Cultivating Creativity

I’m in Washington DC, at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Education. This morning’s final session brought together four famous scholars to discuss a critical question: How to cultivate creativity?

The first to speak was Shirley Brice Heath (Stanford) who is famous for her 30-year study tracking several working class white and black families in a rural region. When she started the study, her subjects were children; now they’re all grown. She talked about those people who’d done creative things in life, and what those same people had been like way back in childhood. The most important trait was courage, the decision to take an action and not worry about the risks. Yes, some of the children took unwise risks and got in trouble; but the ones who thrived looked at their community and looked for what needed to be done. Their creativity was rarely about making a product; instead, they created nonprofit and volunteer organizations and websites.

Robert J. Sternberg (Oklahoma State) spoke next, and told a personal story about various decisions he’d made during his career– decisions that were difficult, decisions that his mentors told him were not wise. He described the problems that arose from each; for example, when he chose to shift from studying intelligence to studying romantic relationships, his colleagues thought he was no longer a serious scholar, no longer a “real” cognitive psychologist; funding agencies didn’t fund his work. Again, it seemed the key theme was courage.

Ellen Winner (Boston College) talked about her study of high school art classes, and the eight “habits of mind” that the teachers try to foster in their students. The one she focused on was “stretch/expand,” when teachers asked students things like “How could you do this differently?” or “Why don’t you try it with this other material?” What I love about this research is that it suggests we might try doing the same things in non-art classes–even in math, science, or engineering.

Howard Gardner presented his own guiding framework for creativity: arguing that it involves not only the individual who generates a new product, but also the domain of existing knowledge and practice, and the field of experts, gatekeepers, and teachers. (He gave a shout out to Mike Csikszentmihalyi, who first proposed this “systems model” in the 1980s.) I was delighted when he suggested updating the model to reflect how creativity has changed: first, it’s not only individuals that generate products; nowadays it’s often collaborative teams. Second, the mediating role of the field is becoming more complex, as Web 2.0 and the Internet result in “disintermediation” and a reduction in the power held by traditional gatekeepers.

The ensuing discussion was insightful and, in many ways, surprisingly personal. Many of these luminaries spoke about their own childhoods and their own careers; most were critical of traditional schools and of standardized tests. Sternberg, who is perhaps the most widely published psych0logist in the world, and a past president of the American Psychological Association, reported that he did badly on an IQ test in first grade, and for the next three years his teachers thought he wasn’t that smart. In college, he got a C in his Introduction to Psychology course. His phenomenal success as a psychologist make it clear that the problem was with the school, not with Sternberg.

The panel ended, unfortunately, without solving all of the world’s problems 🙂 but for me personally, this auditorium at George Washington University was the place to be on Saturday, October 29, 2011.

Computers and Learning

Do computers help children learn? Should schools invest in technology, or spend the same money on other things–like smaller class size or higher teacher salaries? For several decades, in the U.S. and most other countries, the answer to these questions seemed obvious: Of course we absolutely must have computers in schools. Why? Because everyone knows we’re in the age of computers, the age of the Internet, and we’d be irresponsible not to prepare our children to be tech savvy.

But there have always been contrarians, like education expert and Stanford professor Larry Cuban in his famous 2003 book Oversold and Underused. And in the last couple of months, I’ve seen three different high-profile cover articles in the New York Times that cast doubts about computers in schools (all of them by reporter Matt Richtel).

The first was by Matt Richtel on 3 September, 2011, titled “In classroom of future, stagnant scores.” Richtel visited schools in the Kyrene School District in Chandler, Arizona, a district that bought big into technology. All classrooms have plenty of laptops, big interactive screens, and educational software for every subject. Since 2005, the district has spent $33 million on this initiative. The goal aligns with the best learning sciences research: To transform the classroom itself, away from an older model of the teacher delivering information to students with a lecture–“the sage on the stage” to a newer, research-based model where the teacher guides students as they learn at their own pace–“the guide on the side.”

Teachers and parents love it. The National School Boards Association trumpets Kyrene as a model to follow. But there’s a problem: Richtel reports that test scores in reading and math haven’t gone up at all. Does this mean they just wasted $33 million? And this year they’re going back to the voters for an additional $46.3 million over the next seven years. Richtel interviewed Stanford professor Larry Cuban, who told him “There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period.” But Richtel also describes large studies showing a technology benefit, and points out that the Kyrene test scores were already pretty high so they couldn’t really go much higher (researchers call that a “ceiling effect”).

The second, published by Richtel with co-author Trip Gabriel on 8 October, criticized one of the best selling software applications to emerge from university education research: Carnegie Tutors. The article cites a variety of studies, some showing that their “math tutor” improves outcomes, others showing that it works no better than old-fashioned teachers with blackboards.

The third, published 22 October, describes an exclusive private Waldorf school in Lost Altos, California, a neighborhood known for its tech millionaires. Students include the children of eBay’s CTO, and children of people at Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett-Packard. Yet the school doesn’t have any computers in any classrooms. And furthermore, it doesn’t even allow computers in the school (and advises its students not to use them at home, either). Richtel interviews these high tech titans, who say things like “My kid can pick up computers in a couple of days when they’re teenagers. Now they need to learn more important stuff.”

So, we know where Matt Richtel stands: with Larry Cuban and the techno skeptics. I agree we should all be skeptical. But the issue isn’t computers or no computers; the issue is, how can we design learning environments that foster the deep learning, the creative potential, required in the 21st century? The new sciences of learning are just now beginning provide the answer: the best learning environment is responsive, moment to moment, to each student’s pace of development. The best learning environment helps students articulate their developing understandings, and to externally represent that understanding. The best learning environment provides immediate and substantive feedback. And unfortunately, many of these things are impossible for even the most talented teacher to provide in a class of 30 students (or even 15, or 10, students).

My take on the current situation is that we don’t yet have the right educational software, software that’s grounded in this science of learning. Software that brings learners together through networks, guiding their communications for example, so that they learn better how to engage in academic discourse and productive argumentation. Software that allows students to develop sophisticated scientific visualizations of fairly complex concepts, even with only a middle schooler’s abilities.

To get there from here, it will take a while. Yes, computers and software cost money. And yes, as Richtel points out in these articles, there are for-profit businesses out there who are spinning the studies to sell as much product as they can. My colleagues in the learning sciences have to be aware of this broader picture…why should a school spend more money and yet get the same results? We need a national effort to connect research on learning with these big policy and economic issues.

I admire Waldorf schools; I’m a big fan. But like Montessori schools, there is a sort of cultish element that tends to prevent them from changing. Because Maria Montessori didn’t advocate the use of computers, Montessori schools don’t use them. Of course, Montessori died before personal computers existed, but that seems not to matter: Montessori schools still use the same manipulatives that Montessori herself developed well over 50 years ago. We’ve learned a lot about how children learn since then; I always wonder why Montessori methods, or Waldorf methods, never change in spite of contemporary research.

And I admire schools like Kyrene. The administrators there have true vision. Vision, as the old quotation has it, is “Shooting at the target no one else can see–and hitting it.” So maybe at first, you shoot at it and miss. But with each shot you’ll get closer. If you don’t even try, you’ll never hit the target.

1. Richtel, “In classrooms of future, stagnant scores.” New York Times Sep 3, 2011.

2. Gabriel and Richtel, “Inflating the software report card” New York Times Oct 8, 2011.

3. Richtel, “A Silicon Valley school that doesn’t compute” New York Times Oct 23, 2011.

Wall Street Journal Innovation Awards

Today’s WSJ (Monday October 17, 2011) has a special section reporting their 2011 annual Technology Innovation Awards. From 605 applications, a panel of judges chose 35 winners and runners-up in 16 categories. 

Award winners that impressed me included:

  • IBM’s Watson computer winning at Jeopardy against two world champions (Watson won the bronze award)
  • E Ink, the company that made the “electronic paper” used in Amazon’s Kindle, has a new color version of their e-paper (it will be used in an e-reader built by Hanvon Technologies to ship later this month)
  • Abbott Laboratories has developed a stent that’s reabsorbed into the vessel once it’s no longer needed
  • Streetline Inc. developed an app for smartphones and in-car navigation systems that shows you where to find a parking spot nearby

I also like the story about what happened to award winners from years past. Many of them have been quite successful commercially, but the Tata Nano (2008 award winner) is one that hasn’t fared so well, with sales dropping.

I also enjoyed reading the story about how to be more creative by David Kelley, one of the founders of the IDEO design firm (p. R5). There’s an insert about the new book The Innovator’s DNA that interviewed 100 innovative entrepreneurs and executives to identify five key skills of innovators: associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. These are consistent with the psychological research in my field (although I would add several more to the list).

Also in today’s issue, on page B7 is a great story about how companies can foster creativity and innovation by tapping into the creativity of everyone in the company, by gathering their many ideas together in ways kind of like the traditional suggestion box, but far more sophisticated (and much more likely to get to senior management and to get implemented). This is exactly what I advocate in my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, as a powerful technique to harness the collaborative power of everyone in an organization.

Do You Need a Coach? (Yes)

I love this recent New Yorker article by surgeon Atul Gawande. It’s called “Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?”  He tells his own personal story about how, at the peak of a long career as a successful surgeon, he decided to invite Robert Osteen, one of his old medical school professors (long since retired from practice) to watch him perform surgery and offer suggestions, basically to be his surgery coach. The first time Osteen sat in on a surgery, Gawande thought it had gone exceptionally well. And because it was a procedure that Osteen wasn’t familiar with, he was pretty sure Osteen wouldn’t have much to say. But when they sat down to talk afterwards, Gawande saw that Osteen’s notepad was dense with observations, and he had a lot of small things Gawande could have been doing better.

If a top surgeon can benefit, then why not the rest of us? A lot of Gawande’s article is about improving teacher quality. Gawande reports that when a new teaching technique is introduced by a coach–a colleage who watched them try the new technique, and then offered suggestions afterwards–90 percent of teachers adopted the new technique. Without a coach, the adoption rate never passed 20 percent!

Many districts are beginning to offer coaches to their teachers. For the most part, only the very new teachers ask for it; the experienced teachers think they are already pretty good. (But note that even Gawande, who was pretty good, learned a lot from his coach.) And some teachers get really nervous about being watched; they worry that the coach is really working for the school administration, and that the coach report will go in their personnel file. (Coaching doesn’t work unless the coach works for the professional, not for the boss.)

Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components….Elite performers…must engage in “deliberate practice”–sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. (p. 49)

The New Yorker, October 3, 2011.