Write a Novel, Change the World: Use your Laptop as a brick

Gary Stager came to Poughkeepsie Day School at the end of March and he began with a lively Vassar College/ PDS presentation Ten Things to do with a Laptop. His title is a deliberate nod to a groundbreaking 1971 article by Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.” They had twenty on their list but Gary’s 2007 ten are just as broad ranging and rich with learning adventures.

Idea number one: Write a Novel – that is, do something substantial and ambitious with the power of word processing – editing, sharing, publishing and then using social networking and connectivity to seek an audience.

The last on his list is Change the World and his examples are of young people who use technology to do just that. The whole list is rich with examples of children and young people using the means and material of technology in the active construction of knowledge and for creative and social engagement with the world.

Use your laptop as a brick? Well…no, that is not on Gary’s list – at least not in any literal sense. That’s a reference to the psychologist J.P. Guilford whose work on creativity and human intelligence became popular in the 1950’s. He developed a psychometric test to measure creative thinking based on the concept of divergent thinking (fluency, flexibility, and originality, the ability to see multiple solutions to a problem) and convergent thinking (the type usually displayed on traditional intelligence tests— narrowing the number of possible solutions to a problem.) This theory is now somewhat out of favor with those who study creativity – high achievers in the arts often have the traits of both types of thinking.

Guilford developed his ideas working for the military during the Second World War. Employed in air crew and bomber pilot selection he was partnered with a retired pilot without psychological training. Guilford used intelligence tests and personal interviews to determine aptitude. The retired pilot used other methods. The two men often chose different candidates and when it came to the test of actual experience the pilots selected by Guilford were shot down more frequently and had a lower survival rate.

Guilford became depressed at the thought that he was responsible for sending pilots to their deaths. He decided to find out why the pilots chosen by the retired pilot fared so much better than those he had selected.
This is how Fredrik Härén tells the story in The Idea Book:

The old pilot said that he had asked one question to all the would-be pilots: “What would you do if your plane was shot at by German anti-aircraft when you were flying over Germany?”

He ruled out everyone who answered,

“I’d fly higher”.

Those who answered, “I don’t know—maybe I’d dive” or “I’d zigzag” or “I’d roll and try to avoid the gunfire by turning” all gave the wrong answer according to the rule book. The retired pilot, however, chose his candidates from the group that answered incorrectly. The soldiers who followed the manual were also very predictable and that is where Guilford failed. All those he chose answered according to the manual.

The problem was that the Germans also knew that you should fly higher when under fire and their fighter planes therefore lay in wait above the clouds, ready to shoot down the American pilots. In other words, it was the creative pilots who survived more often than those who may have been more intelligent, but who stuck by the rules!

Guilford realized that the talent to think and act differently – in unpredictable and creative ways – was saving lives. He went on to devise a pilot selection test that uncovered the potential for such thinking.

One of his first creativity tests was asking candidates to find as many uses for a brick as possible. Some spun out an endless number of uses while others thought for a while and come up with a short list.

So – how many uses for a laptop can you think of?

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