Rolling Around on the Grass: Harnessing the Power of WHY Creativity is Essential

Yesterday I spent the better part of my Sunday afternoon with actors and supporters of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival in a book club discussing Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine.  It was not only inspiring to be in a theatre with a group of people who are passionate about the arts, but it helped me to hear people from outside of the teaching profession share their thoughts on creativity and imagination.

We began with a quote from Ray Bradbury’s obituary in the NY Times in which Bradbury was describing his childhood in which he had a “hungry imagination”:

“It was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another,” he wrote, noting, “You rarely have such fevers later in life that fill your entire day with emotion.”

Immediately, I thought of the children I teach and the frenzied, elated, enthusiastic, hysterical way they live their lives.  And then I wondered, “How am I tapping into that natural energy, that emotion and using it for good?”  So much of what is ‘expected’ – sitting at desks, following instructions, meeting teacher-set expectations – is counterproductive to everything that is inherently natural in children. Why are we so focused on compliance instead of creativity?

People began to share their thoughts and the one thing that kept resonating with me was that in order to get more ‘buy in’ we need to be clear in our articulation of why we are doing what we are doing. With the emphasis being on explaining the why. In this morning’s daily email, Simon Sinek (timely as ever) summarizes this by saying:

In Lehrer’s book, he describes the behaviors of creative types and businesses such as 3M that are grounded in innovation.  He outlines some of the ways in which individuals and company employees have come around to breakthrough ideas and creative epiphanies.  These include:

  • sitting on a park bench in a busy location and people watching
  • taking a walk or going for a jog outside
  • changing up your physical environment
  • travelling
  • meeting people outside of your field of expertise
  • purposeful, planned daydreaming
  • failing and trying and failing and trying…

We talked about education and how the rigidity of the system would respond to the idea of incorporating some of these activities into a child’s school day. Some of the actors in the group described college classes they took in which they regularly practiced rolling on the floor or blindfolding each other and going outside to feel the grass.  We laughed over phoning home as excited college students to parents who were bearing the financial burden of a college education to share that “I did more rolling on the floor today, mom, and I’m getting really good at it!”  While this sounds laughable (and we did laugh) it was the point of the conversation in which I realized just how important sharing the WHY was going to be in order to get more buy-in from parents – or people in general – when sharing stories about teaching the art of being creative.

I have spoken a lot about the importance in my mind of process over product and we agreed that if we believe that there is value in sitting on a bench, rolling on the floor or feeling up the grass, then we need to unapologetically share the reasons behind why we are doing the things we are doing.  Think of the child that constantly asks “Why?” to every thing you say.  When did we kill that urge to question things and when did we decide that explaining why was no longer important?

Imagine offers two, somewhat conflicting but equally valid, ways of being creative.  In a very simplified nutshell, they are:

  1. Actively pursue creative ideas

  2. Sit and let creative ideas come to you

The first method is about convergent thinking: analysis and attention to specific ideas.  This is the kind of thinking when the idea is right there but just needs that last minute burn of the midnight oil to come to fruition. Lehrer describes this kind of thinking as “chiseling away at our own errors” calling the process “a struggle, a labor of attention” but adding that “this is the point – it takes time to find the perfect line.”

The second method is about divergent thinking: trusting all those spontaneous epiphanies.  This is the kind of thinking when you are trying to invent something new, make opposing ideas connect or radically restructure the way things are done.  Lehrer believes this type of unexpected thinking is needed when you have “hit the wall” and “logic won’t help”.

Should We TEACH Creativity in Schools?

I have seen this question a lot.  I used to think “Impossible! – TEACH creativity? Creativity is something you are born with, or not.”  How wrong could I be? If you were to look at the two points raised by Lehrer – actively pursue creative ideas and  let creative ideas come to you, I think we have the answer to that question. As a teacher, I need to consciously plan for creativity in my classroom.  I need to make sure I am setting up an environment that embraces creative thought.  If you are wondering, “Great, but how do I start?” I would encourage you to read Dancing About Architecture by Phil Beadle.  Not only does it shine a light on James Webb Young’s 1939 Technique for Producing Ideas, it also gives practical examples of what this can look like along with this buoyant encouragement for those brave enough to embark on the journey:

 If we are prepared to experiment, to focus on process and let ‘outcome’ float around on the breeze waiting to be discovered, something different happens.  We either fall flat on our behinds, or we discover new lands; and you cannot discover new lands by keeping one foot in the old country.  So jump, happily, knowing that the process of learning to be brilliant involves risk.

Risk.  This is something IB Schools require of their students – to be risktakers. Did you read that last line: The process of learning to be brilliant involves risk. This may seem daunting to some, so Beadle encourages us some more:

As a teacher, it is always worth taking  a risk.  Your audience will forgive you if it doesn’t work. They will also feel the thrill of the high wire along with you when you walk it.

As one of the members of the group reminded us, Louis Pasteur once said that “Chance favors the prepared“.  You are more likely to get creative ideas if you plan for and prepare for creative ideas. What is reassuring is that no where did I read or did anyone say that YOU have to have all of the creative ideas.  You may not understand the logic puzzles or the connections between obscure, unrelated objects – it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that as teachers, we are:

  • actively seeking ways to bring creativity into our classrooms
  • explaining the ‘why’ behind our practice in order to educate others
  • taking risks in what we bring to the classroom
  • trying it out alongside our children (you know they are going to remember the day their teacher rolled on the grass blindfolded!)

What will you do to prepare for creativity in your classroom?

Creativity, Innovation

When Was Your Last Great Nearling?

In all this talk of experiencing failure and the power of failure to move you to a place of success, I came across a term that was new to me: nearling. What is a nearling?

According to this website:

A nearling is a positive word for something new that you did with the right intentions, which has not (yet) led to the right result.

The reasons for nearlings not to succeed can be diverse, the circumstances have changed; a better option has been chosen; you made an error; faith decided differently; there suddenly were other priorities, etc.

Until this moment there was no right English word for this phenomenum. There is the word ‘failure’, yet that sounded negative. You only recognize a nearling when you look back. You can always learn from a nearling. The nearling fills a gap in the international innovation language.

You can be proud of nearlings because:
1. You started an initiative
2. You may have moved others
3. Maybe it led you to something that was successful
4. You need many nearlings, for a few successes
5. You learned from it
6. …

The part I like about this the most is “something new that you did with the right intentions”.

That made me think of Seth Godin.  In his book “Linchpin”, Seth talks about being fearless – and the difference between being fearless, reckless and feckless:

Fearless doesn’t really mean “without fear.” What it means in practice is, “unafraid of things that one shouldn’t be afraid of.” Being fearless means giving a presentation to an important customer without losing a night’s sleep. It means being willing to take intellectual risks and to forge a new path. The fear is about an imagined threat, so avoiding the fear allows you to actually accomplish something.

Reckless, on the other hand, means rushing into places that only a fool would go. Reckless leads to huge problems, usually on the boss’s dime. Reckless is what led us to the mortgage and liquidity crisis. Reckless is way out of style.

Feckless? Feckless is the worst of all. Ineffective, indifferent, and lazy.

I am sure, like many of you, you have experienced moments when you have given your kids choice in project work and watched them choose a ‘safe’ topic.  In one of our first projects of the year, I experienced the following:

  • I watched one child build his solar powered car in about 45 minutes.  He had two weeks to work on it.  When I talked with him – for about an hour – we eventually figured out that what he had wanted to do was build a boat but with more panels, more motors and more propellers.  Problem?  He eventually admitted when I asked him why this wasn’t his project: “I know the car works.  I don’t know if the boat will work.”
  • Another student found instructions online for a solar powered charging device.  She asked if she could print them off and do that as her project.  I said she could use those instructions and make that device as research but that she would then need to ask her own questions and investigate something new and different – how to charge two devices, how to shorten the charge time etc.  The next day she came in with a completely different topic requiring no hands-on component and nothing more complex than a ‘what is a…’ question.

What is holding these super smart kids back?  I think it is a fear of being fearless.  On his website, Brain Rules, John Medina asks “At what point do children stop asking questions in schools?”  Here is his answer:

Elementary School.  Kids learn very quickly that teachers value the right answer more than a provocative question.Consider a whopping six-year study with more than 3,000 innovative executives, from chemists to software engineers, published in 2009. The biggest common denominator of these entrepreneurs? Inquisitiveness. Lead author Hal Gregersen, interviewed in Harvard Business Review, talks about children:

“If you look at 4-year-olds, they are constantly asking questions. But by the time they are 6 ½ years old, they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions. High school students rarely show inquisitiveness. And by the time they’re grown up and are in corporate settings, they have already had the curiosity drummed out of them. Eighty percent of executives spend less than 20 percent of their time on discovering new ideas.”

So, what do we do?

Well, we could start by sharing the following words from writer, Neil Gaiman, that he penned to welcome in the new year:

And then we could all put this up in our rooms:

Most importantly, start listening more, talking less and encouraging our kids to be in charge of their own questions.