3 Reasons To Encourage Peer Learning In The Classroom

Lev Vygotsky, a highly influential Soviet psychologist, believed that learning in children is heavily influenced by social interaction. At the earliest stages, an infant’s unsuccessful grasping motion is (incorrectly) interpreted as pointing by parents and their subsequent response determines what the baby learns about that gesture. This kind of learning isn’t just limited to the infant stage or to simple tasks. Higher order cognitive processes, he believed, follow the same pattern – they start at the social level and are then internalized at an individual level.

Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism is also the underpinning of the more recent peer and cooperative learning. While adults like parents and teachers play a crucial role in learning, children’s conversations with each other play an equally important role. Through exchanging ideas, asking questions or offering explanations children can help each other build better mental models of the concept they are learning. 

The advantages to peer learning aren’t limited to knowledge building. Several research studies have shown the benefits of using peer learning that go beyond the cognitive domain. Here are three reasons why peer learning can be beneficial to students and culture:

Better Learning Outcomes

The biggest advantage of peer learning is the increase in academic achievement. Several structures of peer cooperative learning, like Student Teams-Achievement Divisions and Teams-Games-Tournament, have been studied and all of them consistently shown that students perform significantly better with peer learning than without. While the majority of these studies focused more on knowledge acquisition, there are indications that peer learning is just as beneficial for building higher order thinking skills. In one study researchers broke out tasks into “high cognitive level” and “low cognitive level”, and found positive achievement gains on the high level items. 

Positive Social Gains

A key benefit of peer learning is the increase in communication and social interaction skills among students. One study found that the gains in cooperative learning skills correlated with social gains both in and outside of the class. Students in peer learning have also reported more positively on mutual concern –  liking their classmates’ and feeling that their classmates like them too. 

Improved Racial Relationships

Cooperative peer learning has been found to be one of the best ways to improve racial relationships. Several studies have documented that students in mixed race groups, name more of their classmates from different races as friends compared to control groups. One followup study found that the students who had worked in interracial groups made significantly more cross-racial friendships several months after the study ended. 

In our programs, peer learning is a central component in both structured and unstructured formats. For example, in our “How To Be An Inventor” program, we teach students how to give constructive feedback to each other. Before students present their ideas to the group, we explain that the goal for the students is to improve each other’s ideas and make it the best possible version. With that goal as the backdrop, we often find that students ask great questions and offer concrete suggestions to improve each others’ ideas. Peer learning is also supported in other unstructured ways when students browse their friends’ solutions online or when they walk over and see how others are working on a problem. 

While there is no formal reward associated with being constructive peers, the social recognition that comes with it, is enough to cognitively and emotionally engage students. In addition, we often find that students build more confidence and start relating better to their classmates.

Summer Camp: Designing Board Games

We just wrapped up our multi-disciplinary summer camps this year, and once again had so much fun guiding our middle schoolers in their creative journey! Our challenge for students this year was to design original board games based on their own areas of interests. We partnered with Archimedes school, who taught 3D printing, so students could make meeples and dice for their games.

By asking students to design a game around their passion or interests, our goal was that they would bring their domain knowledge on the topic, without which they wouldn’t be able to make a sufficiently creative game. In addition, we expected them to be more engaged during learning and more incentivized to put in extra effort to create the best version of their idea. 

Game Design Concepts

To design a good game, students had to first learn some basic game concepts like game mechanics, victory conditions and tension. To make learning more relevant,  we brought in common (and a couple not-so-common) board games that students used in deconstructing the various elements. We also used other games like Rock-Paper-Scissors to demonstrate the concept of balance in a game (and it also gave us a chance to sneak in some math and logic). They figured out that a Rock-Paper-Scissors version with an even number of elements can never be balanced, and then had a blast designing their own balanced versions with more than three elements!

Creative Process

While planning for the camp we also designed how the creative process would flow. If you ask a student (or most adults for that matter) to come up with an original idea, it often stumps them. Integrating a creative process into the workflow can give students the tools and direction to think creatively, and makes the process far less intimidating. 

The two techniques we focused on for the camp were analogical and associative thinking, which we felt were best suited for this scenario. 

To start with students first picked a game they liked and created an analogous version based on their interest. As a simple example, suppose the theme is to teach children about nutrition and health, and the model game is Snakes and Ladders. After deconstructing the game into its elements, one could design a new board game where some spots, like eating junk food or catching a cold makes you lose spots while exercising might make you go forward more spots. 

At this point the game still looks a lot like Snakes and Ladders. You could then start associating  with other game elements and modifying the game. For instance, you could add chance cards (e.g. falling and breaking a bone that sends you back a few spots) or convert the game to a point based system. By using different game elements, the game now starts to evolve differently and takes a very different shape. 

Student Designed Games

It was fascinating to see the students come up with very interesting, and very different, ideas for their board games. Here is a sampling of the board games students designed:

  • Rainforest Exploration – A game that teaches you about different animals in the rainforest as you race to the finish. 
  • Sun Power: A game that incentivizes using renewable energy sources. 
  • Collect-It: An interior design game, where you race to decorate your room. 
  • Archi-tex: A game where you have to be the first one to build a 2,000 ft building. 
  • Prime Switch: A fast paced math game that tests your computationals skills.
  • Soccer Board Game: Score goals by answering soccer trivia questions. 

The most fun part, though, was to see the excitement and energy as students got ready for the final demo to parents. Almost every student found last minute mistakes or changes that they just had to fix, but eventually all of them were able to put their demo together! And of course, they all found several ways that they could have designed things differently. 

We hope they enjoyed playing their game with friends and family, and maybe even designed their next versions!


Inventor Spotlight: Max Baryshnikov

Our featured student inventor this time is Max Baryshnikov, whose invention idea is to make a drone that helps in emergency services. His invention won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. He conceived the idea for the drone as part of our summer camp, held in collaboration with the Archimedes School.

Here is Max talking about his idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Max Baryshnikov, I am currently 11 years old. I am in sixth grade of the International Community school.

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention was a drone-like device. It would help emergency services when they need to explore and secure hazardous locations, mainly fires. It is based of a drone on wheels, but I thought of how I can modify it to make it helpful in fires. This drone would have bright lights, a small speaker, and a mechanism like a grappling hook. If the fire departments need to scout out a fire, they would send in this drone. It would drive around, finding a secure path to get into the fire. If it finds trapped survivors, it would turn on its lights to show the way; the speaker can be used to communicate with the survivors and lead them to safety. But if the drone can’t get to an area, it uses its grappling hook to hook into a higher location, and then it will utilize its bright lights, to mark paths.

How did you come up with the idea?

I came up with the idea when I thought: “There are so many problems in the world now, what can I do to help?” With a lot of fires going on during the summer when I attended this camp, fire drone seemed like a very useful device.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience?

My prototype didn’t work because I didn’t know how to fit this all into one drone, I also didn’t even have a way to test it in situations. The experience was a bit disappointing, when my prototype didn’t do well, but that means I hit a wall and if I hit a wall, that means I progressed, which made me happy.

What did you learn from the summer camp?

In my summer camp I learn about other wonderful inventors, their inventions, and how they worked. I also learned that if were to make something – we should organize it and evolve it.

What was your favorite memory from the camp?

My favorite memory from camp was probably learning about all the inventors. It was amazing to learn what they did to create their inventions that made them famous, and how they advanced their lives in such a long time ago.

What kind of problems do you want to solve when you grow up?

I don’t know what problems will come up in the future. At this age there is only so much I can do. But when I grow up, I can see what new problems develop in that time, because I can be more effective then, then I can now.

What will you be using your prize money for?

I don’t really want to spend my prize money immediately, because I don’t have anything in mind to use it for. I’m going to instead save it, so when I need it, I’ll always have it waiting.   

Congratulations Max for winning the award! We wish you the best as you solve future world problems.

The Neuroscience Of Creativity

A few hours after Einstein died, Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed his autopsy, removed Einstein’s brain without his family’s permission and against Einstein’s wishes of what he wanted done with his remains. He then carved out his brain into 240 pieces and preserved them. After hiding them for several years, he finally sent parts of the brain to other scientists to conduct studies and unravel the mystery behind Einstein’s intellectual prowess.

One of the studies found that Einstein’s brain, compared to 11 other control brains, had a higher ratio of glial cells to neurons in a part of the association cortex, which is responsible for integrating and synthesizing information from multiple parts of the brain. This possibly resulted from Einstein spending so much time visualizing and solving complex scientific problems in creative ways. Not everyone agreed with the study’s conclusions though, and there have been valid criticisms of the way this and other similar studies were conducted.

Since the time of these (potentially flawed) studies, we have come a long way in understanding about the brain structures that aid in creative and critical thinking.

In a recent study, researchers found that the ability to think creatively depends on the interconnectedness between different parts of the brain involved in creative problem solving. The three large-scale networks that span both hemispheres and aid in creative thinking are:

  • Default network: This network consists of the cortical midline and posterior inferior parietal regions of the brain structures. The default network is active when you are not in deliberate thought and helps in idea generation.
  • Executive network: The executive network, which is composed of the anterior and lateral regions of the prefrontal cortex and other interconnected regions like the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The executive network is active when you are consciously thinking, and is responsible for planning, reasoning and decision making.
  • Salience network: The salience network, comprised of bilateral insula and anterior cingulate cortex facilitates the transition between the default and executive networks.

The study, which used connectome based predictive modeling, found some interesting results.

First, people who were more creative showed dense functional connectivity between the parts of the brain that comprised the default, executive and salience networks. Of the highest connected nodes in the high creative network, almost a half were in the default network followed by those in the salience and executive networks. In comparison, the low creative network showed diffused connectivity mainly in the subcortical/brainstem regions. Second, creative people were able to engage simultaneously parts of the brain that are typically supposed to work in isolation. For example, the default and executive networks, which correspond to the ideation and evaluation phases respectively, are normally assumed to be active at separate times. Creative people, however, are able to engage these networks at the same time.

If you are one of the people who believe they weren’t born with the creative gene (or the creative brain), there is reason for some hope.

Studies have also found that training for creativity can be effective. In a study where participants were trained on divergent thinking, researchers found that due to neural plasticity, structural changes were found in some parts of the brain post training that caused improvement in the participants’ creativity.  Similar effects have been found in other studies that looked at music and visual art training, where researchers found plasticity in neural pathways that enhance creative cognition.

All of this clearly indicates that, from a cognitive development perspective, it’s vital to have creativity and arts integrated into school curriculum. As the researchers in the creativity training study summarized, “Obviously, it is promising that human creativity capacities can be developed through well-designed training programs, which may contribute to social development and human civilization.

Inventor Spotlight: Krithi Iyer

Our featured student inventor this time is Krithi Iyer, who came up with an idea to make a temperature sensing shoe. Her invention won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. She designed the shoe as part of our summer camp, held in collaboration with the Archimedes School.

Here is Krithi talking about her idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m Krithi Iyer from Redmond Middle School. I am currently in 7th grade and enjoy coming up with new ideas. Usually my ideas take the form of artwork, however I often come up with various inventive ideas.  

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention was a ‘Thermochromic Shoe’, a shoe that could change its internal temperature. A problem I usually encountered was super cold, or super sweaty feet. This shoe can either cool or heat your foot. As the temperature changes, the color of the thermochromic paint also changes, a color sensor inside of the shoe will then sense the color and either heat up the shoe or cool it down based on the color of the paint. The shoe can also grow or shrink, to fit your foot size and to allow more air circulation inside.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience?

My prototype worked partially. I wasn’t able to make the color sensor or the heating and cooling system, but I was able to show how thermochromic paint reacted to the temperature outside. I hope that one day I will be able to build this shoe. I enjoyed the experience especially since I enjoyed painting with the thermochromic paint.

What did you learn from the summer camp?

Probably the most significant thing I learned from this camp was what thermochromic paint was. I was previously unaware such a thing existed, but I found it to be a tool that could be used to solve many problems—smaller or larger than a sweaty foot. I also learned the stages of becoming an inventor and how they come up with and execute their ideas.

Who is your favorite inventor and why?

My favorite inventor is Leonardo Da Vinci. He not only created several inventions such as the prototype for a plane, but he was also an artist. His inventions have greatly shaped our world today and I give my thanks to him.

What kind of problems do you want to solve when you grow up?

When I grow up, or maybe even now, I want to find cures to diseases. Medicine has usually always intrigued me and learning about new diseases enthralls me, or sometimes scares me.  

What will you be using your prize money for?

My prize money will be used for 3 things. First, I am going to donate 20% of it to charity. 10% I am going to save, and the remaining 70% will be used for a business fair I plan to participate in.  I will use the money to buy the materials I need to make my merchandise.

 

Congratulations Krithi for winning the award! We wish you the best in your upcoming business fair, and other creative endeavors in the future.

Inventor Spotlight: Aaron Liu

Our featured student inventor this time is Aaron Liu, who came up with an idea to make a temperature sensing food bowl. His invention won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. He designed the bowl as part of our summer camp, held in collaboration with the Archimedes School.

Here is Aaron talking about his idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Aaron and I was born in Washington in 2008. I am in fifth grade and go to Ben Franklin Elementary school. In my free time I enjoy playing baseball.

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention is the thermochromic bowl and it works when a hot substance is placed with in the bowl. The bowl will then change colors.

How did you come up with the idea?

I came up with the idea when I realized that I hurt my tongue a lot while eating hot foods and a bowl that changes colors when something hot was in it was a good idea.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience?

The prototype did not work at first because the plastic was too thick. So I put paint on the brims instead of the whole bowl and it worked. The experience was good.

What did you learn from the summer camp?

I learned a lot but some things I learned are how to use a website to make 3d images, and how thermochromic paint works.

What is your most fun memory from the camp?

My favorite memory was when I won jeopardy on the last day of camp.

Who is your favorite inventor and why?

My favorite inventor is Thomas Edison. He is my favorite inventor because he invented the light bulb and pioneered the way for the different forms of electronic light we have now.

What kind of problems do you want to solve when you grow up?

When I grow up I want to solve global warming.

What will you be using your prize money for?

I want to save the prize money to buy a arcade game.

 

Congratulations Aaron for winning the award! Solving global warming is a great goal and we wish you the best as you apply your creativity to solve future problems.

How Rewards Impact Learning And Motivation

In an interesting study to understand the relationship between motivation and learning, researchers gave elementary students a reading comprehension task. One group was explicitly told that they were going to be tested and graded on what they learned at the end of the activity, while the others were not.

The results of the experiment revealed a lot about the interplay between learning, motivation and rewards. Students who were told that they would be tested and graded, found the reading task less interesting and felt more stress compared to the others. Their assessment afterwards also showed an interesting pattern. They performed as well as the other groups, but only when limited to rote information. Conceptual integration of the material was poorer than the other groups. In addition, one week after the experiment, they had forgotten more information compared to other groups! As the researchers concluded, “It is not unreasonably speculative to argue that grades as traditionally used in schools often result in the perception of an external locus of causality, produce pressure, and result in force-fed, poorly integrated and maintained learning.

So how does learning get affected by motivation and rewards, like grades?

Learning can happen in multiple ways. Autonomous learning, where there is no directive to learn something specific, happens all the time and might even be the biggest source of learning. This type of learning, also called undirected learning, is triggered by curiosity and interest and is associated with lower negative emotional states. However, since this type of learning can’t be managed, we’ll focus on directed learning, where there is a specific set of material that needs to be learned and assimilated.

Students can be directed to learn in two ways:

  • Controlling, where the control comes from external mechanisms like grades or evaluations.
  • Noncontrolling, which uses approaches that tap into students’ need for autonomy and self-determination.

The issue with the controlling approach is that it leads to inferior learning outcomes compared to the noncontrolling approach. The reason behind this is better explained through achievement goal theory of motivation.

According to the achievement goal theory, people expend different levels and quality of cognitive self-regulation depending on the purpose of the goal. Cognitive self-regulation refers to how deliberate one is in the learning process and includes using different strategies, or planning and using resources effectively. What determines the level of cognitive self-regulation is the purpose behind the goal, which could be performance or learning based.

Performance Goals

Performance goals, also known as ego-goals, are driven primarily by a need to outperform others in order to increase one’s status. Performance goals are positively associated with more superficial, rote learning and not with deep learning. Performance orientation further comes in two flavors – performance/approach and performance/avoidance. Performance/approach is when students are aiming to outperform their peers. Students with this orientation do end up spending considerable effort and using superior study strategies. Performance/avoidance students want to avoid failure so as not to look less competent compared to their peers, and therefore put in less effort and avoid challenging work.

This is where class incentives or rewards, like grades, also come into play. When rewards are scarce, like when only the top few students get the highest grade, it creates a competitive environment where the focus changes from learning a concept to finding ways to outperform other students.

Students in the performance/avoidance orientation fare the worst since the incentive structure does not give them any reason to learn. Instead, they use strategies like procrastination which provides an explanation of their poor performance without being perceived incompetent (if the student only studies on the last day, they are not expected to do well and it isn’t a reflection of their ability).

Learning Goals

Learning goals, also known as mastery goals, are driven by a need to improve one’s competency irrespective of how others are doing. Related to this is the growth mindset, or the belief that one can learn and become smarter by putting in effort. Learning orientation is positively associated with deep-level processing, higher cognitive self-regulation, and pride and satisfaction in success.

Research has shown some promising directions to change grades and reward structure to create a better learning environment. This includes permitting students to work for any grade they want by accomplishing more, and using mastery based grading which focuses on whether one finally mastered a concept regardless of failures along the way.

 

Our current educational system has often been compared to a factory model where students are expected to learn the same content at the same pace as others in their age group. However, there is an additional dimension – extrinsic-focused scarce rewards – that makes the educational system mirror a corporate environment. Unfortunately, such rewards encourage performance goals in both systems leading to poorer learning, higher stress and less satisfaction.

Extrinsic rewards and performance goals work can be effective in limited ways where the task is simple or algorithmic. For more complex and creative work, a learning orientation becomes critical. However, nurturing a learning and growth mindset cannot happen in a vacuum – it needs a supportive environment to go with it. A poorly designed environment can push people from a learning orientation to that of a ego-focused performance mindset, while a well designed one could enable deep learning, growth and positive emotional well-being.

How Technology Can Improve Deep Learning

In an experiment to evaluate the impact of media on learning, researchers showed volunteers a presentation about the country Mali. Some of the subjects saw a text-only version of the presentation while the others saw a multimedia version that included additional audio-visual content.

After the presentation, the researchers gave all subjects a quiz on the material. The text-only group were able to answer more questions correctly on the quiz compared to the multimedia group. The outcome of this experiment was summarized as, “The text-only readers found it to be more interesting, more educational, more understandable, and more enjoyable than did the multimedia viewers, and the multimedia viewers were much more likely to agree with the statement ‘I did not learn anything from this presentation’ than were the text-only readers.”

Technology has undoubtedly made a big impact in education. Apps and games that teach specific reading and math skills have shown to improve learning outcomes, and productivity apps have made research and collaboration so much more easier in the classroom.

However, technology doesn’t just provide us with tools to learn specific skills or be productive, it also actively changes the way we think and process information.

And quite often, these changes inadvertently end up being detrimental to learning in some ways. Professor Patricia Greenfield explains, “Although the visual capabilities of television, video games, and the Internet may develop impressive visual intelligence, the cost seems to be deep processing: mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.

Inappropriate or overuse of technology can significantly impair learning, by breaking attention and interrupting the learning process. Our brains contain two types of memory – short-term and long-term. Long-term memory, which can hold information for a long periods of time, is the seat of understanding where complex schemas and patterns that give us meaning are held. Short term memory on the other hand is fragile – it can hold information for only a few seconds. One type of short term memory, called the working memory, is what we use when we have to retain partial results as we work through a math problem or follow a sequence of steps. However, working memory, unlike long-term memory, is small and can hold only a few chunks of information at a time. After the contents of the working memory are processed, they can be encoded in long term memory for future retrieval.

The challenge with this learning process is that since working memory can retain information for only a few seconds (~20 sec), and any distractions in that time interrupt the flow of information to long-term memory. Being able to focus and reflect on concepts for extended periods of time are critical to learning new things.

In addition to inferior learning, poorly designed technology can have other harmful effects.  When the ability to focus on tasks decline, it can lead to feelings of boredom and an increased desire to seek more external stimuli. Time spent with media (television, video games) has been shown to result in ADHD like behavior.

If we want to promote critical and creative thinking, essential for deep learning, we have to unlearn the way technology is designed. Here are some things to pay attention to when designing technology products for use in education that can promote deep learning.

Pay Attention To Passive Switches

Switches are interruptions that result in students switching between different tasks. Passive switches, as opposed to active switches, are those that students don’t initiate themselves. Obvious examples of passive switches are email notifications, chat features, or pop-ups within an app that are meant to help students but inadvertently break their focus.

Less obvious examples of passive switches include using hyperlinks in the text, often with the good intention of providing information to fill the gaps. Unfortunately, hyperlinks also subtly nudge students into clicking before they have had sufficient time to process information, thereby breaking their flow. In one experiment, groups of people were asked to read the same piece online writing with different number of hyperlinks. Results showed that as the number of hyperlinks increased, reading comprehension went down. The researcher explained her findings as, “Reading and comprehension require establishing relationships between concepts, drawing inferences, activating prior knowledge, and synthesizing main ideas. Disorientation or cognitive overload may thus interfere with cognitive activities of reading and comprehension.

Be Less Helpful

In an interesting experiment, researchers gave students a tricky puzzle to solve that involved moving colored balls between boxes based on some rules. One group of students got a helpful version of the software that had on-screen assistance and other cues, while the other group got a bare-bones version with no hints or guidance.

In the early stages, the helpful group outperformed the bare-bones group in how fast they solved the puzzle. However, as the test progressed the bare-bones group got more proficient and was able to solve faster with fewer incorrect moves as compared to the helpful group, which gave clear indication that they were planning ahead and using strategy.

It didn’t just end there. Eight months after running the experiment, the researchers invited the students again and gave them similar puzzles to solve. The group that used the unhelpful version of the software was able to solve the puzzles twice as fast compared to the helpful group.

When help is too easily available, it robs students of the opportunity to think for themselves and build critical and creative thinking skills.

Be Judicious With Media And Visuals

Unnecessary media usage can overload working memory making it harder to process and assimilate knowledge.

In an experiment conducted on college students, researchers showed groups of students a typical CNN broadcast. One group saw the broadcast along with infographics that flashed on-screen and text-crawls on the bottom. The other group saw the simpler version of the same broadcast without any additional infographics or text-crawls. Subsequent testing showed that the multimedia group retained far fewer facts about the news compared to the simpler group. The researchers theorized that the “multimessage format exceeded viewers’ attentional capacity.

Keeping things simple when working with different forms of media works much better from a learning perspective. While different forms of media are good to use individually, using them simultaneously can overwhelm working memory.  

 

To design educational technology we need to carefully assess if the technology or feature encourages students to think and reflect, or does it distract them. When we introduced a team related feature not too long ago, we realized it was working a little too well, to the point of getting in the way of real learning. We decided to remove the feature and will likely introduce it again in a different incarnation, where it improves productivity without being a distraction.

Technology has great potential to improve student learning in different ways, but it requires us to be more mindful of the learning process while designing it.

 

How Gender Stereotypes Harm Cognition

“But we are boys – we like to smash things!”

I groaned, silently, when I heard a group of 4th and 5th graders say this, quite aware that they will likely not successfully complete the challenge I gave them.

As part of understanding how creativity works, our students learn how the brain works as an associative engine, and how combining unrelated ideas can often lead to novel ideas. One exercise we do is “Wacky Inventions” where students pick two random object names from a bag and try to combine them to make an invention idea all in a matter of few minutes.

This group got “wheel” and “hammer” as their two objects, and it’s clear to see how those words quickly triggered gendered associations. The only idea they could come up with was to use the hammer to smash cars. For an idea to be creative it needs to be both novel and useful, but unfortunately even after prompting the students to think of how it would be useful, they couldn’t come up with a useful form. For instance, they could have explored a scenario where a giant hammer is used to smash cars in a junkyard to reduce space. But once the gender stereotype got triggered, it blocked their minds from elaborating or exploring more ideas to successfully complete the challenge.

Their peer group, in contrast, came up with a design to decorate cupcakes evenly. Cupcakes are placed on a rotating wheel and a hammer hits on an icing holder to release the right amount icing at the right time. An idea that is both novel and useful – not bad for a 5 minute challenge!

Strong gender associations are not just bad from a social perspective, they also hinder cognitive thinking, especially creativity.  

Research studies show that for people who identify with opposite gender characteristics, or in other words exhibit androgyny, display higher levels of creativity. This effect has been found to be true for both men and women.

It’s not the physical or superficial aspect of androgyny that is important – it is the psychological androgyny that drives creative behavior. As Scott Barry Kaufman explains, “… all the research suggests that it’s psychological androgyny, not physical androgyny, or stereotypically masculine or feminine displays of behavior, that is associated with creativity.

Psychological androgyny is high for people who are able to embrace traits or characteristics typically associated with different genders. It does not mean that the trait has to have a rational or biological reason to be associated with a particular gender, it just means it is stereotypically associated with that gender. For example, an architect who balances both technical and engineering aspects (typically associated with men) along with aesthetic sensitivity (typically associated with women) will produce more creative work. In more recent times, Steve Jobs, with his knack for technical details and an eye for aesthetic design, was an example of someone with high psychological androgyny.

When stereotypes take over, the ability to think in more flexible and diverse ways, the hallmark of creativity, reduces. Which is unfortunate, because creativity is rapidly becoming the most important skill to possess in the 21st century as less creative jobs are being automated out. Against that backdrop, reducing gender stereotypes isn’t just good socially, it actually makes us smarter and better positioned for success.

Creativity Behind Jugaad Innovation

In 2001, when an earthquake caused extensive damage in rural Gujarat, Mansukh Prajapati, a potter, found his inspiration. Reading the caption, “Poor man’s fridge broken!”, under the picture of a broken earthen clay pot in a newspaper, sparked an idea in him. “Why  not use clay, he thought, to make a real fridge for villagers – one that looks like a typical fridge, but is more affordable and doesn’t need electricity?

Prajapati experimented with different clay designs over several months and ultimately created Mitticool – a refrigerator that doesn’t use electricity and is significantly more affordable for villagers who don’t always have access to electricity. The refrigerator quickly became popular and his company now creates many other clay products.

This kind of innovation – born out of a desire to solve relevant problems in the cheapest way possible – has come to be called Jugaad innovation. Jugaad, a Hindi word, means a resourceful hack using available or frugal resources. Examples of Jugaad innovation abound in many developing countries like India, China and Brazil.

What is fascinating about Jugaad or frugal innovation, is not just the creativity behind it, but also that it is tied closely to reverse innovation. Reverse innovation refers to the trend of innovation from low-income markets entering and disrupting wealthier markets, a change from the typical flow of innovation. Trends show that in the 21st century more innovation, a large part of which is Jugaad innovation, is coming from developing markets with the potential to move into developed markets.

Radjou, Prabhu and Ahuja, who researched frugal innovation and popularized the phrase Jugaad innovation, identified six principles that underlie jugaad that include seeking opportunity in adversity, keeping things simple and thinking flexibly.

While some of the principles relate to having the right mindset, from a cognitive perspective, flexible and simplistic thinking is key to frugal innovation. Some creativity techniques that can help spur frugal thinking are:

Subtraction

While typical innovation adds more features and complexity, frugal innovation works by removing key components and then figuring out a way to make the idea work. For example, I recently gave a challenge to a group of middle schoolers to design a washing machine that doesn’t use electricity. By removing a central part of the product, students were forced to think in different ways to manually rotate a barrel. They came up with several different ideas like connecting the barrel to a stationary bicycle or using a pumping mechanism like that in a salad spinner.

Substitution

Another way to generate low cost solutions is to try and substitute with simpler or cheaper materials. Trying to find a substitute is the other side of the coin to typical divergent thinking. This approach can also lead to ideas that work well enough but at a much lower cost. For example, one student idea for a different challenge was to reuse discarded (and cleaned) socks to make low cost diaper linings.

Jugaad represents the best of creativity – being able to find a solution or a way out despite extreme resource constraints. And developing the skills and mindset for such innovation is becoming increasingly important for companies to solve important problems and stay relevant.