In my book, Unlocking Creativity, I wrote that our schools sometimes exhibit a bias against creativity, much as our corporations do. Much like many business executives, teachers and professors sometimes talk a good talk about creativity, but they fail to walk the walk. They claim that they value creativity, when in fact, they desire compliance and control. Not all teachers though... I read recently about a wonderful technique employed by a number of teachers.
Lauren Cassani Davis is a teacher at the Feynman School in Potomac, Maryland. In an article titled
Creative Teaching And Teaching Creativity: How To Foster Creativity In The Classroom, Davis explains the power of encouraging students to keep Da Vinci notebooks.
“Describe the tongue of a woodpecker,” wrote Leonardo Da Vinci on one of his to-do lists, next to sketching cadavers, designing elaborate machines, and stitching costumes. Da Vinci filled over 7,000 notebook pages with questions, doodles, observations, sketches, and calculations. He nurtured creativity as a habit and skill every day—and it paid off. Da Vinci’s work reshaped multiple disciplines, from science, to art, to engineering.
I was intrigued when my co-teacher suggested using “Da Vinci” notebooks in our 2nd grade classroom. The idea was simple: students keep notebooks, independent of any academic subject, where they can try creative exercises and explore personal passions. I ordered a stack of bound notebooks for the occasion.
Within a week, the results astounded me. Whenever a student’s thinking diverged from our lesson objectives, or their question glimmered with the spark of a potential new interest, we sent them to their Da Vinci notebook. “Write it down!”—a refrain chanted countless times a day. One day, we did a “100 questions challenge,” inspired by the book How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci by Michael Gelb. The goal: Write 100 questions, in one sitting, about anything. The 2nd graders asked questions like: How does your brain work? Why do we have music? Do tiny people live on atoms? Why am I not a tiger? How do keys open door locks? Why do things have to die? Why did Beethoven write an ode to joy if he was so grumpy? Why aren’t all cars electric?
By the end of the year, the Da Vinci notebooks were gloriously full.
Interestingly, many great innovators throughout history kept journals: Curie, Edison, Einstein, Darwin, and Twain - to name just a few. Some of the most successful leaders take time to reflect each day. I've written about former Baxter Healthcare CEO Harry Kraemer's daily reflection ritual. HBS Professor Joe Badaracco recently wrote a book about self-reflective leaders. Many scholars and consultants have written over the past few years about the benefits of keeping a journal.
The broader lesson: asking great questions is at the heart of creativity and innovation. Don't jump to solutions. Observe the world around you. Explore the unexpected. Look for points of friction. Inquire as to how things work and how they might be improved. Look for connections between seemingly unrelated issues. Then write it down before you forget.