Steven Berlin Johnson: Instead of building cathedrals in learning, we need to learn to build cathedrals ☆

| May 5, 2011

We settled into our seats in the Cowin auditorium for the final event of the Creativity, Imagination, and Innovation Symposium, at Teachers College. The anticipation for Steven Berlin Johnson’s closing keynote address was palpable. The celebrated author and Columbia alumnus was about to wrap-up a day and a half of activities, which included experiential workshops, a panel discussion about creativity, intimate midday artistic salons and a lot of conversation in the TC hallways about how to effectively foster creativity in the classroom.

A woman seated to my right chatted on the phone to a friend, remarking: “it’s been marvelous, I am so glad I came.” I was especially eager to hear the writer of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation speak, since his book has been waiting to be purchased on my Amazon wishlist since its release in October 2010.

After a glowing introduction from event co-chair, Professor Margaret Crocco, Johnson casually took his place on stage for a 45-minute talk about nurturing innovation. He stressed that opportunities for learning and innovation come when students are placed in diverse environments in which they have clear objectives.

“Collaboration between different intelligences is the hallmark of innovative spaces,” he remarked. But it wasn’t always easy for Johnson, who has an undergraduate degree in semiotics from Brown University and a graduate degree in English Literature from Columbia, to see how science and the humanities could be entwined. It wasn’t until he was exposed to the work of former Columbia Professor Franco Moretti that he realized bridges could be built joining the two.

Moretti gained fame for controversially applying quantitative scientific methods to the humanities. Johnson mentioned reading Moretti’s Signs Taken for Wonders, and the mind-blowing impact the professor’s use of Darwinian techniques to analyze literature had on him. It was the first time he saw scientific procedures being employed to evaluate literature.

Photo by Heather Van Uxem.

From that moment on, Johnson began researching iconic innovators. He started to see a recurring trend in their stories: the synthesis of distinct academic disciplines and an overwhelming presence of diversity and engagement in collaboration. Expanding on the idea, Johnson explained, “a successful marketing exec isn’t the one hanging around with other marketing executives, but rather the one who knows a plumber, a poet; people from diverse backgrounds.” But diversity alone is not enough for innovation. Having a set of clear objectives to meet is also imperative in sparking creativity.

Dawn of Discovery, a real-time New World exploration video game, is something Johnson’s younger sons are currently “obsessed with.” In the game, players establish settlements. In order to do so, they must complete certain tasks. One objective being: to construct a cathedral. It is a clear and challenging objective that has the player set up stone quarries to harvest building materials, socialize with nobles to obtain the necessary class support to carry out the project, and establish taxes to secure funding.

Johnson talked about his sons’ eagerness to discuss their progress in the game regularly at the dinner table and wondered why this same kind of enthusiasm isn’t present when the boys talk about their schoolwork. He realized that it is the variety the game provides, aligned with a unified task that makes the boys eager to innovate. As his sons set up their stone quarries, they are learning about industrialism. When they socialize with nobles they are learning about sociology and when they start building, they are picking up urban planning skills.

“Instead of building cathedrals in learning, we need to learn to build cathedrals,” Johnson remarked before opening the floor to questions. This had several address attendees rush to the microphones to ask questions and voice concerns: Aren’t video games addictive? What about their expensive costs? How can ethics be addressed in these new, innovative games? And how can time be allotted for innovation and creativity in special education classes especially, where the teachers have to meet their own set of objectives, which are part of their tight pacing schedules?

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