“So? What crackpot ideas do you have for me today?” She asked with expectation. It was our first Friday in her communication arts class; our sixth grade selves are unsure of how to respond. Even in public school, it wasn’t every day that a teacher used the word “crackpot” in class.
She saw she wasn’t getting through to us. “Okay, I’ll give you an example. You know how the paparazzi follows celebrities to take their pictures?” We nod, still blinking. “What if we took pictures of people from the paparazzi and made those into trading cards? Then celebrities and others could collect them! See? A crackpot idea. I know you’ve got some, too. What ideas do you have for me today?”
Our blinks turned to nods—we got it. She was asking us for off-the-wall ideas that we thought might just work.
Someone across the room from me perked up. “What about a dog brush that could also be used as a chew toy?”
“Or a thing that makes waffles in the shape of toast!”
Students began voicing their harebrained ideas, some feasible and some downright odd, stretching our young brains and creating space to dream. Ideas that might be lame or embarrassing in another context suddenly became acceptable, and we gave voice to things we may have otherwise considered not worth speaking aloud.
Crackpot ideas became a part of our Friday routine. Throughout the week, my brain would take note of odd ideas and connections I saw throughout the week, saving them for the weekly exercise. Maybe, just maybe, one of them might work?
Everyday Creativity & the Brain
For some reason, the memory of Crackpot Idea Fridays has stayed with me. We weren’t entrepreneurs looking for the next business model or artists trying to create their next best work. We weren’t even brainstorming for an assignment or trying to solve a problem. At the end of each session, we didn’t act on the ideas, and to my knowledge, the teacher never did end up creating those trading cards. So was it a waste of time? No, not at all.
Those times were opportunities to ideate and be creative just for creativity’s sake, unselfconsciously spouting off odd connections and combinations of ideas and objects, on the off-chance that one might work, whatever that would mean. It was a time to exercise different mental muscles besides those we used for tests, memorization or writing. There was no right answer, no measure to uphold. No preconceived structure or expectations; just space to let our minds wander new paths of thinking.
Measures and tests and structured learning have their place, but opportunities to participate in unfettered creativity infuse these things with new life. They give kids opportunities to practice seeing new connections between everyday things, and these new connections are what drive creative expression and innovation.
The concept of neuroplasticity can speak to why this ability to identify connections between disparate things is so useful. Sarah Bernard of Edutopia and the George Lucas Education Foundation, explains that “if you perform a task or recall some information that causes different neurons to fire in concert, it strengthens the connections between those cells.” As these networks of neurons become stronger, they become more efficient and thereby more capable of identifying relationships between varying subjects. These relationships then increase the brain’s memory storage capacity, increasing a kids’ ability to retain and apply what they learn.
Looking back, I’m not entirely sure of the motivation or end-goal behind the weekly Crackpot Idea time. But as I speculate on this memory that remains so vivid, it seems to have provided a free place to practice what it means to think beyond our brains’ routine “networks” and patterns, which as demonstrated above, played a part in laying a solid foundation for creative learning. And crackpot ideas or not, discovering novel connections between everyday things just seems to make life that much more wonder-full.