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Learning Across Silos: An Integrated Approach to the Creativity Crisis

by Ann My Thai & Andy Russell
August 16, 2010

In our first post, we provided an overview of Newsweek’s coverage of America’s creativity crisis, which highlighted the crucial need for creativity and innovation in solving real-world problems. We began to explore skills and processes that have been associated with creativity and appreciate how your comments added to the discussion. In this post, we’ll discuss specific learning and creativity theories that provide a foundation for designing media that fosters children’s creativity.

Divergent thinking is our cognitive ability to think outside the box and see things not for what they are, but for what they could be. Imagine a brick – the first things that come to mind might be: Red, Rectangular, Clay, and Building Material. If challenged to think of creative uses for that brick, however, one might look beyond the brick’s aesthetic and symbolism to its base properties (Heavy, Compact, Relatively Impermeable) and determine that a brick could make an excellent paperweight or even an anchor. If a “creative” idea is one that is both novel and practical, then divergent thinking like this is a critical component of creative output.

So where does divergent thinking originate and how can we improve these skills? Many child development experts believe that play may be the answer to both questions. We put children’s play into three categories: games, structured play, and imaginative play. Traditionally, games are computer or rules driven, with little input or creativity from the child. Structured play is common with action figures, dolls, and play sets that have pre-defined narrative and identities. Although kids can make up stories for these characters, the personalities, and storylines often provide a more closed experience. Imaginative play, on the other hand, is most common with blocks, clay, and other flexible objects or toys that rely on the child to create, direct, and act out their own fantasies as producers of creative content, and not just consumers/participants.

Fortunately, over the last few decades, educators and software designers have begun to move away from linear and scripted game experiences towards more open-ended and child-directed software titles that challenge and empower kids’ divergent thinking skills. This new category of games and applications is often referred to as “Constructionist Learning.”

Constructionism is a learning approach inspired by Constructivism, Piaget’s theory that kids learn by creating their own mental models to make sense of the world around them. Seymour Papert, at the MIT Media Lab, expanded this theory by introducing Constructionism, a process by which kids can “learn by doing.” Constructionist Learning tools position users as active creators, designers, and builders of content and knowledge as opposed to passive recipients. Through this creative experience children work in a more iterative way by “debugging” and “modding” their creations, often discovering surprising concepts and solutions.

Why is this so important to creative learning and learning in general? Well, if kids learn best through this iterative design process then Constructionist tools are a powerful way to improve divergent thinking skills. In addition, when combined with the distributive power of the Internet, Constructionist Learning tools offer opportunities for sharing and peer collaboration, known to increase creativity — and learning as well. Coincidentally, the Constructionism 2010 conference begins today.

Other significant theories that support creative problem solving include “design thinking” and “systems thinking.” Spearheaded by organizations such as the Buckminster Fuller Institute and design firms as IDEO, design-thinking has emerged as a process that fosters innovation. It is a multidisciplinary approach that applies tools, such as brainstorming, rapid prototyping and scenario building, to identify problems and craft solutions. System thinking, a central tenet of design thinking, encourages taking a whole system perspective in dealing with an integrated, complex world. Designers consider the relationship between wholes and their parts, identify interactions between all the relevant parts, and understand the consequences of these interactions. A growing number of experts believe systems thinking is crucial in addressing the greatest social and global problems of the 21st century. Game scholars, such as James Paul Gee and Katie Salen, believe that game design and game play may be an effective approach developing this essential skill.

As you can imagine, the theories and processes described above are highly applicable for the design of digital media, both games and kids’ creativity tools. As we think about how to address America’s creativity crisis, we need to consider these different approaches and explore how they might intersect in order to better support children’s creativity at home and at school. In our next post, we’ll discuss the market for promising technology supported creativity tools for kids.

Further Reading:

Logo Programming Language: one of the earliest Constructionist learning tools developed by Seymour Papert at the MIT Media Lab. This work was the impetus for software such as Lego Mindstorms and MicroWorldsEX, as well as MaMaMedia.com, a participatory kids’ site founded by Idit Harel, one of Papert’s previous doctoral student at MIT.

Robert Torres’s research on games and learning offers a brief overview of systems thinking.

Colleen Macklin and John Sharp have used the Activate! platform to pilot a game design curriculum for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Gamestar Mechanic is a game for middle and high schoolers to learn basic game design skills and is often cited as an example of how game design supports the development of systems thinking.

OpenIDEO, recently launched by IDEO, an open platform for creative thinkers from various disciplines to tackle complex real world problems, such as the childhood obesity crisis to affordable education in India.

Quest to Learn (q2l) school for digital kids (6th-12th gr), grounded in systemic reasoning, critical thinking, and other methodologies for the fostering of design and innovation.

 

Other blogs in this series:

Transforming Children’s Learning to Address America’s Creativity Crisis

Ann My Thai is the Assistant Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. She is also the lead author of the Center’s report on digital games and children’s health and learning, Game Changer. Andy Russell, a Cooney Center Prizes finalist,  is an educational media designer with a special interest in developing toys and tools that empower kids to express themselves creatively through play. Andy Russell is a Co-Founder of Launchpad Toys and has worked for companies like Hasbro and Sony PlayStation to design playful learning experiences for kids.