Author Karin Storm Wood

{ Romantics, Read This } The Road to Creativity Requires a Map

I’ve been writing lately about tactics for circumventing creative block that deliberately constrain creative freedom. (Catch up on those posts here and here.)

It’s true that these tactics do not conform to romantic notions of creativity, but that’s OK — because they work.

Sometimes the pressure to create has the effect of cognitive blinders, preventing fruitful possibilities from entering our awareness. What happens? It’s as though the need to “perform” creatively, on command, transmogrifies by stealth into a mindset riddled by No’s — No, that won’t work… No, that would be dumb… No, that makes no sense…

This clamping down of the imagination often happens without our even realizing it, cutting off vast creative possibilities.

Swiss designer Karl Gerstner, a student at the renowned Basel School of Design in the early 1950s, responded to this vexing phenomenon through an embrace of programmed constraint. In Designing Programmes, his 1964 book that quickly became a classic among Swiss modernist designers (think Helvetica and adherence to visual grid systems), Gerstner advocated creative decisions reached not by “feeling” but by the systematic application of “intellectual criteria”:

Designing means: to pick out determining elements and combine them. Seen in these terms, designing calls for method. The most suitable I know is the [morphological box] Fritz Zwicky has developed, although actually his is intended for scientists rather than designers. The creative process is to be reduced to an act of selection.

If you’re inclined to romantic notions of creativity, you might want to sit with that last sentence for a minute.

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Gerstner developed the “morphological box of the typogram” is a matrix of criteria by which a designer can methodically develop a type-driven logo.

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Gerstner’s logo for Intermöbel is an expression of the thirteen red-shaded criteria in this morphological box. Notably, Gerstner acknowledged that not all of the criteria were central to the final solution: “Only two [criteria] are actually decisive… Combined Values [Shades] and Something Replaced.”

Gerstner’s hyper-logical methodology reveals a modernist taste for rationality. Yet he acknowledges another rationale for this morphological approach: conserving creative energy.

The programme is not a replacement for creativity… Once a designer generates a version that has something interesting about it… they can then focus on refining that idea. The programme allows the designer to expend their creative energy on the refinement of a good idea instead of a large number of ideas that may not address the problem.

Without directly addressing the psychological factors that can thwart creativity, Gerstner uses constraints preventatively to optimize design practice.

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The constraint-driven tactics I’ve been sharing fly in the face of romantic notions of what it means to create. And that’s very much the point. Whether by human programming, oblique strategies, or ‘designing programmes,’ these strategies get us out of our own way.

Or, more precisely: they suspend that reflexive but maladaptive response to creative pressure — our capacity to talk ourselves out of our own ideas — and provide a clear road map for action.

Sources:
Karl Gerstner, “Designing Programmes” in Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field, Helen Armstrong, Ed. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), 58.
Bryan Kulba, “Karl Gerstner and Design Programmes” (PDF)
Bryan Kulba, “Celebrating Karl Gerstner

 

“Creativity ≠ Magic.” Repeat 10 Times.

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For those of us who grew up thinking creativity was an endowment you either magically had or unmagically didn’t have, today’s creativity research offers some welcome food for (re)thought:

  • Creativity is the product of consistent effort, not innate talent or divine intervention.
  • It’s about showing up no matter the circumstances, not about waiting for the right mood or moment to strike.
  • Creative thinking can be strengthened through practice.
  • Even wildly successful creative people get stuck occasionally.
  • What distinguishes many wildly successful creative people is that, when they are stuck, they rely on proven strategies for getting unstuck.

In short, creativity ≠ magic. 

 

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In my last piece, I wrote about Conditional Design, a collective of designers whose creative process entails strict adherence to fundamentally arbitrary rules. What began as a parlor game /slash/ productivity experiment has put Conditional Design on the creativity map. Over the past three years, their programming-inspired strategy has become the basis for the collective’s popular workshops and 2013 book (Amazon).

Several decades earlier, the musician Brian Eno and a friend, painter Peter Schmidt, developed Oblique Strategies, a deck of 100+ cards offering unusual prompts for overcoming creative blocks. The project was born when the two friends learned that both of them kept ad hoc lists of strategies for responding to creative anxiety, time pressure, and other dampers on creativity.

Oblique Strategies contains simple prompts: Do something boring, Just carry on, Listen to the quiet voice, and Only one element of each kind. The idea is to draw one card from the deck and follow it even if it feels strange or makes little sense.

Though there’s no penalty for putting a card back and picking another, the idea is to move forward, not wait for perfection.

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In a candid 1980 interview, Brian Eno described how Oblique Strategies was born from creative “panic”:

The panic of the situation — particularly in studios — tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working, and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach.

If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results. Of course, that often isn’t the case — it’s just the most obvious and — apparently — reliable method.

The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt this attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt that attitude.”

Now in its sixth edition, Oblique Strategies‘ success reveals the usefulness of unexpected and random pathways for overcoming creative blocks. In other words, tactics that do not rely on reason, that are completely unburdened by the creative context, are often the most effective in dismantling the deer-in-the-headlights “panic” that undermines creativity.

After all, when you are blocked, nothing feels right. Oblique Strategies is a reminder that the best action is any action.

Source: Oblique Strategies (Images)

{ Rethinking Creativity } Why are Constraints Freeing?

When you imagine the work life of a great artist or musician, do you picture a person of unbridled creativity? A vessel from which ideas continuously flow?

For many of us, the creative life conjures such images. When we consider creative people from afar, we tend to focus on what they have made — not the process by which they have made it. While we sit over here feeling blocked and uncertain, creative people are over there, idea after idea flowing from their hands and taking shape in the world. For lack of information, it can appear effortless.

But I’ve learned over the past couple of years (to my relief) that even highly productive creative people often feel blocked and uncertain. They are often stuck.

The difference is that they take action, even when they don’t feel like it. Perhaps especially when they don’t feel like it.

While developing my MFA thesis, I researched designers and artists who deliberately use constraints to free up the creative process and increase productivity. That research profoundly shifted my perception of creative people. Now I believe that many (if not most) creative people are creative because they do get stuck — and they develop successful methods for getting unstuck.

I find this idea incredibly liberating: Perhaps the main distinction between creative people and me is not that I get stuck and they don’t. It’s that their methods for getting unstuck really work, and they  faithfully rely on those methods.

Over the next weeks I’ll be sharing some examples of designers and artists who specifically use constraints to sidestep the psychological challenges of creative work — the aforementioned blocks and uncertainty.

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“The process is the product,” according to the Amsterdam-based design collective Conditional Design. Conditional Design first came together around a common interest in programming and design processes whose input comes from humans rather than from code. Though they eschew labels such as “generative design” and “code art,” the algorithmic aspect to their work is undeniable. 

The designers create each piece collectively, according to strict rules they have devised for that particular piece, just as in a game. In the Conditional Design methodology, “constraints sharpen the perspective on the process and stimulate play within the limitations.”

In other words, constraints jumpstart the design process by prescribing specific actions. They dramatically reduce the available design methods as well as the different forms the final product can take. And since the experience of the “game” is fun, the process itself becomes a driving motivation. In fact, the group initially developed this methodology as a kind of game night for graphic designers.

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A rather simple example of Conditional Design’s work is “Cellular Relationships.” The process involved drawing circles according to the following directions:

  • Draw a cell that intersects one or two cells of another color. 
  • The center point of the cell must be outside the intersected cells. 
  • Find the points where your circle intersects with other cells and connect them with straight lines. 
  • Erase all enclosed cell segments that result from the intersection. 
  • If your cell intersects two cells, draw a baby cell within one of them. 
  • Cells can only be impregnated once. Repeat.

 

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“Drop Fringe Garland Red Green Blue,” a piece commissioned by Items magazine in the Netherlands, was governed by more complex rules.

  • Draw a continuous periodic line from left to right. 
  • The line is defined by its period and its amplitude. 
  • Each period consists of max. 6 line-segments until it repeats. 
  • The line-segments are constructed from: red = diagonal lines;
    green = diagonal lines and vertical/horizontal lines;
    blue = vertical/horizontal lines. 
  • The period of each new line is either the same size, double the size, or half the size of its predecessor. 
  • The amplitude of each line is the same and overlaps half of the previous line. 
  • Color the smallest fields that emerge from intersections. 
  • Repeat.

The collective developed this process-based design tactic for practical reasons as well.

After writing our [Conditional Design] manifesto, we decided to use these evenings to create work. Through these workshops we could define better what we were trying to talk about. Every week one of us have to come up with an idea, and then within that evening we had to do it. We built a system where we could document it easily and present it to the outside world directly [i.e., photographs shot from above]. 

Not every result was a success. But in the aggregate, the methodology yielded a compelling body of work.

Both the failures and successes of the evenings were sent to the outside world. It was difficult to keep this going… 

Quickly after starting the workshops, we began getting questions about exhibitions. Somehow we started becoming professional with the space, which was meant to be an amateur place where we could just play around. We are trying to find a balance right now. 

To me, what’s remarkable about the CD methodology is that it seems to harness intrinsic motivation, if unconsciously. In other words, the collective credits “human programming” as the inspiration for Conditional Design, yet it developed a tactic that it continues to pursue for its own intrinsic delight.

In that light, it’s not surprising to learn that CD’s casual “game night” tactic yielded lucrative work after the group developed and reified the tactic as “conditional design.”

Today, the collective has published a book on this methodology and is regularly invited to hold workshops at design schools and companies. By honing a process so deliberately — and documenting it — they transformed process into product.

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The use of constraints in creative practice is a powerful reminder that
what distinguishes creative people is not having creative ideas. It is taking action upon having a creative idea.

Constraints make taking action easier. And in the case of Conditional Design, they are the creative idea and the action rolled into one.

Source: Helen Armstrong and Zvezdana Stojmirovic, Participate: Designing with User-Centered Content (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011).

Just Ask: Amanda Palmer, Humans of New York, and the Art of Connecting

I’m a big fan of questions as a vehicle for intellectual growth. Recently I started thinking about questions as a vehicle for interpersonal growth.

When alt-rock musician Amanda Palmer launched a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign to cut an album, her donations mushroomed to $1.3 million.

In her much-discussed 2013 TED talk, with 5.6 million views to date, she makes the case that digital music should be free and shareable, and that fans should support musicians directly.

But one aspect of her talk, “The Art of Asking,” made me uncomfortable. On tour, Palmer asks her fans for a lot more than money. She posts requests on Twitter — for meals, places to stay, instruments, opening acts, a neti pot — and her fans provide. Her art of asking struck me as a bit audacious, a bit narcissistic.

Around the same time as Palmer’s talk, I discovered Humans of New York, the photoblog created by Brandon Stanton and popularized in a bestselling book (Amazon) and a HONY Facebook page with 6.1 million followers to date.

The HONY formula is quite simple: Stanton approaches strangers, asks to photograph them, and interviews them. He then posts their portraits online, along with a pithy excerpt of their conversations.

But these are no ordinary conversations between strangers. As an interviewer, Stanton often probes his subjects’ inner fears, regrets, and pain.

A few examples from the past week.

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Over the 15 months that I have followed Humans of New York, I have been moved again and again by the candor and authenticity of Stanton’s subjects. More than that, I’ve been amazed by the response. Not just the exponential growth of Stanton’s audience, but the demonstrations of empathy and support in that audience. Occasional replies will be essay-length outpourings of shared experiences — the best of which are “liked” by thousands and rise to the top of the comments chain.

Among the tens of thousands of HONY’s fans who write enthusiastic replies are hundreds willing to go a step further. Through crowdfunding, Stanton raised money for a horse-crazy boy with special needs to visit a dude ranch with his parents, for kids in Bedford-Stuyvesant to attend summer camp, and for a family to adopt the sibling of their Ethiopian-born child. In each case, the crowd has vastly outpaced the fundraising goals, often by a factor or two or three.

A recent post spurred a striking grassroots call to action.

 

A man shares an intimate and painful memory, and nineteen thousand people, many wiling to send money and even travel to New York, express interest in the idea of throwing him a party. [The HONY site doesn’t clarify if this is happening, and comments seem to be closed.]

HONY regularly inspires outpourings of concern and affection like this.

In fact, HONY sometimes makes me think that the general public is just waiting around for opportunities to help, to mend past pain, to offer support to perfect strangers. I suspect this is, in a way, true. HONY seems to speak to a very real hunger for meaning and connection that many of us have. I call this “the HONY Effect.”

What struck me recently, then, was the connection to Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk. The good will among strangers that HONY inspires would not be possible but for one act: Stanton asks.

I think the roots of real connection as simple as this.

And on second viewing, Palmer’s talk is not at root about the music industry. It’s not even about asking, really. It’s about creating a connection. And more than that, it’s about what’s possible when people feel connected to each other.

The media asked, “Amanda, the music business is tanking and you encourage piracy. How did you make all these people pay for music?” And the real answer is, I didn’t make them. I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I’d connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you. (…)

For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community, connectors and openers, not untouchable stars.

[I blog and tweet] not just about my tour dates and my new video but about our work and our art and our fears and our hangovers, our mistakes. And we see each other. And I think when we really see each other, we want to help each other.

What Palmer and Stanton seem to have demonstrated is that a sense of connection may be all it takes to spur people to be open and generous.

They just need to be asked.

Rethinking Work/Flow

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It’s not news that engagement at work — or the lack of it — is a problem for many. But with all the bad news about work that’s been coming across my screen, I’m having an even harder time doing the work that’s on my screen.

First I read Sunday’s New York Times op-ed by the Energy Project‘s Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath:

Just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work, according to a 2013 report by Gallup. Around the world, across 142 countries, the proportion of employees who feel engaged at work is just 13 percent. For most of us, in short, work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways, it’s getting worse.

Then yesterday it was David Brooks on his loss of focus at work:

Like everyone else, I am losing the attention war. I toggle over to my emails when I should be working. I text when I should be paying attention to the people in front of me. I spend hours looking at mildly diverting stuff on YouTube.

And then I watched some highly diverting “stuff on Youtube”: “Humpback Whale Shows AMAZING Appreciation After Being Freed From Nets!

(You know you want to click.)

Then yesterday, TED’s “Work Smarter” playlist beckoned from my Facebook feed. Of 12 videos in the playlist, I chose — naturally — Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work,” a talk by basecamp co-founder Jason Fried.

The front door of the office is like a Cuisinart, and you walk in and your day is shredded to bits, because you have 15 minutes here and 30 minutes there, and then something else happens and you’re pulled off your work, and you’ve got to do something else. Then you have 20 minutes, then it’s lunch. Then you have something else to do. Then you’ve got 15 minutes, and someone pulls you aside and asks you this question, and before you know it, it’s 5 p.m., and you look back on the day, and you realize that you didn’t get anything done. 

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When I was in grad school, I spent many, many hours at my desk, usually in front of a computer. The work was always challenging. When I didn’t like or understand the expectations of the assignment, the work became stressful. But when I felt equal to the challenges of the work and I could express myself in my work (not unusual in design school), the work became fun.

This feeling of flow was deliciously addictive — and I experienced first-hand its power in an educational context. I became so interested in the role of flow in creativity and learning that that intersection — the psychology of creativity and learning — became a major component of my master’s thesis.

To me, the holy grail of all work is flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a major figure in the creativity-research wing of cognitive psychology, first coined the term flow as “an effortless yet highly focused state of consciousness.” 

The key to flow lies in the many essential conditions that make flow possible:

  • intrinsic motivation (the task is appealing in and of itself) 
  • clear goals and immediate feedback
  • a sense of challenge balanced with a sense of skill
  • action merged with awareness
  • freedom from distractions, self-consciousness, and worry of failure

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Interestingly Csikszentmihalyi was not studying creativity when he first identified these factors. He was researching human enjoyment.

Given what he believed to be the “vague, unfocused, constantly distracted condition of the normal mind,” he wanted to understand the circumstances that allow people to achieve intense, sustained focus over a prolonged time. In those who achieved it, this focus seemed to inoculate them against fatigue, doubt, and other factors that would typically undermine motivation and decrease effort. 

Years later, when he studied creative people, Csikszentmihalyi realized that the characteristics of flow were nearly identical to the characteristics of deep enjoyment.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research echoes the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, whose research reveals the role that motivation plays in human achievement of all kinds. (I’ve previously suggested one particular Ryan-Deci study as excellent reading for teachers.) 

Humans naturally thrive when working toward meaningful goals. That is, intrinsically motivating activities (which are meaningful by definition) give us a desire — and stomach — for work, including the hard work of learning and creativity. Humans are wired to be learn and be creative, but we only reach our full learning potential and creative potential when we experience strong motivation. And experiencing that motivation requires freedom from self-consciousness and worry of failure, as Csikszentmihalyi found:

In flow, we feel that our abilities are well matched to the opportunities for action. In everyday life we sometimes feel that the challenges are too high in relation to our skills, and then we feel frustrated and anxious. Or we feel that our potential is greater than the opportunities to express it, and then we feel bored. Playing tennis or chess against a much better opponent leads to frustration; against a much weaker opponent, to boredom. In a really enjoyable game, the players are balanced on the fine line between boredom and anxiety. When the challenges become too great for the person to cope with, a sense of frustration rather than joy creeps in — at least for a while.

Between anxiety and bordeom lies flow: Csikszentmihalyi

Between anxiety (too-high stakes) and boredom (no stakes) lies flow. And learning.

 

This notion that flow lies between anxiety and boredom is, I would argue, easier to grasp when expressed in terms of high- and low-stakes endeavors. High-stakes endeavors tend to sharpen one’s mind and energies, but the scale and import of such endeavors can overwhelming, even paralyzing. A low-stakes endeavor tends to be approachable and nonthreatening, but its relative unimportance makes motivation hard to come by.

However, there are two “sweet spots,” i.e., tasks that are neither anxiety-producing nor boring: lower-stakes tasks that are fun, and high-stakes tasks that one consistently feels competent enough to achieve.

Whether it’s proving the Pythagorean theorem, creating a video for a class, or writing a master’s thesis, any endeavor flourishes when in flow. Flow exists only in the absence of anxieties that often surround significant challenges, be they learning challenges or creative challenges.

Therefore, as educators, our efforts to banish boredom, anxiety and fear from our classrooms must be continuous and vigilant.

One strategy to do that? Make more room in the curriculum for learning through creative self-expression, for making — and be sure to integrate creativity into both learning objectives and assessments.

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Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.

{ Rethinking Technology } Charles Fadel on Our Algorithmic, Automated Future

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If you ask experts, How do you see the future evolving?, they come up with an acronym that summarizes their view:

VUCA — Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.

That in a nutshell is the future. Actually, we’re already in it.

Perhaps the most surprising presentation at the recent Learning & the Brain conference was by Charles Fadel, the founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign.

For me, Fadel’s talk completely realigned the conversation on 21st century education — by presenting a more accurate understanding of the breathtaking pace, direction, and implications of technological innovation.

What Fadel made especially clear is that the true nature and impact of this innovation tends to escape us for the simple reason that much of it evolves out of public view.

A very similar version of his entire 50-minute presentation can be seen here. It’s worth viewing in its entirety, but in the meantime, here are some key highlights.

on technological acceleration

In the first part of my career, I was in semiconductor technology… so I’ve seen what geometric progressions can do. When things double in capability every 18 months, it’s quite unfathomable…. We’re wired to understand the mathematical world in a logarithmic fashion rather than in an exponential fashion. Our perception of numbers is not preparing us to understand what happens when things double every 18 months in the case of semiconductor technology, or 12 months in the case of storage, or doubling every nine months in the case of bandwidth. We just cannot fathom what happens from one generation to the next.

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In current trends, you will have the latitude to buy an iPhone with 40 Terrabytes in 2015. What would you do with 40 Terrabytes? What would you do with 40 Exobytes in 2025?.. You will be able to record yourself, from birth onward, and store it. You’ll never have another argument with your significant other: Rewind, and — I told you so! 

Here’s the discontinuity: [This storage] is already possible in the cloud… It’s actually quite doable and affordable. And it’s only going to get more doable and affordable — on an exponential basis.

“The future is already here — it s just not evenly distributed.”
— William Gibson, 2003

[Technological innovation] is all around us, we just don’t see the point at which it’s going to scale up and become profoundly impactful. The internet was around for 25-odd years, virtually invisible to most people. And then all of a sudden it popped up because it passed the “knee” of the [S-] curve of exponential [growth].

ON COMPUTER-DRIVEN ALGORITHMS

What the hardware progression [over the past few decades] has been hiding is how fast the software is progressing… Kinks and bugs give us the impression that [software] is doing very poorly by comparison [to hardware].

But actually, algorithms, which are themselves are powering all sorts of industries…, are progressing at an amazing rate. So [the time required to complete one linear programming task] has dropped from 82 years to one minute [in just fifteen years], which is an improvement of 43 million. Of which a factor of 43,000 is due to algorithms. That’s 43x times more than the increase due to hardware.

ON INCREMENTAL VS. RADICAL CREATIVITY

Invention Machine [a Boston innovation company] cataloged thousands of patterns, and started noticing [that] very often Innovation occurs following patterns.

[Fadel gave the example of propeller blades increasing from one, to two, to three, to four blades, and then to “double-four-blade” propellers.]

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There’s an object you use in your daily life that has followed the same progression: the razor blade. One, two, three, four — six [blades] now. You can literally predict that at some point, Gillette or someone will say, Hey, I can have this thing move in the middle, and that will be a double-four blade. That has happened with cameras, albeit digitally, not mechanically….

So inventions follow patterns, and if it’s a pattern, it can be automated. You could literally launch a computer program, then go in and patent the next three-blade, four-blade… It’s so incremental, it’s almost mindless. What’s amazing to me is we actually do buy six blades.

Incremental Innovation = improving the existing ‘state’
Radical innovation = inventing a completely new ‘state’

There’s a difference between incremental innovation, which can be quite readily automated, and radical innovation, which isn’t.

So, the good news is that computers aren’t quite yet capable of radical innovation. You’re not going to have a computer coming up with a Bach piece by [itself].

But the bad news is that most innovation is actually incremental. So when we say we’re going to teach our kids creativity — yes, incremental creativity and invocation is important but we also have to realize that we have to somehow push them to the radical side as much as possible. Because the Incremental side can be automated.

 

SO WHAT DO WE TEACH IN THIS AGE OF INNOVATION?

Wisdom
Ethics

Fluidity with technology 
Adaptability
Resilience
Curiosity
Asking the right questions
Synthesizing/integrating
Creating

They’re not so much about knowledge — traditional knowledge that we all love and nurture — but about higher-order skills of all types, particularly skills and character traits.

To learn about other incredible examples of existing technology — such as augmented-reality contact lenses, cancer diagnoses made by offshore computer, and robotic prison guards, to name just a few — I encourage you to watch Charles Fadel’s entire presentation, made available by the Ross School.

Tony Wagner on High Tech High’s “classroom of the future”

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“The philosophy of High Tech High is founded largely on the idea of kids making, doing, building, shaping, and inventing stuff.

“The engineers that I know, the architects I know, the artists I know, the great educators I know, the entrepreneurs I know — they’re all perplexed and curious about how they can do it better the next time. And that type of perplexity leads to engagement, it leads to learning, it leads to innovation. We are trying to inculcate that type of perplexity and curiosity in our students in everyday practices.”

— Larry Rosenstock, CEO of High Tech High

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Tony Wagner — the Expert In Residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab and a favorite here at rethinked…* — is a vocal champion of High Tech High, a network of 11 charter schools in San Diego County.

High Tech High’s 4500 students are admitted via zip-code-based lottery. Sixty percent of the students are minorities, and 48% qualify for free and reduced lunch.

But as Wagner noted in a speech at the 2013 (co)lab summit, the 11 High Tech High schools are also notable for what they don’t do. They don’t offer AP classes. They don’t offer varsity athletics. And they don’t teach to standardized tests, so, according to Wagner, the schools’ “state scores are average.”

And yet, in many important ways, High Tech High is a school of the future.

Though its name may conjure up images of students immersed in digital learning, a wonderful clip of an upcoming documentary on HTH — which Tony screened at the Learning and the Brain conference I recently attended — reveals that the school’s philosophy of innovation inhabits the wood shop just as fully as the computer lab.

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The clip (which begins at 2:23 in the video below) features an interdisciplinary physics and humanities project at HTH. Collaborative groups of students developed theories of the rise and fall of the Greek, Roman, and Mayan Empires — and then manifested their theories in fully-functioning mechanical presentations.

The students’ ingenuity, perseverance, and demonstrably hands-on learning yielded astounding visual results.

What’s more, the final stage of the project involved an annual all-school open-house, where students presented final projects to the general public. In this case, the “general public” was literally thousands of people.

One key takeaway?

Counterintuitively perhaps, in the “classroom of the future,” the most profound innovations — making and presenting as integral components of learning — are as timeless as they are transformative.

For the documentary clip, please jump to 2:23.

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Scott Barry Kaufman On Game-Changing Teachers

Last week I wrote about how my high school classmates and I developed intellectual self-perceptions based on our teachers’ expectations, for better or for worse. Particularly for students who had been typecast as strugglers, the existence of just one or two teachers who instead celebrated those students’ abilities had an enormous positive impact on the students’ ability to recognize their own potential. One friend called those teachers “game changers.”

Just this past Saturday I attended a truly inspirational talk by Scott Barry Kaufman, who’s been featured on rethinked…* before. Kaufman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Pennsylvania (along with Karen Reivich, Angela Duckworth, and Martin Seligman), studies intelligence, imagination and creativity — what they are, how they are developed, and how to measure them. All research is in some way ME-search, Kaufman said toward the beginning of an unusually autobiographical keynote at the May 8-10 conference held by the Society for Learning and the Brain.

Kaufman shared the story of having been diagnosed with central auditory processing disorder at age five, due to having had chronic ear infections as a toddler. Frustrated, he was placed in various LD and special ed programs for almost ten years — on some level knowing that he was capable of a lot more than his teachers believed. One day, a substitute teacher, simply by taking notice of his frustration, changed the course of his life.

For one thing, he became determined, at age 15, to “come up with a new theory of intelligence,” and he has.

Kaufman’s talk is not available to the public, but a shorter — and decidedly less relaxed and funny — version is. Despite these shortcomings, it is ten minutes worth watching. He traces the same details of his autobiography to explain why kids need more than game-changers. Kids need an education system that, rather than “plucking out” IQ scores and judging kids accordingly, takes a holistic approach to achievement by considering kids’ engagement and motivation, as well as their ability.

From Evaluation to Inspiration: Scott Barry Kaufman
at TEDx Manhattan Beach
, published January 4, 2014.

It took Kaufman years to track down and thank his game-changer.
Her name is Joyce Jeuell.

Jeuell and Kaufman

Kaufman with his one-time substitute teacher and game-changer

 

Who were the game-changers in your intellectual development? How did they shape the course of your life?

And is there someone that you can be a game-changer for now?

When Failure is Fearsome

_______________________________

I’ll never forget junior year of high school when I signed up for AP Chemistry, which was held at [a neighboring co-ed school]. Within a week I was in over my head. I went running to Mrs. Gordon, the Upper School head, to drop the class.

She said something to me that was quite correct, but not at all strategically worded: Failing at something would be good for you.

HA! I hightailed it out of her office — and out of that class.

______________________________

That’s a comment I posted last week to a Facebook conversation with several classmates from high school. It started as a discussion of Carol Dweck’s research on mindset and its relevance to raising confident daughters. Almost immediately the conversation shifted to our own childhood struggles with confidence. Specifically, we shared how particular events at our all-girls school — usually comments by teachers — influenced our identities and senses of self, for better and for worse.

Though our 6-way conversation hardly constituted a scientific sampling, two striking themes emerged in every classmate’s comments:

One was that a piece of the confidence we have today as 40-year-olds can be traced back to the one or two teachers who saw us for who we felt we were. One classmate called these teachers her “game changers.”

The second theme was less affirming. Our perception of being typecast by teachers — through underestimation as well as overestimation — had negative implications for all of us, often persisting well past our school years.

Furthermore, that perception of being typecast — which sometimes had its roots in the comments of a single adult — revolved around two inverse experiences: each of us felt branded as either a consistent struggler or a consistent achiever. 

Those who were typecast as strugglers felt marked by the expectation of failure and so developed significant self-doubt. Only over time did they begin to see themselves as capable and restore their intellectual self-confidence. Those who were typecast as achievers felt marked by the expectation of success and so developed an acute fear of failure. Only over time did they learn to distinguish self-worth from performance and develop some tolerance for risk.

Mrs. Gordon was right. Failure at something would have been good for me, but there was no way on earth I was ready to risk it back then. Failure was to be avoided at all costs.

Mrs. Gordon offered no context for why I should entertain the idea of embracing the risk of failure. By the time I raced into her office in junior year, I had long operated under the belief that education is about performance and therefore the student’s job is to perform well. As a student, I was all about avoiding risks, so I had little grasp of the fact that genuine learning and genuine growth inherently carry risks.

Things might have worked out differently had I been able to appreciate that. I suspect that Dominic Randolph’s intriguing delta mapping proposal — ways of charting change over time — would have helped tremendously in my case. Educators who champion growth and change as well as performance help provide the context I needed to comprehend advice like Mrs. Gordon’s.

For all of today’s talk about “reframing failure,” are we as educators doing measurably better than Mrs. Gordon did, twenty-plus years ago? How might we create authentically teachable moments around failure? How might we create contexts in which students can experience “failure” as a real opportunity for deeper iteration, exploration, and understanding?

Thinking Outside the Dots

I write and talk about creativity a lot. But when I do, I rarely have a ready illustration of what creativity is, distilled.

That changed recently. While prepping a creativity workshop I gave at Pratt a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a fantastic book in the school’s lovely glass-floored library in Brooklyn.

James L. Adams’s Conceptual Blockbusting has been reissued four times since its original publication in 1974. I’ve barely managed to get through it, there’s so much good synthesis of psychology and education and industry, and such wonderfully mindbending examples of creative thinking.

Here’s the one that jumped out at me a few weeks ago.

It starts with a familiar puzzle.

Without lifting your pencil from the paper,
draw no more than four straight lines
so that they cross through all nine dots.

dots, 3 rows of 3

 

Our tendency to stick within the imagined boundary of the square is what makes this puzzle difficult.

The puzzle can be solved only by going outside that boundary:

dots, solved width=

 

But that isn’t the only possible solution. Far from it.

The solutions that follow exemplify true creativity, and remind us how important it is — if you want to increase your creativity — to develop a mindset unrestrained by category or context. 

dots, solved width=

 

The psychological phenomenon of functional fixedness is a classic block to creativity. Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits us to considering an object according to its intended function. 

The next solutions beautifully defy that phenomenon by transcending the “bias” that the two-dimensional plane of a sheet of paper is inviolable.

The dots may be intersected by just one single line if the sheet is curved into a cylinder:

dots, solved width=

 

Or if the sheet is intricately folded….

dots, solved width=

 

This solution shatters the perceived context of the puzzle. A bit cheeky, but still:

dots, solved width=

 

And finally, this ten-year-old girl’s solution defies the perception that the solution lies in manipulating the paper.

dots, solved width=

 

The next time you face a challenging problem, it might be helpful to remember these examples. Consider how you might creatively defy context and category not only to generate solutions, but also to view the very problem as something different from what you first believed it to be.

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