Keep Creativity Alive in Children

I just stumbled on a fascinating essay about creativity in schools. It could have been written yesterday! Read to the end to find out who the famous author is, and what year it was written:

How can we keep creativity alive in children?

Creative children are likely to be unusual children. They get bored with the idea of Jack’s always going up the hill with Jill. They do not accept things as they are; they do not easily settle down to their lessons as they are given to them.

The good teacher may be genuinely searching for creativity in her pupils. But she is continually defeated in her efforts by the demands of her supervisor, the politics of the local school system, the lack of space, the lack of materials, the lack of assistance, the size of the class. Given these obstacles, she is unprepared to cope with the child who uses his creativity to defeat her. The child who constructs questions that will arouse the boys to raucous laughter, whose raised hand she must therefore distrust; the child who invents secret clubs and ciphers and signals and ceremonies that turn the classroom into something strange and unpredictable.

We fail to see obstructiveness as an aspect of creativity. The teacher cannot risk disrupting the precarious balance of her overcrowded classroom. The best teacher has little time or energy for any kind of creativity, and none for the disruptive sort. But we can remedy these things quite easily and inexpensively. We can build enough schools. We can hire clerks and janitors and guards to take much of the burdensome load off the teacher’s back. We can pay our teachers well enough to keep as teachers all those who really want to teach.

We want people who are original, creative, spontaneous, innovative. But we want them to be produced by teachers whom we condemn in a hundred ways to be overworked and uninspired, unrespected and underpaid. We would like the children of America to be creative, to learn about creativity, while we make the best change they have to learn, to respond to teaching, as uncreative as possible. There is only one sure way to develop creativity in all the different kinds of children in schools. We must cherish the creativity of all those who have elected to become teachers because they want to teach.

If we are to give more than lip service to creativity in children, we must actively support the creativity of the teacher. We must come to recognize fully the creativity of good teaching.

Year: 1962

Author: Anthropologist Margaret Mead, author of the famous book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928)

This article was published as “Where education fits in” in Think magazine, Nov-Dec 1962, pp. 16-21.

Teaching is an Art (John Dewey)

I’m re-reading John Dewey’s 1934 book Art as experience in connection with an article I’m writing. This passage, near the end (p. 347), jumped out at me:

It is by way of communication that art becomes the incomparable organ of instruction, but the way is so remote from that usually associated with the idea of education, it is a way that lifts art so far above what we are accustomed to think of as instruction, that we are repelled by any suggestion of teaching and learning in connection with art. But our revolt is in fact a reflection upon education that proceeds by methods so literal as to exclude the imagination and one not touching the desires and emotions of men.

In the first 346 pages of his book, Dewey argues that art is an experience that a person has while interacting with an artwork. It is not the object, the work of art; it’s the interactive experience. Great teaching is interactive and improvisational, and when it’s effective, the interaction has the characteristics that Dewey calls “aesthetic experience.”

The Brick Test: The Most Unusual Use EVER

One of the oldest tests for creativity is the “brick test.” It originated in the 1950s, and it’s pretty simple: Take five minutes, and write down as many uses as you can think of for a brick. It’s called a divergent thinking  test, which means it measures your ability to generate lots of ideas. And, you get extra points if your list has brick uses that most other people don’t think of. These are called unusual uses.

My wife and I had an interesting experience with bricks recently, and it confirms a central finding of creativity research: The more knowledgeable you are about something, the more likely you are to be creative with it. Even bricks.

Here’s how it happened. For some reason, the house we’re renting has a big stack of red bricks in the back.

WP_20160131_001After a few months, my wife and I started thinking of ways use the bricks. The first was when my wife volunteered to organize the annual Halloween dance at my 11-year-old son’s school. To decorate the school gymnasium, she bought some large inflatable witches and scary monsters. They were over ten feet high. But they’re light and unstable, and they fall over really easily (especially with kids dancing around). The solution? Bricks to weigh them down. But, young children could bump their toes on a brick and get hurt. So, wrap each brick in bubble wrap.

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Here’s another use. We had an ice storm recently, so we got our generator ready just in case we lost power. To make sure all of the fuel would flow into the engine, we need to tilt the generator. A red brick is just what we needed: WP_20160131_003

 

 

 

 

A third use: At Christmas, my wife arranges a display of Christmas village buildings. She wanted the houses in the back of the display to be elevated. Bricks work great:

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I saved for last the most unusual use EVER for a brick. Drum roll please! I recently started repairing accordions. One of the first tools you need is a test bellows. You find an old accordion bellows, put boards to seal up both ends, and drill a tiny hole in the middle. You use this to direct air at one selected note in a reed block. To make the bellows work, I needed something really heavy inside, to hold down the bottom board. Here’s mine, with a red brick inside. (It’s so unusual it probably doesn’t make sense unless you repair accordions). Here it is:

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Here are a few more uses. I’m sure we’ll think of more soon. “Necessity is the mother of invention”–necessity, plus a pile of bricks.

 

 

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ZIG ZAG Creativity Cards Now Available!

card-fan

December 15, 2015

I’m excited to announce the release of the ZIG ZAG Creativity Cards!

The card deck has 48 cards, and each one has a different creativity exercise. There are also four cards that describe how to use the cards alone, in groups, and when you’re facilitating a workshop.

The cards are perfect for everyday use. You can do each technique in a few minutes, and use the cards throughout your day. The card deck comes in a hard plastic case so you can take it everywhere (cardboard boxes fall apart pretty fast). It’s time for a new set of creativity techniques that’s practical for everyday use, with exercises that are grounded in the latest creativity research.

The 48 techniques are taken from the book ZIG ZAG: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. They’re grouped into the eight stages of the creative process:

  1. Ask: how to ask the right question
  2. Learn: prepare your mind
  3. Look: spot the answers around you
  4. Play: imagine possible worlds
  5. Think: how to have great ideas
  6. Fuse: how to combine ideas
  7. Choose: make good ideas even better
  8. Make: make your ideas visible

The 8 stages are based on creativity research (for a summary of the research, see my creativity textbook, Explaining Creativity.) ZIG ZAG  is a practical, hands-on application of that research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are two sample cards, with their techniques. If you’d like to see more cards, the card deck web site has a Daily Creativity Card that changes every day.

Card ASK 5

 

ASK is the first step toward greater creativity. Each of the 8 stages has its own color, and has six cards numbered 1 to 6. The six ASK cards help you make sure that you’ve identified the right problem. (This one is number 5.) Often when you’re stumped, and you can’t think of a solution, it turns out you’re asking the wrong question. (Kudos to artist Robert Cori for the illustrations, and to Nyla Smith for the graphic design.)

 

 

 

Card LEARN 6

 

 

The third step is LEARN, preparing yourself for creativity by filling your mind with a variety of information. I love to learn a little bit about lots of different things! It doesn’t take long to learn to juggle, or to play the harmonica. In the past year, I’ve been teaching myself how to repair old accordions! (And yes, I’m still a dilettante, you shouldn’t trust me with your accordion.)

 

 

 

 

The card deck is available from Amazon.com for $19.95. Visit the card deck web site, www.zzdeck.com, for more techniques and games–for individuals, teams, and workshop facilitation.

Inventing a Language

Here’s a topic that’s ripe for creativity research: constructed languages, or “conlang” for short.

This week I read two articles about conlangs. The first was a book review in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, of David Peterson’s new book The Art of Language Invention. The second was a book chapter, “Constructed Languages,” by Douglas Ball, in a book that I also have a chapter in: The Routledge Handbook of Language and Creativity.

The oldest conlang that you’ve heard of is probably Esperanto–created in 1887 by Polish physician L. L. Zamenhof to promote international peace through mutual understanding. It’s known as an “international auxiliary language” or auxlang. (Esperanto was preceded by Volapuk, created in 1879 by a German priest, Johann Schleyer.)

Most conlangs have been created as part of a work of fiction. The oldest are those created by J. R. R. Tolkien, included Sindarin, the language of the Elves in his imaginary world. Probably the most famous today is Klingon, from Star Trek— widely known because of the hit TV comedy Big Bang Theory, where the geeky lead characters demonstrate their geek cred by speaking Klingon. (I heard Klingon spoken when I was a student at MIT decades ago; yes, it’s really geeky!) Peterson’s book also describes Dothraki, created for Game of Thrones, which Peterson himself extended from a version originally created by novelist George Martin. Princess Leia spoke a conlang with Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. Peterson created an elvish language for the movie Thor  and also worked on the Syfy channel’s Defiance  (creating Castithan, Irathient, and Indojisnen).  Avatar  used the conlang Na’vi (created by Professor Paul Frommer); The Land of the Lost  used Pakuni, created by linguist Victoria Fromkin; and Dark Skies  used Thhtmaa, created by linguist Matt Pearson.

Peterson’s book focuses on the languages he created for movies, but Douglas Ball’s book chapter says a lot more about historical and social background. Ball discusses “engineered languages” or engelang, like Loglan, created in the 1950s by James Cooke Brown to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis–that different languages result in different thought patterns. (Other engelangs include Lojban and Laadan.) Other conlangs are designed to have aesthetic qualities, and these are known as “artistic languages” or artlangs.

Ball goes way, way, back, to the first recorded conlang, Lingua Ignota, created in the 12th century by Hildegard von Bingen. In the 17th century, conlangs were downright trendy–it seems every famous scholar had one, including Descartes and Leibniz.

My favorite conlang is Solresol, which is based in the idea that music is the universal language. The basic syllables of the language are the seven pitches of the Western diatonic scale (referred to by their French names, since this was created in 1827 by Frenchman Jean-Francois Sudre). Here’s an example:

dore mifala disofare re dosiresi. (Which means 1SG desire beer and pastry–> I want some beer and a pastry.)

Ball’s chapter describes the online conlang community, including the Conlang Mailing List and the Conlang Relay (an insider game for conlangers). Then, he gets to the interesting linguistic and creativity stuff: How do these languages get created? What options do creators have? Which languages are successful, and why? How do you create a lexicon and syntax? And then, a really big question:

Is conlanging an art?

His answer:

Even if conlanging is to be considered an art, it seems as though it must be regarded as a niche creative endeavor, since its consumption is not straightforward.

These books just scratch the surface of a fascinating creative activity. Conlanging would be a great research topic for creativity researchers to pursue.

To learn more:

Douglas Ball, “Constructed languages.” In The Routledge handbook of language and creativity, 2015, edited by Rodney H. Jones.

Henry Hitchings, review of Peterson: “Mastering Dothraki”. WSJ, October 3-4, 2015, p. C6

David J. Peterson, The art of language invention. Penguin.

What Criminals Can Teach Us About Creativity

A few weeks ago, I posed the question “Is Creativity Research Elitist?”. I pointed out that creativity researchers have studied high-class Western European creativity, but they’ve neglected working class creativity–like custom motorcycle mechanics, or small-town preachers writing sermons.

Right on cue, a new book’s just been published making basically the same point. The Misfit Economy argues that criminals can teach us a lot about creativity: pirates, hackers, gangsters, and prisoners. Here’s what their web site says:

What do pirates, terrorists, computer hackers and inner city gangs have in common with Silicon Valley? Innovation. Across the globe, diverse innovators operating in the black and gray economies are developing solutions to a myriad of challenges. Far from being “deviant entrepreneurs” that pose threats to our social and economic stability, these innovators display remarkable ingenuity, pioneering original methods and best practices that we can learn from and apply in our own worlds. The Misfit Economy seeks to unveil and leverage this new well-spring of ingenuity. Join us in exploring the dark side of innovation.

The book describes the creativity of Somali pirates, Amish camel-milkers (?), and moonshine bootleggers. But you won’t find studies of them in the creativity academic journals. I think it’s the same reason we don’t study small-town ministers–they aren’t elite enough. (I’m guilty, too–right now I’m studying fine art painters and elite designers.)

Most creativity researchers have defined creativity as a new product that’s both novel and also valued by society. In the latest issue of the Creativity Research Journal, Robert Weisberg argues that researchers should define creativity without requiring that the product be valued by society.* If creativity researchers take this to heart, then we should start studying working class creativity and criminal creativity. Otherwise, we risk publishing findings and developing theories that only apply to upper-middle class people. Speaking as a psychologist, I think it’s obvious that all these forms of creativity are based in creative mental processes and behaviors. So as a scholarly community, we need to do additional research to confirm that our research claims aren’t limited to educated elites.

*My own definition of individual creativity, unlike most of my colleagues, doesn’t include “value,” and for some of the same reasons that Weisberg uses (see my book Explaining Creativity).

The Invisible Creativity You See Every Day

Typeface design: Decades ago, it was a little-known part of the printing industry. Then starting with the Apple Macintosh in 1984, we’re all now intimate with typefaces like Palatino, Verdano, and Times New Roman. We all know what serifs are; we know the difference between a typeface and a font.

On June 9, 2015, The New York Times reported that the most influential type designer has died: Hermann Zapf. He designed over 200 typefaces, including Palatino (used in the corporate logo of Abercrombie and Fitch), Optima (the letters used in the names on Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial), Mellor, and Dingbats. He created typefaces in Latin, Cyrillic and Arabic. From the Times obituary:

Mr. Zapf’s genius lay in his solutions to the central problem that type designers, like industrial designers, face: expressing creativity while being circumscribed by practicality.

Art critic Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times, “It doesn’t take long to realize that his career demonstrates the combination of natural (probably prodigious) talent, early achievement and continued growth and innovation that we demand of major artists.”

Creating with constraints, that’s true genius. I realize I need to pay more attention, as I go through every day, to the invisible creativity all around me.

 

Is Creativity Research Elitist?

I’m beginning to think that creativity research is elitist.

Exhibit A: The most prominent historical studies of creativity focus on high-status individuals: top art schools, Nobel-prize winning scientists; corporate CEOs. Howard Gardner’s book on creativity studied Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi.

Exhibit B: Simon Kyaga’s highly publicized studies (2011, 2012) about creativity and mental illness defined creative people from an elitist perspective: anyone from one of these occupations: university teachers, visual artists, photographers, designers, display artists, performing artists, composers and musicians, and authors.

We’ve failed to study some of the most creative people, and I think it’s because they don’t have high social status. Four times, I’m going to name a creative profession that’s associated with the elite and that’s also studied by creativity researchers. Then, I’ll compare it to an even more creative profession that creativity researchers have never studied. I think we haven’t studied them because they’re not elite professions.

  • Stage actors: compared with children’s party clowns. I’d be the first to agree that actors are highly skilled. But they’re basically reading from a script, and following director’s instructions. Compare that to a person who hires herself out every weekend as a clown, for children’s birthday parties. That person has to create their own facial makeup and costume; their own name and persona. They have to decide on a set of interactive and fun activities that correspond to the ages of the children at that particular event; they have to interact and respond, in the moment, to unexpected developments and children’s personalities. Lots of creativity researchers have studied Broadway stage actors. But has anyone studied party clowns? No.
  • Ballet dancers: compared with football cheerleaders. As with actors, elite ballet dancers are highly skilled. But they’re basically following choreography that was created hundreds of years ago. Compare that to a team of cheerleaders performing at a high school or college football game. The team’s routines are often designed collaboratively by the cheerleaders themselves. They have to decide when, in each game, is the best time to execute a specific routine. Lots of creativity researchers have included ballet dancers in their studies. But has anyone ever studied cheerleaders? No.
  • Musicians: compared to vintage motorcycle mechanics. I myself am a highly trained classical pianist, so I’m talking about myself here: performing sheet music does not require creativity. Contrast this to vintage motorcycle repair: I own a 1982 BMW motorcycle, and I recently took it into a legendary mechanic here in North Carolina. Watching him take apart and analyze my motorcycle, I saw a very high level of creativity. Every one of these old motorcycles is slightly different, and every one has its own set of unique problems. (I highly recommend the book Shop Class as Soul Craft, it’s a brilliant discussion of this work.) Lots of creativity researchers have studied violinists and pianists. But has anyone studied the creativity of engine mechanics? No.
  • Writers of novels and short stories: Compared to ministers who write Sunday sermons. In contrast to the first three occupations, being a fiction writer requires creativity. But imagine the church minister who has to compose an original sermon (and most likely prayers as well) every Sunday. Each sermon involves great creativity. Lots of creativity researchers have studied novelists. But has anyone ever studied the creativity of ministers? No.

This pattern disturbs me, because I’ve seen it lead to bad science and faulty findings. Look back to Exhibit B: the Kyaga studies that defined creativity by occupation and their list of “creative occupations”: They’re all upper-class, high status professions. Kyaga found that these “creative” occupations were correlated with a higher rate of mental illness. But as every undergraduate learns in statistics, “correlation is not causation.” Maybe Kyaga just discovered that educated, upper-class people are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Andreasen argued that writers are more likely to be mentally ill than non-writers. Here’s a thought experiment: How many of you believe that church ministers are more likely to have a mental illness than an accountant?

I don’t know where we should go from here. I just wanted to start the discussion. Have you noticed this pattern in creativity research? Is it because elitism is embedded in our cultural conceptions of what counts as creative? Do you think it’s a problem?

How To Fly a Horse: Another Book on Creativity

I really enjoyed a new book on creativity, How To Fly a Horse, by Kevin Ashton. He echoes what I’ve been saying for the last ten years:

  • The flash of insight is a myth;
  • Instead, creativity emerges from many small sparks, that occur over time.
  • Creativity comes from hard work over a sustained period of time so that these successive small sparks lead to successful innovation.
  • All of this is great news, because it means that everyone has the potential to be creative–because it’s not about geniuses being blessed with divine inspiration, it’s about putting in the time and the work.

I have a minor quibble with Ashton’s subtitle, “The secret history of creation, invention, and discovery” because Ashton’s main reveal is not a secret any more. It’s conventional wisdom. For example, two recent books by Steven Johnson (2010) and Walter Isaacson (2014) make the same point, and tell many of the same stories. A lot of what appears in Ashton’s book is in my 2007 book Group Genius or my 2012 book Explaining Creativity. (His title, about flying a horse, refers to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903; I start the first page of Group Genius with this story.) But still, Ashton is a great scholarly detective. His book is the only place I’ve seen, other than my 2012 book, the debunking of the myths about Archimedes in the bathtub shouting Eureka, about Mozart composing musical pieces in whole cloth, about Coleridge writing Kubla Khan in an opium daze, about Kekule coming up with the benzene ring structure in a dream…actually, maybe Ashton just read my 2012 debunking blog post here (or Ashton could have gotten the real stories from my 2012 Explaining Creativity, which he cites in his references but otherwise doesn’t mention).

This is a well written book, and in addition to the familiar creativity stories and research, I learned some things I didn’t know, like this factoid: You know how we use a light bulb over someone’s head to show they’re having a sudden flash of insight? That image was first used in a 1919 animated film short with Felix the Cat.

I like the book, but if you’re not a creativity nerd like me, and you’re looking for one book to enlighten you about creativity, this isn’t the best book to read to increase your creativity. One weakness is that it’s a series of stories without any guiding structure, without an easy to remember set of practical advice, and without take-home messages. There’s one single message (which I agree with) and it’s that creativity isn’t a genius flash of insight; it’s a series of small sparks that emerge from hard work. But that’s not really new any more.

Here’s what I wrote in my 2007 book Group Genius:

We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth. Innovation always emerges from a series of sparks–never a single flash of insight. (p. 7) Creativity is based in everyday thought. There’s no magical moment of insight, no mysterious subconscious incubation working. (p. 97)

I love that Ashton calls the creative process a “maze” with many steps (p. 64); in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity I developed a very similar visual metaphor, the zig zag:

Creativity does not descend like a bolt of lightning that lights up the world in a single, brilliant flash. It comes in tiny steps, bits of insight, and incremental changes. Zigs and zags. (p. 2)

I wish Ashton had channeled his talent for storytelling with more structure, and had organized his historical material into themes. That would have helped him provide practical advice for the reader. But if you’re a creativity nerd, you need to read this book. There’s a lot of familiar material here (Karl Duncker, the Wright Brothers, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, brainstorming research, Gregor Mendel, Louis Terman, Teresa Amabile…) but a lot of intriguing new stories, as well.

Vygotsky on Collective Creativity

I just re-read a classic article about creativity, written almost 100 years ago by the legendary Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s theory–that innovations emerge from social networks and collaborative groups–has been supported by decades of research. Here are a few choice quotations:

Our everyday understanding of creativity does not fully conform to the scientific understanding of this word. In our everyday understanding, creativity is the realm of a few select individuals, geniuses, talented people. This view is incorrect. Creativity is present whenever a person imagines and creates something new, no matter how small a drop in the bucket this new thing appears. Collective creativity combines all these drops of individual creativity that are insignificant in themselves. This is why an enormous percentage of what has been created by humanity is a product of the anonymous collective creative work of unknown inventors. (pp. 10-11)

Everything the imagination creates is always based on elements taken from reality, from a person’s previous experience. The most fantastic creations are nothing other than a new combination of elements that have ultimately been extracted from reality. (p. 13)

The first law of creativity: The act of imagination depends directly on the richness and variety of a person’s previous experience because this experience provides the material from which the products of creativity are constructed. The richer a person’s experience, the richer is the material his imagination has access to. Great works and discoveries are always the result of an enormous amount of previously accumulated experience. The implication of this for education is that, if we want to build a relatively strong foundation for a child’s creativity, what we must do is broaden the experiences we provide him with. (pp. 14-15)

Every inventor, even a genius, is a product of his time and his environment. His creations arise from needs that were created before him. No invention can occur before the material and psychological conditions necessary for it to occur have appeared. Creation is a historical, cumulative process where every succeeding manifestation was determined by the preceding one. (p. 30)

The right kind of education involves awakening in the child what already exists within him, helping him to develop it and directing this development in a particular direction. (p. 51)

In conclusion, I emphasize the importance of cultivating creativity in school. The entire future of humanity will be attained through creativity. Because the main objective of school is to prepare them for the future, the development and practice of creativity should be one of the main goals of education.

Vygotsky’s view is exactly what contemporary research on innovation and creativity has found, as captured in my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. (And, more recently, in Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators.)

* Vygotsky, “Imagination and creativity in childhood.” Journal of Russian and East European Psychology Vol. 42 No. 1.