How to praise kids: It’s a hot topic for many parents and educators. A lot of the conversation around it has stemmed from studies by Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford who has been researching this specific topic for many years.
“My research shows that praise for intelligence or ability backfires,” said Dweck, who co-authored a seminal research paper on the effects of praise on motivation and performance. “What we’ve shown is that when you praise someone, say, ‘You’re smart at this,’ the next time they struggle, they think they’re not. It’s really about praising the process they engage in, not how smart they are or how good they are at it, but taking on difficulty, trying many different strategies, sticking to it and achieving over time.”
But what some might not know is that this paradox is strongest for girls.
Dweck’s research, which focuses on what makes people seek challenging tasks, persist through difficulty and do well over time, has shown that many girls believe their abilities are fixed, that individuals are born with gifts and can’t change. Her research finds that when girls think this way, they often give up, rather than persisting through difficulties. They don’t think they possess the ability to improve, and nowhere is the phenomenon stronger than in math.
“Of all the subjects on earth, people think math is the most fixed,” Dweck said. “It’s a gift, you either have it or you don’t. And that it’s most indicative of your intelligence.” This attitude presents an especially sticky problem to educators working to boost girls’ interest and passion for science, technology, engineering and math – STEM subjects. For many boys, believing math is a fixed ability doesn’t hamper achievement — they just assume they have it, Dweck said. But girls don’t seem to possess that same confidence, and in their efforts to achieve perfection, Dweck’s research shows they shy away from subjects where they might fail.
“We have research showing that women who believe math is an acquired set of skills, not a gift you have or don’t have, fare very well,” Dweck said. “Even when they have a period of difficulty and even when they’re in an environment that they say is full of negative stereotyping.” This research suggests parents and educators should rethink what implicit and explicit messages are being sent to young girls about achievement.
If adults emphasize that all skills are learned through a process of engagement, value challenge and praise efforts to supersede frustration rather than only showing excitement over the right answer, girls will show resilience. It also might help to provide a roadmap to correct the gender imbalance that already exists in fields requiring math and science, jobs that often involve setbacks, “failing,” and overcoming challenges.
Dweck has found that socialization and beliefs about learning ability are developed at early ages. “Mother’s praise to their babies, one to three years of age, predicts that child’s mindset and desire for challenge five years later,” Dweck said. “It doesn’t mean it is set in stone, but it means that kind of value system — what you’re praising, what you say is important — it’s sinking in. And the kids who are getting this process praise, strategy and taking on hard things and sticking to them, those are the kids who want the challenge.”
Dweck understands it isn’t easy to praise process and emphasize the fun in challenging situations. Kids like direct praise, but to Dweck lauding achievement is like feeding them junk food – it’s bad for them.
An implicit argument here is that failure in small doses is good. Dweck’s not the first person to make that argument; advocates of game-based learning say one of its strongest attributes lies in a player’s ability to fail and start over without being stigmatized. Students learn as they go, getting better each time they attempt a task in the game. But the current education system leaves little room for failure, and consequently anxious parents often don’t tolerate small setbacks either.
“If you have little failures along the way and have them understand that’s part of learning, and that you can actually derive useful information about what to do next, that’s really useful,” Dweck said.
She believes families should sit around the dinner table discussing the day’s struggles and new strategies for attacking the problem. In life no one can be perfect, and learning to view little failures as learning experiences, or opportunities to grow could be the most valuable lesson of all.
Here’s how John Lennon wrote “Nowhere Man,” as he recalled it in an interview that ran just before he was murdered in 1980: After working five hours trying to craft a song, he had nothing to show for it. “Then, ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.”
Here’s how Steve Jobs came up with the groundbreaking font selection when Apple designed the Mac: He had taken a class in the lost art of calligraphy and found it “beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture.” Ten years later, it paid off when Apple ushered in a typeface renaissance.
And here’s how Oscar Wilde defined his profession: “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”
We’ve bottled lust. We’ve refined political analysis so that nearly every election can be accurately forecast. And we’ve compressed the sum of education for an average American 17-year-old into the bloodless numbers of standardized test scores. What still eludes the captors of knowledge is creativity, even though colleges are trying to teach it, corporations are trying to own it, and Apple has a “creativity app.”
But perhaps because creativity remains so unquantifiable, it’s still getting shortchanged by educators, new journalistic ventures, Hollywood and the company that aspires to be the earth’s largest retailer, Amazon.com.
An original work, an aha! product or a fresh insight is rarely the result of precise calculation at one end producing genius at the other. You need messiness and magic, serendipity and insanity. Creativity comes from time off, and time out. There is no recipe for “Nowhere Man,” other than showing up, and then, maybe lying down.
The push for Common Core standards in the schools came from colleges and employers who complained that high schools were turning out too many graduates unprepared for the modern world. That legitimate criticism prompted a massive overhaul affecting every part of the country. Now, the pushback, in part, is coming from people who feel that music, art and other unmeasured values got left behind — that the Common Core stifles creativity. Educators teach for the test, but not for the messy brains of the kids in the back rows.
In relaunching his data-driven FiveThirtyEight website this week, Nate Silver took a swipe at old-school commentators. He recalled the famously off prediction of Peggy Noonan, who criticized people “too busy looking at data on paper” to pick up on the “vibrations” of a Mitt Romney victory in 2012. “It’s time for us to start making the news nerdier,” Silver wrote in his manifesto.
Data journalism has certainly done much to clean up the guesswork in a profession still struggling to find its way in the digital age. On election eve, it’s far better to look at the aggregate of all scientific polls than to listen to a pundit’s hunch. But numbers, as Silver himself acknowledged, are not everything in the information game. Satire, journalism’s underappreciated sibling, belongs to the creative realm. And there are no quants on the planet who could write Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” or a decent episode of “The Daily Show.”
Nor could they produce an original film. Sure, they’ve tried. Most of Hollywood’s big budget, so-called tent-pole openings are the net result of exhaustive crunching of the elements of a hit. A robot can write a screenplay — about robots fighting one another! — that is just as effective at the box office as the fart-joke formula of an Adam Sandler movie. Before a major release, audiences are tested and polled, and producers fix and calibrate.
In the end, it’s just product, matching audience preferences. So it was encouraging to see a big-name Hollywood director, Darren Aronofsky, the filmmaker behind the upcoming epic “Noah,” show some defiance against the numbers men. “Ten men in a room trying to come up with their favorite ice cream are going to agree on vanilla,” he said in The New Yorker. “I’m the rocky road guy.”
Book publishers, cowering in the shadow of Amazon.com, deserved their kick to the head when the online company forced them to drag their archaic business practices into the 21st century. But they can take heart that Amazon, trying to crowd source and metrically mold its way into producing its own “content,” has stumbled. Amazon works by gathering data on millions of readers and then giving the same thing back to them. The oldest tale of publishing, or filmmaking for that matter, is the orphaned, oddball story that became a smash. Everyone rejected it because, well, it wasn’t like anything else.
At Amazon, the quants rule. Daydreaming, pie-in-the-sky time and giving people room to fail — the vital ingredients of creativity — are costly, the first things to go at a data-driven company. As a business model, Amazon is a huge success. As a regular generator of culture-altering material, it’s a bit player. Why? It has marginalized messiness.
NEW YORK — Among the piles of plush toys, dolls and cars on display at the 2014 International American Toy Fair this year, there was a new standout category: STEM toys.STEM — an acronym that refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is becoming increasingly popular as parents opt for educational toys that instill these basics at an early age.
Here’s an article on the importance of children learning computer programming. FYI: Sacred Heart students begin learning to code in Pre-School, students code in all four grades in the Middle School and we have various computer programming classes in the Upper School.
Alex Tu, left, an Advanced Placement student, works during a computer science class in Midwest City, Okla.There’s been a sharp decline in the number of computer science classes offered in U.S. secondary schools. Sue Ogrocki/AP
By Eric Westervelt
A handful of nonprofit and for-profit groups are working to address what they see as a national education crisis: Too few of America’s K-12 public schools actually teach computer science basics and fewer still offer it for credit.
It’s projected that in the next decade there will be about 1 million more U.S. jobs in the tech sector than computer science graduates to fill them. And it’s estimated that only about 10 percent of K-12 schools teach computer science.
So some in the education technology sector, an industry worth some $8 billion a year and growing, are stepping in.
At a Silicon Valley hotel recently, venture capitalists and interested parties heard funding pitches and watched demonstrations from 13 ed-tech start-ups backed by an incubator called Imagine K-12. One of them is Kodable, which aims to teach kids five years and younger the fundamentals of programming through a game where you guide a Pac-Man-esque fuzz ball.
“As soon as you can start learning [coding] you should, because the earlier you start learning something, the better you’ll be at it later in life,” says Grechen Huebner, the co-founder of Kodable. She’s working two computer screens to demonstrate how the game works in the hotel lobby.
“Kids have to drag and drop symbols to get their fuzzy character to go through a maze so they learn about conditions, loops and functions and even debugging,” Huebner says.
So should kids who’ve barely shed their pull-up diapers really learn to code? Huebner thinks it’s vital. “We have kids as young as two using it. Five is just kinda the sweet spot.“
My daughter’s behind, I think. She’s four and she hasn’t started coding. Bad parent.
Even if kids aren’t offered game-based computer science concepts in pre-K, there is growing consensus students should get exposed to basic computer science concepts early. Kodable and other startups hope to make a profit filling this enormous void in American public education.
“Ninety percent of schools just don’t even teach it. So if you’re a parent and your school doesn’t even offer this class, your kids aren’t going to have the preparation they need for 21st century,” says Hadi Partovi, co-founder of the nonprofit Code.org. “Just like we teach how electricity works and biology basics they should also know how the Internet works and how apps work. Schools need to add this to the curriculum.”
Through his “Hour of Code” initiative, Partovi is working to get kids, parents and schools interested computer science curriculum.
‘It’s All Around Us’
Third graders at a public elementary school in Baltimore recently took part in a game-based Hour of Code to start to try to learn the very basics of coding even though they don’t realize it. “So you’re moving three blocks and then you press start,” one third grader says. Gretchen LeGrand with the nonprofit Code in the Schools is trying to bring computer science fundamentals to underserved, low-income kids in Baltimore. She says it’s a huge challenge in a district with few resources.
“The computers are old or outdated. We either can’t install the software we want to use to teach computer programming or the connection’s slow.” She’s had to adapt to teaching about coding without a computer or what more teachers are calling teaching CS unplugged.
Partovi says teaching computer science is not about esoteric knowledge for computer geeks or filling jobs at Google or Microsoft. Most of these jobs are not with big high tech companies. It’s about training a globally competitive workforce and keeping most every sector of the U.S. economy thriving.
“Our future lawyers and doctors and politicians and businessmen — the folks in the other jobs — need to have a little bit of a background about how the world around them works,” Partovi says. “It’s all around us, and every industry gets impacted by it.”
According to a study by the largest U.S. computing society, only 14 states have adopted secondary school standards for computer science. At the same time, there’s been a sharp decline in the last five years in the number of introductory and advanced placement (AP) computer science classes offered in U.S. secondary schools.
Ironically, that decline comes just as states tout improvements to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curricula. And several groups and corporations have voiced deep concern that the new Common Core state standards promote no significant computer science content in either math or science.
There are some bright spots: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Broward County, Fla., have all recently boosted their commitments to expanding computer science offerings. But there’s a long way to go, says Chris Stephenson who directs the Computer Science Teachers Association. She says a big problem is profound confusion about just what computer science is. Too many parents and administrators conflate gaming and basic point-and-click literacy with computer science — the principles and practices of computing and coding.
“I’ve had administrators actually say to me in all good intention, ‘I know kids are learning computer science in my schools because there are computers in the schools.’ And that is just not true,” Stephenson says.
“I think that they just don’t understand that having access to a computer isn’t the same as learning computer science any more than having a Bunsen burner in the cupboard is the same as learning chemistry,” she says. “There’s a scientific discipline here you can’t just learn by playing around with the technology.”
The “guesstimate” is that only five to 10 percent of schools teach computer science, based largely on data on students who take the AP test in computer science annually. The real percentage may be lower. Nobody tracks the figures nationally.
Some sobering stats from last year’s AP data:
In Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming, no girls took the computer science exam.
In 11 states, no black students took it.
In eight states, no Hispanics took it.
In 17 states, fewer than 100 students took it.
“It’s crazy small. I mean it would be absurd if it weren’t so scary; that’s how terrifying it is,” Stephenson says.
So never mind the hardware-based digital divide, there’s a growing digital information divide. Computer science education, it seems, is now privileged knowledge accessible mostly by affluent kids.
“The people that are most likely to succeed have access to it and other kids do not, and we really need to look at those facts and figures and be horrified by them,” Stephenson says.
She says the Hour of Code — which has reached millions of students around the world — is a terrific start. But until more public schools offer computer science— for credit — she says the knowledge gap will only continue to widen.
Here at AAUW, we have a lot vested in the future of girls in STEM-related fields. After all, our own study has proven that it is important — both for girls and for the future of engineering — that the engineering workforce be more diverse and inclusive of women. But what can you, as a parent or sister or scout leader or whatever, do to introduce the girl in your life to engineering? We have some ideas.
1. GIVE HER A HERO.
When little girls envision their futures, they often use women they admire as a sort of template to plan their own dreams. If the girl in your life doesn’t know any famous female computer engineers, chances are she’s not going dream of being the next Grace Murray Hopper. So do what you can to introduce her to women whose legacies are just as important as those of George Washington Carver or Neil Armstrong, whom we all know and love.
This can be as simple as watching TV shows with strong STEM women or bringing up famous women in everyday conversation. It may feel a little strange to point out that a female engineer named Margaret Knight invented the paper bags used in grocery stores, but hey, kids are curious and facts like that are bound to leave a mark.
2. INVEST IN HER IMAGINATION.
From Super Bowl ads to remarks by lawmakers, the extremely gendered nature of contemporary girls’ toys has been in the news a lot.
According to STEM advocates, toys may be something worth worrying about. While it’s fine for the girl in your life to love her dolls, make sure that she has access to STEM-related toys that will both nurture her critical-thinking skills and inspire her imagination.
Since many of these engineering-related toys are oriented around problem solving, they can also make great projects for you and your future engineer to do together. Don’t be embarrassed if you aren’t the world’s best engineer. Seeing you bungle your way through building your own contraption may well inspire her when she’s facing her own frustrations later in life(you know, when she’s just hours away from landing in the history books and wants to quit).
3. WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE.
You may not know it yet, but you’re probably a huge role model for the girl in your life. Being a role model is amazing, but it can be a little stressful, too.
Studies show that girls begin to lose interest in science and math very early in their scholastic careers, and in many cases, their perception that math and science are harder than other subjects may be to blame. Try not to reinforce this stereotype with your own language. If she is having a hard time with her algebra homework, don’t reinforce her discouragement by mentioning that math was once the bane of your existence. Instead help her frame her struggle as a puzzle to be solved instead of something insurmountable and boring.
Kids look to their role models for cues about how to feel about almost everything, so it’s better to face your own fear of long division instead of discouraging the girl in your life away from engineering-related fields forever.
4. GET HER INVOLVED WITH LIKE-MINDED GIRLS.
Image by Todd Kulesza
When I was a kid in school, there weren’t a whole lot of academic clubs that related to science and engineering. I was a member of the quiz bowl team and school newspaper, but that was just about it unless you count the short-lived Spice Girls fan club I founded. Thankfully, things have changed. Many schools and community groups now sponsorrobotics leagues and even host hack-a-thons. Additionally, the Girl Scouts incorporate STEM-oriented activities as a major part of their overall programming, and there are conferences like AAUW’s Tech Savvy that are designed to attract and interest young girls.
To find out if a group exists in your community, start with your local science teachers. Even if there are no local clubs, your interest may be able to help spark something that would benefit girls throughout your community. In addition to local events, look into introducing girls to aspects of the national STEM movement such as Hour of Code.
Getting the girl in your life involved with other future women engineers doesn’t have to be limited to the school year either. The number of engineering-related summer camps is growing each year, including programs such as AAUW’s own Tech Trek. Do your research. She’ll thank you later when she realizes that she isn’t the only girl who is just a little obsessed with circuit boards.
Introducing the girl in your life to engineering is probably looking pretty hands-on, but we promise you, it’s worth it. Every hour you invest in the girl in your life will not only help improve her chance of success but also make her a more well-rounded, engaged citizen, whether she pursues a STEM-related field or not.
Engineering is all about creating something new and when you see the girl in your life flush with excitement over her first “invention,” you’ll know that it’s about creating something beautiful too.
So what do you do to introduce the girl in your life to engineering? Help our readers get some more ideas by commenting below.
This post was written by AAUW Social Media intern Brittany Edwardes.
IT BOTHERS MATTHEW LAHUE and it surely bothers you: enter a public restroom and the stall lock is broken. Fortunately, Mr. Lahue has a solution. It’s called the Bathroom Bodyguard. Standing before his Buffalo State College classmates and professor, Cyndi Burnett, Mr. Lahue displayed a device he concocted from a large washer, metal ring, wall hook, rubber bands and Lincoln Log. Slide the ring in the crack and twist. The door stays shut. Plus, the device fits in a jacket pocket.
The world may be full of problems, but students presenting projects for Introduction to Creative Studies have uncovered a bunch you probably haven’t thought of. Elie Fortune, a freshman, revealed his Sneaks ’n Geeks app to identify the brand of killer sneakers you spot on the street. Jason Cathcart, a senior, sported a bulky martial arts uniform with sparring pads he had sewn in. No more forgetting them at home.
“I don’t expect them to be the next Steve Jobs or invent the flying car,” Dr. Burnett says. “But I do want them to be more effective and resourceful problem solvers.” Her hope, she says, is that her course has made them more creative.
Once considered the product of genius or divine inspiration, creativity — the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions — is being recast as a prized and teachable skill. Pin it on pushback against standardized tests and standardized thinking, or on the need for ingenuity in a fluid landscape.
“The reality is that to survive in a fast-changing world you need to be creative,” says Gerard J. Puccio, chairman of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, which has the nation’s oldest creative studies program, having offered courses in it since 1967.
“That is why you are seeing more attention to creativity at universities,” he says. “The marketplace is demanding it.”
Critical thinking has long been regarded as the essential skill for success, but it’s not enough, says Dr. Puccio. Creativity moves beyond mere synthesis and evaluation and is, he says, “the higher order skill.” This has not been a sudden development. Nearly 20 years ago “creating” replaced “evaluation” at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives. In 2010 “creativity” was the factor most crucial for success found in an I.B.M. survey of 1,500 chief executives in 33 industries. These days “creative” is the most used buzzword in LinkedIn profiles two years running.
Traditional academic disciplines still matter, but as content knowledge evolves at lightning speed, educators are talking more and more about “process skills,” strategies to reframe challenges and extrapolate and transform information, and to accept and deal with ambiguity.
Creative studies is popping up on course lists and as a credential. Buffalo State, part of the State University of New York, plans a Ph.D. and already offers a master’s degree and undergraduate minor. Saybrook University in San Francisco has a master’s and certificate, and added a specialization to its psychology Ph.D. in 2011. Drexel University in Philadelphia has a three-year-old online master’s. St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, N.C., has added a minor. And creative studies offerings, sometimes with a transdisciplinary bent, are new options in business, education, digital media, humanities, arts, science and engineering programs across the country.
Suddenly, says Russell G. Carpenter, program coordinator for a new minor in applied creative thinking at Eastern Kentucky University, “there is a larger conversation happening on campus: ‘Where does creativity fit into the E.K.U. student experience?’ ” Dr. Carpenter says 40 students from a broad array of fields, including nursing and justice and safety, have enrolled in the minor — a number he expects to double as more sections are added to introductory classes. Justice and safety? Students want tools to help them solve public safety problems and deal with community issues, Dr. Carpenter explains, and a credential to take to market.
The credential’s worth is apparent to Mr. Lahue, a communication major who believes that a minor in the field carries a message. “It says: ‘This person is not a drone. They can use this skill set and apply themselves in other parts of the job.’ ”
On-demand inventiveness is not as outrageous as it sounds. Sure, some people are naturally more imaginative than others. What’s igniting campuses, though, is the conviction that everyone is creative, and can learn to be more so.
Just about every pedagogical toolbox taps similar strategies, employing divergent thinking (generating multiple ideas) and convergent thinking (finding what works).The real genius, of course, is in the how.
Dr. Puccio developed an approach that he and partners market as FourSight and sell to schools, businesses and individuals. The method, which is used in Buffalo State classrooms, has four steps: clarifying, ideating, developing and implementing. People tend to gravitate to particular steps, suggesting their primary thinking style. Clarifying — asking the right question — is critical because people often misstate or misperceive a problem. “If you don’t have the right frame for the situation, it’s difficult to come up with a breakthrough,” Dr. Puccio says. Ideating is brainstorming and calls for getting rid of your inner naysayer to let your imagination fly. Developing is building out a solution, and maybe finding that it doesn’t work and having to start over. Implementing calls for convincing others that your idea has value.
Jack V. Matson, an environmental engineer and a lead instructor of “Creativity, Innovation and Change,” a MOOC that drew 120,000 in September, teaches a freshman seminar course at Penn State that he calls “Failure 101.” That’s because, he says, “the frequency and intensity of failures is an implicit principle of the course. Getting into a creative mind-set involves a lot of trial and error.”
His favorite assignments? Construct a résumé based on things that didn’t work out and find the meaning and influence these have had on your choices. Or build the tallest structure you can with 20 Popsicle sticks. The secret to the assignment is to destroy the sticks and reimagine their use. “As soon as someone in the class starts breaking the sticks,” he says, “it changes everything.”
Dr. Matson also asks students to “find some cultural norms to break,” like doing cartwheels while entering the library. The point: “Examine what in the culture is preventing you from creating something new or different. And what is it like to look like a fool because a lot of things won’t work out and you will look foolish? So how do you handle that?”
It’s a lesson that has been basic to the ventures of Brad Keywell, a Groupon founder and a student of Dr. Matson’s at the University of Michigan. “I am an absolute evangelist about the value of failure as part of creativity,” says Mr. Keywell, noting that Groupon took off after the failure of ThePoint.com, where people were to organize for collective action but instead organized discount group purchases. Dr. Matson taught him not just to be willing to fail but that failure is a critical avenue to a successful end. Because academics run from failure, Mr. Keywell says, universities are “way too often shapers of formulaic minds,” and encourage students to repeat and internalize fail-safe ideas.
Bonnie Cramond, director of the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia, is another believer in taking bold risks, which she calls a competitive necessity. Her center added an interdisciplinary graduate certificate in creativity and innovation this year. “The new people who will be creative will sit at the juxtaposition of two or more fields,” she says. When ideas from different fields collide, Dr. Cramond says, fresh ones are generated. She cites an undergraduate class that teams engineering and art students to, say, reimagine the use of public spaces. Basic creativity tools used at the Torrance Center include thinking by analogy, looking for and making patterns, playing, literally, to encourage ideas, and learning to abstract problems to their essence.
In Dr. Burnett’s Introduction to Creative Studies survey course, students explore definitions of creativity, characteristics of creative people and strategies to enhance their own creativity.These include rephrasing problems as questions, learning not to instinctively shoot down a new idea (first find three positives), and categorizing problems as needing a solution that requires either action, planning or invention. A key objective is to get students to look around with fresh eyes and be curious. The inventive process, she says, starts with “How might you…”
Dr. Burnett is an energetic instructor with a sense of humor — she tested Mr. Cathcart’s martial arts padding with kung fu whacks. Near the end of last semester, she dumped Post-it pads (the department uses 400 a semester) onto a classroom desk with instructions: On pale yellow ones, jot down what you learned; on rainbow colored pads, share how you will use this learning. She then sent students off in groups with orders that were a litany of brainstorming basics: “Defer judgment! Strive for quantity! Wild and unusual! Build on others’ ideas!”
As students scribbled and stuck, the takeaways were more than academic. “I will be optimistic,” read one. “I will look at tasks differently,” said another. And, “I can generate more ideas.”
Asked to elaborate, students talked about confidence and adaptability. “A lot of people can’t deal with things they don’t know and they panic. I can deal with that more now,” said Rony Parmar, a computer information systems major with Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones circling his neck.
Mr. Cathcart added that, given tasks, “you think of other ways of solving the problem.” For example, he streamlined the check-in and reshelving of DVDs at the library branch where he works.
The view of creativity as a practical skill that can be learned and applied in daily life is a 180-degree flip from the thinking that it requires a little magic: Throw yourself into a challenge, step back — pause — wait for brilliance to spout.
The point of creative studies, says Roger L. Firestien, a Buffalo State professor and author of several books on creativity, is to learn techniques “to make creativity happen instead of waiting for it to bubble up. A muse doesn’t have to hit you.”
We’re clearly heading into an age of brilliant technology. Computers are already impressively good at guiding driverless cars and beating humans at chess and Jeopardy. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology point out in their book “The Second Machine Age,” computers are increasingly going to be able to perform important parts of even mostly cognitive jobs, like picking stocks, diagnosing diseases and granting parole.
As this happens, certain mental skills will become less valuable because computers will take over. Having a great memory will probably be less valuable. Being able to be a straight-A student will be less valuable — gathering masses of information and regurgitating it back on tests. So will being able to do any mental activity that involves following a set of rules.
But what human skills will be more valuable?
In the news business, some of those skills are already evident. Technology has rewarded sprinters (people who can recognize and alertly post a message on Twitter about some interesting immediate event) and marathoners (people who can write large conceptual stories), but it has hurt middle-distance runners (people who write 800-word summaries of yesterday’s news conference). Technology has rewarded graphic artists who can visualize data, but it has punished those who can’t turn written reporting into video presentations.
More generally, the age of brilliant machines seems to reward a few traits. First, it rewards enthusiasm. The amount of information in front of us is practically infinite; so is that amount of data that can be collected with new tools. The people who seem to do best possess a voracious explanatory drive, an almost obsessive need to follow their curiosity. Maybe they started with obsessive gaming sessions, or marathon all-night study sessions, but they are driven to perform extended bouts of concentration, diving into and trying to make sense of these bottomless information oceans.
In his book, “Smarter Than You Think,” Clive Thompson describes the work of Deb Roy, who wired his house with equipment so he and his team could monitor and record every word he and his wife uttered while his son was learning to speak. That is total commitment and total immersion in an attempt to understand the language learning process.
Second, the era seems to reward people with extended time horizons and strategic discipline. When Garry Kasparov was teaming with a computer to play freestyle chess (in which a human and machine join up to play against another human and machine), he reported that his machine partner possessed greater “tactical acuity,” but he possessed greater “strategic guidance.”
That doesn’t seem too surprising. A computer can calculate a zillion options, move by move, but a human can provide an overall sense of direction and a conceptual frame. In a world of online distractions, the person who can maintain a long obedience toward a single goal, and who can filter out what is irrelevant to that goal, will obviously have enormous worth.
Third, the age seems to reward procedural architects. The giant Internet celebrities didn’t so much come up with ideas, they came up with systems in which other people could express ideas: Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, etc. That is to say they designed an architecture that possesses a center of gravity, but which allowed loose networks of soloists to collaborate.
One of the oddities of collaboration is that tightly knit teams are not the most creative. Loosely bonded teams are, teams without a few domineering presences, teams that allow people to think alone before they share results with the group. So a manager who can organize a decentralized network around a clear question, without letting it dissipate or clump, will have enormous value.
Fifth, essentialists will probably be rewarded. Any child can say, “I’m a dog” and pretend to be a dog. Computers struggle to come up with the essence of “I” and the essence of “dog,” and they really struggle with coming up with what parts of “I-ness” and “dog-ness” should be usefully blended if you want to pretend to be a dog.
This is an important skill because creativity can be described as the ability to grasp the essence of one thing, and then the essence of some very different thing, and smash them together to create some entirely new thing.
In the 1950s, the bureaucracy was the computer. People were organized into technocratic systems in order to perform routinized information processing. But now the computer is the computer. The role of the human is not to be dispassionate, depersonalized or neutral. It is precisely the emotive traits that are rewarded: the voracious lust for understanding, the enthusiasm for work, the ability to grasp the gist, the empathetic sensitivity to what will attract attention and linger in the mind.
Unable to compete when it comes to calculation, the best workers will come with heart in hand.