When I first started writing code in the mid-1980s, I loved making flowcharts. I drew them on every page of my notebooks at school and used them for every Computer Science project which I wrote. Drawing flowcharts allowed me to get creative quickly. Making the flowchart enabled me to get the plan of my programs down quickly so I could retain my ideas before the laborious process of writing out the code. Inspiration for computer programs came in a flash, so getting the ideas to paper quickly was vital. After flowcharting, the process could be annoyingly slow. I always had to write out code by hand before transcribing it into the computer (we had to share workstations in Computer Science class, so screen time was limited). I would also debug and rewrite by hand for the same reason, and often would go back to the flowchart just to make sure my creative process was good. Drawing flowcharts was the real fun part of the creative journey. I will always remember the first time my mom bought me a flowchart stencil – I was the coolest kid in the class because I could draw flowcharts faster than anybody else and they still looked really neat and tidy.
I’m reminded of all this flowcharting because I just yesterday experienced one of those dreadful phone conversations with a “technical expert” at the phone company. I won’t mention the company, because I really do like their service, but the 30 minute conversation went about 29 minutes longer than it really had to. Basically the VOIP modem had stopped working. I had done all the troubleshooting there was to be done to single out the cause of the problem and I just needed the company to send me out a replacement. However our heroic “technical expert” had to run me through all the troubleshooting again, and as he did, I realized that he was simply following a flowchart of questions to ask and then selecting the next question based on my response to the previous one. Through the whole conversation, I could predict the exact next question he was going to ask. I tried to trip him up by staying three steps ahead of him the whole way, but he was resolute in following the prescribed order of events. Of course, he came to the obvious conclusion – the VOIP modem had stopped working and he would have to ship me a new one. Ding, ding, ding!
Maybe I’m being unkind. Maybe my own background in flowcharting had actually prepared me better for this troubleshooting process than people who have not had this experience. It troubled me that the man on the phone was using a flowchart in such a sterile way, and he was therefore not displaying any creative thinking at all. So, I keep questioning whether we teach flowcharting to encourage creative thinking as we use technology, or we continue to teach it just so people can blindly follow instructions, and I fear the latter.
As I teach kids to record, compose, and produce using technology I still use flowcharts, usually simplifications of the process scribbled quickly on the whiteboard for the kids to follow. I do have access to flowchart stencils on my interactive whiteboard, but these days I prefer just to go quickly by hand – it lets the kids see the creative process quickly so they can get on with applying the learning to their own work. My flowcharts are not steps to follow to achieve a task, but ideas to investigate as the kids go on their creative journey – the difference is crucial. Maybe in 2016 I’ll find a way to use the interactive flowcharts – it’s a good goal to have, and would probably be a good thing to wheel out for the inevitable observation dog and pony show. What’s most important is that I still continue the flowcharts to open creativity, not to stifle it. It’s far too easy to give the kids a list of steps and have them follow it blindly. I really don’t want to do that – heaven forbid one of my students would one day end up following the customer service flowchart at the phone company!
Richard McCready is a composer, musician, and the Director of Music Technology at River Hill High School in Columbia, Maryland. He was born in Northern Ireland and studied tuba performance, piano, and composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, England. Since emigrating to the US in 1992, he has held teaching positions at The Park School of Baltimore, Towson University, and Mayfield Woods Middle School, Elkridge, MD; he has also played professionally with the Monumental Brass Quintet, the Lexington Brass Quintet, and the Denhard/McCready Duo. He has earned two Masters degrees from Towson University, one in tuba performance and one in vocal performance. He plays many musical instruments, but the focus of his teaching is Music Technology in which he is widely regarded as one of the outstanding innovators in the US. His book, Making Music with GarageBand and Mixcraft, was published in 2010. Richard was awarded the TI:ME 2013 Mike Kovins Teacher of the Year Award and also the Howard County 2013 Music Educator of the Year.