Last year, we had the opportunity to have Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder, authors of Intention, Critical Creativity in the Classroom, host #K12ArtChat. Amy Burvall describes herself as a remixer, mycongraphy artist, social media kook, Google Certified innovator, instructional designer and international speaker and workshop leader.  Dan Ryder states he is a design thinking evangelist, hashtag enthusiast, Apple Distinguished Educator, improv comedy performer and actor and hybrid thinker. As you can see they are tech-savvy, creative, passionate educators which made them perfect hosts for the chat.

We’ve been reading the book and loved the questions posed during the chat. It’s left us feeling like we need a little more time with our guest hosts to learn and percolate on this idea of “Critical Creativity.”

Critical Creativity

Amy and Dan thank you so much for spending time with the #K12ArtChat PLN and taking time to respond to our questions.

Amy, We’ve had to privilege to see you speak about “thinking like an artist.” Why is this an important message for educators to hear?  

There are so many nuggets we can take away from artists and they way they think and work. Things that first come to mind are innate curiosity, willingness to pursue autodidactic learning, comfort in ambiguity, the desire to tinker (especially with new technologies), and of course the ability to tap into everything that makes us human. Artists notice things others miss, and take the time to explore. They often leverage and even push the boundaries of new tools and technology. They exemplify the essence of creativity – connecting disparate dots and drawing from the past, remixing and re-contextualizing to create something novel.

In my recent TEDx talk, “#getsmART, Lessons from the Artists” I struggled to focus on 3 major traits of artists we can learn from, but finally decided upon “Be Porous”, “Push Past”, and “Play”. The pushing past is all about cultivating a sense of wonder and presence, as well as learning from others. I also discuss the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi – recognizing and acknowledging beauty in the broken, the flawed, and the impermanent.  Pushing past refers to resilience, fortitude, and creative confidence. How might we turn something painful into something productive? And purposeful play, of course, is such a significant part of being human – it’s how we learn and it helps us grow emotionally and intellectually, developing both our amygdala and our pre-frontal cortex.

As work becomes more automated and the world becomes increasingly unpredictable, whoever thinks like an artist – is agile, adaptable, and divergent – will have an edge.

Design Thinking Evangelism

Dan, we know you are a design thinking evangelist and fueled by empathy, but why?  What makes it a core component of your instructional practice?

Adopting a design thinking mindset of human-centered, empathy-driven problem solving transformed every aspect of my work with students — whether in English classes, advisory, improv and theater, or in my new role as Education Director of our new Success & Innovation Center at Mt. Blue Campus.

My students and I moved from the dumpster projects of a far-too-typical project-based learning classroom (see also: cakes decorated with word clouds), to the much more agile, much more responsive, and much more flexible tools of design.  We focus on characters as clients, readers as users, audience as investors. I find myself rarely answering, “Why do we have to do this?” since the answer grows increasingly self-evident: we’re practicing skills they can use everyday. Design thinking mindsets remind us to take calculated risks, to accept the messiness of change, and to trust the process.

I truly believe empathy and all that comes with it — mindfulness, connectedness, human-ness — is fast becoming a marketable commodity for students to bring into the workforce.  Those of us that can understand the needs of others and develop meaningful solutions to address those needs? They aren’t going to be replaced by technology. In fact, they are best positioned to use technology to amplify their humanity — and in the most creative ways possible.

More Than a Brushstroke

Amy, on page 39, you speak to the fact that creativity is more than a brushstroke, it’s a way of thinking and doing and creativity is content agnostic.  Could you go a little deeper for us and tell us more?

Our book reiterates that creativity is not about “art” or even “the arts”… and it’s not to be confused with artistic “talent” that some people seem to have more of than others. It’s also less about making something “novel” than it is about connecting and combining existing elements, which is why we still need to learn things – the knowledge becomes our “dots” to connect. Finally, creativity is more likely to flourish in an environment of constraints and parameters rather than complete “freedom”.  We say “the way out of the box is via the shackles”. So, our book offers strategies for thinking and making that works with any age (even adults!) and in any discipline.

We believe you can learn how to be a more creative thinker, and to get in the habit of tracing the creative lineage of your work – to articulate the intention behind what you made. It’s this thoughtfulness and communication that allows a teacher, for instance, to assess if a student has mastered the content.

What I love about the activities in our Catalog of Creativity (which is the bulk of the book), is that someone can just choose one and apply it to whatever you are currently studying, or whatever issue you are dealing with (that’s why they are great for faculty meetings and professional development, too).

Being Intentional

Dan, the book seems to reference Understanding by Design, (UbD) as it unfolds ideas about intentionally planning creative experiences for meaning making.  How do you use it when developing curriculum for your classroom?

I grew into education as a disciple of Wiggins and McTighe’s UBD: design your lessons & your units with the learning in mind, rather than the activity, the text, or the assessment.

Critical creativity and rigorous whimsy ask just the same of us.  If I start with “I really want kids to mash up songs and videos and make them razy power rad awesome,” then no matter how much that track sounds like the beautiful lovechild of Girl Talk and Quentin Tarantino, there’s no telling if they have learned anything beyond how well Foreigner complements Inglorious Bastards.  

What is it I want students to know? To be able to do?  And then what forms of creative expression might provide them a vehicle for showcasing those skills and knowledge?  What experiences might enhance that understanding and improve those vehicles?    

Combinatorial Play

Amy and Dan, what is “combinatorial play?” and why do you feel it should be part of an educator’s training?

Combinatorial Play is a couple of things. Albert Einstein coined it, I believe, and said “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

I like to think of it as both the combining / mashing up / remix of ideas into new ones as well as the sort of creativity  when you dip your metaphorical brush into other buckets. When you meet with kindred spirits – creative soulmates- for example, you bounce around ideas and there is a sort of “studio vibe” (like working together in the same creative space) that is conducive to innovation. I also think it’s important to step outside one’s discipline (sometimes referred to as the “watercooler effect”). Whatever field you are in, you can learn from folks in other fields, and this often creates the most amazing spark. The key is to be able to synthesize the big takeaways, and use them as analogies for your own discipline. As an educator, I’ve specifically learned a lot from the advertising world, famous artists and authors, entrepreneurs and scientists.

One idea for educators is to plan interdisciplinary units or engage in projects across the divisions. As a high school teacher, I used to get a lot of ideas just visiting the kindergarten room.

Take Note!

Amy & Dan, your book is so hands on and has great spaces for taking notes. What was your intention behind the format or your book?

We wanted it to be aesthetically something we could stand behind of course, but more than that, we wanted it to be what we call a “living book”. Both of us are big fans of visible thinking, marginalia and sketchnotes. We also didn’t want to have the last say – that’s why we call the activity plans “Pathways”… they are meant to be remixed and tweaked by our readers. Moreover, we wanted to create more than a book trapped inside a cover …our goal is to develop an ever-growing open community of educators who share their thoughts as well as new ideas and exemplars of student work.

We really hope folks keep sharing their annotations and examples of our activities on social media – it’s so much fun and we learn from our readers as much as they learn from the book.

Discipline to Discover

Amy & Dan, the book also has an AMAZING catalog of critical creativity. How are you hoping teachers will use this? Would you also talk to us about what the amplifications are at the end of each creative pathway?

One thing I really dig are the reference charts – you can search by discipline to discover which activities have specific applications to your subject area (though, all are content agnostic). You can also see with the help of visual icons what materials you would need for a certain activity.

We’ve organized all of the activities by theme: Creating with Words, Images, Stuff, the Body, Socially and Social Media, and Sounds. You can use multiple strategies for the same content. We’ve added the amplifications to really take things to the next level. Usually that involves sharing work with the world (via digital technology) or locally (perhaps with events), collaborating globally or with different divisions, or adding extra layers and depth. We feel the amplifications increase authenticity and will inspire more quality in the work.

Make Something Good Everyday

Amy you are constantly creating digital images and collages. Your instagram is a treasure trove of thought provoking retro and vintage inspired art.  Tell us about your current concentration of art and what inspires you to “make ART everyday”?

Thanks. Yes, I love Vincent Van Gogh’s quote: “…make something good everyday”. But my real motto I’ve stolen from Henry Miller – “Paint what you like and die happy”. Since having cancer about 10 years ago I really feel an urge to produce something beautiful or interesting on a daily basis and of course, share it. I’ve found in my years of being transparent on social media that certain things touch certain people and you can never predict what they may be…but it’s always worth it, even if what you make moves just one person.

I’m a bit obsessive, so I do series. I get on a certain kick and do like 100 of something then stop. For the past year I’ve been in a little personal experiment to see how much I can create just using my phone (an iPhone6 Plus). I do all my artwork and remixes on it using a variety of apps.

Most recently, I’ve been using found vintage illustrations (mostly mid-century) and superimposing my cut-up poetry from magazines. It’s a hybrid of analogue and digital and part of my exploration into Dadaist techniques and how they can be brought into the digital age. I’ve also just torn apart an old Dick and Jane volume to re-contextualize into feminist / political statements (in INTENTION this is called “Hack a Children’s Book”).

Overall I’d say the art I do is pretty irreverent and minimalistic. I’m in kind of a Barbara Kruger mode right now though my all time favourite artist / designer is Saul Bass.

One More Thing…

Last but not least! Amy & Dan, we want to ask you one of the questions that you asked our PLN.  What are your go-to analogue tools and/or apps you can’t live without?  


Apps: Paper by 53; ImgPlay (for gifs); Enlight (for Photoshop-esque work on phone); Splice (for video editing and music); Instagram and Twitter for sharing and inspiration; the Rain Rain app (for ambiance)

Best app ever:  my camera on my iPhone, which is the bridge between the analogue and digital

Analogue: magazines (for cut up poetry); chalk and paper bags (I did a series of Bardot bags); old children’s books (for found images); blank paper (I hate lines and I use paper to prototype everything)


Apps: Like Amy, Twitter and Instagram are my lifelines to the world beyond my experiences.  Seriously. Three days without Twitter is like a month of broth-only fasting for my edu-soul.  I’m also a fervent user of both the GSuite for Education and Keynote. GSuite lets us collect, document and collaborate our faces off.  And Keynote can do so many bazillion things from animation to graphic design — it’s my 2D digital creation studio.

Analogue:  I’m supposed to say Post-Its, because I’m so entrenched in design.  And yes, I love ‘em. But oh, give me stacks and stack of index cards, buckets of Sharpie pens, some Crayola skinny markers, a few gel pens from MUJI, and a decent blank book?  Look out, cook out, there’s learning on the way.

Big thank you to Amy and Dan for sharing with us and writing their fantastic book!  We are thrilled to be able to connect with them and hope you find their resources as helpful as we do.  

Wishing you Creativity,