Bashing into Walls to Change the World

In the book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant writes, “When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.”

He explains that people blame the absence of creativity for the lack of originality in the world. (Be honest: Have you said recently, “Why can’t they come up with a new movie idea instead of just refashioning old ones?” I have…)

Grant surmises that people think society would  be better off if only we could come up with some more novel ideas. “But in reality,” Grant explains, “the biggest barrier to originality is not idea generation—it’s idea selection…It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality—if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it—but this turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.” And when focusing solely on quality, “many people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection.”

This reminded me of a Steve Jobs interview in which Jobs stated:


“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Creativity, originality, change… they all require stepping outside the societal norms and limitations placed on us. They require taking risks; ideating and iterating many, many, many times; and understanding that the capacity for creativity is in all of us, but maybe, just maybe, creativity requires work and a commitment to let all those ideas flow! Lots and lots of them. And of course, bashing into walls and living life outside the neat little world!

So how do we provide the conditions for students to bash into the walls (okay, maybe not literally!)?How do we encourage the mass generation of ideas instead of obsessively refining the few? How do we provoke students to question, or even change, rules and systems?  In other words, how do we bash into the walls of a traditional, high-stakes educational system and empower students to become change agents (like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are trying to do!)?

Educational systems, structures, and beliefs create enormous pressure on students to “get it right” (as determined by people no smarter than us) the first time. One assessment to measure if you learned the chapter content. One essay to determine if you met the writing standard benchmarks. One grade for each assignment. One SAT exam. Each of these with its own set of rules and systems to prove conformity to societal expectation.

When students go against those rules and systems (again, as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are), adults get agitated and seek to put them back in their place. And yet, when students become adults and seek out jobs, the workforce bemoans their lack of originality and creative problem solving skills. 

Our role as teachers and administrators should be, then, to bash into the traditional walls to provide students opportunities to:

  • Think and act like a designer
  • Solve real world problems
  • Connect with industry experts to experience the world of work from people living it, and not from a textbook
  • Use play as a way to learn
  • Learn from and with students, and not just teach to them 
  • Experience personalized learning that embraces strengths, passions, and ideas

What walls are you bashing into? How about your students?  I’d love to hear about your classroom or school experiences.

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