Synergy: Creative Vision and Curriculum: What does it take to bring them together?

by Alice Wilder
May 12, 2011

Bringing together a creative vision with a strong curriculum is a dance, not a science! You can have it all – a true synergy between creative vision and education but success is in the balance of the two.

Let me first say, as a creative researcher, I consider myself very lucky. I have always worked with people who care about kids and providing them with entertaining, educational experiences. I also feel fortunate because I went to Teachers College, Columbia University where I got a breadth of theoretical knowledge and applied skills which make me a different kind of researcher – a creative problem-solver who knows kids, education, and how to apply it all to production.

Here are a few of the “rules of thumb” for bringing the creative vision and curriculum together I have learned throughout my career in making children’s media:

Start with Both a Creative Idea AND an Educational Purpose

Start with the creative idea and ask yourself, why do you want to do this idea? What is the end goal? What is the impact of this creative visionary idea on its audience? The passion and vision for the project has to drive and be the guide that helps everyone else do their jobs and support the mission – meet the end goal(s).

Be Egoless — “It’s about the kids.”

The product being made is ultimately about and for the end-user, not about the people making it. Imagine this scenario: mutual respect between the creative vision person and the curriculum/researcher/education person. In this scenario, the creative visionary can tell a really good story that expresses their creative vision and captures the attention and imagination of its viewers and the curriculum/researcher/education person can tell everyone why what is being created is working educationally and how to change it to make it even “stickier.” Together, the impact will be learning.

Incorporate the True Experts: The End-User

When Blue’s Clues started, Angela Santomero and I created a formative research process that checked in with our end-user (2-5 year olds) three times during the production of each episode. We knew we should never assume their point of view and that the only way to make an entertaining and educational show (brand) for our audience was to include them in the conversation. In addition, whenever possible we tried to give the production team direct interaction with the kids. Writers were always welcome and often encouraged to come to research sessions with kids. And animatic tests were always videotaped so we could show kids’ reactions to groups of designers and animators. This always helped get everyone as invested in the kids’ POV as the research team was. (Look for more from me on this topic in another blog post or leave a comment below if you want to talk more with me about formative research…I love the topic!)

Be in the Same Room or Next Door

In order for a creative vision and curriculum to work it needs to be a synergistic process in which everyone is in the “same room” throughout the process. In the beginning, I used to sit in Angela’s office every day (I know, seems annoying but by listening I absorbed. And this way, conversations didn’t happen without both of us present.) Today, as people become better able to work from remote places everyone needs to be careful not to lose that creative back-and-forth process that happens from being next door or in the same room.

Know Your Medium

What works in a classroom doesn’t necessarily work on a screen. For example, in a classroom, a teacher has the students’ attention with few distractions (we hope) and if not, he or she can see that student, call out his/her name, and bring them back to the discussion. None of that applies on a screen. Screens follow different rules. Screens have different formal features (for more on this you NEED to read Dan Anderson’s work on children and television — see this article for some more information). Know the rules of the medium and apply them.

It’s Not Easy!

If you think it’s easy – it’s not! If you think it’s too hard or not worth it – it’s not that either. The synergy is the magic that makes you proud to say, “I made that and I am glad it has touched lives in positive ways!” When something is being created, there will always be resistance and along with that arguments and disagreements. However, we need not be two distinct factions: “creative’s” and “educators/researchers.” Because there is really only one faction – the end-user and what they take away from the media experience. Split the difference and magic can be created! It is that push-and-pull that is the creative process and ultimately makes the end product better!

What would you add to these rules of thumb?

Alice Wilder is Co-Creator and Head of Research and Education for Super Why!, a PBS property that helps preschoolers learn reading fundamentals through interactive stories. Alice is the co-creator of Think It Ink It Publishing, a venture designed to promote creative writing for kids. She is also developing an NSF pathways funded pilot with National Geographic Kids Entertainment about water with the goal of providing foundational knowledge, skills and habits for 3-6 year olds to become informed scientists and water stewards of the planet. In addition, she is currently a Fellow to The Grable Foundation, helping to support educators, technologists, and makers as Kidsburgh creates a model and movement around the integration of the arts, sciences, and technology to inspire creative learning and play throughout Pittsburgh. For over 10 years Dr. Wilder served as a Producer and the Director of Research and Development for Nick Jr.’s Blue’s Clues and Developer of Blue’s Room. She conducted the formative research used in the creation and ongoing production of the series, and its ancillary businesses including publishing, online, magazine, consumer products and special events. Her ground-breaking work was cited in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. Alice has been nominated for Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Preschool Children’s Series as well as Outstanding Writing in a Children’s Series.