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 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




The Creative Spark

Here’s a great new book by Agustin Fuentes, The Creative Spark. He starts with a pretty standard claim: that compared to all other animals, including our close primate relatives, creativity is what makes humans special. But what’s new here is that Fuentes says that it’s not just creativity–it’s creativity combined with social collaboration. I make a similar argument in my book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration–that collaboration drives all creativity.

Here are some of Fuentes’ statements:

Our humanness can be attributed to our ancestor’s collaborative creativity.


The spark of creativity emerges from the way that our ancestors made social lives and social innovations central.


Science is rooted in deep patterns of human creativity and collaboration.

This is great stuff!

Note: in the quotations I’ve drawn on paraphrases from a book review by David Barash, in the WSJ July 22-23 2017.


The One Device: A New Book about the iPhone

Brian Merchant’s new book, The One Device, has gotten a lot of media attention, including this review in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a compelling story–and an exhaustive one; maybe the book has too many details–but if you really really want to know everything about the iPhone, this is the book for you.

In any book about innovation, the first thing that I look for is to see if the author debunks the “lone genius” myths that we’ve heard so many times. According to endless media reports, Steve Jobs is the classic lone genius. He’s a loner, he dropped out of college, he comes up with an inspired vision and insists that everyone follow through, without compromise.

There’s a bit of truth in every myth, I suppose. But basically, the idea that Steve Jobs is a brilliant, visionary, lone genius is exaggerated, if not completely wrong. The details in Merchant’s book debunk the lone genius myth. He provides details about the many people who came up with the small creative insights that made the iPhone happen. Often, these people worked without Job’s involvement, and sometimes without his knowledge.

None of Apple’s three products–the Mac, iPod, and iPhone–were original. (Although they were improvements to what existed at the time.) With the ten-year anniversary of the iPhone, I keep thinking of how everyone’s forgotten about the Palm Pilot. Five years before the iPhone, I was checking my email, surfing the Internet, and downloading and installing apps. When the iPhone came out, my first response was, big deal, what’s so new about this? My second response was, I HATE trying to type words on this f***ing touch screen keyboard. (Ten years later, I still can’t do it. Am I the only person with big thumbs?) But my skepticism of the iPhone turned out to be on the wrong side of history. Everybody else was happy to get rid of the stylus and learn how to make their thumb tips really small.

Merchant describes plenty of dead ends and iterations that weren’t planned but that emerged during the innovation process.

  • Jobs didn’t want the Mac to be compatible with other computers (such as IBM PCs with DOS). Does anyone remember when the Mac had its own word processor and spreadsheet programs?
  • In 1985, Apple offered to license their operating system to clone makers, just like Microsoft licensed its PC-DOS operating system. Apple failed, Microsoft won, and now, every computer runs Microsoft Windows.
  • The iPod struggled in the market, until Jobs was persuaded to make it compatible with Windows computers.
  • The iPhone didn’t take off until Jobs finally agreed to open the app store to non-Apple products.

And furthermore, as Dan Gallagher writes in the Wall Street Journal, Apple thought that the iPhone would primarily be used as a phone. (As in, making and receiving voice calls…remember those?)

Yes, Steve Jobs was a strong and stubborn individual who was committed to his ideas. That fits our cultural myths about the lone genius. But the most stereotypically genius of his ideas (stubbornly sticking with your vision) were usually the most wrong. What made Apple, and the iPhone, successful was that its innovation continued down an iterative, wandering path, and that Apple brought together great people into creative teams.

Patent Trolls: Good Riddance

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a decision that might be the most important for innovation than anything else that happens this year. They ruled unanimously that patent trolls can’t file lawsuits anywhere they want. For years, anybody with a patent, that wanted to file a frivolous lawsuit against a big corporation, would take them to court in the Eastern District of Texas. Why? Because the judges there were perceived as more friendly to these “patent trolls” than anywhere else in the U.S.

About 40 percent of patent cases last year were filed in the tiny town of Marshall, Texas, which has only 25,000 residents. An amicus brief in the lawsuit said about Texas that “local practices and rules depart from national norms in ways attractive for incentivizing settlement for less than the cost of litigating the early stages of patent cases.” What that means is that the big companies often settle out of court, essentially paying extortion fees to the patent troll, simply to avoid the expense of defending themselves in Eastern Texas, knowing that the courts there usually side with the plaintiff. It’s called “venue shopping.” And with this decision, it stops.

Patent trolls block collaboration and innovation. Take a look at why, in my book Group Genius.

GROUP GENIUS: New and Improved!

A new version of the book Group Genius has just been published! I’ve updated every chapter and page, and I’ve written a new chapter on how social media drives collaborative creativity.

Group Genius, first published in 2007, showed that creativity is always collaborative–even when you’re alone. Back in 2007, it was pretty radical to claim that collaboration drives innovation. The accepted wisdom was that brilliant people came up with creative ideas all by themselves. Business leaders competed to hire the most creative professionals—offering free lunch, day care, and ping pong tables. They were convinced that they needed special geniuses to generate innovation. Most creativity advice books told people how to come up with better ideas.

Now, ten years later, the evidence for the creative power of collaboration is overwhelming. In 2015, a majority of executives say more collaboration leads to greater profits. In 2016, the Harvard Business Review reported that employee collaboration time was way up in the last two decades—from 50 percent to as much as 80 percent. In 2016, the New York Times wrote that “teams are now the fundamental unit of organization.” Today everyone agrees that collaboration is the key to innovation.

But there’s a problem: It turns out that it’s hard to collaborate successfully. Brainstorming is a good example: Numerous studies have shown that this popular technique is usually a waste of time. There’s so much ineffective collaboration and bad teamwork that there’s been a backlash. Susan Cain’s bestseller Quiet argues that when people spend time alone, they’re more effective, more creative, and more successful. She calls the increasing emphasis on teamwork “The New Groupthink.” The truth is that, despite the proliferation of advice in the business press, many companies don’t know how to foster creative collaboration.

Here’s where the research comes in. My research has shown that only certain kinds of collaboration work in the real world—improvisations that are guided and planned, but in a way that doesn’t kill the power of improvisation to generate unexpected insights. Fortunately, today’s research tells us how. For example, I show that improvised innovation is more likely to work when a group experiences group flow—the group equivalent of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous “flow” state, when we perform at our peak and lose track of time. Most teams never experience group flow; knowing the research will help you attain this peak experience. And I show how to build brainstorming groups that realize their full creative potential.

Today’s Internet tools make collaboration easier than ever: Slack, Google Plus+, WebEx, Basecamp…the list grows longer every month. Critical business functions have migrated into the cloud, allowing everyone to work together more efficiently and access the same data. Social media like Facebook, Instagram, Vine, and Pinterest expand our social networks and bring us together in groups that include millions. More than ever before, we need to understand how to harness these tools to foster creative collaboration.

While doing research for this second edition, I bought so many books about collaboration that I had to buy another bookshelf. Just last month, another book about collaboration appeared, with almost exactly the same argument: The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. But while reading these books, I discovered that some of the most exciting research on group creativity goes unnoticed. That’s why I’ve written this second edition—to share the surprising insights of the science of collaboration. In this new edition, I bring together research on face-to-face collaboration, everyday conversation, and even jazz, theater, and basketball teams, as well as the latest science of Internet-based collaboration. This research shows how we can use social media and business productivity apps to bring us together in ways that build on our deeply human need for collaboration.

Take a look at the new book: http://www.groupgenius.net

To Be Creative, Read a Lot

You’ll be more creative if you fill your mind with a variety of information. It helps you make those distant combinations that lead to bigger and more surprising creative ideas.

So I loved reading this new article in Science Magazine, by Julian West, a doctoral student in organic chemistry at Princeton. I’ve excerpted the passages that resonated with me.

I aggressively curate and monitor the notifications I receive about newly published papers, and I read those that strike my interest, even if they’re not directly related to my research. Perhaps the biggest question is why I make the effort. The short answer is that I read widely to prepare myself for whatever might come along in the lab. My biggest fear is the one that got away, the important discovery that I missed because I couldn’t see it for what it was.

Reading only in my subdiscipline would limit the kinds of connections I can draw.

Time and again, strange observations in the lab reminded me of a paper I had read in some far-out journal, or a seemingly irrelevant visiting speaker’s talk suddenly led me to understand a result that had been bugging me for weeks.

My advice: Read widely and voraciously.

One of the key lessons is that it’s not easy. It takes time and effort. It’s easier to stay focused on one thing, to work on what everyone else is working on, to read all of the same articles that your colleagues are reading. But creativity? You’ve got to work at that, to do things your colleagues aren’t.

Fast Company: 50 Most Innovative Companies

Fast Company has just published its annual list of the world’s 50 most innovative companies. It’s easy to be skeptical, given that they change the list every year; I’m sure that all 50 companies don’t change their level of innovation every year…but the magazine has to make it newsworthy. Anyway, all fifty companies are definitely innovative!

Here’s what I found most interesting–in  the top 50, a lot of innovation is based in collaboration. The highlights:

  • Facebook’s CEO Sheryl Sandberg says “Creativity’s never been so important.” (ranking: #6)
  • Slack and its collaboration app ranked #23.
  • Glossier (#24) collaborates with customers to create cult cosmetics. (“Collaborating with Customers” is the title of one of my chapters in Group Genius)
  • Adobe (#35) for pushing its creativity suite into the cloud

FYI the number one most innovative company is Amazon.