Blog Post

Why Technology Innovation Needs Critical Thinking

We heard a lot about "youth" at the Designing Learning Futures Conference sponsored by the Digital Media and Learning Initiative of the MacArthur Foundation.  It was a lot saner and far more sympathetic than the usual claptrap one hears about "youth" from the whole "the Internet is making us dumber" or the "never trust anyone under 30" techno-dystopic crowd.   That said, it left us all a little speechless when the "youth" themselves stood up and spoke.

There were thirty or thirty five students, from Renaissance Academy in East Los Angeles, and they were part of the Out the Window project, where youth from made video documentaries about their lives, issues, and communities to be shown on those very annoying advertisements on the backs of seats on city buses.  Instead of pitches for Coca-Cola or razor blades, the videos are GPS-situated so you see youth-created videos about the neighborhood you are traveling through, as you travel through the neighborhood.   Since most bus riders in those neighborhoods, the research by the project shows, are not connected to the Internet, the videos are also about networking the un-networked.

"It's about critical thinking," one young woman said.   "Just because we are from where we are from, doesn't mean we cannot think critically about the city as a whole."

"Making art has to be about thinking critically about the ecology of our lives," said one young man.  "It's not just looking out the window but acting, it's not just gazing out the window, it is about empowerment, through critical thinking, that gets us out the door."

When I introduced myself to four of the young women in the Out the Window project, they self-described themselves not as "youth" or "students" but as "the artists."      I asked how they defined their art, "We think critically about our world and express our thoughts in art that reaches people's mind and their hearts," said one of the artists.   "Technology allows us to extend our reach outward, but also inward,"  said another.    "We learn to frame, we learn color and composition, we learn design, but it doesn't mean anything unless we also understand critical thinking.  That's how we know what it is important to communicate and how we can use the tools available to us to communicate to a wider audience."

I kept hearing this "critical thinking" over and over, so I asked one of the young artists, "What do you mean by 'critical thinking'?"   She didn't even pause, "It means being able to see where I am standing and also where you are.  It means having enough knowledge and research and discipline not to over-react if you disagree with me or if you dislike me or disrespect me but to pause, and think about who you are, and then help bridge the gap between us." 

Those are paraphrases, and, in writing them here, I'm sure I'm making them more literary, less immediate--and a lot less eloquent.  I wish you'd been there because, believe me, their comments were even more stunning in person.  In fact, all of us who heard the young man with the red cap stand up and give what came close to a soliloquy on critical thinking applauded and we kept talking about it later. I took notes when I was in the audience.  After I spoke to the artists individually, I went into the hall and wrote out notes from our conversation.   I was so impressed, I did not want to miss anything.  I felt like their student.   I think all of us in the audience at the session they conducted felt humbled by their seriousness, their maturity, their sophistication, passion, and, yes, their critical thinking.  

These artists, these students, these youth have much to tell us.   If only we can unplug our ears to listen.  It's not iPods that make some people unable to hear.   It is prejudice that comes from only being able to hear what you've already heard before, to see what you've already seen before.   And, if these students are correct, then it is through critical thinking that we can reach those poor, unfortunate, untutored souls who don't yet have the tools to understand young people today.   We can use critical thinking, these artists were sure, to help even those who under-estimate them to rethink their prejudices.     I'll repeat the words of one of those artists:  "It means being able to see where I am standing and also where you are standing.  It means having enough knowledge and research and discipline not to over-react if you disagree with me or if you dislike me or disrespect me but to pause, and think about who you are, and then help bridge the gap between us."




Of all the sessions I missed and made it to, the conference was worth it for this one alone, and that is not an exaggeration.  I am so happy that I was able to witness this because it is impossible to convey the power behind all of their voices, individually and as a group.  One of things I've always loved about artistic expression is it is one of the few things that really lets us get inside someone else's head to get a glimpse how they see or interpret the world.  Seeing what these kids were doing and how they were talking about it was inspiring.

It was also inspiring to hear what the adults were doing.  I spent more time speaking with Echo Park Film Center's director (they are one of the groups working on out the window) and the enthusiasm and optimism he has and that he takes to the kids is amazing.  He told a story when he was on the panel that I told along with the Walter story.  I don't remember the local, but he mentioned taking the film mobile, a blue bus he gutted and turned in to a mobile production and cinema to tour the country, to a housing project that had so much gang activity, that the students weren't allowed to leave to go to school.  And he worked with the students.  When I think about all the levels of empowerment etc that exist in that one instance, I am just blown away.

Here are some of the links related to the project if anyone is interested:

Also, I was told that the Film Mobile will be on tour this summer, so check their site for updates.  I am extremely excited to see them when they make it out to RDU and I am even more elated that more people will be able to see the work they are doing.


The students will be posting their reflections on the conference (and the DML Competition Winners' Showcase) in an upcoming post, perhaps as early as next week. So there is more to come from them -- thanks, Cathy, for keeping the conversation going. They were amazing students, and I heard so much positive feedback about their participation. It was a highlight of the conference for so many people.


There are some errors of attribution in my blog post and I would like to correct them here and I will try to sort out and correct and go back and edit the post as well.   This comes from a very generous and informative email from Paolo Davanzo - EPFC
( and  He writes:  "The Out the Window project is comprised 4 organizations of which two (Public Matters and Echo Park Film Center) are working with youth throughout the city of Los Angeles. Public Matters worked with students from East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy. They came on a bus all together as a group to the conference. Echo Park Film Center also invited some of our students to participate on the panel. . . . Our educational model is itinerant and we work mostly after school with youth from all over the city. More info can be found here ("   


As a policy, I do not use the name of minors when I blog and, as a less consistent policy, when I write about others I don't know well, I often use a descriptor rather than a name (artist, student, writer, technology designer) because of privacy issues.   I have invited the wonderful film makers and artists to add their names if they would like to.   I continue to be inspired by the wonderful work they do.