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Why Functional Fixedness And The Fear Of The Unknown Are The Greatest Obstacles Of Creativity.

Educated By Design Blog

Why Functional Fixedness And The Fear Of The Unknown Are The Greatest Obstacles Of Creativity.

Michael Cohen

This is the second post in a series known as "Educated By Design". It focuses on my journey as a designer and technologist turned educator. 

Why Functional Fixedness And The Fear Of The Unknown Are The Greatest Obstacles Of Creativity.

In my last post I discussed creativity as a mindset, not a talent.

Excerpt from previous post:

"When we understand that creativity is a way of thinking that blends our imagination with the world around us, then true innovation can exist. It doesn't need to be at the level where light bulbs are invented. Innovation can be scaled for a 1st grader. That scale might not be groundbreaking or revolutionary for a 9th grader, but it is important for us to know that value is subjective when analyzing the creative process for different ages."

So if we are open to shifting our thinking, what is the next step? It lies in a famous quote from Steve Jobs who said “creativity is connecting things”. The ability to connect things lies in how we look at the relationship between people, places, and ideas. It's in how we overcome one of the greatest obstacles to creativity - Functional Fixedness


What is Functional Fixedness? I learned about Functional Fixedness at the crossroads of my Masters program and reading Daniel Pink's drive. It was a pretty powerful moment to see two different takes on some good 'ol Gestalt Psychology. In 1945, Dr. Karl Duncker defined functional fixedness as being a "mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem."[1] It is with this definition that he created a rather interesting problem demonstrating Functional Fixedness. It also happens to be an all time favorite for those that attend some of my creative workshops. Sorry, spoiler alert. 


So what is it about the problem that is so powerful? I have seen this problem solved in less than 5 minutes, while others still struggle well after half an hour. What the problem helps us understand is the mental barrier preventing us for looking for novel and unconventional solutions to the problems we face using the resources we have at our disposal. Resources that might not seem valuable or useful in a traditional sense. How we overcome this functional fixedness is by engaging in diverse experiences and with individuals with diverse backgrounds.

Before becoming a professional educator (I have always consider myself a teacher), I was by trade a designer, artist, marketer, and businessman. It was those experiences that I believe shaped my thinking and approaches to education. Now, I am not telling teachers to get a second job. I do however wonder why teaching programs do not give students experiences outside of teacher colleges to learn from and consume from a diverse group of experts, fields, and methods. (It was one of the things I wish my Masters in Education contained. A seminar on entrepreneurship or project management. My experiences outside of education, have shown me how valuable it is to diversify who and where you learn from. Everyone reading this should consider diversifying their resources and connections when looking to hone their educational craft. The true first step of developing a creative mindset is to find “creative” people in various industries to learn from. Not creativity as an idea, but creativity as a manifestation of success via non traditional or unexpected means. Creativity requires diversity to thrive. By tapping into talented and creative people in other industries, we can use those outlooks and abilities to impact our classrooms. 

Here is one of my shortlists of those that have influenced me, inspired me to shift my thinking, and helped me succeed. They are all talented, creative, resilient, and most importantly, patient. These individuals are leaders in core areas that I feel are critical for learning about what a creative mindset looks like and how to think in new ways. They have books, podcasts, recorded keynotes, and other mediums to consume their awesome inspiration. 


Gary Vaynerchuk - is a serial entrepreneur, media marketing master, author, and social media extraordinar. He also curses like a sailor which makes it slightly awkward for a Rabbi to endorse him. At the end of the day his message of “anyone can make it if they are patient, stick with it, and put in SERIOUS work. 


John Maeda - is a designer, technologist, and influencers in the education and business spaces. He is the former president of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), professor at the MIT Media Lab, and consultant of Start Ups. He has mastered the way in which design and creative thinking can influence those looking to grow and to succeed.


Dr. Tina Seelig - is the head of Stanford’s Technology Ventures Program, and an author of many titles including “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20”. This book changed my life forever and I looked to her many times for advice as I question why I am writing this book and who would ever want to read it. 


Sir Ken Robinson - is an author and international speaker on education in the arts to government, institutions, and beyond. His 2006 TED talk on how schools kill creativity has been the single biggest influence on me as an educator and my work on helping schools create a culture of creativity. 

So were open to shifting our thinking. We have resources to not just inspires us but to learn from. Now, we have to overcome the second hardest part to becoming more creative and that's that it is not going to work the first time, or the second, or the tenth. We must be patient, reflective, and go all in on the long term and not let the short term tell us that it isn't worth it and that we are fine with the way it is. Its about failing not due to lack of effort, but failing because its worth it, and we believe in ourselves and the process at hand. Its about being reflective and learning why we are failing by reflecting on it.  

In education today if something does not work perfectly, or perform the first time we attribute it to some failure, assign it a letter grade and move on. To develop a creative mindset, that kaleidoscope of creativity, we need to be prepared to take risks and know that failure is the springboard for even greater success. Developing the capacity to be creative will require you to embrace the unknown as well and seek out others so journey with you. Whether your students, your colleagues, or a courageous leader at your school, we need to embrace risk and failure to achieve beyond but not in lieu of academic excellence. That is where innovation that promotes love and meaning in learning lies.


When asked what creativity is, we inevitably associate it with an actionable process, a talent, such as art, music, cooking, rather than the mindset that can actualize those talents and so much more. It's not even our own fault. Look up creativity in the dictionary, and you will find a definition focused on original ideas, and artistic work. Who am I to argue with Webster, but this is my book, so I can tell you that they have it all wrong. Creativity is a mindset, a thought process, a method of analyzing the world around you. Its an experience that goes beyond making something from nothing, and instead about making something into something more.


[1] Duncker, K. (1945). "On problem solving". Psychological Monographs, 58:5 (Whole No. 270).