Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 16th - Time and Space

I began my day as I usually do, reading The New York Times, checking e-mail, taking a look at my Twitter account.  The Times had a feature story by Matt Richtel smack dab on the front page about five neuroscientists who spent a week this past May camping and rafting on the San Juan River in a remote part of southern Utah. The goal of the trip:  “to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.”

Later in the day I came across a blog, “Mind Hacks”, written by Vaughan Bell.
http://mindhacksblog.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/scientists-go-rafting/ Mr. Bell criticizes the “science” in the trip described in the Times.  “Scientifically, the trip is next to useless, as even if the team was doing research in the wild it tells us nothing specific about technology.”  True, the scientists are the subjects of their own study and there are too many variables to sort out whether simply being outdoors alters our relationship with technology.

It does seem clear, however, that the trip provided these scientists, their guide and the reporter and photographer accompanying them, time and space away from the everyday.  Time to relax.  Time to think.  Time to share ideas.  Todd Braver, a psychology professor at Washington University participating in the trip noted, “There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you”…He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys, “It’s why I got into science, to talk about ideas.”

Shortly after reading the Times piece, I discovered through Twitter a talk by John Cleese on creativity. http://simbeckhampson.amplify.com/2010/08/16/creativity-according-to-john-cleese-truly-brilliant-ht-jasonfalls/ In it, Mr. Cleese reminds us that being in a cluttered environment of lists, phone calls, multitasking, is not what creativity needs.  He recommends creating an oasis for creativity to flourish.  That means boundaries of space where there are no interruptions and a defined period of time dedicated solely to the creative task.

Finally, I came across a Wall Street Journal blog by John Edwards III, “Creativity Is On the Decline – And Why It Matters”. http://blogs.wsj.com/juggle/2010/08/16/creativity-is-on-the-decline-and-why-it-matters/ There has been a flood of articles on this subject recently, appropriately so in my opinion, as we battle antiquated curriculum and greater insistence on testing in our schools.  Mr. Edwards concludes his blog with these questions: “Readers, how important do you think creativity is to your children’s development and to your own workplace and career?  Is creativity encouraged in your workplace or your family’s school? Are there things you’ve done or plan to do to encourage greater creative thinking on both fronts?  Any fun creativity-boosters you recommend for kids or adults?”  

Having begun my day with my typical media bath, I nonetheless found some time and space away from family distractions, bill paying, job hunting, and all the other tasks that interfere with my own creativity to think on my own a bit.

It would be simple and easy if our schools could help reverse the decline in creativity.  Alas, not enough schools, not enough brave teachers, are able to pose problems to their students that require reflective solutions.  We aren’t asking enough, or even any, questions in school that prompt creative endeavor.  Creativity is problem solving, finding unrecognized connections.  Time and space to solve a problem need not be mandated as Mr. Cleese suggests, but clearly ample time and space are helpful.  Even based on the “unscientific” evidence provided by five vacationing scientists.  As wonderful as it might be, however, there is no way to send every classroom on a trip down the San Juan River.  Where in school, in the school day, do students have time and space to reflect, to dream, to relax enough to think creatively?  Can we ask the questions and make the space for solutions?  Why do we limit the possibilities for creativity to school and work?  What about at home?  Turn off a few devices and dream.  Play in the backyard.  As for me, I wrote this in the morning before anyone else in the family was awake.  Now for a shower, and perchance, some more time to dream.    


  1. I couldn't agree with you more. I was just talking to someone yesterday about how these kids need to learn to be more creative and come up with ideas, follow through with them, and learn how to succeed and how to fail and how to keep going through it all. It makes me think of Frank Sinatra singing "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again." I probably do this at least three times per day. Since I have been running this mentoring program, I see so many kids are so smart but not book smart and how they would do so well in a creative environment. How can we change this?

  2. Bill, Having just come back from a full week of being in schools in the midwest, I feel forced to conclude (my basic message anyway) that schools were not DESIGNED to be places that foster creativity, either for students for for teachers. The endless and relentless attention to schedule, the press towards productivity and busyness, and the push to measure results in superficial and low-level ways all depress creativity tremendously. And yet, this is what the system was designed to do.

    How to unlock the attachment to the institution, one that has become dysfunctional and counterproductive?