Flow

For the last three weeks, I’ve been exploring creativity from the perspective of being an adventurer, a scientist, and a hobbit. I’ve talked about how being creative is amazing because it’s about overcoming challenges, exploring the new and unknown, and being part of a larger conversation about being human. These things are all true, and I’ve loved the responses I’ve gotten from you all.

But there’s something more, I think, to creativity, than just these pieces. Creating something is a really special experience.

Mihály Csíkszentmihály is a Hungarian psychologist who coined the term “flow” to refer to a state where a person is so engrossed in their task they are oblivious to the outside world. There are a lot of brilliant people who have reported this feeling; Newton, for example, regularly forgot to eat for several days at a time when he was working on a little book called Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

There are lots of studies out there about how engaging in flow is good for you. It can create a sense of purpose and engagement. It’s energizing and uplifting. It allows a growth in perspective. But the thing I wanted to talk about in all of this was that growth.

In teaching, we talk about something called the zone of proximal development. This is the mental and emotional place where a student is encountering something new and it’s a little outside of their comfort zone. However, it’s also totally possible to push a student beyond the zone of proximal development into the danger zone. When students feel threatened, whether that’s confronting an idea that conflicts with their world view or the fear of looking dumb or too smart, they can’t learn anything at all.

It’s important for teachers to recognize where this is for each student. Students in their comfort zone won’t grow, and students in the danger zone can’t grow. Think about it like a graph, with the level of challenge on the x axis (the bottom) and the level of skill someone has on the y axis (the vertical one). As you move from left to right, the challenge of the task gets harder. As you move from top to bottom, the skill level of the person doing the task increases.

There is a magical line running from bottom left to top right of this graph that balances challenge and skill so learning can happen. If the challenge is too high and the skill too low (bottom right) then the person gets frustrated and gives up. If the skill is too high and the challenge too low (top left) the person is bored. This is a visual I keep constantly in the back of my head as I’m teaching.

But hold on a moment here. I moved from creativity to teaching. How’d I do that?

Learning is creating. It’s not always creating something physical; in fact, it’s usually creating something super abstract. Learning is about constructing a framework of thoughts, ideas, and understandings.

If you think about the zone of proximal development, it’s true for every sport ever played. You don’t throw a beginning skier down the hardest run on the hill. That would be a recipe for injury! Coaches help athletes build skills slowly. It’s also true for every art form. I began practicing piano by playing the five notes under my fingers without moving my hands. The first bread I made was not a yeast bread. As I learned, the pieces I played and the recipes I used grew more complex.

But this isn’t some pathway, where I can complete step 1 and “level up” so I can complete step 2. It’s a constant balancing act of knowing when to push to a challenge I might not totally be ready for, but I’m ready to learn from, and when to practice something I already know. Being creative requires knowing myself, and then getting outside myself to really get into this feeling of flow. And that’s a really cool experience.

Your homework: Have you experienced flow? What were you doing?

Hej då,

Jamie

Creativity and Community

My friends laugh at me when I remind them I’m a hobbit. They know it’s true. I like to stay at home. I don’t like crowds or meeting new people. Sometimes I find myself thinking I just don’t like people in general. This year in particular, however, has made it clear that I do, in fact like people. I’m a teacher, after all. And in my hobbit-ness, I especially like my people.

I wrote a little bit about this in my post about having breakfast with my family. I enjoy the things I enjoy more when I’m doing them with people I love. I like sharing the experience in the moment and reflecting on the shared memories later. And I think this is more true in creativity than I originally thought.

See, when I think about a creative genius I think about someone pouring over a manuscript or music score for hours, forgetting to eat or sleep or generally about the outside world. I think about an inventor in a lab or a baker elbow-deep in flour. But without a community, creativity is like shouting at a mountain. All you get is your echo.

My friend Matt made this especially clear when he wrote me about creativity. Matt is a Knowles Fellow who teaches math in Washington state. We were going back and forth about things we’d stopped doing when we started teaching, and we both mentioned music. I played the flute in middle school band and I took piano lessons through high school. I still have my flute, but a piano is a bit harder to move. I miss practicing and playing and the occasional composing I did. Here’s what Matt had to say:

I miss playing music. I played viola. The other day though I got my hands on a piano and was missing around and really want to get in touch with that part of me again. Especially playing in an orchestra or group. I would always be overwhelmed after a performance thinking, ‘Man. We just made that. We just made music.’ It’s…hard to explain. But I got to feel like I was a part of something great. I miss making things!”

I think he nailed it. One of my favorite parts of middle school band was the feeling that I was a part of something. We were making something way bigger than any one of us could make on our own. I liked imagining I was weaving the sound of my flute into a tapestry that was made of all the sounds of all the instruments.

Once Matt got me thinking about this, I started wondering about my other forms of creativity. One thing I love to do creatively is bake. I like the flour, the way it smells as it’s in the oven. And I also really like sharing my baked goods. (Seriously, any potentially sticky meeting you have? Bring brownies. Or snicker doodles. It is automatically better.) I like making huge batches of things so my people and I can enjoy them together. So baking is also very much a community creative thing for me.

I also like to write. Writing especially seemed individual when I started thinking about it. And it’s true to some extent; the initial act of writing is fairly solitary. But grab the nearest book to hand, and look at the acknowledgements. Depending on the author and type of book, it might be a list of a handful of names or it might be three pages long. Revision and editing is a process that takes a lot of people.

And at its heart, writing is about communicating. It’s about joining a larger conversation about what it means to be human. I’m nerding out a little bit here, but I really think that’s the heart of literature. Reading is a passive way to participate, but writing is actively contributing. That conversation evolves over time and across culture, but there are similarities in every story.

One of the reasons I started writing fanfiction was because I wanted to participate in the conversation. I love the Harry Potter series. I may or may not have broken the bindings of three of my books because I read them so often. And when I found a place where people were joining that conversation, I was delighted. And I wanted to join in too! So I did. I started writing. And more than that, I started getting feedback on my writing. I made friends with some of the other people who write. One person, Gerry, was my beta for my last story. (A beta is like an editor; they read your chapter before you put it up and give you feedback for revisions.) It was incredible to have someone to have a conversation with about my writing. I learned so much about writing styles and language and characterization from this process!

And, like all good thoughts, I took this one to my mom. When I told her I was pleased with myself for figuring out that writing was totally about community, she laughed at me a little bit. She pointed out that I had formatted this blog in such a way as to encourage interaction. After all, don’t I give you all homework? I want to start conversations!

So…yeah, Mom’s always right. I’m definitely ok with this.

I really do believe that being part of something bigger than myself is really important for my sense of purpose and happiness in my life. It’s part of why I love teaching. It’s why yoga class is better than yoga at home. And it is a huge part of what inspired me to start this blog.

This fall I attended the National Association of Biology Teachers annual conference. I got to see some of my Knowles friends, meet a lot of amazing people, and in general get inspired by how many absolutely incredible biology teachers there are. And I decided I wanted to be a part of it. All of it. I wanted to reach out and look for opportunities. I wanted to participate in the conversation.

Sometimes sharing my creative “masterpieces” is scary. When I create something, it’s directly a piece of my heart. But without the sharing, I think the creativity is seriously diminished.

So my homework for you: How do you participate in the human conversation? What is your creative community?

Hej då,

Jamie

Creativity in Science

Take a moment and imagine a stereotypical scientist. Perhaps you’re imagining someone in a white lab coat with goggles and gloves. Maybe they’re holding a flask of some colorful steaming liquid. Maybe they’re measuring something. Maybe their hair is crazy and/or blackened. Likely, if you imagined the background, you visualized lab tables covered in glassware and notebooks. Meet the crazy chemist.

What personality traits would you give this person? Some likely options might include the following: diligent, nerdy, not socially adept, curious, precise.

It’s also possible you imagined someone more along the lines of Jane Goodall, wearing khaki and taking notes in the field. Or maybe you imagined a doctor or an engineer. These are all people who have something to do with science! But likely you ascribed them similar traits to our crazy chemist we first imagined.

Now, imagine someone who’s creative. This person, in my own head, is a painter or musician or writer. They follow inspiration the way a leaf follows a breeze in the fall. They might be wild or carefree in a way that a scientist is serious.

My students often divide themselves into an interesting binary system: math/science people and artsy people. I think, in part, this might come from the right brain and left brain distinction. But wherever it comes from, it always makes me sad when a student with artistic talent tells me they can’t be a scientist because they’re “a creative type.”

I’m here to tell you today that this binary is silly. At one level, it is silly because we are humans and we are complex and we can be good at lots of things! But more importantly, I don’t think the binary itself is based in reality. Science is one of the most creative processes I’ve ever been a part of.

The essence of science involves using evidence to answer questions about how the world works. That means scientists have to be good at lots of different things; asking questions, defining what counts as evidence, gathering evidence, interpreting that evidence using scientific reasoning, and ultimately deciding if they’ve gotten any closer to answering their original question. There is creativity in every single one of these skills, and in how they’re linked together.

You might recognize those skills as something akin to The Scientific Method you learned about in your freshman science class. The Scientific Method is a list of steps that “scientists” go through in order to “do science.” I teach it in my classroom and it is related to the nature of science as a discipline. It’s also, in this form, totally false. It feels linear and prescriptive. It leaves a lot of students thinking that if they do x, y, and z they’ll get the correct result and move on.

In reality, science is a very messy, very iterative process of thinking, observing, questioning, interpreting, questioning, thinking, and more thinking. There is nothing linear about it! I found a great comic describing the scientific process. (It comes with a language warning.) It requires a lot of gut feel and some artistry (as well as patience) to navigate through this process.

Certainly navigating the process of science is an exercise in creativity; but creativity is intertwined into every single step of the process along the way. The best way I can explain this is by telling you a story.

I’ve been fortunate to work on two very different original research projects. The first was a molecular biology project that mostly, for me, illuminated that I had no desire whatsoever to pursue molecular research. The second project was a marine ecology project and it took me to Bocas del Toro, Panama. I was a research assistant for a PhD student named Amber Stubler, and along with learning a lot about marine ecology I learned more about how science happens than at any other point in my education.

Bocas is a small town on an island off the Caribbean coast of Panama. It was a perfect place to work on Amber’s questions, which centered around bio-eroding sponges and corals. We created six different conditions by varying temperatures (warm and normal) and CO2 levels (high, medium, and normal), and tested how much damage the bio-eroding sponges did in each condition. Normally, the sponges erode dead and damaged corals, and that erosion is balanced with coral growth. In elevated temperature and CO2 conditions, however, the corals can’t grow as well and the sponges can do more damage. Or at least, that was Amber’s hypothesis. Our job was to gather data to test this hypothesis. (In the end, the data did support the hypothesis; you can read the paper here if you’re feeling super nerdy on this lovely Sunday afternoon!)

Amber spent hours designing the experiment, thinking about supplies, and getting everything to Bocas. It’s a fairly isolated community, so once we were there we were very limited in our ability to acquire other supplies. I definitely carried down an extra suitcase full of tubing and valves to create the tank system when I flew down!

And once we were there, building the set up was a huge exercise in creativity. Here’s an excerpt from the blog I wrote while I was down there:

“I spent most of the day on Tuesday using a large amount of duct tape and silicon to try sealing all of the broken tanks, some of which had shattered in shipping and had gaping holes in them. I haven’t tested any of them yet, but hopefully they all hold water! While I was busy with that project, Amber and Sarah cut holes in the top of each rain barrel and bought cinder blocks to get them higher than the tables the tanks will sit on…

Thursday we spent setting up the rain barrels, which included drilling holes in them, teflon-taping the nozzles, wrenching them into the valves, and wrenching that whole setup into the holes in the rain barrels. It was an especially exciting job because the drill bit we had was ever so slightly too small, so I had to use a square head hammer to enlarge every single one of the 230 some holes. A lot of sweat, grime, and blisters later, we got is set up and were all quite pleased with ourselves. This is really what it means to do science, especially on a budget; we just kept trying contingency plans until something worked. It’s a great way to stimulate problem-solving, creativity, persistence, and a lot of work ethic, and it makes it even more clear to me how unrealistic labs are in high school, when kits lay everything out for you.”

I rely on this experience whenever I teach students about doing science, because it so beautifully illustrates how necessary it is to be creative. I also like this example because it shows that being creative can require persistence and precision along with inspiration.

In many ways, creativity is about reveling in the unexpected and unexplored. Science, too, lives at the boundary of what we know and what we don’t yet understand. This is why they’re so integral to each other, and why it boggles my mind when students divide them into two separate and opposite things.

Your homework: Go on a search for creativity in a place where you would least expect it! What do you think characterizes creativity? How can that add to or enhance another discipline?

Hej då,

Jamie

Creativity and Constraints

In the last month, I’ve had three individual people in my life (some of whom don’t know each other AT ALL) mention creativity as a crucial part of their life. Stephen, who is an applied mathematician at Cambridge, mentioned he’d started composing violin music again. Matt, who is a Knowles Fellow teaching math in Washington, noted that he used to play music and missed it. My mom and I had a conversation about how lesson planning is satisfying because of the creativity.

Because of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and how it is a thread that runs through lots of parts of my life. So this month of May I’m going to focus on creativity, and how it plays out through being an adventurer, a nerd, and an old-lady-hobbit.

Most of my own creative outlets (that come immediately to mind) are firmly in the nerd or hobbit category. I write short stories and fan-fiction. I plan lessons. I play (infrequently, now) the flute and piano. I knit. Baking and cooking can be creative. But there is also creativity in being an adventurer, and an adventurous spirit can lend itself to creativity in really important ways.

Start talking with any back country skier and you’ll open a vault of stories about good lines and bad lines and choosing lines and dreaming about lines. They’re obsessed. (A line is a path you choose down a slope, for non-skiers). There is huge creativity in designing a line for maximum thrill and at least a modicum of safety, whether that means dropping a cliff or avoiding an avalanche (the lead picture is the Wikipedia definition of avalanche…looks like a bad time). Even though I ski almost entirely in-bounds of a designated ski area, I love to take new interesting lines between trees, especially aspens that no one else has tried yet. So in this way, there is a lot of creativity in skiing.

Now, most of my time on skis wasn’t in the trees. I spent most of my time on a race course. And in a race course there are gates that tell you where to turn. Miss a gate, and you get disqualified. This seems like a huge limit on creativity.

But here’s the thing. I think in a lot of cases, creativity flows best under constraints. A race course has a set of gates everyone has to ski, true. But at the end of the run, there will be a huge variety of lines carved into the snow. I usually tried to make my turn as much above the gate as I could. Some racers pin it at the gate and make a lot of the turn below it. Really good racers can hold the entire course in their head and figure out where to go straight and where to set up a big turn in order to carry momentum. The ability to find the fastest line through a set of constraints (plus the ability to then actually ski that line) is what makes a truly great ski racer fast.

Mountain biking is very much the same way. One way to look at a trail is as a limit; riders have to stay on the single track. However, I love riding a trail where I know exactly how to take on obstacles and where to shift up and where to give a little more power, where to be precise and where to let it flow a little bit. The creativity is not in the trail, but in the approach to the trail.

Constraints lead to innovation. They require the creator to be thoughtful about how to navigate what already exists in a new way. Without constraints, there is no challenge to really be creative. Most modern technologies were invented in the midst of and because of constraints.

It requires bravery and a certain fortitude to look at constraints as a good thing instead of hardships. I struggle with this in every single part of my life. It’s easy to wish for more time or resources, for better weather or more strength. But there’s no challenge in that. I think part of the joy of creating comes from overcoming some sort of challenge. I’ve learned the most from situations where what I was trying to do seemed impossible and I had to be creative to figure out how to make it possible.

Doesn’t that just sound like an adventurer? “What I was trying to do seemed impossible, and I had to figure out how to make it possible.” This could be a quote from any pioneer who skied a new line, climbed a new mountain, or traveled to a new place.

Your homework: Where do you get to be creative in your life? How do you think constraints influence your creativity?

Hej då,

Jamie