The Creation of Christmas

The Christmas holiday that we celebrate today was created through an emergent, collaborative, distributed process. The same process that generates almost all radical innovation.

Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated in the United States until the late 19th century. The reason is that most U.S. Christians were Protestants and many of them associated Christmas with pagan rituals (like the Christmas tree and the yule log), and worse, they associated it with the raucous practice of “wassailing”: roving bands of adults who went from door to door, singing in the expectation of getting a drink of alcoholic punch from the host. If they didn’t get any punch, they often vandalized the house–think of trick or treat for drunks.

The first step towards bringing Christmas back into the mainstream of American life was Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol. In 1863, cartoonist Thomas Nast first sketched Santa Claus as a fat, jolly man. In Europe, Father Christmas and St. Nicholas were dramatically different from today’s Santa. In England, Father Christmas did not give gifts; in many other European countries, it was the Christ Child delivered gifts to the young.

Santa Claus was a collective cultural creation, in response to the tension between commercialism and domestic family love. In the 19th century, U.S. parents made toys for their children, but as families moved off the farm and into cities to take jobs in factories, they didn’t have time to make toys themselves. At the same time, a toy industry emerged in the U.S., with all of the commercialism and marketing associated with it. Parents started buying presents for their children, but felt vaguely guilty about it. The solution? A new myth: all of the toys were lovingly hand made by happy elves at the North Pole.

There’s a lot more to the story, and it’s not hard to find on the Internet or in books by historians. It’s a process of social emergence over time, of collective creative responses to changes in the U.S. family, society, and culture. The innovative process of social emergence over time is what I describe in my 2007 book Group Genius if you’d like to see more examples of the same historical process of social emergence in action.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

First Asia Trip

I’ve recently returned from my first trip to Asia. I was invited to give a keynote address at an annual conference, the International Conference on Computers in Education (ICCE), about my research on creativity and learning. The conference was held outside Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur, in the completely new and modern suburb of Putrajaya, a planned community created by the national government to relocate their administrative offices out of downtown Kuala Lumpur. Almost 300 international scholars presented their research at the Marriott hotel.

I was impressed with the caliber of the scholarship. Many of the presenters were computer scientists, developing new educational software. Important research is being done to develop a new generation of learning software on portable handheld devices, like smartphones and PDAs. A second line of active research was in “computer supported collaborative learning” (CSCL), which basically means, bringing students together over the Internet as they work toward important learning goals.

At a brief stop at the University of Hong Kong, I met one of the Chinese scholars who worked to translate my book The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences into Chinese. He was one of a team working at South China Normal University, in Guangzhou. The Chinese translation was just published in May and he was happy to report that sales have passed 3,000 after only 7 months, indicating a strong interest in the learning sciences in mainland China. I’ve been invited to return to Hong Kong and to Shanghai next July, and I look forward to spending more time with my Asian colleagues.

International Conference on Computers in Education

This week I am in Putrajaya, Malaysia, as an invited keynote speaker at the ICCE, the pre-eminent Asian conference on computers in education. I was invited to talk about my research on creativity and learning; creativity is recognized as an important educational issue in most Asian countries.

In recent years, I have been impressed with the national level initiatives proposed in several Asian countries, focused on transforming schools to be more creative learning environments. Singapore’s Ministry of Education took an early lead in this area, and has invested substantially in the Learning Sciences Lab at Nanyang Technological Institute. South Korea is perhaps the Asian country most centrally focused on creativity (my 2007 book Group Genius has been published in a Korean language edition).

The research presented at this conference is of very high quality; the scholarship of my Asian colleagues is near parity with the U.S. and Europe. But I have the same questions of Asia as I do of the United States: the learning sciences community has reached a consensus about how to design effective learning environments, but so far there hasn’t been much real-world impact on what actually happens in schools. My colleagues here tell me that in almost all Asian schools, classrooms continue to be based in outdated “instructionist” models of passive transmission and acquisition.

A key challenge for the learning sciences research community is: How can we best effect institutional change in schools, to help classroom design align with learning sciences research? Fortunately, many learning scientists are working in schools and with practicing teachers. We know that our findings cannot just stay in the laboratory, if we want schools to be more creative and effective learning environments. At conferences like this one, I am optimistic for the future of schooling.