Neandertals Were Creative! Or were they?

We still don’t know. Don’t believe the headlines you read about a new scientific study of cave sketches by Neandertals.

The study itself is good, solid science: it demonstrates that Neandertals made rough sketches on cave walls–geometric shapes and stencils of hands. The study was published in the leading journal Science (read the article here). You can read the short version in today’s Wall Street Journal. The problem is with the overblown claims that are made from the findings.

Here’s what happened, and it really is pretty cool. Scientists demonstrated that Neandertals drew on cave walls. The study dated wall sketches of “dots, lines, disks, and hand stencils.” Before this time, we thought that all of those cave sketches were made by our homo sapiens ancestors. In previous studies, the available dating techniques showed that the drawings were made after humans took over Europe from Neandertals. Researchers thought that only homo sapiens could generate a wall sketch. (Previous studies had found some evidence that Neandertals generated visual images, but they’re inconclusive.) The researchers studied ancient cave drawings at three locations in Spain. They were able to date when the sketches were made, using a sensitive dating technique. The wall markings were made 64,000 years ago, long before homo sapiens (that’s us) was anywhere near Spain.

I love the study. But: This isn’t “creative.” It’s not even “art.”

It’s a cool study. You don’t need to make excessive claims that it demonstrates creativity. (Although news reports love it, and the original paper has gotten a lot of media coverage.) The study shows that Neandertals had a limited kind of representational ability. I think most people would agree that making marks on a wall of dots and lines isn’t creative; neither is drawing a line around your hand. Are researchers surprised that Neandertals possess the ability to do this? Not really. There was some evidence for it, but this new evidence is somewhat more convincing.

There’s another limitation of the study: The sketches that the researchers were able to date weren’t weren’t figural. Their study was limited to “dots, lines, disks, and hand stencils.” Most language researchers wouldn’t consider that to be “symbolic” because a symbol is usually thought to have an arbitrary relation to what it references. The word “dog” doesn’t look anything like a dog, and the word for “dog” is very different in other languages. So the word “dog” has an arbitrary relationship to the animal it refers to. With these stencils, a Neandertal placed a hand onto the cave wall, and drew an outline around the hand. That’s not an arbitrary relationship. Most scholars would call that an iconic sign, and that doesn’t require the same cognitive complexity as an arbitrary symbol. Specifically, it’s not enough to support symbolic communication. A Neandertal could draw an outline around his hand, and still not be capable of human language–because language is based in symbolic ability, defined as an arbitrary relationship.

So in sum, here’s the contribution of the study: First, it makes scientists somewhat more convinced that Neandertals could generate images; second, it increases the likelihood that the other more complex drawings in the cave–such as those of animals–were also drawn there by the Neandertals; but they could just have easily have been added there much, much later by homo sapiens. (However, even those animal drawings can’t be called “symbols” because they, too, do not stand in an arbitrary relationship to their referent.)

This is the way science works: Each study is an incremental contribution to our evolving understanding of the world. With this study, we’re more certain about something we suspected might have been true; and, the findings give us more reason to conduct research on a topic, when before, we weren’t as convinced that line of research would be productive. This is an important contribution, but it’s incremental.

Symbolic ability–defined as an arbitrary relationship between sign and referent–is very advanced, cognitively: The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget wrote an entire book, very theoretical and dense, about how symbolic thinking ability emerges in humans during childhood. Take-home message of the book: Learning how to think in symbols is hard and complicated. Don’t take it for granted. (In English the book is titled Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood but in French, it’s called The development of the symbol.)

The WSJ article, and so many other media reports, makes claims that are far beyond this study’s findings. For example, the story falsely says that the study shows Neandertals have “the cognitive capacity for artistic expression.” And the title itself states:

“Neanderthals were creative, studies show”

The headline caught my eye, so it did its job–to draw in readers. If it’s not outright false, it’s certainly misleading. One of the collaborators on the study is quoted in the WSJ article saying “from the point of view of cognition, Neandertals are indistinguishable from humans.” If the study had found evidence of the sort of symbolic ability that enables language, then we’d be more convinced that Neandertals had cognitive ability that’s closer to that of homo sapiens, but the study doesn’t find that. And, it certainly doesn’t find evidence of creativity.


The lead scientist on the study was physicist Dirk Hoffmann, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany. Over 15 scholars participated in the research.

Learning with Robots at UNC

This week in “The Maker Movement and Education,” a UNC undergraduate class taught by Professor Keith Sawyer:

This week the students are exploring how to use programmable robots to help children learn. I asked the students to find a lesson plan activity on line, one that uses one of three robots to help children learn math: OZOBOT Evo, Sphero, and Dash. (The robots are surprisingly affordable, around $100 each, but when you buy enough for 35 students you’re talking a couple of thousand dollars! Thank you to the School of Education for supporting this class!)

Here’s a photo of the OZOBOT Evo, being controlled by the smartphone you see.

Here are a few other photos, with OZOBOT Evo and Sphero Mini:

Carolina’s Maker Class: Using Making To Help Children Learn

My UNC Spring 2018 class, “The maker movement and education,” is turning out to be a lot of fun! If you want to learn about how making stuff contributes to learning, you really have to make things yourself. So I’m guiding my students through a variety of making activities that have been influential in re-visioning schools as places where students create.

In Tuesday’s class, pairs of students created cardboard automata, in a making activity created by the San Francisco Exploratorium Tinkering Workshop, by its founders Mike Petrich and Karen Wilkinson. This cool activity captures the hands-on style of inquiry and creativity that the Exploratorium is famous for. And it brings together artistic creativity with the physics of movement and mechanics–an awesome example of STEAM education.

At the end of class, all of my students placed their creations outside the classroom door–check out this collective creation! I highly recommend this awesome book, that shows educators how to use these same activities in their classes: The Art of Tinkering.


Creativity in the Classroom: Everyone Agrees that We Need More

A new study from Adobe, on the importance of teaching creative problem solving skills, found that educators and policymakers agree that we need to weave creativity throughout the school day, in all subjects.

The study surveyed 2,000 teachers a policymakers from the U.K., Japan, Germany, and the U.S. They all say that creative problem solving is a critical skill, especially because of future workforce needs and careers, and they say what schools need to do to better nurture schools for creativity.

  • 97% of educators say that creative problem solving is important for students to learn
  • 74% of educators, and 76% of policymakers, believe that jobs that require creativity are less likely to be impacted by automation
  • 86% of educators say that students with high creativity skills will have access to higher-earning jobs
  • 69% of educators say that classroom curricula don’t do enough to teach and foster creativity
  • 80% of educators and 67% of policymakers believe that creative problem solving should be integrated into all courses.

The study hasn’t been published yet; keep checking my blog and I’ll let you know more details once the full study is available.

What You Do Afterwards

Creativity is all about what you do afterwards.

I’m thinking about something that Miles Davis said about jazz improvisation:

It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note–it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.

In improvisation, you don’t know what an action means until later. The group creates meaning, by responding and building on that action. This happens all the time in improv theater, and it’s what gives it such creative power. I call it retroactive interpretation. In improv, actors intentionally speak lines of dialogue that are ambiguous, utterances that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Actors do this on purpose–not because they’re lazy thinkers, or they’re just trying to fill up time. Improvising these ambiguous actions takes a lot of creativity. It’s not easy to say something that opens up possibilities for the scene, and doesn’t close down possible futures, but something that also provides enough specifics to drive a scene forward, to give other actors something to work with.  Actors know that the improvised dialogue that follows their action will soon provide a meaning to what they did.

I think this is so fascinating! Imagine: To act, without knowing what your action means. To act, trusting the group to interpret your action later. To act, while you relinquish control over what your own action means.

This isn’t what most of us do in everyday life. When you say something, you own it. You get to say what it means. If someone else interprets it differently, you jump in and correct them. To do improv, you need to completely change the way you approach conversation. You have to give away power and control, to the conversation itself. The conversation creates, not the individual speakers. The conversation takes on a life of its own. Meaning emerges from the collective, sequential, unfolding utterances of each speaker.

In group improvisation, no single person gets to decide what everything means. No single person even gets to decide what their own actions mean. The group creates, not the individual.

Plato: The First Educational Software

It was called Plato, and it was created in the 1960s and 1970s, at the University of Illinois. Even though it was used by tens of thousands of students, all over the U.S., most people have never heard of it. That’s why we need Brian Dear’s new book about Plato, called The Friendly Orange Glow. I was amazed to learn how many ed tech innovations were created first in Plato:

  • flat-panel graphic displays (they displayed only one color, orange, hence the book’s name)
  • touch screens
  • collaboration apps for students to work together
  • online communities
  • multitasking: That means, many people can use the same computer at once–that used to be a serious technical challenge! PLATO was created before the personal computer, so it all ran on “mainframes,” with students using “terminals” (in 2017, it seems like those old-fashioned words need quotation marks!)
  • support for instructors to develop lessons without being programmers
  • remote computer terminals so that students didn’t have to be right next to the computer (which was really big, and behind a glass wall in a “computer room”)
  • PLATO was an open platform, meaning that anyone could build a lesson (foreshadowing today’s open source software)
  • a chat room where users could post messages
  • instant messaging between users
  • an email system

Plato was killed by the growth of the personal computer in the 1980s. Plato was shut down in 1993.

(Plato stands for “Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations”)

Inventor James Dyson on the Creative Process

Billionaire James Dyson is the inventor of the famous vacuum cleaner, the equally famous air-purifying fan, and many other products. In today’s New York Times, he writes about his creative process–and it’s exactly the non-linear, iterative, hard-work process that creativity research has documented in every creative field. Here are his words of advice:

  • His success is due to “perseverance, taking risks, and having a willingness to fail.”
  • “Inventors rarely have ‘eureka’ moments.”
  • “Developing an idea and making it work takes time and patience.”
  • “We fail every day. Failure is the best medicine–as long as you learn something.”

I’m really interested to learn that Dyson is launching his own university in England, called the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology. It’s right where the company is based, in Malmesbury, England. Unlike in the U.S., the U.K. ministry for universities has recently introduced reforms that make it easier for companies to get into education. The minister, Jo Johnson, then suggested that Mr. Dyson should start his own university.

*Weekend confidential, “James Dyson,” by Alexandre Wolfe. New York Times, Sat/Sun, Dec 9-10, p. C11.

The Inventor of Emergence: George Henry Lewes, in 1875

Emergence and complex systems: These concepts are more and more important, with the growth of the Internet, distributed intelligence, social media, and collective consciousness. “Emergence” refers to higher-level phenomena “emerging” from lower-level components, organized into complex systems. For example, mental states — like memory, attention, emotions — are said to emerge from neurons and their interactions. The biological brain is a complex system, with its many components interacting in multiple and different ways.

Today “emergence” is associated with the Internet and social media. But “emergence” isn’t so new, after all. It comes to us from the 19th century. The term “emergence” was coined in 1875 in a book by the British philosopher, George Henry Lewes. The issue at that time was: Why doesn’t all science ultimately reduce to physics? After all, everything in the world is composed of atoms. So the science of atoms and how they interact could, potentially, explain everything. If everything scientific reduced to physics, then all of the other sciences would potentially be unnecessary: biology, chemistry, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, you name it. If that seems wrong today, then it seemed even more wrong in the 19th century, when science was a lot more primitive than now. But you can’t just say it seems wrong; you need a scientific and logical argument for why everything doesn’t reduce to physics.

“Emergence” was the answer to why all science isn’t physics, even though everything in the world is made up of physical stuff. (This is still, basically, the answer of today’s philosophers of science.) In 1875, George Henry Lewes wrote about the difference between mechanical effects (which he called “resultants”) and chemical effects (which he called “emergents”). (Lewes was borrowing from a similar distinction made by John Stuart Mills in 1843.) Lewes’ example of emergence was the combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water. Because water doesn’t have any of the properties of hydrogen or oxygen, its properties were “emergent” from the combination. Contrast that with a steam engine: It’s a complicated system, to be sure, but the properties of the whole system aren’t that different from the properties of the components, the metal, water, and coal that make up the engine’s operation. They are “resultants.”

I tell this history in my 2005 book Social emergence: Societies as complex systems.

You’ve probably already noticed a serious problem with the emergence argument: In 1875, Lewes didn’t know how hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water. But a few years later, scientists were able to explain water, and how the properties of water were explained by hydrogen, oxygen, and their combination. Water doesn’t seem so “emergent” any more. This is why the reductionists, the people that argue that everything can be explained by lower-level sciences, dismiss the emergence argument. Sure, they say, it seems to us that consciousness can’t be explained in terms of neurons and the brain. But just wait a couple of years, a couple of decades, and we’ll see that everything is really just neurons.

I was reminded of G. H. Lewes this weekend, when I read a book review of the new book Reading the Rocks  by Brenda Maddox. The book is about Victorian geologists (it sounds like a snooze-fest, but the review calls it “engaging” and “absorbing” and it sounds like my kind of book!) and it starts with the novelist George Eliot. It turns out that she was a geologist, as well as a novelist. She was introduced to geology by–guess who–George Henry Lewes. They spent vacations together, hammering at rocks.

One sentence in the book review jumped out at me: “Ms. Maddox traces the emergence of geology in Britain during the 19th century.” Emergence is everywhere! But we still don’t know for sure: Does it really happen? Or is it just a figure of speech?


The Maker Movement and Education

New UNC Course for Spring 2018

Course title: The Maker Movement and Education

Instructor: Professor Keith Sawyer

Education research shows that people learn better when they move, they work with their hands, they manipulate objects, and they design and make things. We’ve known this for years, but it’s been very hard to design activities for children where they can move and make, and at the same time learn the required course material. But today that’s changed, thanks to exciting new technologies that bring learning and making together. Today’s parents and teachers can choose from a big variety of research-based toys and software apps that engage children in playing, making, and creating. Libraries, schools, and museums are opening “maker spaces” where children can use tools to create and make their own ideas.

TInkering 3This semester, we’ll learn the research behind these new learning technologies. We’ll learn about the software designers and education experts that design and build them. We’ll learn how to design activities so that children learn while they create with these new technologies, and we’ll learn how teachers and parents can use them effectively. You’ll learn by designing with new technologies, and by engaging with learning sciences research on how and why these activities contribute to learning.

3D printerThis is an active, hands-on course. For most weeks, one of the two classes will be a design studio format, where you work with technology tools to create and design, with critique and feedback from the professor and your peers. In the second class, we’ll learn the research in the learning sciences, about what works best and why these designs work.

In this class, we will:

  • Learn the research on how children learn
  • Learn how to design research-based learning environments for children
  • Learn about the new toys, robots, and programmable objects that are designed to help children learn
  • Experiment, create, and make things with these same new technologies, to experience how children engage with and learn from these devices, tools, and apps
  • Learn how to design learning environments that incorporate these new technologies, in activities that are aligned with the science of learning, so that making and designing leads to the desired learning outcomes

Ozobot on pageHere are some examples of the learning technologies we may study in Spring 2018. These are current as of Fall 2017, but this is a fast-moving area, and new technologies and toys are released all the time. The course will change to keep up. Here are examples of what we might be studying and designing: Dot and Dash, Ozobot, Arduino, Hummingbird, Lilypad, Virtual Reality, 3D printing, the Scratch and Blockly visual programming tools, Sphero, the Looking Glass story animation tool, wire-framing user interface tools…

Tuesday and Thursday, 12:30 to 1:45

Undergrad: EDUC 390-002

Grad: EDUC 790-002

No programming experience is required. Anyone can take this course! As long as you’re open and ready to learn, and you’re comfortable experimenting with new apps and robot toys. (Keep in mind, these are all designed for kids in middle school and younger!)



snap circuits




Where Entrepreneurs Have Ideas

Where do successful entrepreneurs get their best creative ideas? Molly Reynolds* interviewed some entrepreneurs to find out. Here are my favorites :

  • John Goodman, John Goodman PR: Takes a three-hour walk and that’s “when I have my best creative ideas. My head de-clutters, and I start thinking clearly.”
  • Kat Quinzel, Cash Cow: “I get my best ideas when I’m making food. I think it’s because I tend to forget about everything else.”
  • Bian Li, The Hungry Lab: His ideas come while scuba diving.
  • Allen Klein, author/speaker: “my best ideas come from times when I’m walking my dog.”
  • Lisa Kipps-Brown, Glerin Business Resources: “I get my best ideas when mowing the grass with a push mower.”

These stories align with creativity research. Researchers have found that ideas are more likely to come when you take time off from your hard work. We call it incubation. It often happens when you’re doing something physical, like walking or cooking. (Warning! It only happens if you’ve worked hard and long before you take this time off.)

*Molly Reynolds, Kiplinger news service, “Inspiration points: Entrepreneurs reveal what sparks their creativity.” July 2017.