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.

Do we want a cure for Walter Mitty?

“Sluggish cognitive tempo,” a new medical term for excessive daydreaming, could save lost-in-a-fog children and adults from being misdiagnosed with attention deficit disorder, writes Diana Senechal. But she worries that Walter Mitty and Fern will be cured of imagination.

If James Thurber’s Walter Mitty had been diagnosed with SCT, he’d stay “on task” and remember to buy the puppy biscuits. There’d be no “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.”  (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of my favorite stories of all time.)

Not all wandering minds are lost, Senechal writes.

I have had students who had difficulty staying on task because they were thinking about the subject in an interesting way – as well as students who seemed “off-task” because they were actually concentrating hard (and not taking notes as the others were). I myself tended not to take notes in school; I preferred to listen and think.

If we “faulted, diagnosed and fixed” all the daydreamers, “the world would fill up with dreary essays that never departed from the rubric,” writes Senechal.

In Charlotte’s Web, Fern’s mother pays a visit to the family doctor, Dr. Dorian, in order to seek his advice about Fern, who, in her view, spends far too much time alone with the animals, just sitting and listening to them. Dr. Dorian leans back, closes his eyes, and says, “How enchanting!”

Senechal will discuss solitude on BBC’s  The Forum this weekend.

Let boys be boys

Schools should help boys succeed instead of treating them as “defective girls,” writes Christina Hoff Sommers in Time.

Compared with girls, boys earn lower grades, win fewer honors and are less likely to go to college. One education expert has quipped that if current trends continue, the last male will graduate from college in 2068.

“The ability to regulate one’s impulses, sit still and pay attention are building blocks of success in school and in life,” she writes. Boys need help to learn these skills.

Sommers suggests more unstructured play time. Children in Japan get 10 minutes of play every hour. More recess could mean less Ritalin.

To turn boys into readers, teachers should know what boys like. She suggests Guysread.com for “lists of books that have proved irresistible to boys.”

Finally, “work with the young male imagination.”

In his delightful Boy Writers: Reclaiming their Voices, celebrated author and writing instructor Ralph Fletcher advises teachers to consider their assignments from the point of view of boys. Too many writing teachers, he says, take the “confessional poet” as the classroom ideal. Personal narratives full of emotion and self-disclosure are prized; stories describing video games, skateboard competitions or a monster devouring a city are not.

. . . Along with personal “reflection journals,” Fletcher suggests teachers permit fantasy, horror, spoofs, humor, war, conflict and, yes, even lurid sword fights.

“If boys are constantly subject to disapproval for their interests and enthusiasms, they are likely to become disengaged and lag further behind,” Sommers concludes.
Soldier drawn by 8-year-old.
As a perfect illustration of her point, an Arizona school threatened to expel an 8-year-old boy who drew pictures of an armed soldier, ninja and Star Wars character as possible Halloween costumes. His parents withdrew him from Scottsdale Country Day School.

The headmaster told the father the third grader’s art was “highly disturbing.” The headmaster had highlighted words in the boy’s journal he found violent and unacceptable, the father told CBS5.

For example, the boy had written about escaping a killer zombie at a haunted school:

“I’d open the window, but, stand back quickly. Booby-trapped. Shoot the gadget – a rope gun – I’d swing across without getting hit.”

Many of the third-grader’s other journal entries were about saving the earth and protecting humanity.

In one passage, he wrote he’d like the ability to stop an atom bomb and stop bullets.

The headmaster told the father his son was a threat to the safety of the other children.

As Instapundit puts it: When they make you a school principal do they at least pay for the lobotomy?

Reading for emotional intelligence

Reading literary fiction develops empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence, according to a new study reported in the New York Times.

Understanding others’ mental states, known as “Theory of Mind” (ToM), is a critical social skill, researchers write. People who read a short piece of literature did better on ToM tests than those who read excerpts of popular fiction, nonfiction or nothing at all.

“Literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity,” researchers believe.

 “This is why I love science,” Louise Erdrich, whose novel The Round House was used in one of the experiments, wrote in an e-mail. The researchers, she said, “found a way to prove true the intangible benefits of literary fiction.”

“Thank God the research didn’t find that novels increased tooth decay or blocked up your arteries,” she added.

The study could give ammunition to critics of the Common Core standards, which call for students to read more nonfiction. Inevitably, that means less time reading literature.

Participants were tested on their ability to decode emotions or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs. For example, in one test, they studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion shown.

Is the woman with the smoky eyes aghast or doubtful? Is the man whose gaze has slivered to a squint suspicious or indecisive? Is she interested or irritated, flirtatious or hostile? Is he fantasizing or guilty, dominant or horrified?

Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says researcher Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research. “You know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.”

With no soccer ball, every child ‘wins’

According to the Soccer Association of Midlake, kids imaginations are runnign wild. (Steve DePolo/FLICKR)

According to the Soccer Association of Midlake, kids imaginations are running wild. (Steve DePolo/FLICKR)

Worried about too much competition, many Canadian youth soccer associations no longer keep score, reports This is That, a CBC radio show. Removing the soccer ball is even better, according to the Soccer Association of Midlake, Ontario.

Without a ball, “it’s absolutely impossible to say ‘this team won’ and ‘this team lost’ or ‘this child is better at soccer than that child,’” said Helen Dabney-Coyle. “We want our children to grow up learning that sport is not about competition, rather it’s about using your imagination. If you imagine you’re good at soccer, then, you are.”

Is this for real? No, it’s satire. But it’s eerily close to plausible.

Relevant schmelevant

Britain’s new “children’s laureate” wants to encourage reading by giving minority students books about people like themselves. “I still remember feeling I was totally invisible in the world of literature,” said Malorie Blackman. “I understand you need to learn about Henry VIII, but when I was young I wanted to learn about something that felt more relevant.”

Relevant, schmelevant, responds Howard Jacobson in The Independent. As a working-class, northern, Jewish boy, he didn’t consider his own visibility when he read books.

“Where are the Jews?” It’s possible that one of the reasons we refrained from asking that question was that when a Jew did pop up in literature we wished he hadn’t. Thanks, Fagin, but no thanks. . . . We didn’t read to self-identify. . . . We read for precisely the opposite reason – in order imaginatively to enjoy the company of others, in order to understand what those who were not ourselves were like, in order to feel the world expand around us, in order to go places we didn’t routinely go to in our neighbourhoods or in our heads, in order to meet the challenge of difference . . . Reading felt like a journey out of self, not into it. And if occasionally we thought we saw something specific to us in Hamlet, or Heathcliff, that was interesting but not obligatory.

. . . Madame Bovary c’est moi, Flaubert declared, invoking the writer’s creed. The reader’s creed is similar. Jane Eyre c’est moi, I felt when I read Charlotte Brontë’s great novel at school, and she was no less moi because she was a girl. . . .  I was not invisible when I read Jane Eyre a) because the best writers make general what’s particular, and b) because I, who had not been taught to go looking for myself missing, honoured the writer/reader compact and found me in characters who weren’t me.

When “relevance” entered the education debate, Jacobson knew knew the outcome, he writes. It has “demeaned those it pretended to help by assuming limits to their curiosity, denied those it offered to empower, cutting off their access to ‘irrelevant’ intellectual pleasure and enlightenment.” It “narrowed the definition of learning to the chance precincts of an individual’s class or upbringing.”

Once education “assumed an equality of eagerness for knowledge, and an equality of right to acquire it,” Jacobson concludes. That’s no longer “relevant.”

As a child I loved reading historical fiction and history, adventure, fantasy . . . Like Jacobson, I didn’t read to find myself. People like me were boring. I wanted to get out of the box of self and see the world.

When Ta-Nehisi Coates talks to black students, he tells them education is “a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination.”

From boredom to creativity

A little boredom is good for children, Dr. Teresa Belton told the BBC. Children who are kept active and stimulated every minute don’t have a chance to develop their imaginations, argued Belton, senior researcher at the University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning.

Interviewing writers, artists and other creative people, Belton heard many stories of boring childhoods. Writer Meera Syal grew up in a small mining village with few distractions.

“Boredom is often associated with solitude and Syal spent hours of her early life staring out of the window across fields and woods, watching the changing weather and seasons.

“But importantly boredom made her write. She kept a diary from a young age, filling it with observations, short stories, poems, and diatribe. And she attributes these early beginnings to becoming a writer late in life.”

Society sees boredom as uncomfortable and uncreative, Belton said. But creativity “involves being able to develop internal stimulus.”

“When children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. The time they spend on these things has increased.

“But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”

Reminds me on Diana Senechal’s book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

Kids play less, but imagination soars

Despite less time for free play, children play more imaginatively, according to researchers who’ve tracked children’s play for 23 years.

In an analysis published in May 2011 in the Creativity Research Journal and posted online last month, researchers from Case Western University in Cleveland found elementary school children in 2008 were significantly more imaginative and took greater comfort in playing make-believe than their counterparts in 1985 despite having less time either during or after school for free play.

Children ages 6 to 10 are videotaped for five minutes each while playing with three blocks and two hand-puppets, reports Ed Week. Researchers analyze each child’s imagination, emotional expression, actions, and storytelling.
From BigStock

Children who rate highly in imaginative and emotional play “show better coping skills, creativity, and problem solving than students who rate low on the play scale,” according to Sandra Russ, a psychology professor who co-authored the study.

Children average eight fewer hours of unstructured playtime each week than they did 25 years ago, according to David Elkind, a professor emeritus of child development at Tufts. That excludes video games or organized sports. He blames overprotective parents.

Russ thinks children are finding ways to “sneak in” pretend play. “Children are resilient,” she said. “It’s possible they are playing more than we think they are, that they’re squeezing it in somewhere during the day, at night, when they’re not being taken to sports or dancing class.”

‘Depressing idiocy’

Leonie Haimson slams the “depressing idiocy” of Common Core’s English Language Arts standards, which favor “informational text” over fiction.

Fiction stimulates children’s brains and lets them “enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings,” writes Annie Murphy Paul.

 

Learning by fooling around

Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways To Destroy the Imagination of Your Child is the roar of the lion father, according to a Washington Times review. While “tiger mom” Amy Chua wants structure and parental control, Esolen thinks children need free time for playing, reading, tree climbing and fooling around.

If we want to destroy children’s imagination, we should fill up their time with scheduled activities, tell them what books to read and what instruments to play and, above all, stress that none of this is to be enjoyed for its own sake but merely as steppingstones to eventual admission to Harvard or Brown.

The structure of Mr. Esolen‘s book is 10 chapters titled by mock “how to” lists to deaden your child’s imagination. For example, “Keep your children indoors as much as possible,” “Never leave children to themselves,” “Replace the fairy tale with political cliches and fads,” “Cast aspersions upon the heroic and patriotic” and “Cut all heroes down to size.” He castigates the bland gender-neutralism of modern society (“Level distinctions between man and woman”) and the general elimination of faith from modern society (“Deny the transcendent”).

For some children, free time is used for climbing trees and inventing games. For others, it’s spent sitting on the couch watching TV or playing video games.