Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Time to show some imagination in our schools?

'Imagination is infused in all thought processes'

‘Imagine’ is the title of an exciting book by Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer’s book, he writes, ‘is about our most important mental talent; the ability to imagine what has never existed’. It is a book about creativity and how it is seen as something mysterious – something that comes from somewhere else. Lehrer’s book returns the focus by ‘to the source of the imagination: three pounds of flesh inside the skull’.

We now know enough about the brain to understand how imagination works. Creativity is no longer to be seen as a separate kind of cognition it is now seen as infused in all thought processes. The human brain has the creative impulse to make new associations built into its operating system until dulled by education.
Lehrer’s book explores the creative process – a process that is innate from birth but all too often seen as the ‘magic’ territory of ‘creative’ gifted individuals and sadly ignored in mainstream education.
 Lehrer explores the conditions under which creativity is encouraged; the influence of the surrounding environment; the creative process; the importance of collaboration - and what kinds of organisations (including classrooms) would increase creativity?
These are the issues that should exercise educator’s minds not worrying about implementing the narrowing effects of National Standards.
‘Every creative journey’, writes Lehrer ‘begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find answers’…’When we have no ideas what to do next’.
All too often this frustration, attempts that fail, are left out of discussing creativity but the feelings of being stumped is an essential part of the process. ‘Before we can find an answer – before we even know the question – we must be immersed in disappointment…..it is only at this point, after we stop searching for the answer, that the answers arrives.’ This unfolding process is also covered in another exciting book 'Where Good Ideas Come From' .
Schools, with their emphasis on defined measurable outcomes, are the antithesis of the creative process.
It seems school focus too much on the logical literal left hemisphere of the brain rather than the more metaphorical artistic  right side  but research now shows we need both to process information  - brains that can see the forest and the trees. ‘Chance’ as Pasteur wrote, ‘favours the prepared mind’. It is the struggle that forces us to try something new – to look at problems from a new perspective – to break out of traditional constraints.
Lehrer discusses businesses that are defined by their innovative thinking such as 3M (only beaten in the innovation stakes by Google and Apple). 3M requires every employee to make time for activities, to speculate on new ideas that at first glance might seem unproductive - to take regular breaks, to take a walk in the park, or to daydream! This produces a happy positive atmosphere. Such unfocused activities allow imagination and creativity to flourish. Such ‘attention deficit’ has its advantages. To think harder is the wrong advice for struggling learners!
A second strategy at 3M is to encourage people to share their knowledge across fields to encourage ‘conceptual blending’. The history of innovation is full of inventors mixing up old ideas into new inventions. Often outsiders have the advantage of knowing less and can seeideas hidden by habit to others.  Youth’, writes Lehrer, ‘are natural outsiders… they haven’t been encultured… so they often invent more…time steals ingenuity’. Gutenberg transformed wine press into a printing machine. 3M rotated their engineers between departments to encourage this sharing.
Imagine schools following these successful strategies?
One myth about creativity is that it is associated with ideas coming in a flash – as an epiphany. This myth ignores the painstaking work that surrounds them. And when new ideas are revealed that is only the beginning – they still need work, through drafting, revising, refining and that this is often not fun. Lots of new ideas have to fight for attention. Sometimes it is impossible to see the forest for the trees.
School students need to appreciate being confused and the perseverance involved – ‘stick-ability’ is an important trait to encourage.
Creativity has two opposing drives, one is to spontaneously create new ideas and the other to resolve messiness and impose order onto the disorder of reality; divergent and convergent thinking. The creative brain modifies its own sense of what is important. And, when accomplished, ‘we suddenly look at reality through a slightly different lens’.
This is the essence of learning – it is not about teachers ‘transmitting’ knowledge it is about students ‘constructing’ - or, as it says in the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum, ‘seeking, using and creating their own knowledge’. Answers cannot be decided in advance – contrary to what many teachers believe in their classrooms. Interestingly many innovative students have a feeling that they are on the right track – that the answer is within reach - that keeps them going. The next thought might be the answer! Worrying about making mistakes limits such thinking- mistakes are part of the process. An inner voice telling you not to do something, or constraints imposed from above such as National Standards pressure, kills creativity.
There is no such thing as a creative type.  ‘All of us’, Lehrer reminds us, ‘have a vast reservoir of untapped creativity’. People need to be reminded that creativity is a doing word. It’s about paying attention. – constantly reefing ideas It’s about taking an idea into your head and transforming that idea into something real. Nothing good is ever easy.  And developing new creative ideas can come with risks upsetting the status quo. ‘If you are at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed’ which can cause problem for such innovators.
To be creative requires a learner to be able to let go of past success or present ‘best practice’. Continual improvisation is the name of the game so as to spontaneously generate new ideas. The ability to improvise require learner be immersed in the field they are studying. An obsessive interest in an area of learning is valuable – it pays to have a touch of Aspersers it seems.
Escaping the inhibitory limits of the mind has been summarized by Picasso: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist bonce we grow up.’ This explains why the very young are so effortlessly creative; their censors don’t exist. As children move through their schooling they soon learn to conform to their teachers expectations – for better or worse. When asked many adult creative people give the advice to ‘aspire to the state of the beginner’ – to create simply for the pleasure of it.
Creativity need not slip away. Everybody can develop the mind-set to innovate our lives if we keep open to new challenges, and retain the thinking of the very young and if we are in a creative learning culture.
Maybe this is the true purpose of a future orientated education system – to ensure all students have the opportunity to develop all their innate gifts and talents. ‘The real moral’ writes Lehrer, ‘is that creativity isn’t a phase of life – it’s a state of mind.’
‘The larger lesson, he writes, ‘is that our thoughts are shackled by the familiar…the brain spends a lot of time and energy choosing what to ignore. As result creativity is traded for efficiency… physiologists refer to this bias as functional fixedness’.
It is time to forget what we know about education and the current ways we organise our schools and imagine new idea about how to educate our youth for a world we can never imagine. Schools could introduce master- apprenticeship approaches; students learning by doing. Students should spend all their time creating not being bored by formulaic literacy and numeracy tasks. Schools need to value more unstructured open ended play rather than teacher imposed tasks. ‘Children should learn what it takes to get good at something, to struggle and fail and try again… to manage their own time and persevere in the face of difficulties... how to keep on working until the job is done’.
Lehrer writes, ‘What kind of culture do we want to create? Is it a world full of ideas that can be connected? It is time to create the kind of culture that won’t hold us back. Are we willing to invest in risk takers? Do schools produce students ready to create’?’’ ‘It is not enough to raise the test scores….we have to ensure that those with talents are allowed to flourish…we must identify those with motivation and potential and give them the tools to discover and invent’

Our current government educational policies, and the inability of current schools to re-imagine themselves, will ensure New Zealand will fail to become a creative country.


Allan Alach said...

Absolutely. Very well expressed, Bruce. Hopefully the light will return to banish the educational dark ages - time for a new renaissance to drive away the forces of ignorance and prejudice. It's not too hard to draw a comparison with the historical dark ages and the fight to overcome the thought control of the church and authorities.

Bruce said...

Time, I think Allan, to re-imagine our schools to equip students for a future beyond the imagination of politicians and Ministry officials - mind you that wouldn't be hard.

What are Labour up to?

Somehow don't think school principals are up to it either! Too busy trying to look good!

Anonymous said...

"This is the essence of learning – it is not about teachers ‘transmitting’ knowledge..."

Exactly--especially in this day and age! We have experienced a MAJOR shift via technology whereby any piece of information you want to know or any specific skill you need to learn is literally available at your fingertips. My daughter recently learned how to do vibrato on the violin by watching and re-watching a video on YouTube; but her love for and appreciation of the instrument and its music she got from her teacher.

Policymakers continue to be obsessed with "achievement"--how much 'stuff' has the student "learned"? They are obsessed with content, when (specific) content is really secondary in some respects. What students need to learn are habits of mind--problem-solving, analytical thinking, empathy, and so on along with the ability to learn and a passion for learning. There is no age limit for learning things off the Internet (or elsewhere); and more free courses pop up every day. But students need to have the learning skills and habits of mind in place in order to take advantage of those opportunities.

Students should be thought of as learner apprentices; and EVERY child should have the right to study with a master educator in a fully-resourced learning environment for the dozen or so years s/he is in school.

Bruce said...

Thank you anon. Couldn't agree more.

Learning how to learn in the process of developing meaningful end products is what it is all about.

Aquiring content is easy these days but making it your own (meaningful) is another thing.

Teacher as Transformer said...

Bruce,this is a great article and reference to this book. I have not read it yet, but I am now lining it up.

An issue which is really problematic is not only are we in the educational dark ages (per Allan's comment), but we have a lot of 'innovations' piled one on top of the other. We will need to extricate ourselves out from underneath this.

My experience is that most principals, bureaucrats, technocrats, and politicians I know are not up to the work ahead. They prefer to have an echo chamber of one-handed applause for their lonely ideas.