Stoneman Douglas Students Were Trained For This Moment


How the student activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High demonstrate the power of a comprehensive education.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma González gives a speech at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Feb. 17.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma González gives a speech at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Feb. 17.
Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images.

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School returned to class Wednesday morning two weeks and moral centuries after a tragic mass shooting ended the lives of 17 classmates and teachers. Sen. Marco Rubio marked their return by scolding them for being “infected” with “arrogance” and “boasting.” The Florida legislature marked their return by enacting a $67 million program to arm school staff, including teachers, over the objections of students and parents. Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill opted to welcome them back by ignoring their wishes on gun control, which might lead a cynic to believe that nothing has changed in America after yet another horrifying cycle of child murder and legislative apathy.

But that is incorrect. Consumers and businesses are stepping in where the government has cowered. Boycotts may not influence lawmakers, but they certainly seem to be changing the game in the business world. And the students of Parkland, Florida, unbothered by the games played by legislators and lobbyists, are still planning a massive march on Washington. These teens have—by most objective measures—used social media to change the conversation around guns and gun control in America.

Now it’s time for them to change the conversation around education in America, and not just as it relates to guns in the classroom. The effectiveness of these poised, articulate, well-informed, and seemingly preternaturally mature student leaders of Stoneman Douglas has been vaguely attributed to very specific personalities and talents. Indeed, their words and actions have been so staggeringly powerful, they ended up fueling laughable claims about crisis actors, coaching, and fat checks from George Soros. But there is a more fundamental lesson to be learned in the events of this tragedy: These kids aren’t freaks of nature. Their eloquence and poise also represent the absolute vindication of the extracurricular education they receive at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

The students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America.

Despite the gradual erosion of the arts and physical education in America’s public schools, the students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America and that is being dismantled with great deliberation as funding for things like the arts, civics, and enrichment are zeroed out. In no small part because the school is more affluent than its counterparts across the country (fewer than 23 percent of its students received free or reduced-price lunches in 2015–16, compared to about 64 percent across Broward County Public Schools) these kids have managed to score the kind of extracurricular education we’ve been eviscerating for decades in the United States. These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.

Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.” Every middle and high school in the district has a forensics and public-speaking program. Coincidentally, some of the students at Stoneman Douglas had been preparing for debates on the issue of gun control this year, which explains in part why they could speak to the issues from day one.

The student leaders of the #NeverAgain revolt were also, in large part, theater kids who had benefited from the school’s exceptional drama program. Coincidentally, some of these students had been preparing to perform Spring Awakening, a rock musical from 2006. As the New Yorker describes it in an essay about the rise of the drama kids, that musical tackles the question of “what happens when neglectful adults fail to make the world safe or comprehensible for teen-agers, and the onus that neglect puts on kids to beat their own path forward.” Weird.

The student leaders at Stoneman Douglas High School have also included, again, not by happenstance, young journalists, who’d worked at the school paper, the Eagle Eye, with the supervision of talented staff. One of the extraordinary components of the story was the revelation that David Hogg, student news director for the school’s broadcast journalism program, WMSD-TV, was interviewing his own classmates as they hid in a closet during the shooting, and that these young people had the wherewithal to record and write about the events as they unfolded. As Christy Ma, the paper’s staff editor, later explained, “We tried to have as many pictures as possible to display the raw emotion that was in the classroom. We were working really hard so that we could show the world what was going on and why we need change.”

Mary Beth Tinker actually visited the school in 2013 to talk to the students about her role in Tinker v. Des Moines, the seminal Supreme Court case around student speech and protest. As she described it to me, the school’s commitment to student speech and journalism had been long in evidence, even before these particular students were activated by this month’s horrific events. Any school committed to bringing in a student activist from the Vietnam era to talk about protest and freedom is a school more likely than not to be educating activists and passionate students.

To be sure, the story of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students is a story about the benefits of being a relatively wealthy school district at a moment in which public education is being vivisected without remorse or mercy. But unless you’re drinking the strongest form of Kool-Aid, there is simply no way to construct a conspiracy theory around the fact that students who were being painstakingly taught about drama, media, free speech, political activism, and forensics became the epicenter of the school-violence crisis and handled it creditably. The more likely explanation is that extracurricular education—one that focuses on skills beyond standardized testing and rankings—creates passionate citizens who are spring-loaded for citizenship.

Perhaps instead of putting more money into putting more guns into our classrooms, we should think about putting more money into the programs that foster political engagement and skills. In Sen. Rubio’s parlance, Marjory Stoneman Douglas was fostering arrogance. To the rest of the world, it was building adults.


Using Digital Tools in the Music Classroom


Apps and tools are changing the way students learn to play an instrument, but there’s no getting around the need for lots of practice.

©Caia Images/500px

At the beginning of a recent band class, students took out their phones to use them as tuners, and then put them away. A director started to rehearse a new piece of music, and I saw a trombone player in the back of the ensemble with his phone still in use on his music stand.

I walked over, thinking through the exact variation of the phrase “What on God’s green earth are you doing?” that I’d use, but just before I opened my mouth I looked at his screen. He had searched online and found the conductor’s score for the piece of music we were reading—this score shows all the musicians’ parts, not just one instrument—and he was following along and taking notes on what occurred in his rests. He was able to see that the clarinets played two measures before he did, so he didn’t miss his entrance.

This was a great moment both for the student, who had enhanced his own learning through the self-directed technology integration, and for me, as I got to see another use for technology in the music classroom.


In some ways, what we do in music classes is cutting edge: Differentiation, interactive learning, student-generated content, and performance-based and project-based learning were all standard parts of the music experience for students long before they were identified by researchers as best practices. The push in education for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) programs and makerspaces speaks to the increasing realization of the positive impact these practices have on student learning.

These practices can be augmented with the treasure trove of cool technologies available today; my students can connect with artists all over the country for a masterclass using Skype, write music for class on free notation programs like MuseScore and Noteflight, create their own playlists of listening examples for a piece of music on Spotify and YouTube, and work collaboratively on music projects through Google Suite’s Flat extension. Flat has a ton of potential: It can link to Google Classroom and allows kids to turn in assignments and work with you and their peers on creating or editing music. The downside is that it’s a paid subscription program.

Courtesy of MuseScore

MuseScore is one of many apps that are changing music instruction.

Yet in other ways, music classrooms are dinosaurs. Learning to play an instrument has periods of physical and mental tedium, and success has no shortcuts—students must invest their time. Finding ways to help students take the arduous but necessary steps to succeed—i.e., getting lots of practice—is tough. I can encourage them to practice their long tones and scales, but at what point do they take ownership of those fundamental skill-building exercises and really make them their own?

Some of my kids are finding ways to do just that: They practice together through FaceTime, play along with computer music programs like SmartMusic, and create backing tracks on Garage Band. Some have even started scheduling practice time through Google Calendar and have sent me recordings through the Google Classroom we’ve set up.


Where I struggle with including technology is in getting students to realize that the three minutes spent setting up their instrument, two minutes signing on to the computer, five minutes listening to themselves on these applications, and the inevitable 10 minutes they divert into Facebook do not count as practice time.

I’m finding that the combination of cutting-edge pedagogical practices and the time-honored tedium of physical skill learning is increasingly difficult to navigate. The importance of what we teach resides in the process: Students who understand how to reverse-engineer a problem to create a working solution will find success in other avenues of life. I’m still figuring out how to use these educational technology tools to connect my kids with the act of learning, which is ostensibly the goal of an education.

I have no idea what the world will look like in five years, let alone 50. I don’t know what technology will be in vogue then and what songs will be hip. But I do know that helping my students engage meaningfully with the world around them is lasting. Teaching this engagement in today’s classroom has to include digital media because it is the conduit through which students are prepared to receive information, and their ownership of content is what will make life lessons stick.

Tech Meets Art in Middle School

The Atlantic
A South Carolina public school gives tech-savvy students a sense of humanity.

I began visiting Greenville, South Carolina, schools more than two years ago, for our American Futures project. One was the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering, for the tiniest engineers in pre-k through grade five, which I wrote about here. At the time, I heard about plans for a middle school, set to locate adjacent to Clemson University’s International Center for Automative Research (CU-ICAR) campus and research facility.

Fisher students in their Blue community common area (Deb Fallows)
When we returned to Greenville last week, I paid a visit to the new school, the Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School, named for a former superintendent of Greenville County Schools. Fisher opened in fall 2014 with a class of over 300 sixth-graders. Today, Fisher enrolls sixth- and seventh-graders. Next year, Fisher will have the full complement of students in grades six through eight. Some of the tiny engineers from A.J. Whittenberg—growing up now—attend Fisher. Others go elsewhere. Greenville County schools operate on a “choice” system; essentially, students are assigned to the school in their home district, but they can apply and join the lottery to attend a different one. About 15 percent of Greenville students attend “choice” schools.

Ceiling at Fisher School (Fisher Middle School)
Several folks in Greenville told me, with a kind of we-love-all-our-children-equally tone, that they could recommend any number of schools for me to visit in the county: magnet schools, STEM schools, charter schools, IB schools, New Tech schools, etc. Of course, I couldn’t begin to visit them all. Fisher, the school I chose, is an appealing school to visit; it is unconventional and surprising, especially for those of us used to more traditional schools. “Is that a school?” is a question that Principal Jane Garraux says she hears that people often ask as they drive by.

Here are some things I learned about this novel school:
Creating a culture. Jane Garraux had been planning to retire after her 30-plus year career in Florida’s Miami-Dade district, where she had already founded two schools. Then she began hearing about Fisher Middle School opening in her hometown of Greenville. She was enticed into being a founding principal for a third time and set to work building another school.

Fisher was set to open with a STEAM curriculum, adding A for arts to the more familiar STEM curriculum. STEM vs. STEAM is a hot topic in the education world. Proponents of STEAM argue that infusing more liberal arts into a highly technical curriculum will build more well-rounded, richer lives for its budding citizenry.

Students working on a maze project (Deb Fallows)
Fisher’s STEAM curriculum is taught through a method called project-based learning (PBL). It is a holistic approach that encourages collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and so forth.

Greenville’s business community, collaborating with the education community, spoke up in favor of developing the soft skills that come with this approach. Nurturing a future workforce that was not only steeped in the world of technology, but was also comfortable and practiced in communicating, teamwork, organizing, public speaking, etc., would be critical to the kind of workforce they would be looking for.

For starters, Garraux needed an entirely new faculty and staff. She drew from all around the country as well as Greenville looking for enthusiasm, dedication, flexibility, and for buy-in to hone their skills with PBL. While PBL has been around education circles for a long time, many of the teachers would be new to the method.

So how about a look at a seventh-grade social-studies project through the STEAM PBL lens:

Kelsey-Zibert shows a student project(Deb Fallows)
Anne Kelsey-Zibert, a veteran teacher of 12 years and newly trained PBL teacher, took me step by step through an example of project-based learning in her class. The students were studying WWI, and in Kelsey-Zibert’s mind for the students it was connecting what it was like to live during the times to actual events they were studying. The students would construct a tool or artifact of the era, using today’s materials, and then present the object to the class. This exercise would fold in research, design, construction, writing a presentation of their creation in relation to the historical event, public speaking to the class. In addition, in a kind of shark-tank twist, each student received $1,000 (fake of course) to invest their favorite, most-promising project.
Another strong piece of Fisher’s culture is the open door to the community. People in the business community are more than in conversation with the education community—they are participants.

At A.J. Whittenberg, I watched employees from General Electric teaching classes about electricity. At Fisher, employees from Michelin were there the day I visited, demonstrating catapults to the middle-schoolers. ZIKE, a Greenville company that makes a human-powered hybrid scooter-bike, donated 20 bikes to the school. Wynit Print Distribution and Leapfrog Printing donated a 3D printer. Clemson offers tours and mentorship programs to Fisher, and some Clemson faculty hold regular office hours for Fisher faculty on the campus. These and many more partners are investing in these middle-school kids and piquing their interest even now.

Designing a building. Matt Critell, Fisher’s program director and a former teacher, toured me further around the school, describing as did Garraux, the excitement of building a school from scratch. The magic of the award-winning campus is that the Fisher campus was designed to serve the 21st-century curriculum of the school, rather than vice versa.

Student common area with open-door classroom behind them (Deb Fallows)
What does that mean? One key is flexibility. A walk around Fisher could look different even during the course of the day. Classrooms have big glass-paneled garage doors, which can lower for a cozier space or rise to create an open space with adjoining common areas. There are indoor-outdoor classroom spaces and an innovation lab so big that you can drive a car straight into it.

Once, when rain would have canceled an outdoor bike demonstration, the show moved indoors, using some big existing spaces and creating others by opening the garage-size classroom doors.

No lockers, but backpacks (Deb Fallows)
The school is bright and airy. The innards of the building are exposed: brightly painted exposed pipes, color-coded for their functionality and a see-into server closets. Students work in red, blue, or green learning communities. There are studios, design labs, arts-and-media centers, collaboration and seminar rooms. There are no student lockers; students have little to store because they are all given laptops, which hold their books, papers, homework, you name it. They carry backpacks, plenty of which I saw strewn around.

The day I visited, huge winds were blasting through in the wake of fierce rainstorm. Outside, clusters of sixth-graders were picking up and patching together shelters they had designed and built from foraged found-goods—cardboard, plastic bags, wooden pallets, old newspapers. (The cardboard is hard to come by these days, explains Critell, since it commands $400 a bale in the recycling industry.)

Shelters after the storm (Deb Fallows)
The overnight storm had wreaked some havoc, injecting, no doubt, a big dose of reality as the students must have considered how lucky they were not to have camped out in their shelters. These issues were on the students’ mind, as they were concurrently reading a popular novel called Maniac Magee, about an orphan looking for a home, and woven with themes of homelessness and racism. They also learned that the location of some of their shelters, a protected-looking corner near the outdoor amphitheater, actually turned out to be a wind tunnel.

This kind of teaching and learning takes time. Can you imagine squeezing it into a 45-minute period? Everyone at Fisher talked about their block schedule, with the 90-minute classes, meeting twice each week.
A byproduct of this schedule is capturing an extra period which can be devoted to the arts, opening up a lot of options for student to pursue as electives. Fisher offers, for example, broadcast journalism, video game design, forensics, robotics, all sorts of music, art, and drama, and more.

I saw a similar block schedule working at the Cristo Rey school in Columbus, Ohio, where the captured time was spent on sending students out into the community for internships at businesses and organizations around Columbus.

Think back, if you dare, to your middle-school years. Frankly, I remember junior high, as it was called, as the worst years of my life; social life was mean and academics were boring. I know that my husband, Jim, spent his in a few different schools, because it wasn’t his best time either. One of our sons spent part of his middle school in a Japanese public school, wearing the Prussian-style black uniform that Japanese kids still wear today. Even the name, middle school, is non-descript and probably best forgotten, suggesting time squeezed in between childhood and high school, which both have a more positive ring to them. Learning about Fisher Middle School was therefore, for me, quite astonishing. Instead of letting those years slip quietly by, Fisher is seizing the years and helping students make much of them. Hats off to them.

The Benefits of Using Doodling and Sketchnotes in the Classroom


By Deidra Gammill

I have always been a doodler, drawing figures and squiggles in the margins as I talk on the phone or sit through a professional-development lecture. It might look like I’m not paying attention, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Doodling while I listen helps me focus; in fact, I find it difficult to focus on audible information if my hands aren’t engaged with pen and paper. But I’d never given serious thought to the educational benefits of doodling until I saw Sunni Brown’s TED Talk Doodlers, Unite! Brown makes a strong case for the benefits and legitimacy of doodling, citing evidence-based as well as anecdotal research. Intrigued, I quickly immersed myself in the topic.

With the help of social media, I discovered Mike Rhode’s Sketchnote Army, myriad online articles at MindShift and Edutopia, and more recently, Wendi Pillars’ new book Visual Note-Taking for Educators. I spent last summer practicing my own doodling and sketchnoting skills, drawing inspiration from the visual note-takers I’d seen at national conferences that seemed to effortlessly capture big ideas on giant canvases while the speaker presented. Their work, similar to the animation in an RSAnimate video of Sir Ken Robinson’s Changing Education Paradigms TED Talk, convinced me that doodling and sketchnoting were powerful learning tools that belonged in my classroom.

It turns out that various forms of doodling have all kinds of benefits for our brains. Doodling is actually a form of mnemonics, connecting images with information and significantly increasing our ability to remember what we’ve learned. In a 2009 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, 40 participants were asked to listen to an extremely boring recorded telephone conversation. Half of them were instructed to doodle as they listened, and half were given no such instructions. At the conclusion of the study, people who doodled remembered 29 percent more information than their counterparts who did not doodle.

In 2014, psychologists Pam A. Mueller of Princeton, and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of University of California, Los Angeles, published their research on the benefits of hand writing notes (as opposed to typing them). Their findings indicate that students learn more and retain it longer if they write their notes by hand. Capturing important ideas by hand, whether writing words or creating images, stimulates neural pathways between motor, visual, and cognitive skills. In other words, writing and drawing can make us smarter.

Drawing Lessons

This is my first year including doodling and sketchnoting in my classroom, and it hasn’t always been easy. For one, I never realized how firmly wrong ideas about the purpose of doodling are entrenched, nor did I anticipate getting flak from colleagues who felt I was encouraging students to daydream. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned thus far:

Start slowly. As tempting as it might be, don’t jump into doodling and sketchnoting without first laying a solid foundation. Get comfortable with your own sketching so you can share your work with your students. I make a habit of including images in my note taking at conferences and meetings, which helps me grow and provides an example for my students to follow. I deliberately incorporate opportunities for my students to try doodling and sketchnoting as part of my lesson. It’s easy to make the mistake of introducing something new and then forgetting to give students time to play with it and get comfortable.

Make it fun and stress-free. Anticipating possible student trepidation, I bought inexpensive 4×5” colorful notebooks and boxes of good black ink pens for my classroom. On the first day, I gave each student a notebook and pen, explaining these were theirs and could be used inside—and outside—my classroom. To introduce our new learning strategy, I invited our school’s retired art teacher (an accomplished doodler) to share simple techniques we could use to improve the images we were creating. Engaging “how to” videos on Kathy Shrock’s Guide to Everything site and the Braindoodles site provided even more inspiration (and were easy to link from my class website so students could access the lessons from home).

Expect pushback from students. Often students want to stick with the “tried and true” when they’re presented with a learning strategy that seems risky (i.e., something that has the potential to embarrass them if they “get it wrong”). I believed if I gave my students the opportunity and freedom to be creative, they would embrace it. And some students did just that. But many responded as though I’d ask them to recite Shakespeare in front of strangers. Naked. “I don’t know what to draw,” or “I’m not artistic” were the most typical responses. Other common responses included concern that notes would be incomplete, or they would get in trouble with teachers.

Provide opportunities for students to use their doodles in real time. In my teacher academy (a course for students considering a career in education), students use their doodle skills to play a modified version of Pictionary with academic vocabulary. They enjoy the competitive nature of the game, but more importantly, they know it’s essential to have a strong grasp of the vocabulary concepts in order to play well. If you don’t believe me, try playing Pictionary with terms like formative assessment or operant conditioning without using a single word, only images.

It’s important to note, doodling and sketchnoting are not synonymous. Doodling infers creating repetitive images such as spirals, circles, and boxes, or perhaps stick figures and flowers. It is used primarily to help maintain focus and retain information. Sketchnoting allows the listener to supplement written notes with drawn images to reinforce a key concept or connect big ideas. It can be a great way to synthesize and study written notes, using visuals to recreate and condense pages of notes as you review them.

Sketchnoting and doodles aren’t for everyone. One of my seniors gets reprimanded each time she tries to incorporate sketchnoting in her government course. The images help her remember events and dates for when she’s testing. But her teacher firmly believes she is daydreaming, even though she has asked him to call on her more frequently so she can demonstrate that doodling is the antithesis of daydreaming. Some of my students still prefer traditional note-taking, but I suspect these future educators will not reprimand their own students for doodling.

Understanding the brain science behind doodling will equip my students—the educators of tomorrow—with the ability to differentiate instruction and assessment for their students, whether or not they personally use doodling to learn.

Deidra Gammill, Ph.D @DeidraGammill is a National Board-certified high school teacher in Petal, Miss. She teaches a CTE course for high school students interested in becoming teachers and serves as the lead content editor for the Educators Rising virtual campus. She is also a member of the CTQ Collaboratory and writes the blog Designing Teachers.

Please, no more brainstorm sessions. This is how innovation really works.

Please, no more brainstorm sessions. This is how innovation really works.
Matthew Syed

Writer & Broadcaster

Linked in

Progress is often driven not by the accumulation of small steps, but by dramatic leaps. The television wasn’t an iteration of a previous device, it was a new technology altogether. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity didn’t tinker with Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, it replaced it in almost every detail. Likewise Dyson’s dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner was not a marginal improvement on the conventional Hoover that existed at the time, it represented a shift that altered the way insiders think about the very problem of removing dust and hair from household floors.

James Dyson is an evangelist for the creative process of change, not least because he believes it is fundamentally misconceived in the world today. As we talk in his office, he darts around picking up papers, patents, textbooks, and his own designs to illustrate his argument. He says:

Dyson’s journey into the nature of creativity started while vacuuming his own home, a small farmhouse in the west of England, on a Saturday morning in his mid-twenties. Like everyone else he was struck by just how quickly his cleaner lost suction.

Dyson strode into his garden and opened up the device. Inside he could see the basic engineering proposition of the conventional vacuum cleaner: a motor, a bag (which also doubled as a filter), and a tube. The logic was simple: dust and air is sucked into the bag, the air escapes through the small holes in the lining of the bag and into the motor, and the dust (thicker than the air) stays in the bag.

He says:

This realization triggered a new thought: what if there were no bag?

This idea percolated in Dyson’s mind for the next three years. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, he was already a qualified engineer and was helping to run a local company in Bath. He enjoyed pulling things apart and seeing how they worked. He was curious, inquisitive, and willing to engage with a difficulty rather than just accepting it. But now he had a live problem, one that intrigued him.

It wasn’t until he went to a lumberyard that the solution powered into his mind like a thunderbolt.

 Dyson rushed home. This was his moment of insight. “I vaguely knew about cyclones, but not really the detail. But I was fascinated to see if it would work in miniature form. I got an old cardboard box and made a replica of what I had seen with gaffer tape and cardboard. I then connected it via a bit of hose to an upright vacuum cleaner. And I had my cardboard cyclone.”

His heart was beating fast as he pushed it around the house. Would it work? “It seemed absolutely fine,” he says. “It seemed to be picking up dust, but the dust didn’t seem to be coming out of the chimney. I went to my boss and said: ‘I think I have an interesting idea.’ ”

This simple idea, this moment of insight, would ultimately make Dyson a personal fortune in excess of £3 billion.

A number of things jump out about the Dyson story. The first is that the solution seems rather obvious in hindsight. This is often the case with innovation, and it’s something we will come back to.

But now consider a couple of other aspects of the story. The first is that the creative process started with a problem, what you might even call a failure, in the existing technology. The vacuum cleaner kept blocking. It let out a screaming noise. Dyson had to keep bending down to pick up bits of trash by hand.

Had everything been going smoothly Dyson would have had no motivation to change things. Moreover, he would have had no intellectual challenge to sink his teeth into. It was the very nature of the engineering problem that sparked a possible solution (a bag less vacuum cleaner).

And this turns out to be an almost perfect metaphor for the creative process, whether it involves vacuum cleaners, a quest for a new brand name, or a new scientific theory. Creativity is, in many respects, a response.

Relativity was a response to the failure of Newtonian mechanics to make accurate predictions when objects were moving at fast speeds.

Masking tape was a response to the failure of existing adhesive tape, which would rip the paint off when it was removed from cars and walls.

Dropbox, as we have seen, was a response to the problem of forgetting your flash drive and thus not having access to important files.

This aspect of the creative process, the fact that it emerges in response to a particular difficulty, has spawned its own terminology. It is called the “problem phase” of innovation. “The damn thing had been bugging me for years,” Dyson says of the conventional vacuum cleaner. “I couldn’t bear the inefficiency of the technology. It wasn’t so much a ‘problem phase’ as a ‘hatred phase.’ ”

Creativity is, in many respects, a response.

We often leave this aspect of the creative process out of the picture. We focus on the moment of epiphany, the detonation of insight that happened when Newton was hit by the apple or Archimedes was taking a bath. That is perhaps why creativity seems so ethereal. The idea is that such insights could happen anytime, anywhere. It is just a matter of sitting back and letting them flow.

But this leaves out an indispensable feature of creativity. Without a problem, without a failure, without a flaw, without a frustration, innovation has nothing to latch on to. It loses its pivot. As Dyson puts it: “Creativity should be thought of as a dialogue. You have to have a problem before you can have the game-changing riposte.”

Perhaps the most graphic way to glimpse the responsive nature of creativity is to consider an experiment by Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues. She took 265 female undergraduates and randomly divided them into five-person teams. Each team was given the same task: to come up with ideas about how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area. These five-person teams were then assigned to one of three ways of working.

The first group were given the instruction to brainstorm. This is one of the most influential creativity techniques in history, and it is based on the mystical conception of how creativity happens: through contemplation and the free flow of ideas. In brainstorming the entire approach is to remove obstacles. It is to minimize challenges. People are warned not to criticize each other, or point out the difficulties in each other’s suggestions. Blockages are bad. Negative feedback is a sin.

The second group were given no guidelines at all: they were allowed to come up with ideas in any way they thought best.

But the third group were actively encouraged to point out the flaws in each other’s ideas. Their instructions read: “Most research and advice suggests that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Free-wheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas [my italics].”

The results were remarkable. The groups with the dissent and criticize guidelines generated 25 percent more ideas than those who were brainstorming (or who had no instructions). Just as striking, when individuals were later asked to come up with more solutions for the traffic problem, those with the dissent guidelines generated twice as many new ideas as the brainstormers.

Further studies have shown that those who dissent rather than brainstorm produce not just more ideas, but more productive and imaginative ideas. As Nemeth put it: “The basic finding is that the encouragement of debate— and even criticism if warranted— appears to stimulate more creative ideas. And cultures that permit and even encourage such expression of differing viewpoints may stimulate the most innovation.”

The reason is not difficult to identify. The problem with brainstorming is not its insistence on free-wheeling or quick association. Rather, it is that when these ideas are not checked by the feedback of criticism, they have nothing to respond to. Criticism surfaces problems. It brings difficulties to light. This forces us to think afresh. When our assumptions are violated we are nudged into a new relationship with reality. Removing failure from innovation is like removing oxygen from a fire.

Think back to Dyson and his Hoover. It was the flaw in the existing technology that forced Dyson to think about cleaning in a new way. The blockage in the filter wasn’t something to hide away from or pretend wasn’t there. Rather, the blockage, the failure, was a gilt-edged invitation to reimagine vacuum-cleaning.

Imagination is not fragile. It feeds off flaws, difficulties, and problems. Insulating ourselves from failuresis to rob one of our most valuable mental faculties of fuel.

“It always starts with a problem,” Dyson says. “I hated vacuum cleaners for twenty years, but I hated hand dryers for even longer. If they had worked perfectly, I would have had no motivation to come up with a new solution. But more important, I would not have had the context to offer a creative solution. Failures feed the imagination. You cannot have the one without the other.”

This post has been adapted from BLACK BOX THINKING: Why Most People Never Learn From Their Mistakes—But Some Do by Matthew Syed (Portfolio/Penguin Random House), on-sale now. 

RISD’s Nature Lab plays host to a world of creative inspiration


by Anna Carnick and Josephine Sittenfeld

Published 8/27/13

In a creative mind, something as seemingly small as a speckled seashell or brightly colored butterfly can inspire a fashion season’s worth of fabric patterns. A sea sponge’s form can give rise to an über modern lampshade, while a skeleton’s bones can inform a modern jewelry piece. And the structure of a beetle’s wings can spark everything from the shape and motion of a daringly sleek car door to the way a pair of pantyhose is folded and packaged.

That sort of organically inspired thinking is at the heart of the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab, a charming and quite quirky, hands-on natural history collection and studio space at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Part museum, part lending library, and all classroom, the lab features an estimated 100,000 specimens from each of the five scientific kingdoms (most of which visitors are encouraged to poke, prod, and even take home). It has served as a source of biomimetic stimuli for RISD students and faculty across disciplines for decades, as well as a forum for exploring the often subtle connections among man, nature, art, and design.

From the moment one enters the Nature Lab, which exists in two floors of RISD’s Waterman Building (notably, the first structure constructed by the school in 1893), it’s clear you’re in a very special place. From taxidermy creatures like puffer fish and birds floating overhead to a live turtle crawling on the creaky, dark wood floor at your feet—not to mention the thousands of specimens in the Victorian era cabinetry covering the walls—the lab is brimming with life. And those are just the permanent tenants. Over the course of one recent visit, the Nature Lab hosted students sketching samples, masters level microscopic research, a tutorial on scientific poster presentations, plus work scholars pinning recent findings for the bug collection and undertaking a spider sample repair; in short, the lab space is in high demand.

There’s a curious sense of being simultaneously frozen in time and at the forefront of highly innovative, cross-disciplinary, and collaborative work.

The Nature Lab is a rare and seamless combination of the historical and the modern. The lab boasts everything from hundred-year-old plants, minerals, and stuffed and stripped mammals to a gang of more modern human skeletons (led by two standouts called Kurt and Courtney—a clear indication of the era from which they come), as well as a suite of technologically advanced offerings, including photo and video microscopy workstations, digital cameras, computers, and more.  On my first visit, I found myself particularly taken with Tiny Town, an old-school library card catalogue whose drawers house thousands of tiny, natural specimens (Need to see what a bat’s hands look like up close? Tiny Town has you covered); on my second visit, the entire lab was abuzz with excitement over its newest acquisition, a decidedly cutting-edge scanning electron microscope. There’s a curious sense of being simultaneously frozen in time and at the forefront of highly innovative, cross-disciplinary, and collaborative work.

According to Lab Coordinator Betsy Ruppa, who oversees operations and approximately 25 work scholars in the student-run venue each semester (and whose hospitality and knowledge are exceeded only by her charm; she conducted my first tour with a live praying mantis in her hand the entire time), a big part of the lab’s magic comes from its hands-on culture, and the resulting sense of openness that permeates the space. “We know we can’t keep a pristine collection; we don’t even try. There are too many hands touching the samples, and they go in too many backpacks. That’s also what’s cool about it, though. It’s such an amazing resource, and there is so much freedom—more freedom than you’d have in a typical museum or library, for example.” In keeping with the spirit of that unusual freedom, if, as happens from time to time, students misplace something they’ve been lent, they’re asked to replace the item with either something in kind or a totally new specimen of their choosing.

Unmediated access has been integral to the collection’s identity from the start. When its namesake, RISD alumna (class of 1920) and teacher Edna Lawrence, launched the collection in 1937, her intention was to provide a uniquely interactive environment that would inspire her students. By multiple accounts, Lawrence was a much-loved character—strict but warm, (occasionally) funny, and very talented—who had the remarkable foresight to understand what the lab might become—a place to support and expand both the way that students learn and problem solve as well as the potential connections between art, design, and science over time.

Lawrence taught nature drawing between 1920 and 1974 in what was formerly her classroom, and is the Nature Lab’s current main room. During her 50-plus years as a teacher at RISD, she built up the collection through her own gathering expeditions. Every summer, according to the Nature Lab’s Director Neal Overstrom, “she’d travel around the world, sometimes to Europe aboard a steamship or a freighter, other times going to the Caribbean and South America. She even drove across country in the 1920s, camping along the way.” Slowly, thanks to Lawrence’s efforts, along with faculty and student donations, her teaching collection grew into what Overstrom aptly describes as an “intuitive and natural portal to science.”

Lawrence retired in the 1970s, and in 1981, the lab was renamed in her honor. Since that time, a series of curators has maintained her legacy and carried on her vision. On any given day, it might host undergraduate, graduate, and faculty guests from the Industrial Design, Architecture, and Apparel Design departments (among others), or even, of special note, RISD students and faculty involved in Rhode Island’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR)—an innovative, multi-school, state-wide effort funded by the National Science Foundation and aimed at making Rhode Island an “international leader in understanding and predicting the response of marine organisms and ecosystems to climate changes and variability.” This program—which over the past two summers has included fellowship opportunities for RISD and Brown students to undertake research in science communication around these topics—has led to the expansion of the Nature Lab’s aquatic resources, including two large saltwater tanks and special aquariums called kreisels built by RISD students to house ctenophores (tiny jellyfish-like creatures also known as comb jellies).

The breadth of the lab’s constantly growing collection falls neatly under the umbrella of a larger school initiative known as STEM to STEAM, which aims to add art and design to the national agenda of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education and research. Championed by RISD President John Maeda, the initiative promotes the idea that scientific and artistic inquiry can be drawn together to foster new, innovative ways of approaching research and problem solving.

That creative, interdisciplinary thinking goes hand-in-hand with the Nature Lab’s position as an experimental and exploratory forum. As Overstrom notes, “Edna Lawrence’s vision really was remarkable. The way in which it’s informing many of these programs, like EPSCoR, which seem to find sort of a quasi-home here, speaks to the fact that this way of explaining a natural science collection has many applications in many emerging conversations about design, about nature inspired design, and even the field of biophilic design; this idea that you have an innate affinity for life and lifelike processes, of understanding the human-nature connection in built environments. The Nature Lab continues to be both a relevant and dynamic resource for all these emerging design disciplines.”

“We spend a lot of time thinking about Edna, actually,” adds Ruppa. “She was passionate about helping people to draw realistically and to explore and find inspiration in nature—to see connections and patterns throughout species and across kingdoms. She provided the foundation.”

In fact, according to Overstrom and Ruppa, some of Lawrence’s remaining documents even reveal her thoughts on the lab’s future and notions of advanced technologies and even micro-imaging. Says Overstrom, “Her mission was to provide immediate access to specimens, and microscopes allow you access where you might not otherwise. It’s just an extension of that. She was quite a forward thinker.”

The ever-evolving collection is a unique bridge between the past and the present, with a definitive eye toward the future. And considering the palpable energy and creativity that the students and staff derive from the space, it seems safe to say that Edna Lawrence would be proud. As Ruppa notes, “I could look at the same exact tiny skull as twenty other people, and we’d each be inspired differently. That’s what’s so great; you never know where someone’s going to get their idea.”

RISD’s Nature Lab seems like a logical place to start.

School Finds Music Is the Food of Learning

The principal, unsmiling in his jacket and tie, launched himself into the air, jumping up and down at the back of the gymnasium, waving frantically at more than 100 first graders as they rehearsed for their holiday concert.

Franklin Headley, the principal, was bouncing around to prepare the children for a room full of grinning, waving adults who would come to watch them perform the next day, and he asked the students not to wave back. A few giggles bubbled up from gaptoothed faces, but the students, partway through a cheery rendition of “I Got Rhythm,” kept on singing.

Calendars are awash this time of year in holiday-themed pageants, but the mainly straight-faced students crooning in that gym are much better prepared for the season than most. They are pupils at Voice Charter Schoolin Queens, where students learn to read music, execute complicated harmonies and play a little piano in the music classes they attend at least once a day, and where, far more than in other general education schools, they learn to sing, sing, sing.

Replay Video

Finding Their Voice

At the Voice Charter School in Queens, students sing every day. It’s part of a curriculum that combines arts education and choral singing.

Video by Natalia V. Osipova and Ashley Maas on Publish DateDecember 19, 2014.Photo by Bryan Thomas for The New York Times.

The gym was standing room only for the performance the next night.

“Please don’t wave at your children,” Mr. Headley said to a room packed with whispered Spanish, head scarves and the occasional bindi. “We want them to be trained, competent musicians.”

Nonetheless, one first-grade boy, stage left during the performance of “I Got Rhythm,” waved furtively. And it would not be an event full of small children if someone did not throw up. Someone did.

Ultimately, these little disturbances were just fine, because Voice is not trying to train aspiring professionals.

“They learn how to be really good at something,” Mr. Headley said. “We believe that then translates into everything else.”

In an era of dwindling attention to the arts in public schools, Voice is now in its seventh year. Mr. Headley founded the school after learning that music and movement might improve language acquisition, he said, a concept he came across while he was studying at a principal training program calledNew Leaders. Voice started with kindergarten and has added one new grade each year; it expects to reach its full complement of kindergarten through eighth grade in the fall.

Today, the school has just shy of 600 students spread between two buildings in Long Island City; one of them used to be a Catholic school. Bells from St. Rita’s Roman Catholic Church, right next door, chime throughout the day. Seventy percent of the students qualified for free lunch last year, according to city data. Like other New York charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, it admits students through a lottery. No one auditions.

Academically, students at Voice did significantly better than the city average on New York State math exams last year, with 70 percent of its students passing, compared with 39 percent citywide. Their English performance was less impressive, but with 39 percent passing, it still beat the citywide average of 30 percent.

The children, each in a uniform of a sky-blue shirt and navy skirt or slacks, are instructed to be quiet in the hallways and asked not to shriek during gym class, to protect order as well as their voices. But what really distinguishes the school are the sounds. Songs in English, Spanish, Japanese and German drift through the buildings, pens rhythmically tap against any convenient hard surface, and little bursts of music surface even where they are not meant to be.

“There’s a lot of humming, especially right after choir class,” Kate Athens, a fourth-grade teacher, said. “They’re not doing it to be disruptive; it’s just stuck in their heads.”

Humming aside, Ms. Athens, a fourth-year teacher who has never taught elsewhere, said the students appeared to learn skills in their music lessons that translated to her classroom.

“They learn to stick with something hard and breaking things down into steps,” she said. “And work together as a group at such a young age.”

All this pops especially brightly against the drab state of the arts in New York City public schools at large, where a report by the comptroller this spring found that spending on arts supplies and equipment fell by 84 percent from 2006 to 2013. The report also found that 20 percent of public schools had no arts teachers at all, and that the dearth in arts education was especially dire in low-income areas. The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has since increased arts funding and pledged to hire 120 new arts teachers in middle and high schools, where state law requires arts instruction.

Younger students at Voice usually have music twice a day, and older students once, on average. But so much time spent on music is not without its price. To make room for those courses, the school day is unusually long, from 7:55 a.m. to 4:25 p.m., which can be hard for small children (as a nonunion school, it has more power to set its own hours).

“The hardest part about school, I think, is that there are so many hours in the day, because after a while, everyone seems to get a little more tired, on edge,” said Delaiah Robinson, 11. “I live kind of far away from the school, so I get home pretty late.”

Karina Sinche, whose son Xavier, 6, is in first grade, said her son had no particular interest in music before applying to Voice, but after visiting the neighborhood public school — where the detail that most stuck in her mind was of a security guard napping — she decided to apply to Voice and several other charter schools.

“Now, when he’s walking around the grocery store, he starts singing,” Ms. Sinche said.

Like Xavier, most of the students at Voice do not come to the school specifically for its most defining feature, and some of them, Mr. Headley said, seem to stumble on the school entirely by accident.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh, I thought this was free music lessons.’

“They weren’t looking for us, but they found us,” he added. “Every year.”