend to work from pieces big enough where to subtract wood from.

examples of craftsmanship at Zegache, February 2012

In the beginning I was puzzled about how this whole process would work. In my head, after 11 years teaching at K3 looking at students building their projects at the wood-workshop, I just didn’t think it would be possible for them to pull it out. Groups of 3 had to plan, cut the wood, glue it together, integrate the electronics, sand the surface, paint the objects, and write the software. I have to mention that their workshop was lacking many of the tools we have at K3.

Optimal collaboration

During the first day of project building I noticed that one of the participants was a little empty handed. She happens to be the main expert in restoration and gold plating. She is actually not doing any wood work besides those. This mean she had literally nothing to do at that some periods. At the same time, two participants, were busy gluing 3 out of the 5 boxes for the projects. The man with the longest experience in wood-work put in his pipeline cutting the box for his own project as well as the one for LaPiztola -a group of 2 local designers that joint the workshop, but that had no experience in carpentry-.

What I was witnessing was a sort of optimal collaboration. Not everybody would perform all the tasks, they focused in the ones they perform best. They knew in this way they could plan their times to maximize the output.

It is then when I noticed this workshop was different from the others I had done. Up to that point, I thought it was different because of the location, the abnormal circumstances, the lack of tools I consider basic in my everyday teaching … but it was optimal because those artisans without a long-term project, had no problem in helping their pals for the greater good. In this way, nobody was left behind, none of the projects had authors or owners … everyone were making everything.

Adjusting to the circumstances

When this little truth stroke me, I decided to also change my strategy for performing my share in the workshop. I realized hardware and software would become a bottleneck. Therefore I convinced a young man to become my right hand in soldering. I taught him some basic concepts on how to solder electronic components and made him responsible of placing the components on circuit boards so that I could write the software to make the projects run. A couple of hours later, a second man took our other soldering iron and helped him under my directions. None of them had ever before tried to solder any wires together.

tray with embedded game, February 2012

I understood I was no longer a teacher of a workshop, I was part of the process of making those interactive sound toys, magic mirrors, and drinking games. To be fair, the carpentry had been running for 15 years (counting from the time when he first restoration works started on the church), much longer than I have been teaching workshops.

From that moment we were the band and we played the music for the rest of the workshop. I saw those projects coming alive, one after one, in my hands, as I wrote the software. I was the last step in the chain. I surely did learn as little about carpentry as any of the carpenters learned programming. Considering the time-frame we had to learn about each other’s craft, this type of workshop became a powerful way to learn and share.

Analysis

I see some issues that need to be studied further when it comes to improving our education system. The following paragraphs highlight some other matters that I was pointing out throughout the text:

  • our approach to group work is not correct
  • the cost of education as a personal investment
  • being unique breaks the chain
  • skill-learning is a long term process

Group work in education has to be thought through

I am not sure the way we approach group-work in contemporary educational systems makes it real group-work. Our way of looking at education, with individual grading, where we require everyone to know about everything -even if they don’t feel a strong interest for some of the subjects- is not making our education a good favor.

The mere concept of failing or passing is not making for a good educational experience. In design educations it is hard to grade the actual concept, therefore we focus on the process. And having to think in an individual grading, affects the process and therefore the possibility of learning from the others in the best way possible. We should simply not expect everyone to learn everything … but how is our current grading system designed to contemplate that?

Education costs money or yet another reason for individual grades

When education gets capitalized (students have to pay for their education), educators stop teaching students and start giving service to customers. If a student expects to get the best service for his/her money, and if that service consists of getting access to good teachers, good labs, good training sessions -at a particular level-, why should he/she be graded as a group? The credit is own individually, so is the student loan. Furthermore, from an economic point of view it is a personal investment we are talking about, why should one’s ability to grow be hindered by the low-performance of one’s pals at school?

The work market is made of individuals, corporations do not hire groups, they acquire other companies, but usually do not go around trying to hire a whole team of people to perform a task. It is then not that terrible we grade students separately, as they need this to approach the real work in the real world (RW2). It is only morally correct, from a point of view of our economic democracy, that we grade them as independent units.

What if they had no real future to refer to, as our carpenters do? If they had no career to build, just the satisfaction of a job well done … what would they aim at? Working as a team gets then a different value, they are not only learning from each other, they are giving each other a value in their survival chain as “the one that can do this or that task”. Doing something is much more valuable than it is for our students, where attending a course is a matter of yet another tick on their checklist of skills. For the subjects of this case study it is a matter of bringing food to the table, so the skill is twice as valuable, when not more.

Uniqueness is not important (for the greater good)

The aspect that surprises me is that the carpenters are not as concerned about their uniqueness as one might think. They are aware they cannot be dependent on one single person for a task. They need to transfer that knowledge to the next one. If anything happened to one of them, that particular skill would disappear. And one of the reasons this whole process of Santa Ana started was to bring back to life the skills of a community that had gone lost over time. Therefore knowledge transfer is key within their community.

Time matters, you never get enough

When I reflect about the mechanisms of how that knowledge transfer is made, considering that I have barely 5 weeks of life experience with the carpenters (after the workshop in Oaxaca, two of them came to Malmo and we conducted a 2 weeks course in building boxes), I can see that time matters. It takes years to fully master a skill.

Learning a craft requires a long time commitment while our courses last for short periods and we leave open for the students to decide whether they want to achieve more by themselves. We have no mechanisms to grade them for that extra effort. I am assuming that our grading mechanisms cannot be changed, therefore if we could implement long-term monitoring of progress (in the form of grades for long-term skill learning), we would provide incentives to more of our students to spend time becoming better with the skills needed to perform the empirical part of the academic work.

Mastering a process implies knowing how to modify it, and how to hack it to fulfill a different purpose. The master carpenter can teach me how to glue boards together and nail them into pretty boxes in a week, that doesn’t make me a carpenter … it just opens a world in front of my eyes, unveils the possibilities. But from that moment, whenever there is a new box to be nailed, he can rely on me, I become part of the chain.

Closing remarks: you want to be a band

Optimal collaboration requires knowing when to wait and when to come in; having everyone to play the music in a band, adding a little to collaboratively build a whole. Now the challenge for me is how to apply some of this knowledge to our education system. Figuring out how to bring long term team-centered skill building into a system that is based in short educational experiences. The biggest challenge is making group work real, and collaboration optimal. I believe adjusting the way our grading system works both horizontally (adding soft qualities to the evaluation schema) and establishing long-term skill evaluations in the whole educational plan would be a good start.

Jukebox made in Santa Ana Zegache, February 2012

 


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