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Learning Library Blog Creativity starts with belief—and doesn't end with failure
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Creativity starts with belief—and doesn't end with failure

By Nicole Krueger
January 1, 1970
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So I just thought of an idea for an invention that would be absolutely wonderful, but I immediately dismissed the thought because it’s “not possible” and “I won’t be able to do it.”

When Michael Cohen read those words from one of his students, it reminded him why he does what he does.

As director of innovation for Yeshiva University of Los Angeles Boys School, Cohen spends his days providing spaces for students and teachers to try new things, mess up and tackle problems by thinking creatively. His ability to nurture their creative spark through technology has earned him the nickname The Tech Rabbi—and often students turn to him when they’ve lost faith in their creative abilities.

Sometimes the most important thing he can do is tell them their ideas matter.

“In education today, there’s so much energy invested in helping our students acquire knowledge and acquire skills to succeed in life,” he says. “But how much time is invested in giving our students the opportunity to engage with the abstract, the unknown and the unscripted?

“Innovation is not achieved by knowledge and skill alone. It’s through having belief in yourself, belief in others and belief in something bigger than us. We need to give our students the courage to believe that they can create incredible things in the world.”

Cohen and two fellow creative visionaries—Andy Weir, author of The Marian, and educator Katie Martin—shared their thoughts on innovation, technology and the importance of failure with a packed audience at ISTE 2018. Here are some of their insights:

Technology isn’t an add-on.

The classroom hasn’t changed much since Martin went to school. It’s a symptom of a system that keeps piling new resources and expectations onto an outdated education model.

“So many have hailed technology as a silver bullet that’s going to change the face of education and improve engagement everywhere,” she says. “But I’ve seen this promise fail time and time again. If we don’t start by redefining our goals and what we want learners to know and do, we’re going to end up adding technology to an outdated system of education, and we’re going to fail to reach our vision for our kids and our collective future.”

The linear and standardized resources from the old education paradigm won’t help students become creative problem solvers or prepare them for jobs that don’t yet exist, she says. It’s time for educators to confront their traditions and open the door to something new.

“Are we taking our 20th century tendencies—this horse-and-carriage model of education—and just slapping rockets and roller skates on it and calling it 21st century tools? ” Cohen asks. “Or are we actually figuring out ways to empower our students to become authors and creators of awesome?”

You will fail. So will your students.

Before The Martian became a bestseller and hit movie, former software engineer Andy Weir wrote a really bad book. Then he wrote another one.

“There’s a lot of failure on the path to publishing,” he says.

He’d always wanted to be writer, but his journey to fame was anything but traditional. After failing to snag an agent or publisher for his earlier works, he initially self-published The Martian online as a serial novel, posting each chapter on his personal website as he finished it.

People started reading. So he compiled the chapters into an ebook and uploaded it to Amazon, selling digital copies for 99 cents apiece.

“It really snowballed. It started to really sell very well,” he says. “By the way, I was pulling down a cool 35 cents a copy in royalties. Bought a few cups of coffee with that. But it started to get really good reviews.”

As The Martian gained acclaim and made its way to the top of Amazon’s ebook bestseller list, it got the attention of an agent, a major book publisher and a major movie studio, launching Weir’s career as a successful novelist.

None of it would have happened if he’d stopped writing after his first failure—and that’s a lesson that can’t be emphasized enough in the creative classroom.

“Disclaimer: You will fail. I failed. Our students will fail,” Cohen says. “When failure is part of the journey and not a destination, it can be used to give strength to an even more incredible outcome than was previously thought possible.”

You don’t have to create something from nothing.

Creativity isn’t something you acquire, Cohen says. It’s something you reveal. But it isn’t easy.

“There is this overwhelming voice inside your head sometimes that says that you have to create something from nothing. But many times it’s even more impactful to turn something into something more,” he says.

When King Solomon said there’s nothing new under the sun, he wasn’t implying that human creativity has nowhere left to go. Rather, he was referring to the existing ingredients from which we all build. It’s up to us to combine them in new and meaningful ways.

One of those ingredients is time to explore—and that’s something students often don’t get enough of.

“Creativity is social. It’s collaborative,” Cohen says. “So I ask you, fellow educators, colleagues and friends: How can we turn 20 percent time into 100 percent time?”

Watch the video below for a quick recap of the ISTE 2018 Tuesday morning keynotes.