Our First Summer Camp And Lessons Learned

We just wrapped up our first summer camp to teach children (8-12yr olds) how to think in more innovative ways. For this camp, we wanted to go beyond simply teaching creativity techniques, to having children actually design objects they use regularly. And since this is the back to school season, we picked “Redesigning School Supplies” as the theme of our camp.

We organized camp activities around a few principles and learned what works well and what doesn’t:

Don’t dumb it down

The neat thing about Creativity is that it is relatively age-agnostic – it’s easy to teach kids core creativity concepts. So, we didn’t skimp on the content. The children learned and experienced creativity techniques and design thinking processes that are typically encountered in graduate level courses.

But we did package the material to be more kid-friendly. For instance, we made a “Minion Game” for the Alternate Uses Task, where a group of minions “discover” an object and the minions take turns in interpreting how that object might be used by humans (all while speaking minion-ese, of course).

Lesson Learned: The campers grasped the concept that we were teaching quickly through play and games, although not everything went perfect. For example, we used the Minion-Game as an opening game, and realized that it wasn’t the best decision. While the kids loved the concept (they asked to play it again the next day), they hadn’t sufficiently warmed up to each other to act silly. In hindsight, this game would have probably worked much better had we scheduled for the second day or later. Our other games fared a lot better, and the children had a great time making their own Twist-a-Story skits, and Crime Scene Investigation movie trailers!

Both group and individual thinking are important

Research has shown that when people brainstorm individually and then bring their ideas to the table for group discussion, the outcome is superior compared to group brainstorming. So, our activities alternated between individual thinking and group brainstorming giving everyone a chance to think on their own.

Lesson Learned: This strategy worked out really well and we ended up with a lot of unique, interesting ideas that children were able to use in their final designs! We will definitely keep this approach going forward.

Make it Relatable

Everyday, we also studied an inventor and their creation to illustrate the concept of the day (like using empathy, making associations, or storyboarding). We also wanted to remove the the psychological barrier that children typically have –  that inventing is for adults. So our profiles included young inventors like the 11 yr old girl who invented the crayon holder, to help use up little pieces of crayon.

Lesson Learned: We are not really sure how much (or if) this inspired our campers, but the children did seem to enjoy learning about other inventors. We’ll continue using  this because it also served as a good transition activity between games and project work.

We organized the campers into four teams and each team picked a school supply to redesign. By the time camp ended we  had some interesting new products – a lunch bag that helps you plan healthy portions, a multi-functional scissors, a universal notebook that minimizes paper cuts, and a better organized and safer backpack. Not bad for the one week we had!

But most importantly, the campers had a great time figuring out their own, unique problems with the objects they picked and applying design thinking to solve them!

MindAntix Brainteaser: Many Uses

One of the most common divergent thinking tasks is the Alternate Uses (AU) Task where you take an everyday object and think of different uses it can be put to. For example, a cup could  be used as a flower vase or as a hat or even as a toy. Designed by psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1967, the Alternative Uses Task is used as a standard creativity task to evaluate fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration of responses. But coming up with creative ideas is tricky because most people find it hard to move beyond their first strong associations. So, how can you jumpstart your brain into thinking of novel ideas?

In a study done on the Alternate Uses Task, researchers found that participants arrived at more novel responses after listing more obvious ones (typically after 10 or more responses). In a different study on divergent thinking strategies, researchers analyzed how participants responded to alternate uses and discovered some interesting patterns. They found four underlying mechanisms that people use to trigger new ideas: Memory Use (pull pre-known responses from memory), Property Use (pick a property and search for functions using that property), Broad Use (review the object against a broad use like “transport”), and Disassembly Use (pick a component of the object and find a use for it).

We can apply the three step process for creative thinking to our cup example to discover novel ideas in a more structured way. As the first step, we dissect the object into its properties (glass, metal, round), function (drink liquids from), or assumptions (hold liquids, kept open side up). In the next step, we can try and change one or more of these properties and then see if the resulting object could be used for something else. For instance,

  • instead of holding liquids, it could hold solids (vase, piggy bank, pencil holder).
  • if it was inverted it could be used as hat or a lamp shade.
  • if it was made of paper, you could cut the circle at the bottom and use that as a coin.

Once you dissect in many dimensions, you get many more starting points to modify things and come up with neat uses. In fact, the responses deemed most creative (property use) in the divergent thinking study fit neatly into the dissect and manipulate approach. You could also include the third step, associate, to increase your idea fluency. For example if you attach a string and a ball to the cup you could make a new kind of paddle ball or kendama.

So, when you attempt the “Many Uses” brainteasers (a loosely constrained version of Alternate Uses) on MindAntix, or similar problems elsewhere, try to dissect and change things to trigger more unusual connections. And remember, your best ideas will likely come in the second wave – after the more obvious ones.

Can You Learn To Be More Creative?

In the Paris Manuscript B, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s oldest surviving notebooks, there is a drawing of huge artificial wings undergoing trials. Under the drawing, Leonardo describes in some detail his instructions to test the wings. He ends his instructions with a pragmatic suggestion – “If the desired effect is not achieved, do not waste any more time on it.” The casual humility of his last sentence comes, perhaps, from having produced many ideas and seeing a fair share of them fail. And he certainly produced a lot of ideas. By the time he died, he had penned more than 13,000 pages of notes and drawings that fuse art and various forms of science. About 500 years after his death, the world is still fascinated with his raw creative genius. But was Leonardo simply a lucky coincidence of the right genes or did his upbringing and environment play a role in making him creative? Or in other words, is creativity, like Leonardo’s, an innate trait or can it be acquired?

One of the best ways to evaluate heritability for any trait is through twin studies. Traits that are genetic show higher correlations for identical twins than for fraternal twins. Over the years many researchers have given creativity tests to twins and they have consistently found that divergent thinking and originality, key components of creativity, do not have any genetic basis. This implies that creativity is a skill that can be acquired with practice.

Studies have, in fact, shown that creativity trainings do help in making people more creative. Ginamarie Scott and her colleagues at the University of Oklahoma did a meta-analysis of prior creativity studies and found that trainings that focused on developing creative thinking skills, like divergent thinking and problem solving, were the most effective. Originality showed the largest effect size suggesting that “creativity training is effecting the critical manifestation of creative thought—the generation of original, or surprising, new ideas”.

Coming back to Leonardo da Vinci – a strategy that he often used to get his creative inspiration was to “connect the unconnected”. It’s quite likely that his prolific output was the result of him practicing his creative thinking skills repeatedly and becoming a virtuoso at it.

While achieving great creative outcomes depends on more factors than just generating ideas, it is nevertheless true that the ability to produce large, diverse and original ideas is a precursor to creative accomplishments. Nobel Laureate, Linus Pauling, best captured this sentiment when he said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” And as we are learning now, the ability to have a lot of ideas is a skill that can be acquired by anyone. All you need to do is a little practice.

A Left Brainer’s Guide to Right Brain Creativity

When I first started coaching my daughter’s Destination Imagination team, I struggled with getting my team to really think outside the box. I found that during brainstorming, most of their ideas showed, loosely borrowing computer science terminology, either “temporal” or “spatial” locality. For instance, when they were deciding a plot for their play in December, most of their ideas were around toys and Christmas. Or, if I pressed them for more ideas, they would start scanning the room to see if anything triggered their imagination. It frustrated me that my team wasn’t coming up with more diverse ideas but I did not know how to make them think differently. That’s when I started researching on how to boost creative thinking.

Michael Michalko, a leading expert in Creative Thinking, started his work in the field when he organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists to research, collect, and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods. After spending several years refining various techniques, he published Thinkertoys in 1991 which is currently one of the best compilation of different creative thinking techniques. Even earlier in the 1940s, Genrich Altshuller, a Soviet inventor who first started work as a clerk in a patent office, wanted to discover rules or patterns that would help in the creation of novel ideas. He analyzed thousands of patents and developed his Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) which includes 40 principles that can guide novel thinking. What’s interesting with both Thinkertoys (specifically, the Linear Thinkertoys, which focus on conscious problem solving) and TRIZ is that even though they originated differently and target different audiences (businesses vs. technical inventors), they both share many common techniques. But how do you keep all these different tips and tricks in your head when trying to solve a thorny problem?

One way, that I find easy to explain to children, is to integrate these different techniques in a broader model as a three-step problem solving process:

  • Dissect: The first step is to list all the different dimensions or attributes of the problem like material, shape and functionality. The trap that most of us fall into at this step is that we only think of physical attributes. You can get trigger more diverse ideas by also thinking about less tangible dimensions like the underlying assumptions or the environment. For instance, the thinkertoy, False Faces, focuses on underlying assumptions as it’s attribute.
  • Manipulate: The next step in the process, once you have selected the dimension, is to manipulate it in some way. As Professor Kyung Hee Kim points out, novel ideas are generated from mental actions, not external objects. You could make a physical attribute bigger or smaller, change materials, add more remove functionality, or even turn around assumptions. For instance, in False Faces, Michalko reverses our assumption that all restaurants have menus. By working with the reversed assumption, we could imagine a restaurant where the chef creates a meal out of ingredients that you pick and names the dish after you, to provide a unique and personal experience.
  • Associate: The final step in thinking creatively is to pick one or two random objects and see how they are related to solving the problem. This technique allows you to tap into the brain’s natural ability to find associations between things that may be unrelated and give you completely new, unanticipated directions to think about. This isn’t necessarily the last step – you can use associations any time in the brainstorming process. The Brutethink technique in Thinkertoys, that works by pairing two things that have nothing in common, uses association to reveal novel connections and ideas.

So, why are we inclined to think in a temporal and spatial sense? Daniel Kahneman, in his groundbreaking book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, explains that ideas are like nodes in a vast network, called associative memory. Each idea is connected to many others through different types of links, one of which is the contiguity in time and space. So when you have a starting thought, your brain subconsciously starts finding other ideas that are related, and not surprisingly, picks ones that are close in time or space. When we have two unrelated ideas, the same associative engine gets to work under the ground to find what connects them. Which is why the third step in the process (association) works so well. The trick to being more creative is to recognize that our brain by default lights up only a few directions, and that we can consciously provide additional triggers for more unique (and sometimes profound) ideas.

By thinking of creative brainstorming as a three-step process, you can learn to significantly increase the number and quality of novel ideas. So, the next time you are stumped with a challenge, try out the three-step process of dissect, manipulate and associate. List out as many attributes and dimensions of the problem as you can think of, find different ways to change things, throw in some randomness, and then rinse and repeat.

Want to be more creative? Start small.

When my daughter was six years old, she decided that she wanted to be an inventor. And one of her first “inventions” was a singing toothbrush. She could never keep track of her two minutes of brushing time, and like any other six year old, she kept forgetting to set the timer or watch the clock. So she came up with an idea – if her toothbrush could play a song for two minutes then she would know exactly when to stop brushing. She didn’t know that toothbrushes like that were available, so as far as she was concerned this was a pretty clever, novel idea. Would you consider her singing toothbrush idea creative? If you are like most people, your answer is probably “yes”. And until recently, you would have been wrong.

Creativity research is usually split into two kinds based on the magnitude of creativity – Big-C, which focuses on eminence-levels of creativity like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and little-c or everyday creativity, which covers all other smaller-scale novel ideas or products. But what makes it into these categories depends on what we mean by creativity. Since the latter half of the 20th century, creativity has been defined as a novel yet appropriate solution to a problem or response to a situation. Unfortunately, the focus on “novel” discounts ideas that are new only to the person who creates them but not to others. So, by this definition, our singing toothbrush wouldn’t really be considered creative.

To overcome this limitation, psychologists, Kaufman and Beghetto, proposed adding the “mini-c” category of creativity which they defined as “novel and personally meaningful interpretation of experiences, actions and events.” Mini-c focuses on the personal creativity that was missing from the previous definition. They also added another category, Pro-c, to account for professional creators that have not yet reached eminent status. But their contribution wasn’t limited to just defining some new categories and expanding the definition of creativity.

Most importantly, based on prior creativity research, the authors laid out the trajectory of creativity categories with people potentially progressing from lower levels of creativity to more higher forms of creativity over time. (See a simplified view of their 4C model in the picture above). The major realization from their model is that everything starts with mini-c – without being good at mini-c creativity, one cannot reach eminent levels of Big-C creativity. The path to making breakthrough accomplishments in any area starts with humble, small forms of personal creative expression.

Jean Piaget, the famous psychologist, observed “The principle goal of education is to create men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done”. Unfortunately, our current environment is failing us – instead of educating a generation to handle increasingly complex challenges in creative ways, we are inadvertently creating a generation that is more likely to think inside-the-box. Our goal at MindAntix is to help build mini-c and little-c levels of creativity in everyone. We believe that creative thinking skills along with other key ingredients (topic of our next blog) will eventually lead to breakthrough levels of creative accomplishments.

 

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

There is a growing debate in the education world about how schools are squelching creativity in our kids. Sir Ken Robinson, a leading proponent of this theory, outlines his argument of how we are “educating people out of their creative capacities” in a humorous and immensely popular TED talk. For those who haven’t seen his talk, the video is embedded at the end of this blog and I highly encourage everyone to watch it.

There are a few ways that schools shortchange our children as Sir Ken Robinson points out in his talk. The first is that our view of intelligence is still dominated by academic ability. Despite the advancement in our understanding of intelligence – that it is diverse (as proposed by psychologists like Howard Gardner and Robert Steinberg), dynamic and distinct – our educational system still focuses primarily on logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligence. Our belief in what’s important to learn leads to a hierarchy of subjects with math and languages at the top and  humanities and arts at the bottom. This results in a system that discourages kids with strengths lie outside of the “top” subjects. And, this one-size-fits-all approach robs everyone of an opportunity to develop different kinds of intelligences and ways of thinking.  Finally, by creating a culture where mistakes are stigmatized, schools make kids more risk-averse and less creative. Sir Robinson raises valid points in his talk but is that the whole story – are only schools responsible for undermining Creativity?

Kyung Hee Kim, a leading researcher on Creativity, analyzed creative thinking scores for K-12 students over the last few decades and found that Creativity has been declining steadily since the 1990s. This is a worrisome trend, because, as she puts it, “it stunts abilities which are supposed to mature over a lifetime.”  In addition, she found out that the biggest drop in creativity, surprisingly, was for the K-3 age group, a group more influenced by home than school.

In her article, Kim outlines three factors that might be playing a role in the declining creativity trend.

  • Time to think: In our rush to provide children with enriching after school activities (ironically, to complement school’s left-brain slant), we are leaving them with less time for free play and for “reflective abstraction”. In two studies (1, 2) spanning 1981-2003, Sandra Hofferth, a professor at University of Maryland, found that discretionary time for children reduced by 14 hrs per week in that time period. In addition, structured activities are taking up an increasing portion of discretionary time leaving children with little time to think and reflect.

  • Problem Finding: Problem finding uses a different set of skills as compared to problem solving. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes a distinction between  “presented” problems, which are formulated by others, and “discovered” problems which are self-identified. While creative solutions are often found for presented problems, major breakthroughs occur more with discovered problems. Einstein was not alone in holding this conviction when he said, “the formulation of a problem is often more essential than it’s solution.” Other studies have also shown that students show more motivation to solve self-generated problems and they come up with more creative solutions for them as compared to presented problems.

  • Collaboration: Creativity also emerges from collaborative groups. Studies have shown that other people’s ideas can be stimulating when group members actively listen to each other’s ideas. Children’s creativity can be enhanced by providing them with a receptive and encouraging environment to discuss ideas.

With so many changes in our values and lifestyle since the ‘90s it will be hard to narrow down all the factors causing a fall in creativity, so this debate is here to stay. But what can we all do in the meantime? I believe that we should encourage children to think in many different ways whenever they can – adopt different perspectives, challenge assumptions, ask “what-if?”, and find new kinds of problems (real or hypothetical situations) to think about at school and at home. Ask “why?” five times to get to the root of any problem and to find more creative solutions. And then ask “why not?”. Learning to think and ask different questions not only helps in acquiring deeper insights but also reveals more creative solutions. “The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers,” said Sir Antony Jones, co-author of the famous British comedies Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister,  “but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions.