Archive for February, 2013

Book: inGenius by Tina Seelig

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Just recently finished reading the book “inGenius” by Tina Seelig. As a follow-up to the author’s previous book “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20,” this book had contrasting style and voice. inGenius read like a journalistic article (although I know a lot of the content came from personal experience) and felt like a report in narrative rather than the inspirational feel of the earlier book. Actually, the titles of the book suggested as much to me before I started reading the second book. Nonetheless, it was a good read and several useful lessons were found that I have already used in the YCISL.

(1) One of the skills that one has an opportunity to and should develop at a young age is to ask questions. Partly to balance the thinking that goes on in a “give me the answer” school environment but also to be able to frame problems. On page 19, the author relates how two seemingly identical question can lead to very different thinking and answers. If one can conjure up questions like a chess player rapidly conjures up possible chess moves, reframing problems will be a valuable skill and asset.

(2) One exercise that I have already carried out with several groups (even one group of school headmasters and district directors) is the birthday line up exercise described on page 49. I’ve run this with middle school students and high school students as well. It works great as an icebreaker and an example of teamwork. As a kickoff to a workshop, it also helps set ground rules such as “It’s ok to ask questions” and “You only have the instructions I gave you already – nothing else. So listen carefully.”

(3) On page 129, the author writes “Many rules are designed with the goal of improving performance, but they actually do the opposite.” While many of us can probably tell of an instance where this has happened (even at Stanford!), I don’t think a disregard for rules is called for – even when creativity is desired. I consider myself a rules-based thinker and this has served me well. From being a computer and IT expert to a sports player and coach, I know that rules are the means to advance. As an extreme example to balance the initial premise, one could say that “creativity is like daydreaming which is idling.” In my view, creativity needs to be applied to the rules of innovation (the game – reminds me to recommend checking out the book “GameStorming”) in order to accomplish things – decision making, leadership, productivity, and others. Perhaps it is poorly designed rules that are the problem, not simply having rules. Try setting up email filters in your email client to sort and filter, and you might have a good idea of how to set up effective rule sets.

(4) I appreciated the reference to Tom Wujec’s “Marshmallow Challenge” on page 144 as one of my mentors who had done this exercise in Seelig’s class brought it into a YCISL workshop in 2012. I’ve run this exercise three more times – with my middle school students as well as another group of high school students – and have made modifications to the exercise. Perhaps I was buying weak spaghetti but the marshmallow was a massive downer – except when the students wanted to eat them up (better than them eating the uncooked spaghetti!). So, I have modified the exercise such that each team gets a mailing label and has to design a flag on it to attach to their structure – and the height of the tower is measured by the distance between the surface and this flag. The flag lends an opportunity to personalize the tower and represents the focal point of their effort. Of course, the lightweight nature of the label compared to the marshmallow avoided the potential tipping disaster. In my YCISL exercises, I prefer to set the success to failure probability about 2:1 in favor of success. I found that the marshmallow (at least in a timed situation) put failure in 2:1 favor. Another  modification that I tested a few times was to make the objective to build a tower that touches the ceiling of the room. I was looking for a change in teamwork dynamics and spatial design. More on that in another entry at another time.

Exercise: Adaptation of the 30 Circles Test

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

If you’ve seen the video “Tales of Creativity and Play” of a talk by Tim Brown at the 2008 Art Center Design Conference (aka Sound Play) – that is available as a TED Talk at, then you may remember the 30 Circles Test that the audience took part in. Following the 30 Circles Test, Brown remarks “And one of the things we tend to do as adults, again, is we edit things. We stop ourselves from doing things. We self-edit as we’re having ideas.” This is certainly something we can apply to youth creativity and in this post, I describe an early attempt to adapt this exercise for youth. But first, credit for the original test goes to Robert McKim, Professor Emeritus of Stanford’s Department of Mechanical Engineering who is credited with being “a pioneer in experiential psychology in design.”

The following is a set of screen captures from the Tim Brown Ted Talk video showing from left to right: the starting sheet of paper with circles pre-printed, an example of a completed sheet, and an audience member working on their sheet.

For the YCISL, I have created a sheet that has just 16 shapes (in a 4×4 matrix layout) instead of 30. On one side of the sheet is rubric with the matrix of circles. On the flip side is the same rubric with a matrix of squares. I also left relatively more space between the shapes to allow for extensions to the shape as opposed to only drawing within the shape. Making the shapes in MS Word, each shape is in a medium gray line with no fill and a drop shadow of the same color as the line – this to give a depth feel and encourage 3-D imagination.

Each side is titled at the top “Creative Imagineering” with the subtitle “4×4 Symbol Generation Worksheet.” I borrow the term “imagineering” to show that this activity exercises the imagination and requires some engineering to make it appear on the sheet of paper. The creative part is the participant choosing how to fill in the sheet – in sets or with randomness or with some other variation. I also include “Symbol” to indicate that a detailed and accurate representation is not necessary and rawness to the images is acceptable. Here is the rubric for the circle side of the sheet: “Using the circles, draw as many symbolic pictures as you can imagine in 90 seconds. Choose to focus or branch or go randomly. Concentrate on the flow of ideas – avoid getting stuck for too long. Go for VOLUME!”

Why the reduced number of shapes? It was partly because it was closer to any expectation of the number of shapes that a youth would be able to complete in the given time – thus greater potential satisfaction for the user in doing this exercise. This positions the exercise as a positive achievement and a result of flourishing imagination. The numerical total also somewhat coincides with the youth age range; we could say that a 16 year old or older, with their greater exposure to life, may be able to come up with 16 filled shapes. Then an approximate target of one shape per year of age could be posited to the group as a reference index. Lastly, the symmetrical layout allows for multiple directions in approaching and filling in the matrix with minimal bias – eg, inside out, outside in, diagonally, etc. You get it if you play Bingo.

This sheet may change as I observe the outcomes of exercises with this sheet.

Lastly, I let the students in my class today make paper airplanes with the used sheet of paper which plays into the exercise where students symbolically let their ideas “take flight.” More on that another time.


WSJ: “Higher Learning, Meet Lower Job Prospects”

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Today’s WSJ Opinion section (dated February 5, 2013) has an article titled “Higher Learning, Meet Lower Job Prospects” by Jane S. Shaw. Early on in the article,  the idea is posed that “The problem, he suggested, might be that many academic disciplines have no real practical applications” and “…state funding incentives should encourage areas of study that align with the job market.” I can see how someone could think this…but they are way off the bullseye. One does not have to think hard to understand that yes, tertiary education involving practical training is needed BUT it should be in a separate stream from the high intellectual achievement institutions. Polytechnics are examples of institutions that serve the practical application market and it fits well with students whose strengths are in practical work. This concept has been around for decades but because of competitive fervor to get into a top ranked university or college, many students are finding themselves stuck in the wrong place partly because of a lack of options to suit their talent. But leave your top universities alone (and let them figure out how they want to address the market demand from both students and the workplace) and promote intellectual curiosity.

This article could be used to help reinforce the following YCISL premises:
1. find joy in learning – adults want to force youth to get as uptight and extrinsically motivated about money as they are – even before they start earning any.
2. embrace opportunity – universities are being held as scapegoats as secondary education continues to deteriorate.
3. focus on the now – universities’ performances are improperly measured in part by their graduate’s employment as well as starting salaries.

Undergraduate education (at least in the US) encourages exploration of new fields of knowledge and finding depth in the wells of knowledge (“Integration” in the YCISL framework). One just has to compare what students get out of high school (“Proof” in the YCISL framework) then are asked to do in college to realize that this is the main benefit of the latter. Graduate school is where critical thinking kicks in where ideas are extended, defended and tested; this is where expertise kicks in (“Propulsion” in the YCISL framework). Don’t complicate the “Integration” phase by introducing the distraction of the job market and careers – which is highly unpredictable. Integration is difficult enough to handle in a new learning environment (where suddenly most students find they are average).