Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

Where Good Ideas Come From


This article was originally published in the July edition of Moffly Magazine's Education section and was written by GFA's Chair of Computer Science Nina Yuen.  

The creation of something original is a harrowing task. Be it an innovative, problem-solving design or a piece of visual art, the ideation that must happen to get there requires confidence, a suspension of disbelief, and a degree of magical thinking. It requires a harnessing of the self-editor, that nagging inner critic that often leads creators to dismiss an idea as impossible too soon. Perhaps most importantly, it requires a level of comfort navigating ambiguity – the ability to sit in the awkward space of not knowing how something will turn out. 

Traditional thinking about art and design education presumes that once a person absorbs a certain amount of knowledge — logs the hours, gains the credentials — they are ready to create. I argue that the best ideas, the wildly radical ones, can come from young people who are uniquely positioned to create and absorb at the same time. And, the good news: the researchers at Stanford’s d. School have outlined a list of design abilities that encourage students and educators to recognize and develop their own creative potential. These design abilities are bedrocks of my Design and Visual Arts courses at Greens Farms Academy in Westport and many are surprised to learn that they all occur before a prototype is created, before the pen touches the paper. It is a critical self-confidence tool for young creators. The ability to push through self-doubt (the “who will ever use this?” “what makes this piece of art ‘good?”) in a young artist’s mind is priceless. 

There is no IKEA manual when you are in the process of creating something that doesn’t exist and the wherewithal to navigate the unknown and have confidence in your ability to move forward is one of the primary skills design schools seek to teach. The relevance of this skillset beyond artistic creation is not hard to imagine either. So how can we systematically encourage students to create with confidence? Follow steps one through five, rinse and repeat. 

Step One: Come up with Constraints

Challenging yourself to build something within a specific set of parameters unleashes creativity in a surprising way — it demystifies the blank slate. When creators are given no guidelines the idea that anything is possible can paralyze them – practicing creation within a particular framework demystifies the process and actually fosters more creativity and a better, more original product. It seems counterintuitive but these guidelines force students to be more productive. For example, in our design courses when I say, “You have total free reign to solve any problem, using any technology but you must use robots,” — or in visual art we often do this with mediums: this is a photography project, this is a charcoal drawing – it allows people to channel their creativity. 

Step Two: Embrace the Bad with the Good

The best ideas are just refined bad ideas. This is a refrain my students will hear again and again. Of course, it is often not until they see this actually happen that they believe this to be true. More really is more in the early stages of ideation. When brainstorming in art and design, my students are encouraged to throw out as many ideas as pop into their heads and take them for a spin. Too often ideas are dismissed as impossible too early without spending the time to consider the reasons for their impossibility. Some of the most original work derives from just beyond the realm of that concept of “possible.” Teaching students the patience to sit with that discomfort and to develop an ability for sticking with a problem a little longer than feels comfortable is a skill for life well beyond art and design creation. 

Step Three:  Socialize Ideas

Teenagers are an inherently social cohort and yet feedback, particularly on original ideas or artwork, is not always comfortable to give or receive. Creating a space where students feel safe enough to bring their ideas — even the not-yet-refined bad ideas — to crowdsource among their peers is an essential piece of my curriculum. This is the process of choosing to make ideas better and it requires a vulnerability and flexibility on the part of the creator. The work of sharing the ideas or early prototypes of artwork forces students to express their process and goals and then receive feedback. It forces their peers to respond with thoughtful, honest feedback that involves ideas in addition to what is not working. These discussions in my classroom are usually some of the most imaginative and it is incredible to watch students build each other up rather than shut ideas down. 

Step Four: Combination 

The pressure to come up with that one good idea is enormous and usually unattainable. It is important for students — and everyone — to remember that more often than not the best creations are a combination of several pretty basic ideas. The act of marrying these concepts together is what brings the originality and ingenuity — the beauty, in the case of visual art. For example, one of my students was working on a new system for book-finding in a library, and he came up with three ideas: a GPS for the floors, light-up arrows for the aisles, and a robotic arm for the shelves. Instead of choosing between the three concepts, he realized he had to ask himself when his device needed to detect his location, light up, or move, so that he could elegantly braid all three of his ideas into his final design.

Step Five: Ask Yourself “What Does Success Look Like … For Me?”

Arguably my favorite step in this creative process is this final one where students are given the authority to dictate how and by what criteria their idea and their creation will be judged. The students are encouraged to revisit the original problem they were trying to solve and then come up with the terms of their success. 

One of the most interesting takeaways for me as a teacher is not only how innovative students’ original work becomes when they use this framework but, as importantly, how it makes them feel. Understanding these steps  and how to use them helps students feel safe in the not-knowing. We can develop a sense of trust in the process that takes the pressure off the artist or the inventor to have all of the answers up front. And while my courses focus practically on the creation of visual art and original design, there is so much confidence that can be gleaned from this process and applied to “ideas” far beyond the realms of STEAM and art. 

The minds of this generation are fascinating to observe. There is a sweet spot where children transition from magical thinking to real-world creativity. When students are young there is a childlike quality to problem-solving where the ideas they throw out include invisibility cloaks or a new species of animal that doesn’t exist. Their minds bend between the realms of the possible and impossible. For so many adults there is a moment where that ends. What I am noticing in adolescents today who have witnessed the wild expansion of technology in their lifetimes is that they are slower to dismiss things as impossible. Their minds are really open to what the future might look like in regards to things like artificial intelligence and virtual reality — their editor selves are maybe not as strong as the generations before them, which is a really beautiful thing. 

Independent schools, GFA included, have made huge strides in recent years towards prioritizing inquiry projects and original work. Giving young people the opportunity to engage in original, self-guided work as a part of their educational journey rather than as a capstone to that journey gives students awareness of their own unique abilities to navigate ambiguity. Each student or group of students will progress through these five steps to creative ideation differently and yet each will walk away more confident about the idea they are forming and themselves: the designer or artist. 

We are encouraging them to be bold and try things out before knowing exactly how they're going to do them and having all of the answers. To me the five-step process helps students put one foot in front of the other to start to see things as doable. The way out of the stickiness of the editor-self is in the doing. Our students are becoming more and more accustomed to walking into a classroom knowing that there will be equal parts doing and absorbing. The tricky part for them is figuring out how to evaluate an original idea. They wonder: “If I am the only one doing this, how will I know if it is excellent or not?” and that can be scary. In these situations, I explain that a big part of the idea of the success of the thing they're doing is being able to tell the story of what they did and why.  That process-narrative is an identity story that not only helps students develop a voice to explain their work on any particular project but also encourages them to think about how they describe themselves to the world.

These creative strategies are a useful way of getting unstuck — unstuck to the idea that something will not work, unstuck to the disappointment when a first or second attempt fails, and unstuck to the idea that there is one standard for success. They allow students to look at a problem from a different perspective and to get wild in their thinking to come up with radical and yet attainable solutions. 

And, we need this generation to have confidence in their wild, radical solutions, don’t we?