Creativity in Classrooms: a Lesson from 3M, Google, and Atlassian

The WEF reports that complex problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity are the top three skills that employers seek as they face a future whose contours are unclear.

Interestingly, these are not skills that can be structured in the form of a list of topics and taught in classrooms in conventional ways. After all, each of these are traits of the mind — ways of seeing and interpreting the world, identifying problems, mining insights, analysing and synthesising, breaking established patterns, and constructing new possibilities. They also cannot be corralled as “subjects” with a fixed term within which one could gain expertise. How do we then approach these in our classrooms?

Practices from some innovative companies point to a possible way.

  • 3M, the American conglomerate, “encourages employees to set aside a portion of their work time to proactively cultivate and pursue innovative ideas that excite them.”

  • Lazlo Bock, former Senior Vice-President of People Operations at Google, writes in Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead of Google’s “20 percent time” — an idea that gives employees time to explore and pursue projects that interest them. By its very intent, it is not a structured policy but a powerful signal about what is valued.

  • Atlassian, the Australian software company, has multiple initiatives that support employees to work on projects of interest and, possibilly innovate.

These companies understand that thinking and creativity begin with autonomy. They understand that, while structure is essential for discipline, it is rewarding to give people space to experiment, fail, and challenge received wisdom. Apart from products, and service improvements that have yielded huge business benefits for these corporations, one of the results has been a consistent invigoration of creativity.

There is a lesson here for our classrooms.

We could dedicate twenty percent of the time for each Course (or subject) for Learners to pursue projects of interest within that field of study. This can be done in High Schools and Colleges. The explicitly stated intent would be to encourage Learners to cultivate independent thinking, thinking that is critical and analytical, which nourishes their creativity instead of stifling it.

Rosamund and Benjamin Zander write in The Art of Possibility“Michelangelo is often quoted as having said that inside every block of stone or marble dwells a beautiful statue; one need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within.” The “twenty percent time” must be supervised by teachers who see that their “job [as teachers] is to remove the extraneous debris that stands between” Learners and their “expression in the world.” Such teachers could help Learners by questioning, with gentle nudges to explore directions, by removing impediments that Learners feel overwhelmed by, by welcoming mistakes, by providing timely information, and by awakening self-belief.

Our current models of education, as Ken Robinson explains in The Element put “relentless pressure….on students to conform.” This kills creativity and discourages independent thinking. While it is unlikely that the transformations needed in education will be achieved by a single action, the "twenty percent” idea, introduced as a component in the existing curricula may help. Its track record certainly is impressive.