I have just finished reading a book called Imagine: How Creativity Works (Amazon link), and it was very inspiring! The book's big message is that creativity is not a natural trait nor a momentary spark but something that we can cultivate and sustain -- in ourselves individually, in our organizations collectively, and in our communities if we make the right kinds of investment.
The book traces the success of some continuously innovative companies such as 3M and Pixar, to introduce what systems they have put in place in order to foster continuous innovation. At 3M -- the company that invented Post-Its and masking tape, among other things -- their big thing is to encourage employees to spend 15% of time per week tinkering with new ideas, as long as they report back their findings. They also encourage flexible schedule and let their employees take random walks or breaks from solving a problem, since they believe that exposure to new situations helps you draw connections to existing problems you're working on. At Pixar, physical proximity is key. They put all the people in the same building and all the bathrooms in the same area, so that you're constantly running into people you know and having random conversations. The best solutions, they say, come from these random collisions. Pixar also values group critiquing sessions followed by productive suggestions -- they call this plussing -- because Pixar believes that this surfaces issues that everyone can think about, learn from, and try to solve long after the meeting is over. A great quote from this part of the book to illustrate Pixar's emphasis on relationships is this: "A mediocre team will screw up a good idea. But if you give a mediocre idea to a great team and let them work together, they'll find a way to succeed."
If you are leading a group of people, the best type of combination is to have some people who already are well-connected to each other, as well as a healthy influx of new people with new ideas. When they studied Broadway musicals, this mix of old and new relationships among the creators of a musical had a high correlation to the commercial success of the musical. Certainly, this makes me think about my department and how we can best utilize the combination of teachers we have...
The book also touched upon the issue of fostering creativity in education. My biggest takeaway in reading this section is that when they interviewed people in charge of an elaborate art program where students learn to create things through hands-on apprenticeship/extended projects, the director said that even though they realize that most of their students will not become artists in those fields, what they leave with is a recognition that creativity takes hard work. "Because they spend five hours every day working on their own creations, they learn what it takes to get good at something, to struggle and fail and try again. They figure out how to dissect difficult problems and cope with criticism." As an educator, it makes me wonder what types of long-term challenges we are offering our students, in order to foster these qualities.
In terms of what you can do individually to improve your own (sustained) creativity, the book highlights the importance of continuously thinking "like an outsider." It points to the benefits of being immersed in a foreign culture, because that type of experience increases your ability to observe ambiguities and to see the possibility of interpreting the same thing in multiple ways. Based on the cited research, people who have lived abroad in a different culture tend to be better at solving certain types of lateral-thinking puzzles. But, even if you only tell people that a certain puzzle comes from a different, exotic place (like India), automatically their ability to think outside the box increases and they can solve the puzzles with more ease by thinking of less obvious interpretations and alternatives. What this means is that we have control over our ability to think outside of the box in a non-linear fashion. We need to always imagine ourselves as a brand new person who has never had any proper training, in order to allow for greater possibilities in approaching a problem. For me, this affirms my experience that whenever I move from place to place, the new challenges that come from teaching a new population and working with new colleagues and new constraints push me to re-examine everything that I do and to try new approaches. Next year, I look forward to the possibility of taking on an intern teacher, because they will come with fresh eyes, and I hope they could show me new ways of questioning what I do.
One last thing that the book continuously emphasizes is that frustration always precedes innovation. If you find yourself stuck in a challenging situation, try to see it as an opportunity for trying something new. I really liked this quote: "FAIL BIG!" It parallels my belief that a good project should run until its wheels are falling off.
So, I said that I feel inspired by this book. These are my personal takeaways:
I hope that as a teacher I will always be curious and to look to grow.
I hope that I can be continuously creative, through the network of people I have, my own interests outside of class, and through taking on new challenges.
I hope that I will have the opportunity to foster a team whose teamwork can lead to innovation.
And of course, I hope that at some point, our schools can all institute creative projects that teach kids the value of innovating through hard work!