Explore & Create Stories #13: Mel Silk

Mel Silk is one smart cookie. She is a thinker, and indeed invites others around her to think as well. When talking about "flow" and "being in the moment" as a creative she really makes one think about their own being. As you will read in this interview, for Mel, "being is fluid...being a person creating and feeling immersed in the creation experience" is how she would describe those marvellous moments in time when ideas, space, and being all click.

Mel is an educator, and one that has inspired others to be empowered with their thinking about the world through design and making experiences - specifically making learning visible, because the learning is the experience in itself! She has had a wonderful background in schools and is now inspiring outside the walls of one school through her new endeavour called STEAMpop. Learning through making underpins STEAMpop and illuminates how making is an essential part of the creative process. Making enables us to understand abstract concepts,  it challenges our ideas about the world, helps us visualize mathematical concepts and scientific ideas, provides a real sense of achievement, allows us to fail and try again, and is most certainly joyful.

I so hope you enjoy this Explore and Create Story, as you read about the next adventures in the life of a lover of learning.

Tell us about what you do. 

I am an educator but more recently I have realised that I am a designer of experiences. That is because to “experience” is to “learn”.

What are you passionate about?

I am passionate about expressing the connections between disparate ideas, focusing primarily on the current STEAM zeitgeist. I love the way science and mathematics can be embedded and embodied in visual, tactile and kinetic experience systems. I feel strongly about forging relationships and partnerships that promote STEAM experiences and I feel like I want to create and produce all the time so that others share this collaborative understanding.

 What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on designing learning experiences related to the binary number system and paper folding. This is part research and part practice as it forms a section of my doctoral studies in STEAM experiences. However it is not the content that forms the basis for the research… it is tracking the experience, and all the emotions a person might feel when they are “making with mathematics”.

What’s inspiring you at the moment?

What is inspiring me is meeting a range of educators in the New South Wales (NSW) public school system who are willing and motivated to push curriculum boundaries and bring some crazy new ideas to their school and to their students. Another source of inspiration for me is the unending enthusiasm offered by my colleagues. Our collective strategy for the development of ideas and making them into realities continues to grow stronger. Each Eureka moment is savoured, celebrated and put into practice! This is very inspiring.

What led you to your latest project or focus?

I have always been interested in the connections between math and art, without feeling particularly skilled in either. However, thinking hyperbolically, as we called it when designing crazy hybrid learning experiences over the past ten years, has led me to now. Lumifold is a beautiful origami sekkei (mathematical paper folding) project that continues to evolve. This project focuses on being exposed to the math before the making in order to understand why the making works. Too often, we take for granted the inherent science in all things, even our own emotions. Observing the makers within a Lumifold project is more like a social experiment for me. Watching humans engage with something that seems structurally complex but is really quite simple is compelling. The same can be said for tracking the emotions displayed while undertaking a task that is perceived as difficult. As Michelle Simmons, Australian physicist recently said in an Australia Day address, “it’s ok to do something hard”. What led me to develop Lumifold is the fact that I know when people stick with it to the end, they will experience great joy!

How do you approach creativity in your life?

I think creatively… about everything. I think imaginatively. I don’t have a dishwasher. Sometimes I stand back from the dish rack full of glasses, cups, plates, pots and cutlery, all arranged for maximum drying efficiency, I think “that’s so beautiful, imagine if it was a painting…”. This is a small joy in the everyday. It happens often.

In my professional life, the way I approach creativity is embodied in how I consider iteration in my practice. What are the small incremental changes that add to the algorithm of learning and teaching in order to increase the significance of the experience for all involved? I would say this is a totally creative endeavour. But let’s not call it creativity because even the concept of creativity I find very hard to define.

We talk a lot about "being in the moment" or “being" when creating. What does this mean for you?

A main focus for my current research is centred around Dewey’s dual conduits of “Erlebnis”, the unmediated and in-the-moment experience, and “Erfahrung”, the reflective and cumulative experience. In my work, I often observe the former manifested in the faces of the learners and makers of all ages. The aesthetic experience described as “flow” or “immersion” is important in learning and teaching. However, I believe that this experience of all senses operating at their peak may not be restricted to creating alone but can be aligned with many experiences, even the mundane. For me, “being in the moment” is most significant when I realise that “being” is the operative word and “moment” is defunct. Being is fluid. Being a person creating and feeling immersed in the creation experience is how I would describe it.

What defines you in terms of balancing creativity and mindfulness for flow? How do you do this?

I think “becoming” defines the balance of creativity and mindfulness. I would like to say that I experience flow, in the context of becoming, in many of my life activities… but I can’t. There are moments when these contributors are totally off balance and I’m reminded to step back and reframe the situation, before mindfulness disappears. For me, creativity and mindfulness can be coaxed back to balance by stopping, noticing, listening and going within. Prioritising the characteristics of Erlebnis forces me to acknowledge the clarity that accompanies mindful behaviour.

What’s the biggest challenge you find in approaching your creative endeavours? 

The biggest challenge is maintaining the momentum of my creative endeavours in the face of reluctant uptake. Some of my projects require others to participate in activities that appear on face value to be extremely complex. My challenge is to encourage those folk to have a go, because all experience is valid, and they might be surprised at what they can achieve and how they feel in the end.

How do you find your zen?

If it’s not working on a problem to be solved creatively in order to produce an aesthetic outcome (physical, psycho/spiritual) then it’s watching and listening to the birds in my backyard.

When you experience flow, what is the impact on your productivity? Tell us about this.

When I am in flow, I feel like I can produce endlessly. Of course, there is a physical limit to this however, that’s how it feels. Therefore, productivity increases and solutions to problems are located and implemented. It feels like discovery.

Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing creative/mindful work?

I find this hard to answer because colleagues, friends, family, healers and even my pets have influenced me in term of career and creative work. The level of influence fluctuates according to the circumstance. It seems to me also that somehow the right person of influence emerges at the most appropriate time of need. This may be my retrospective perspective or perhaps being mindful allows me to be open to receiving influence at these times.

How would you rate your level of happiness about your creative endeavours at the moment? (1 being sad, 10 being love it/awesome/BEST EVER.)

Seven – I’m at the beginning of a new phase.

Tell us, who are you clicking on at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

Brene Brown offers some interesting insights on sharing, including courage, vulnerability and truth. These, she locates under the umbrella of Grounded Theory.

Tell us, who are you listening to at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

I listen to the music of Max Richter a lot. He is a post-minimalist composer. His music reaches deeply.

Tell us, who are you talking to at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

I am talking to a bunch of motivated and talented educators who are hell-bent on making change. This is insightful because we collectively acknowledgement that to share is to grow. To be secretive or overly value ownership of knowledge, is to stagnate. We can stay still and silent no longer.

Tell us, who are you are reading at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

I’m reading “How to teach quantum physics to your dog” by Chad Orzel because I am curious to know more and my level of understanding is similar to the dog’s.

I am also reading “Frame Innovation” by Kees Dorst because it promotes the activity of creating new thinking by design.

What’s some advice you would offer to someone who is struggling to find their creative spark? or What advice would you give to someone who thinks they aren’t creative? 

Release the belief that you are not creative because there is creative flow running through all humans. The problem is that creativity is often aligned with concepts that are inaccessible to many. I feel the truth is that creativity is just a label, a concept and a broad brush stroke that seemingly applies to a lot of human action and thought. If someone is struggling to find their creative spark, I would suggest reframing the search to determine what it is that you are actually looking for. Perhaps even stop looking and start sharing ideas instead. The so-called spark might pounce from an unexpected angle.

What’s the best ever quote you have seen in terms of creativity or mindfulness or flow? 

“I am… not yet”

- Maxine Greene, philosopher of education


You can keep connected to Mel via Twitter, Instagram, on the (Lumifold = STEAMpop) or via email (info [at]steampop.zone)




Recipient of NSW Premier’s Teacher Scholarship 2015

SILK STEAM Study tour