Creativity Hack: Build, Tear Down, Rebuild

When it comes to brainstorming, most groups fall prey to cognitive biases that reduce overall group creativity. People get so invested in their own ideas that they might overlook obvious downsides. Or they might get swayed by others’ opinions especially when the others have some kind of authority. Two common cognitive biases in group decision making are myside and one-sided thinking. Myside bias occurs because people are more inclined to reason in ways that support their opinion or idea while ignoring or minimizing contradictory viewpoints. One-sided thinking is our preference for arguments that are one-sided rather than those that offer multiple perspectives. 

It’s easy to see why these biases occur frequently and why they lead to flawed decisions. Due to myside bias, people tend to only offer arguments that support their idea in any discussion. Due to one-sided thinking bias, people are more easily swayed by a person who presents one-sided arguments than someone who presents a more nuanced view that considers multiple perspectives. A one-sided solution appears simpler and cleaner, and because it causes less cognitive strain, it becomes more persuasive. These biases are not correlated with measures of cognitive ability like IQ – intelligent people are just as prone to them as others. 

About The Build, Tear Down, Rebuild (BTR) Hack To Reduce Groupthink

A structured approach to brainstorming and group discussions can eliminate the effect of these biases. Using the Build, Tear down, Rebuild (BTR, pronounced better) technique described below, teams can arrive at more unbiased and intelligent decisions. Here is one way to run a BTR session:

  • Prior to the  group session, ask team members to send their ideas to you privately (nominal brainstorming), which helps build independence of thought.
  • At the start of the group meeting set expectations that the goal of the exercise is to make each idea the best version of itself. This shifts the tone in the group from competitive to collaborative. 
  • Take one idea at a time and have the group discuss the following aspects (use a whiteboard to capture all information in a table format). By asking the following questions, you first build up an idea (pros), then tear it down (cons) and then rebuild (mitigations) it again to arrive at a superior version of the initial idea. 
    • Pros: What are the advantages of this idea?
    • Cons: What are some drawbacks of the idea?
    • Mitigations: Are there some ways to mitigate the cons by changing something about the idea? 
  • After all ideas have been thoroughly discussed, have the group look at all ideas together to see if different ideas can be combined to give a better solution overall. This step tends to happen organically as the discussion progresses, so leaders may not need to ask explicitly.
  • After the meeting, send the information captured to meeting attendees and ask them to reflect some more. This step gives an additional incubation time for new insights to emerge. 

The building up phase (finding pros) helps to expand the potential of the idea. The original proposer may have missed some aspects that others identify. The tear down phase (identifying cons) helps identify current limitations or boundaries where the idea will work and not work, and starts to shrink the potential of the idea. Finally, the third phase (finding mitigations) tweaks the idea so that some of the limitations are overcome. It re-expands the idea and places it in a more realistic zone.

Summary

Finally, here is a quick summary of the creativity hack and how to use it.

DescriptionDuring brainstorming, ensure that all ideas are thoroughly discussed to avoid any biases. For each idea, first identify the pros of the idea, then follow up with current cons and finally ask the group to think of ways to mitigate the cons. This allows any idea to arrive at its best, yet practical, version.
ExampleHere is a simple example (from an elementary aged student) whose idea was to improve a toothbrush by adding a 2-minute song as a timer. The obvious advantage is that it helps kids keep track of the right amount of time to brush their teeth. One con is that listening to the same song every time could become boring quickly. So a mitigation could be to have multiple songs that rotate at random. Another solution is to have the songs in a different language so kids can learn a new language at the same time.
Tips – To increase idea output, ask team members to think of their ideas beforehand. 
– To further reduce groupthink, collect all the ideas before the start of the meeting and discuss each idea anonymously (without sharing who suggested the idea)
ExtensionsThis technique can be used not just in brainstorming but also in any kind of group decision making, where there are several possible solutions each with their own advantages, disadvantages and constraints.
Creativity Hack: Build, Tear down, Rebuild

How Gender Bias Limits Innovation In Companies

One of the most touted reasons for increasing diversity in organizations is the benefit it brings to innovation. Diverse teams bring different perspectives and ideas, leading to more novel solutions. But are diverse teams really that innovative in practice?

We recently conducted a study to evaluate the impact of gender bias on innovative work in the technology industry. Creating a culture of innovation, which can give companies a sustainable competitive advantage, is a key priority for technology companies. Companies, therefore, invest heavily in DEI efforts in order to create healthy and diverse workforces. 

However, our study showed that current DEI efforts are falling short from the perspective of innovation. Women, especially those working in technical roles, have to work hard to drive their ideas within their teams, and those ideas are often minimized or dismissed. This is especially important for senior women. Leaders are associated with bold, innovative ideas but when women’s ideas are ignored they can’t create impact and their potential to progress to leadership roles is reduced. 

The impact of gender bias isn’t limited to just women, organizations pay a high cost — Gender Innovation Tax — in terms of lost revenue and increased overheads as well. Organizations grossly underestimate this cost, in part because they don’t track these issues. 

We interviewed women working in the technology industry to understand the challenges they face. We identified four cognitive and psychological mechanisms at play:

  • Evaluation Apprehension: Women face a higher anxiety for how their ideas will be perceived and as a result, they hold back from contributing to the group. Current DEI efforts have raised awareness of mechanisms, like getting interrupted, that prevent women from sharing their ideas. Unfortunately, they don’t address strategies that go beyond simply getting a chance to speak. Once women are able to speak, they may still choose to hold back if they fear looking naive or incompetent. Leaders need to be aware of this and find ways to lower evaluation apprehension. 
  • Groupthink is the tendency of groups to get swayed by a few voices and reach faulty decisions by not considering all alternatives thoroughly. Women often find that their ideas don’t get the same level of discussion as men’s even when they bring additional data or research to back up their ideas. As a result, less optimal decisions get implemented. 
  • Cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent thoughts due to ingrained beliefs on one hand, and evidence on the other. For example, a belief that women are not as technically competent as men can clash with seeing high quality work from women leading to cognitive dissonance. In such situations, people might downplay women’s work, attribute their performance to luck, and attribute promotions to affirmative action and not to personal ability.  
  • Tokenism refers to the negative experiences a minority group faces as a result of being in a majority group. It also refers to the hiring or promotion of minority candidates as a signal that the group does not discriminate against them. It unfortunately creates a perception that the minority candidate is not actually deserving of that role. Women tend to face snide comments like “You had the perfect minority card to get the promotion” or “If I was a woman, I would have become a Partner”.

We then identified several leadership strategies that can mitigate the impact of these mechanisms. One key takeaway is to create structured norms around how ideas are discussed and debated, and the BTR technique (in the Appendix section of the report) outlines how leaders can run a group brainstorming session. Most of the strategies offered are gender agnostic — the idea is to remove biases in general from decision making so companies can become smarter and more efficient. 

To get the rest of the strategies download the full report here

How Gender Stereotypes Hurt Creativity

While working with students, I often encounter children who struggle to think beyond gender-stereotypical ideas during brainstorming. When deciding on a novel idea for a project, many boys will want to make an app but can’t come up with a novel idea for the app. They get so hung up on using technology to look cool, that they lose sight of the challenge itself and end up with sub-par ideas (an example is an “app that does all the homework” is way too common to hear).  The same problem happens, in equal measure, with girls too. Girls often pick ideas to highlight their nurturing or relationship-building aspects, and leave the better ones aside. 

Multiple research studies have tried to evaluate whether any particular gender has an advantage when it comes to creative thinking, and the meta results have been inconclusive. Some studies found that girls performed better on divergent thinking while others found boys to be better, or found no differences. It’s now well accepted in the research community that no one gender is better than the other when it comes to creative thinking. In other words, from a purely biological perspective both boys and girls are equally capable of coming up with novel and useful ideas. 

However, the problem starts when gender stereotypes start sneaking in and limiting the ways people think, which can happen at a very early age. Psychologist Sandra Bem who developed the Gender Schema Theory, argued that society does not encourage the development of both masculine and feminine traits in the same person. From a very young age, children develop theories of what it means to belong to a specific gender, and use that to categorize information, problem solve and regulate behavior. As a result, they are left with fewer tools and strategies to use for navigating situations in life. 

On the other hand, children who grow up to be more gender-aschematic and identify with both  masculine and feminine characteristics, show a range of beneficial outcomes. They think and act in more inclusive ways, have higher self esteem and are better communicators. This psychological androgyny (which has nothing to do with physical sexual orientation) is also important from a creativity perspective.

In one study, researchers evaluated several creativity measures for different gender role classifications: androgynous (high masculinity and high femininity); stereotypic (characteristics in line with one’s traditional gender role); undifferentiated (low masculinity and low femininity); retrotypic (characteristics opposite of one’s traditional gender role); and midmost (middle range for both masculinity and femininity). They found that the androgynous group was the most creative of all, closely followed by the retrotypic group while the stereotypic group was the least creative of all. One possible explanation for these results is that both the androgynous and the retrotypic groups are able to overcome gender boundaries and this expanded cognitive flexibility gives them access to additional ideas and perspectives. As the researchers note,  “Possibly the contrast between biological gender with a traditional role-assignment and psychological orientation with an untraditional role-assignment (i.e. a feminine man or a masculine woman) was sufficient to induce conditions facilitatory to the release of creativity. It is arguable whether or not retrotypic men and women possess similar penchants to their androgynic counterparts to cross the boundaries of traditional gender-roles thereby accumulating experiential material with elevated flexibility and creativity as a consequence.

Encouraging more androgynous behaviours is not just benefical socially, it is also a sign of higher creativity and intelligence. So how can one build these skills from an early age? Here are three strategies that can foster psychological androgyny:

Independent Thinking: There is an inherent safety in sticking to socially acceptable and stereotypical ideas. One of the most important things educators and parents can do is to build independent thinking in their students. By proposing ideas that are different from their peers, students start to build confidence in their own ability to think critically and creativity. This same confidence then helps them jump across gender boundaries at a later point. 
Encourage Perspective Taking: When a child suggests an idea or a solution, have them explore the idea from multiple different perspectives. How would this idea be received by the opposite gender or more broadly by other groups? Would this be as useful for them as for you? Why or why not? By approaching an idea from different perspectives, you not only improve cognitive flexibility but also shift focus on broader values that affect everyone. 
Appreciate Gender-boundary Crossing: Parents and educators should pay attention when a child engages in activity typically associated with the opposite gender, like a boy wanting to bake cookies or a girl interested in climbing trees. These moments reflect a child’s confidence in going beyond gender stereotypes and when appreciated it motivates them to continue down this path. 

People who are able to transcend gender boundaries don’t feel boxed in by cultural and social constraints. They are able to find more inclusive as well as more creative solutions. By encouraging skills like independent thinking and perspective taking from an early age, educators can help students become more creative, more confident and more inclusive. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit.

Creativity Hack: Subtract a Feature

When people are asked to think of ways to improve a product, most come up with additional features to increase the product’s functionality. But removing a feature can often lead to more interesting ideas. 

About The Hack

For most people the natural way of thinking when it comes to finding product improvements is to add more features. For example, adding a grinder to a coffee machine to make fresher tasting coffee. But sometimes you can get surprising ideas by going the opposite route – eliminating features. The key to making this hack work well is to subtract a key feature so you are forced to break your mental set. 

An illustrative example of this technique is the design of the hook-on high chair — a portable chair for toddlers that can be attached to any table thereby converting it into an on-the-go high chair. The design team who came up with this idea were tasked to create a new, revolutionary idea for a chair. The team challenged themselves by asking what would happen if they were to remove legs from a chair? In what kind of scenarios would such a chair be useful? Once they had removed a critical part of a typical chair, the designers were able to overcome their functional fixedness and identified a scenario where this would be beneficial. 

Another example of this hack comes from a challenge that I posed to a group of middle schoolers. In the context of jugaad or frugal innovation, I asked them to design a washing machine without using electricity. Students came up with several ideas on how to rotate the washing machine barrel manually from using stationary bikes to employing the salad spinner mechanism. Each of those ideas resulted in interesting concepts for washers that could also be used as exercise machines. 

Another benefit of this technique is that it helps you identify new markets for your product. The designers of the hook-on high chair had not designed chairs for the baby market before. Similarly, subtractions that lead to frugal innovations open up the developing market for cost-effective versions of the product.

Summary

Finally, here is a quick summary of the creativity hack and how to use it with students.

DescriptionTo find a creative idea for product improvement, ask students to remove one or more key features and find scenarios where the removal would be beneficial. 
ExampleAn example of using subtraction is removing legs from a chair. A chair without legs could be useful in different scenarios. For example, it could be used as a portable toddler high chair by attaching it to a table surface. Or it could be folded and used as a portable stadium or bleacher chair. 

By finding new scenarios, students can find new applications or new markets for their product.
Tips – To get bold ideas, ask students to pick features that are typically considered essential to the product. 
ExtensionsThis technique can be used to explore frugal innovation where you design products under extreme constraints that make them amenable for the developing world. 
Creativity Hack: Subtract a Feature

How Creativity Can Transform Your Organizational Culture

Dr. Pronita Mehrotra and Dr. Sandeep Krishnamurthy

As we head deeper into the 21st century with increasing use of AI and automation taking away routine work, it’s no surprise that creativity is becoming a highly valued skill in the modern workforce. 

In most places, employees have to do both creative and routine work. They have to create new products or services which require creativity, but they also have to do work within structured processes which is more routine in nature. To be successful, organizations have to create a healthy balance between creative and routine work. 

But what happens when creativity is insufficiently or incorrectly used in an organization? 

When creativity is misapplied, it can lead to poorer work cultures. The kinds of tasks people engage in their day to day work plays a role in how they perceive the work culture. We can classify organizational cultures based on the relative emphasis on routine and non-routine productivity (see figure above). While no organization of a reasonable size lies completely in a single quadrant, this framework can be a helpful tool for business leaders to identify where their organization or team lies.

Punching The Clock Culture

If a single emotion were to describe employees in this quadrant, it would be ‘boredom’. Much like the culture satirized in the hit series, The Office, work doesn’t require any creative input, is not intellectually stimulating and doesn’t provide skill growth. 

Job design here is so constricted by process that there is almost no autonomy for the individual. When employees don’t have a reasonable say in designing their work or opportunities for their creative ideas to be included, they are no longer intrinsically motivated and don’t feel invested in their work. Since the culture supports simple routine work, automation can outperform the individual work here. Such companies are bound to become obsolete in a short period of time, as automation accelerates.

Unfortunately, this kind of culture is not uncommon. When work is primarily routine, like in Call Centers, leaders have to find ways to empower their employees and keep them motivated. Zappos tried (at that time) a radical approach to inspire its customer service employees. Employees were empowered to use their imagination instead of following a script to delight their customers. By explicitly adding creativity into the equation, Zappos was able to convert dull and unpleasant tasks into something fun and delightful, and dramatically reduced employee turnover.  

Pipe Dream Culture 

If your company routinely creates product roadmaps that take twice as long to ship with half the features, there is a good chance that you lie in this quadrant. It’s an indication that your organization misunderstands creativity and places a higher value on being visionaries as opposed to being innovators. Creativity is imagination tied with practicality – it requires hard work to research, analyze and prototype to prove that an idea would be both novel and useful. 

Lily Robotics, a camera drone company, launched in 2015 with a breathtaking promotional video of its self-driving drone that could automatically follow you and take videos. The concept garnered a lot of attention and the company raised close to $50 million in pre-orders and institutional money. But, a year and a half later, the company shut down. It turned out that there were significant technical challenges in building all of the features the video promised. This, and countless other similar examples, show how a misunderstanding of creativity can lead to failure. If the founders and investors had spent more time analyzing whether the idea is workable or not, they would have saved everyone time and money. 

Paradoxically, organizations built around a pipe dream culture suffer from enough critical flaws that they are doomed to failure even without the impact of AI and automation. 

To avoid a pipe dream culture, leaders have to strive for a healthy balance between optimism and skepticism, between keeping an open mind to new ideas and spending time to evaluate those ideas. In fact, the more original an idea, the more time leaders need to spend in ensuring that the novel aspects are indeed workable. 

Hamster Wheel Culture 

If your employees are working long and hard to meet never-ending deadlines, they are likely in the third quadrant where productivity goals overwhelm them. While their work might offer opportunities to be creative, the constant pressure leaves them with no time to sit back, reflect and think of new approaches. They live in the here and now. 

When Covid hit and organizations started moving to remote work, leaders defaulted to enhancing routine productivity instead of incentivizing innovation and inadvertently pushed their organizations deeper into the Hamster Wheel culture. Research on global companies found that during the pandemic employees worked longer, spent more time in virtual meetings and sent more chat messages and emails. However, this came at a cost — most employees felt overworked and exhausted. 

To get out of the Hamster Wheel culture, leaders need to provide time and autonomy for employees to exercise their creativity. They need to track creative work differently from routine work, and they need to ensure that all employees regardless of their role or place in hierarchy contribute to the creative capital.  

Renaissance Culture

This is the ideal Goldilocks zone – where both creativity and productivity are balanced optimally. Employees in this quadrant are aligned with the company vision and can clearly see their own contributions towards it. Being intrinsically motivated, they make discretionary effort to see ideas come to fruition. The organization has an optimal blend of routine and non-routine work – enough focus on the routine to sustain current operations combined with the right proportion of non-routine work to build for the future.  

While the routine/non-routine balance is one aspect of the organization’s culture, it is an important yet overlooked dimension. By evaluating where their current culture lies, leaders can devise strategies to shift their cultures towards the ideal Renaissance culture. By infusing more creativity and autonomy correctly, leaders can tap into employees’ intrinsic motivation and thereby improve employee experience. 

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Three Strategies To Help Your Child Build A Creativity Mindset

As a child, Alexander Graham Bell, the prolific inventor best known for inventing the telephone, was intensely curious about the world. He built his first real invention – a simple dehusking machine – at the young age of twelve! While Bell was no doubt a smart and inquisitive child in his own right, his upbringing also played a big part in his success. His father was an inventor of sorts himself and he actively encouraged Alexander to make a speaking automaton. These early experiences paved the way for his future accomplishments. In other words, he grew up in an environment that valued creativity and problem solving. 

Creativity, as a cognitive skill, is becoming increasingly important in our world as routine jobs get automated. To be successful children now need more than literacy and numeracy skills – they also need to be confident creative problem solvers. The first step towards this is building a creativity mindset

So, how can parents help orient their child towards creativity? Here are three broad strategies you can use as a parent to start shifting your child’s mindset towards creative problem solving.

Make Creativity A Part Of Your Vocabulary

Most parents take a deliberate approach to help their child learn from an early age. They might casually introduce a new word during conversation or bring in numbers to build their child’s budding reading and math skills. This not only improves the child’s skills in the 3Rs but it also orients them towards those skills in the real world – they might notice new words more often or see mathematical connections in everyday situations. 

In a similar way, talking about creativity and everyday inventions can open their minds towards creative problem solving. One activity we do when we start our invention classes is to have a discussion about creativity by analyzing everyday creations around us. What makes something both novel and useful (the core definition of creativity)?  As students start discussing and analyzing things around them, they start to realize that everything around them is an invention – created by someone, or more accurately by many people over time, in order to make our lives more efficient. Parents can do the same exercise at home. As an example, a conversation between a parent and their child about a painting on the wall might go like this:

P: Is that painting on the wall an invention?

C: It’s original because I haven’t seen this painting anywhere else and it’s useful because it makes people feel good. 

P: That’s a good point about art making people feel good. Humans have been making art for a long time – even before they made language.

C: Like cave paintings.

P: Yes, like cave paintings! How are paintings now better than cave paintings? 

C: Cave paintings were fixed to the cave wall. But today, you can move them around – you can take your paintings with you if you move houses. So that’s another way it’s an invention. 

In our experience, children find this to be an eye-opening exercise and it opens their minds to creative problem solving. They start to look at things in their world a little differently. A few days after I did this exercise with my son, who would have been a 1st or 2nd grader at the time, he suddenly had an epiphany while we were driving. He excitedly shared an idea that could avoid holiday lights from getting tangled up. What if the lights were sewn onto a net that could be draped over a tree when in use, and then folded up neatly when done? Not a bad idea for such a common problem! 

Don’t Teach, Co-create

Even when parents understand the importance of creativity, they often try to “teach” it to their children. A more effective method is to co-create something with them – like making a new story, a fun game or a cool gadget together.

Children, and even adults, learn implicitly from others as much, if not more, than by being explicitly taught. Our brains are wired to detect patterns and connections around us and use them to update our models of the world. By continually updating and refining our internal models as we integrate new ideas, we improve our understanding of the world. Learning is more efficient when we deduce the pattern ourselves instead of when the pattern is taught to us. When you co-create with your child, they start picking up ideas and automatically integrating them in ways that are compatible with their current knowledge. As almost all parents have experienced, you might be focusing on one idea but your child might pick up on a different one. In effect, co-creation leads to a fully personalized learning – one that fits perfectly with your child’s current mental models. 

There are two additional advantages to co-creation. One, traditional teaching approaches can be perceived by the child as evaluatory and controlling, which raises their defenses. They are much more likely to engage in activities that are collaborative and low pressure in nature. The second advantage is the emotional aspect. Emotions bind the learning much more strongly, and positive emotions are better than negative. So if an activity is viewed as a fun family experience with lots of laughter and love, then not only is the child willing to engage in it more frequently, but what she learns from the experience is deeper.

The advantages of engaging in co-creation take some time to become evident. For example, if you start a dinner time routine of making silly stories, you might notice that your child doesn’t offer that many ideas or plays safe by reusing your ideas in the beginning. Don’t let that discourage you. Over time, you will see that the complexity and the novelty of their ideas start to increase as your child gets more comfortable, both cognitively and emotionally, with the activity. 

Do More Arts At Home

High quality art programs, including visual arts and music, have been shown to benefit creativity and related skills. In the case of Alexander Graham Bell, his mother encouraged his interest in art, poetry and music. Despite any formal training in music, he mastered the piano and became the “family pianist.”

Arts provide children with a canvas to try new things and take more risks, skills that can transfer more broadly to other domains as they grow older. A research study found that incorporating arts increased both children’s self-efficacy and original thinking. As the authors noted, “Self-efficacious children believe they can be agents in creating their own futures and are more optimistic about what the world has in store for them.

Another benefit of doing arts is that it provides an easy avenue to experience flow – where one is fully immersed in the task that action and awareness seem to merge. Experiencing flow not only helps improve mental health, it also builds a more intrinsic orientation towards learning which is beneficial in the long run. 

A creative mindset developed at an early age can have a tremendous impact on a child’s long-term success allowing them to make meaningful contributions to society. Parents play a crucial role in this. By helping their child understand creativity and by engaging in creative activities with them, they can equip their child with the right mindset and confidence. 

Why A Growth Mindset for Creativity is Essential

During our enrichment programs we often run into students who get stumped with creativity exercises. In one session, I gave a group of 4th and 5th graders a simple divergent thinking exercise. As the students started writing down their ideas, I noticed one girl who seemed uncomfortable with the exercise. When it was time for students to share their ideas, she refused to participate. Later, during a different activity, I stopped by her desk and gently asked if she wanted to share her ideas with me. She crumpled up her sheet of paper and tearfully said that she doesn’t really have any good ones. 

This isn’t an isolated case. Many students, including those in gifted programs, find creative thinking challenging. One reason lies with our education system which heavily emphasizes analytical thinking at the expense of creative thinking. Students are so used to the “one right answer” approach in education that they don’t know how to approach open-ended problems with several potential solutions. The gifted student who can confidently say the answer to a math problem because she can double check her answer, doesn’t have the same level of confidence for ambiguous problems with multiple solutions. 

This is harmful for students in the long run. As we transition from the “knowledge” to the ”creative” economy, students are increasingly ill-prepared to contribute meaningfully to the workforce. As work expectations shift toward higher creativity, it’s leading to a creativity gap – the disparity between valuing creative performance in adults and not fostering creativity in students. 

So, how do we better prepare our students to become confident creators? The answer starts with building a growth mindset towards creativity, what researchers call the “creative mindset.”

Carol Dweck pioneered the theory of growth mindset that improved educational outcomes for many students and revolutionized the way we approach learning. Dweck found that, when faced with challenges, some students give up too easily while others doubled down on learning. She realized that students who gave up easily had a fixed mindset, where they believed that intelligence is innate and therefore extra effort would not yield better results. The other students displayed a growth mindset – a belief that intelligence and skills are malleable. More interestingly, Dweck found that educators could shift students to a growth mindset and help them become better learners. Her growth mindset intervention workshops helped numerous students improve their math and science scores. 

Growth mindset has now become ubiquitous in both education and the workforce. However, most people view a growth mindset as applicable only to learning new skills (“I can learn new things”). They don’t realize that mindsets are equally important to creativity (“I can create new things”). 

By leveraging a growth mindset for creativity, we can help students build the ability and the confidence to be creators and innovators. Below are three ways to build a creativity fostering environment in your classroom. 

Emphasize Creative Mindset: Much like learning new skills, our brain also grows when it tries to create new things. Creativity often requires making connections between unrelated things or looking at the problem with different perspectives. When students practice these skills their brains adapt accordingly in order to make them better at  creative thinking. Similar to the growth mindset, educators can emphasize that our brains are like a muscle that grows stronger the more we practice creative thinking. If students find creativity hard, it’s a sign that their brains are stretching and learning to get better at it. 

Appreciate Non-conformity: Creativity by definition depends on non-conformity. To foster creativity, educators need to provide opportunities for students to think independently to come up with original ideas and perspectives. By exploring ideas outside of mainstream norms, students build creative confidence. Educators are often worried that by allowing students to voice non-conforming ideas will lead to chaos. It doesn’t have to. Educators can create explicit times or projects where students get to be creative, and a respectful environment for ideas to be shared with each other. 

Model Creativity: Nothing inspires students more than seeing their teachers embody the skills they are learning. By sharing their own creative pursuits, educators set the expectation that creativity is valued in their classroom. When teachers share their failures and how they overcame them, students learn to approach setbacks with a problem solving mindset. This builds perseverance towards challenging problems, which further boosts growth mindset.  

Bloom’s taxonomy places “creating” as the top skill for education. Without the ability to convert their knowledge into new solutions, students miss out on learning how to be valuable contributors. Unfortunately, most teacher training programs don’t emphasize creativity and typical school curriculums don’t integrate creative thinking. However, creative thinking skills are not that hard to cultivate. By deliberately building mindsets, modeling creativity themselves and providing adequate opportunity, educators can foster creativity in their students. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit.

Creativity Hack: Interrupt The Routine

If you have ever had students complain that they can’t think of a good idea for their creative story writing assignment, here is an easy hack to help their creative juices flowing again. 

About The Hack

We often encounter students who have trouble coming up with creative ideas in story writing. This hack breaks down the process of creative thinking in a way that makes it easier for students to discover new ideas. It’s also more fun! 

Instead of asking students to come up with a creative idea, we ask them to write a “boring” story. Students typically jump at this offer – partly because they were not expecting this but mainly because the ask doesn’t feel intimidating. Students find a theme that interests them and then write a fairly straightforward outline of the story. For example, if someone is interested in pets they might have a story outline of ‘boy wants a pet dog for his birthday; he begs his parents to get one; parents get him a pet and he is happy’. 

As most people can see, this is not a great story, yet. The plot line is routine – there is nothing surprising and there is no conflict to keep the reader engaged. Routine things are predictable but novelty comes from the unanticipated. To make this more creative, students move to the next phase where they have to find ways to “break the routine” in their storylines. For example, maybe the pet gets lost and the story becomes an adventure to find the missing pet. Or, the dog is actually a super-intelligent alien and this leads to a very different kind of imaginative fiction.

The neat thing about this hack is that it lowers the barrier to creativity – the hardest part in coming up with creative ideas is just getting started. By using a routine, boring story line it’s easier to get students started. They also feel less evaluation apprehension associated and are more than happy to share their “boring” version with each other. 

Summary

Finally, here is a quick summary of the creativity hack and how to use it with students.

DescriptionTo find a creative story idea, first start with a routine, “boring” storyline and then find ways to break the routine. Elaborating on each of those interruptions can lead to different kinds of story ideas. 
ExampleAsk your students to start by making a “boring” story with a theme of their choice. For example, ‘boy wants a pet dog for his birthday; he begs his parents to get one; parents get him a pet and he is happy’. Next, find ways to interrupt this routine and predictable storyline. What if the dog has special powers? What kind of magical journey would that lead to? Or, what if someone kidnaps the dog? How does the boy use his smarts to get his pet back?
By finding different ways to interrupt the routine, students discover interesting ideas to pursue. 
Tips – For a better variety of ideas, ask students to find different kinds of interruptions at different points in their original story line. 
– Encourage students to elaborate their story line which might give them more ideas on how to add interruptions. 
ExtensionsThis technique can be applied multiple times in a story. As students develop and elaborate their stories, they might find parts of the story that seem predictable. By using this technique, they can add more twists to the story. The more unanticipated elements a story has, the more it keeps the reader on edge. 
Creativity Hack: Interrupt The Routine

Why Creating Imaginary Worlds During Play Is Beneficial

What do Emily Bronte, Friedrich Neitzsche and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have in common apart from the fact that they were all highly distinguished in their chosen fields? One thing that ties them together is that they all engaged in building complex imaginary worlds, or paracosms,  when they were children.

Emily Bronte along with her siblings created “Glass Town” situated somewhere in Africa. Neitzsche and his sister created an imaginary world with a squirrel as the King, and Mozart created the Kingdom of Back with his sister. All of these worlds were highly complex and their creators spent many months defining and elaborating various aspects of their world. 

This kind of childhood play is significantly different from other kinds of imaginary play children typically play in. This kind of make believe play doesn’t end at bedtime but persists for much longer often stretching into months or even years. The imaginary world keeps growing organically and accumulates stories, culture, politics and even distinct languages. 

What Is Worldplay? 

Michelle Root-Bernstein, a creativity scholar, who studies imaginary worlds in children believes that worldplay has ties to creativity and giftedness. In a research study she found that the prevalence of worldplay was significantly higher among recipients of MacArthur genius awards compared to a group of undergraduate students. The MacArthur Fellows came from different disciplines in sciences and humanities, and the undergraduate group was selected to match their profile. 

Creating paracosms may seem like a frivolous activity but it builds skills that are essential for success. As Root-Bernstein explains, “childhood worldplay does appear to provide an early apprenticeship in absorption and persistence, discovery, synthesis, and modeling.” 

As children start elaborating their worlds, they not only build their imaginative skills but many others like empathy (understanding different characters’ problems), logical thinking (building rules and societal structures) or problem solving (resolving conflicts between groups). But most importantly, children also begin to realize that society and its rules were created by other people like them and are just as malleable as the rules in their imaginary worlds, giving them the confidence to imagine new solutions to human challenges. 

Despite the benefits of worldplay, it is much less prevalent now than a generation ago. With the proliferation of technology, children spend their free time exploring readily available commercial worlds in games, instead of using their imagination to invent their own. This, unfortunately, deprives them of an opportunity to develop lifelong creativity skills. 

Worldplay As A Pedagogical Tool

Inspired by the benefits of worldplay, we created a project-based learning (PBL) program for younger students to design their own fantasy worlds. We realized that the project was a fertile playground to teach different concepts and subject areas while keeping students engaged. Some of the topics we covered were myths, ecosystems and numbering systems, and in each area students had to create their own versions. Below are some examples:

  • Myths: In one session we learned that all cultures have traditional stories or myths that explain the history or some other natural phenomena. Myths arose because people didn’t have the scientific knowledge to understand the world around them. These stories became a way to make sense of the world around them and could often be a vehicle for other moral lessons. After we discussed different kinds of myths, students created myths to explain some aspect of their own world.  
  • Numbering Systems: We explored how different numbering systems evolved in human history to keep up with our growing needs. The earliest forms of counting was through tally marks which became impractical when large numbers were involved. The next “invention” was to assign symbols for larger numbers (like ‘C’ denotes 100 in Roman numerals). Similarly, place-value was another improvement that made it easier to do arithmetic operations. After students see how the decimal system we use now is the product of multiple iterations over hundreds of years, they take on the task to design their own numbering system with their own symbols (which often include emojis) and choice of base.
     
  • Ecosystems: We studied different kinds of interdependent relations and how these mutually beneficial relationships help the ecosystem survive. For example, crocodiles allow birds to pick food that’s stuck to their teeth – this helps the crocodiles keep their teeth clean and the birds get easy access to food. Similarly, bees get food from flowering plants and in return help in pollination. Students then explore how different inhabitants in their world could potentially co-exist in beneficial ways. 

While much shorter than typical worldplay, we felt that the project gave students an opportunity to build a deeper understanding of academic concepts by exploring their own imaginary worlds. It’s easy to include topics from different disciplines in sciences and humanities, making this a useful pedagogical tool for educators to use in their classrooms.

Key Takeaways

When most people talk about play for kids, they usually think of play that lasts for a few hours. But just as important is a deeper kind of play – one that engages children over many months as they create and develop their own imaginary worlds. 

  1. Building 21st Century Skills: Creating imaginary worlds gives a playground for children to learn empathy, problem solving and creativity – skills that lead to higher accomplishments in adulthood. Worldplay gives children a sense of agency in their imaginary worlds, which they are more likely to bring into the real world as they pursue their creative endeavors. 
  2. Worldplay at Home: As a parent you can encourage your child to play more imaginative games in their free time. When they share an imaginative creation, join in their pretend play and find ways for them to elaborate their ideas even more. While not all children may be drawn to extended worldplay, engaging in shorter stretches can still build crucial empathy and problem solving skills.  
  3. Worldplay in Schools: Worldplays can be an effective vehicle to teach academic content as they are so easily extensible. One way to do this is to create a long-running project in the classroom that students keep adding on to as they learn new concepts. By creating a parallel world and applying the concepts they are learning, students get to see things from a different perspective which leads to deeper learning. 

This article first appeared on CreativityAndEducation

What Animals Can Teach Us About Creativity

Creativity has become one of the most desired skills to possess in the 21st century. Creativity is envisioned to be the answer to rapid automation that is taking away routine jobs and the essential ingredient for solving complex global problems we currently face. Creativity, being a uniquely human trait, has allowed us to adapt and thrive as a species so far and can potentially do so in the future as well. 

But is creativity really unique to humans or do other species show any evidence of creativity? 

Understanding how creativity evolved in other animals can help us better understand our own creative abilities. Recent research suggests that creativity is a spectrum with other animal species showing rudimentary forms of creativity. 

Animal Creativity Spectrum

According to one model, creativity is a spectrum that starts with novelty recognition and seeking, followed by observational learning and finally progresses to innovation. 

  • Novelty Recognition: At the most basic level, an animal has to be able to assess their environment and recognize if there is anything novel or different in the environment. How an animal responds once they detect novelty can lead to either neophobia or neophilia. In an interesting experiment with orangutans, researchers discovered the “captivity effect” with respect to creativity. They presented a set of novel objects to both wild orangutans and captive orangutans in zoos. They found that captive orangutans were more willing to explore novel objects than their wild peers who exhibited high levels of neophobia. In captive environments, orangutans are more frequently exposed to novel items that turn out to be pleasurable (e.g. treats hidden in toys) and over time they built positive associations towards novelty. They also built more trust with their human caretakers and are more willing to explore objects handed to them by humans. In contrast, wild orangutans view novelty with suspicion and are significantly less willing to take risks. 
  • Novelty Seeking: Beyond the ability to recognize novelty in the environment is the desire to seek novelty, which requires some risk taking. For example, male bowerbirds are known for their novel courtship dances. The success of their courtship ritual depends on the intensity and attractiveness of the display. However, too much novelty can deter females so male bowerbirds adjust their dance based on the reactions they get. By reducing the level of novelty when needed, the bowerbirds are able to increase their chances of mating. This ability to modulate the level of novelty is essential for creativity, as the novel outcome also needs to be useful in order to be creative.  
  • Observational Learning: The first two stages of the creativity spectrum deal with creativity at an individual level but this third stage allows creativity to spread from an individual to a larger group. When animals can copy one another they learn and adapt faster to their environment. In a study of capuchin monkeys, researchers found that younger monkeys who were less adept at using stones to crack nuts, spent more time observing more proficient monkeys. This social learning ability allows the younger capuchin monkeys to get better at scrounging faster than discovering techniques themselves.  
  • Innovation: At the highest level of creativity is the creation of a novel product in order to solve a problem. An example of this is tool creation or modification in animals to access food more readily. New caledonian crows are highly intelligent and known for their sophisticated tool use. In one experiment, researchers presented a crow with a setup containing food and an aluminum strip that needed to be bent or unbent in order to get to the food source. In each of the trials, the bird was able to successfully modify the tool and get their reward. 

Lessons From Animal Creativity

Rudimentary creativity skills demonstrated by different animal species give us clues about our own creativity. Here are three lessons from the animal world that apply to human creativity as well:

  • Psychological Safety: While we don’t live in the wild anymore like orangutans, we still need safety in order to be fully creative. A psychological safe environment makes it easier for people to explore ideas and share them with others. In other words, safe environments move us towards neophilia whereas in unsafe ones we tend to shut down. 
  • Openness to Experience: The novelty seeking behavior is similar to the “openness to experience” trait. In general, people who are more open to new experiences tend to be more creative than others. But just like bowerbirds, this novelty seeking needs to be balanced as too much of it can be risky. 
  • Social Learning: We learn more from others than we do from individual exploration. Most of the innovation we see around us is incremental – it builds up on other existing ideas. Our ability to learn from others, coupled with our ability to imagine different scenarios, has allowed us to innovate at much larger scales than other species. 

While most people consider creativity to be a uniquely human trait, evidence from the nonhuman animals suggests otherwise. Creativity evolved in order to help us better adapt and survive in our environments, and elements of it abound in the animal world. Given the daunting challenges we face today that threaten our survival, we need creativity and innovation now more than ever. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit.