Friday, May 13, 2016

The Forgotten Class: A Master's Project

Molly Holinger 
Graduate Student at ICSC 

A few years ago, just after graduating from college, I had a conversation with a friend on the topic of life. Despite being college graduates, we felt as if we knew nothing. While college had taught one of us (Molly) to speak and write fluently in French and the other (Jen) how to conduct international business deals, it hadn’t taught us (at least not deliberately) about life. In our conversation we discussed what aspect of our college education had taught us the most and neither of us named our classes.
What we did name was our self-directed learning: reading Positive Psychology, creativity, and life-coaching books. We wished there had been a class on these topics when we were in college and really needed it. It would have been among the most valuable courses we could have taken. From there, we got the idea to write a book called The Forgotten Class to capture the wisdom and tools that had gotten us through our early twenty-something years. As an independent study under Dr. Cynthia Burnett, I, along with my friend Jen, began this project one year ago. A semester turned out not to be long enough, so I extended it into a Master’s Project. The writing process was experiential learning at its best: I experienced the entirety of the creative process from clarification to ideation to developing and prototyping, and, finally, implementation. The writing process, perhaps more so than other creative work, demands heavy feedback. At least in my experience, having multiple readers give me feedback on several drafts of the book made it the high-quality book it is today.
The Forgotten Class
The Forgotten Class gives readers a creative process to create a life they love during their twenties adapted from the creative processes Design Thinking and Creative Problem solving. The creative processes that inspired this book (Design Thinking and Creative Problem Solving) function just as powerfully in creating one’s life as in designing a product or service. As Tim Brown, CEO and President of design firm IDEO and author of Change by Design says, “There is a big difference… between planning a life, drifting through life, and designing a life.” (Tim Brown, p. 241)
Along the way, we highlight research, books, and websites that we wish were taught in education- but that we had to find ourselves, which is the reason this book is entitled The Forgotten Class. These are the lessons that have brought us to where we both are today and that we still draw upon to keep afloat. The topics range from motivation to learning style, but the overarching theme is personal growth and well-being. Hardly a comprehensive list, these blurbs share the latest research on well-being. Finally, we include some personal stories from our lives illustrating how the process works in real life.
We hope this book finds its way into the hands of those who need it. The book is just making its way into publication. Look for updates on this blog for future publication dates!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Establishing a Creative Climate in My Classroom and Embracing Failure


Written by Jonathan Garra 
Graduate Student at ICSC &
Middle School History Teacher at Elmwood Franklin School


This semester, my goal was to encourage my students to use creativity in the classroom every day. I don’t mean that I spent time developing creative lessons, necessarily; it was not my creativity I wanted to practice. My goal was to allow time for my students to try new things, fail repeatedly, take chances, embrace ambiguity, and create content (as opposed to regurgitate it).

Before I started any work in creativity, I worked deliberately to establish a positive creative climate. This is not unusual, as I typically dedicate the first two weeks of school getting to know my kids, and letting my kids get to know me. However, after this semester, I have a much deeper appreciation for just how important it is for a classroom to be psychologically safe— particularly a creative classroom. That time spent establishing relationships with kids made our work in creativity much more meaningful.

Expecting kids to use creativity in academia means that we expect kids to develop new skills and habits. It means that we expect kids to try accomplishing tasks in new ways they have never tried. It means that we expect kids to share more of themselves and their perspectives than they are used to sharing. It means that we expect kids to focus more on their processes than on their grades. When you boil it down, using creativity in the classroom is really setting kids up for failure. But this is the good kind of failure that we should want our students to encounter regularly in a safe, academic environment. This kind of failure doesn’t come with a big red “F”, or humiliation, or feelings of guilt. This kind of failure comes with a positive attitude, an ability to look critically at the process used and make adjustments, and an ownership and accountability of an individual’s learning and growth. This kind of failure often comes with huge gains in a student’s self-confidence. Asking kids to achieve this level of failure only comes with a great deal of trust.

While there are countless ways I could improve as a teacher, I think one of my strengths is establishing trust with my students. Here are four ways I establish a positive creative climate in my classroom.

1.    Be honest.

As I mentioned earlier, I always devote the first two weeks of school to getting to know my students. This is important time because, aside from getting to know them, it gives them time to adjust to my cadence, my sense of humor, my classroom rules and expectations, etc. During this time, I always spend at least two entire days allowing them to ask me any school-appropriate question. The rule is, after I answer a student’s question, the asker must answer the same question in front of everyone else. I have fielded questions from what kind of shampoo I use to what the saddest day of my life was. When I was in eighth grade, my father died suddenly. Right in our living room. Right in front of us. I answered the ‘saddest day of my life’ question honestly. Of course I cried in front of my new students.

But these questions don’t always lead to a room full of red, glossy eyes. Usually they are fun and interesting. Answer honestly. Let your students see you for the funny, awesome, smart, vulnerable, thoughtful human being you are. Not as Mr. or Mrs. whatever. If you want them to maximize their creativity by sharing their thoughts and perspectives, you need to lead the way.

2. Be goofy.

I start most classes with a short, usually humorous, story about my life outside of the classroom.

I was not such a great student in middle and high school. I tell my students this often. I have three young, crazy kids. I tell stories of the wild and ridiculous things they do and say. I knew, and still know, what it’s like to doodle and daydream during class. My students know this. If there’s a song in my head, I get it stuck in their heads. If there’s a joke I love, I tell it to them. If kids are interested in the jokes and stories you tell, they’re also likely to be paying attention and be interested in your content, too. The environment I create through this makes them feel good about walking through the door to my classroom, and it makes them more willing to take risks for me.

3. Make sure they know you care about them (after all, some days I spend more time with them than my own children).

If you’re willing to cry in front of your students on week one, chances are that some kids will seek you out when they feel like crying. Being able to connect with kids on this level creates an unbelievable amount of trust between you and them. Not everyone would cry in front of their students on week one, but simply listening to kids shows them you care. Asking them about their weekends or holidays shows them you care. Checking in after an absence shows them you care. Showing up to their basketball games, or musicals, or concerts, or National Honors Society inductions shows them you care. If you notice their haircuts or new shoes, tell them. Every human being wants to feel heard, and have his or her feelings validated. If you can do this for your students, you’ll be surprised at what they’ll accomplish in your class.

4. Set clear expectations and enforce your rules

Try as I might, no matter what kind of example I set, adolescents will say and do the wrong things. While I want to allow my kids to make mistakes, negative behavior toward others cannot be tolerated— not if I expect to have a creative classroom. I can work all I want to make kids take risks for me, but if they feel the judgment of their peers, they likely won’t take those risks, no matter how much they might have grown to like and trust me. If negative judgment happens, I call it out immediately and let everyone know that it’s not okay in my classroom.

More than anything else, you need to be you, whatever that looks like, and you need to share you. Do what works for you, in your classroom, in your school, with your students. Kids are savvy. They’ll pick up on your authenticity. If you can make students feel safe in your classroom, they will stretch their brains and think of possibilities far beyond what is conventionally taught, and they develop ideas and theories that are brilliantly simple. As educators, we should work, deliberately and often, to create scenarios in which students are able to be content creators, and teaching creativity will help do exactly that. And if you can create a psychologically and emotionally safe environment, your kids will respond by making some unbelievable creative leaps.



Saturday, January 9, 2016

Be a part of the MOOC research study!

2016 is here! With every new year comes the desire to improve: eat healthier, spend more time with family, and learn a new skill. And this year, you can add "Ignite Everyday Creativity" and "Be a part of a research study" to your list!
We are looking for a group of 200 participants to go through our FREE Massive Open Online Course "Ignite Your Everyday Creativity" as a cohort. Participants must be at least 18 years of age and have no experience with creativity training. This engaging 8-week course begins Monday, January 25 2016 and includes the benefits of discussion forums, FREE creativity measures, and of course, igniting your everyday creativity!
With this study, participants will be pioneers, helping us utilize our MOOC to research creativity! We plan to determine if “Ignite Your Everyday Creativity” meets the learning objectives of a campus-based course, while improving the structure of distance learning. With your help, we will be able to improve our MOOC as a training and education platform!
So what are you waiting for? Make the commitment to #bCreative in 2016!

Sign up now by clicking here!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Emotionally Intelligent Leadership

A book review by: Nicholas Drayton
Buffalo State College

In our journey through the world of Creativity and Change Leadership, we discover that creativity can be taught, and that in a group setting, good facilitation skills are an essential aspect of effective creativity and creative problem -solving. Similarly we learn that the setting can also be equally important for unleashing individuals’ creative potentials. These two essential elements of leadership and environment form the basis of Emotionally Intelligent Leadership. Marcy Levy Shankman and her colleagues have put together a well laid-out descriptive examination of the attributes of an Emotionally Intelligent leader in group settings. Beyond the examination of the characteristics necessary for creative change leadership, the authors also provide a treasure trove of reflective questions that stimulate the reader to assess their own Emotional Intelligence capacities, along with recommendations on how one might improve those aspects in need of attention. Emotionally Intelligent Leadership, if ‘used as directed’ is a powerful book that will produce personal growth and development with regard to one’s change leadership capacity.

The concept of Emotional Intelligence has been around since the early 1990’s. Shankman and her colleagues take our understanding and application of the principles of Emotional Intelligence (EI) to a level that makes it accessible to students and laypersons alike. The book introduces the three facets of Emotionally Intelligent Leadership: Consciousness of self; Consciousness of Others; and Consciousness of Context. These three facets of EI are further broken down by chapter into nineteen Leadership Capacities or capabilities that are inherent within the three facets.

The authors use a unique style of combining analogies with real-life examples, and quotes from professionals and students in a wide range of fields of expertise, to create vivid illustrations of these Leadership Capacities. This format helps to make the book an easy read. At the same time, they also include at the end of each chapter a series of Reflection Questions that encourage the reader to dig deeper, conduct evaluations of themselves with regard to the various capacities, and to consider ways in which they might enhance each Leadership Capacity within themselves. A wealth of references to additional studies on each Leadership Capacity is also included at the end of its respective chapter.

There are a number of recurring themes throughout the book. The authors make it clear for example, that a leader is not defined by his or her official title or hierarchical position in a group, but by the individual’s ability to effect positive change within the group. They also emphasize repeatedly that while Emotionally Intelligent Leadership can be taught and learned, it is not a one-time teaching/learning event. On the contrary, it requires much practice and ongoing work. This was perhaps one of the more surprising revelations to me. The clear challenge of the book to all of its readers is to step out of our comfort zones in order to become more effective leaders of creative change. Another consistent theme is the complexity and dynamic nature of groups and organizations. What works in one group or for one organization may not work in another. In this light it emphasizes that assessing the context within which the group functions is also of extreme importance. The book ends by providing some suggestions for developing one’s Emotionally Intelligent Leadership skills.

Emotionally Intelligent Leadership gave me pause to consider my place on the EQ scale, with regard to the various capacities. It stimulated a great deal of soul searching and reflection through new lenses on past and current incidents and relationships in my professional life. Specifically in one instance, I had to ask myself, how Authentic (Chapter 5) am I. Authenticity is defined as the consistency between an individual’s values and his or her actions. It speaks for example, to having the courage to take an unpopular stand for something in which you strongly believe. I also was prompted to evaluate my Flexibility (Chapter 7): What does my professional track record say about my ease with being responsive to feedback from others that indicate a need to change a structure or a function? How have I dealt with the need to make adjustments in reaction to changing conditions either internally or external to my group?
Under the facet of Consciousness of others, the authors acknowledge that Inspiring Others is no easy task: “Energizing others is difficult work for a few basic reasons. First, you may not see yourself as inspirational, yet as a leader, you are expected to generate energy, excitement and commitment.….” (p. 130). They also recognized that energizing others can take a lot of energy out of you, especially when we consider that different individuals are motivated in different ways, and to be effective, “….we need to spend time developing relationships with others so that we know what matters to them.” (p. 131).

Under the facet of Consciousness of Context, I was intrigued by the similarity of the authors’ perspective to George Land’s (1986) “Grow or Die” model. They in fact use Ecology as a metaphor to illustrate the susceptibility of an organism or organization to external factors, if these factors are not recognized and managed appropriately. “When environmental conditions significantly change, an organism (either the tree or the organization) will either die or adapt if it is going to survive” (p. 228).

One of the shortcomings of this book, in my mind, is its failure to address the issue of how to build –or rebuild- a team from its state of brokenness? It assumes largely that one is starting from a position of construction as opposed to repair. It speaks repetitively about relationship building, for example, but does not address the issue of relationship repair. How does an EI Leader, for example, begin the healing process in an inherited team that has suffered great damage at the hands of a former leader who possessed very little emotional intelligence?

Notwithstanding, Emotionally Intelligent Leadership is more than a descriptive analysis of the concept. It is also much more than the scholarly textbook it was intended to be. It is a handbook for any leader who truly desires to create and sustain an environment that will foster optimum creativity, and positive change. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is serious about being a catalyst for change leadership.


References:
Shankman, M. L., Allen, S. J., & Haber-Curran, P. (2015). Emotionally intelligent leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Non-fiction.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood


A book review by: Lina Pugsley
Buffalo State College




Have you ever wondered why some people grow up believing they are creative and others do not? This topic (creativity and childhood) occupies much of my thinking and is what drew me to study creativity. Interestingly, author Susan Engel’s recently published book The Hungry Mind explores that very same line of questioning, only her focus is on curiosity and the origins of curiosity in childhood. In fact, at the end of the first chapter she states: “This book is about why some children remain curious and others do not, and how we can encourage more curiosity in everyone.” When I read this I literally wrote in my book: “how I feel about creativity!! Woo hoo!”





Based on over a decade of research and what Engel calls her obsession over children’s curiosity, this book provides an incredibly thorough and thought provoking study of curiosity’s origins in infancy, how it develops and changes and how we might encourage curiosity in school settings. Engel argues that curiosity begins as a robust characteristic, inherent in all normally developing babies, but that it becomes more fragile and hard to find at all by the time children are in elementary school. 

“It is between the ages of three and eleven that children seem to either develop an appetite for knowledge and the habit of inquiry, or they don’t.”
By tracing the development of curiosity, the author constructs an empirically compelling story of how it develops, particularly during the first twelve years of life and how parents, schools, and other children shape a child’s curiosity. This book aims to engage the reader, appealing to parents, educators, psychologists and anyone interested in the topic by encouraging them: 


1) To think about their own curiosity, 

2) To understand how curiosity develops, and

3) To gain conviction that curiosity can and should be central to classroom learning.

Engel draws on over a century of research and developmental theories dating back from the early 1900s right up until today citing the work of Darwin, Piaget, Duckworth, Dewey, Vygotsky, and Gopnik, to name a few. Of particular interest to me are the nuances of parenting that have a profound impact on the psychological development of babies and children. For instance, the signals children receive from parents (often unknowingly) that indicate they can or can’t or should or shouldn’t explore objects; the importance of modeling; and the fact that children watch and learn from adult behavior. When parents give their children some freedom to wander, explore, and tinker it makes a difference versus when parents express fear or disapproval of inquiry. These are some examples of how curiosity might be nourished or squelched at home. Just as children are largely impacted by home life, the same is true at school – which is a big part of the conversation of this book.

The story of Charles Darwin’s large appetite for investigations and his parents’ encouragement to explore, investigate and pursue his interests provides the perfect segue into examining what happens when a happily curious young child goes to school. Engel asks: “Do children bring their curiosity, and its tools, to school with them?” Recognizing that this is a difficult area of study to accurately measure, Engel devised a study with kindergarten and fifth grade students to measure three types of behavior as episodes of curiosity: questions, intent and direct gazing, and manipulating objects. While the data did not support the conclusion that children are less curious by the time they are in kindergarten and even less so by the end of grade school, it uncovered the discovery that little curiosity exists in grade school. This conclusion was confirmed by the work of Tizard and Hughes whom fitted preschoolers with tape recorders to learn how many questions they asked at home with their parents versus when at preschool. On average, preschoolers they studied asked twenty-six questions per hour at home, and only two per hour when the children were in school. Why is this?

Engel provides an impressive scientific dissection of the various aspects that affect curiosity. For example, she identifies the gap in the research examining how teachers’ own habits and dispositions influence the children they teach. A kindergarten teacher’s response to a child’s question can either encourage or discourage further curiosity. For instance, the teacher that discourages questions from students in order to keep the class on task discourages inquiry, whereas the teacher that acknowledges the student’s exploration and responds with a question to consider before moving on encourages inquiry. The difference between the responses of the two teachers will help shape the inquiry that will or will not unfold within each respective classroom. In addition to raising awareness to unconscious habits, teachers are also encouraged to deliberately design educational activities to encourage curiosity and to use children’s curiosity to guide what and how to teach.

“Rather than disciplining children to learn, why not create the conditions in which children actually are hungry for knowledge?”
About three quarters of the way through the book, the content shifts to ways in which curiosity can be satiated (cleverly and appropriately, the hunger analogy is maintained throughout the book) including through the use of time and solitude, through storytelling, reading, and autonomy or freedom. These conditions can be extremely valuable to the development of inquiry and intrinsic motivation to support life-long learning. After all, studies show that curiosity is a potent ingredient in learning and that children learn better when their curiosity is piqued. 

This is a fascinating and very important book in the fields of psychology, education, creativity and human development. I enjoyed the blend of personal story telling, mixed with empirical research, mixed with scholarly theorists citing influences that contribute to what we know today about curiosity. To say that the breadth and depth of this book is robust is an understatement. Engel truly treats her reader as a hungry mind as she feeds study after study, data, stories, evidence, conclusions and suggestions. I believe that with more knowledge and awareness of the important role that parents and teachers play in allowing curiosity to flourish in children we can take steps to provide the conditions in which curiosity, like creativity, can be cultivated.


ABOUT LINA PUGSLEY:
Lina Pugsley is a graduate student at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State. She is an artist, mother, designer and former award-winning Art Director in the Digital Advertising world. Since becoming a mother, her passion shifted from producing innovative ideas for Fortune 500 companies to designing compelling creative opportunities to engage her two daughters. 

In the last 8 years, Lina has been researching and exploring ways to nurture creative skills and attitudes in children to promote creative confidence and resilience. She is the founder of Keeping Creativity Alive, an online resource for parents and teachers on ways to cultivate creativity in children starting in the early years.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Review: Creativity, Inc.

A book review by: Peggy Barnwell
Buffalo State College



SCOPE OF THE BOOK

This book presents a non-fictional account of the humble beginnings of Pixar Animation Studios through the lens of it’s creator, and visionary, Ed Catmull. Printed in hardcover, the text is an autobiographical exploration into the barriers that hamper creative expression and the leadership necessary to produce an environment essential for creative output.

This is the riveting story of a partnership between Ed Catmull, John Lasseter and Steve Jobs that stresses the importance of understanding human interaction in order to “foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions … to find, develop, and support good people, (who) in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.” 

This is a story that emphasizes the key role creative leadership plays in the development of an inspired culture that unleashes creative potential.


OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK

A computer scientist, Ed Catmull always dreamed of being a filmmaker and wanted to tell stories through moving cartoon pictures. However, early experimentation with flipbooks made it obvious that his talents did not lie with animated drawing. Undaunted, he was convinced he could make superior 3D animated films and set his efforts upon realizing that dream. There was one paramount concern; there currently wasn’t the technology that made 3D animation possible, he would have to invent it.

Beginning in 1972, Catmull spent 10 weeks making a short film of his left hand in digitalized fashion. In 1974, he was hired to run a start up business known as the New York Institute of Technology, whose mission was to “bring computers into the animation process.” Ed soon realized that funds to buy equipment and hire innovators in the world of computer animation weren’t enough to make good films and tell believable stories. 

In 1977, George Lucas approached Catmull to head up a department at Lucasfilms developing special effects for upcoming projects. It’s during his tenure that he began to realize his hierarchal management model was not the best way to motivate creative individuals. He started to adopt the viewpoint of George Lucas himself and began believing the managerial process should be about “moving toward something – of having not yet arrived”. He began to understand how tolerances for ambiguity and openness to new experiences were necessary for good creative leadership. 

Creativity, Inc. is not a story of innovation in computer animation and story-telling, rather it’s a culmination of experiences and managerial experiments that led Ed Catmull on a path of discovery, to truly understand the effectiveness of creative leadership.

In 1986 Lucasfilms was sold to Steve Jobs and renamed Pixar Image Computer, a software
development company that was allowed to dabble in computer animation. It wasn’t until a 3-picture deal with Disney was negotiated that Pixar realized their true core values. They were a creative company, “a culture of candour and freedom and the kind of constructive self-criticism that allowed our people, and the movies they made, to evolve into their best selves.”




One of the key principles Pixar depended on was, “trust the process…. Pixar was a place that gave artists running room, that gave directors control, that trusted its people to solve problems.” The climate fostered by Catmull, and his team, firmly supported the development of people. He believed that the creation of a safe environment allowed people to make mistakes and from most mistakes came great solutions and better direction. Pixar trusted that giving employees the freedom to make errors helped them interpret failure as “a manifestation of learning and exploration.” 

He encouraged practices such as Braintrusts, Randomness and Notes Days that supported honesty, candour, brainstorming and constructive criticism, bringing Pixar closer to greater insights that would lead to better ideas.

Pixar believed in the creation of spaces that steered employees into “accidental mingling”, random spaces where anyone could run into anyone and share ideas. “Steve understood that creativity wasn’t linear.” He believed that creativity was not a solidary endeavour and he made sure the plan of the new Pixar building of the early 2000’s, “was designed to encourage people to mingle, meet, and communicate…” He realized the importance of the creative climate and planned meeting rooms, theatres, game areas, and eating spaces to stimulate “cross trafficking”, producing better opportunities for improved flow of communication between employees. In addition, employees were urged to decorate their office spaces to reflect their individuality and creative core. 


AUTHOR'S NOTES

Catmull takes the reader on a true adventure of creativity summarizing the key principles, and creative language, that has been foremost in our creativity studies. Mindfulness, authenticity, openness, self-awareness, freedom to make mistakes, creative climate, tolerance for ambiguity and complexity are common themes shared throughout the book. The illustrations offered by the author demonstrate how these principles can be woven into the managerial fabric of highly successful corporations, while staying true to the company’s original philosophies and ideals. 

Although the creative product produced by Pixar could be argued as living in the “Arts” world, it’s profits and public shares immortalize it in the world of finance and accountability to shareholders. This book is an excellent illustration of the practicality of creative leadership and how adopting core creative principles can lead to true innovation and profits.





ABOUT PEGGY BARNWELL:

Peggy Barnwell is currently an Advertising Professor with the Pilon School of Business at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario Canada with a strong interest in building creativity into the teaching curriculum, and highlighting CPS in practical business applications. She spent the early part of her career in the advertising industry developing marketing communications campaigns for a variety of private sector and non-profit clients. Peggy is also a member of the National Consumer Response Panel for Advertising Standards Canada and is currently completing her Masters Degree in Creativity at Buffalo State College. 


REFERENCES

Catmull, E. (2014). Creativity, inc. Toronto, ON: Random House Canada



Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Book Review: Creating Innovators

A book review by: Beverly Zapatka Weihz 
Buffalo State College


In his book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner sets out to tackle the question so many are now asking, “How do we raise and educate the children who will take the United States forward as a viable contender in innovation?” In an age of high stakes testing based primarily on rote memorization, and very little creativity in classroom teaching due to the preparation for such tests, there is good reason to be concerned. Wagner seeks answers through a series of interviews with a variety of sources: established innovator Kirk Phelps, young STEM innovators, social innovators, parents, mentors and teachers of these innovators, and schools that are conscientiously trying to address the factors missing in most curriculums and classrooms. Through these interviews, themes begin to emerge; themes that certainly suggest what is working with the innovators featured and could work in creating new ones. Wagner concludes his findings in his final chapter, The Future of Innovation, followed by a call to action in his Epilogue: Letter to a Young Innovator. Wagner furthers the innovative theme by including video web links with each story. Readers get a deeper connection with the subjects of the book through short clips that help complete the picture through visual and audio technology.

Wagner begins his book by establishing the need for creating innovators in the United States. He cites examples of the decline in producing creative and innovative thinkers and discusses whether innovation can be taught and what elements are believed to strengthen innovative and creative thinking skills. He refers specifically to the work of Teresa Amabile of Harvard University, who lists three crucial elements in expanding the capacity for creativity or innovation: Expertise or knowledge, creative thinking skills and problem solving, and motivation. Wagner breaks motivation down into three parts: play, passion, and purpose, and proposes that it is how parents, teachers, mentors and employers encourage these three factors that make a difference in the lives of young innovators.

The bulk of Creating Innovators is spent on systematically interviewing young innovators, their parents, and their mentors or teachers, whom they named as making a difference. Wagner acknowledges that while most of these young innovators are what one would consider to be “gifted,” there is still much to be learned from their upbringings and experiences. First and foremost, the parents of those highlighted played a key role in their success, but not in the ways that one might expect. These parents did not overschedule their children and did not map out a perfect plan. Instead they acknowledged their children as individuals who have their own ideas and intrinsic interests. They encouraged and helped them to pursue these interests by providing learning opportunities outside of school when the school did not offer it and they were not hung up on grades or end results. They allowed their children to explore, play, and fail. Apple innovator, Kirk Phelps dropped out of school twice, once in high school and once in graduate school, both times with the support of his parents. They found that the schools were getting in the way of his learning: an unfortunate phenomenon that is also common amongst our featured innovators, except when a certain teacher or mentor made a difference.

Many of the featured innovators, in addition to having supportive parents, had a teacher or mentor who made a difference in their education and ultimate success. These teachers are outliers in their own right, both on the secondary high school level and in college, making choices that go against the prescribed way of teaching and focus, sometimes at a cost to the teacher. Like the parents, they understand the importance of allowing students to pursue their passions, to problem solve, to take risks, to experiment, to play, to fail and try again. They allow for students to make choices in their pursuits and to include a multitude of disciplines, making connections across curriculums. On the college level, these teachers acknowledge that because of their choices of student focus over research, they will never receive tenure. The educational systems whose primary purpose should be to produce the problem solvers of tomorrow are failing not only at this task, but also in seeing how some are actually succeeding. The teachers featured here get it: they know that their success and satisfaction is acknowledged through the students whose lives they inspire and change.

Wagner goes onto to discuss schools that are starting to implement change on a bigger level with a specific focus on Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts. Olin College is a small undergraduate engineering school that was created specifically to explore a different style of teaching and learning with a “more hands-on, multi-disciplinary approach that better supports the actual engineering practice.” The school places strong emphasis on collaboration, multi-disciplinary learning, creating things, intellectual risk taking, trial and error and student empowerment through intrinsic motivation and pursuit of passion. Olin College and the other schools mentioned serve as inspiring examples of the kind of teaching and learning we can aspire to.

Wagner ends essentially with a call to action, one that I as a parent and an educator, hear loud and clear. His book and research highlight and validate many of the same elements that I as a graduate student in the Creative Studies program at Buffalo State College have come to see as important in teaching for creativity and innovation. Although the book features essentially the lives and successes of “gifted” individuals, the information translates to teaching students of all abilities with specific attention to the motivation of these students by encouraging the pursuit of play, passion and purpose. The acknowledgement of the teachers, who made a difference in the lives of the featured innovators, as outliers, inspires for me a revolutionary approach; as if I am a member of a secret society of knowledge. And in fact, I am. Until the people who make the decisions see the value in this kind of teaching and learning, we are the revolutionaries and outliers. We must take the risks or we will continue to do things as they have always been done and nothing will, in fact, change.

About Beverly Zapatka Weihz: 
Beverly Zapatka Weihz is currently a student in Buffalo State College’s distance learning program, seeking her graduate degree in Creative Studies and Change Leadership. She lives on a small farm in northwestern New Jersey with her husband and children. She teaches art and media communications at Phillipsburg High School.