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ZIG ZAG Book Review (By a Ten Year Old) April 16, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
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My 2013 creativity advice book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, is dedicated to my 10-year-old son, Graham. He just returned the favor by reading and reviewing the book for his 5th-grade book review assignment. The teacher used good arts integration pedagogy: she had the students do their review in multiple media (decorating a brown paper bag, and then filling it with items related to the book). Here’s the report my son turned in. First, the front, with title, author photo, and the 15-shape invention exercise from inside the book:


On the back, his short review:


“My favorite part of the book” is the 15-shape invention exercise, where he writes “the object you make normally seems cool!” And, here’s what he says under “My opinion on the book”:

I liked the book because it helps you use your creativity. It encourages you to move forward, and gives you 8 steps to follow for creativity. It has games in it as well to enhance your creativity. It made me want to keep reading it because I couldn’t wait to find the next game. Another reason I like it is because my dad wrote it, and he dedicated it to me! This books explains the who, what, where, when, and why.

Thank you, Graham, for this impartial and unbiased review. ;)

Ed Catmull and the Secrets of Pixar’s Creativity April 12, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Case Studies, Organizational innovation.
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You’ve seen his face staring at you from the cover of the April 2014 Fast Company magazine as you pass the airport bookstore: It’s Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, behind the words “How to Unleash Creativity”. Anyone would love to have this kind of news coverage: He’s called “A great leader” and “The master” (and that’s just the magazine cover). The issue contains excerpts from Catmull’s new book, Creativity, Inc. It’s a great title. (But it’s been used already: it’s the title of a 2003 book by Jeff Mauzy and Richard Harriman, Creativity Inc.: Building an Inventive Organization. I have a copy and it’s a good book. But kudos to Catmull for creating a new a ten-year statute of limitations on book titles, I’ll support that.)

I’m a huge fan of Pixar’s innovative processes, culture, and leadership, so I’m going to buy Catmull’s new book no matter what it’s called. Inside the magazine, Rick Tetzeli calls it “the most thoughtful management book ever” and “a deeply realistic philosophy of how to best manage a creative organization.”

Here are the excerpted passages from the book that stood out for me:

Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments… This part of our job is never done because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad…it has a way of reasserting itself….You don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or policy are being hashed out.

Early on, all of our movies suck. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.”

Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process.

You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when challenged.

People need to be wrong as fast as they can….People say they want to be in risky environments…But they don’t actually know what risk means, that risk actually does bring failure and mistakes.

At some point, with any film, the idea you started off with will not work.

In my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, I use Pixar as one of my case studies, to make this same point: that creativity always takes a wandering, unpredictable path (the “zig zag”) and that successful innovators know how to trust in that improvisational, emergent process. My book gives advice for how to learn to succeed, and Ed Catmull understands the same core principles of creativity and innovation.

The Airplane: Not Invented By the Wright Brothers April 10, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks.
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One of the most fascinating stories in patent law is now over 100 years old: the story about how the Wright Brothers tried to lock up all legal rights to human flight. I told this story in my 2007 book Group Genius, and I’ve just learned that Lawrence Goldstone has told a new version–in his forthcoming book Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies, excerpted in the Wall Street Journal April 9, 2014.* In Group Genius, I use the Wright Brothers’ legal battles to demonstrate how “collaborative webs” are always more innovative than solitary lone geniuses. The Wrights tried to lock up the rights, and it ended up killing their own creative potential:

[In 1903] They didn’t get a patent for “flight”; they were granted a patent for their key innovation, a lateral control mechanism that steered by warping the entire wings forward or backward….Instead of showing off their new invention, they holed up in Dayton, refused to do press interviews, and wouldn’t let photographers near the farm field where they tested small improvements. On September 30, 2007, Alexander Graham Bell donated $20,000 to found the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). Their goal was to win Scientific American magazine’s prize for the first plane that could fly a kilometer in a straight line. Their first plane was tested on March 12, 1908. It looked a lot like the Wright’s plane, but to avoid infringing on the Wright’s patent, it didn’t use wing warping for lateral control; instead, it used a system of trusses to curve the whole wing up or down. Casey Baldwin, an AEA member, designed the next plane; for lateral control, it used ailerons–small pivoting surfaces at the trailing edge of the wing. The third AEA project was Glenn Curtiss’s June Bug, and he flew it a mile and won the Scientific American trophy. The Wrights couldn’t even enter because their plane didn’t have wheels (they launched their plane from a special railroad track) and couldn’t take off from the field. When Curtiss started getting a lot of press attention, the Wrights filed a patent infringement lawsuit. They claimed their patent controlled all lateral steering mechanisms; if true, then no plane could ever fly without infringing the patent. In 1913, a federal court sided with the Wrights and ordered Curtiss to cease making airplanes using ailerons. Curtiss then built a different plane, based on an 1899 design by Samuel Pierpont Langley; now Curtiss could claim his idea came before the Wright’s patent, and the case dragged on into World War I. (pp. 189-191)

Because this legal fight blocked American innovation, the collaborative web instead kept innovating in Europe, where the Wright brothers weren’t able to enforce their patent. British, German, and French airplane industries were booming, with constant innovations leaving the Americans behind. In my public talks, I often show photos of the airplanes being built in Europe; they look like modern planes. Then, I show a 1914 photo of the Wright brothers’ plane; it has barely changed from 1903. In 1917, when the U.S. entered the war, the U.S. government forced the Wright and Curtiss companies to form a patent pool with open sharing.

Goldstone’s new book tells a portion of the story; I got many of the above details from Shulman’s 2002 book, Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane. Goldstone notes that the Wrights were indeed granted a extremely broad patent, and the court upheld it in 1913. (I’ve read the court decision, by Judge Learned Hand; it’s, fascinating and it has lessons for today’s patent fights.) Goldstone concludes:

Nowadays, both the number and the nature of lawsuits involving software, hardware, and even design minutia are testament that patent law remains the damper on innovation that it was when airplane development was nearly grounded in its infancy.

*Goldstone, L. 2014. “How a Patent Fight Grounded the Wright Brothers.” Wall Street Journal, April 9, p. A13.

Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and the Evolving Education Marketplace April 6, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Education.
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I’ve just spent the past four days at one of the biggest annual conferences in any field, the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, with over 13,000 researchers gathered in Philadelphia. The high point, for me, was an invited Presidential session called “innovation, entrepreneurship, and the evolving education marketplace.” A high-profile group of connected education leaders engaged in a wide-ranging discussion up on stage, and I’ve quoted below their comments that leaped out at me.

First, the participants were:

  • Christopher Swanson, Education Week
  • Shilpi Niyogi, Pearson
  • Bobbi Kershaw, University of Pennsylvania (formerly of Big Chalk, now working to commercialize faculty education research and develop an entrepreneurship ecosystem)
  • Kevin Bushweller, Education Week
  • Matt Pittinsky, Parchment (and formerly, was the founder of Blackboard)

Their discussion was spot-on with today’s cutting edge; listen in:

Niyogi: “The lines are blurring between entrepreneurs, educators, and service providers with respect to research and development.”

Kershaw: “Faculty research needs to impact practice… we very rarely see it have a significant impact… lots of programs that are being used in schools now do not have proven efficacy from research”

Bushweller: “Policy makers are looking for quick nimble research. A research project that takes three years, the market and environment will have changed by then.”

Pittinsky: “For profit ed tech has tended to stay out of the instructional core of the classroom. This is beginning to change. Faculty are used to the traditional model (of NSF funding). They are afraid of business coming into their research sphere. They are evaluated on publishing, not on demonstrated impact on schools and students.”

Bushweller: “Most organizations in the education space have an advocacy agenda. We really want truly independent research (of the sort that university researchers can provide).”

Kershan: “There are very few examples of companies commercializing university research. Reading 180, from Vanderbilt, is one of the few. My role at Penn is to help faculty do this.”

Niyogi: “We need to work toward social, collaborative learning. Opportunities in this space are untapped, because we are stuck on individual learning.”

Pittinsky: “We face a paradox. Because innovations are measured by learning outcomes, providers need to be even more top down and controlling, school leaders need to be top down, to ensure uniform positive outcomes. The problem is that this means you can’t just release enabling technologies, like I did with Blackboard, because some people will use them in good ways and some in bad ways. And yet, enabling technologies are what enable bottom-up innovation to flourish.”

This last statement is the crux of the matter, and this is always the paradox of innovation: How to balance top down structure with the need for bottom-up innovation to emerge?

Niyogi extended this line of thought, arguing for more bottom up innovation: “Teachers will become free agents, and that will cause dramatic cultural and organization change in schools.”

And finally, here are the BIG IDEAS that the panelists think will drive educational innovation:

  • Big data visualization
  • Open education resources
  • Aggregating content, evaluating it, and sharing it
  • Formative assessment
  • Interactive multimedia online learning
  • Simulations and games

These panelists are on the front lines, and it was a pleasure to watch them discuss the future of learning and schooling.

The Key to Spontaneity is Practice March 29, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance.
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Paradoxical, but true: Great improvisation requires extensive practice and expertise. My own studies of jazz and improv theater groups shows this to be true, as I describe in my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. Most people find this to be surprising, because our mythical image of the great improviser is someone who is driven by internal impulse, genius-level performance creativity. Stereotypes like saxophonist Charlie Parker, high on heroin, blowing his horn at 2am in some New York jazz club.

It’s the same with every performance genre. This recent article in the New York Times tells the story of how spontaneity in a classical music performance emerged only after eleven days of 14-hour rehearsals. Of course, you can go too far: every theater professional is familiar with “overrehearsal” that drains the spontaneous spirit from a performance. But without rehearsal, familiarity, and expertise, you’ll never get effective spontaneity.

This reminds me of a famous quotation from comedian George Burns:

The most important thing in an actor is sincerity. If he can fake that, he’s got it made.

Bob Mankoff’s Life in Cartoons March 29, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
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Bob Mankoff has been drawing cartoons for the New Yorker magazine since 1977, and he’s been the magazine’s cartoon editor for years. We’ve had some great conversations about the creative process of cartooning; he was a fan of my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, and I’m a huge fan of his work, too, especially his 2002 book The Naked Cartoonist: A New Way to Enhance Your Creativity. Mankoff makes a strong argument that cartooning is a special window into the creative process.

He’s just published his latest book, a memoir, How About Never–Is Never Good For You? with the subtitle “My Life in Cartoons.” (Today it’s Amazon.com sales rank is an awesome 108!) To learn the story behind the title, read Mankoff’s own blog post about his new book, here, or this excellent review in the Wall Street Journal.

IDEO Reimagines the Classroom March 29, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Education.
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IDEO, the well-known Palo Alto design firm, in recent years has increasingly moved into service design and organizational design, branching out from their original work designing objects like the first Apple computer mouse, or the shopping cart shown on TV on a Nightline special in 1999, to design processes and systems. Now, IDEO is starting to redesign classrooms and schools, using its design thinking methodology.*

They got a huge opportunity in 2010. One of Peru’s richest men, billionaire Carlos Rodrigues-Pastor, decided to donate his money to reform education in Peru, where the education system is one of the world’s worst. He bought three private schools in Lima to get started, and he wanted to keep tuition $100 a month. But who do you call to design the school of the future? He might have called a university-based school of education; he might have called an education reform consulting firm; but Rodriguez-Perez got in touch with IDEO. It sounds like an odd choice, but IDEO has been doing so much work in schools that they have an Education Practice, led by Sandy Speicher. Speicher learned her education chops in the Learning, Design, and Technology (LDT) master’s degree program at Stanford University, just down the road from IDEO.

The Peru schools are called Innova Schools, and Speicher led a team of about ten designers to develop a curriculum, design the buildings, and prepare the business model. Innova’s innovation director said:

Speicher is very principled and the sort of person who would come into a discussion, listen to what we were saying, and somehow elevate it. She’s great at connecting dots.

IDEO came up with a blending learning model, with some instruction delivered online via computers, some with students on their own engaged in projects, and some with students doing group problem solving. But not really in a traditional classroom: The walls in these buildings can be adjusted to create bigger and smaller spaces, depending on the type of group work under way. Some “classrooms” are even outdoors! IDEO also developed 18,000 lesson plans, to help teachers get started.

Innova now has 23 schools with 13,500 students, and the plans are to keep building more schools. Stay posted for more details!

If you want to learn more about how to redesign schools based on the sciences of learning, look for my article “The Future of Learning” to be published in The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, Second Edition, Fall 2014. I argue that you can’t do it right if you don’t ground your innovations in the learning sciences. I’ll blog the article here when it’s published. We’re creating a new master’s degree program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that will give educational innovators the expertise to design successful innovative learning environments. We expect the first students to start Fall 2015, stay posted!

*Dimitra Kessenides, 2014, School’s Out(Side). In Bloomberg Business Week, March 24-April 6, page 99.

Vygotsky on Collective Creativity March 25, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Genius Groups.
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I just read this English-language translation of an old Russian text by the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, and it surprisingly foreshadows contemporary scientific understandings of creativity and innovation:

Our everyday understanding of creativity does not fully conform to the scientific understanding of this word. According to everyday understanding, creativity is the realm of a few selected individuals, geniuses, talented people….we typically believe that such creativity is completely lacking in the life of the ordinary person. However, this view is incorrect. Creativity is present not only when great historical works are born, but also whenever a person imagines, combines, alters, and creates something new, no matter how small a drop in the bucket this new thing appears. When we consider the phenomenon of collective creativity, which combines all these drops of individual creativity that frequently are insignificant in themselves, we readily understand what an enormous percentage of what has been created by humanity is a product of the anonymous collective creative work of unknown inventors. The overwhelming majority of inventions were produced by unknown individuals.*

This is very similar to the findings I report in my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, and also is captured right in the title of Peter Sims’ wonderful book Little Bets. I elaborate this scientific research at greater length in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation.

*pp. 10-11 in: Lev Vygotsky, English translation published 2004 as “Imagination and creativity in childhood,” Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, Volume 42 Issue 1, pp. 7-97. From the original Russian text published in 1967: Voobrazhenie i tvorchestvo v detskom vozraste (Moscow: Prosveshchenie).

Thanks to Professor Susan Davis for sharing this manuscript with me!

New Research Shows That Students Should Visit Art Museums February 20, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Education, New research.
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When students visit art museums, they develop greater critical thinking skills than comparison students who do not visit art museums. This study provides direct causal evidence of a link between exposure to art and critical thinking skill.

In 2011, the United States opened its first new major art museum in 50 years: The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, created with Walmart family money, in the small town where the Walmart company is located, Bentonville Arkansas. A team of researchers at the University of Arkansas had a great idea: They realized that the new museum provided a wonderful research opportunity, because up to 2011, citizens of the surrounding area had not had access to an art museum. So would this new neighbor benefit them in some way? Would it help their children do better in school, for example? The leadership of the new museum wanted to make an impact and benefit the surrounding community, so they were happy to work together with the research team.

The results of this research were just published this month (Feb 2014), and it is a powerful and important study.* The research team decided to study the effects of exposure to art on students who visited the museum under its School Visit Program. Because the school visits (grades 3 through 12) were completely free to the school, there was a high demand and lots of teachers applied to bring their class. The researchers, working with the museum’s education staff, decided to randomly select which applications to approve (the treatment group), and then to match each visiting class with another demographically matched class that had not been selected (the control group). Control group classes were promised that they would be able to visit the following semester, in exchange for participating in the experiment.

The tours were provided by Crystal Bridges education staff, who had been trained to follow a constructivist learning approach. This open ended, student centered approach encouraged groups of students “to think together, engage with each work of art on a deep level, and seek out their own unique interpretations of the work at hand” (p. 39). The visit was about one hour. In addition, the classroom teacher was mailed a packet of pre-visit material that included a 5-minute orientation video.

About two weeks after the visit, the students were given a critical thinking assessment. They were shown this contemporary work of art, one that they had never seen and that is not in the Crystal Bridges collection. The students were then given 5 minutes to write responses to the following two questions: (1) What is going on in this painting? (2) What do you see that makes you think that?” The control group of students who had NOT been to the museum were given the same assessment, and everyone’s essays were scored on a critical thinking checklist with seven items: number of observations, interpretations, evaluations, associations, instances of problem finding, comparisons, and instances of flexible thinking. Some of the student’s essays are brilliant:

I think that the young boy and girl were actually old people who became young again in this painting. The reason I think this is because the boy and the girl are wearing loose fitting clothes. Maybe they were an old married couple that opened a box of childhood memories and they remembered when they were children.

The results showed that the museum visit, with the constructivist-inspired approach, resulted in an increase in critical thinking ability. Students were went on a school visit to an art museum performed 9% of a standard deviation higher than the control group on the assessment. Rural students, the ones most likely to have never encountered or engaged with modern art, scored 33% of a standard deviation higher. It might not sound like much, but remember that these students only spent an hour at the museum, and looked at only about 4 or 5 works of art.

But does this mean that looking at art increases a student’s general critical thinking ability? After all, the assessment was specific to arts. And we’d like to think that arts education leaves you with general abilities that make you better at everything–even, possibly, science and math. Evidence for this “transfer” has been incredibly hard to find, and the authors write “Future research should further explore whether the benefits of thinking critically about the arts transfers to other educational subjects” (p. 42).

Expecting arts education to transfer to other subjects might just be too much to ask (as the authors also point out). As long ago as 1901, psychologists had already discovered that learning in one domain almost never increases cognitive ability in other domains:

Improvements in any single mental function rarely brings about equal improvement in any other function, no matter how similar” (Thorndike and Woodworth, 1901, pp. 249-250).

And almost 100 years later, many psychologists still make the same claim:

Most studies fail to find transfer…[in the last 100 years] there is no evidence to contradict Thorndike’s general conclusions: Transfer is rare” (Detterman, 1993, p. 15)

In preparation for a discussion with our doctoral students, I just re-read a classic article in the learning sciences,** arguing that the true benefits of arts education lie in “preparation for future learning” and from an emphasis on learning how to metacognitively guide noticing and interpretation, through active interaction with the learning environment. This simple study is just a beginning, and we still haven’t explored whether arts education of this type would result in an increase in general abilities. This new study is one small contribution to our understanding of the value of arts education, but it’s an important step forward. As the authors state, “No prior research has established the causal connection between an arts experience and critical thinking skills with this level of rigor” (p. 42) and I agree.

*Bowen, Greene, and Kisida (2014), “Learning to think critically: A visual art experiment.” Educational Researcher Vol. 43 No. 1, pp. 37-44.

**Bransford and Schwartz (2001), “Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications.” in Review of Research in Education, Chapter 3, Volume 24, pages 61-100. Washington, DC: AERA.

There is No Gene for Anything* February 9, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Education, New research.

In the last week or so, two high-profile newspaper articles have been published, debunking the widespread belief that we can explain our personalities and our behaviors by looking into our genes. As a creativity researcher, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “So, is there a gene for creativity?” (There isn’t.) And gene mapping companies like 23andme have a booming business. The price to get your DNA analyzed is dropping fast: the going rate is now $99.

Biologists have known for decades that there can’t be one gene for any observable behavior, trait, or ability. Here’s why:

  1. Single genes are easy for evolution to select for or against.
  2. So, if there’s a single gene that leads to a behavior or personality that reduces your chance of surviving–let’s say, an anorexia gene that makes you starve, or a psychosis gene that makes you go crazy–evolution would easily select against that gene. Everyone who possessed it would die without having offspring, and the gene would be selected out of the population.
  3. And if there were a single gene that led to a more successful personality, bigger muscles, sexier body, or a higher ability level, then evolution could easily select for that gene. The individuals who possessed that gene would survive better, and have more offspring. Eventually, everyone without that gene would be pushed out of the population’s gene pool.
  4. So if there’s a single gene attached to an observable behavior or trait (and there are a tiny few, that’s why I put an asterisk* at the end of my title) it would have to be a trait or behavior that either (a) didn’t substantially affect your survivability–like eye color, or a preference for red wine over white wine, or (b) severely impacted only a tiny percentage of the people who possessed the gene, so that most of them survive just fine, or (c) expressed itself only after childbearing age, so that the gene could still be passed on.

This explains why there’s not a gene for intelligence, or physical strength, or creativity, or leadership. And yet, we all know that some people are more intelligent than others; some are better basketball players than others; some people are definitely sexier than others; and some people are mental basket cases who would have been lion lunch back during evolutionary time. So what accounts for these differences? Not a single gene: instead, whatever biological basis there is for such differences has to be a complicated interaction of hundreds, even thousands, of genes–which evolution has great difficulty selecting for and against. And the rest of the difference between people has to be explained by environment–neonatal development, infancy, childhood, or social and cultural context.

But don’t take my word for it; read these two recent articles by people far more knowledgeable than I am. First is the weekly Wall Street Journal column by Stanford biologist Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky, called “A Height Gene? One for Smarts? Don’t Bet On It.” He writes that recent genome sequencing has found “evidence of the minimal extent to which some trait is ‘in your genes’ and of how relatively unimportant any given gene is.” Even how tall you are: a recent study tried to find the gene for height, and the best they could do was to identify “hundreds of genetic variants in regulating height….the single genetic variant that was most powerfully associated with growth explained just .4% of the variation in growth, and all of the hundreds of identified variants explained only about 10% of the variation, which is not a lot of explanatory power.” So if genes can’t predict a simple physical characteristic like height, then how could they possibly predict a complex trait like personality or intelligence?

Well, it turns out, genes can’t explain such traits. Another recent study, published in the journal Science, tried to find the genetic variants associated with educational attainment–an impressive research project that studied 126,559 subjects. The most predictive single genetic variant accounted for .02% of the variation between individuals, and all of the genetic variants together explained only about 2% of the total variation. The authors conclude that educational attainment involves a complicated interaction of hundreds and thousands of genes. Which we already knew had to be the case; see my four-point explanation above. And now, we have the evidence to back it up.

A second recent article is a review of Jennifer Ouellette’s new book Me, Myself, and Why, by Matthew Hutson. Ouellette’s book is a review of “the science of self” and scans broadly across DNA mapping and other scientific approaches to exploring human differences. Ouelette sends a body sample off to 23andMe, and gets her complete genotype back in the mail. But she ends up disappointed: “Knowing my genotype told me very little about who I am, merely verifying the genetic basis for the traits I already knew I possessed,” she writes.

If our genes can’t explain who we are, what our potential is, and how we think, then how can we better understand ourselves? That’s a beautiful question, and that’s why I chose to become a research psychologist. The answer to our selves is not in our stars, and not our genes. It’s in psychological science.


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