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

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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.

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Push, Don’t Crush Students

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CreditKeith Negley

PALO ALTO, Calif. — PALO ALTO HIGH SCHOOL, one of the nation’s most prestigious public secondary schools, is sandwiched between two stark and illusory paths. Across the street to the west, Stanford University beckons as the platonic ideal, a symbol of the road to Google, the White House, the mansion on the hill. To the east, across a bike trail, are the railroad tracks where three boys from the school district have killed themselves this year.

Suicide clusters are relatively rare, accounting for about 5 percent of teenage suicides. Startlingly, this year’s is the second contagion to visit this city. Five students or recent graduates of the district’s other high school, Gunn High School, killed themselves beginning in 2009.

Experts say such clusters typically occur when suicide takes hold as a viable coping mechanism — as a deadly, irrational fashion. But that hasn’t stopped this community from soul searching: Does a culture of hyperachievement deserve any blame for this cluster?

The answer is complex, bordering on the contradictory: No, the pressure to succeed is not unique, nor does it cause a suicide cluster in itself, but the intense reflection underway here has unearthed a sobering reality about how Silicon Valley’s culture of best in class is playing out in the schools.

In addition to whatever overt pressure students feel to succeed, that culture is intensified by something more insidious: a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators. They often use all the right language about wanting students to be happy, healthy and resilient — a veritable “script,” said Madeline Levine, a Bay Area psychologist who treats depressed, anxious and suicidal tech-industry executives, workers and their children.

“They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ” Ms. Levine said. “The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.”

Denise Pope, an education expert at Stanford, calls this gulf between what people say and what they mean “the hidden message of parenting.”

But here, and in lots of other ultrahigh-achieving communities and schools, Ms. Pope said that children are picking through the static to hear the overriding message that only the best will do — in grades, test scores, sports, art, college. “In everything,” she said.

“I hear students tell me that if I don’t get into X, Y, Z college, I’ll wind up flipping burgers at McDonald’s,” said Ms. Pope, who is working with Ms. Levine to counsel at the high schools.

Ms. Pope said that wrongheaded idea becomes an emotional and physiological threat when multiplied by at least three other factors: technology that keeps teens working and socializing late at night, depriving them of essential rest; growing obligations from test-prep classes and extracurricular activities; and parents too busy to participate in activities with their families.

“We are not teenagers,” Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, wrote in an editorial in the local paper in response to the suicides. She described students as “lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition” and wrote of going to the emergency room to deal with stress, missed periods and having “a panic attack in the middle of a 30-person class and be forced to remain still.”

There has been lots of talk in the community about what to do, she wrote, but action has not followed. (The district is providing counseling services, offering a suicide-prevention kit and urging teachers to limit homework hours.)

“Please, no more endless discussions about what exactly it is that is wrong with our schools, and, above all, no more empty promises,” she wrote, and noted: “We are the product of a generation of Palo Altans that so desperately wants us to succeed but does not understand our needs.”

THIS curious idea of a rhetorical divide came up in a number of recent discussions with parents and their children. In one conversation about the suicides, a mother at a Bay Area school in a similarly high-achieving community told me how little pressure she puts on her teens and noted by way of an anecdote how she had succeeded: Her daughter, she proudly recounted, was so well balanced that she decided last year not to go to the best college she got into but, rather, the school that best fit her passions. The school was Vassar.

In this subtle linguistic slip, Vassar qualified as a second-rate school.

Esther Wojcicki, the teacher who oversees the Palo Alto High School newspaper, lamented the competitive environment but noted seconds later that the school paper had just won a “Gold Crown” award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and that the two dozen students sitting at computer terminals at 4 p.m. that day were thrilled to stay until 9 p.m. to put out the school magazine because they have so much fun doing it.

Alan Eagle, a sales director at Google whose 17-year-old son, William, is a junior at Gunn, was frank about the distance between what he tells his son and what he means.

“I can say all I want that it doesn’t matter where my son goes to college,” Mr. Eagle told me.  But “I’m sure that as much as I preach that, I’m not being 100 percent authentic and frank.”

He added: “I personally went to Dartmouth and it did help. I look at the economy, the difference between haves and have-nots, and I believe a college education is critical.”

And a rich high school experience, too. A few minutes later, while acknowledging that his son had given up playing on the basketball team to study more, Mr. Eagle noted that “at least he’s still got track.”

Glenn McGee, the district’s superintendent, also seemed to struggle to walk the line between celebrating the exceptional nature of this area while urging students to relax. Sitting in his office and looking across the street at the Stanford campus, he mourned the fact that some parents feel that such a school is the only acceptable outcome.

“In many cases, people have made a big sacrifice to live in this community,” Dr. McGee said, referring to exorbitant housing costs (the median housing price last year was $3.3 million, making it the fourth most-expensive ZIP code in the country, according to Richard Florida, an academic who studies demographic trends). Characterizing the attitude of many parents, Dr. McGee said, “To be blunt, what is my return on investment?”

“My job is not to get you into Stanford,” he said he tells parents and students. “It’s to teach them to learn how to learn, to think, to work together — learn how to explore, collaborate, learn to be curious and creative.”

Some parents hear it, he said, but “a lot of families and parents don’t hear the message and say: compete and compete.”

Dr. McGee said he had interviewed 300 students and found that half would be “really embarrassed” to tell their friends they got a B. But the truth is that it’s awfully hard to be the best here, given the curve: The SAT scores are so high on average that a student who finishes in the 75th percentile in the district has a 2,200, the 99th percentile in general for college-bound seniors.

Soon after lamenting the pressure, Dr. McGee raved about a student who was part of a math team that finished first in January in a national competition, and about the new performing arts center under construction, and about the coming $24 million athletic facility funded by a private family foundation.

And why wouldn’t he rave? Why not be thrilled by achievement?

Because the bar for academic success here has become so high that solid performance can feel mediocre.

It puts enormous pressure on a school, or a community, when such consistent, across-the-board greatness becomes a baseline of sorts — what Mr. Eagle described as a culture of “not just excellence but uber-excellence.”

Perhaps that explains some of the doublespeak: Parents are searching for language to encourage their children, even push them, but not crush them.

One solution, said Ms. Pope of Stanford, is “downtime, playtime, family time.” For parents, too. In other words: Take a leap of faith (well supported by science) that downtime will lead to a healthier perspective.

Dr. Morton Silverman, a psychiatrist and senior science adviser to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suggested that another answer is recognizing that the doublespeak also betrays a sense of terror about the future among both students and parents.

With the economy in flux and the income gap growing, parents don’t see a clear path anymore to financial stability — even here, maybe especially here, where things move fast and competition is fierce. In addition, many of the fortunes made here have been based on creating things that destabilize traditional businesses and their workers.

So confront the new realities, Dr. Silverman suggested, urging parents to say something like: “I can’t tell you which path to take or how to get there, but I will support you,” he said. “I’m here to back you up.”

It’s a hard message to hear in a can-do place like this.

Walking near the train tracks where the children laid themselves down, Dr. McGee said this community, if any, should have answers.

“Can we put sensors up there?” he mused quietly to me, maybe to alert the train operators that someone has climbed onto the tracks. “This is Silicon Valley. There ought to be something we can do.”