Evaluative Practices in Creativity

I’m now in Copenhagen, where I’ve been participating in a fascinating workshop at the Copenhagen Business School. It’s sponsored by a research group titled “Creative Encounters”; they brought together 13 separate researchers, each one presenting a case study of the creative practices in one company. This workshop may be the single most stimulating event I have ever attended. As I listened to the descriptions of how new things are actually created, in world-class organizations, I realized that this type of study has almost never been done! When you find out what really takes place when things are created, many of our most simplistic ideas about “creativity” fade away. I’d like to see a lot more studies of the creative process in creative industries. When you read this list of the 13 case studies, you’ll share my excitement. Do you know of any similar case studies? Please share them with a comment!

1. A study of how the Amsterdam edition of the Lonely Planet travel guide is generated, and how travel reviewers evaluate hotels, restaurants, and other establishments (by Ana Alacovska).

2. A study of how the historical novel, Jarrettsville, was acquired, edited, and written (by Clayton Childress).

3. A study of how the advertising firm BBDO came up with a successful HBO campaign in 2007, HBOvoyeur.com (by Timothy de Waal Malefyt).

4. A study of how a team of five fashion designers at Hugo Boss developed a new “funky formal” line for the Boss Orange brand (by Kasper Tang Vandkilde).

5. A study of the design process at Bang & Olufsen, how it has changed over time, and how the rise of software and user interface design has challenged their process, focusing on the development of the BeoSound 5 audio player in 2008.

6. A study of how the Ursula line of faience tableware was designed and emerged within Royal Copenhagen (by Brian Moeran).

7. A study of how the Berlin Philharmonic auditions and selects new musicians (by Birgit Stober).

8. A study of how the contemporary Chinese composer Hoh Chung Shih developed a commissioned work for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (by Can Seng Ooi).

9. A study of how four string quartets came together in London to perform a new composition by the British composer Sir John Tavener, that required all four quartets to play together, but by positioning themselves at their discretion into the architectural spaces of each performance location (by Shannon O’Donnell).

10. A study of the origin of “New Nordic Cuisine” and the founding, and response to, the gourmet Copenhagen restaurant NOMA, with a focus on the evaluative processes of the San Pellegrino and Michelin rankings, and also on newspaper and magazine reviewers (by Bo Christensen).

11. A study of how film festival prize juries select and evaluate the award winners (such as at Cannes, Toronto, Sundance) (by Chris Mathieu).

12. A study of how artists make career creative choices as they negotiate their careers (by Nina Poulsen).

13. A study of how auction houses and antique dealers value antique handwoven Oriental carpets, and how the values (and tastes) have changed over the decades (by Fabian Faurholt Csaba).

The 13 case studies will eventually be published together in a book (I’ll be writing the conclusion chapter). But this material is so rich, so stimulating, so unique and valuable, that one book will just be the tip of the iceberg. Each study could be its own book!

I hope we see many more studies like these, so we can continue to increase our understanding of the creative process, the design process, and how new things are made. Kudos to the organizers of the workshop, Bo Christensen and Brian Moeran!

Using Prizes to Foster Innovation

Steve Lohr’s “Unboxed” column in today’s New York Times provides several examples of how prize competitions have spurred innovation–starting with Britain’s 1714 prize of 20,000 pounds (nearly $4.5 million today) to anyone who could figure out how to determine  a ship’s longitude (see the fascinating book Longitude for the full story).

If you like Lohr’s article and you’d like to learn more, I recommend The McKinsey Prize Report (I was interviewed for the report), published in 2010. It provides good advice about how and when prize competitions work and when they don’t, and a comprehensive list of recent prize competitions designed to foster innovation.

The Emerging Consensus View of Innovation

We can now claim, with some certainty, that we collectively understand how innovation works. I say this after reading two recent books:

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries by Peter Sims, and

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson.

Both of these books present essentially the same account of creativity and innovation that I presented in my 2007 book Group Genius. That’s no doubt because all three books are based on the latest scientific studies of creativity and innovation. Here’s a quick summary of the emerging consensus view:

  • Creativity is not about one big genius idea; it’s about a lot of small sparks (Sims calls them “little bets”) over a long period of time.
  • Over a long period of time, the small sparks may gradually result in a successful new innovation. This is more likely with certain work habits, and with certain collaborative team designs.
  • The work habits, and team designs, that make creativity more likely are those that:
    • Fail often and fail quickly
    • Involve an improvisational approach to the problem, rather than an advance planning approach
    • Tap into many different people and information sources
  • Creativity is never the result of one genius having a brilliant idea; these stories are always mythical. Instead, many people contribute the small sparks that are behind a successful idea.

Both books contain some of the same stories that I told in Group Genius: For example, one of Steven Johnson’s favorite stories, about Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution by natural selection, was first told in my book (pp. 103-104). I thought the stories in Sims’ book were a bit more original; he told several stories I wasn’t aware of.

I was particularly intrigued by Sims’ summary of research into “lucky people” by Dr. Richard Wiseman. Wiseman studied the behavioral patterns that are different in lucky and unlucky people (people defined themselves as lucky or unlucky). The lucky people pay more attention to what’s going on around them than the unlucky people, and they are more open to opportunities that come along spontaneously, whereas unlucky people are “creatures of routine, fixated on specific outcomes” (p. 123). The lucky people have three times greater open body language in social situations, and smile twice as much, as unlucky people. Examining their social networks, lucky people “are effective at building secure, and long-lasting, attachments with the people they meet…they often keep in touch with a much larger number of friends and colleagues than unlucky people” (p. 124).

So if you want to learn about this emerging consensus view of innovation, which of the three books should you read? Of course, I like my own book! And I like Peter Sims’ book, too. I would say that Sims’ book is a bit more journalistic, a bit more skimming across the top of the research, whereas my book goes into a bit more depth with the stories and the underlying themes. My book is a bit more explicit about the practical take-home lessons, too (but Sims has good advice as well).

Collaboration Enhances Learning

I’ve just read two scholarly articles, both by Professor Maria Araceli Ruiz-Primo and colleagues, that review the many studies that compare solo individual learning with collaborative group learning.* The first article, published in Science magazine 11 March 2011, reviewed all studies of non-lecture innovations in college classes in biology, chemistry, engineering, and physics. The most common innovative design was the use of collaborative learning groups, combined with a focus on conceptually oriented tasks. A meta-analysis showed that this innovation enhanced student learning; the mean average of the effect sizes of the enhanced learning, across 41 studies, was .54. For those classes whose only innovation was collaborative learning, the mean average of effect sizes was .68. These results demonstrate pretty convincingly that student learning outcomes are improved when college professors implement innovations that move beyond the traditional lecture-memorize-test.

A second article, presented at the AERA meeting in New Orleans in April, 2011, surveyed studies of the impact of collaboration on student learning in K-12 classrooms. Again, the consensus result of all of these studies is that collaboration enhances student learning outcomes. However, collaboration only enhances learning if it’s done in the right way:

  • The nature of the task presented to the students should be ill structured. Tasks for which a “right answer” is expected do not benefit as much from collaboration. Tasks should ask students to make choices or predictions on the basis of evidence; apply a principle to a new case; explore issues for which there is no single response; and interpret texts.
  • Teachers should emphasize the process of discussion rather than just arriving at the correct answer.  Students should be given specific training and guidance on how to work in small groups. Teachers should emphasize that meaningful conversations are the goal, and should guide students in how to engage in the kind of conversation that is demonstrated to enhance learning:
    • Describing observations clearly
    • Formulating hypotheses
    • Proving explanations
    • Constructing explanations based on information collected. Students must provide explanations, not only simple answers. If explanations are not provided, then there are no enhanced learning outcomes to groups.

When they videotaped a random sample of eight 6th grade science classrooms, the researchers found that in pretty much all of the classes, teachers did not provide enough guidance, and the student group interactions were relatively ineffective. Most groups focused on procedure rather than conceptual understandings; groups rarely engaged in effective argumentation; and groups rarely monitored their discussion process. The researchers conclude:

Our results indicate that the quality of students’ interactions in small groups do not reflect necessarily the type of dialog we all would like to happen….For small group work to potentially provide the opportunity for appropriate interaction among students, certain conditions are necessary. For example, students need to be guided in how to communicate in small groups….The characteristics of the tasks in which students need to be involved in while working in small groups are also important…. ill defined tasks rather than well structured tasks for more opportunities to interact. Yet, most of the tasks in the curricula are highly structured.

 The research is clear: collaboration among students enhances learning. However, the potential of collaboration will only be realized if students assign the right kind of tasks to the group, and if teachers teach and guide students in how to engage in effective collaboration.

*M. A. Ruiz-Primo et al., Impact of undergraduate science course innovations on learning. Science, 331, 11 March 2011, pp. 1269-1270.

Maria Araceli Ruiz-Primo, Maria Figueroa, and Maxie Gluckman. Testing a Premise of Inquiry Based Science Instruction: Exploring Small Group Processes and Its Link to Student Learning. Paper presented at the AERA meeting, April 2011

The Common Core Curriculum

In my Spring 2011 course at Washington University titled “The Future of Schools,” we’ve been reading a wide range of studies about the broad shift in the world’s economies to more creative, knowledge based activities. We’ve been reading about the potential impact of technology, particularly the Internet, on schools of the future. The mystery facing all research-based attempts to reform schools is: Why do schools stay the same, year after year and decade after decade, even as new research accumulates? The practice of medicine advances every year, when basic research findings are translated into clinical practice. But the same doesn’t seem to happen with education.

I suspect that everything will stay the same, until suddenly, one day, everything will change. I think it’s impossible to predict exactly when the change will occur. Here’s one new development, in the United States. In the U.S., every one of the 50 states has legal responsibility for public schooling; there is no federal government control of public schools, under the U.S. Constitution. So unlike almost every other country, there is no national curriculum, no national test, and it is very difficult to compare students from one state to the next. In recent years, over 40 states have independently agreed to use the same “common core” standards, which are currently under development. At the same time, the consortium of states is developing a new set of standardized tests, with $330 million of funding from the U.S. Department of Education. And in the New York Times of April 28, 2011, I learned that:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropy, and the foundation associated with Pearson, the giant textbook and school technology company, announced a partnership on Wednesday to create online reading and math courses aligned with the new academic standards…The 24 new courses will use video, interactive software, games, social media and other digital materials to present math lessons for kindergarten through 10th grade and English lessons for kindergarten through 12th grade.

This is fascinating. If the pieces all fall into place, it’s not hard to envision an increasing number of students choosing to opt out of school altogether, and sign up for these online courses. Pearson is planning to market the new courses directly to schools and districts, as a replacement for the textbooks they are currently buying; but I’m sure some parents will wonder, why can’t I just do this at home?

As Richard Halverson and Allan Collins argue in their recent book Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, technological developments like these will continue whether or not schools adapt accordingly. And if they don’t figure out how to respond and adapt to new developments like this, they may become increasingly irrelevant. This would not be good for the future of public schools, and it should concern all of us.

*Sam Dillon, “Foundations Join to Offer Online Courses for Schools.” New York Times, April 28, 2011, p. A18.

Architecture Matters

Architecture matters. A well-designed space can foster more effective learning, and can enhance creativity and collaboration. Two recent data points:

1. I just finished teaching my Spring 2011 classes. In one of them, the senior seminar for our graduating majors in educational studies, one of our books was 21st Century Learning Environments (2006). It was filled with examples of recently built schools that draw on the latest learning sciences research to build spaces that foster positive emotion, safety and security, adaptability, and collaboration. And I’ve just learned of a new book (2009) called Schools for the Future: Design Proposals from Architectural Psychology. It makes similar points: that learning environments should be learner centered, age appropriate, safe, comfortable, flexible, and equitable.

2. I’m intrigued by this idea of “architectural psychology,” and by coincidence, in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer* summarizes recent research on how spaces influence mental states. Just a few recent studies:

  • Sixty white-collar workers were followed at a government facility. They were randomly assigned to work in either an old building, with low ceilings and loud air conditioners, or in a new space with skylights (more natural lighting) and open cubicles (more conversation and collaboration). After 17 months of tracking these two groups, they found that the people working in the old building were more stressed.
  • In 2009, psychologists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) gave people tests in rooms with different colors: red, blue, or neutral. Test-takers in red environments were better at accuracy and attention to detail. Test-takers in blue environments were better on tasks that required imagination and creativity.
  • In 2006, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s school of management found that when people are in a room with a high ceiling, rather than a lower one, they perform better on tasks that require them to make distant associations.

I’ve spent some time studying architecture degree programs in various universities, but I haven’t yet seen a course in “architectural psychology.” I think it would be exciting to teach this research to the architects of tomorrow: particularly those who will be designing the learning environments of the future.

*Jonah Lehrer, “Building a Thinking Room.” WSJ April 30-May 1, 2011, p. C12