The Moveable Architecture of Creativity
Photo courtesy of kino e.

The Moveable Architecture of Creativity

Written by Emilie

Topics: Creativity, Guest Posts

From Emilie: This is a guest post by Mark Robertson.

Mark first caught my attention through his comments here on Puttylike. As someone with a deep passion for education (and education reform) myself, I found Mark’s observations about his students to be quite interesting. I think you guys will really enjoy this.

Take it away, Mark.


I am a location dependent employee; my ground zero, my classroom, is room 211 at The American School of Brasília (EAB), an international American school that caters to the diplomatic community in Brazil’s (somewhat Martian) capital.

This city, called the Plano Piloto, is shaped like an airplane. The president’s palace is the pilot’s cabin; the senate looks like a control tower, the fuselage is comprised of the ministries; the tail is a large TV tower. The Asas, or wings, are the neighborhood. The plane is pointed at Paranoá lake.

The swirling cemetery mimics the spiraling trajectory of Bernoulli’s equation.

When it was built 51 years ago (in less than 40 months!), the city represented a radical deco departure from the “city-square” model for Latin American prefectures.

When seen from a plane, it literally looks like innovation, movement, and non-linear modality; much of Brazil’s recent economic growth can be attributed to their ease with whimsy, and visioneers in companies like Embrapa. I wonder how much the physical shape and archetectonics of the 51-year-old capital sets the tone.


As an educator I have begun to see how physical spaces, like the city Brasília, can be optimized for the co-creation of ideas, projects, and the facilitation of higher thinking. In a classroom, especially in a global community, I can explore a freer, more strategic way of creating moveable student workspaces that respond to the needs of an assignment.

The classical classroom—desks in rows facing the podium—implies that students are given to “absorb” information delivered from the speaker. Now most information is democratized. The role of a teacher has changed, utterly. Today rows imply “repression” or “control.”

A circle immediately makes a “class” more of a “cohort” if not a “tribe.” Recently, I projected a Youtube film of a crackling fire during poetry recitals. Normally reserved students almost naturally became more dramatic—even dead-poet primal—in the recitations. When we talk of 21st century capacities, or potentialities, we often refer to “out of the box thinking.” This is as simple and profound as King Arthur’s democratization of his dining table.

The more a circle is broken and spread, the more there is a tension between “integration” and “performance.”This is an excellent way to put people in the “soft-spotlight” while dramatizing Hamlet or The Crucible.

Two face-to-face (F2F) rows immediately puts students into a severe “speed date”; especially when they are not next to a friend. But a face-to-face conversation facilitates dialogue. Dialogue, when given parameters, quickly becomes interview, screenplay, manuscript. It also forces students to attend to one person amidst the clamour for attention. They role play characters in novels and to talk about an issue, gossip about another character.

Sometimes it’s to go totally off base. I will, for example, put all the desks in amphitheater seating facing the back corner of a classroom. Then I will give them a simple assignment, like “create a tag cloud describing your feelings right NOW. Larger words represent stronger feelings.”

Immediately students come up with this fascinating artistic data about their minds. Large “AWKWARD,” smaller “sleepy,” big “WTH,” smaller “confused.” I love this because “disorientation” is always the precursor to “reorientation”—new thought, endeavor, insight. The student’s free-associative data becomes the stuff of collective creativity.

Over time this creates culture. Culture + an interdependent workspace begets innovation (see NYTimes article on the Standford’s “Facebook Class”). According to educational theorist Benjamin Bloom, creation is the highest level of learning (source).


My International Baccalaureate (IB) group has wonderful diversity, culture, and creativity. I recently assigned spoken word poems (based on Sarah Kay’s model); each student wrote a poem, shared them with each other, and then performed the entire class. I asked have of the audience to take notes, and the other half of the audience to take videos with their cell phones. They have begun to see data as the currency of new art.

We are now using the collection of creative artifacts–videos, various performances, notes—to create an iMovie to go on the school blog. It will also be shown at the next class meeting. In truth, I grade the students according to a rubric, but this kind of intrinsic drive (cf., Daniel Pink) is far more motivating than a grade—and will be far more motivating than a paycheck.

Here’s the rub: the information’s out there. Teachers that try to demonize Spark Notes or Wikipedia will be fighting the creative collective. When I think of the classroom as a creative interdependent workspace, I can expect to be surprised. It’s like the information is the sandbox, and the students have returned to make elegant and surprising castles in the Cloud. The parameters are the walls and the limits of time, energy, and imagination.

Finally, students have the toys. They’re looking to find more than a vocation—they want to enjoy the experience of being alive. They want to identify and capitalize on a mosaic of talents…they are, in the end, quite “puttylike.”

Teaching is really about redeeming childhood dreams. Optimizing creative spaces is like “dream engineering.”

Born in San Diego and bred on surfing, books, and adventure, Mark Robertson is a kind of halfling of Sylvia Plath and Caliban…with St Francis for a crazy great uncle. He has been living and teaching abroad for last four years, and plans to continue for a while. He writes travel articles for the SD Reader, and blogs at The Panamericans and Je ne sais quoi.


  1. Crazy! I’ve just been connecting with Mark on Twitter. Good guy! Also, anyone that supports Spark Notes and Wikipedia is awesome in my book. I don’t understand the resistance to these platforms. When we can encourage the intelligent use of these tools, we will see a greatly impact on relevant teaching.

    Lastly, students today (and most of us!) want more from life than a vocation. Thanks for making that very clear Mark! Educators have such a great role in society now. Be the encouragement that makes the world amazing!

  2. David! So glad I found, too. The world shrinks. SD…I may have to buy a 60s bike and reinvent Ché Guevara’s (in reverse).

    You’re spot-on: a vocation is wonderful, but it should be one is a whole mosaic of values. This is rich living.

    Any advice about 60s bikes? I love the idea, but my wife keeps prefers me alive…is there a middle space for me?

    • Emilie says:

      I agree. Teachers who embrace innovation and speak to kids in language they understand will always be more effective. It shows a sort of respect I think.

  3. Drew Jacob says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve been teaching for 11 years in a variety of unusual configurations, from informal spaces to giant lectures. The standard with my students now is a sort of horseshoe shape, with the altar and hearth filling in the rest of the “circle” (I teach at a temple).

    It’s always fascinated me how much physical orientation affects the mood and learning behavior of students. Here’s one worth trying: if you are delivering a lecture-type segment of a lesson, walk around freely and especially walk around behind the students (outside the circle if using a circular arrangement). I find it leads to people considering your words more closely – the active movement tends to keep their attention so they don’t just daydream.

  4. “Horseshoe shape”<—love this one. Leaves a little space open for the magic.

    I like the idea of lecturing without "face-contact." Lectures should have movement and drama are brains are trained for movement and surprise, right? Where's the fun in speaking "at" people all day?

    Thanks, Drew.

    • Emilie says:

      Interesting. I gotta say, it always made me a little nervous when my teacher would come up behind me. Though, that usually happened when we were doing exercises. I guess I felt like I was being critiqued… But I suppose it did make me much less likely to goof off. Heh.

      I always enjoyed group work though. That’s a big one. And a teacher who was able to pull out the salient points from the class and relate them back to what we were learning. In law school there were far too many profs who would just let the pretentious big-talkers go on and on. They never brought the discussion back. It was painful.

      Man, there are some bad teachers out there! I wish I had more profs like you guys. :)

  5. Michelle says:

    Mark, I loved this post, thank you! It’s totally awesome to see a teacher getting so innovative and bringing a little bit of play + flexibility into things.

    Now, I’m curious and would love to hear your viewpoint – how do you think that you could bring that attitude of play, flexibility, switching things up to generate new ideas in an online context? I’m working on my service set and one of the things I want to stay away from is being boring in my coaching/consulting methods. Dunno if this is too nosy to ask but you sound like you might have some amazing ideas!

    • Emilie says:

      Ou good question, Michelle! I’m interested in Mark’s answer to this as well.

      I wonder how the “space” of a Skype coaching session could be optimized. Or how video chat compares to voice only, Twitter, commenting, etc. All those spaces (in the non-literal sense) presumably incite different forms of creativity.

      One really new and creative method I’ve seen, not in regard to coaching, but networking, is Brazen Careerist’s network roulette. It’s wild. They pair you up with someone randomly for about 4 minutes and it’s a live chat box with a timer. If you want to connect more, you exchange Twitter info, etc. But after 4 min, it’s over and they pair you with someone new. Kinda like speed dating. Actually speed dating is another good example. Talk about F2F! That format DEFINITELY shapes the interaction.

      • Drew Jacob says:

        Talking to someone with just voice (no visual cues/body language) takes more mental effort than when you can see them. The result is that you have less brainpower to spend on other things and have a hard time focusing. This is why driving while talking on a hands-free cellphone is so dangerous.

        Therefore I’d avoid teaching over a voice-only connection if possible. It will just decrease meaningful learning and maximize distractions. I have given a few lessons by phone to students far away and I don’t think I would do it again.

        Video skype is different. It does give visual cues which helps alot, although the slight lag still means it is more exhausting than a live conversation.

        If I was going to teach via Skype I would

        a) make sure the background and lighting (and my appearance) are assisting the message I want to put across

        b) practice looking at the webcam and not the eyes of the person on-screen (looking at the webcam will make them feel like I am making eye contact, looking at the screen will seem like I’m looking down), and

        c) have videos/links/visual aids ready to go so I can send them the link instantaneously at the moment I want them to open it.

        With the limited frame of a video chat that’s all you can do, though you could experiment with sitting farther back from the camera.

      • Great idea…and I love Drew’s ideas. He’s a 4-dimensional thinker!

        One idea for group session is to tell them to tweet/sms anything that pops into their mind while you give a rote lecture under an obscure hashtag.

        It’s all about collecting “creative artifacts” and using them to build a collective project. You see kids of any age begin to play and enjoy the possibilities of their work.

        Speed dating! Horrible idea for love life; incredible idea of creative generation.

        Skype…wow. Have to think about that. I hate it because I have such a poor set up here. I know new calls (and newer clients) always need icebreakers…even, “so why do seem to be connecting so much?” Old interview skills never die; they are just more Charlie Rose w/out the pretense now.

        I listen to “Fresh Air”–Terry Gross is a master of drawing out anyone (Historians, The Beastie Boys, Tom Waits). In one-on-one, I model them.

    • I’m exploring that very thing as a hobby. Great question! Recently to increase traffic to our school’s blog, we started one-sided newsletters:

      1. “The Stall Street Jounral” (like the WLT, but with silly lists, pics of activities and joy
      2. “EAB Inflight”: we will be making “Inflight magazine” airplane newsleters…the catch? They will be paper airplanes put in strange places in the campus.

      In general opening creative. Some (basic) “hard paper” use can call people to use paperless forums more often these days. I think Godin’s ideas about “finding ways to invite interactors” is a key idea. People should feel invited–enchanted–by what’s going on.

      Is it one-on-one coaching? Writing? Life definition? This would help. I think there are always ways to surprise the client, without overly weirding them. Have them write a story while listening to a song; a memory while burning “sea breeze incense”; ask them to try and describe the “speed of blue” and other nonsense. The key? Unlock the non-linear side, then take those “creative artifiacts” back to more linear, logical ideas.

      I think this is all in Jung, but we have so many more opportunities for multi-potential creativity and bridging the R & L directed thinkers.

      If you want, please let me know some more specific things you’ll be doing.


      • Michelle says:

        Hey Mark,

        It would be one on one coaching (for lack of a better word – I don’t love the word “coaching” but everyone understand it, at least!). There are three things I’m working on, each with different specifics, but 2/3 are specifically one-on-one coaching. You’re giving me some awesome ideas for the more “passive” one (course, email based with some additions – these are all still in the nebulous stage). If you want to and have the time I would love to do some more talking about them via email – one of my big concerns is that it seems a lot of people just do Skype calls; which I feel like unless you’re really, really good at that form of communication can get boring and leave not much of an imprint. Part of what I want to do is work 1-1 with people to co-create systems and structures that work for them and are customized to their needs; so passivity/boring = not the goal here! I want to create an immersive *experience*, not just a lecture with some Q&A.

        Drew: thank you for you thoughts too – you’ve both given me a lot to chew on!

        Will you both be at WDS? I know Drew will be but I didn’t know about you, Mark. If so, we should all get together and chat!

        • Mark says:

          Can make it…I have this sub-equatorial job-issue that keeps me from going to things like WDS. Someday :)

          I think the more you can reduce the 1:1 ideal, the better. SKYPE = live/audio visual connection over time. It can also include chat topics, hyperlinks etc. I definitely type what the person is saying during SKYPE calls (and some of the subtexts that I tend to pick up on). Then I might send an email of “what I’ve heard.” This is like the classroom exercise where the students (and teacher?) write for 10 minutes at the end of an 85 minute session about the 2-3 things that will be taken to the next day/integrated into their worldview.

          This also validates that interlocutor’s has been heard. Their thoughts have been received, integrated and re-delivered to them.

          Fun topic, and challenging!

          I don’t think there is a better “simulation” of a tutorial, but there is something that being-in-the-same-placeness confers. The SKYPE is a great way to engage–then, as you’ve mentioned.

  6. Two last 2-cents:
    I’m considering online collaborative publishing; I think group involvement. I think setting a “clear central message,” and storytelling, among some other values, then allowing people (x) words (or visual real estate) would be fun. That said, I need figure out how to publish. This gives them open white space to write/add photos/draw.

    I imagine interactive ebooks will be the next big thing (calling the reader to involvement in a specific category.

    Lastly, The “curator” is very important. I’ve assigned a study with some alacrity to be “curator.” As viewership grows, she will be at least as important as the “creator.” Sometimes people have a giftedness for “where to look,” while others are creating. Howard Gardner has done quite a bit regarding the optimization of individual talent in collaborative (usually educational communities).

    This may be of particular interest to Michelle (I believe Gardner has a website…far better stuff that personality tests).


    • Holli says:

      Inspiring post – I have two young kids and am sorting through embracing technology and using it for good rather than the old standard, “not until you are x age.”
      I love the idea of interactive eBooks! I have only just begun reading them, and that was the first idea I had – it feels like I should be able to interact in some way with the material, besides the curiosity about timeliness of content.
      Best, Holli

      • Thanks, Holli. There is a great future in interactive books, which are going to be wonderful creative spaces for both children and adults. The role of the mama/dad are the most valuable–the more “creative spaces” at home, the more apt they are to retain their artist/creator birthright. (These include literal places, but also “time places” to explore the objects of their curiosity).


  7. Tessa Zeng says:

    Mark, you blow me away every time. “Dream engineering” indeed. I’m sensing a burgeoning movement here, all about putting unprecedented structure to the stuff of dreams- that which we’ve formerly considered nebulous and idealistic.

    No wonder Michelle pointed me to this post- just extraordinary stuff here. Two overwhelming thoughts as I read this: epic yet simple reinvention of traditional teaching model, and god I wish I had you as a teacher in high school! Grateful to know you now and ‘quaff’ your teachings through digital osmosis!

    & LOVE the collaboration/conversation between some of my favorite bloggers here!

  8. This is my favorite: “…and ‘quaff’ your teachings through digital osmosis!”
    Thanks for the encouragement–flinty people need fellows to spark. I’d love to know about the “interior design” of Tessa’s creative spaces. The island and the creative place sounds mythic–like The Tempest itself.

    Sometimes the world is so fully grimy naysayers in all vocational places, we need mini-manifestos for what we do, how do it, and how it do it damned well.


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