Designing Creativity (Pt. 2)

To create, from *ker- "to grow", to make or bring into existence something new

In 2011, something extraordinary happened in Seattle. The Tulalip Elementary School, attended at 90% by Native children, in just one year had transformed from the worst school of their district to the top one. During that year, Tulalip member and Native education researcher Dr. Stephanie Fryberg had applied the growth mindset work of Carol Dweck. As it turned out, it changed everything.

Carol Dweck’s discovery is simple, and because of that, even more impressive. Basically, when it comes to talents and skills, people have two mindsets. One says that either you have a talent from birth or you don’t have it. Shakespeare, Mozart, Leonardo? They were born genius. But the other mindset says, “I don’t have that talent yet.” It says that talents can be developed and nurtured over time. The first one will keep us in place, but the second one will teach us how to grow.

And mistakes are the place where our mindset becomes crystal clear.

Searching for feedback

In 2010, in Massachussets, a group of PhDs of the MTI launched the NuVu Studio: an innovation school whose pedagogy rests on the Studio Model (a framework for self-organizing teams) and multi-disciplinary, collaborative projects. Concretely, every two weeks groups of 12 students move into a transdisciplinary studio, where they work on solving together a specific challenge. At the end of each studio, they add the project to their portfolio and frequent check-ins with the teachers ensure that students understand and reflect on their own development.

The Universal Arm from NuVu Studio on Vimeo.

These studios tackle complex, real-world, “messy” problems, which require students to continuously refine their prototypes according to the feedback they get from each experiment. The presence of a coach is fundamental to make sense of these observations, as well as to foster the student’s growth, and create what they call a “critique culture.” The goal is to help them see feedback as an essential part of creativity and learning, instead of a judgement of their worth.

“At first, critique felt like a personal attack. Eventually, I realized the coaches are critiquing my ideas, not me. […] At my old schools, your work was either right or wrong. There was no revision, and nothing was about the real world.”

But the real world is present in the studio, and students seek its feedback. Instead of worrying about grades, they are encouraged to stay with their mistakes and gather something useful from them. The fact that these challenges are complex, and require multiple skills to be solved, isn’t just a way to show how specific kinds of knowledge can be applied in a practical way. They also teach students to check in with the context. The real world isn’t just present – it’s always interrogated and integrated in the creative project. Their ideas interact with the world, and this interaction makes them stronger and more innovative.

The world is your teacher

The connection between schools and books is so ingrained in our minds, that we sometimes forget how people learnt in the past. In the Renaissance, for example, future craftsmen and artists learnt from the masters in their studio or bottega, proper workrooms, with few books to read and a collection of tools requiring mastery.

Schools like NuVu or the Studio Schools in the UK, but also project- and inquiry-based pedagogies, are rediscovering the value of a studio approach. The studio offered a perfect learning environment, not only because students received continuous feedback on their work, but because the studio was immersed in the city or town it was operating into.

Apprentices didn’t work on abstract projects, but on real commissions, coming from real people. Thus, the studio was connected to the real world and its needs, as well as its changes and innovations. Masters used their expertise to guide students in their learning process, but didn’t directly imbue them with their knowledge. It was the world the one to teach students, one task at a time, what their skills concretely meant.

From dreaming to making

We are now back to the initial question. How can we help students get ready for jobs (and fields!) they don’t even know yet?

This requires more than good observational skills. We can spot chances as they emerge, but if we interact with the world around us we can create opportunities for ourselves. Only from these interactions we can generate new ideas, because we will have a context to create around and into. And only by testing them in the context – only by engaging the real world, with small prototypes and experiments – we can learn if and how they work, and adjust our trajectory accordingly. This is what design thinking teaches – to replace fear of the mistake with the curiosity of experimentation.

This is how we can design creativity – by using small and smart iterations to check with the world and guide our imagination towards something that others, too, will find creative. And it’s an invitation to imagine a creativity that designs, a creativity that’s not just pure imagination but engages with the world it wants to innovate.


P.S. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.


Leave a Reply