Ian Gonsher: Building the Conditions for Creativity in the Classroom

IanGonsher

Personal Story compiled by: Howard Rheingold

Key Takeaways

  • "I hope my classes challenge students to explore new ways of producing value, meaning, and utility in the objects and experiences they are designing. I hope design students recognize the extraordinary opportunity they have to shape the behaviors and experiences that emerge from our built environment and material culture."
  • "There is a special kind of magic in translating an abstract idea into a concrete object. I hope students develop fluency across many different modes of representation as they iteratively move from concepts to writing and conversation, to sketches and sketch models, to virtual models and other forms of virtual prototyping, and finally to refined prototypes. Every iteration is an opportunity to ask a question."
  • "Documentation is perhaps the greatest tool we have for critically engaging our design process and creative practice. Documentation not only allows us to better understand the arc of our process, to examine the decisions we've made along the way, but it is also a valuable asset that allows us to share how we approach creative problem solving."
  • Interest-based learning begins with conversations about potential assignments, proceeds through an interrogation of what the assignments mean to students, and continues through projects that students identify as meaningful through these conversations.
  • Group critique of projects that gets beyond "I like" or "I don't like" can sharpen the analytical capabilities of individuals and also multiply the effectiveness of individual efforts by bringing the knowledge and capabilities of the whole group to bear.

Ian Gonsher, part of the faculty in the School of Engineering at Brown University, consistently seeks opportunities to enhance his students' creative processes while becoming a 'co-learner' alongside them. The Creative Mind Initiative at Brown University illustrates his teaching goal of "exploring the creative process across disciplines, with a particular interest in moving from STEM to STEAM." Ian teaches in the School of Engineering, but art and design are as important in his courses as science and engineering: "I'm interested in helping students create artifacts and experiences that have meaning, value, and utility and working with students as co-learners to help them define what those words mean to them."

My relationship with Gonsher is also a lesson in the potential scope of a teacher's influence. He first reached out to me because his mother was a student in my own mother's art class 50 years ago: "My mom cites your mother as a major influence in her lifelong dedication to art and teaching," Gonsher wrote in his first email to me, "I suppose I am a beneficiary of that influence as well."

The more I learned about Gonsher's work, the more I was reminded of my mother's pedagogy -- starting with permission to experiment, and only then moving to improving technique. When I talked with Gonsher about his teaching, he said something that could have come out of my mother's mouth: "My teaching style isn't so much about imparting knowledge (although that's part of it), but about creating conditions where the creative process can occur, learning from the students as they learn from me, and creating projects together out of those interactions."

For example, Gonsher teaches Design Studio, an introductory design class that changes from semester to semester. Student projects range from "aeroponic gardens" to robot hands, tea-makers, 3D-printed objects designed to augment pencils, and furniture: "We design and build furniture through an iterative process. It gives students a basic foundation in making things with their hands, along with technical skills such as how to use a table saw, or how to make mortise and tendon joints. More than that, what I love about furniture is that it has immediate proximity to our bodies and we use it every day. Like clothing or architecture, furniture is part of our material culture and built environment. If I can get students thinking about how these objects influence -- or even orchestrate -- their behaviors and interactions with one another, then we can use those insights, which emerge out of the students' own interests and curiosity, to inform the design of new objects and experiences." Interest-based learning, interwingled with hands-on how-to and broader inquiry about the role of design in daily life, is a typical Gonsher recipe for a course.

This past summer, Gonsher taught an experimental class, "STEAMstudio," which he had developed in collaboration with some of his Brown students. Gonsher believes that people come to a school like his for the community as well as great teachers and educational resources. STEAMstudio was designed for high school students who came to Brown in the summer and took a three-week course, working in the studio on a daily basis. The high school students on campus also interacted online with the network of Gonsher's Brown students who didn't come to the physical studio during the summer, but worked with STEAMstudio online. The online students, located all over the world, Skyped into class and collaborated with the students who were physically co-present. "I thought a lot about how to bring these communities together to be resources for one another, to emphasize peer-to-peer learning, and to frame projects that are interesting to the students. I set up the conditions, introduced basic ideas about the creative process, and set an interactive process in motion, bringing in critique and redesign. Make, critique, make, critique, very quickly."

The critique part is one place community comes in: high school students talking to peers, high school students talking with college students, the instructor facilitating: "We look at our projects together through multiple, differing perspectives and encourage people to bring their unique skills to improve other students' projects. This kind of ideation and communication translates directly into students' projects. At the same time, they also learn to integrate fluency in digital tools, social media, and visual literacy with making physical objects and critiquing them constructively. Nobody has all those skills when they come into the class, but by the time they are done, every student has worked at all of them. They also learn how to contribute their capabilities to the community. Maybe one student is good at coding, and another knows how to make things with table saws. They learn from each other as they contribute and together look for the resources each needs to improve their individual skill sets."

Gonsher encourages beginning design students to start with questions before thinking about materials, plans, and tools, and to continue asking and sharpening their questions during the making process: "Every iteration is an opportunity to ask a question. So what are the questions you're interested in? What resources do you need to effectively address those questions? How do you bring those questions into the critique and the community conversation?"

Gonsher also asks his students to look for their own balance between permission to experiment and working under constraints, between free-form exploration and structured activity; he applies the same frame to his own facilitation of the class. "When I first started doing this, it was about just making something. No rules, no structure, just 'do it!' We made a lot of cool things that way." But structurelessness led Gonsher and his students to start talking about the creative benefits of constraints. "We used to have a project called ‘The Grand Anything.' Here's a pile of two-by-fours and some tools, and let's see what we can make in half an hour. We'd create crazy structures that would fill a room, but we came up against the lack of a purpose, a reason for what we were making. So we started looking for structures that would give us common purpose without predetermining the outcome." The introduction to 3D printing was such an exercise: each student was asked to design a simple, printable object that augments a standard pencil.

Once students find a project they are enthusiastic about engaging, Gonsher challenges them to talk about how they change their mind about materials, tools, and processes after they get to work: "The art of the design critique is getting everyone to think beyond what they originally thought they were making and how the last iteration turned out. Instead of 'I like it' or 'I don't like it,' critique in class is about delving deeply into the effects of the things were making, then remake them with the critique in mind, then delving again." The students encounter obstacles, run up against the constraints of their materials, find ways to move forward. Gonsher identifies themes as they emerge and reflects them back to students, encourages students to extend the themes. In some cases, the critique process leads students to combine efforts in collaborative projects.

"At the beginning, I have them working individually, thinking divergently in a very broad way, getting lots of ideas out there, making lots of sketches. Then we discuss the projects as a class. We have a conversation, look for patterns, commonalities, differences between different kinds of approaches." As themes emerge, Gonsher encourages students to group around them. When they complete their projects, students take them home and live with them, come back to the class, and reflect communally about how living with their artifact changed their behavior: what kind of experiences flowed from it, or how that knowledge might be integrated into another iteration. For Gonsher, storytelling, reflection, critique, normally thought of as practices of the humanities, is what glues together the conceptual work ("What is the purpose of this object?" "How does its design affect the person who uses it?") with the engineering ("Is this wood strong enough?" "Do I need to weld that metal?").

Gonsher introduces his students to a narrative storyline about taking abstract ideas and transforming them into something concrete, enlisting digital media, communication skills, visual thinking, physical manipulation, physical power tools, art ideas and techniques.

"There's a magic that manifests when you take an idea that you thought up and produce a physical object that represents the thing you had in your head. My goal is to stimulate the students to think about different modes of representation. How does an idea become a verbal expression, a conversation, a story? How does the story become sketches? How do sketches become physical or digital models? How do you produce a prototype from a model? Part of the learning grows from documenting the process so students reflect, ponder, discuss, critique, and understand the decisions they make along the way and why they select a particular type of representation, process, or material."

Images courtesy of Ian Gonsher
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