The following Interview was conducted in 1998 by Clyde Boyer with with Bill Hill, the Executive Director of The Vizability Project.
Clyde Boyer: How do you generate ideas?
Bill Hill: The first thing you do is break down all the rules of judgment. You need to give yourself permission to explore as many ideas as possible without being worried if they sound too silly or strange. You need to think like a child.
Sometime around the fourth grade, that freedom to explore is trained out of us. We become afraid of making mistakes or not finding the right answer, and in effect, we become afraid of exploring.
CB: For the most part, thats how school works. Theres a right answer to every question and your responsibility is to find it.
BH: But the world doesn't work that way. Things are changing so quickly there is no single right answer. Just take the idea of perfection and throw it out the window. Especially when youre brainstorming, this idea of perfection can be paralyzing. If it doesnt look just right, if its not a perfect fit were reluctant to share it with anyone.
CB: I think that "getting acquainted" period is even more important for people who collaborate online, like students involved in ThinkQuest. They dont have the benefit of working in the same room. Theres no body language. The better you get to know each other at the early stages of the project, the easier it is to communicate and to share ideas. That really pays off down the road.
BH: Exactly, you just cant jump into a brainstorming session without getting to know the people youre working with.
CB: Can you suggest any brainstorming techniques that will help free up those ideas?
BH: In VizAbility, we discuss "free sketching" which has people explore their ideas through drawing. There is something about putting pencil to paper, of sketching, which really brings forth the ideas. But its more than an artists sketchbook. Brainstorming requires a collective group and a collective energy.
At Metadesign, we try to get rid of the idea of the table and tape up paper over the walls in the room. Someone starts with an idea, which stimulates another idea, and another. Pretty soon, we have people moving around the room, grabbing pens, sketching out new ideas, "what if we try this, or this."
But, its not just the volume of work, its also the range of ideas. How did you get to that specific idea, which path did you take? If you pay attention to the path your ideas take, youll start to recognize some very interesting patterns.
We also use word association. Well ask ourselves "What do we want this project to be?", and then fire out as many words that come to mind. But, were not looking for complete sentences or definitions, were looking for words, for thoughts, for certain colors, for people. "Is this Web site magnetic? Is it MTV or Michael Jordan?"
By agreeing on these descriptive ideas, your team will approach the project from the same perspective and development will tend to be much more focused.
CB: Maybe it would help if you explained the process Metadesign goes through during a brainstorming session.
BH: First of all, you need to have some kind of agreement prior to the brainstorming session. "What do we want? Do we want to make a better mousetrap? Do we want to ideas to help us solve a certain problem."
Once you agree on the goal of the brainstorming session, just let the ideas go. No judgment. You can sort out the ideas later, but for the moment, write down everything that comes along. Remember, youre not looking for a right answer. The goal is not to answer problems, but to surface as many as ideas as possible so that the answers will reveal themselves.
The journey is the goal. It reveals the solution. If youre willing to trust and to share, if youre willing to work through this messy part of development, you will not only be rewarded with a viable option, but many possible options and a process that will help you do it again.
CB: Okay, so your group has come up with a lot of great ideas what next?
BH: Go back through and tag the ideas that are the most effective, "this is interesting, or this might work." During this process youll start to recognize patterns of ideas. The next step is to sort and categorize. Out of one hundred ideas, youll notice that there might be three identifiable groups. "Which ideas are most easily grouped together?"
More importantly, "Which of these ideas will help you get back to your goal?"
Go back through and measure these ideas against the original goal. Rigorously assess which ideas can most effectively be deployed to help you achieve that goal. Rigor and assessment grounding. Were past the point of brainstorming, we now need to put on a different hat.
At Metadesign, we take these ideas and place them in a kind of plus-or-minus matrix. Underneath an idea well assign a plus or minus, "This is a great idea, but think about the time. Is this doable?" Make sure to look at horizons of time. "What are we trying to solve? Can we use this immediately, next week, next month."
CB: How do you put these ideas into action?
BH: Youve already taken the first step. Once youve assessed which ideas will help you achieve your goals, you simply put them in action. Theres no magic formula.
CB: The key is to make sure someone has taken responsibility for carrying that idea through.
CB: Is the beginning of the project the only time you brainstorm for ideas?
BH: Oh, no. Brainstorming is a great place to get unstuck. Its a place youll revisit continuously through the creative process for ideas and possible solutions.
CB: In VizAbility, the authors refer to the term "collective imagining". What does this term mean and how does it apply to students working collaboratively over time, distance and culture?
BH: The term "collective imagining" refers to people creating in the same space, the same room. This may not apply to a distributed learning project. How do you share a process like this over distance? E-mail and chat sessions are about typing not drawing. How do you translate the kind of energy that takes place when people create and sketch in the same environment?
I think whats missing is the human experience of sharing. Computers are good at data transfer, but how do computers really facilitate collaboration? I dont think the technology is quite there for synchronous collaboration over distance. But, lets not be limited by the medium.
Collaboration is a learned skill, not a technology. Thats why its so important that students find ways to work together now. Once the technology is in place, students wont have to relearn the process. Theyll already know how to work together. Just think what can be accomplished then.
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