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The Innovative Solution to the World’s Toughest Problems: Think Like a Kindergartner

At the beginning of every Innovation by Design course at INSEAD, an international graduate business school, students are given 20 sticks of spaghetti, 1 yard of tape, 1 yard of string, one marshmallow and 15 minutes to build the largest free-standing tower with a marshmallow at the top. They feverishly debate different approaches before settling on a single, ambitious plan — stringing together tape and spaghetti trusses.

“Efforts typically fail,” says Mitchel Resnick, an expert in educational technologies at the MIT Media Lab who’s worked with The LEGO Group for 30 years. “MBA students spend lots of time planning and attempting to execute a plan,” he tells me. “The first time you do that, though, it usually doesn’t work. So you run out of time.”

Nearing the 15-minute mark, most INSEAD teams beg for an extension. When time is finally called, half of the towers crash.

The Marshmallow Challenge has been conducted numerous times over the years. MBAs consistently perform the worst. Engineers do a little better. The group that performs the best?

Kindergartners.

“They experiment, fail and adapt in a creative learning spiral,” Resnick says. “We learn by trying things out. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Resnick is doing just that at the MIT Media Lab, where he leads a research group called “Lifelong Kindergarten” dedicated to drawing people into that same creative learning spiral. In his new book — also titled Lifelong Kindergarten — he argues that the fast-changing world of the future will call for innovative solutions to complex problems that can only be solved via this kindergarten-style thinking. I recently spoke with Resnick to figure why he believes 5-year-olds are smarter than the rest of us — or, at least, should be doing much of our problem-solving.

You write that kindergarten is the greatest invention of the past 1,000 years. Why?
The kindergarten approach starts kids off on a journey towards becoming creative thinkers. As kids playfully create things in collaboration with one another in kindergarten, they learn about the creative process — i.e., how to start with an idea, turn it into a project, experiment with it, share it with others and continue to adapt and refine it. Unfortunately, after kindergarten, kids spend a lot of time sitting in desks, filling out worksheets and listening to lectures — none of which helps them develop as creative thinkers.

Why is creative thinking especially important now?
Today’s children will face a never-ending stream of unknown and unpredictable situations in the future. In her book Now You See It, Cathy Davidson estimates that roughly two-thirds of today’s grade-school students will end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet. So everyone needs to continue to learn and adapt to the changing times. Whereas in the past, they could’ve been in a career-long occupation. The best way to prepare for that ever-changing world is to develop the ability to think and act creatively in order to come up with new approaches — both at the workplace and at home.

Your Scratch software allows for kids to program their classroom computers, not the other way around. What’s the thinking behind it?
Scratch allows kids to create their own interactive stories, games and animations and share them with one another. Rather than just playing games, browsing websites or interacting with apps, they get to create their own interactive media. In the process, they develop as creative thinkers. Creating is at the root of creativity, so if you want kids to grow up as creative thinkers, we need to give them more opportunities to do so.

Should parents be encouraging their kids to go out in the backyard and create a miniature golf course like you did?
There are many different ways that kids can create. They might be creating sculptures with wooden blocks. They might be creating origami sculptures with folded paper. Or they might be creating interactive stories with Scratch. All types of creative activities can contribute to kids developing as creative thinkers.

Does the same logic apply for adults?
In the past, people could go to school from ages 6 to 18, learn what they needed to learn and then apply that for the rest of their lives. In today’s fast-changing world, that doesn’t work. As such, it’s important for people to continue to learn for a lifetime and to continue to develop as creative thinkers. That’s why I called the book Lifelong Kindergarten.

Can you explain the distinction between creative thinking and artistic expression?
When I say “creative thinking,” I’m referring to all different forms of expression. When a doctor diagnoses a disease, that’s creative. When a marketing manager is coming up with a new plan for describing a product, that’s creativity. It’s also in our everyday lives. When someone is planning a birthday party for a friend, that could be a creative endeavor. Same for figuring out the directions of how to go somewhere or offering advice to a friend who’s confronting a problem. Whenever we work on any type of project — either at work or outside of work — it can benefit from creative thinking.

Is lying a form of creative thinking?
Sure. It’s not that all creative things are desirable. There are even phrases, like creative accounting, which usually means manipulating numbers inappropriately to get what you want.

You suggest that creative thinking can even improve our social lives. How?
Even just in knowing how to meet people. There are so many ways to navigate the current social media and network communities that people live in today. Knowing how to navigate and explore the community. To find people that you resonate with and connect with. And then to be able to come up with shared interests that you can build upon together. That all requires creative thinking.

Do we get worse at working together as we age?
Some people have the wrong image of what thinking and learning is about. They think of The Thinker, where the person is just sitting by himself in deep thought. And, of course, sometimes it’s useful to sit by yourself in deep thought. But most deep thinking doesn’t happen by yourself. Most great thinking happens in collaboration with others. We have to break away from that image of the solitary thinker and learner, because the way to really develop as a creative thinker and learner is by interacting with others.

You suggest we learn from the Danes, who have two words for “play.”
In English, we use the word play in so many different ways: We play games. We play the piano. We play the stock market. Not all types of play are equal, however. So to support kids as creative thinkers, we need to support the type of play where they’re engaged in exploring, experimenting and creating things.

As for the Danes, the word play is the root of the word lego. It combines two words, in fact — le and got, which means: Play well.

What does play — or lego — look like at the office?
It’s important to give people the opportunity to explore and try new things rather than doing the same thing over and over again. Companies have proven this to be very successful. When Google gave employees the ability to use 20 percent of their time to work on their own personal projects, many of those projects ended up benefitting the company. That’s a form of kindergarten-learning — allowing people to explore and experiment to learn new things. If everyone can make slight adjustments in their own work to allow for the creative learning spiral to take effect, it can pay off for everybody.

Plato allegedly said that you can learn more from someone in an hour of play than a year of conversation. What do you think is meant by that?
When people are engaged in play, they’re learning more and you get to see more of them as they experiment, explore and show more of themselves. Playing keeps our mind fresh. It’s not Plato, of course, but George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we stop playing, we grow old because we stop playing.”