Sawyer keynote at IDEAS conference in Calgary, Canada

I just delivered the keynote address “Educating for Innovation” at this big event in Calgary, with teachers, school leaders, education professors, and policy types:

2016 Calgary photo

After the keynote, I did a breakout session where I shared my research on how art school professors teach. Then, I asked the audience to work in small groups to apply these practices to their own teaching in math and science. They all had great ideas about how to teach for creativity! The lessons from art and design pedagogy are really powerful.

Be More Creative Every Day

Tips for creativity from entrepreneurs:

  • Practice doing something risky every day
  • Get to know travelers, people who like unusual music, people who play charades
  • Talk with children and try to answer the offbeat questions they ask
  • Try a new boardgame with your family
  • Make a holiday meal with your family, with each person preparing a different dish
  • Pretend to be a stranger in your own town
  • Break at least one rule every day

*Stephen R. C. Hicks, “What entrepreneurs can teach us all about life,” WSJ, May 6, 2016, p. R6.

Zigzag Inventions

Amanda Foreman, in the Wall Street Journal, describes a list of inventions that followed a zigzagging path:

In 1875, Thomas Edison invented the electric pen. It was a motorized stylus that worked like a stencil: it could punch words through a stack of up to 100 pages. This was supposed to replace copying, which back then was really time consuming. Edison said “There is more money in this than telegraphy.” But users hated it; it was almost impossible to use.

The zigzag: In the 1890s, tattoo artists started using the pen technology for the first electric tattoo needle.

In 1860, the first mechanical carpet brush was invented. But it was horrible; it just threw dust and dirt up into the air. In 1898, John Thurman of St. Louis invented a gas-powered carpet cleaner with a canvas bag, designed to catch the dust as it was thrown up into the air. This idea turned out to be even worse; huge clouds of dust filled the room.

Hubert Cecil Booth learned about Thurman’s invention, and had the idea of turning it into a sucking mechanism instead of a blowing mechanism. This was the first vacuum cleaner.

And check out this zigzag: Thurman’s gas-powered blower became the technology behind the leaf blower.

It’s the path to all great inventions: The zigzag that transforms the original idea into something completely different.

The Brick Test: The Most Unusual Use EVER

One of the oldest tests for creativity is the “brick test.” It originated in the 1950s, and it’s pretty simple: Take five minutes, and write down as many uses as you can think of for a brick. It’s called a divergent thinking  test, which means it measures your ability to generate lots of ideas. And, you get extra points if your list has brick uses that most other people don’t think of. These are called unusual uses.

My wife and I had an interesting experience with bricks recently, and it confirms a central finding of creativity research: The more knowledgeable you are about something, the more likely you are to be creative with it. Even bricks.

Here’s how it happened. For some reason, the house we’re renting has a big stack of red bricks in the back.

WP_20160131_001After a few months, my wife and I started thinking of ways use the bricks. The first was when my wife volunteered to organize the annual Halloween dance at my 11-year-old son’s school. To decorate the school gymnasium, she bought some large inflatable witches and scary monsters. They were over ten feet high. But they’re light and unstable, and they fall over really easily (especially with kids dancing around). The solution? Bricks to weigh them down. But, young children could bump their toes on a brick and get hurt. So, wrap each brick in bubble wrap.






Here’s another use. We had an ice storm recently, so we got our generator ready just in case we lost power. To make sure all of the fuel would flow into the engine, we need to tilt the generator. A red brick is just what we needed: WP_20160131_003





A third use: At Christmas, my wife arranges a display of Christmas village buildings. She wanted the houses in the back of the display to be elevated. Bricks work great:






I saved for last the most unusual use EVER for a brick. Drum roll please! I recently started repairing accordions. One of the first tools you need is a test bellows. You find an old accordion bellows, put boards to seal up both ends, and drill a tiny hole in the middle. You use this to direct air at one selected note in a reed block. To make the bellows work, I needed something really heavy inside, to hold down the bottom board. Here’s mine, with a red brick inside. (It’s so unusual it probably doesn’t make sense unless you repair accordions). Here it is:






Here are a few more uses. I’m sure we’ll think of more soon. “Necessity is the mother of invention”–necessity, plus a pile of bricks.




Books About Complexity and Emergence

I thought the market for complexity books had been saturated, but here’s another one: A Crude Look at the Whole  by John H. Miller. (WSJ  review here.)

The first wave of complexity books was in the mid 1990s:

The heyday of complexity books was just after 2000 (my own book appeared in 2005):

In just the past few years, we have

According to Ronald Bailey’s WSJ  review, Miller’s book covers familiar ground. Like my 2005 book, he argues that “societies are complex systems”; that social phenomena “emerge unpredictably from components”; that “simple parts interact in complex ways to create an emerging whole”. His examples of emergence from complexity are familiar from these earlier books: biological evolution, markets, the Internet, political protests. Bailey’s review is politely critical of the book; he says “it’s hard to see how complexity science is much help to current policy makers or citizens.” I disagree; I think that understanding complexity and emergence has incredible value, especially in understanding social systems. Maybe Miller’s book isn’t the first one you should read, but the long list of earlier books (and their strong sales) demonstrates that this research is helping lots of people.

Are Immigrants More Creative?

A provocative claim: in any country, immigrants are statistically more likely to generate exceptionally creative works. There’s a long list of immigrant geniuses: Victor Hugo, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolas Tesla, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein. But single cases don’t make a scientific argument. Do we have any statistical data on this?

Eric Weiner gives us some numbers in today’s Wall Street Journal:

An awful lot of brilliant minds blossomed in alien soil. That is especially true of the U.S., where foreign-born residents account for only 13% of the population but hold nearly a third of all patents and a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans.

Those are some pretty convincing numbers, somewhere between a 12 and 20 percent increase in creativity among immigrants.

Creativity research has the explanation: Psychologists have shown that bigger creative insights result from distant associations–when your mind has many different types of knowledge, a diverse range of experiences. Associations between similar conceptual material also often lead to creative insights, but those are more likely to be ordinary, incremental, everyday sorts of creativity. It’s the distant associations that lead to radical, breakthrough innovation. Weiner makes a similar argument from recent research; studies show that “schema violations” result in greater “cognitive flexibility,” and that cognitive flexibility is linked to creativity.

Weiner says that it’s marginality  that results in greater creativity. I wouldn’t say it that way; you can be marginal to a culture and yet not be a part of your own separate culture. The silent introvert who lives in a shack up in the mountains is marginal, but that person doesn’t bring together distinct bodies of experiences and knowledge. In fact, we know that lone individuals are less  likely to be creative.

The lesson for everyone is: If you seek greater creativity, then go out and learn something new. Meet people very different from you. Travel to a really different place. Read magazines that you’ve never looked at before. Fill your mind with a broad range of really different stuff. You don’t have to be an immigrant; but we can learn from this example to help enhance our own creativity.