This book has been withdrawn from publication due to issues of integrity, and is no longer available.  I was sorry to hear about the book’s problems, and certainly condemn the errors.   Nevertheless, I think the particular points shared below are still relevant, and I leave them here on the blog. 

I’ve already twice posted appreciations for Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine, but I want to add a short third post here appreciating his thoughts about the book’s lessons for educators.   In the last chapter, he profiles the excellence of NOCCA: the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

What’s interesting is what does not happen [at the school.]  The students don’t sit in chair and listen to a long lecture.  Many rooms don’t even have chairs.  They don’t retrieve textbooks or being a series of exercises designed to raise their test scores on standardized tests…  Instead, students spend their time creating: they walk over to their instruments and sketchbooks and costumes and get to work.

Lehrer quotes the school’s CEO, Kyle Wedberg, with an emphasis which resonates loudly with the thinking on this blog: we need to advance learning by returning to learning by doing, by creating learning environments where the greater emphasis on students doing the work of the subject under study, and using the best tools available to do so.  Wedberg:

We’re 120 years behind the times in all the right ways.  At some point, vocational education became a dirty word. It became unfashionable to teach kids by having them do stuff, by having them make stuff.  Instead, school became all about giving kids facts and tests.  Now, I’ve got nothing against facts and tests, but memorization is not the only kind of thinking we should be encouraging.    When we obsess over tests, when we teach the way we’re teaching now, we send the wrong message to students.   We’re basically telling them creativity is a bad idea.

Everyone agrees that creativity is a key skill.  But we’re not teaching our kids this skill.  We’ve become so obsessed with rote learning, with making sure that kids memorize the year of some old battle.  But in this day and age that’s the least valuable kind of learning. That’s stuff you can look up on your phone.  If our graduates our going to succeed in the real world, then they have to be able to make stuff.

Creativity and innovation, as I often discuss here,  isn’t about bolt of lightning inspiration or brilliantly unique, even idiosyncratic genius: it is about perseverence, iteration, experimentation, association, and just plain, as Lehrer emphasizes here, grit.

NOCCA is about spending five hours a day on your craft, about subjecting yourself to constructive criticism via “crits,” about not giving up even when your work stinks.  “Every kid leaves here with an ability to push themselves.  We show kids what it takes to make something great. NOCCA exposes them to the brute reality of the creative process.”

Lehrer then moves to praise a school often highlighted here on 21k12, High Tech High in San Diego.

Like NOCCA, High Tech High emphasizes learning by doing– every student is required to complete numerous projects that take up much of his or her school day.   “People act like we’ve got this radical concept of education,” says its CEO Larry Rosenstock, “but it’s actually been around for a long time.  Dewey said it best: Understanding derives from activity.  Kids don’t learn when they’re consuming information; when someone is talking down to them.   They learn when they’re producing stuff.

Rosenstock: “Our kids are growing up in a world of constant change. There is no test for the future that we can teach to.  What we do know, however, is that being able to make new things is still going to be the way to succeed.  Creativity is a skill that never goes out of style.”

It all comes back to creativity and innovation, the essential 21st century skill and aptitude.   To enhance its development, our schools must become more like NOCCA and High Tech High: places of exploration, experimentation, iteration, and, simply, grit: the work of learning via learning by work.   Project-Based learning, and good old fashioned “making stuff,” was how learning happened for centuries and millenia, and our schools today must keep striving to re-institute learning by doing.

Related Posts:  Problem-Finding and Imagination: Becoming Innovators by Your Curiosity, Creativity, and Hard Work: Remarks to 8th graders, 2012

On Creativity: Four Steps Toward Enhancing our own and our Students’ Creativity (Originally published by SFLC)