Necessity, the Mother of Invention; Curiosity, the Father.
“[…] Let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention.” – Plato’s Republic
Plato considered necessity to be the mother of invention, but not everyone agreed. In his 1917 address on education, Alfred North Whitehead argued, “The basis of invention is science, and science is almost wholly the outgrowth of pleasurable intellectual curiosity.” Perhaps the two convictions may be brought into harmony. It is commonly said that a person’s calling is where his or her personal passion intersects (or collides!) with the needs of the world. This means that creativity depends partly on a person’s gifts, aptitudes, and temperaments but that there always remains that dimension of simply being in the right place and the right time to make a much needed impact. In this series of posts, I will consider how creativity and innovation spans all different realms by discussing how humanistic, technical, social, and artistic innovators teach us lessons that I, in turn, teach my students.
Leonardo da Vinci – Humanistic Innovator
Leonardo da Vinci is the one who epitomizes for us the Renaissance period. The Florentine was interested in astronomy, botany, cartography, engineering, geology, literature, math, sculpting, painting, and the list continues. What can such an extraordinary person from such a peculiarly rich historical context teach modern students in Canada?
As a teacher, I think he can teach my students and I quite a lot! Leonardo da Vinci’s approach to the world is attractive and inspiring. He urges us to “Realize that everything connects to everything else.” And, above all, he invites us to love what we are learning in order to learn it well and love it better: “Great love springs from great knowledge of the beloved object, and if you know it but little you will be able to love it only a little or not at all.”
One of the activities I facilitate with my students is a Renaissance Fair. The students choose from a long list of topics and characters—almost as wide-ranging and da Vinci’s own hobbies and contemporaries. They then research and find a way to embody that topic or character (vernacular, costume, mannerisms) and share what they have learned with the class.
Once a student re-created the printing press and printed the students’ initials on a piece of paper. After the exercise a student remarked: “This was a lot of work, but I actually had fun, and remember information about the Renaissance because I think of my friend and what she displayed.” Another reflected: “The painters acted so much better than me just because I was a labourer!”
The lessons about creativity that we can learn and teach with reference to the Renaissance involve the goodness of general understanding and an appreciation for liberal arts. Since most students study many subjects in school and have a lot of extracurricular activities, it is good to encourage them that they do not need to be good at everything in order to be curious about everything. This way they can also come to appreciate the interests and strengths of others and discover their complementarity with one another.
Steve Jobs – Technical Innovator
Steve Jobs is one of the best-known inventors of our time. It is almost impossible to enter a coffee shop and not see someone using an Apple product. I think that there are some things that teachers and students can learn from his mentality and approach, too. Jonathan Jones, like many others, has commented on the aesthetics of Apple: “Perhaps the greatest insight of Steve Jobs, when it came to design, was that the most beautiful, marvelous creation on earth is not the computer, but the person using it. The Apple aesthetic is profoundly humanist – and in this sense it has truly made the world a better place.”
While Jobs was a tech innovator and pioneer, he knew that people do not only appreciate useful things, but beautiful things. This is worth remembering as we educate students in the twenty-first century.
He also had an incredibly measured view toward technology. He even went so far as to say, “Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.”
Once someone said to him: “Your kids must love the iPad?” His reply: “Actually we don’t allow the iPad in the home. We think it’s too dangerous for them in effect.”
When I started my teaching career, I was always trying to integrate technology with every assignment (from Minecraft to Glogster to Prezi and so on). Eventually I realized that the students seemed so detached both from one another and from the material. They were on screens at school and then again when they went home.
This prompted me to start the explorer journal project. Students are given a prompt each week, and are responsible for carrying out the activity at home and outside of their home. All entries are done by hand. This past week, students had to sit at Starbucks and “people watch.” For 30 minutes they just had to sit and observe, and make detailed notes about three individuals. They loved this practice at observation! It was so different from what they are doing all the time.
We know that students are constantly plugged in. In fact, they do not really need to be “taught” how to use technology since they are naturally so adept at it. Students type more naturally they write. They even consider writing by hand to be novel! For example, I have had my students handwrite to pen pals in Poland and in the North West Territories. One student reflected: “I put a lot of effort into my letter, so my pal will do the same. I feel like I am getting to know them through their writing.”
Jobs shows that the balance between technology and human contact is crucial and that technology is to serve humans, not the other way around. This is what I want to convey to my students, too.
Jean Vanier – Social Innovator
In Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with Jean Vanier, she refers to him as a “social innovator.” I think this is appropriate because while innovation may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of working with those with disabilities, Vanier’s work has been truly pioneering and creative.
When he saw how persons with disabilities were living in abysmal asylums, the example of a priest he admired motivated Vanier to invite two men with disabilities into his own home in order to “share life” together. This was the beginning of L’Arche. In the interview, I am especially struck by his comment: “You see, there’s such a need to be appreciated, such a need to be loved. With that sense somewhere that if they see what is broken in me, they’ll no longer love me. So somewhere there has to be a complete change. That we love people not because they’re beautiful or clever, because they’re a person.”
Students, like everyone, have so many vulnerabilities and fears. I think one of the most important things that we can teach and learn together is that each person matters because he or she is a person. Every person is not worthy of love based on what they can do, but for who they are (as Vanier commonly puts it).
To introduce these lessons to my students, I began bringing my junior high students to a senior’s centre down the street on Tuesday afternoons. Every time a new group would be responsible for planning an activity (whether bingo, or art, or games). At first when we went, students complained that it was taking away from academic time and was a waste.
Week after week we went and gradually the complaints began to subside. Now everyone walks in, greet the seniors by name, draw birthday cards when it’s someone’s birthday, and sit comfortably and listen to their stories.
One student reflected with me: “Well, it makes you feel good when you walk in and they rush up to you to grab your arm and show you off.” Another mentioned he liked having an opportunity to hear about a man who had fought in the war after his family was murdered. “That was brave,” this student noted. I especially appreciate it when the students exclaim, “Their stories match what we talk about in social studies!”
I hope that my students can become social innovators, too. Like Vanier says, it begins with the simple affirmation that it is good for the other person to exist and it is enough for that person to be person to treat him or her accordingly. What could be a more important lesson to teach my students than this?
Shane Koyczan – Artistic Innovator
Every year I show Shane Koyczan’s video “To this Day,” which is a spoken word poem about the impact of bullying. And every year it makes the students cry and moves them to reflect on how they can be kinder to their classmates (at least for a short while). This one poem leads my students to, on their own initiative, go and listen to all of his other performances. They enjoy discussing how spoken word is a powerful way to enter into conversation about challenging topics.
“Seems like each school has an arsenal of names
Getting updated every year
And if a kid breaks in a school
And no one around chooses to hear
Do they make a sound?”
Shane is a 40-year-old Canadian man. The students are captivated by his hard-hitting poetry and respond positively to it. One student said, “Well, it’s not like a teacher standing in front and telling me to be nice; it’s this grown man who has so much sadness and anger in his voice about being hurt.”
As a teacher, I choose a poetry and story theme every year, and the students then create their own spoken word performances to learn how to use their voices to share and inspire. I choose tough topics – from child soldiers to civil rights. I also invite local spoken word artists in Calgary to share their inspiring work.
During the classroom performances, parents and students alike are always wowed by what they learn from their classmates through the art of spoken word.
One grandparent initially said, “I think that child solider performance was too harsh for kids.” But his grandfather thought differently and said, “That was the best performance from those two boys. I was crying because I never knew this happened to kids my age. Can we learn more about this in class?”
The students even recall their classmates’ performances when I quiz them about the material we have covered in class. That’s because a powerful performance roots itself in their minds, as opposed to me standing in front of them trying to convey things compellingly.
One group of students also did a performance on mental health. They used comments overheard in their hallways to perform their entire piece. Teachers, parents, the administration, and students really took this to heart. This one impacted the students the most, as they heard their hallway comments aloud on the stage in front of an audience. The performance led to more initiatives to address bullying within our school. It served to create and more empathetic and caring school culture showing that art can be a means of innovating change within communities.