About Creativity from Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer
Jonah Lehrer

We hurried back from Cullowhee Thursday so that I could see Jonah Lehrer talk about his new book, Imagine, at the Quail Ridge Bookstore in Raleigh.  We’d been in Cullowhee for events leading up to the installation of Western Carolina University’s new chancellor, Dr. David Belcher.  Brenda and I both graduated from WCU more than 35 years ago — “GO CATAMOUNTS.”

But I had seen some buzz about Lehrer’s new book, and I wanted to hear more.  His background is neuroscience, but he also studied 20th century literature and philosophy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.  He blogs at Frontal Cortex.  Evidenty, one of Jonah’s passions is “healing the rift between sciences and humanities.” ((Wikipedia contributors. “Jonah Lehrer.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Mar. 2012.)).  Also, he looks to be only a bit more than 17 years old.  But that’s OK.

He was not able to share much during his 30 minute lecture and what he did share had little to do with the buzz I’d gotten (You have to suffer in order to create – link).  Jonah did describe two sources of creativity.  He talked about those sudden insights that we have when struggling with a problem.  There are two features of these insights, that they seem to come from nowhere and that we intuitively know they’re right when they come. They also seem to come from a brain that is relaxed and emanating alpha waves.

Creativity is the residue of wasted time! — Einstein

My notes from the lecture

The other source was not such good news for those of us in the standing-room audience who were looking for a shortcut to creativity.  It is the GRIT factor.  He said that creativity is hard work and that it comes to people who stick with a problem long enough to combine the pieced of the non-obvious solution.  “If creativity was easy, we wouldn’t have a Bob Dylan.”  Angela Duckworth was the researcher he quoted with regards to the grit trait.

While he signed my copy of his book, I expressed some frustration with efforts in the education world to try to teach creativity.  He told me that kids are naturally creative.  The best thing we can do is just get out of the way and encourage them to express their creativity.

Another Year of Un-teaching Innovation

This is the antithesis of learning to be innovative

The new school year is starting, marked by more daily requests for Class Blogmeister accounts; professional development institutes; and the ubiquitous opening school event with the color guard led pledge of allegiance, acknowledgements from the chairman of the school board, and the out-of-town speaker.These years are different and not just for the throngs of teachers who are still looking for positions rather than schools struggling to fill classrooms with teachers. What’s different are education leaders who are mentioning with increased frequency phrases like 21st century skills and 21st century learning. Yet, I would find it interesting to challenge them to clearly and succinctly define and describe either phrase as a concept.

For certain, Innovation or its near cousin, creativity, would be a part of that explanation, even among those who stumble and stutter their ways through. ..and as professionals, we proceed to break down, classify, and sequence an approach to teaching innovation and creativity in a step by step fashion where by its achievement can be measured and accounted for. It makes me stop and wonder, “If you can teach and measure creativity, is it still creativity?” I don’t know.

I suspect that there are ways to help learners develop creativity as an assembly of resourceful problem-solving and goal accomplishing skills. Smarter people than me would know. I am certain, however, that innovation can be untaught.  Acknowledging that some skills and knowledge should be assured, we should also accept that applying education and measuring it’s achievement requires a “right answer” and “wrong answer” approach. You’re either right or Wrong. It reminds me of the high school student who said, “The purpose of school is to not get caught being wrong.”

Learners are required to fill in the bubble of the right answer with a machine readable No.2 pencil — when, to help learners become innovative, we should ask, “How many different solutions can you think of for this problem — and defend?” Rather than how many students can come up with the same answer, we should celebrate the different answers that they can suggest — and defend.

My country is in a real mess, and it’s spread way beyond our own boarders. But I’m not pessimistic. You see, in the nearly sixty years that I have been around, the world has changed dramatically. Some of that change has happened too us. But much of it has been a result of really smart people (some of whom were not impressive students) thinking of brand new answers and brand new solutions and builting brand new technologies that have reshaped our cultures. Anyone my age has to be astounded by the innovation we have seen in just the last 30 years.

I’m not pessimistic because I think that we can innovate ourselves out of this mess, approaching it with something brand new, something that is not one old right answer — “Raise taxes,” “Cut spending,” “Regulate industry,” or “Hands off business.”

It will be something that is interesting, logical, brand new, and something we’ll all want to pat each other on the back for — and it will happen because we stopped teaching innovation out of our children.

Tech for Creativity

Some of you may be aware that I have spent a good part of the last week in the air, about 27,000 miles as near as I can calculate, from Raleigh to Calgary, to New York, to Brisbane, to Christchurch, to Melbourn, to Los Angles, to…

Much of it is a dramamine induced blur, but for many enjoyable hours, I illustrated a point made by Kevin Kelly in a recent podcast that I watched. The Author of What Technology Wants, Kelly, like myself, has followed much of the emergence and evolution of personal information and communication technologies — and has had a hand in guiding its use for many people. Among his many contributions was Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, which was required reading for the principal actors of the film, The Matrix.

I haven’t read What Technology Wants (yet), but it appears to be a cautionary tale. Kelly doesn’t tweet or participate in many of the techs de jour. However, one thing that he said that really stuck with me was that ICT’s power is in it’s providing new avenues for expressing ourselves creatively. As near as I can paraphrase, “We would never have had a Jimi Hendrix without the invention of the electric guitar.”

Rebirth by Propellerhead
Rebirth by Propellerhead
Back to my time in the sky — just before leaving I purchased a new music app for my iPad. I have pages of music apps, most of them mocks of musical instruments, and none of them have captured much of my attention. I’m not a very good musician. The exception was Propellerhead’s Rebirth (see right), which resembes no instrument I’ve ever actually played. ..and so, even that was not all that much fun. I did complete one project (Shangri La) and upload it to my Sound Cloud.

My new toy is MusicStudio, “..the only complete music production environment for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad” to quote the developers, and they’re not off the mark. It gives me access to a number of instruments (with more purchasable sounds), a virtual piano keyboard to perform and record from, audio effects devices, and a piano-roll style track system (see left) for fine tuning. This is where I spent my time, copying and pasting, dragging, and editing those little dots and dashes that represent individual musical notes.

Continuing the music work with Logic Express 8 on my office computer

I often demonstrate this process in some of my talks as an example of working numbers to accomplish goals — working the numbers embedded in digital sound. But doing music like this has always required me to break out some fairly sophisticated software, sit at a desk, with mouse, and sometimes an attached musical keyboard. Now, I can do it from a flat surface (iPad) that I can carry in a shoulder bag, sitting at the park or in an airline seat. (demo here)

Here are the results of my 50+ hours in the air! Because Brenda likes it, I am now refining the work using Logic, a more professional music editing tool. But this is the version done exclusively on the iPad.
Brenda’s Song by dwarlick

Sorry for the self-indulgence, but, you know, I’m getting old enough to not have to apologize for it.

Continuing to Rethink Creativity

A while back I wrote about creativity, suggesting that it was something that could only be achieved when trying to accomplish a goal. These notions came from conversations I’d had with educators who were engaged in one of my IdeaPlotter activities. It also, almost certainly, comes from my preference to inventiveness, as a goal for our continuing conversations about “twenty-first century skills.”

Then I did a fairly dramatic about face after seeing Graham Callum perform with his guitar at TEDxBANFF, noting how, because he taught himself how to play the instrument, played it like he invented it.

Now, holding an iPad in my hands, I am starting to think about creativity again. I’ve had it since Friday, and possibly owing to some busy preparations for a couple of events and some stinginess on my part for some personal time, I have not spent as much time with this machine as I’d thought such a new and amazing toy would demand. Only now am I doing with it on of the major reasons why I bought it — being able to write conveniently and comfortably without the inconvenience of a laptop or even the smaller and easier to carry net book.

So why creativity? Why now? Well it seems to be one of the peculiar qualities of this information device that it come mor as platform than a machine — that it’s true power will come from the creative and talented people who will recognize the gaps it might fill in the lives of people. I will concede, also, the creativity in the quirky, yet interesting apps that will serve no practical application other than something to show your friends.

I am finding that I am reading more. I’m not certain yet whether it’s the cool appeal of the iPad and the information experience it pits in your hands. ..or if there is some compelling quality to reading with such an accessible and interactive device. I will continue to think about this.

I think that we will continue to be surprised by some of the uses we’ll be putting out iPads to, such as this new adaptive rack, with which you can attaché you iPad to the kitchen cabinet for ready reference will you cook that new web recipe. You can read about it at Mashable and also watch a video. ((Dybwad, Barb. “iPad Gets Custom Install in the Kitchen Cabinet.” Mashable. Mashable, 5 May 2010. Web. 5 May 2010. .))

Note: I wasn’t very satisfied with the WordPress app, which vie used extensively on the iPhone. So I searched out other editors of which I only knew of one, Blogpress ($2.99). I always hesitate to pay. Don’t know why, when I’ll readily pay that much for a large bag of peanut M&Ms at the airport. Almost went for Captain’ Blog ($.99) if just for the name.

Location:Yadkin Dr,Raleigh,United States

Is This Creativity?

OK! I honestly do not know what this invention was meant to accomplish

Lassanya en verano / Lassanya in summer time by Mònica

Woe! Talk about biting off more than I can chew. But somebody asked a question the other day, during an unconference sessions I was running, and I knew this was going to be “blog-worthy. She asked, “What would Ken Robinson say?”

We were using my idea plotting tool to try to ramp up a basic classroom activity, so that it would provoke levels of thinking higher up Blooms Revised Taxonomy. Folks were suggesting enhancements to the lesson, and, as almost always happens, we got up to creating way to fast.

Each time that I do this activity, I find myself suggesting (while admitting that I might be wrong) that in order to be creative, the student’s work or procedures should be aimed at a specific objective, problem, or audience. There needs to be a goal. On that day someone suggested we click the (i) by Creativity, where upon the following definition popped out.

Putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganizing elements into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing.

Oops! No mention of “why.” I do not recall where I got that definition, because I hadn’t added the citation feature at the time that I added that scale. But Anderson & Krathwohl say pretty much the same thing in their description of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, defining creativity as:

Putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganizing elements into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing. ((Anderson, L.W., & Krathwohl, D.R. (Ed.). (2001). A Taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: a revision of bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives: complete edition. New York: Longman.))

OK, I guess I was shot down. Both definitions described process and outcome but not intent or goal. No mention of audience. No mention of the “why.”

Then someone asked, “What does Ken Robinson say about creativity?” ..and someone else in the group, within a minute read out,”

Creativity is “the process of having original ideas which have value. “((Robinson, K. (Speaker). (2006). Ken robinson says schools kill creativity. [Web]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html))

I had to go to the Sir Ken Robinson TED Talk video to find his definition, for the sake of this blog, and I felt vindicated, because Robinson says that there needs to be value — implying that it needs to do something for somebody.

It seems to me that to create (invent, innovate, etc.) you must have direction, and sense of where you are going, what you’re trying to solve, who you are trying to make a little happier. You my student combine ideas, objects, or procedures that accomplish the goal in a way that surprises me, then she has been creative.

But doesn’t come easily, and it doesn’t come without mistakes. How often do we give our students permission to make mistakes. As Robinson says later in his TED talk,

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you wan’t come up with anything original.”

What we do not want our students saying, is what I friend of mine’s daughter said recently when ask about the purpose of school. She said,

School is the place where you do not want to get caught being wrong.