To Encourage Creativity in Kids, Ask Them: ‘What if’?


Matt Richtel teaches children the “what if” exercise he used to write his book “Runaway Booger.”CreditHarperCollins Publishers; illustration by Lee Wildish

I was in a second-grade classroom recently reading from my new children’s book, “Runaway Booger.” After I finished, and the giggling subsided, several students asked a version of the same question: Why did you write about a humongous ball of mucus?

It was the question I’d hoped for.

I was using the reading session, at the teacher’s request, to get the children to think about creativity. Where does creativity come from? Are there tricks they can use to be more creative, or, for that matter, that parents and educators can instill?

It’s a subject I think about a lot, as a writer of newspaper articles, mysteries and nonfiction books, a syndicated comic strip and music. (It is sad but true: To accompany the booger book, I wrote a rock anthem called “Don’t Pick Your Nose.”) Scholars who study creativity say that stoking it involves helping children strike a balance between two dichotomous tools: the whimsy and freedom of a wandering mind, with the rigidity of a prepared one.

We need to help them be both “sensitive and assertive,” in the words of John Dacey, professor emeritus of education at Boston College. “Sensitivity means being open to new ideas, and very laid back,” he explained. Assertiveness doesn’t just mean being bold enough to express the idea but having enough experience and judgment to feel true authority about its value.

It means understanding a genre’s structure and form. That can take hard work, and years, but to Dr. Dacey, merely having a good idea doesn’t qualify as genuine creativity until it is matched with execution and follow-through.

“People think creativity is inspiration,” Dr. Dacey said, “but it’s mainly perspiration.”

To help the second graders inspire and perspire, I pulled out a red marker, and on a whiteboard I wrote two words: What if.

I explained to them that these two words are a kind of secret tunnel into the world of new ideas. In fact, I told them, I only came up with the booger story after asking myself: What if a family picked their noses so much that they create a monstrous booger? And what if the snot rocket rolled out the window and gained so much steam it threatened to roll over the town? And what if the whole story rhymed?

“Your turn,” I said to the class. “Who wants to give me their own version of ‘what if?’”

Before I relate some “what if” responses I’ve gotten from various classes, I’ll note that Dr. Dacey thinks the “what if” exercise is a great way to encourage a laid-back, nonjudgmental approach to open-ended thinking. Plus, this exercise helps children generate lots of potential ideas, and research shows that truly creative people tend to be idea factories. (Lest I take too much credit — or any — I recall coming across a related idea in a book about fiction writing called no less than What If?”.)

A few days after I visited second grade, I tried the “what if” exercise with a kindergarten class.

“What if you sat on a toilet and it took you to Egypt?” said a curly-haired boy sitting in the middle of the rug. Giggles ensued until I said, “Fantastic! Who can use ‘what if’ to say what happened next in the toilet story?”

“And then you sat on the toilet and it flushed you to outer space?” said another boy.

More hands shot up from eager contributors. I called on a girl sitting near the back of the rug.

“And what if you took a giraffe elevator from outer space, and it brought you back?” she offered.

This, it dawned on me, was a significant moment (even though I’m not sure what a giraffe elevator is). The importance of the suggestion was that it hinted at the other key aspect of creativity, namely, having experience and judgment to turn an idea into a creation.

What the girl was suggesting was that she wanted to create some resolution — to get the toilet-traveler back home. In some sense, she was rounding the idea into a story, a structure. Was she lucky, or brilliant, preternatural? Most likely, according to the scholars I spoke to, she had picked up the logic of life and form by being in the world and interacting with books, movies and other story forms. In fact, some scholars think that merely being engaged with the world is enough to learn structure, and that formal training is overrated. But not all agree with this.

KH Kim, a professor of innovation and creativity at the College of William & Mary and the author of “The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation,” for instance, believes that people can be truly creative only after they’ve had 10 years of real experience studying and playing with a given genre, say music, books or art. Along the way, though, she says students should practice creative flights so they can develop inspiration and perspiration in lock-step.

Ultimately, Dr. Dacey offered a nifty measure for how to know whether we’ve helped our child come up with something truly creative. When we see or hear or read the end product of true creativity, he said, we will experience four emotions: surprise, stimulation, satisfaction and savoring.

To my chagrin, there was not a word in his definition about being grossed out by the prospect of a massive town-threatening mucus balloon. Well, that’s O.K. I’ve got more weird ideas where that came from. Hopefully, your children will, too.


Ignite Student Passions with Genius Hour

May 23, 2016
Tamara Letter

ITRT – Instructional Technology Resource Teacher
Hanover County Public Schools
Ashland, VA

Do you remember the days when learning was fun? Memorable? When the final bell rang and you didn’t want to leave? In the times of standardization, how do we find balance between what we have to teach and what we want to teach? Many of us wonder if we can bring joy back into our classrooms. I think we can when we implement passion projects.

“If you can’t figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose.” -Bishop T.D. Jakes

Passion projects capture the joy of learning while integrating content areas of reading, writing, and oral communication. Students have the opportunity to showcase their creativity and shine from their hard work. Passion projects also have the power to change the climate of your classroom as students learn more about each other and their interests.

Almost 70 years ago, the international company 3M encouraged their employees to devote 15 percent of their work time to innovative projects that captured their interests and passions. More than a decade ago, Google did the same with their “20% Time.” Both companies valued the spirit of innovation and productivity, which resulted in the creation of such products as Post-it Notes and Gmail. This concept of intentional time spent on projects of interest quickly morphed into the Genius Hourmovement in education.

It’s time to ask our students what they can imagine, create, or innovate when they dedicate one hour a week to investigating their passions. While an hour a week seems like an impossible sacrifice for pacing guides and scheduling constraints, creative teachers all across the world are finding ways to bring joy back into their classrooms. It was that mindset that opened the door to a collaborative partnership with Mrs. Bambi Feighner, a first-grade teacher at my school. We decided to jump in, calling our new endeavor Passion Projects.

Finding Joy in the Classroom in Five Steps


Before we introduced anything to the students, Ms. Feighner and I brainstormed our own passions together. We talked about things that made us happy and explored the “what-ifs” of being educators. Then we talked about how these questions made us feel. Surprisingly, the more we talked about our passions, the more excited we became. We weren’t inundated with logistical worries but were empowered by the potential of “what if?”Wonder Wall

The excitement. The passion. The joy of learning — that’s what we wanted our students to feel. In class, we had students complete a similar activity where they brainstormed a list of things that made them happy. Then we encouraged them to stretch their thinking by identifying the areas they wanted to learn more about. We did this activity using sticky notes and pencils on a “Wonder Wall,” though it could also be completed using technology with apps such as Padlet.


For Passion Projects, students needed to narrow their focus to one question they wanted to answer, which would drive their research. We added their questions to Google Sheets, which kept everything organized and easy to access. It also allowed us to collaboratively add resource links and additional information as we guided students through the research process.


We knew we needed a good classroom-management structure to ensure students were staying on task and being productive as they worked through the research and creation phase. We chose a once-a-week center rotation to provide support and guidance, which also allowed time for content integration. One rotation helped the students read and take notes in their journals, while the second rotation guided students on the computer as they created a background image for their projects.

We employed both low-tech and high-tech options for research. Some student questions could be answered by reading a library book or a tourism brochure. Other questions required extensive internet research. For those in-depth questions, we found videos and screencasts that provided more information, such as how to make books or build a specific Lego figure. For struggling readers, we used Readability to remove unwanted ads and distractions from stories and articles, then usedScreencastify to record ourselves reading articles for students.


We continued our weekly center rotations until the digital backgrounds were complete, then we started recording students individually as they shared what they had learned about their passion. While Pixie has a built-in audio-recording feature, we chose to use Camtasia for this final step. Students who were not recording worked on editing their stories or on other tasks.

As students naturally transitioned from research to creation, we noticed something different about our students: We had fewer discipline problems, and students were putting more effort into their reading and writing. They were engaged with their research. They were excited about their digital creations. They were helping their classmates. There were smiles, laughter, and joy!


Sharing is vital to the success of a passion project! Students showcased their projects with an authentic audience of classmates, teachers, parents, and administrators during a “Passion Project” Share Fair. As guests walked from laptop to laptop, listening to the student presentations, they not only validated the time and effort students had put into their work, but they also reaffirmed what we had already discovered: The joy of learning was ever-present!

We wanted to reach beyond the concrete walls of our school to share our projects with a larger community, so we created a Passion Project website and tweeted links on Twitter and Facebook — talk about empowering! When students realized that their projects were being viewed by people all across the world, they took more pride and attention in their work and asked, “Can we do this again?”

How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off

The New York Times
Adam Grant Adam Grant JAN. 30, 2016

THEY learn to read at age 2, play Bach at 4, breeze through calculus at 6, and speak foreign languages fluently by 8. Their classmates shudder with envy; their parents rejoice at winning the lottery. But to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, their careers tend to end not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Consider the nation’s most prestigious award for scientifically gifted high school students, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, called the Super Bowl of science by one American president. From its inception in 1942 until 1994, the search recognized more than 2000 precocious teenagers as finalists. But just 1 percent ended up making the National Academy of Sciences, and just eight have won Nobel Prizes. For every Lisa Randall who revolutionizes theoretical physics, there are many dozens who fall far short of their potential.

Child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world. We assume that they must lack the social and emotional skills to function in society. When you look at the evidence, though, this explanation doesn’t suffice: Less than a quarter of gifted children suffer from social and emotional problems. A vast majority are well adjusted — as winning at a cocktail party as in the spelling bee.

What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original. They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.

The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own. Research suggests that the most creative children are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet, and in response, many learn to keep their original ideas to themselves. In the language of the critic William Deresiewicz, they become the excellent sheep.

In adulthood, many prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet “only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,” laments the psychologist Ellen Winner. “Those who do must make a painful transition” to an adult who “ultimately remakes a domain.”

Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities by shining in their jobs without making waves. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken medical system or lawyers who defend clients on unfair charges but do not try to transform the laws themselves.

So what does it take to raise a creative child? One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.


Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.

Even then, though, parents didn’t shove their values down their children’s throats. When psychologists compared America’s most creative architects with a group of highly skilled but unoriginal peers, there was something unique about the parents of the creative architects: “Emphasis was placed on the development of one’s own ethical code.”

Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.

When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a study of the early roots of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists, he learned that their parents didn’t dream of raising superstar kids. They weren’t drill sergeants or slave drivers. They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children. When their children showed interest and enthusiasm in a skill, the parents supported them.

Top concert pianists didn’t have elite teachers from the time they could walk; their first lessons came from instructors who happened to live nearby and made learning fun. Mozart showed interest in music before taking lessons, not the other way around. Mary Lou Williams learned to play the piano on her own; Itzhak Perlman began teaching himself the violin after being rejected from music school.

Even the best athletes didn’t start out any better than their peers. When Dr. Bloom’s team interviewed tennis players who were ranked in the top 10 in the world, they were not, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, doing push-ups since they were a fetus. Few of them faced intense pressure to perfect the game as Andre Agassi did. A majority of the tennis stars remembered one thing about their first coaches: They made tennis enjoyable.
SINCE Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “10,000-hour rule” suggesting that success depends on the time we spend in deliberate practice, debate has raged about how the hours necessary to become an expert vary by field and person. In arguing about that, we’ve overlooked two questions that matter just as much.

First, can’t practice itself blind us to ways to improve our area of study? Research reveals that the more we practice, the more we become entrenched — trapped in familiar ways of thinking. Expert bridge players struggled more than novices to adapt when the rules were changed; expert accountants were worse than novices at applying a new tax law.

Second, what motivates people to practice a skill for thousands of hours? The most reliable answer is passion — discovered through natural curiosity or nurtured through early enjoyable experiences with an activity or many activities.


Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.
No one is forcing these luminary scientists to get involved in artistic hobbies. It’s a reflection of their curiosity. And sometimes, that curiosity leads them to flashes of insight. “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition,” Albert Einstein reflected. His mother enrolled him in violin lessons starting at age 5, but he wasn’t intrigued. His love of music only blossomed as a teenager, after he stopped taking lessons and stumbled upon Mozart’s sonatas. “Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty,” he said.

Hear that, Tiger Moms and Lombardi Dads? You can’t program a child to become creative. Try to engineer a certain kind of success, and the best you’ll get is an ambitious robot. If you want your children to bring original ideas into the world, you need to let them pursue their passions, not yours.

Adam Grant is a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and a contributing opinion writer. This essay is adapted from his new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.

20 tips for putting Google’s 20 percent time in your classroom

eSchool News

Posted By Stephen Noonoo On December 8, 2014

2 innovative educators share tons of tips for creating innovative, inquiry-based classrooms in only one day a week

google-time[1]Originally pioneered at places like 3M and HP [2], Google’s vaunted 20 percent time, which lets employees spend a full one-fifth of their time on passion projects, has spawned everything from Gmail to Google News. Now it’s gaining ground among educators who are carving out a chunk of their already-limited time with students to work on innovative inquiry-based projects that resonate on a deeper, personal level.

AJ Juliani, an ed tech innovation specialist at Upper Perkiomen School District in Pensburg, PA, piloted 20 percent time three years ago when he taught High School English at his former school, and since then, he’s authored Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom: Using 20% Time, Genius Hour, and PBL to Drive Student Success [3], and created a free course for teachers [4] on his blog. Kevin Brookhouser, a high school English teacher at York School in Monterey, CA, has also run 20 percent time projects in his classroom and recently finished writing a book about his experiences, called The #20time Project [5] after raising money through a Kickstarter campaign.

Recently, Juliani and Brookhouser shared their top tips for getting started, overcoming obstacles, and creating something students find truly meaningful.

1. Dedicate One Day A Week
When he began 20 percent projects in his classroom, Juliani decided to dedicate every Friday to the project, instead of 20 percent of each class day, which he found insufficient. “I wanted to give them the ability to get into that state of flow [6],” he says. “Giving them 10 minutes a day, they were never going to get into that.”

2. It’s Not Just for High School
Twenty percent projects can be used in any subject, and with any grade or skill level. “I’ve done genius hour at the elementary level all the way to doing it with teachers so it doesn’t really matter the level,” Juliani says. “It’s more or less how you’re structuring or framing it to what that actual subject or grade level is.”

3. Set Your Own Parameters
As English teachers, both Juliani and Brookhouser knew that students would be hitting standards just by virtue of all the speaking, listening, reading, and journal writing they’d be doing. For other subjects, they suggest setting parameters on a subject-by-subject basis. Math teachers, for example, might require students to do accounting or use equations to solve project problems.

4. Start With Interests
“Passions sometimes is a big word” for students, says Juliani, who began the project by asking students to name their interests instead. “Whether high school or middle school or elementary students, they don’t have passions, but they have interests.”

5. Inspire Students With Great Projects
Over the years, Brookhouser’s students have worked with local architects to develop an eco-friendly dream home, started YouTube communities around teen fiction books, began an Instagram account (@CookThat [7]) encouraging girls to cook and have healthy relationships with food, created their own games using Java, and more.

6. Use 20 Time to Improve the Community
Brookhouser uses his 20 percent time to foster student engagement within their school and community. “I first want my students to focus on their audience rather than their own personal passions, and filling a need that’s out there,” he says. Once they tap into that need, “I think the passion comes as a product of that.”

7. Find Projects That Pay
For students that struggled even to find an interest, Juliani got creative juices flowing by challenging students to turn a profit. “I had a couple students that did projects where they were trying to make money and that’s what drove them. If you get students to choose a project they care about or are interested in the rest of it goes much more smoothly.”

8. Get Students Thinking Like Entrepreneurs
According to Brookhouser, “increasingly, no matter what position anyone takes, students who enter in the real world need to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, even if they end up working at an organization or a big corporation. We all need to solve problems in an innovative way, and that’s really the big goal.”

9. Group Projects Work Well
For the most part, Brookhouser encouraged students to partner up for their projects. “They can do so much more together working as a team,” he says. “And in the real world generally we work in teams.” Likewise, groups can be used in younger grades to get students with similar interests collaborating with each other.

10. …Solo Ones Do, Too
Juliani, on the other hand, had students work individually. But instead of isolating students, it actually brought the class closer together, as they became interested in each other’s projects and their personal interests. “One of the side benefits was the kids learning more about each other through this project and also me learning more about my students,” he says.

11. Let Students Pitch the Class
Both Brookhouser and Juliani hold formal “pitch days” where students present their project idea via PowerPoint, with Juliani even fashioning his after the popular elevator pitch show Shark Tank. “They got four slides: what they were learning about, why they chose it, what they were going to do, and how they were going to measure success,” he says.

12. And Let Students Give Feedback
During the pitch-day event, Juliani encouraged students to share their feedback on each other’s projects. As a result, “so many students upped what they were doing,” he says. “It was like positive peer pressure.”

13. Think Practically About Projects
“As a teacher you’re going to have to become much more active to do two things: challenging the students to push themselves a little bit and then also reeling some students back in who are maybe going above and beyond,” says Juliani, who adds that students can always continue a project with new goals in the next semester if they want.

14. Be Flexible
At some point, students will likely have to tweak their projects. One year, a group of Brookhouser’s students aimed to break the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest continuous BBQ. But after consulting with Guinness the students discovered they were too young to compete. Instead, they took the work they had done and turned it into an event to feed the homeless. “In the end, they felt really great about the work that they did.”

15. Connect With Professionals
Brookhouser has gotten a lot of support for the project from local businesses and expertslike doctors and architectsvia mentorships, where the professionals lend their expertise and their time to students. “I think a lot people recognize the value of participating in the education of young people,” he says.

16. Create Something Tangible
At the end of each semester Juliani’s students must have something to show for their work. It could be a report or a presentation, or something more creative. He recalls one student who used her time to learn American Sign Language to communicate with a deaf niece. For her final project, “she got up at the end of the presentation and she performed a song in Sign Language.”

17. Keep Track of Student Progress
In addition to a final presentation, Brookhouser tells every student to blog about their projects as a means of keeping him in the loop. “They include an image and that’s how I keep them accountable for what they’re doing,” he says. “I use that as a tool to keep them motivated.”

18. Some Sacrifice Is Necessary
Even though Brookhouser ultimately had to give up some of the traditional literature he usually taught, he says the trade off is well worth it. “On some level it’s painful to give up anything, but what my students are producing instead in that time is nothing less than inspiring,” he says.

19. Tech Helps, But Isn’t Required
“It’s much easier to let students explore when they have technology,” Juliani says. “They can reach out to mentors online, they can watch videos–they have so much more opportunity to learn on their own…. We’ve done it in classrooms without technology, but it really amplifies it.”

20. Share Your Success
For his final presentations, Brookhouser doesn’t just let the class listen in, he invites parents, younger students, community leaders, and media to attend. “They all have five minutes to present,” he says, “and that’s their opportunity to shine. The fact that they know they’re going to be presenting their work to others, including their peers, keeps them motivated to do their best work.”

A New Paradigm for Accountability: The Joy of Learning

Posted: 11/12/2014 

Now that we have endured more than a dozen long years of No Child Left Behind and five fruitless, punitive years of Race to the Top, it is clear that they both failed. They relied on carrots and sticks and ignored intrinsic motivation. They crushed children’s curiosity instead of cultivating it.* They demoralized schools. They disrupted schools and communities without improving children’s education.

We did not leave no child behind. The same children who were left behind in 2001-02 are still left behind. Similarly, Race to the Top is a flop. The Common Core tests are failing most students, and we are nowhere near whatever the “Top” is. If a teacher gave a test, and 70% of the students failed, we would say she was not competent, tested what was not taught, didn’t know her students. The Race turns out to be NCLB with a mask. NCLB on steroids. NCLB 2.0.

Whatever you call it, RTTT has hurt children, demoralized teachers, closed community schools, fragmented communities, increased privatization, and doubled down on testing.

I have an idea for a new accountability system that relies on different metrics. We begin by dropping standardized test scores as measures of quality or effectiveness. We stop labeling, ranking, and rating children, teachers, and schools. We use tests only when needed for diagnostic purposes, not for comparing children to their peers, not to find winners and losers. We rely on teachers to test their students, not corporations.

The new accountability system would be called No Child Left Out. The measures would be these:

How many children had the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument?

How many children had the chance to play in the school band or orchestra?

How many children participated in singing, either individually or in the chorus or a glee club or other group?

How many public performances did the school offer?

How many children participated in dramatics?

How many children produced documentaries or videos?

How many children engaged in science experiments? How many started a project in science and completed it?

How many children learned robotics?

How many children wrote stories of more than five pages, whether fiction or nonfiction?

How often did children have the chance to draw, paint, make videos, or sculpt?

How many children wrote poetry? Short stories? Novels? History research papers?

How many children performed service in their community to help others?

How many children were encouraged to design an invention or to redesign a common item?

How many students wrote research papers on historical topics?

Can you imagine an accountability system whose purpose is to encourage and recognize creativity, imagination, originality, and innovation? Isn’t this what we need more of?

Well, you can make up your own metrics, but you get the idea. Setting expectations in the arts, in literature, in science, in history, and in civics can change the nature of schooling. It would require far more work and self-discipline than test prep for a test that is soon forgotten.

My paradigm would dramatically change schools from Gradgrind academies to halls of joy and inspiration, where creativity, self-discipline, and inspiration are nurtured, honored, and valued.

This is only a start. Add your own ideas. The sky is the limit. Surely we can do better than this era of soul-crushing standardized testing.

*Kudos to Southold Elementary School in Long Island, where these ideas were hatched as I watched the children’s band playing a piece they had practiced.

Science Shows How People With Messy Desks Are Actually Different Than Everyone Else


Are you too messy? Instead of a filing cabinet, do you have piles of folders bursting to the seams? Is your Rolodex covered with doodles, while your drawers are full of loose business cards? Do memos arrive at your desk only to be tossed in an overstuffed trash can or linger in eternity amid a heap of their forgotten brethren?

We’re trained to think that messiness is evil and unproductive. But there might be a method to all that madness.

It turns out science can explain. There’s fairly robust psychological evidence that messiness isn’t just symptomatic of poor standards or effort, but might actually provoke creativity.

That’s the hypothesisis that, as psychologist Kathleen Vohs writes in the New York Times, “being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions.” To test this hypothesis, Vohs invited 188 adults to rooms that were either tidy or “messy, with papers and books strewn around haphazardly.”

Each adult was then presented with one of two menus from a deli that served fruit smoothies, with half of the subjects seeing a menu with one item billed as “classic” and another billed as “new.” The results (published in Psychological Science), Vohs reports, were enlightening:

As predicted, when the subjects were in the tidy room they chose the health boost more often — almost twice as often — when it had the “classic” label: that is, when it was associated with convention. Also as predicted, when the subjects were in the messy room, they chose the health boost more often — more than twice as often — when it was said to be “new”: that is, when it was associated with novelty. Thus, people greatly preferred convention in the tidy room and novelty in the messy room.

A second experiment with 48 adults found that subjects in a messy environment came up with ideas “28% more creative” while creating a list of unconventional uses for ping pong balls, even though the two groups came up with the same number of ideas. Vohs argues the results are clear: Messiness actually spurs creativity.

Source: Getty Images

Columbia Business School professor Eric Abrahamson notes that the debate on messiness can overlook the crucial fact that order has opportunity costs, like forcing employees to devote valuable time to maintaining an orderly environment that could otherwise be spent on projects. He argues:

Creativity is spurred when things that we tend not to organize in the same category come together. When you allow some messiness into a system, new combinations can result. If you keep all your tools in the tool shed and all your kitchen utensils in the kitchen, you might never think of using a kitchen utensil as a tool or vice-versa.

Of course, messiness doesn’t necessarily refer to how many coffee cups on your desk need to be thrown out. Abrahamson adds that “the best studies on strategic planning indicate that firms with elaborate strategic planning systems do no better than firms that don’t have them,” possibly because an emphasis on order can reduce the flexibility of some companies.

On the micro level, in 2007 Abrahamson and fellow researcher David H. Freedman wrote that a messy desk could actually be a “highly effective prioritizing and accessing system” that quickly sorts items according to their importance. Piles of clutter that amass on unkempt desks may just be repositories for “safely ignorable stuff.” In other words, if it looks like trash, perhaps that’s because it wasn’t important enough to waste time filing.

On the other hand, as Freedman told the New York Times, “almost anything looks pretty neat if it’s shuffled into a pile.” Order doesn’t necessarily have inherent benefits in every space.

The takeaway: That’s not necessarily an argument for messiness (and nothing here justifies leaving underwear on the floor). But Your Story’s Malavika Velayanikal argued that there were two lessons that entrepreneurs could take away. One, employers shouldn’t overvalue orderliness in a work setting, because disorder might help trigger creative solutions to problems in the workplace. The other was that employers should harness the creative energy of disorderly environments by creating “varied office spaces” instead of minimalist ones in order to help employees “break free from conventional thinking.”

Basically, the emphasis on order and efficiency in work settings can be misplaced. Instead of maximizing efficiency, a rigid focus on routine can force employees to waste time on minutiae. Office Space had this lesson down:

Left-Brain Schools in a Right-Brain World

Tim Elmore

Founder and President of Growing Leaders, Best-Selling Author

The Huffington Post

Posted: 06/25/2013

I remember an activity from my early childhood.  When we were in elementary school, my sisters and I used to play “school.” We’d get the chalkboard, the chairs and a map out — and one of us would be the teacher. Sometimes, we’d get the G.I. Joe’s or stuffed animals involved, to enlarge the class size a bit. When we didn’t know what we were doing, we never lost our passion. We just got creative and made something up. It was a blast.

I noticed over time, my whole perspective changed. School became somewhat of a drudgery. I stopped “playing” school. More than that, however, I stopped looking forward to it and began looking for ways to get out of it. Sadly, I was like most kids. School and learning were fun when we were young, but eventually they came to mean toil and boredom. For many, school is even repulsive.

I know what some of you are thinking. Education isn’t meant to be fun. That’s not its purpose. I agree, education is not just entertainment. The purpose of school is not pleasure and amusement. However, based on our research, education that sticks in the minds of students is usually connected to three elements:

1. A healthy, trusting relationship with the teacher.
2. An interactive learning community.
3. Creativity and innovation that stimulate the “right-brain.”

Maya Angelou wrote, “We are all creative, but by the time we are three or four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else.”

Right Brain Students

Daniel Pink shares some helpful insights about how our brains function in his book, A Whole New Mind. He describes the difference between left-brain and right-brain thinking. He argues that the old world is a left-brain world. The new one is a right-brain world. Part of our dropout problem can be summarized in one phrase: we are preparing students in “Left-Brain” schools to enter a “Right-Brain” world. The school does not resemble the world they’ll enter after graduation. If they graduate at all.

The left-brain is about FACTS. The right-brain is about CREATIVITY. The left-brain is calculated and definitive. The right-brain is innovative and dynamic. Certainly both are necessary. But more and more, our world is driven by right-brain thought. Sadly, consider what’s happening today in schools. With a poor economy, budget cuts are being made across the country. The first courses dropped by public schools are right brain courses: art, music, and drama.

Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” What he meant was this: knowledge is finite. Imagination can take a person into the infinite. Knowledge includes only what has been already developed. Imagination is about our dreams, which have no limits. Unfortunately, our educational institutions revolve around self-contained silos of existing information. They’re about lecture, drill and test. Testing involves students regurgitating facts they’ve heard from instructors that semester.

How about you?

When you teach students, are your more of a left-brain teacher or a right-brain teacher?

More on this next week.