Comedian Jonathan Winters

Quick, what’s the square root of 97?  Who was the third person from Delaware to sign the Declaration of Independence? What’s the distance in light years from the earth to the nearest star beyond the sun?  What day will June 15 fall on in the year 2025? What ten things can you do with a stick to make people laugh? (*See answers at the end of this post!)

If you’re like me, you’re unable to answer any of these questions without assistance (although, as a former astronomer, I should know the answer to the third question).  Similarly, we are unable to run 40 miles per hour or fly.  Fortunately, humans have been very resourceful in creating physical and mental prosthetic devices to enable us to perform well beyond our “natural” capabilities. By using cognitive prosthetics, enabled by the existence of smart phones, incredible online resources, and advances in computing such as Mathematica, we can perform at near-genius level compared to the unaided human. Cognitive aids such as calculators, online dictionaries, online encyclopedias, and advanced mathematical tools seem natural and “old hat” to us. But what about creativity and innovation?

One of the greatest improvisational comedians, in my opinion, was Jonathan Winters.  I was saddened by his death this month at the age of 87.  Winters was a regular performer on early television shows such as the first Tonight Show series hosted by Jack Paar. He was a master at taking a common prop and improvising new materials. In 1964, on The Jack Paar Tonight Show, Winters was handed a foot-long stick and swiftly became a fisherman, violinist, lion tamer, canoeist, U.N. diplomat, bullfighter, flutist, delusional psychiatric patient, and British headmaster. Modern versions of improvisation have been shown on television series such as Whose Line Is It?

Improvisation in a group setting is not without rules, just as improvisation in jazz has underlying rules.  One element in working with an improvisational team is to adopt an attitude of “YES – AND.”  The idea is that if someone brings forward a phrase, sentence, or concept, you react to that by accepting the action or phrase and building on it by acceptance, addition, redirection, and enhancement. This concept of “YES – AND” can be used as a motivating approach in all types of environments and enterprises, from working on team projects, to the design of new APPs, to new uses of information technology.  Some of our IST faculty members such as Eileen Trauth, Irene Petrick, and Michael McNeese are studying these concepts in collaboration with faculty from other colleges such as Bill Doan from the College of Arts and Architecture.

Encouraging creativity can be challenging. Often in educational settings we evaluate people on learning and knowing the “right answer” to predefined questions. In effect, we define a “box” and ask people to describe and define what’s in the box.  In a presentation to an audience at Penn State many years ago, the famous science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, remarked that all children are born to be creative and learning geniuses; each learning at their own pace about the world, their bodies, language, etc., in their first five years of life. He lamented that when they go to school, their learning becomes lockstep in formal classrooms and slows to a crawl.

Many of the very useful information technology applications, tools, and devices appeared as a result of creative processes, rather than as a result of a classic derivational process (viz., from requirements, to system design, to implementation). Applications such as KAYAK, Yelp, Dropbox, and Weebly were not developed based on classical systems design processes.  Rather, they were developed in a creative, improvisational way. In IST, our use of problem-based learning, challenge problems, competitions, and hackathons is aimed at encouraging not only problem solving, but also creativity.  One of my favorite books on the subject is Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, by S. Nachmanovitch, which describes techniques that people have used to be creative, even in the most difficult circumstances.

I wonder if cognitive aids will be developed in the very near future to encourage creativity.  While computer games encourage this in game applications, perhaps serious games and improvisation APPs will be developed and become used, just as calculators and Wikipedia are commonly used today? I’m eagerly awaiting my CYBER IMPROV App to assist me in writing future Hall Pass Blogs, and I’m sure my patient readers would be most appreciative!

*Answer Key:

  • 971/2 = 9.849
  • Third signer of the Declaration of Independence from Delaware was Caesar Rodney
  • Distance from the sun to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri = 4.24 light years
  • In 2025, June 15 will fall on a Sunday
  • Ten funny things Jonathon Winters can do with a stick

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