Combinatory Play

Susan Pointer was concerned with the blandness of her students’ ideas for her class on New Ways of Thinking. Unfortunately, students seemed to lack the traits to be creative. The advent of AI (artificial intelligence), or abetting ignorance as she called it, made the ideas even worse.

She began class this day with a lesson she first learned from Albert Einstein in his book Ideas and Opinions. “Combinatory play,” she told her class, “is the playful combination of two or more ideas, feelings, experiences, sounds, words, or objects. It’s the deliberate forcing of two very different things into something innovative. I want you to do what Einstein suggested.”

“I have a list here of 100 very different challenges our country is facing and 100 very different quotes from those who lived more than 200 years ago. I’ve numbered each of these challenges and quotes. Give me two numbers from 1-100 and I’ll give you the corresponding challenge and quote for the idea you are to develop.”

“Now I want to give you some guidance on how to develop your idea.

  • Give yourself some extended time in solitude away from friends, your phone, or any distractions – just to imagine.
  • Forget your rational brain and let your intuitive brain take over. What I’m looking for is the idea in its most formative stage not as a fully developed proposal. Think what might be.
  • Let your unconscious mind work for you. This is not an assignment you can just sit down and do. You are looking for insight, and that’s a gift from your unconscious mind.
  • Be playful and explore your idea as a child might think about it. Think why not.”

As the class left, there was a lot of grumbling about the assignment. A week later, when the assignment was due, Dr. Pointer saw a different dimension to her class. All of the ideas were much better than the students had previously submitted. But the shift in the grades was remarkable. Her high achievers didn’t do as well on the assignment as on previous assignments.

The best responses were from students who didn’t do very well on past work. Generally these students failed to do the little things she requested (e.g., word counts, due dates, grammar, margin sizes). For Dr. Pointer, this was a revelation in that maybe she was confining their thinking by imposing boundaries on the way they thought.

When we despair of the lack of creativity, we need to think about the catalysts that provides the spark for new ideas. Imaginative play is one source of those sparks.

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“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” – Diane Ackerman (Author)

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