Educating an Original Thinker

How teachers and parents can identify and cultivate children who think creatively and unconventionally

Aly Song / Reuters

In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, the writer, Wharton professor, and erstwhile magician Adam Grant explores the circumstances that give rise to truly original thinkers. Through stories of business “originals” such as the Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio, and the Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal, he explains how unorthodox thinking can result in unprecedented success or—if shaped by groupthink or myopic vision—miserable failure.

Grant is a gifted educator himself, and, as Wharton’s top rated teacher for the past four years, knows a little something about identifying and cultivating original thinking in his students. I asked Grant about the role teachers play in educating original children, and how teachers and parents alike can protect what’s special in these original children—traits that have the potential to disrupt lesson plans today, but, if nurtured and protected, may just change the world tomorrow. Below is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Jessica Lahey: There’s a tension in education right now as educators reluctantly part ways with our old reliable teaching methods—an orderly, silent classroom with students organized alphabetically in rows and a teacher lecturing from behind a desk—and begin to accept novel, research-based approaches to learning, such as student-led inquiry; small group, peer-to peer teaching; and problem-based learning. You seem to indicate that for truly original thinkers, order, structure, and discipline might be antithetical to learning. How can teachers balance a need for a structured learning environment while allowing for original thinkers to thrive?

Adam Grant: There’s evidence for a Goldilocks effect here: Too much structure, order, and discipline can constrain creativity, but so can too little. In a classroom with extensive constraints, kids don’t learn to think for themselves. Yet you can have too much of a good thing: In psychology, we often find that good things satiate and bad things escalate. Give kids all the freedom in the world, and they can get caught in choice paralysis, lack frameworks for figuring out how to approach a problem, or develop plenty of novel ideas but fail to implement them. I think balance comes in alternating different pedagogical approaches. Lecture for 10 minutes, then let kids develop their own way of teaching the lesson learned and present it in small groups. Research on the Jigsaw Classroom shows that this can reduce stereotypes and prejudice—and it’s a great way to nurture creative thinking as well. Plus, one of the reasons that firstborns often have an intelligence advantage over later siblings is a teacher effect: They spend more time teaching, which helps them crystallize their own learning. Why not make students teaching each other a norm in the classroom?

Lahey: In the chapter of Originals titled “Rebel with a Cause,” you claim that rebelliousness is a positive trait when it comes to educating kids who will truly go on to change the world. What can teachers do to encourage rebellion that leads to original, creative thinking?

Grant: Offer students the chance to reinterpret something they’ve learned. This is obviously easier to do in some subject areas than others—it works especially well in domains where there are often competing theories, like history and literature. After presenting some of Benjamin Franklin’s great achievements as an inventor, social innovator, and politician, give kids the opportunity to investigate his failures: Why was he late to the revolution? Once students learn about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s leadership of the women’s suffrage movement, ask them to reanalyze it from Lucy Stone’s perspective: Was she the most important pioneer, and did Stanton and Anthony write her out of the story?

Lahey: Rebels without direction are a teacher’s worst nightmare and given enough power, can derail just about any lesson plan. What’s the best way to give classroom rebels a positive outlet for their rebellion without stifling it?

Grant: Give them something to stand for, not just against. Ask them what they think is wrong with the classroom—and then challenge them to make it better.

Lahey: Teachers are in a unique position to serve as mentors for kids who may not thrive in classroom environments that are often geared toward obedience, teacher-pleasing, and the “because I said so” school of reasoning. What would the ideal teacher mentor for an original kid look like?

Grant: A teacher who provides kids with a great deal of responsibility. That means having high expectations, but granting them the discretion to choose how they will meet the expectations. And it doesn’t hurt to have a little distaste for authority and rules yourself.

Lahey: In the current educational framework, it’s easier to teach a room of conformist, unoriginal, malleable children, and yet you assert that these are not the sort of children who will go on to change the world. How can teachers push American education in a direction that will foster the kind of traits that make for original, innovative thinkers?

Grant: I love the proposal from George Lucas that college applications should include a creative portfolio. Every student makes something original: a film, a song, a story, a piece of art. If we start there, I think we’ll begin seeing parents, principals, and teachers clamoring for creative thinking skills to be taught earlier in the education system. I’d also enjoy seeing more teachers take a page out of the Right Question Institute and help students learn to formulate great questions. As Warren Berger says, “Knowing the answers will help you in school, but knowing how to question will help you in life.”

Lahey: One story I hear a lot from the original thinkers I know is that they got in trouble a lot in school for opting out of (i.e., refusing) to follow a directed path or the instructions of the teacher. The classic story is they did not do well in math because they wanted to figure out all the alternate ways to work out that math problem rather than stick with the formulaic instructions handed down by the teacher. How do we support original thinkers in their enthusiasm to learn and explore and innovate while making sure we teach them what we need them to know in order to move on from one lesson to another?

Grant: One option is to give students the freedom to explore new solutions once they’ve demonstrated understanding of existing ones. Borrowing Dan Pink’s language from Drive, autonomy becomes a reward for mastery.

Lahey: I worry about the mental health of original kids as they struggle to make their way through a world that often wants them to shut up, sit down, and conform to the status quo. Could you comment on this?

Grant: I worry about it, too. School should be a place where kids learn to love learning, not where they get stifled by drill sergeants. The psychologists Erik Westby and V.L. Dawson found that teachers claimed to enjoy working with creative children, yet the most non-conforming children are the least likely to be the teacher’s pets. They raised two possibilities for how original kids will respond. One is that “teachers’ unwelcoming attitudes may alienate children from formal education.” The other is that “teachers’ dislike of behaviors associated with creativity leads to the extinction of those behaviors.” Either outcome is highly undesirable.

Lahey: How can parents of original thinkers protect what’s special and different about their children even as those children are being told every day at school to stop doodling, stay inside the lines, do it the way I told you to do it, and stop asking why?

Grant: Show them that some of the great original thinkers in history were very similar to them. Look at Einstein: He consistently rebelled against authority and struggled in classes where he was pushed to follow the crowd. Fiction works here too: Remind them that Harry Potter and Hermione Granger have to bend the rules to fight against the dark arts.

Lahey: So, what’s the first step? If we want to change our parenting and teaching today and encourage our children to become originals, where should we begin?

Grant: Focus on values over rules. The parents of highly creative architects, for example, modeled and emphasized core values, and gave their kids freedom to figure out how they wanted to express those values. The parents might say, “Respect for others is important in this family. What kind of impact do you want to have on others?” or, “We take joy in our work. What kinds of jobs sound like fun to you?” When the kids grew up, they were more comfortable going against the grain, because they had taken ownership over their own system of values that guided them. It would be wonderful to see more teachers adopt a similar approach.