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.






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:






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:






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.




Teaching Creativity in the University

Colleges and universities around the United States are increasingly introducing creativity into their undergraduate curriculum. They’re responding to national calls for greater creativity and entrepreneurship, and hoping to help solve pressing social problems–climate change, income inequality, global water scarcity. These challenging problems can’t be solved only with technical knowledge, or with the standard textbook procedures. In most cases, they require innovative interdisciplinary teams. Influential national reports from the Business Roundtable and the Council on Competitiveness have argued that our schools need to “educate for innovation,” that we need to transform the way we teach students. Best-sellers by authors like Dan Pink and Tom Friedman, and a popular TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, have spread the message widely.

Colleges are now getting the message. Many of them are now requiring students to participate in creative activities, or to take courses in creative thinking, as writer Dan Berrett describes in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education.* Starting this Fall, Stanford will require all incoming students to take at least one course in “creative expression.” Students at Carnegie Mellon now have to satisfy a “creating” requirement, when they create a painting or a musical composition, or design and build a robot, or develop a creative experimental design. Both the University of Kansas and the City University of New York have recently adopted general education requirements that all students take a course in creative thinking. The University of Kentucky requires all 20,000 undergraduates to take a three-credit course in creativity.

The goal is to help students learn about how creativity works; about how to negotiate the twists and turns in the creative process; and to develop their own confidence in their ability to generate creative solutions. I completely support these curricular changes; after all, the 21st century is the creative age, and every career is going to require creative thinking (except for the repetitive jobs that are being automated anyway). Most graduates will change jobs multiple times; many of them will end up in careers that don’t even exist today. They need creativity, adaptability, and flexibility more than just about any other course  we might require.

There are lots of challenges to getting this right. First, creativity research shows that you get the best results when you teach creativity within the context of a specific discipline (rather than teaching one “general creativity” course). This means that if you want creative physicists, then your physics department classes need to be changed; if you want creative computer scientists, then the computer science curriculum needs to be changed. If you just add a three-credit creativity course, but then students get the same old memorize-and-regurgitate curriculum in their STEM classes, the creativity course won’t be able to overcome the uncreative STEM teaching.

Second, different departments on campus are likely to have different perspectives on what counts as “creativity.” The professors in the art school and the music department often associate creativity with the arts; but creativity is important in all disciplines, even in science and math, and especially in engineering. (The Engineer of 2020 report, by the National Academy of Engineering, starts with the sentence “Engineering is a profoundly creative occupation.”) If you’re taking a piano class and memorizing a composition by Beethoven for the piano, is that really creative? And what about a computer science class where you design a user interface for a web site? That certainly seems creative… but, what if you’re designing a new database algorithm for a large international bank? Isn’t that creative too? (Even though the soulless depths of a bank’s back office seem to be about as far away from creativity as one can get…)

This is one reason that I’m now studying how professors teach in schools of art and design and architecture. These professors have been teaching for creativity for decades, while at the same time guiding their students towards learning important discipline-specific skills and procedures. Their teaching is domain specific, which is perfectly aligned with creativity research. My hope is that by documenting this “studio model,” I can draw out important lessons for how to reform teaching in science, math, and engineering.

I’m glad to see that so many universities are responding to the need for greater creativity!

*Dan Berrett. “The Creativity Cure.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 1, 2013