Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Saturday, November 15, 2014


So, I went to a workshop on creativity on Thursday, as I mentioned before.  Interestingly, the keynote speaker was Jonah Lehrer, who has his own take on creative scholarship.  While it was a very stimulating day, I'm not sure what new practices will find its way into my teaching, but the ideas were somewhat provocative, so here they are:

Creativity is "simply connecting things." That was Steve Jobs' take on it.  It's a form of problem solving, where you take things that are already known and add those connections that create a new solution to that new problem.  The reason Newton and Leibniz both "invented" calculus at the same time, was because calculus was ready to be invented.

It appears that the essential component of creativity is not focusing on the problem.  Einstein said that creativity was the "residue of wasted time".  You have to be bored or otherwise occupied for the brain to offer up that eureka moment.  Archimedes in the bath is the classic example of being relaxed, not obsessed with the question and having the answer coming to you.  Alpha waves - that state of the brain when it's most relaxed - are the neurological condition for creative insight.

The result is that you can't always work your way to a new solution.  You can work the problem (you must work the problem) but then you almost always have to step away from the problem to get the epiphany you need.

Obviously, this does not comport with our schooling system.  Little kids are incredibly creative, but we train the creativity out of them.  The success of the Montessori system is in letting kids answer the questions that they are interested in, rather than force-feeding them standardized questions with one right answer.

There was an IQ test question that asked you to say which of the following objects was not like the others: a football, a basketball, a baseball and a soccer ball.

The thing is, the right answer is: any one of them.  The football is oblong.  The basketball is the only one without stitches.  The baseball is the only solid one.  The soccer ball is the only one played primarily with your feet.  But the test wanted football.  Which is right but stupid and certainly not creative.

One thing we hear from our Asian students is that they want to come to the US to learn creativity.  They are great at memorization and computation.  They make wonderful engineers.  But their system doesn't make great innovators.  Ironically, the US seems intent on trying to make the American school system more Asian at precisely the moment Asians are trying to capture what makes the American system great.

Of course, the second component of creativity is "grit", which Angela Duckworth has been working on.  Grit was defined as "loyalty to a goal." This allows you to work past the obstacles that appear before you.  You have the "ah ha!" moment but then you do the work necessary to turn that revelation into a product worthy of the idea.

What creates grit?  Duckworth suggests you build it by "choosing easy and working hard."  That means choosing the thing you love and working to master it.  If you do that enough, you can build grit that can transfer to other areas.  This is why athletes often succeed in life.  They don't have the highest SAT scores or GPAs, but they often go on to successful careers, because they have the grit necessary to work through problems.

You can also build grit by praising process rather than result.  If you praise the work rather than the end result, you build respect for the process.  If you praise the kid working through long division for the first time, you can build grit.  Otherwise, they just pull out the calculator or turn to the back of the book.  Cheating is the ultimate anti-grit.

The other key factor is having a "self-transcendent" mindset.  If you are working to help people - your teammates, your platoon, your company, your country, mankind - you are more likely to push through those obstacles.  Grit, by definition, is intrinsic rather than extrinsic.  It has to be present.  While praise-based teaching can create self-confidence, it can't create the grit that is necessary to succeed when things get tough.

Again, we have created an educational model that is increasingly results-based.  We focus on SAT scores, Common Core testing, AP exams and the college list that a school can show to prospective families.  This flies in the face of everything we are learning about teaching.  All good teaching is creative, because we are helping our students make those connections on their own for the first time.  But if we are constantly telling them that there is one answer and it's in the answer key, we are killing the creative process of education.

One of the real advantages of a private school education is that smaller class sizes can allow for more writing and more individual attention.  Writing is entirely about process, especially thesis writing.  My students are sitting in front of me writing an essay that asks them to "Support, modify or refute" a statement.  There is no right answer.  There is only the creative process of supporting whatever answer they have come up with.

Finally, creativity is increasingly a group activity.  As problems become more complicated, you have to enlist a wider range of expertise.  You either "succeed together or fail alone."  It is intellectual diversity that forces people to step outside their normal ruts and engage new perspectives.

Learning - I've come to feel - has to be uncomfortable.  To use the metaphor of the athlete again, you never improve if you never reach a breaking point in your training and if you never lose.  You have to enter that zone where you are gasping for breath, where you can't summon the old areas of expertise, where the old solutions fail.

The job of the teacher becomes that of guide and mentor through that process of discomfort.  You make your students feel safe being lost.  And then you show them ways to find their way out.  And then you do it again.  And again.  And again.

The answer is never at the back of the book.  There is no answer key.

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