creativity

Frameworks for play / inquiry / research

"We have a responsibility to introduce children to things they don't yet know they will love." -- Edith Ackermann

Dr. Edith Ackermann came onto my radar this summer.   (See my previous blog post on "Constructing Modern Knowledge 2014" for the context.)

Such a charming, thoughtful expert on play and learning.  And such credentials! -- she worked with Jean Piaget and Seymour Papert, and has been associated with MIT for years (as well as other universities).

She loves Reggio Emilia schools, Steiner/Waldorf schools, Katie Salen and Quest schools, and Freinet schools.  A true educational radical (or realist) -- depending on where you stand.

Read this recent interview with her on creativity, talent, and intuition -- in a journal aimed at architects.

I wish I could find her CMK14 slides online.  I took basic shots into my Penultimate notes, but they aren't good enough to reproduce, e.g.,
The part of her talk that interested me the most was her description of the iterative cycle of self-learning, which she outlined as:
  • Connect -- Wow! I can't believe...  -- the inspiration - the imaginarium
  • Construct -- hands-on -- the atelier -- immersion and innovation
  • Contemplate -- heads-in -- mindfulness -- the sanctuary or secret garden
  • Cast -- play-back -- re-visit -- stage -- dramatize -- experiment
  • Con-vivire -- the sharing -- the piazza -- the agora -- expressivity
She stressed these are just guidelines for what happens along the way in different ways -- that the stages should never be used prescriptively. 

Our school is just settling on some common terminology around a research model -- one that will be differentiated for Infant (K1 to Grade 1), Junior (Grade 2 to Grade 5), Middle School (Grade 6 to Grade 8) and High School (Grade 9 to Grade 12).

A midway meeting ground has been agreed, e.g., here is a standard arising out of the articulation of the middle school curriculum:
The blog "What Ed Said" (Edna Sackson) recently had a post on her frustration with expected slavish commitment to an inquiry cycle model.  I agree.  You might as well insist everyone follow the same sequence for falling in love or grieving over death.  It's useful to appreciate typical stages, but impossible to expect everyone to adhere to them.  NB:  Kath Murdoch, referenced by Edna, is a frequent professional visitor to our school, and her phases of inquiry were key inputs to our process -- see here:

Edith was talking about Play -- and undoubtedly about Inquiry.  But our school is talking about Research.  Are they all the same thing?  Just at different age levels?  We'd like to think so.

Research, for middle/high school students, is just a game with adult rules (e.g., alluding to the ideas of others in a constructive and respectful way) -- and our job is to alert them to those rules and to convince them it's a game worth learning (after all, research is a form of adult fun, yes?).  As Edith put it, students must learn to add value in the process of borrowing.   They must become adept at massaging ideas until they are their own, rather than just functioning as an information broker, passing on ideas.  To ride others' ideas until they can feel in solo mode, not fusion mode.

I particularly like Edith's "Cast" phase, with its implicit theatrical connotation.  Something between our "Reflect" and "Communicate."  It's the part that implies the iterative nature of the process.  That you, within your own mind or in the presence of others, re-think what you have, try it out, and ask if it's sufficient, if it's enough.

(I'm also partial to Design Thinking as a basic research model; see my previous blog post: Carol Kuhlthau Meets Tim Brown. )

Other things Edith commented upon....
  • re MOOCs and online learning: 
    • the double standard:  it's the new entrepreneurial elite, who are educated onsite with constructivist methods, who are promoting education online where "others" struggle alone;
  • re today's learners:
    •  growing older younger, and staying younger older;
    • the tension between temp and "forever" work
    • the tension between professional mobility and lack of security;
  • re the role of the eye and the senses:
    • away from Piaget (the rationalist) to Papert (feeling the materials);
    • the real practitioners (e.g., architects) are always tricking people to get a different perspective;
    • to crawl out of the old ways of thinking;
    • tricks to get us off our own beaten path;
    • using objects creates resistance; 
"Learning is all about moving in and out of focus, shifting perspective, and coming to 'see anew.'" -- Edith Ackermann

Making and Tinkering to Learn

If you want to have a good read about the history and future of the "making" movement in education and tinkering as "a mindset for learning," I highly recommend the book "Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom -- by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager.

Go to their website for an overview of the chapters, with links to extended resources for each.


The best thing it did was to send me back to read/re-read Seymour Papert, the grandfather of the movement.  (I didn't realize the roots of his projects were in Maine.)

I also refreshed my acquaintance with the writings of Mitchel Resnick (head of the MIT Lifelong Kindergarten group) re the cycle of imagine, create, play, share, reflect, imagine.  And a biography of Nikola Tesla is on my "to read" list.

A few notes/quotes from the book:
Stager's hypothesis:  "A good prompt is worth a thousand words." -- where 'good' means it has (a) brevity (e.g., can fit on a post-it note), (b) ambiguity (let the learner be free to satisfy the prompt in their own voice), and (c) has immunity to assessment. (60-61)
Learners can exceed expectations with the following four variables in place:
-- a good prompt, motivating challenge, or thoughtful question
-- appropriate materials
-- sufficient time
-- a supportive culture, including a range of expertise (60)
"Great teachers know that their highest calling is to make memories." (67)
"Constructivism is a theory of learning that doesn't mandate a specified method of teaching.... Constructionism is a theory of teaching.  We believe that constructionism is the best way to implement constructivist learning." (71)
Advice: skip the pre-load, don't overteach planning, encourage continuous improvement, allow reflection. (77)
Assessment interrupts the learning process.  Even asking a kid what they're doing is disruptive. (81)
"Writing, filmmaking, and presenting information are the low-hanging fruit of creative expression in the digital age." (84)
"The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge." -- Seymour Papert (157)
 Educators need to be reminded that it is possible to learn without being taught. (202)


Reading the book, I remembered my father's workshop down cellar in the house in Maine where I grew up.  We loved to make things with him.  My biggest project was a bookcase that would double as my bed's headboard.  Mainly we marveled at how he could fix things.  He was definitely a tinkerer.

A few years ago it was time to clear the workshop out.  After all, he'd been dead for some twenty years and no one was using it.  But I took some last photos.

IMG_4571 
Full Flickr set here 

Inspiring Libraries

Libraries are a natural source of inspiration for the curious and creative.

Listening to Paul Holdengraber, the Director of the New York Public Library's Public Program Series, is an inspiration in itself. Here are my notes on an interview filmed with him in 2007.
His job is to "oxygenate" the New York Public Library -- to make the famous lions outside "roar" -- to create a library without walls.
We need to make people think it's sexy to think -- that there should be both information and inspiration. We have to free the books. To have a thought is to caress our brains. Thinking is exciting!

Inspiration comes mainly from arguments around the kitchen table. We need each other desperately as humans (e.g., you can't tickle yourself). A library is a space of conviviality -- which can help us get references in common. We all need something to talk about.

Curiosity is one of the most important things we can arm ourselves with in life -- if we're not curious at 20, we'll be boring at 50. We must inspire curiosity -- to be interested in the world -- to have interests -- something to replenish our minds.
The blog Design*Sponge has done a couple of videos showing how a librarian at the New York Public Library has inspired five different artists -- a glassblower, a letterpress printer, a maker of ceramic dishes, etc. -- with material from the library's collection, whether images in books or artifacts themselves -- maps, old postcards, prints, etc. See the videos on the NYPL webpage: Design by the Book.

Similarly, Jay Walker is a man who believes a library should have objects to inspire -- as well as books. There is a 7-minute TED video of him showing off some of the treasures in his amazing private library: Jay Walker: A library of human imagination -- including an Enigma machine, a flag that's been to the moon and back, and a real Sputnik satellite.

Wired did an article on his library not long ago -- Browse the Artifacts of Geek History in Jay Walker's Library - with plenty of photos. Go check it out.

I'm going to end with a plug for the book I think should be in every library -- as a source of inspiration: Alan Fletcher's The Art of Looking Sideways (2001), which has been described as "the ultimate guide to visual awareness, a magical compilation that will entertain and inspire all those who enjoy the interplay between word and image, and who relish the odd and the unexpected. "

Fletcher, a famous British graphic designer, is now dead, but here's a YouTube video of him talking about his unusual book.



Flickr photo credits: lion: MacRonin47; library: jamesjk ; Jay Walker library

Curiosity: a close cousin of creativity

Robert McKee, in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, presents curiosity as the intellectual need to answer questions and close patterns -- a universal desire which story plays to by doing the opposite, posing questions and opening situations.

Olivia Judson, scientist and New York Times blogger, sees curiosity as the defining characteristic of the best scientists and as something that must be caught, not taught:
In schools, science is often taught as a body of knowledge — a set of facts and equations. But all that is just a consequence of scientific activity.
Science itself is something else, something both more profound and less tangible. It is an attitude, a stance towards measuring, evaluating and describing the world that is based on skepticism, investigation and evidence. The hallmark is curiosity; the aim, to see the world as it is. This is not an attitude restricted to scientists, but it is, I think, more common among them. And it is not something taught so much as acquired during a training in research or by keeping company with scientists.
Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist and author who died a couple of years ago, argues for this same centrality of curiosity for historians and journalists (who are really just current historians) -- exemplified by Herodotus.

Kapuscinski kept company with him by carrying around a copy of Herodotus's History throughout his years as a foreign correspondent, and he describes the influence Herodotus had on him in his 2004 book, Travels with Herodotus (which I highly recommend as an introduction to either Kapuscinski or Herodotus).

Here are snippets from the book:

In Herodotus's days, the Greek word "history" meant something more like "investigation" or "inquiry".... [Herodotus] strove to find out, learn, and portray how history comes into being every day, how people create it, why its course oftens runs contrary to their efforts and expectations. [p. 257]

    What set him in motion? Made him act? .... I think that it was simply curiosity about the world. The desire to be there, to see it at any cost, to experience it no matter what. It is actually a seldom encountered passion. [p. 258]
    To be a conduit is their passion: therein lies their life mission. To walk, ride, find out -- and proclaim it at once to the world. There aren't many enthusiasts born. The average person is not especially curious about the world.... So when someone like Herodotus comes along -- a man possessed by a craving, a bug, a mania for knowledge, and endowed, furthermore, with intellect and powers of written expression -- it's not so surprising his rare existence should outlive him. [p. 267]

Seth Godin, the business/marketing guru, has a short video on the importance of being curious -- a desire to understand, a desire to try, a desire to push the envelope. He also believes the curious are a minority and laments that the educational system does not (cannot?) promote it.

Can curiosity be described as having an agile mind? (like Cliff Stoll in his TED talk "18 Minutes with an Agile Mind")

Is curiosity the skill of being interested in the world? Randy Nelson, dean of Pixar University, in a short video on learning and working in the collaboration age (which is definitely worth watching), talks about Pixar looking for employees with four attributes: 1. Depth, 2. Breadth, 3. Communication, 4. Collaboration.

Number 2: "Breadth" relates to being a curious person, though Nelson defines it as the skill of being interested. He argues it's easy to find people who are interesting, but tough to find those who are more interested than interesting. These are the people you want to talk to, he says, not because they're clever, but because they amplify "me", they want to know what I know -- they lean in when I talk and ask me questions.

Pixar is one of the companies highlighted in the book Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win -- by William C. Taylor & Polly LaBarre (2006).

Nelson is quoted there on the same subject:

"We've made the leap from an idea-centered business to a people-centered business. Instead of developing ideas, we're developing people. We're trying to create a culture of learning, filled with life-long learners. It's no trick for talented people to be interesting, but it's a gift to be interested. We want an organization filled with interested people." [p. 230]

Isn't that what we all want?

Round Two: Creativity -- and Mathematics

Just found some notes on an essay of Lewis Hyde -- "Two Accidents: Reflection on Chance and Creativity" (1998).
"The agile mind is pleased to find what it was not looking for."

"Wandering is the trick, and giving up on 'loss' or 'gain', and then agility of mind."

Dumb luck = luck of chance
Smart luck = craft added to accident, i.e, "a kind of responsive intelligence invoked by whatever happens"

Louis Pasteur quote: "chance favors the prepared mind", i.e., a mind prepared for what it isn't prepared for...

Chogyam Trungpa quote: "magic is the total appreciation of chance"

creation (absolute newness) vs. revelation (accident as a tool of revelation)

Absolute newness = "in a civilization as complex and shifting as ours has become, a readiness to let the mind change as contingency demands may be one prerequisite of a happy life."
Also just read an essay on mathematics and creativity -- A Mathematician's Lament -- by Paul Lockhart -- a damning critique of the typical teaching of mathematics -- devoid of the recognition of its inherent creativity. I want every teacher who teaches mathematics to read this and justify their current practices to me (says the indignant librarian).

Everything he says rings true to me because I had a teacher like Paul Lockhart from 7th grade onwards in my little town in Maine. Thank god for Wally Hayes and Ralph (Danny) Small. They made mathematics come alive -- and made us exercise our mental creativity every day in the name of mathematics. It was pure theater at times -- how Mr. Small would enthuse over a new proof he'd thought up the night before. We believed him when he said he had the quadratic formula framed over his bedstead. We never doubted that he spent his evenings reading mathematics books, enhanced by a bowl of potato chips and a glass of milk.

He never used labels for what he showed us -- he just showed us his thinking and encouraged us to show him ours. I went off to college/university believing I'd never had calculus, because that word had never come up. So I ended up repeating almost a whole year, not really knowing where Mr. Small had left off. But I definitely recognized that what my college professor had to offer was lesser stuff -- it was all just "cookbook" mathematics, whereas I had been trained to do the real thing -- proofs and analysis and an underlying understanding all along, no matter whether I knew what the outside world called it or not.

In reading Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" -- and the luck of Bill Gates to have access to a computer in junior high in Washington state in 1967 or whenever it was -- I can't help but realize that I also was lucky. It was 1972 when I was a freshman in high school that I got to program for the first time. We had a time-share set-up with some computer in Portland and all of us had to write a computer program to solve the quadratic formula. That meant creating an oiled punched-out tape that got fed into the remote reader and loaded into memory. So at 15 I began my relationship with computers (okay, nowhere near the 10,000 deliberate practice hours of a Gates, but..). Maybe it isn't so surprising that in 1980 I ended up in Boston at a software development company, despite my major in Russian Civilization. (I always used to say, languages are languages -- whether natural or mechanical.)

Anyway, here's Paul Lockhart in full force on how math should be considered in the curriculum:
"The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such."

"A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanet than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas." [G.H. Hardy]

"Mathematicians enjoy thinking about the simplest possible things, and the simplest possible things are imaginary."

"Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity.... you deny them mathematics itself."

"Math is not about following directions, it's about making new directions."

"A piece of mathematics is like a poem, and we can ask if it satisfies our aesthetic criteria: Is this argument sound? Does it make sense? Is it simple and elegant? Does it get me closer to the heart of the matter?"

"Mathematics is the music of reason."

"The trouble is that math, like painting or poetry, is hard creative work. That makes it very difficult to teach. Mathematics is a slow, contemplative process. It takes time to produce a work of art, and it takes a skilled teacher to recognize one."

"Teaching is not about information. It's about having an honest intellectual relationshiop with your students."

"How ironic that people dismiss mathematics as the antithesis of creativity. They are missing out on an art form older than any book, more profound than any poem, and more abstract that any abstract."
Image credit: gadl via flickr

Common Genius and Creativity

I've been reading and digesting several thinkers/texts/thoughts on creativity -- and the genius of the cultural commons.
(Image credit: lightbulbs by andydoro)
The individual genius is definitely a discredited idea these days.

Malcolm Gladwell addresses this issue in his May 2008 article, "In the Air: who says big ideas are rare?" -- where he uses the example of Nathan Myhrvold and his attempt to create a group capable of generating insights that might lead to scientific inventions and innovation. Gladwell asserts that "the genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight."

Gladwell's latest book, "Outliers: the story of success", similarly argues that those people who achieve extreme success owe a great deal to the fortuitous ecology of their lives. "They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy." And the success of late bloomers, like Cezanne, is highly contingent on the efforts of others surrounding and supporting them (he says in a New Yorker article on October 20, 2008, "Late Bloomers: why do we equate genius with precocity?").

"For Innovators, There is Brainpower in Numbers" ran a recent article in the New York Times, affirming that "truly productive invention requires the meeting of minds from myriad perspectives, even if the innovators themselves don't always realize it." The article interestingly argues that brainstorming (or "idea showers" as some teachers I know prefer to call it -- eliminating that negative imagery), introduced in 1948, has been proved to be less effective than generally believed. Evidently, "individuals working alone generate more ideas than groups acting in concert". Instead, "systematic inventive thinking" is better, where successful products are analyzed into separate components and considered for alternative uses. "The best innovations occur when you have networks of people with diverse backgrounds gathering around a problem."

Clay Shirky, professor of new media at New York University and author of "Here Comes Everybody: the power of organizing without organizations", argues the same thing, especially in regards to the internet and Web n.0. (See here and here for videos of him presenting the ideas of the book.) He refers to the two kinds of social capital -- bonding capital, best envisaged as the number of people willing to lend you a large sum of money without asking when you'll be paying it back, and bridging capital, the number of people to whom you would lend small amounts of money without much fuss. (In other words, bonding capital is more exclusive, bridging capital is more inclusive.)

Shirky asserts it's not how many people you know, it's how many different kinds of people -- that most good ideas come from people who are bridging "structural holes" in an institution -- because too much bonding capital in a group results in an echo-chamber of ideas. This is not creativity born of deep intellectual ability -- it's creativity as an import-export business.

Aside re school librarians: we are particularly well-suited to bring bridging capital (read: new ideas) to planning meetings, interacting as we do with all grade levels.

Gladwell, in an interview, also credits his own writing success with the breadth and diversity of his friendship base, when asked where he gets his ideas:
People tell me things. I have learned, I suppose, how to position myself to have access to serendipitous moments. I fill my life with people from diverse backgrounds. I have friends in academia, in business, in technology. Once you understand the importance of those contacts you can take steps to increase the likelihood of having them pay off. I never come up with things entirely by myself. It's always in combination with somebody. I exploit the entire resources of my friends very efficiently.
Charles Leadbeater, a UK consultant on innovation and creativity, came out with a book similar to Shirky's at roughly the same time -- We-Think: mass innovation, not mass production. Videos of him speaking about the book can be found here -- and there is a 3-minute animated illustration of the book on his homepage. (I must admit, I like his plain confession, This is Not a Blog.)

Leadbeater brings up Lewis Hyde, poet, essayist, and author of "The Gift", a book (first published in 1983) dedicated to exploring the gift economy, especially with regard to the arts, though also including the internet -- and the power of sharing and becoming aware of the gifts cycling throughout society. Hyde was recently the focus of a New York Times Magazine article -- "What is Art For?" -- in which he distinguishes his take on the artistic commons as more academic, abstract, and aesthetically nuanced compared with that of Lawrence Lessig, founder and guru of the (more legalistic) Creative Commons movement. (See Lessig's brilliant TED talk on How Creativity is being Strangled by the Law.)

Hyde's book explores the concept of the gift economy (contrasted to the market/commodity economy), roaming through anthropology, mythology, and poetry (Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, in particular) -- and likens it to our current understanding of ecology -- that every gift calls for a return gift in a large self-regulating earth system. He notes the traditional types of gifts -- separation gifts, threshold gifts or gifts of passage (birthdays, graduation, marriage, newcomers), and incorporation gifts (goodbye presents meant to give a piece of yourself to someone going away). Transformative gifts are less concrete, but no less important, and cover the situation of a young artist awakened to their life's labor by another's artistic gift to the world, with the paradox of the gift exchange -- that when a gift is used, it is not used up -- and how the only gratitude required is the act of passing the gift along. (I could go on and on -- read the book -- it's available from the National Library for those of you in Singapore.)

Speaking of gifts -- look at this mindmap someone (Austin Kleon) has put up on Flickr re Hyde's book:

It is obvious how this all relates to Web n.0. Here, for example, is a snippet about sharing from a blog posting by Mark Pesce, an Australian future-oriented consultant:
The center of this argument is simple, though subtle: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. You extend your brand with every resource you share. You extend the knowledge of your institution throughout the Internet. Whatever you have – if it’s good enough – will bring people to your front door, first virtually, then physically.
Speaking of giving things away, Seth Godin, major marketing guru, is giving away his most recent book, "Tribes" -- as an audio book. (I listened to it while doing housework one Sunday -- a perfect way to enhance menial tasks.)

His little book is about leaders -- and how tribes (the small units we're going to find ourselves belonging to) need them -- for the 7 C's: challenge, creating a culture, curiosity, communication, charisma, connection, and commitment. He defines leadership as the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work. That leaders give people stories they can tell about themselves -- and that you can't lead without imagination (read: creativity).

Interesting aside: there's a new social anthropology book out by Daniel Miller which argues that in London now every household is, in effect, a tribe.

Another free download (pass that gift on) to note: Little Brother -- a popular young adult novel by Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing fame. Re the creativity of young people in evading Big Brother's attempt to control them and the internet.

Back to creativity: I must, of course, mention a few other TED talks on the subject: Sir Ken Robinson -- if people know any TED talk, it's usually this one: Do Schools Kill Creativity? See also Amy Tan -- and Tim Brown.

I'm going to end with Alison Gopnik, psychology/philosophy professor and child development expert and her musings on why fiction is so attractive to children (oops, humans) in the 2006 Edge "World Question Center".
The greatest success of cognitive science has been our account of the visual system. There's a world out there sending information to our eyes, and our brains are beautifully designed to recover the nature of that world from that information. I've always thought that science, and children's learning, worked the same way. Fundamental capacities for causal inference and learning let scientists, and children, get an accurate picture of the world around them - a theory. Cognition was the way we got the world into our minds.
But fiction doesn't fit that picture - its easy to see why we want the truth but why do we work so hard telling lies? I thought that kids' pretend play, and grown-up fiction, must be a sort of spandrel, a side-effect of some other more functional ability....
So the anomaly of pretend play has been bugging me all this time. But finally, trying to figure it out has made me change my mind about the very nature of cognition itself.
I still think that we're designed to find out about the world, but that's not our most important gift. For human beings the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds....
In fact, I think now that the two abilities - finding the truth about the world and creating new worlds-are two sides of the same coins. Theories, in science or childhood, don't just tell us what's true - they tell us what's possible, and they tell us how to get to those possibilities from where we are now. When children learn and when they pretend they use their knowledge of the world to create new possibilities. So do we whether we are doing science or writing novels. I don't think anymore that Science and Fiction are just both Good Things that complement each other. I think they are, quite literally, the same thing.