While a young tenured professor at Cornell, Richard Feynman found himself suffering through a prolonged intellectual drought, during which he felt unmotivated and unable to initiate any productive research. As an academic wonder-kid who had played a prominent role in the Manhattan Project while still in his 20s, Feynman struggled with what to do for an encore; he was, in short, frozen because he was privileging others’ expectations of him, of what qualified as important work, rather than following his own inner muse.
Finally, in desperation, Feynman realized that he needed to recapture a sense of PLAY while doing physics. He made the courageous decision to do what interested him intrinsically, for its own sake, for the sheer fun of it. As he writes in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: “It didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with….So I got this new attitude….I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.”
A few days later, Feynman noticed a student spinning a plate on his finger in the dining room. Within a week, Feynman was working out the mathematics of plate spinning to his heart’s content. It was the first time in years he had enjoyed doing physics, and he found himself surprisingly intrigued with the unanticipated complexities of plate spinning.
To others, the work seemed utterly frivolous, so much so that some colleagues petitioned the college to rescind Feynman’s tenure. Undaunted, Feynman pursued his new passion for plate spinning. Eventually, he saw that this work could be applied to a new mathematical description for the spins of electrons, which, in turn, rendered startlingly fresh perspectives on quantum mechanics. These were ultimately the very insights that earned him the Nobel Prize in physics.
What’s particularly striking – and instructive – about Feynman’s epiphany is twofold: on one hand, he shed the encumbrance of expectations accreted through years of schooling and professional life, giving himself permission to return to a pluripotential state of childlike creativity; on the other hand, he was prepared to yield substantial new insights from that freedom precisely because he brought the requisite skills in math and physics to bear on his scientific serendipity.
Optimally, the best learning is play at the highest possible level.
As with play at the highest tier of athleticism, this requires a delicate balance between spontaneity and preparation, between freedom and acquired skill. (Think LeBron James on the basketball court.)
How do we get our students to play at the highest possible level? How do we design this crucial equipoise into our schools?
As Sir Ken Robinson said in the most watched TED Talk ever, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”: “All kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them pretty ruthlessly….My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” Unfortunately, he points out, the bitter irony is that so many of our schools, as currently constituted, are actually actively “educating people out of their creative capacities.”
Tony Wagner, Expert in Residence at Harvard’s Innovation Lab, writes in Creating Innovators that today’s best schools, from kindergartens to MIT’s Media Lab, evince five prominent characteristics: collaboration, multidisciplinary learning, thoughtful risk-taking/trial and error, creating, and intrinsic motivation (play, passion, purpose).
When I was a keynote speaker for an educational conference in China, I was asked by the audience of prominent educators, “How do we get more of our students to graduate thinking like Steve Jobs?”
I responded rather boldly by stating categorically that their system was not geared to engender creative genius. Quite the contrary, that an educational system so heavily inclined toward rewarding rote learning could not possibly foster creativity via the mere addition of a course or program at the margins of the curriculum.
Instead, I continued, creativity is most consistently inculcated within an encompassing cultural matrix that fosters, encourages, and rewards its students for taking imaginative risks and being inquisitively audacious.
Alexander Calandra has written of a precocious student in a university colleague’s physics class who had determined to answer questions completely and accurately – just never in the way that the professor expected.
In response to the exam prompt, “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer,” this student avoided giving the answer, which he knew, from the assigned reading (i.e., using the barometer as an altimeter by comparing pressure readings taken at the base and the top of the building). Instead, the student suggested simply lowering the barometer on a rope from the roof of the building, then measuring the length of the rope to ascertain its height. The professor, in a quandary as to whether to credit this (admittedly accurate) answer, gave the student another chance at the question. Again, the student determinedly eschewed giving the expected answer, this time proffering several alternatives, including dropping the barometer off the roof and timing its fall, comparing and extrapolating from the shadows cast respectively by the barometer and the building, measuring the height in “barometer units” by marking with the barometer on the wall while ascending the stairwell, and even offering a free barometer to the building’s janitor in return for being told the height.
Once, while I was speaking to an audience of high school students and teachers in Guangzhou, China, a girl in the distant last row raised her hand immediately after I had cued up the beginning of this story and before I had given any of the student’s answers. “Did the student think to answer the question in any of these ways,” she excitedly began, and then proceeded to rattle off a series of innovative answers, some of which were actually used by the student in the story as well as others I had never heard but that were equally clever.
After the talk, I told the girl that, though I had shared this story in schools around the world, she was the only student who had ever generated her own creative answers before hearing the ending.
“You,” I said through a translator, “have a brilliant mind.” “That’s funny,” she replied, “because I have the lowest grades in my class, and my teachers think I’m a problem.”
I, in turn, shared this story at the educational conference in Dalian. “Until you build a school culture that rewards and empowers students like that girl,” I asserted, “you can never expect to produce alumni who think like Steve Jobs (or like Richard Feynman, for that matter.) That remains a hallmark and strength of American education, which is a key reason why people from around the world clamor to send their children to American schools.”
I confess I said this with no inconsiderable ambivalence, though, because I knew that, even as I spoke, the monolithic march of the standards/testing movement was threatening to suffocate creativity in many of America’s classrooms.
But that is a topic for another blog.
Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI