The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.–Isaac Asimov
Late last year, MIT Technology Review published a recently discovered essay by famed science fiction writer and professor Isaac Asimov about the creative process. The essay was found in a file owned by one of Asimov’s friends and was written in 1959. In that year, Asimov had briefly joined a research team at MIT investigating new approaches for a ballistic missile defense system. Asimov decided to leave the group soon after joining, but wrote an essay about creativity as his one contribution. It languished in a file for over fifty years. “How do people get new ideas?” the legendary author wondered in his opening sentence. He then went on to describe the creative process and the kinds of environments that promote creativity. After reading Asimov’s essay, I can’t help but wonder how his ideas can inform how we teach and inspire our students.
My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it…The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display. –Isaac Asimov
Do we give students time to think and work out problems? For Asimov, he advocated working initially in isolation. In fact, history is rife with examples of the isolated genius–Alan Turing running, Darwin in his cabin on the Beagle–where someone alone thinks of something great. In an age where time is at a premium, do we allow students to take a deep breath and think?
No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon…It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts. –Isaac Asimov
For Asimov, the initial isolation phase was followed by what he called a “cerebration session,” what we would today call a brainstorming session, or group work. Asimov felt this was an integral part of the creative process but also one that can create problems. Group members need to have roles or run the risk of feeling marginalized by unhealthy competition. He advocated for what he called a “session-arbiter” to lead discussion. “In the same way, a session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point,” Asimov writes. “Since the arbiter will not know which question is shrewd, which comment necessary, and what the point is, his will not be an easy job.” Asimov also advocated for group size to be about five individuals. When students are assigned to work in groups, do we create roles for students? Do we allow students to choose their own groups? Do we create stakes that are too high, creating an environment where inquiry is replaced by a focus only on task completion? For a group to function well, according to Asimov, “there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness.”
Of course, no assignment we give students is ever perfect. Sometimes we’ll need to create groups for students and sometimes we’ll let them create groups. However, I think the lessons of Asimov are important if we want to encourage creative thinking in students. Independent thinking followed by group discussion can help the creative process. Perhaps having students think before they begin a task might help spur creativity. Establishing group roles and norms might help build equity between group members. And there is the issue of time. Students need time to think. A group of motivated students with time to explore can create the unthinkable.
A few years ago, with some teacher colleagues, I carved out time during the year for students to create and explore any topic they wanted during a genius hour freshman capstone project based on Google’s 20% time philosophy (you can read more about this project in NASSP). Student projects could be about anything; however, they had to deal on some level with biology, English, computer applications, and history. Every year, we started the project by giving students class time to think–alone. Then like-minded students got together and worked out their ideas. Students who wanted to work independently were permitted to do so. One small group decided to look at the comics of Rube Goldberg, famous for creating intricate contraptions to complete some of life’s easiest tasks. My freshman students got creative and decided to build their own Rube Goldberg machine. You can see the results below. They nailed creativity. I wish every project I had students complete turned out like this.