06 July 2012

IMAGINE in MY school

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I have a hard time wading through classic Educator Lit and authors (I tried, Alfie, I tried), and though Imagine by Jonah Lehrer is not Educator Canon (yet), it has inspired me as a person and as a professional. About half-way through, I was struck with the vision of starting my own school. And that was even before I got to the chapter featuring a revolutionary school!

There is still a little bruise on my heart that circumstances conspired against me, leading me to turn down the chance to get in on the ground floor of this school, though I do have the chance to take my experience "building the airplane as we fly it" at a redesigned high school to a kind-of-new early college high school this fall. But one of these days, I dream of founding a school with other educators, visionaries in the field, based on what I know to be true about learning and young people. A lot of what I have seen first-hand was condensed and corroborated in this book.

I have to say, I highlighted the HECK out of my little Kindle app book while I was reading. I was going to share all the wonderful insights from this book, but there are FAAAAR too many for a blog post. I will try to highlight the highlights in another post, but for now, here are some of the most important takeaways I found in this book as an educator:
  1. Brains must be handled a certain way to tap into creativity.
  2. Creativity thrives on community: a balance of the familiar and fresh.
  3. We must implement 3 crucial meta-ideas in society to maximize creativity.
brain from Wikipedia
The anterior superior temporal gyrus (or aSTG) appears to be where the magic happens in the brain. According to Lehrer, "this small fold of tissue, located on the surface of the right hemisphere just above the ear, became unusually active in the seconds before an epiphany." Studies had already connected this region with some of the higher order aspects of language comprehension, such as "the detection of literary themes,   the interpretation of metaphors, and the comprehension of jokes." Now if that isn't a mixed bag of tricks, I don't know what is! But when you think about it, are these not the kind of stretches one expects of a brain engaged in creative thinking?

What creativity seems to boil down to, according to Lehrer's research, is the connection of concepts that ordinarily would not be connected, whether it's adhesives and sandpaper or Disney and computer engineers. And it seems these seemingly random connections happen best when we are relaxed, free from stress--that's why you keep a pen on your nightstand or right outside your shower, right? Lehrer's sources speculate that that is what dreams are: the uninhibited crossing of synapses that leads to inspiration. That is why 3M and Google have allotted dream time in their workdays: the unstructured mental recesses have been the greatest source of new products and advancements! Stress, however, would prevent us from producing wow-worthy work: it shorts out divergent thinking.

Convergent thinking, however, is fueled by stress. It is the refining stage that makes geniuses geniuses: even Kerouac refined his work, even if On the Road appeared to flow out in one take. The divergent thinking kept the ideas flowing, but they had to be honed. Some of Lehrer's sources suggest that the troubled artistic mind is either the direct cause or the direct effect of this careful attention. Einstein famously insisted he was not so smart, just that he stayed with the problem longer--Lehrer defines this as "grit." And isn't that what all of the greatest creative minds do?

NOCCA cultivates creativity in teens.
In MY school, therefore, there would be play time. However, as we are dealing with teenagers, there would be parameters, perhaps like NOCCA's, the New Orleans arts school cited by Lehrer. The students come to the school with a purpose, a skill they hope to refine. Maybe it would not be an artistic skill at my school, but they would have to have something they will WORK for.

NYTimes: "David Byrne, Cultural
Omnivore Raises Cycling
Rack to an Art Form

I confess I got a little bogged down in the section on the creative power of cities. I confess, too, that it played a role in my decision to work in a school affiliated with a community of over 80,000 rather than one closer to 600. It also made me feel a little better about not having spent my first 9 years in ONE classroom, but rather having spent no more than 4 years at any school so far (albeit for various non-creativity-related reasons).

The city is where all kinds of ideas are physically mashed together, so the conflation of seemingly unrelated ideas is almost inescapable. Talking Heads singer, David Byrne prefers to take the City in through his pores, biking everywhere, inspiring whole new genres of music and not-so-New-Wave side projects. Likewise, Pixar studios are built around the principle of making sure everyone meets up with someone different, by forced chance, throughout the day, even if it's in the unisex bathrooms.

But it is not just the unfamiliar or comfortable that stimulates us--perhaps related to the idea of relaxation leading to more divergent thinking? The theory of Q, that elusive balance of proven teams and infusions of new colleagues that led to West Side Story and Silicon Valley, is the goal in a community. Neither does mixing every one up all the time make for maximum creative flow. Switching around departments periodically, changing companies every few years: this allows people to get comfortable, but not too comfortable. Likewise, constructive criticism sessions have been found to be more productive than totally unfettered brainstorming.

In MY school, therefore, there would not only be play time, but collaboration. Not only collaboration, but constant and varied collaboration--not unlike that suggested by the Buck Insitute.

The Complete Works at MIT
Lehrer cites 3 meta-ideas (social concepts that support other ideas as introduced by economist Paul Romer) that made the Elizabethan outpouring of creativity possible: "benign neglect of the rules," "the concept of intellectual property," and "the single most important meta-idea of Elizabethan England": increased access to education. The first two almost contradict each other, in that Shakespeare would not be the hero he is today if he had not almost wholesale plagiarized his contemporaries and plots from Italian pulp fiction, but at the same time, the idea of patenting and copyrighting for the first time made ideas almost literal currency. The last is, of course, a no-brainer for those in my field.

In MY school, these meta-ideas would manifest somewhat differently than in Britain's Golden Age of literature. For intellectual property, the English teacher in me is a stickler for citation of course, and I do not yet see a clearer application of this meta-idea. Benign rule neglecting, however, will be key. Beyond fear of copyright retaliation, Shakespeare did not have to fear beheading if he upset the wrong royal. Basically, he'd be forced to re-write if his lines got a little too...dangerous. I can think of no more perfect "punishment" in a high school classroom! It does feel more like punishment for a teenager, of course, but if it is tempered with the ability to, say, explain why they thought Shakespeare should be taken out of high school English (one colleague's Buck Institute project idea!), then the trade-off might be worth it. As for equal access? I do kind of dig my new school's focus on "the middle 60%" and lottery system. Cherry picking is a luxury, but it comes back to the play time purpose: they have to find one to make it at MY school.

The CEO of NOCCA issues this clarion call toward the end of the book:
Everyone agrees that creativity is a key skill for the twenty-first century...But we're not teaching our kids this skill. We've become so obsessed with rote learning, with making sure that kids memorize the year of some old battle. But in this day and age that's the least valuable kind of learning. That's the stuff you can look up on your phone! If our graduates are going to succeed in the real world, then they have to be able to make stuff.
 So, my fellow educators, let us remember to keep our eyes on fostering creativity, making sure our kids are able to make stuff, and not just become handy devices that can pull up trivia at the touch of a button. Immerse yourself in Imagine and imagine with me what we could do in OUR schools.

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