2016.05.13 Creativity, Innovation. Part 1.

"Dad, how many grains of sand are in the Sahara?", "Mom, why is the moon bigger when it is rising than when it is in the sky?", "I wish I could go back in time to before I ate this ice cream. Then I could eat it again.", "How do you measure the hight of a sky scraper with a barometer?"

In this day and age we often resort to Ask.com, Google, or other nifty "pocket tools" when a discussion comes up to which we don't know the answer.

That is very useful, particularly if the person asking is an adult. If the questioner is a child, we should, however, consider keeping the "source of all knowledge" in the pocket for at least a little while.

Research into creativity has shown that pondering open-ended questions trains children to look for solutions widely while looking for the answer schools them towards the textbook knowledge and stifles them from looking "outside the box". The expression "schools them" is chosen on purpose. Our schools are too often looking for textbook answers - and only the textbook answers - even when they start questions with "In your opinion..."

So if we want our kids to be creative, we need to keep the phone in the pocket and ask open-ended questions instead. Questions like "How would you even begin to figure that out?"

In my case, the first question was pondered many years ago by dragging out the atlas and making some assumptions about the size of the Sahara, making other assumptions about the depth of the layers of sand, and by taking out a millimeter gauge to measure the size of grains of sand.

The process taught me about assumptions - and about checking assumptions since they may well be wrong. It also taught me that sand comes in many varieties and that my sand and your sand may not be entirely the same, even if we think we talk about the same thing. This is knowledge glassmakers have known for eons. It is also knowledge that can be transferred to many other life experiences, particularly when living among people who grew up "anywhere else."

The sad reality is that as much as we live in an era of unprecedented innovation, children in the Western world have become less creative when measured on how they would use a set of blocks, make drawings based on a given set of forms, or extemporize from a given starting point. When comparing data collected over the last thirty years, the level of creativity that 30 years back was exceeded by half the children measured (the 1984 median) is only exceeded by 15% of the children in the most recent datasets.

The measurement of creativity in the lower grades had 3 times as good a prediction rate for later success in life than had IQ measurements. Success is not only based on how smart you are but on how good you are at combining what you know into solving the problems you meet. Sometimes that takes you outside textbook learning.

(According to legend, the person who among a handful of more technical solutions suggested giving the barometer to the janitor as a "thank you" for telling him the hight of the sky scraper was later rewarded the Nobel Prize in physics - his name was Niels Bohr.)