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Teaching the Process of Design (or, making student videos interesting)

This is a crosspost from the Students 2.0 blog. You may comment on the original post there.

As I watch students (myself included, as always) work on video projects for their foreign language, English, or other classes, I see a striking similarity between those videos and my family’s home movies. Just like home movies, most of these student videos are lacking a thesis and a design to support them. As technology allows us to integrate creative projects further into our curriculum, we need to give students the tools to funnel their creative efforts into an effective and cohesive whole.

The need to teach students how to design is not a new idea. Dan Meyer has been posting wonderful lessons from his class on Information Design. Scott S. Floyd in his year-end photo post writes:

While we focus on design being important in educating our youth (or their learning), I have begun to pay particular attention in how things look around me. I think that giving our students the opportunity to understand and appreciate the elements of design will allow them to create better finished products to display their learning.

There are many ways that one can approach design. Practitioners of the visual arts might look at it in terms of the principles of design. My background, however, is in theatre and video production. I will also add that my teacher/mentor Mr. Patrick Huber gets full credit for instilling this process in me.

If you asked a director of a theatrical or video production for the thesis of their production, you would surely get a cogent statement of purpose. It might be as simple as “My production is historically accurate” or a more grandiose theory about the world we inhabit: “by allowing ones’ ambition, not rationality, to take control of the choices we make, we lead ourselves into our failure” (That Scottish Play) or “our perception of our environment is a function of the people in it and our relationships with them” (The Zoo Story). Once a thesis is decided on, a concept for the production is formed that expresses the thesis and every design decision made during the production serves the thesis. This gives directors (or designers, or actors) a basic structure on which to base their production. Used correctly, a thesis can be the most powerful tool in a designer’s arsenal.

I would argue that the reason watching student videos can at times be excruciatingly painful is that they lack a cohesive design. Often, they represent a hodgepodge of ideas strewn together with very little thought to creating a unified whole. However, when students begin with picking a thesis, and then work from that thesis, a pattern, a design, begins to emerge. When the question for every single decision is “what supports my thesis?” those awkward transitions, strange cuts, and random effects begin to make sense.

Let us take, as an example, foreign language video projects. In my school, it is not uncommon for a foreign language student to be producing a short three- or five-minute video to demonstrate their mastery of the curriculum. Normally, the first production meeting starts with the question: What can our video be about that makes it easy for us to use the required tenses and vocabulary?; And so, a script is written and design decisions are made with one goal in mind: satisfying the requirements. The problem is two-fold: While the video satisfies the requirements, it does so only minimally, and while the students are using the class’s language, they may not be fully expressing an idea with the language.

Rather than simply asking our students to combine video technology with their foreign language, we need to be asking them to use both their foreign language and video technology to express an idea. Asking students to reach beyond the requirements is where the real gold lies: it is when we really start to see how well students can use the tools given to them.

This isn’t, of course, limited to foreign language videos. I would classify student video productions into two categories: (1) videos demonstrating mastery of material (such as the above foreign language example), and (2) videos demonstrating the material (such as a video one might produce for a history class explaining some historical event). In this second case, the purpose of a thesis is simple: to make the video interesting. If students are trying to convey information in a video, they need to hold their audience’s attention. Structuring their video and design decisions around a thesis is a powerful tool for creating a cohesive and powerful piece.

I leave you with a series of questions: How and when do you teach students design skills at your school? What types of design skills do you teach them? Do they have the design skills to effectively utilize the creative mediums you provide them? What attributes have you found make student designs particularly effective?

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