Creativity: Breaking the right rules

Ken Robinson, the man behind both of those videos, is a big name in education reform. It’s very possible that I’ll get shouted down for disagreeing with him (if anyone reads this at all). I’m going to act on his very advice and not be frightened of being wrong. After all, using him as a foundation is a great compliment. I’d merely like to refine – refine, I say! – a few of his points about creativity.

What educators want to instill is not creativity but expertise.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

This is literally true. As we age, neurons die off, leaving only the most valuable connections. This fact about the brain mirrors (metaphorically) the workings of the mind. As explained in Godel Escher Bach (full review still to come), a master chess player doesn’t see poor but legal moves any more than illegal moves. By contrast, a creative chess player is a bad (or at least inexperienced) player, who does not impose restrictions on possible moves. I’m a mediocre chess player, but I’ve had a lot of practice with algebra, to the point where the numbers dance before my eyes. That’s the goal of every high school math teacher, and it’s rarely achieved. Most students are like the high school junior I tutored last year, who hadn’t yet developed the ability to work a few steps ahead to see an answer, but would occasionally see things that I didn’t.

Learning is the tug-of-war between keeping options open and being decisive. In kindergarten, the children are filled with creativity and no expertise. By the time they graduate high school, if we believe Robinson, they’re all expertise and no creativity. Educators need to find a compromise. We have to prune the tree, but we can’t cut too many or the wrong branches. When that happens, experts must try to see with a beginner’s mind, and explore paths previously closed to them.

Robinson gives an example: how many uses can you think of for a paper clip? Probably about a dozen. Kindergardeners can think of hundreds, by bending the rules. Can the paper clip be made of styrofoam? Can it be 200 feet tall? At this point, the test proctor must make a decision. If he says yes, then the paper clip can essentially become any one-dimensional object, leading to hundreds of uses at least. Can it be a snake? An ethernet cable? A water main? The rules about the size and material of a paper clip, which constrain adults, were not really rules at all. These illusory rules, created by the expertise gained by working with real paper clips, subverted the ability to think creatively or divergently. But if the test proctor (or reality) says no, it’s an ordinary wire paper clip, then the kindergardeners’ creative answers are disqualified.

STEM fields make the latter choice. This gives them a clear sense of “right” and “wrong”, which would seem to discourage creativity. A math or science problem has exactly one right answer. Apologetically, there are often different ways to reach that answer, but those sorts of problems reinvent the wheel. Every major advance into the unknown in a STEM field has come from creativity, although so have a lot of incorrect ideas. The mountain of established research has grown so tall that children either never get to the top, or go blind on the way up, unable to see new prospects.

I will now for the umpteenth time tell you that computer science is amazing and applicable to everything and that everyone should be familiar with it. (Do all college students go through this honeymoon period with their respective majors or is that just me?) The argument this time is that, while the finished program must be “right”, there is no pressure or even expectation that the programmer be right every step of the way. (By “right”, I mean type nothing that the computer can’t understand, and they’re extremely finicky.) There is absolutely no penalty for breaking the rules in computer science. This fosters creativity. However, to get something to work, one must obey the rules of the compiler. Had Jackson Pollock been a programmer, he would have gotten forever mired in syntax errors.

That said, just because a program gets compiled (can be understood by the computer) doesn’t mean it can’t have creative logic. One of my earliest forays into comp sci involved finding the largest of three numbers. I had at my disposal a function that would return the larger of two numbers, like so:

max(first, second)

And I creatively decided to nest two copies of the function, so it determines the largest of two numbers, which is compared to the third, like a tournament:

max(max(first, second), third)

As my FIRST mentor used to say, you have to be smarter than the machine you’re working with. You have to get it to work, but what you get working could be anything. There is a minimum amount of expertise required (enough to get it to compile), but the creativity engendered is limitless.

Computer programming, like education, has a floor but no ceiling. This summer I have the privilege of working with Silvia Tolisano and Andrea Hernandez at an elementary school, focusing on 21st century education. We’re looking for different and creative ways to lower the floor, and I’ll be blogging about them.

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