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The Educational Value of Creative Disobedience
Andrea Kuszewski   Jul 10, 2011   Scientific American  

What is supposed to be the most critical learning period for shaping children into the leaders of tomorrow has evolved over the years into a stifling of the creative instinct—wasting the age of imagination—which we then spend the rest of our lives trying to reconnect with.

Looking back on my childhood, the times I remember most fondly were spent with my father, learning how to be a scientist. He’s not a scientist himself, though—but an artist. He’s one of those people who knows a little bit about everything, quite a bit about most things, and loves sharing those bits of insight with anyone who will listen. He is a perpetual observer, a noticer of peculiarities, a collector of knowledge.

Being a relentlessly curious child, I saw my father as my walking encyclopedia. My afternoon routine consisted of perching myself on a stool in his workshop, peppering him with random questions as he worked.

Why do chameleons change color? Can lightning follow a trail of water? Why do we go in the basement during a tornado? How do those guys karate-chop planks of wood without breaking their hand? (Because I had tried this myself and believe me, it wasn’t pretty.)

No matter how silly or trivial the question, he always had a generously detailed answer for me, thick with scientific evidence. I was perfectly content with this symbiosis until one afternoon—I must have been about 7 or 8 years old—when everything changed.

The Irresistible Taste of Color

There was a question that had been plaguing me for days, and I wanted my dad’s full attention.

He was working on a new project, so I bided my time, respecting his need for silence during his creative flow. I loved watching his process, trying to imagine what was going on behind his eyes right before his pencil struck surface. His arm moved swiftly across a large sheet of paper, effortlessly laying out a composition in a series of graceful sweeps and snaps of the wrist, a conductor creating life in a symphony of strokes, dancing and multiplying before me. The intensity of his concentration was clear in his grimace.

I held my breath. A minute or two of heavy staring at the page, a few more swipes at the paper, and he stepped back, smiling to himself. That was my moment.


“Mmm hmm.”

“What are black holes? I mean, how do they work?”

He turned to me and laughed a little. I had managed to shock him with my latest inquiry.

“What specifically do you have a question about?” he asked. He was probably regretting buying that set of World Book Encyclopedias, which I had since claimed as my own.

“Well, where does all the stuff go after it gets sucked inside? I thought matter couldn’t be created or destroyed? It has to go somewhere, right? So—where does it go?” 

“I’m not sure,” he responded. “I don’t think it follows the same rules.” 

I was stunned. He didn’t know? How? Why?

In my young schema of the world, my father knew everything there was to know. I looked to him to be The Teacher of All Things Important in Life, and I was watching my reality crumble away in one unanswerable question. Realizing for the first time that my father was not a god was life-altering enough, but my world changed in an even more profound and quite unexpected way: in that uncomfortable moment of dissonance, when my thirst for knowledge went unsatisfied—I was exhilarated. There was a scientific mystery, and neither one of us knew the answer. It was ridiculously exciting, and I didn’t quite know why, but I was drunk with wonder.

We spent the rest of that afternoon discussing black holes—looking through books, making little diagrams, trying to make some sense of theoretical physics—together.

My mind awakened that day. I fell in love with not just knowing things, but in solving mysteries. No longer content to just get an answer, I went seeking answers, pleased with my newly discovered investigative prowess. And when I came upon something interesting, I shared it with my Dad, and we discussed it like colleagues, sorting out the little pieces of the puzzle together—not always succeeding, but having a splendid time trying.

It was as if a whole new color was added to the world’s palette that my eyes had never noticed before. More and more hues revealed themselves in time. Life became deeper. Things moved slower, had more parts. There was so much I didn’t know, and so much I wanted to find out, layers upon saturated layers of discoveries waiting for me to uncover. I was hooked. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was when I first became a scientist.

The Pain of Withdrawal

I wish I could say that was the happy ending of my childhood story. Instead, it was the beginning of a rather torturous developmental period.

kidsMy new outlook on life, which could be summarized as “Don’t tell me—I want to figure it out myself!” was not an attitude that went over too well in school. For many years I struggled with wanting to please my teachers—listening to directions and following the rules—but feeling creatively unfulfilled and unchallenged. At times I had an instinct to speak up and offer an alternate explanation, or an urge to try something a different way, but I quickly learned that only “undisciplined and obnoxious” children challenged authority and caused disruption. These were not the kinds of students whom teachers favored. I learned to ignore the pangs of my creative spirit, which only seemed to bring me misery when answered.

As much as I loved learning, school was uninspiring and left me hollow. I saw school as a necessary time commitment, but not much else. I ended up doing most of my learning and exploration on my own with whatever tools I had at my disposal—books, observation, watching people, and of course—my imagination.

Obviously my love for science and learning was not completely destroyed by my early school experience, or I wouldn’t be where I am today. But I certainly bear some scars. Now that I know a lot more about neuroscience and psychology, I wonder:

What effects did the discouragement of creativity and independence have on my developing brain, and how much of it was permanent? How much of a role did the inflexible, rule-dependent nature of school play in my cognitive development, versus my own independent or experiential learning?

Even bigger question: Was school helping or hurting my intellectual growth?

Before I answer those questions, let’s take a look at this from the other side first—how creativity and exploratory behavior is diminished by traditional teaching models—then I’ll explain how that relates to intellectual development overall…


Andrea Kuszewski, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, lives in San Francisco and works as a researcher and manager with VORTEX Research Group. She investigates the neurocognitive factors behind human behavior.


Quest to Learn is a school for digital kids. It is a community where students learn to see the world as composed of many different kinds of systems. It is a place to play, invent, grow, and explore.

Design and innovation are at the heart of Quest to Learn (Q2L), a school committed to helping every student to achieve excellence in the skills and literacies necessary for top college and career readiness. We believe that students today can and do learn in different ways, often through interaction with digital media and games. Q2L builds on this belief to create a nurturing and vibrant 6th-12th grade school environment that supports all students in the pursuit of academic excellence, social responsibility, respect for others, and a passion for lifelong learning. Quest opened with a 6th grade class in Fall 2009, and will add a new grade each subsequent year.

Quest supports a dynamic curriculum that uses the underlying design principles of games to create academically challenging, immersive, game-like learning experiences for students. Games and other forms of digital media also model the complexity and promise of “systems.” Understanding and accounting for this complexity is a fundamental literacy of the 21st century.

The school’s learning model is carefully designed to enable all students, with a diverse range of learning styles to contribute to the design and innovation necessary to meet the needs and demands of a global society. At Quest, a curiosity for learning paired with a commitment to social responsibility and respect for others defines the school culture. “Learn how, learn now,” is our motto.

Quest fosters the type of learning that is possible today—learning based on access to online resources and tools from around the globe, learning that supports customized content for every student, learning that is game-like in its ability to inspire and motivate.

Our reason for being is to activate a next generation of engaged citizens. We do it by leveraging the power of games.

We bring together game design, rigorous research practices and strong interdisciplinary partnerships to create, study and promote game-based materials, strategies and systems as critical tools for personal and social development.

“The principle goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done - men who are creative, inventive and discoverers”

The truism above demonstrates our anachronism: men, it writes, not women, children or adolescents. What is most salient to me is the lack of consensus in education which mirrors the outside world. I mentioned Christopher Columbus; then there’s “Lincoln was the liberator of the slaves”; versus “Lincoln was a Yankee imperialist”. It goes on & on. At least in math it can’t be such.

‘It’s not about the children’—well they got that right!

I shouldn’t post more than three times a day, however why I dislike the lack of consensus ought to be explained because the larger and more complex our systems become, consensus is naturally bound to be lost. Unfortunately the degree of non-consensus is discouraging, I’ve always thought Americans go out of their way to be contrarians—countless Americans (without knowing what other nations are actually like; it takes decades to know another country) are this way; there is little or no consensus on for instance,
a)  energy policy
b)  space program interests
c)  climate change
d)  government spending
e)  sexual politics (everyone from Reverend Billy to Larry Flynt)
f)  life extension…
Et cetera & so on.
The point ‘rightists’ are making when you strip away the obfuscation is they don’t like planning, excessive planning. Yet they take it way too far! Plus as ‘leftists’ wont admit how many untrustworthy people work for the state so too will many rightists refuse to admit how many bad individuals there are in the private sector. And leaving the worst for last, the hypocrisy-is-the-tribute-vice-pays-to-virtue dictum comes into play: many rightists want the state to give funds and services to their own kind, even if they don’t need it, even if the outcome is to merely make their lives more complicated. Geez, the games people play.
All of the above is extremely difficult to discuss with them, they are much too reactive, defensive; and if I attempt to broach any of it they say I’m complaining. In other words, “don’t rock the boat” even if they themselves are unruly—after all, Americans prize freedom above all, not responsibility. As the blog here correctly admonishes, Don’t Give Up. However to truly enjoy it you’d have to see politics as a bad sitcom to get some cheap boffs from. Dumbshow.
Only a sadist could gain pleasure from it.
If you even suggest not everything is political the land sharks will riposte that saying so is in itself political. So it breaks down to Acceptance, accepting what we cannot change, Buddhists might say “go with the flow”. Everyone at IEET knows there are technically no rules, we are making rules up as we go along in adapting to changing circumstances, and we all know life is a Darwinian crapshoot. Long time ‘til that can be changed—so we go with the flow though not having the slightest notion of where the flow is heading to.

I’ll be on-air tomorrow afternoon at 3:20 ET/12:20 PT to discuss this article on NPR Seattle’s The Conversation. Here’s the link to listen live:

Following the broadcast, you can listen to the audio on their facebook page here:​nversation

Thanks for reading!! smile

i benefit you talk about sharks to say that if i was in charge of oceans (appolinian style) i would kill them all, so that no one would be tempted to make stupid movies about that in the end, girls like to watch (why not ?) and accuse us to save them too early or too late. thanks a lot for your cooperation.

Etienne, the way you write is refreshing. ‘Jaws’, what a piece of Americana. (BTW, a senile person once contacted the producer of Gilligan’s Island to ask if the producer would please let the actors off the island. Maybe he thought the shark ate Robert Shaw in real life?)

Higher ed is as good as can be given the circumstances; and today’s circumstances are the strangest in memory (though dislocation is exactly how things have changed in the past- as most of you know)—but lower ed DOES need to change as this article demonstrates. For starters, older students can process profound contradiction—young ones cannot. Children’s minds are not software.

Important topic. I’d go even further in the indictment of the traditional educational system. It functions first and foremost to instill obedience and make us docile workers. The school is the like the factory and the prison. The dark side of the Enlightenment project comes into stark relief when considering (or experiencing!) such institutions.

Agreed, except that higher ed is ‘okay’ (as far as I know), probably as good as it can be under the circumstances—but that might not be saying a whole lot.

“Hypothesis I: Teaching and encouraging kids to learn by rote memorization and imitation shapes their brain and behavior, making them more inclined towards linear thinking, and less prone to original, creative thinking.”

“Let’s take a look at our typical education paradigm: ... pay attention, watch the teacher, imitate what the teacher does, stay in your seat, don’t question authority, and receive praise. But instead of teaching children to think, we are teaching them to memorize. Instead of encouraging them to innovate, we expect them to follow the outline and adhere to rules.”

OMG, if you think it’s bad in the west, you should (not?) come to the east. The education system here is Victorian in its backwardness. As a foreign English teacher, I have tried new methods with the Taiwanese and it is so obvious they have been trained as above. Even people who have achieved much in their careers have little initiative and are often looking to me as a crutch.

But fortunately:

“The good news is, the brain is plastic, and these types of thinking patterns can still be taught, even into adulthood. It may take more work to break habits of behavior the longer you’ve engaged in them, but the brain can still adapt to new ways of thinking.”

But I persevere and little by little I awaken their dormant facilities for independent thought and nervously at first and then more and more confidently they venture their opinions.

“Teaching how and when to break rules and take creative risks isn’t a neat and clean process—it can get a little messy, and errors will be made. But we should be aware of this from the beginning and reward smart risk-taking, even if it leads to an error.”

One of the basic principles of language learning, certainly as I have found, both as a teacher and a student.

“We say we want children to achieve at the highest level—to be the next generation of great scientists and innovators and artists and world leaders—yet the system we’ve put in place makes it nearly impossible for each child to reach their potential.”

I’ve found from my students that not only is the system poor but the teachers of Taiwan for the most part, don’t want it to change. They like being able to walk into a class, drone on for the prescribed time, and then walk out. The they can retire at 55 on a reasonable income. There is absolutely no incentive for them to want to change anything.
Anyone who wants to change anything has an uphill battle.

BTW when you hear people talk about how much better Orientals do compared to the West in tests you should remember they do tests every day of their school lives. But when it comes to thinking outside the coffin (or even flexible within it) they are very poor. Critical thinking is at a minimum. Some of them do show some spirit and independence of mind but that is in spite of the educational system here, and those that do, often focus their talents solely on money making leading to an unbalanced society (I’m not saying that commercial activities are necessarily bad, in and off themselves, just that they should not be the be-all and end-all of people’s lives).

“What is supposed to be the most critical learning period for shaping children into the leaders of tomorrow has evolved over the years into a stifling of the creative instinct—wasting the age of imagination—which we then spend the rest of our lives trying to reconnect with.”

Absolutely, but I don’t think it ends with our early school experiences.
I suspect the system of deadening our potential goes on long afterwards in periods of both prosperity and scarcity. Not necessarily by any grand conspiracy but I think our societies are not as free as we would like to think and we conform more than we want to admit. As I’ve mentioned before in other posts there is a disconnect between our stone-age nature and the world we’ve constructed today and I feel it’s likely we are more tribal and hierarchical than we really ought to be.

“The time has never been more ready for systemic change than right now, and we’ve never had better tools to achieve this level of creative disobedience, to successfully prepare our children for the big challenges that lie ahead. It might be uncomfortable and take a bit of work, but our future depends on this radical change in order to survive.”

Spot on. Just be ready for resistance and not just from educators.

An interesting hypothesis, Lawren. Don’t know how we can test it, though.

Here’s some positive news.. I… guess:

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