Unpacking epiphany

What “big ideas” do people discuss at ideas festivals? At this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival (which runs through tomorrow), some people are discussing how to measure imagination and creativity. According to Scott Barry Kaufman, director of the Imagination Institute, we are  failing to identify creative students; some get labeled as learning disabled.

Before continuing, I must admit to two things: serious doubt that “big ideas” ultimately carry the day (I generally favor medium-sized ideas, though I consider the quality of an idea more important than its size), and occasional fascination with some of them. Overall, I favor pursuing these ideas but not jumping to conclusions about their applications and implications.

For instance, this passage (from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education) struck me as interesting, though not revelatory, since it meshes with my own experience:

Meanwhile, Mark Beeman wants to unpack epiphany. One thing Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has found is that, before a sudden insight, people show increased activity in several parts of the brain including an area known as the anterior cingulate cortex. Also, before an insight, people tend to be focused on something other than the problem they’re trying to solve, like playing with their kids or taking a shower.

But I would be wary of a pedagogical approach that involved steering students onto another topic in order to produce an insight about the topic left behind. “Ok, everyone, stop what you’re doing and draw a tree!”

Identifying creative students is a worthy goal, but creativity comes in many forms, and I doubt one test, or even a “battery” of tests, could detect them all. The Chronicle article notes the limitations of current creativity tests:

The tools that we now have to measure creativity are fairly crude. A researcher might ask someone to list alternate uses for a bowl and then count the number of ideas he or she comes up with. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t get at the deep creativity necessary to become a brilliant physicist or a mind-blowing sculptor. Something else is going on there, and it’s worth figuring out what it is.

Amen. Too often I have seen creativity equated with brainstorming, and they are not the same.

One possibility–not mentioned in the article–is that “deep creativity” has something to do with deep involvement in a particular subject or medium. That is, you aren’t “creative” in a vacuum; it’s your relation to the subject that draws your creativity out. Also, there’s a doggedness that goes with creativity. It isn’t a static trait.

Thus, even if we had better creativity tests, there’s still a good chance that people would get mislabeled. It’s one thing to show some traits that are generally associated with creativity; it’s another to do something with them.

There’s much more to say on this subject–but since I’m traveling today, I’ll leave it at that.

Genius is in the doing

We’re paying too much attention to child geniuses, argues Jordan Ellenberg, a former prodigy who’s now a math professor and writer.

I started reading at 2. I could multiply two-digit numbers in my head when I was 5. One of my earliest memories is working out a way to generate Pythagorean triples. In third grade, I commuted to the local junior high to take geometry.

. . . Many advocates for gifted education are similarly delighted by kids like me, seeing us as a kind of natural resource, one we risk squandering as surely as we do fossil fuels. . . . “These are the people who are going to figure out all the riddles,” the Vanderbilt University psychologist David Lubinski said in a recent interview. “Schizophrenia, cancer—they’re going to fight terrorism, they’re going to create patents and the scientific innovations that drive our economy. But they are not given a lot of opportunities in schools that are designed for typically developing kids.”

Most child prodigies grow up to be highly successful adults, Ellenberg writes. But “most highly successful people weren’t child prodigies.” Don’t expect the geniuses to solve all the riddles, he writes. The other 99 percent will have to do most of the work.

The cult of genius tends to undervalue hard work and the productive persistence that psychologists nowadays like to call “grit” — not to mention creativity, perspective and taste, without which all those other virtues may be wasted on pointless projects.

His math students believe that it’s not worth doing math unless you’re the best, one of the “special few,” complains Ellenberg, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin. If you’re not a genius, you’re chopped liver. “Genius is a thing that happens, not a kind of person,” he concludes.

U.S. teens are above average at problem solving

PISA Problem SolvingU.S. 15-year-olds score just above the world average on PISA’s “creative problem-solving” exam, but below students in Asia, Canada, Australia, Finland, Britain and other European countries.   

“Students might be asked to identify the cheapest lines of furniture in a catalog showing different brands,” reports the New York Times. “At a more advanced level, students could be asked to develop a process for figuring out why a particular electronic device was not working properly.

American students did well at “interactive” tasks that required them to find some of the information needed to solve the problem. “This suggests that students in the United States are open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty, and dare to use intuition to initiate a solution,” the O.E.C.D. said in a statement.

But Asian students — who typically do best in math and science exams — also outperformed the U.S. students on “interactive” problems. 

“To understand how to navigate a complex problem and exercise abstract reasoning is actually a very strong point for the Asian countries,” said Francesco Avvisati, an analyst. 

The results don’t support the U.S. reputation for creativity, writes Joy Resmovits in the Huffington Post. 

Critics say the top-performing Asian countries “aren’t teaching kids to think creatively and problem-solve,” author Amanda Ripley said. “Well, now we have a test that gets closer to measuring those skills than any other — and they are killing it. Again.”

Here are some sample questions.

Hard working, high scoring — and creative

“Let others have the higher test scores” on international exams, says anti-reformer Diane Ravitch. “I prefer to bet on the creative, can-do spirit of the American people.” 

It’s a false tradeoff, argues Brandon Wright on Flypaper. Those hard-working, high-scoring Koreans and Japanese could be just as innovative as Americans.  

Bloomberg News lists the most innovative countries in the world based on factors including R&D intensity, productivity, high-tech density and percentage of researchers. The U.S. is third, but look at who’s number one.

  1. South Korea (score: 92.10)
  2. Sweden (score: 90.80)
  3. United States (score: 90.69)
  4. Japan (score: 90.41)
  5. Germany (score: 88.23)

Yes, it’s those cram-schooled, stress-crazed Koreans who’ve built a thriving economy out of the ruins of war.

South Korea — often ridiculed for working its students too hard and robbing them of creative, independent thought — might be the most innovative country in the world. Japan, subject to similar derision, slides in comfortably at number four.

“Rigid” Germany – one of only three countries whose PISA math and equity scores have improved since 2003 — is number five on Bloomberg’s list.

“No trade-offs between academic performance and innovation are obvious,” Wright concludes.

LEGO kid builds cheap Braille printer

The Braigo, a low-cost Braille print, was built out of a $350 set of LEGO MINDSTORMS.A California seventh grader has built a low-cost Braille printer out of LEGOs, reports the New York Daily News.

Shubham Banerjee, 12, used a $350 LEGO Mindstorms set, modifying a robot model to make a “Braigo” printer. Basic Braille printers retail for about $2,000 online.

“This is so easy, even my little sister can do it,” Shubham says in a YouTube video.

When his family received an appeal to help the blind, Banerjee decided to get creative. He plans to be an engineer, scientist or surgeon.

The Lego Movie is awesome

The Lego Movie, like its theme song, is awesome, writes Boris Zelkin on PJ Media.  It’s “a paean to individual liberty” and creativity — and to “the value of collective effort.”

Emmet, our everyman mini-fig,  lives in a world where Everything is Awesome, even drinking overpriced coffee. Yet he discovers an underground resistance.

In this seeming utopia, people’s individuality exists within a very narrow framework; namely the instruction book. This book, a Lego instruction manual, clearly and vividly, through the use of simple pictograms, lays out out the required steps necessary to live a good and productive life as a citizen.  Deviation from the instruction booklet is illegal.

The society is presided over by President Business, a charismatic politician and owner of the only business in the Lego world. In our LegoTopia, it turns out that the corporation and the government are, in fact, one in the same.

The creative but quarrelsome “master builders” need to unite to fight for freedom. 

China discovers Waldorf

China’s growing middle class has discovered Waldorf Education, writes Ian Johnson in the New Yorker. In the past 10 years, 200 Waldorf kindergartens and 30 elementary schools have opened. “The movement is quickly becoming one of the most influential countercultures in a country that is still searching for its national identity,” writes Johnson.

China’s state-run schools rely on rigorous, highly competitive exams, while Waldorf schools stress play, creativity and independence.

(A father) said that it was admirable that Waldorf granted children a lot of freedom, but that certain basic norms, such as common courtesy and viewing others as equals, had to be instilled first. He thought that this didn’t occur in Chinese homes, partly because the single-child policy has created a generation of ‘little emperors,’ doted on by two parents and four grandparents.

Chinese parents “don’t even know if their children will get a proper degree that will allow them to enter college, but they’re willing to risk that, because they don’t want a state education,” Nana Göbel told Johnson.

Thank God I wasn’t college material

Thank God I wasn’t college material, writes Matt Walsh.

He hated high school.

I dreaded every class, every assignment, every test, every worksheet, every mound of busywork, every shallow and forced interaction with peers I couldn’t relate to or connect with or understand; every moment, every second, every part, every inch of every aspect of my public educational experience.”

One day in detention, the teacher asked what he wanted to do with his life. He thought maybe he could be a writer. Writing was the only thing that came naturally.

 That’s when she dropped the bombshell: “Well, that sounds like an amazing goal, Matt. Get those grades up and go to college for a degree in creative writing!”

. . . I have to go to college to do the one thing I’m kind of halfway good at doing? I have to finish high school and then go through FOUR MORE YEARS OF THIS? Impossible. I’m not college material. I’m not even high school material.

And I have to get a DEGREE in CREATIVITY? Wait, WHAT? Your creativity comes from your own mind and your own heart — you can’t learn how to be creative. If I can write things, and people want to read the things that I write, shouldn’t I be able to market that ability, regardless of my college experience?

Walsh never went to college. That means he didn’t “amass a gigantic debt” or “miss out on four or five years” developing his skills.  He supports his family of four as a writer. 

College makes sense for future doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like, Walsh writes. But it’s a scam for most students.

Something has to change. Listen to me on this one. Something HAS to change. This can’t continue. It is not a sustainable model. There are millions of kids with no assets, no plans, and no purpose, taking out enormous loans to purchase a piece of paper they’ll likely never use. It can’t go on this way.

. . . Total student debt has gone up by 275 percent in the last decade. How far will it climb, how many more kids will be thrown to the wolves, before we change direction? Since I was born, college tuition rates have gone up by 500 percent. FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT. Why do we send guys like Bernie Madoff to prison while the academic elite get away with gouging an entire generation to death?

Don’t send your kids to college” unless they’re pursuing a career that requires a degree, he writes. 

Writers can demonstrate their skills by writing. In many other fields, it’s harder to prove competence. But certifications, digital badges and such like could help young adults show what they know.

PISA denial

U.S. educators are downplaying PISA results that show Asian countries excel, while the U.S. rank is slipping, writes Marc Tucker in PISA Denial. After all, few Asians are winning Nobel prizes or “starting game-changing business like Apple, Oracle, Google or Microsoft,” they argue. Maybe PISA measures things that aren’t very important, while U.S. schools are teaching creativity and innovation.

That’s sophistry, responds Tucker.  Those game-changing entrepreneurs are highly educated and innovative and creative. Their companies don’t hire creative people with mediocre reading, writing and math skills.

 They do not have to choose between well-educated and highly competent people, on the one hand, and creative and innovative people on the other. They demand and can get both. In the same person.

PISA measures “the ability to apply what is learned to real world problems” and increasingly is focusing on applying knowledge to “unanticipated, novel problems,” writes Tucker.

Creativity does not take place in a knowledge vacuum. It is typically the product of the rubbing together, so to speak, of two or more bodies of knowledge, of holding up the framework associated with one body of knowledge to another arena that it was not designed to illuminate. When that happens, odds are that the new insights, born of the application of the old framework to the novel problem, will emerge. The literature tells us that this means that you are most likely to get the kind of creativity we are most interested in from highly educated people who are deeply versed in very different arenas.

Asian educators are working hard to learn from U.S. schools, writes Tucker. They want to place more stress on individual initiative without accepting the “violence and chaos” they see as the cultural price. Some Americans want Asian achievement levels with less social conformity, but we’re not really trying to get there. Instead, “we are working hard at denial.”

PISA matters, agrees Eric Hanushek, who disposes of several excuses for U.S. mediocrity.

 While our low ranking has been seen on earlier international assessments, there are many reasons to believe that low cognitive skills (as assessed by PISA) will be increasingly important for our economic future.

We don’t have to be Singapore or Korea. If the U.S. could reach Canadian achievement levels, the average worker would earn 20 percent more, Hanushek writes.

BTW, Silicon Valley, where I live, is filled with entrepreneurs educated in India, China and elsewhere.  Forty-four percent of Silicon Valley start-ups were founded by immigrant entrepreneurs in 2012, down from 52 percent in 2005.

Geniuses teach themselves

“Gifted” education doesn’t do much for geniuses, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. “An occasional pullout class is likely to be less interesting to them than their own research in their parents’ bookcases, kitchens, the local library and the Internet,” he writes.

Our schools have more than they can handle in helping other students become fully functioning adults. There may be something to the view that socially awkward geniuses need a safe place to be weird, but the better approach is to focus on stopping bullying of all kids. Public schools are mostly successful at finding people who know how to teach English, math, history and science, but we don’t know how to encourage creativity very well and might find it better to let the gifted do their own exploring.

He offers a counter-example: In her 1977 book, Turning On Bright Minds: A Parent Looks at Gifted Education in Texas, Julie Ray profiled a Houston sixth-grader she called Tim.

He was in an ambitious public school’s gifted-education program that would later be called Vanguard. Tim was reading dozens of books and had several science projects underway. He was surveying classmates in order to rate all the school’s teachers. He loved the school’s small group discussions, where he was free to share his wildest ideas.

“Tim” appears in Brad Stone’s new book, The Everything Store. His real name is  Jeff Bezos. His store is Amazon.

Checker Finn is researching how other countries educate high-ability students. No country does it very well. Singapore is the best — but only for the top 1 percent.

“Nobody is compensating well for the absence of pushy, prosperous, influential parents,” though Hungary is trying hard to reach disadvantaged students.