Tag Archives: learning

How Learning Improv Improves Your Life

Yes-And.jpgLast week I experienced my first foray into improvisational comedy. The meetup I help facilitate, Design Thinking Nashville, hosted an improv workshop and welcomed an instructor from LOL Nashville to teach us some basics of the comedy craft. The taste I got was definitely enough to make me want to keep going.

Why care about improv? Improv techniques are growing increasingly popular in business spheres as they provide much needed creative thrust. They train the brain to overcome inhibitions, to react quickly and fluidly to change, and to work well with others. Even just playing improv games for an hour made me feel invigorated, empowered, and less judgmental of myself and others. I left wishing I had something major and difficult to tackle that day; my brain was ready for anything.

There were three main takeaways from this experience. I hope they encourage you to think differently and maybe try out an improv class of your own!

  1. YES, AND…
    Improv and Design Thinking both operate on the principle that groups develop better ideas through what improv artists call the “Yes, And…” approach. This means accepting one person’s ideas and building on it collaboratively as a group. Does that mean you need to think it was a perfect idea? Not at all. It means that you are opening your mind to exploring possibilities. Nothing is held sacred, but neither is anything outright denounced. The alternative approach, with which many of us are infinitely more familiar, is to squash ideas the instant a fault is found. This crushes morale, reinforces hierarchical divisions within a group, and infringes on the potential for reaching better ideas by engaging openly in the process. Improv comedians must respond with “Yes, And…” to what ever gets thrown at them. There is no time to edit, no opportunity to critique. And who wants to watch that anyway? It is all about the fluid exchange of ideas, and this applies directly into any collaborative challenge, on stage or otherwise. My friend Tony said that the “Yes, And…”exercises revolutionized the make-believe he plays with his young daughter. It restrains him from questioning the premise of the imaginative play and instead go with the flow, which not only leads to better ideas but is also way more fun.
  2.  ESTABLISH RELATIONSHIP
    One of the games we played involved an interesting caveat: we had, within the exchange of three statements, to establish a specific relationship between two people in a scene. It was a tricky thing to do, coming up not only with something to say but enough of a backstory for the audience to guess at a likely relationship between the two characters in front of them. Extrapolating from this exercise makes me think about how important it is to consider backstories and contexts when we engage in collaborative work. Where is my coworker coming from with this idea? How might this idea work with our audience even if I don’t agree with it? What was the train of thought that led to this idea? This quick imaginative exercise frames problem solving such that we keep sight of the context and consider solutions from multiple angles.
  3. CONFIDENCE AND VULNERABILITY
    One of the paradoxes of the universe is that we humans (many of us, anyway) spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid embarrassment when simultaneously admiring most the people willing to make fools of themselves. There is an emotional and interpersonal intelligence we associate with people confident enough to exhibit occasional silliness. Improv lessons are a great reminder of this truth because you get to see people liberated from their usual inhibiting boundaries of decorum. I watched, and was among, people making outlandish noises while wiggling about, and we are all totally accepting of our mutual vulnerabilities. The environment was safe enough for us all to participate and, what’s more, emerge with both more confidence in ourselves and more respect for the other participants. Imagine a work environment safe enough for people to explore ideas beyond their inhibition—this is a leadership goal worthy of serious attention.

 

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5 Best Creativity Books (so far)

Over the last few years of blogging about creativity I’ve made many references to books I’ve read on the subject. Today, I am creating a listicle (as my sister says, everyone loves a listicle) of my favorite five.

Why should you care? There is so much research coming out today about neuroplasticity, or our mind’s capacity to change. It means is that we can continue to learn, to reshape our thoughts, and make connections that didn’t exist before. This is the essence of creativity. Creativity might often seem like a natural gift, where some people have it and others don’t, but I believe it is so much more than this. Creativity is a skill we can practice, a collection of habits we can hone. This is good news because it means that, with a little intentionality and practice, we can better live into our creative potentials. This is true whether you call your self a “creative” or not. We all have problems to solve, relationships to build, and tasks to complete; we can all use a leg-up for improving our creative output.

So here are the top five books I’ve read over the last few years for improving creative skills. If you have a book to suggest, please do! Always looking for more!

  1. creative accThe Accidental Creative: How to be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, by Todd Henry
    Followers of this blog might think I’m a broken record with my constant praise for this book. But as a creative professional, i.e. the book’s target audience, it spoke to me more accurately than so many others I’ve read. Author Todd Henry defines ‘creative professional’ as people who create value with their minds, which applies very broadly across human work. His strategy for creativity is to create habits that balance your capacity to be brilliant, healthy, and prolific simultaneously. Often in the work place, we can be one or two of these things, but without balancing the third, our work will suffer. The Accidental Creative outlines extremely practical ideas for radically improving creative output. More about The Accidental Creative…

  2. 51gwzfggzal-_sx403_bo1204203200_The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron
    I confess: I am still working my way through this one. I’ve been working through it over the last year. The book is part workbook and jam-packed with excellent, convicting questions that provoke your memory and challenge presuppositions you may not have known you had about yourself and your ability to produce creative value. Cameron approaches the subject of creativity from a place of faith, but is not so specific in her theological claims that it would throw off more sensitive readers. The idea is that we are created creative, and our Creator wants to work with us in creating new things, as well as work through the fears, memories, and misconceptions that inhibit us from reaching our creative potential. Personally, the book has provided me with revolutionary healing; I had no idea how inhibited I was by negative feedback I’ve received over the years. The book helped me face these memories, name them, and move on. I’m so grateful.
  3. 31ydwirl7ol-_sx331_bo1204203200_Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch 
    I don’t even know where to begin with my admiration for this book.
    Culture, according to Crouch, is what we make of the world. This means that when we are handed eggs, our inherent creativity compels us to make omelettes, and therein change and enhance the value of the egg. God created us in His creative image so that we could add value to this world, value that will last throughout eternity. This truth ennobles the work we do because it means that our efforts are not in vain. It also means that we should be especially mindful of our posture toward the culture being made around us. Crouch advocates that instead of limiting ourselves to critiquing culture, copying culture, or mindlessly consuming culture, we need to be cultivating culture, meaning we champion the good culture that exists and develop new ideas for improving our culture moving forward. This book, in short, provides a rich context for why we do creative work and how to do it well.
  4. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, by Tim Brown 41-aavmqafl-_sx329_bo1204203200_
    Ever been to a “brainstorming session” with coworkers and felt like it was a complete waste of time? We’ve all been there. Whether it is a micromanaging boss who needs to control the conversation or a Negative Nancy bashing every idea, innovation is not easily realized in groups. Design Thinking provides a practical and reproducible methodology that makes for effective group brainstorming. This book is full of amazing case studies showing how different the results are when Design Thinking is applied. It presents a compelling case for why designers should be empathetic or “human-centered” and why prototyping sooner than later in the process can be the most efficient way to test new ideas.
  5. harryThe Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling 
    Bet you weren’t expecting this one. Bear with me as I explain how this book can teach us about creativity. I believe that effective communication is one of the most critical skills we can attain, and storytelling is one of the best communication tools. Good communication and storytelling require prodigious creative effort to transfer complex concepts through simple means to an intended audience. If you’ve ever struggled to get someone to understand one of your ideas, you know success often depends on a miracle. The Harry Potter books tackle universal themes of joy, pain, friendship, sacrifice, and fear, and do so with nuance, subtlety, and emotion. I regularly urge Potter skeptics to give the books a chance; the creative treatment of its themes, its characters, and narrative are not only immensely entertaining but worth considerable study. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve read Harry. What I know is that I learn new things every time through, and I still have a lot to learn. How is it that I feel like her characters are real people? How does she pace her books so well? Where does she get her plot devices, like the Mirror of Erised or portkeys or horcruxes? Creative Genius. Genius.

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Follow Your Passion, and Other Fallacies of Vocation

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What do you want to be when you grow up? And how do you know?

I asked these questions of my small group this week. My motive was a selfish one: I wanted to know how other people approached this challenge of structuring life, making plans, pursuing ambitions, and finding fulfillment—assuming it’s possible.

Half of the room stared back at me with dumbfounded expressions. I assume they, like me, hadn’t been asked that question since they were very young. At some point in our adolescence the question shifts from “What do you WANT to do” to “What ARE you going to do,” which is a very different question. The former question is open-ended and provocative, as it calls us to imagine a happier (though sometimes riskier) vocational reality. The latter query implies that you have the answers, that you know who who are, what your passions are, and how the puzzle pieces will fit together. That’s a lot of pressure.

The funny thing is that, as a culture, we shroud both questions with flawed thinking. We approach the problem of vocation linearly: You like XYZ, so you go to school, learn how to do XYZ, and get a job doing XYZ. But what if you don’t know what you like? What if you don’t know what to study to best achieve your goals? What if there aren’t job descriptions that match your passion? Here are three fallacies blocking us from discovering and defining our vocation, as well as the video that prompted this blog post.

Fallacy #1: That we should have a passion we know we want to pursue. 
For years I thought something was wrong with me. I have always craved diverse experiences to help myself grow, an approach to life which many might argue is healthy. Nevertheless I watched in envy as others focused their efforts and enthusiasm toward mastery of individual skill. I neither knew how to do this nor could imagine limiting myself to a single discipline. Apparently, though, I’m not alone. William Damon in The Path to Purpose says that only 20% of people know the passions they want to pursue from an early age. This means that the other 80% of us spend a lot of time thinking we should be in the 20%, racking our brains for the single passion that supposedly will guide our lives. But why should we limit ourselves? We live in a world where individuals increasingly switch careers, sometimes multiple times. More people are pursuing different interests simultaneously, helped along by technology. Opportunities abound for learning new skills, largely thanks to the internet, where we see Youtube turning cooking newbies into culinary masters, Lynda.com turning Luddites into Adobe aficionados, and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offering college-level instruction at no cost. In other words, there is no need to pressure ourselves into a single passion to pursue.

Fallacy #2: Believing our BA determines vocation. 
I will never forget the night when my high school guidance councilor asked a group of 50 parents how many of them were working in the same field as their college majors. Only two of them raised their hands. Why then, given this telling display, do we put so much emphasis on college major decisions? The only constant is change, after all. And how are students supposed to know what they want unless they get to taste the real world, wrestle with its ups and downs, and structure their education accordingly? We have it backwards: students instead spend all their time in high school jumping through hoops and taking tests just to get into good colleges, but all without any idea of what their education is for or how it will be applied in their lives. Then they are told to focus their interests into a course of study to prepare for work which most of them have never experienced. Why do we do this, especially if we are going to change our career trajectories anyway? Like the councilor said, everyone can just relax about majors.

Fallacy #3: Believing that school makes us experts.
Many people rely solely on formal learning environments for gaining the necessary expertise to approach their vocation. But as with the first fallacy, too many students cannot structure their education around passions they don’t have, and as with the second, students rarely can rely on their major to guide their career choices. Sarah Stein Greenberg puts the problem this way in this great video from Wired:

If I told you that if you exercised every day for the next four years so that you would stay fit and healthy for life, you’d think I was crazy; but this is exactly how we approach learning in college.

We think that four years of college is sufficient education to get us through life. But why four years? It’s arbitrary when you think about it. More than this, learning through experience is, in many ways, much more powerful than classroom lessons. We need to see ourselves as life-long learners, willing to experiment and fail, wherein we learn best. “Expert” is a relative term anyway, so does it help to assume we will ever become experts, constantly judging ourselves by nebulous standards and an antiquated educational model?

Breaking free of these fallacies will likely take some time. As individuals, this involves upsetting misconceptions; unlearning can often be harder than learning. It means a paradigm shift, a reorientation of how we see ourselves as learners and workers. As communities, it means asking questions like, “How might we help people find their vocations through experience as well as school?” and “How might we re-imagine school and workplaces so that they better foster learning and passion development?” The answers to these questions are complex and will likely be fraught with concerns over cost, efficacy, and fear of change. But imagine a world in which students try their hands at real world work, understand how their education is preparing them to solve problems, and structure their own learning around a mission, instead of a major

The Stanford d.School is currently asking many of these questions. Here is a video of two of the d.School leaders discussing the question: How might we design our lives? I really appreciate their posture toward the problem, and I gained some good insights from their conversation. Please share your thoughts on the video and the post below.

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3 Lessons in How People Learn

There is a funny paradox in education: teachers can teach their hearts out, but it doesn’t mean that anyone is learning.

Even with the best of intentions and Herculean efforts, teachers cannot guarantee that the information they’re transmitting is being received. Teaching and Learning are separate processes; their overlap may not be as wide as we might think. This paradox is particularly pertinent today, as headlines regularly bombard us with the question:

Are American schools failing our students?

It’s a legitimate question. As my father always likes to say, we live in a world with exponential rates of change. The pace of innovation is accelerating. Are new generations learning what they need to keep up and, most importantly, HOW to adapt, problem-solve, and excel?

So what are we to do with this paradox? Do teachers teach in vain? Not at all. But it does imply that the best teaching carefully mirrors how people learn, increasing the overlap in the Venn diagram between learning and teaching. Therefore, a closer look at how people learn should point us in the direction of disruptive innovation desperately needed in our educational systems.

With this in mind, I’ve been doing some reading into how people learn. I am reading about formal learning environments like school as well as about learning outside of school, including in museums, in work environments, and the ways in which we teach ourselves. So far, I have gleaned several fascinating concepts:

  1. Learners, not teachers, make their own meaning. 
    Back when I used to teach people how to facilitate small groups, I frequently had to correct people (gently) who wanted to force their beliefs on other people. “People need to learn at their own pace,” I would say. “No one tells us what to believe except us. People need to come to conclusions on their own.” The more I read about learning, and especially in museums, the more I realize how widely this principle applies. Meaning-making, apparently a technical term, is when people construct their own understanding and narratives through combining new information and concepts with their own knowledge and experiences. As Deborah Perry says in her book, What Makes Learning Fun, “museums as institutions are becoming increasingly constructivist environments, places where visitors construct their own meanings by actively engaging with exhibits, programs, objects, and phenomena.” This suggests that learning is indeed the responsibility  of the learner, not the teacher, and that the opportunity to interact with—instead of passively receive—new information and ideas is key to making meaning. An environment emphasizing active engagement allows learners to challenge their presuppositions, question what they don’t understand, and shape the meaning for themselves.calvin-and-hobbes-fundamental-rights-small
  2. Conversation is one of the most essential tools for learning. 
    I read an article recently (which I regret to say I can no longer find) talking about how children today are growing up without engaging in meaningful conversations with either adults or peers. The article cited a decrease in interactive play (especially between parents and children), the rise in media, and the ever-increasing demands for testing in schools as the culprits of this negligence. The consequences of limiting human to human interaction are easy to predict: children grow up not knowing how to express themselves, without having their ideas challenged, and without the ability to ask questions. Without learning to communicate, the resulting “grown-ups” become poor spouses, difficult teammates, and even worse parents. Conversation from the early ages, then, is essential; it is not something we do after we gain knowledge and wisdom, but what we do to become knowledgeable and wise. It makes sense: When communicating ideas to someone else, we are actively shaping those ideas to be received by that person. This active manipulation of thoughts does not happen when we passively receive information from a lecturer or a screen. Learners need to speak and share and question, as well as listen, in order for new concepts to sink in. As Perry says, “By talking with their companions, museum visitors make sense of their experiences and create deeper understanding, and by engaging with the stuff of museums, they talk more with their companions (Silverman 1990). It’s a two-way street. In this sense, learning is conversation, and conversation is learning. ‘What a group talks about, it thinks about; . . . talking is a tool for socially constructed thought, not just evidence of it; and . . . talk supports the gradual alteration and development of goals during the course of a visit’ (Leinhardt and Knutson 2004, 159).”ch-21
  3. Learners have prerequisite conditions for learning to be effective.
    I have long felt, and occasionally written, that formal education, and especially high school, needs to do a better job of communicating the purpose of education to students. In this article, the author cites William Damon, leading expert in human development and author of The Path to Purpose, as saying “that students today may be high achievers but they have no idea what for. He believes that this sense of meaninglessness is one of the main contributors to the skyrocketing suicide and depression rates among our youth… the American College Health Association reported in 2011 that 30 percent of undergraduates were so depressed they could hardly function.” This article in the same vein says, “students need to be clear why they are learning what they are learning. If they do not understand why, schoolwork will either be boring or meaningless to them, causing tons of worry and stress. They will be doing it simply to advance through the next hoop—high school graduation or college admission—not for its own inherent value.” Schools, museums, and other learning institutions would do well to connect the curriculum to the learners’ big picture sense of purpose. Adding to this, Perry in her book on museums that learners need to be sufficiently motivated in order to learn anything:”museum visitors will be more likely to have satisfying, intrinsically motivating experiences when their engagements with exhibits meet their needs to
    (a) be part of a communication process,
    (b) have their curiosity piqued,
    (c) feel safe and smart,
    (d) be challenged,
    (e) be in charge of their learning, and
    (f) be playful.”
    This idea that learners need to meet these criteria suggests that teachers and designers should shape the learning environment accordingly. Consider this video showing New Orleans High School students are asked what would make their education more meaningful. Their answers are profound and point to a deep need to rethink school. 

 

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How do we learn to learn?

I’ve dreamt the same dream at least twice now. In the dream, I am back in high school and it is the end of the year. Finals are coming up. I realize I have neglected to go to one of my classes for the entire year. I don’t even remember what time of day it meets, but I realize I am responsible for a year’s worth of information for the upcoming test, and I wake up wondering how I’m ever going to pull off a passing grade.

I am sure we could psychoanalyze this scholastic nightmare in a number of ways, but today I want to hone in on an aspect of public school education that, clearly, still haunts me: school didn’t teach me to learn; it taught me to memorize information and regurgitate it on tests.

I always wanted to love learning. After all, Sesame Street and LeVar Burton told me to. But it really wasn’t until I was half-way through college that I realized academic achievement wasn’t the goal; LEARNING, i.e. cultivating my mind, my outlook, my worldview, was. Ironically, this epiphany hit me after a professor told me–ever so kindly–that my essay was so bad he refused to read it. Pushing past a curious mixture of laughter and despair, I stayed up to the wee hours of the morning re-reading my text and forcing my neurons to reroute.

The strangest part of this experience was that I found myself able to focus better on my work. I wanted to get it right. The drive came from a curiosity, a desire to know. Unfortunately, however, very few of our schools structure their curriculum around students’ curiosity. They structure it around a government-regulated, grade-based curriculum that covers only what can be tested empirically.  This article by Jordan bates on the Creativity PostThe Inadequacy of Mass Education & the Case for Autodidacticism, (it’s a mouthful but a very good read…trust me!), beautifully breaks down the need for more emphasis on learning to learn. Here is an excerpt:

“…This state of affairs all but forces schools to emphasize only those things which can be quantified—objectively measured, empirically verified. It is notoriously difficult to devise fair assessments of critical thinking, creativity, imagination, curiosity, and the like, so we don’t, mostly (at least not until college), which in turn indicates to students that those things are not vital. This is a tragic miscommunication, considering that those qualities are indispensable to both an innovation-driven economy and (arguably) a fulfilling life.”

Bates goes on to advocate for teachers to encourage an attitude of autodidacticism and set the expectation that students can and should learn to teach themselves. Students will be infinitely better prepared to address the complex problems of the world if they learn to actively pursue their own questions. Amen!

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