A World Without Walls

“If the Ivy League was the breeding ground for the elites of the American Century, Stanford is the farm system for Silcon Valley.”  -Ken Auletta

This quote appeared in a New Yorker story from last April. While “Get Rich U” doesn’t exactly wax eulogic on Stanford’s educational priorities, it is a fascinating exploration of what makes the university the innovative powerhouse that it is. Stanford has quite a track record, after all, claiming credit for some five thousand companies including Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo, Cisco, Sun Microsystems, Netflix, Electronic Arts, LinkedIn, Fairchild Semiconductor, and Google. What makes the article particularly noteworthy, though, is how thoroughly the author walks through the themes discussed on this blog. It reads as a recipe for creativity.

1. Community Builds Creativity. The campus itself was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead as an open environment with no walls, broad avenues, and vast gardens lined by palms and California live oaks. Central plazas allow large gatherings and encourage chance encounters.

2. Diverse People = Diverse Ideas. The school cultivates economic and social diversity: caucasian students are a minority, 17% of Stanford’s undergraduates are the first member of their family to attend college, and if an undergraduate’s annual family income is below a hundred thousand dollars, tuition is free.

3. T-shaped People. There is an overwhelming emphasis on interdiscplinary education. From the article: “[interdisciplinarity] is the philosophy now promoted at the various schools at Stanford — engineering, business, medicine, science, design — which encourages students from diverse majors to come together to solve real or abstract problems. The goal is to have them become what are called “T-shaped” students, who have depth in a particular field of study but also breadth across multiple disciplines. Stanford hopes that the students can also develop the social skills to collaborate with people outside their areas of expertise.”

4. Dream Big Dreams. Stanford has a “bias towards action”, and students profess a “sometimes inflated belief that their work is changing the world for the better.” The culture emphasizes learning-by-doing.

I’d highly recommend that anyone interested in creativity or education give the article a read. And there’s an interesting hook for the Stanford community as well: the article discusses the possibility that Stanford’s current emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation threatens the fundamental mission of the university itself. From former university president Gerhard Casper, “Stanford is now justifying its existence mostly in terms of what it can do for humanity and improve the world.” All well and good, but what about learning for the sake of knowledge?

Check out the full article at the Newyorker.com.

Killing Creativity…Or Not

If you’ve been with us for more than a few posts, you’ll know that one of the main themes of this blog is that creativity is a learned skill (or an unlearned skill, according to Picasso). Spreading this gospel and encouraging creative thinking is a goal that I share with countless designers, academics, and self-help gurus. Unsurprisingly, though, most of our work focuses on easily digested morsels and well-packaged exercises: brainstorming, asking questions, breaking routines, finding the right environment. But what if effectively teaching creativity requires stepping back a bit farther? If you were going to design an educational system that encouraged creative problem solving, for example, what would it look like? Or more to the point, what wouldn’t it look like?

In a deeply insightful and genuinely funny 2006 TED talk, creativity expert Ken Robinson makes a pretty persuasive argument that the system wouldn’t look like the one we have now. An alien visiting earth, he supposes, would look at public education and come to the conclusion that it’s one purpose is to produce university professors. They are the kids who “come out on top” in the current system, after all; who “win all the brownie points and do everything they’re supposed to.” As children grow, Robinson argues, we “progressively educate them from the waist up, focusing on their heads, and slightly to one side.” Academic achievement, in other words, narrowly defined and strictly enforced, is the sole metric by which we determine success. It’s a talk littered with memorable and inspiring quotes. Here’s the one that got the loudest applause: “creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

Sir Robinson’s argument goes beyond standard complaints about teaching to the test or facilitating equal access to education. Instead, he suggests that the entire structure of public education is geared towards producing workers for an industrial workforce and is predicated on a hierarchy of learning with math and science on top and the arts at the bottom. Strong stigmas are associated with any learning not critical for getting a job after school, and the entire k-12 education system ends up functioning as a protracted university enrollment test (click that link, it’s terrifying). Because success within the educational system is defined so narrowly, “a lot of highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they’re good at wasn’t valued in school.”

Robinson’s call to action is a grand one, but persuasive nonetheless. Math is important, of course, and none of us would be here but for the countless innovations and technologies that our relentless pursuit of the scientific frontier has allowed. At the same time, I’m receptive to the idea that the system is imbalanced. After all, no one would argue that all of our students should be dancers, but it might not hurt if our biochemists knew how to dance. In the end, creativity is about divergent thinking and the intersection of ideas. The more diversity we have, and the more we celebrate that diversity, the better off we’ll be.

Watch the talk at TED.com, or check out Robinson’s book “The Element” at Amazon.

The Most Creative Game

Or, Why Studying Math Is The Best Thing You Can Do

In the hallway the Academy of Management conference last week I ran into a colleague who mentioned that he’s been following CRTVTY (hurray!). But he was surprised. “You’re a math guy,” he said. “What’s a math guy doing with a blog on creativity?” Well, aside from all of the research linking math to music and art, this brings up an interesting question: can math itself be a creative exercise?  Continue reading

How Not to Make a Catapult

With a soaring twenty-foot throwing arm, a hulking wooden frame, and three hundred pounds of sand hanging pendulously in its belly, our catapult made for an impressive school project. Mike and I had been working for weeks, but despite the machine’s fearsome appearance there was still plenty of work to be done. The latch that released the projectile was in particular giving us no end of trouble, alternately flinging its payload into the ground at our feet or sending us scampering for cover as potatoes and cantaloupes rained down from above. We put in countless afterschool afternoons and no small amount of engineering effort, but in the end were defeated.

Where had we gone wrong?  Continue reading