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.

Lessons for classrooms from Scrum

It is clear that education the world over is in a state of crisis. Jack Ma summed it up aptly at the World Economic Forum meet recently — “If we do not change the way we teach, thirty years later we will be in trouble….”

As individuals, most of us might not be able to re-form education in large-scale. However, there are steps we can take in our classrooms — small steps that make huge differences..

The Scrum approach to software development has, like its Agile kin, some distinguishing features that offer lessons we can learn for use in our classrooms.

1) Scrum Teams execute projects in terms of Sprints. A Sprint is a fixed period of time (usually between one to four weeks) at the end of which, the Team delivers outcomes of value to the customer. A project is executed with a number of Sprints with the customer seeing outcomes at the end of each sprint rather than as a single marathon where the customer sees outcomes (of value) later in the lifecycle and infrequently.

Can we create Lesson Plans such that Learners see the Term (or Semester) as a series of Learning Sprints? Can we group Learners into small Teams (say 3 to 4 in a Team)? Can the Learners be encouraged to create an artifact that demonstrates their learnings for each Learning Sprint (building up on all the earlier Sprints)? Artifacts could be research findings, presentations, prototypes, papers, code, models — anything tangible that is appropriate for the knowledge-area and which, demonstrates the Learners’ achievement of the Learning Outcomes for the period.

By taking this step —

  • we encourage Learners to see themselves as active, creative, participants in the venture — rather than as passive sponges who absorb and release.

  • we encourage Learners to see Learning as a project that aims to yield tangible outcomes of value for themselves and others — rather than as a journey of exams where the grades, mistakenly, are seen as outcomes.

  • we encourage Learners to nurture their interests and invoke passion. The value of this is something that great thinkers have recognised across history. In one of the essays that form the Moralia (written around 100 A. D), Plutarch makes this timeless point that “the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.”

2) One of the rituals that Scrum Teams adhere to is the “Daily Scrum”. This is a meeting that all Team members participate in. The Scrum Master, a member of the Scrum Team whose job, among other things, is to remove impediments that the Team faces, anchors this meeting. During the meeting, each Team member answers the following questions —

— What did you do yesterday?

— What do you plan to do today?

— Are there any impediments you are facing?

The primary objective of this daily meeting is not to get a status update on the project. Rather, it is to make commitments, communicate a desire to honour them, and highlight obstacles.

Can we have Learners do a Weekly meeting of this kind with their Teams? Each Learner will answer the following —

— What did you learn this week?

— What do you plan to learn next week?

— Is there anything that is hampering your learning?

By instilling this ritual —

  • we encourage Learners to reflect on what they have really learnt

  • we identify challenges that Learners are facing as early as possible and, this gives us more time to help with remedial action

  • we create opportunities for Learners to help each other. If a Learner in the Team is, for example, having difficulties in a Topic and communicates this, others in the Team who have grasped the Topic could help. Peer-learning, as research from the Harvard Professor Eric Mazur demonstrates, is a powerful mode of learning — and, often, more effective than the conventional instructor-led style.

3) Individuals in Scrum Teams enjoy a great deal of autonomy. There are no roles or designations that communicate hierarchy, seniority, or power. Indeed, the ways of working demand that each member of the Team is not “assigned” tasks but voluntarily picks up work from a list. Such an environment makes for communication that is uninhibited and free of fear. There is no “Boss” — just a Team of people united in pursuit with each member achieving a state of being where individual interests and interdependence fuse.

In classrooms, we would do well to create environments where the “Teacher” makes active efforts to shed the halo. The Teacher, then, is seen by the Learner not as a “exalted, powerful, controlling being on a high pedestal” but as a fellow-Learner (someone who has probably been learning longer than the student).

By doing this —

  • we create classrooms where Learners are less likely to have trepidation in asking questions, expressing ignorance, and making mistakes. These three factors, fear in asking questions, expressing ignorance, and making mistakes, boil down to a fear of failure and this, as the Kelley brothers observe in Creative Confidence, is “the single biggest obstacle people face to creative success.”

  • we create classrooms the foster the “growth mindset” which is, the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck tells us (in Mindset), “the belief that everyone can change and grow thorough application and experience”. This mindset expresses itself as “the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially)” when things are not going well. This mindset is what separates the truly great from others.

In training programs and workshops i have conducted over the the past few years, i have experimented with these ideas. Learners tell me that this has created memorable learning experiences for them — they certainly have for me.

If you have experimented with ways to nourish Learners, i would be happy to learn from you.