On Range

I recommend David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a SpecialIzed World.

Epstein reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell, who he mentions in the book, but his ur-disciplines are sports and psychology rather than social science. Epstein’s thesis is that broad minded thinking and doing is just as likely a route, if not more, to exceptional performance as hyper-specialization in a singular, narrow silo.

The book drew me in with a comparative case study of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, fascinated me with the lost history of Venice’s orphan female multi-instrumentalist virtuosos and the story of Nintendo’s evolution through finding innovative ways to entertain with obselete technology. Endless summaries of experimental psychology grew tiresome, but Epstein’s vivid retelling of Van Gogh’s tortured artistic journey and incisive summaries of the organizational failures at NASA that led to the Space Shuttles Challenger and Discovery disasters make for a truly enjoyable read. There was even an bit about how assemblages of chess-playing AI and humans can outperform both human teams and AIs. In sum, great brain candy.

Grab a copy for the brainy mid-career creative in your life to read over the holidays.

Why we all should embrace lifelong kindergarten

At an end-of-school party with other Grade 1 parents at my daughters’ school in June, I was struck by how anxious other parents were about approaches to teaching and learning that focus on play, curiosity, collaboration, and inquiry. Many parents want their children to be schooled in academic fundamentals and for them to excel at reading, writing, and performance. But too much emphasis on schooling, particularly when children are young, foregoes opportunities to practice approaches to learning that enable children to learn over their lifetimes. Over the summer, I’ve been reading about creativity and I came across a wonderful memoir and scholarly argument for social and creative learning with technology.

Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten makes for worthwhile back-to-school reading for parents wanting to better understand why we should support learners to cultivate curiosity, passion and skills through playful, creative projects relevant and meaningful to learners themselves.

“I am convinced the kindergarten-style learning is exactly what’s needed to help people of all ages develop the creative capacities needed to thrive in today’s rapidly changing society.” (p.7)

Resnick’s perspective on creativity and learning is individual, social and constructivist in comparison to the radical socio-cultural view I explored in my last post about the work of Reijo Miettinen. Lifelong Kindergarten is in part a history of Resnick’s research agenda at the MIT Media Lab and community interventions through the Computer Clubhouse Network. The book unpacks the key principles of learning that inform Resnick’s work: projects, passions, peers, and play. Although much of Resnick’s work focuses on fostering creativity for children and youth through technology, he demonstrates that principles equally apply in adult and higher education. Below, I share some compelling ideas from the book for parents.

Wider Walls and Lower Ceilings

Resnick shares an accessible set of educational principles that teachers and parents can use to think about learning, drawing on the work of Seymour Papert. Places of learning offer:

  • “easy ways for novices to get started (low floors)”
  • “ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceilings)
  • “support and suggest a wide range of different types of projects, and multiple pathways” (wide walls) (p.139)

Although Resnick equates wider walls with accommodating different learning styles, a problematic concept that parents and educators should reject, I agree with his point that learning must tap into the passions and interests of individual learners and that the aims of learning must be facilitated and negotiated by learners and their educators.

Offer Examples but Throw Away the Instructions

Resnick views teachers as facilitators of learning. He argues learners should be offered examples of different kinds of projects that are possible rather than detailed sets of instructions. Ultimately, the learner should have agency to decide whether or not to participate.

For example, Resnick suggests than children should aim to use LEGO to build their own creations rather than to build the thing shipped in the box. I decided to test out his approach and asked my daughters to use Lego to share the highlight of their day camp at the Aquarium during the summer holidays. Claire chose to represent a squid dissection:

Claire’s representation of a squid dissection at the Vancouver Acquarium

This open-ended project approach is appealing  in light of the teleological, closed approach of following the instructions to build a figure in the box or prescribed teacher-assigned exercises with right answers.

I witnessed an excellent example of how to embrace toys as a creative medium at “The Art of the Brick”, a special exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology in OttAwa featuring the work of Nathan Sawaya. Sawaya’s art was demonstrated the flexibility of LEGO bricks as an , particularly his multimedia collaboration with Australian photographer Dean West.

The most powerful part of the exhibition was the learning space at the end where inspired visitors were allowed to take up a set of challenges. The space featured a range of age-appropriate challenges and examples to inspire the builders. Claire and Megan took up the challenges each in their own way.

Let them tinker and play

“Tinkerers understand how to improvise, adapt, and iterate, so they are never hung up on old plans as new situations arise. Tinkering breeds creativity.” (p.136)

Empowering others to create begins by letting them tinker and learn through experience and error. Calls to let people learn through tinkering with materials and task is as old as apprenticeship, yet in the last 20 years, we have witnessed the democratization of making and and doing. There is the rise of the Maker Movement, design thinking, and Lego Serious Play.

Tinkering is at the root of prototyping and artistic endeavors. People must represent concepts through sketches and prototypes before they can make them a reality. Tinkering is at the core of agile business methodologies. I think people are predisposed to tinkering. My brother is a tinkerer with mechanical things. I am a tinkerer with ingredients. Maybe the point is that we each have our preferred material to tinker with. Malfoudis, in How Things Shape the Mind, argues that cognition is the dynamic interaction between mind, material and social context, so the meaning of a child’s LEGO creation is inextricable interwoven with the socio-cultural history of the blocks, and the socio-cultural context in which the assemblage is happening including the stimulus that is near by and the facilitate knowledge and guidance by the others who are in the space.

Resnick’s chapter on play is a highlight of Lifelong Kindergarten because it also make the argument that children vary in how the approach learning tasks. He summarizes academic studies of play. Resnick cites Harold Gardner’s distinction that  some children approach play as drama and others approach play as a challenge of finding patterns. This is not some either-or psychological binary, and I suspect that a given person’s approach will vary depending on the task, but Resnick  makes the point that learning environments are likely set up to privilege one approach over the other, and, as a result, put one part of the population at a disadvantage. This is one reason why innovative approaches to K-12 education, like  British Columbia’s new curriculum, which empowers teachers to combine aspects of education more easily to address a limited number of intended learning outcomes, creates opportunities for more children to achieve the results expected of them by making it easier for  embedding serious learning in playful work.

Want to be more creative? Seek out collaborative encounters and complementary knowledge

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Note: This post marks my first effort to address creativity as a topic, which I have long been interested in. I can remember checking Flow  out of the library around the time it was originally published.  Never content to take an orthodox route, I’ve started by reading socio-cultural perspectives on creativity, which are very different than the typical, psychological premises. I am more interested in dynamic, emergent and depersonalized approaches to creativity, which makes it much more difficult to write about because creativity is an emergent feature of a context and system rather than an attribute or a capability that individuals possess. I will strive to express myself more clearly as work with this material. — David

When you are ready to experiment with being more creative at work, consider Reijo Meittinen’s model of creative collaborative agency, which looks at creativity as a socio-cultural phenomenon that emerges as individuals and organizations interact rather than as an attribute some people possess and others don’t. You can read more about Meittinen’s work in “Creative Encounters, Collaborative Agency, and the Extraodinary Act of Meeting a Need with an Object” (Meittinen, 2014).

Miettinen offers a rich conceptual framework  from creativity studies and the history of science and technology to explain how collaborative creative agency emerges. He bolsters his analysis with classic examples from the history of technology like the emergence of the steam engine in England, the development of transcontinental telephone, and  two in-depth case studies from the development of medical diagnostic tests..

Miettinen’s model of collaborative creative agency is based on three ideas:

  1. Pay attention to areas of your current activity that are dissatisfying and consider what underlying contradictions may be causing the dissatisfaction.
  2. Find potential partners with relevant knowledge and experience related  to the contradiction, explore your complementarity knowledge, resources and interests and discover shared motives.
  3. Launch a shared project, ideate solutions that addresses the contradiction together, work together to bring the product or service into being


Name what feels wrong in the current situation and face the“contradictions”

One of the hardest parts of change, at least in my experience,  is setting a direction. What I appreciate about Meittinen’s model  is his focus on contradictions in current activity.

Meittinen’s research is based in cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) and innovation studies so contradictions have a particular meanings. They:

  • “evolve historically, … become recognized and defined only gradually” (p.161) …
  • “a source of development” (p. 163)  …
  • “the driving force of development and learning in human activities” (p.163)….
  • “between use value and exchange value” (p.163) …
  • “contrasts between the means (instrumentalities) and the object of activity, constantly emerge” (p.163) …
  • “explain change” (p.163) …
  • “… compatible with breakdowns and disharmonies  of practices” (p.163) ….
  • “main source of technological change” (p.163)

Contradictions are dialectal, foundational, complex oppositions within practices. In one of the medical cases, for example, a diagnostic method was effective but required radioactive elements so the testing could only be performed in certified labs, and the process producd radioactive waste. Now that is what I call a contradiction. Look forthe reverse salient, “the weakest point in an expanding technological system” (p.163), and you will likely find the contradictions.

Unpacking and naming contradictions is challenging collaborative work, but is a key component of many design and change facilitation processes. For example, Kees Dorst’s frame innovation process include a step of naming and dealing with paradoxes within the current practice. Without unpacking the problem space and finding the internal contradictions, you risk engaging in superficial, rational technical problem solving.

Embrace “anticipatory directionality”

Meittinen offers Fogel’s concept of “anticipatory directionality” as a way to describe what it means to sense a possible direction to address fundamental contradictions in the present without being able to definitively describe it. Here are some of the ways that Meittinen explains anticipatory directionality, drawing on concepts from creativity and innovation studies:

  • “A gradual recognition of a contradiction cannot be analyzed as rational decision making. Rather, it is expressed as what has been called anticipatory directionality (Fogel, 1993) and precedes the full articulation of an object of activity.” (p.161) …
  • “A preliminary orientation looking for a solution” (p.162) …,
  • “a nonspecific dissatisfaction with and concern about what is happening and a preliminary orientation of where to look for solutions”( (p.167) …
  • “an extended “gestation period” during which the need for change is gradually recognized as the result of multiple coincidental events” (p.168) …
  • “a bridge between the deepening contraction and and the full articulation of a new object” (p.171-172).

I am struck by the temporality of the concept, the incompleteness of perception of the present and future, the contingency of “multiple coincidental events”, and the intuitive, non-rational approach. This concept supports the entrepreneurship credo of “just start”, but Meittinen is careful to emphasize that collaborative, creative agency is rarely a short-term process. Most of the examples he discusses were years in the making. What I like about these ideas is that Meittinen goes beyond the generic advice of just starting  by sharing examples that emphasize the value of research, evidence, intuition and curiosity.

Pursue “creative encounters” with people and organizations who share your interests

Most people participate in professional groups and organizations that interest them, but Meittinen argues that collective creative learning emerges  from informal “creative encounters” between people and organizations who share relevant but complementary interests in a particular situation. For example, scientists interested in temperature-sensitive medical instrumentation met geoscientists with expertise in hotspring bacteria. Together,  they engaged in research and collaboration to create a new category of instrumentation. These encounters can be serendipitous and can take time.

Meittinen’s chapter offers a persuasive argument for exploring at the boundaries of your interests or in a slightly different context that what you normally would. As he says in the conclusion:

“In addition to traditional spaces such as conferences, professional meetings, associations, and trade fairs—new types of spaces, such as regional meetings, may foster encounters between heterogeneous agents, user-producer seminars, and living labs.”  (p.172)

In other words, hanging out within your network will not address a contradiction, you need to look for complementary knowledge in the logic sense – different but relevant.

Harness complementary knowledge and skills to create things that address the contradiction

Miettinen’s main point is that once collaborators identify a shared need, that need will drive shared action, and prompt them to work together on projects until they develop an object that successfully addressed the original contradiction. It is this shared action that defines learning.

Creativity beyond Psychology

Ultimately, psychological conceptions of creativity that privilege individual imagination and innovation obscure the possibility that individuals and organizations can cultivate creativity and innovation through interaction and collaboration. Through collaborative, motivated learning, coalitions or interested agents can create the conditions for positive change to emerge.

Just as Jay Hasbrouck has challenged researchers to convene stakeholders around research and innovation projects and Chris Le Dantec has proposed that designers must create publics around shared issues of concern, Meittinen shows that creativity is the outcome of social interactions and collaborations between individual and organizations.


Meittinen, R. (2013). Creative encounters, collaborative agency, and the extraordinary act of the meeting of a need and an object. In Learning and Collective Creativity: Activity-theoretical and sociocultural studies. Eds. Annalisa Sannino and Viv Ellis. Routledge: 158-176