Monday, May 9, 2011

Guest Blog: Part Three~ Creative Genius

We welcome Amanda Morgan from Not Just Cute back again for the third installment of our series on creativity. If you missed the first two articles, you can get caught up by clicking here for week one, and here for week two! Enjoy!!

Creative Genius: Tinkering and Problem Solving

In this article from the Wall Street Journal, as well as in this TED Talk, Steven Johnson tells a fascinating story of an Indonesian city, devastated by the tsunami in 2004. This city had received eight high-tech neo-natal incubators from relief organizations to aid them in caring for their youngest patients. Several years later, a researcher visited the hospital in Indonesia and found that not one of those incubators was still in working order. And so they sat, broken, in storage. The researcher, Timothy Prestero, a fellow from MIT, noticed this was a common occurrence in many parts of the developing world. Charitable organizations would provide them with $40,000 life-saving incubators, but after a some time the devices would inevitably break. These countries didn't have the means, the materials, or the training to fix the complicated machines.

So Prestero and his organization set out to create a neo-natal incubator that could save lives, but also be serviced more simply. They looked around at the context and constraints of the third-world countries. One thing they noticed was that while they may lack many techno-toys, most of these countries still had cars - and people who could fix them! So they worked for years to create an incubator that relied on the same parts and expertise as an automobile. What they came up with was The NeoNurture, a fully-functioning incubator that could be repaired by local people using easily accessible car parts.To Steven Johnson, this is a perfect metaphor for where good ideas come from ( which is, incidentally, the title of his newest book). Working to solve real challenges, moving within the parameters of what is known and available, and beyond to what Johnson refers to as the "adjacent possible" (a term borrowed from scientist, Stuart Kauffman). In example after example, innovation comes not when individuals sit in isolation, repeating facts, but when people work together tinkering with what they know and what they have and trying to apply it in new ways. They usually fail before they succeed, but it's just seen as part of the scientific process: testing hypotheses.

So here are some ideas for encouraging creative problem solving.

Loose Parts

My four year-old son has recently discovered that he can write strings of letters together and ask me to read them. The sputtering of incomprehensible words is hilarious to him. To me, it signals that he is aware that words are made up of loose parts - letters- that can be moved and combined in a variety of ways to create a new product. It's this awareness that leads to further experimentation and inventive spelling that will continue to increase his ability to read and write. I could simply say, "That's not a real word, Honey." But I want him to tinker. It encourages the reciprocal processes of creating meaning and increasing understanding.

Give children the opportunity to combine loose parts in new ways. Whether that means using pipe cleaners, playdough, and glitter to create a birthday cake; chairs, tables and blankets to build a fort; or a growing vocabulary to create a story, the idea is to take what you have and create something new by thinking outside of the box.

Tinkering is not just about right/wrong answers, but about risking a few wrongs to finally get to the right. It's not about drilling individuals for answers, but encouraging them to build ideas together. It is a great skill to be able to see another's point of view and then either refute it, support it, or use it as a stepping stone to something more. Whether you're directly trying to teach new concepts or just encouraging curiosity about events around you, involve your children in discussions. Play Devil's Advocate now and then to push children to see things from another vantage point.

Give time for the percolation of ideas. Children need to learn patience and persistence in problem-solving. Allow them to struggle with a challenge for a time. Approach the same concepts in new ways to give them another view. Johnson points out that for all the hype of the "Ah-ha moment", it is often actually a slow, growing process that brings us to a new realization.

Constructive Problem Solving
Dan Meyer is a high school math teacher in California. In his talk, Math Class Needs a Makeover, he points out the dangers of a formulaic approach to teaching. He asserts that too often we focus on teaching children how to follow set steps to solve math problems, when in reality the true engagement and skill comes from first getting them to ask the questions and discuss ideas. He quotes Einstein saying, "The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution..."

I was lucky enough to have a few master teachers in my illustrious career as a public school student. One of my favorites was my high school calculus teacher. It was not uncommon for him to write a problem on the board, a step or two beyond the concepts we had mastered, and then turn to us and ask, "How can you solve this?" We would postulate and bounce ideas off of each other as he stood to the side with a pensive grin. I still vividly remember one day in particular when we finally cracked the challenge and came up with an answer, creating our own step-by-step approach along the way. He looked at it and said, "I hadn't thought of doing it that way, but I think it's better than what's in this book."

That's what we need. Less time teaching books and more time teaching children. Less passive educating and more calls to creative problem solving.

The standard approach would be to say, "Here's the formula, here's the problem, run the numbers and see if you're right." Instead he would essentially say, "Here is the statement/idea/observation. What is the problem? What do you already know that could help? What could you try?"

This doesn't just take place in math class. Whether it's questions about how to spell a word, why the leaves change colors, or where that missing shoe is, we can encourage children to take an active role by turning the questions around. Ask them what they think and what they know. Then encourage them to tinker. Have them try. Let them fail. Watch them succeed. And talk about what you learn together along the way.

What do you do to encourage your children to tinker?

Top photo by César Rincón.

Interesting Links:
Dan Meyer: Math Class Needs a Makeover {TED Talks}

Steve Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From {TED Talks}

The Genius of the Tinkerer {WSJ}

Amanda Morgan is a full time mom to three busy boys, a part-time trainer and consultant for a non-profit children's organization and author of the ebook, Parenting with Positive Guidance, available here. She also writes at Not Just Cute, a blog full of ideas that are more than just cute, for children who are much more than cute too. Please continue to follow us NEXT Monday and continue to look at her website for more great ideas! Thanks AMANDA!

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