The Stupidest Creative Act: Dean Shareski speaks at ISTE 2013

I was honored to be chosen to give an Ignite talk during the opening session at this year’s ISTE conference in San Antonio.

A few random thoughts:

  • These are hard to do
  • I tried to submit slides that contained video and transitions but that wasn’t allowed
  • I’d love to see more of these sessions
  • I think smaller ideas are better and more interesting to share in this format than big ones
  • If I do another one I think I’m going to be more creative with the time
  • People liked my pants as much or more than my talk.

Here’s the written transcript of my talk.

Last month my daughter came to me with a problem. “Dad, I can’t fit any more apps or songs on my phone it’s says it’s full” I grabbed her phone to find out the problem…. 985 selfies….bad selfies at that. Given I’ve been known on occasion to take a selfie and given my house is well staffed with selfie police officers, I couldn’t dismiss her problem.

You see, I’m a big fan of silly. Silly is good, silly is part of what makes us human. In some respects our world is now full of silly. And yet, I would argue our schools would do well to reconsider ways to bring a little silly and a little joy into our achievement obsessed cultures.

While I might have a hard time convincing any district to adopt a culture of silly, most everyone agrees the creativity is a worthy pursuit. I want to argue that silly is a wonderful spark for creativity. Sometimes it’s not always readily apparent but indeed you have to start somewhere and silly is as good a place as any.

Clay Shirky has said, “The stupidest creative act is still a creative act and that the real gap isn’t’ between the mediocre and great work, the real gap is between getting started and doing nothing. If you’ve created something, even if it’s stupid, you’ve put yourself in a position to do more.

Some people have too much time on their hands. Have you ever said that to someone or had someone say that to you? I get that a lot actually. Particularly after I post something like this. The assumption is that while I’m creating silly photos, other people are doing more important things. I always assume they’re discovering a cure for cancer or something.

I’ve seen the evolution in my own work go from posting nonsense to really important work. After posting a few photos of things my dog chewed I decided to create a Flickr group. The first group I ever created in Flickr was devoted to things chewed by dogs.

Later I would start a group called Great Quotes about Learning. Today there are over 1000 members all sharing almost 3,000 wonderful images and quotes that can be shared and used for presentations like this by anyone in the world

Remix culture is founded on the idea that we play with media. We can grab bits and pieces and turn them into something more interesting or different. Often these are throwaways or inconsequential things that can be turned them into something beautiful.

Nick Bertke is one does just that. Observing his mother’s daily gardening routine he grabbed video of her in action and autotuned her voice to create a wonderful tribute to her. Each piece by themselves might seem stupid or meaningless.

Here’s a little web trivia for you, Do you know what this is? This is the world’s first live streamed web cam. It’s a coffee pot from the Cambridge University science dept in 1991. The students worked on the 6th floor and the coffee pot was on the 2nd floor they were tired of going to get coffee only to find the pot was empty. Today we have webcams from outer space.

Twitter itself might be seen as the ultimate experiment in stupid. Where did we get the idea that we needed a place to tell the world we just ate a sandwich? And yet because of twitter we’ve seen meaningful personal and professional relationships formed and communities created.

Not mention gov’ts being overthrown and astronauts sharing glorious photos and sometime earthquakes and other breaking news being shared and potentially saving lives. But of course these are more mature, sophisticated uses.

So this is something pretty stupid. It’s an office chair. It’s an office chair with a twitter account. That’s dumb. But the really dumb part is the office chair only tweets when the person sitting on it….. How do I say this politely….breaks wind.

Then there’s the plant that tweets. Here’s a creative idea where every time the plant hits a certain threshold of dryness, it sends out a tweet telling the owner to water it. Certainly less stupid than the office chair but still relatively goofy.

Then you have projects like Ushadi where users are encouraged to use the GPS on their phones to plot earthquake destruction or political uprising creating crowdsourced geospatial data that potentially saves lives. But you start with Ushadi, you start with tweeting plants and flatulating office chairs.

It’s easy to say, why not skip all the goofy, throw away nonsense and just get to the serious, the good stuff. Shirky argues that new media never works that way. You always have to allow for the throw away it’s just that today, more of our throw away stuff is public

This is where you come in. Great teachers can take stupid or throwaway and turn it into something beautiful and meaningful. We need teachers who will allow students to create, experiment, at times be silly

but then lead them to reflect and ask, “What else could this be?” Often stupid creations represent safe and risk free opportunities to try something new. It may not always lead to something of beauty and value but sometimes it will.

If we really do want to see our students be more creative, we’re going to have to allow them to do things that at first glance might seem kind of stupid. It’s one of the attributes of new media and indeed the benefits of technology. Cheap failure.

Besides, it wouldn’t hurt us to relax a little. I’ll leave you with this quote. “Adults need to have fun so children will want to grow up.” Thank you.

cross-posted at

Dean Shareski is a Digital Learning Consultant with the Prairie South School Division in Moose Jaw, SK, Canada, specializin in the use of technology in the classroom. He lectures for the University of Regina and is the Community Manager of the Canadian DEN or Discovery Educators Network.