Why John Seely Brown Says We Should Look Beyond Creativity to Cultivate Imagination
1.8.14 | John Seely Brown is a visiting scholar and advisor to the provost at University of Southern California and independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. He was chief scientist at Xerox Corporation and director of the Palo Alto Research Center. He cofounded the Institute for Research on Learning and was a trustee of the MacArthur Foundation until 2012.
This post is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning (DML) has changed over time, and where it’s headed.
Spotlight: Do I understand correctly that you started professional life as a bookie?
John Seely Brown: It was a good way to make some money. I was really good at mathematics, so I could compute all kinds of things instantaneously. But I realized that mathematics, although super cool, was not necessarily the secret to mastering the universe. It was the beginning of a long transformation in my mind about the shift from being an expert in content to being skilled at reading context.
Reading context? What does that mean?
Think of a movie and then think of changing the music in that movie. The consequences are simply shocking. In fact, for a long time, documentaries weren’t allowed to even have music in them because it changed people’s perception of what the film was about. That’s how propaganda works.
Context is everything, I guess.
Most of our wars have been started by the shaping of context. Remember that image of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down? Well, the photo was actually cropped. Those were Americans pulling the statue down, not Iraqis. But the cropped photo reinforced this notion that the Iraqis loved us. It reshaped context. Milennials are much better at understanding that context shapes content. They play with this all the time when they remix something. It’s actually an ideal property for a 21st century citizen to have.
I feel like you’re talking about a kind of intelligence that isn’t going to show up on an IQ test.
I like to replace the notion of IQ with a balance between IQ, SQ, or social intelligence, and EQ, or emotional intelligence. All three are important, yet schooling tends to focus only on IQ. I deal a lot with CEOs, and I can tell you the number of them that never finished college is astounding. But guess what, they’re masters of EQ and SQ. It’s easy to hire a “smart” person. But we need people who can read the context of a problem—and that takes more than IQ. Emotional intelligence and social intelligence are worth a fortune.
I’ve heard you talk about “listening with humility.” Does that tie into these other kinds of intelligence?
This idea of listening with humility is to go beyond what people are saying. It’s being able to listen to what’s not being said. I would claim that listening with humility in this buzzing world is going to get you more information than focusing on what is said. Sometimes you find things out that even the person talking didn’t know. I’ve just been so struck that our whole schooling system is focused on IQ. Street smarts, on the other hand, includes EQ and SQ.
How do you teach social intelligence? In some ways that seems like a harder skill to develop.
You don’t teach these things. You cultivate them.
I was just going to say, “teach” doesn’t seem the right word. I was going to say foster. But cultivate is good. Can you give me an example of something that’s gotten you excited recently that fosters this kind of intelligence?
Consider the Maker movement. Kids learning from others through making thing, hand and head working together. Often they’re learning collectively, and in the deeply social spaces.
It reminds me of the nine-year-old you wrote about in your book, A New Culture of Learning.
Right. Sam went to camp in Chicago where he was learning to program using Scratch. Scratch has an online community where kids like Sam post their games, and other kids not only play but also see the code, modify it, and comment on it. When we asked Sam what it meant to be a good member of the Scratch community, he didn’t say building games or posting animations. He said, to “not be mean” in your comments. In other words, he got the coding, but the real thing he was learning was how to work with other people effectively. When we asked him what he looked for in other people’s programs, he said, “something really cool you would never know yourself.” So he was learning how to learn from others. Man, I would love to see more 40-year-olds with this kind of intelligence.
But again, that wasn’t something Sam was “taught.”
How do we get kids to see learning as an adventure rather than a task?
He figured it out for himself, and it will be with him for life. When I was in grad school, I worked with Anatol Rapoport. One day this guy came in to give a seminar. At the end, Anatol asked three leading questions that got the guy to realize that what he was saying was wrong. Afterward I said, “I don’t get it. You could have asked one killer question that would have destroyed that guy.” He said, “It takes nothing to make someone look foolish. It takes genius to allow someone to save face and discover something for themselves.” That never left me. That’s the kind of thing that makes interest-driven, peer-based learning work. Connected learning counts on not shutting kids down.
I’ve heard you say that what we need to know used to hold for about 30 years but now only holds for five years. This makes me think we’re really dealing with a psychological problem here—how do you make people comfortable with discomfort? Because people are uncomfortable with change, right?
That’s a good question because it comes from a point of view that is increasingly dangerous. The real question is how do we get kids to see learning as an adventure rather than a task. We talk about tinkering a lot in connected learning. Does the tinkerer panic when something has changed? No. Does she dash off to find the manual in search of answers? No. She uses her social connections to help with the problem. And, perhaps more importantly, she sits and plays. Play becomes the cornerstone of coping with change and turning fear into adventure.
We’ve talked about play before. And I know you’re interested in games. Tell me more how that connects to these kinds of intelligence.
If you’re a good player of, say, World of Warcraft, you learn how to probe the boundaries. You learn how to push the system and see how it responds. And the game is a social experience. So these are forms of SQ and EQ you’re developing. As you begin to play with the system, you begin to understand how that system works. As soon as you move to thinking systemically, you no longer expect to use reductionist techniques for everything. You engage the system. You look at how it responds. You engage in a new level of tinkering. It’s interesting to me that so few people have built up a tinkering disposition. As soon as something doesn’t work they panic. Whereas if you’re used to tinkering, you say, “Okay, I’ve got to play with this system.”
My sense is that panic when faced with something new is human. Don’t we all long for stability, and doesn’t change inherently make us feel threatened?
Before they hit school, kids love to play. They have tremendous curiosity. But we have found brilliantly efficient ways to destroy any deep sense of curiosity or willingness to play. As kids we live in a world of pull. When we enter school we have authorities pushing answers to us.
So you’re saying this fear I’m talking about isn’t intrinsically human but rather something that gets bred into us through the education system?
Right. Connected learning, though, honors the intrinsic desire to have curiosity and imagination. That’s why creating environments to help kids find their interests is such an important step. Interest-driven learning honors curiosity and imagination. Those are 21-st century skills. Notice, though, that enhanced curiosity and the ability to tinker and play with systems is never mentioned as a critical 21st century skill.
I feel like that’s changing.
I hope so. If it is, it’s changing to a large extent because of the work of DML and connected learning. These efforts are making it respectable to think about something besides just asking kids to spend more time sitting at their desks.
You’ve been studying extreme surfers in Maui. How does that fit into all of this?
I think we’re way too focused on creativity. It’s misguided. We should be focused on imagination.
These kids create their own cohorts and engage in almost everything we talk about in connected learning. These kids are constantly learning from one another. If you figure out a new move on a surfboard and win a competition because of it, you can’t patent it. That move will be copied within almost 48 hours around the entire world because of things like YouTube. They are global learners. And they’re engaging in some deep innovation. What are their strategies for innovation? They don’t just look at other surfers. They look at all kinds of adjacent activities, such as windsurfing, skateboarding, motor cross racing, and mountain biking. Their curiosity is radically extended. Which brings us back to imagination. I think we’re way too focused on creativity. It’s misguided. We should be focused on imagination.
That’s interesting. I’ve been talking to a lot of designers lately and with them, it’s creativity, creativity, creativity. Can you tease the two ideas apart? What’s wrong with creativity?
The real key is being able to imagine a new world. Once I imagine something new, then answering how to get from here to there involves steps of creativity. So I can be creative in solving today’s problems, but if I can’t imagine something new, than I’m stuck in the current situation.
Don’t you think design thinkers would say that’s what they mean by creativity?
They would say that, but they don’t understand what imagination is as opposed to some other things. Design thinking is surprisingly mechanistic.
How so? What does that mean?
It’s formulaic to the extreme. What it has perfected is a way to probe and listen to customers in a fairly tight-jacketed way.
Maybe there’s a genuinely deep misunderstanding of what imagination is.
Right. That’s what we should be talking about. That’s one of the reasons I think what’s happening in STEM education is a tragedy. Art enables us to see the world in different ways. I’m riveted by how Picasso saw the world. How does being able to imagine and see things differently work hand-in-hand? Art education, and probably music too, are more important than most things we teach. Being great at math is not that critical for science, but being great at imagination and curiosity is critical. Yet how are we training tomorrow’s scientists? By boring the hell out of them in formulaic mathematics—and don’t forget I am trained as a theoretical mathematician.
It’s a funny world we live in where authoritative knowledge is delivered in a highly efficient manner, thirty kids at a time, driven by a fifty-minute bell, whereas you actually learn things by doing things—by playing. That doesn’t mean there’s no role for authoritative knowledge, but it does suggest we’ve misplaced our emphasis.
I’ve heard you talk about a shift in thinking from a race against the machine to a race with the machine. What does that mean?
Here’s an interesting fact: today we can build massively powerful super computers that can beat the world’s best chess players. But then something has happened called freestyle chess. In freestyle chess, you compete against the computer, but you can use anything to win—you can call someone for advice, you can use your own computer, you can get a whole group of people together to play. If you go to one of these tournaments you’ll find something unbelievably shocking. You can take two or three kids who are good at chess—not experts, but good—and they’re using computers—not super computers, but regular computers—and they’re consistently beating both the super computer and the world’s best chess players. So these kids have figured out what they do really well and what their machines do really well, and then, lo and behold, they beat the best machines and the best humans. It is an interesting and highly improvisational collective, so to speak.
Why is this important?
You get a sense of what really matters. A new kind of collaboration. Collaboration with peers but also with machines. How do a small number of peers working with a small number of machines become a creative ensemble?
That’s a paradigm shifting idea.
It’s totally a paradigm shifting idea. We should be getting kids to play with machines and with each other in order to improvise, left, right, and sideways.
Whenever I talk to you, you always make me feel very optimistic. What worries you?
We have interlocking institutional systems that are in place solely to protect the status quo. Peeling those back won’t be easy and we have to find new ways to do it. Take connected learning. Connected learning is saying “How do we move learning from being allocated only in the classroom, and take advantage of all the resources available?”
So in a way it comes back to understanding systems.
Absolutely understanding systems, but also it’s about flipping the edge and the core. With connected learning, you see powerful things start to happen on the edges. And that starts to become seductive to people in the core. You start to have teachers saying, “How come Johny, who’s been sleeping through class, now comes into class full of energy and asking me all kinds of questions?” You don’t bring about major system change by attacking the core. You build up the edges and show what the edge can do. Connected learning to me is a technique to empower the edge and have it become so attractive that the core starts to think more like it. It’s as simple as that. And that’s a pretty damn powerful strategy.
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