Implications from Imagine for Schools (Part One)

Jonah’s Lehrer’s Imagine is a quick, compelling read about the science behind creativity.  Every chapter contains something relevant (and arguable) for how we think about teaching and schools. Lehrer writes:

“the standard definition of creativity is completely wrong.  Every since the ancient Greeks people have assumed that the imagination is separate from other kinds of cognition.  Instead creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes.”

Every time I think we have the hang of this growth mindset thing as an organization, a school, hell as an individual there’s proof that we have a long way to go.  The growth mindset in our schools might be strong in regards to kids’ academic performance and character development but I bet an audit of our hearts and minds would reveal that we divide the world (and ourselves) into the creative and the pluggers.

The flash of inspiration can be taught or as Lehrer writes “It shouldn’t be reserved for the creative types.”

Lehrer quotes Milton Glaser, one of the premier graphic artists of our time apparently, “There is no such thing as a creative type.  As if creative people can just show up and make stuff up.  As if it were that easy.  I think people need to be reminded that creativity is a verb, a very time consuming verb.

This is perhaps the biggest challenge posed by the book: How do we recognize creativity, not simply as a magic, but as something that can cultivated?

A common though misguided criticism of schools like ours with a strong sense of order and common purpose is that this  is in opposition to creativity.  Creativity’s association with chaos and free-spiritedness isn’t entirely wrong according to Lehrer.   When your right brain clicks into gear it’s often making wild connections entirely different from the ones your frontal cortex.

However there are KIPP schools that do a marvelous job of fostering student creativity.  I saw this the other night at our high school’s poetry slam; the warm and supportive culture allowed the poets to range from the surreal goofy to the confessional to the political.   The same culture makes it safe for every 9th grader to take a rigorous visual arts course where their daily work is on display in the cafeteria.  This is something you couldn’t have made me do at knife-point in high school.

In an 8th grade writing class at RISE Academy (KIPP Newark)   I watched an 8th grade boy share a piece of Harry Potter fan fiction and get rabid applause from him teammates rather than the jeers that would greet most middle school boys in that instance.  The safety of the culture allows kids to share, to get judged, and try again.  It’s the dream of writing workshops everywhere.

I loved having an improv elective (started by the inimitable Kelly Dunn) at my first KIPP school in Gaston, NC.  It forced our kids to take risks and be incredibly weird.

The arts, music, and to a lesser degree creative writing are part of many of our schools. This is something we are proud of and cuts against current trends in education.   The same commitment to quality teaching and warm/demanding school culture makes our schools fertile ground to do more for creativity.  I worry that the creativity is too often confined to the arts. A few things I am wondering about:

Will beefing up the engineering section of our science curriculum tap kids’ creative energy?

If as Lehrer suggests there is wild associate creativity and focused creativity, are we making this explicit to kids as they create?  My hunch is no.

Should we have a science fair and an engineering fair and an entrepreneurs/investors fair to make events celebrating different kinds of creative minds?

How often do our homework and classwork assignments  prime kids for creative though and action?

How intentional are we about the sharing of student work in order to spread ideas and give kids models?

In a future post I’ll try to write about the implications of Imagine for teachers and leaders.  I’d love to hear how other schools are thinking about any of these ideas.

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5 Responses to “Implications from Imagine for Schools (Part One)”

  1. Charles Says:

    Creativity is so intimately connected to risk and research seems to continually show that risk comfort is pretty hard wired. Even the slightest mention of risk can make some people’s whole body language change as their muscles stiffen, seeking to hide inside themselves.
    Fortunately, choice is making education an extremely entrepreneurial sector and we can expect a greater influx of creative/risk-tolerant people.
    Now, its true that thriving work environments tend to promote creativity; Zappos comes to mind. Still, even the case of this company, they dedicate a considerable amount of their resources to selection.
    I remember one of their hiring questions is “on a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?” which is, at its heart, a question about risk and creativity. I think they automatically throw out anyone who answers 1-4. Their other question, “on a scale of 1 to 10, how lucky are you?” approximates the same thing.

  2. Paul Friedmann - teacher at Brooke Charter School - Roslindale Says:

    did you notice that this book just got pulled from the shelves? author’s a fraud…

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