The Key to Spontaneity is Practice

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

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

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

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!