Category Archives: Creativity

“Wild Enchantment”

One of my most beloved lines comes from Boris Pasternak’s brilliant novel, Dr. Zhivago which I read nearly 50 years ago. Pasternak describes Lara as seeking “to call each thing by its right name.”

“Lara walked along the tracks following a path worn by pilgrims and then turned into the fields. Here she stopped and, closing her eyes, took a deep breath of the flower-scented air of the broad expanse around her. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, to give birth out of love for life to successors who would do it in her place.”

Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak 1957

That phrase has been my lighthouse as I have made my path in life. It seems to me it is the essence of poetry, for does not every poet, and both Pasternak and Zhivago were poets, seek to call each thing by its right name. Now that certainly does not necessarily mean a single word or a definition, it must mean much more than that. For a right name could be metaphor, it could be a phrase, it could be a description. Is this not want poetry is all about?

And is this not what science and mathematics are all about as well? For like poetry they require us to learn a new language, to use metaphor and definition. I am not much of a poetry reader. I think it is because it takes effort to read poetry. We cannot just scan it. We have to read it, often aloud. We have to think it and imagine it and wonder it. And this is just what we must do with science and math. We can’t just scan those equations those symbolic presentations. We have to think them, say them, imagine them, and of course wonder them.

So, just as poetry is the language of life so too are the symbolic sentences we see in our science and math books. Like poetry we have to read them slowly, to ingest them, to think about them. We have to analyze them and rewrite them in our own “right names.” And does this not tell us a great deal about the importance of poetry in our schools and in our lives. For it can help us learn to seek right names in our world of science and art, and “to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment.”

Intellectual Flexibility

Yesterday Eric Schmidt on MSNBC’s Morning Joe was asked what Google was looking for in the people they hire. Without hesitation Eric said “intellectual flexibility.” I thought this was an original and useful way of talking about the ability to “think out of the box” to be imaginative, to be creative.

We know what we are looking for in 21st century workers, but every time we talk about our schools producing such workers we talk first about the “basic skills.” Those skills we deem foundational, the skills we think everything rests on literacy and computation have reached canonical status. We do not question their validity, we do not question their importance, we take them as givens.

Today, they absorb all of the oxygen in our classrooms, they are the focus of the school day, and they are supposed to be practiced in every curricular activity as well as in students’ out-of-classroom time. Whatever we may think of their importance and necessity, if we believe that Eric Schmidt and so many other leading business and economic thinkers are right in looking for employees who can think out of the box, then we must ask the central question: “Does learning these basic skills lead to intellectual flexibility?”

I leave you with that question. For consider that Asia countries, who have been much more successful in basic skill development than we seem to have been, are seeking ways to help their students learn to be as creative as American workers!

20th Century Math

For those of you who have been following my blogs, I apologize for taking so long to get out a new one. I have been working a wonderful new project that i am not yet ready to show you, but I promise to do so very soon.

Meanwhile I had a fascinating afternoon yesterday attending a seminar on SketchUp, what they call the 3D program for everyone. Google just sold it to a company called Trimble, a construction company.This program is for designers what WordPress is for bloggers.

As I watched amazing demo after amazing demo, all I could think about was America’s K-12 math program, indeed our entire educational focus. To put it bluntly, it has nothing to do with the real world jobs of the 21st century. For here were architects, designers, engineers, interior decorators, landscape architects, and more using this program in their daily work to both design and to demonstrate. Here was an amazingly large community of people contributing their ideas and their actual work to other users of the program, developing “plug-ins” to do a variety of tasks SketchUp was not designed for.

Are we teaching our students to use technology, to work with sophisticated programs, to be part of a community of users and developers? Are they learning to create, to explore, to learn from each other? Are we preparing our children with the skills they will need for the 21st century? Are we imagining them working with tools like SketchUp? Or are we preparing them for the jobs and work of the 20th century?

Pete Seeger

I met Pete Seeger once in my life, a chance meeting, a few seconds. I was sitting in the central lobby of Grand Central Station in New York City late one night.I had been to meeting in the city and was heading back out to stay with family.  It was a desolate space with echoes dancing off the walls. It is even today hard for me to imagine that this usually bustling place could be so empty.

In the distance I saw an old scraggly looking man carrying a battered guitar case plastered with stickers of all kinds. He was just buying a ticket home. At first glance, from a distance, I thought him perhaps homeless carrying that old case held together by stickers. But then I recognized that familiar iconic profile. Generally shy, I rarely approach people directly, but I could not help myself so I got up and walked over to him and mumbled the only words that I thought he might want to hear, “My children love your music.” shook hands and walked away. I don’t remember him saying anything and perhaps he just smile. We went off in different isolated directions to catch our trains.

Other than that most fortunate and for me among the most memorable events of my life, I was connected to Pete through my children who were lucky enough to attend a wonderful summer camp, Killooleet, in Vermont run by Pete’s brother John and his wife Ellie and now by their daughter Kate and her husband Dean. The camp embodied the same community values Pete sang about.

His songs, so simple and so elegant are musical patterns  we share, know, and love for they remind us of a basic tenet of our human community — essential equality. It is a bedrock principle of our educational system, and yet it is so rarely fulfilled. We do not treat our schools equitably, we do not treat our students equitably, and we only pretend to treat our teachers equitably.

Pete Seeger's Grandson's Guitar Case
Pete Seeger’s Grandson’s Guitar Case

But today, I choose not to focus on these social injustices that Pete so eloquently spoke and sang  about, but rather speak to the injustice of requiring all of our learners to achieve high levels of the same “basic” skills.  We have made the printed word and the textbook math problem, literacy and computation, the tickets to educational success for every child. We have forgotten the arts, left out creativity, and rarely given our children the chance to practice the skills they may care about. So as I remember Pete, I picture that battered, papered old guitar case, and I wonder how we can enable every one of our children to enjoy a just education that gives them such a container of their own.


If you have looked at The Pattern of Knowledge you may wonder how I was able to fill in that wide-ranging table. In that time before the Internet, when I did most of it, such research was not easy. As I describe in Elegantly Simple, I found the big pattern, the periods without a lot of difficulty once I knew what to look for. The phases, well that was another matter.

I spend many nights reading and searching, several years in part-time research, and nearly two years looking for this pattern nearly full-time. At first, I did not know what I was looking for, thinking that each period had a different pattern. But as I searched and thought further, I found all of the periods had a common pattern. I searched first in compilations of breakthroughs in subjects in appendices, art books, and history of the subject books. But I soon found them wanting. I had to go to original sources and actually read what the great inventors themselves wrote. In this endeavor I was most fortunate.

I took my undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Chicago. My physics education was first class but traditional. The rest of my education was not. Undergraduate studies, the so-called liberal arts courses at the U of C are in the College. In a tradition dating back to the Hutchins’ era, these courses in the humanities, social sciences, and even in the sciences are seminars based on using the Socratic method on original works. We rarely if ever studied pre-digested content. We had to read and understand the great thinkers themselves. We had to ask what the author meant and why.

This very non-traditional education changed my life, for it built the confidence to tackle any and every original work I cared to. I have found this a generally rare kind of confidence. I read hundreds of works and parts of works from the pre-Socratics through Einstein, Plato through Wittgenstein, Sophocles through Joyce.

Confidence is perhaps the most important quality students can build. For without confidence, we do not concentrate well. If we don’t think we can understand something, we will find it hard to keep our focus on it and we will not learn it.  Today, schools may talk of grit and sticktoitiveness, but preaching grit is not learning confidence. And while we do want students to practice working on problems until they solve them, they build that grit through building confidence.

Confidence may indeed be the most important 21st century skill. My friend George Blakeslee calls it the 5th C and the basis for the four 21st century skills, creativity, cooperation, critical thinking, and communication. It is measurable attitudinally. And true confidence, not bravado, is the mark of a student who can concentrate and who has the skills and perseverance to learn anything she or he wants to learn. Should confidence be the goal of education? Well it certainly was what enabled me to develop Elegantly Simple and all my other  inventions.. It lets me think out-of-the-box, work cooperatively, communicate effectively, and think critically. And I gained this confidence as we gain every skill, through practice.