Little Bets and Practical Advice

There is a growing creativity gap in American schools. Global business leaders cite creativity as the most important skill for CEOs. Entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, scientists, teachers require creativity and creative problem solving.  Yet schools continue to prioritize standardization and conformity over cultivating individual strengths and creativity.

In 2012, Adobe released a global benchmark study focused on the attitudes and beliefs associated with creativity. The study showed that 8 in 10 respondents feel that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth, yet only 1 in 4 felt that they were living up to their creative potential, and more than half of the global respondents feel creativity is being stifled by the education system – and that number rises to over 70% in the US¹.   This data demonstrates a widespread belief that creativity is critical to growth and innovation. It also highlights the fact that although a large majority find creativity to be important, most people do not believe they are living up to their creative potential.

In June of 2006, Ken Robinson’s “Schools Kill Creativity” TED talk was released. Since that date, this video has been  viewed over 33 million times. It has been referenced in numerous online articles and continues to be one of the most viewed and shared talks.  Clearly there is resonance among many that creativity is “killed” in schools.  Solutions offered up to this profound and resonant issue have been scarce. Why is it so hard to navigate the space between what we fundamentally believe and what we take action on, particularly when it comes to educating our own children?  If so many people believe things should be done differently, why does the public stand by the old model, and continue to berate it, as if somehow something will magically change?

Part of the creativity problem lies in the industrialized and hierarchical nature of the education system itself. The structure of the education system is set up to produce specific results much in the same way that a factory might build a car or a computer to certain specifications. Schools are held accountable for students’ performance on mandatory tests.  To meet performance goals in the allotted time given, schools are forced into efficiency models that mimic manufacturing processes. This means less room for individual teachers to vary from curriculum and schedules. In some extreme cases, teachers are asked to literally read from a script in order to eliminate all human variation possible.  The problem is obviously, schools aren’t creating widgets. They are supposed to be educating humans. Creative, innovative, problem-solving humans.

The process of fostering student creativity is one that is antithetical to that of the factory line. Creativity is deepened through inquiry, reflection, and experimentation. It requires patience, percolation, and failure. We cannot standardize and manufacture creativity any more than we can standardize personalities and life experiences.

 

Humans are messy creatures.  People often don’t act in ways that are logical and linear. Emotions, context, and other factors weigh into the ability to feel empowered to act. Oftentimes, large-scale problems feel too overwhelming to take on. This is often the case with educational issues. A few passionate change agents go after a problem with zeal, only to be beaten down by the hulking industrial educational complex and all of its rules and regulations.

The idea of Little Bets originates from the book written by Peter Sims, in which he asserts that “a little bet is a low-risk action taken to discover, develop, and test an idea.”² If the approach is taken that the creativity gap may be closed by taking a series of “little bets,” a group of small, bite-sized actions taken by a large number of impassioned people, possibilities begin to materialize. In other words, parents and teachers can make little bets by performing small creative acts that yield big results.

Here is what we currently know.

Teachers are the best bet. When teachers know and do better, kids know and do better. Investing in our teachers by providing opportunities for them understand and foster their own creativity is paramount. This means training teachers the three main tenets of creativity: awareness, empowerment and practice.

Awareness

Awareness requires building the powers of observation, reflection, and mindfulness. Observation can be practiced in nearly any context. One can listen to the cadence, language, and tone of the conversation during recess or at the water cooler. It can be practiced by watching the sunrise and writing down all of the colors that are seen as it floods the morning sky.

Reflections can be held in daily journals.  A journal can be written words and full text in paper format , or it may take the form of a sketch journal, a blog, a poetry journal, or photos on instagram. The form of the journal matters less than the act of reflection. Reflections are powerful in the sense that they summon original thinking and interpretation, which summons creativity.

Mindfulness, or being present can bring about anxiety as it seems to be a heavy word. Dr. Ellen Langer of the Langer Mindfulness Institute describes mindfulness as “noticing new things.” For example, a teacher may ask the question, “what is new about this student today?” On the drive home one could ask, “what is different about today’s commute?” This forces a state of mind that is present, aware, and ready for creative inspiration.

Empowerment:

Creative empowerment comes from within. Some call it “creative confidence” while others simply call it “courage.” Either way, empowerment means feeling a sense of agency to act on creative ideas. The first step in empowerment is finding a tribe, or support network. A tribe may be virtual or in person, and it is a group of people who share similar principles and ideas. A tribe provides critical feedback, high fives, and shares ideas that spark and build off of one another.

Empowerment is also cultivated through a mindset that embraces failure and failing forward. Children need to fail to learn as do adults. On the playground, this is referred to as a “Do-Over.” In the boardroom, this is called “Failing Forward.” A mindset that supports (smart) risks and builds risk tolerance makes room for creativity and all the failure that goes with it. A raw manuscript rarely gets published by the first publisher it is sent to. A comic doesn’t go viral on youtube after their first stand up appearance. A basketball player doesn’t make it to the WNBA after shooting one free throw. Success stands on a tall pile of failures, and the creative process is one of constant experimentation. Creativity and curiosity thrive in intelligent failure and risk tolerant environments.

Practice:

Creativity is not something that can be done in your head. Public speaking, playing basketball, and mathematics all require some practice in order to gain proficiency. It is the same with creativity. This How to Practice Creativity TEDx video highlights the value of practicing creativity as well as some simple ways to incorporate that practice into daily life.

Kids learn through imitation. Children learn creativity by imitating teachers that teach them creatively. When teachers model creativity and creative process, students learn creativity and the creative process for themselves. Parents and communities need to support and build on creativity at home. When concepts and ideas are reinforced at home and in the community, students find them to be more important and pay more attention. Learning becomes sticky.

These little bets that incorporate creativity into education can be done in a classroom regardless of geography or socioeconomic factors. They do not require specialized equipment or expensive software programs or additional FTEs. These are things any parent or teacher can do by investing a little time and effort. We know better and it’s time we do better.  Parents and teachers can advocate for creativity in schools by being the example of what change looks like. When enough parents speak up, schools will have to respond and provide more formal time and space for creativity training. It’s time for some little bets. It’s time to close the creativity gap.

¹http://blogs.adobe.com/conversations/2012/04/the-creativity-gap-what-research-is-telling-us-about-creating-now.html
²http://petersims.com/2011/03/04/little-bets-qa/

Melissa Goodwin is cofounder of creativist.io, a for profit, for good company that designs creativity learning experiences for teachers, parents, and artists. She is a Bush Foundation Fellow, author of Creativity, Critical Thinking, and Communication, and public speaker on the topics of creativity and innovation. You can learn to practice your creativity by joining the upcoming creativist.io practice creativity challenge.