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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

Intelligence Having Fun: Keynoting Learning Technologies Summer Forum 2018 in London

What does “creativity” have to do with “learning technologies”, the future of work, working with teams in the corporate sector? Why does something so seemingly esoteric need to be unpacked? Can an abstract concept like “creativity” be made relevant and practical to folks who need useful strategies they can implement tomorrow?

I have to commend Donald H. Taylor , Chair of the Learning Technologies Conference, for taking a chance on a (surprisingly!) controversial topic and me, a relative outlier in the Learning and Development world. That being said, outliers can be at the very least refreshing, and at best, healthy. I’m a big believer in the power of networked knowledge, combinatorial creativity, trans-disciplinary learning, and indeed, “dipping one’s paint brush into other buckets”.

To be fair, I have worked intermittently with this sector before (curating the Creativity Zone at Learning Live 2016, for example), and many a Twitter friend from my PLN were there to greet me with smiles on (pleased to finally meet David Hopkins in person, as I contributed to his very cool book project). Nonetheless it was lovely to have the extra support from folks like Nigel Paine, Andrew Jacobs, Nick Shackleton-Jones, Krystyna Gadd, Stella Collins, Kate Graham, Niall Gavin, and Martin Couzins. I met a lot of new faces attached to brilliant minds and big hearts and am looking forward to connecting with them in the ether, or perhaps even collaborating on a project.

This post is meant to recap some of the highlights and my intention behind the presentation. When structuring it, I distilled the talk into 5 main themes (I know the sweet spot is three but I had to do 5):






Note that I purposefully veered from “going with the flow” because to me it seems passive.

More on these in a bit, but of course at first I opened with a few pleasantries drawing comparisons between the UK and my home state of Hawaii.

Yes, there was a bit of intended humour with juxtaposed animated gifs of lava and David Beckham (#hot), Obama and Bond (#bowtieguys) and maitai cocktails and HobNob biscuits (#internalrhymefoods), but a hopefully thought provoking concept was that

there is a lesson in lava….

that the inevitability and fortitude of the flow (there is no stopping it, folks) and the simultaneous destructive and creative force that this natural phenomenon represents could perhaps be a metaphor for the changes we fear but can do nothing but embrace and build on (the morphing landscape of learning due to technology, for example).

The very first slide was a little affective data experiment I highly recommend for anyone facing any audience: How are you feeling on a scale of 1 – Bowie? (I have a Debbie Harry edition too).

It may give you a sense of where your audience is coming from, especially if you are working in an intimate setting like a small team or workshop. Emotions are powerful and can obviously colour the subsequent interpersonal interactions and work to be done. If I were dealing with a smaller group I’d debrief it a bit – perhaps ask people to contextualize why – but in a large keynote I mostly used it as a lead to share my “musical transition” video set to Space Oddity. If you are doing an interactive talk with a large group (I had several throughout), it’s important to bring everyone back to focus with a set cue.

Note: I also created some timed tweets that posed question related to the talk for those participating in the backchannel. Here’s a link to those.

There were some things (cliche) that I made an effort NOT to bring up and let the audience know right off the bat.

I often start any talk on creativity with an anecdote that illustrates my firm belief in the healing power of creative work. “Creativity (in my particular experience, in the form of the arts or collaboration with a creative partner), as Catharsis” is what is stressed by these stories. My main tale (which I’m always a bit hesitant to share even though after every talk someone with the same experience comes up to say thanks), is my experience with having cancer. Long story short, I emerged from the mental “dark side” triumphantly due to the fact I was able to work with a like-minded soul and develop a series of fun yet educational parody music videos based on History and Literature.

I’ve dubbed this kind of thing a “kiwi event” – because at first it’s so ugly on the outside but after you crack it open (hindsight) you really see the unexpected beauty in the situation.

The “History for Music Lovers” project was unique for its time in the early days of YouTube, and resulted in lots of global media attention which thrust me into the world of social media (also in its infancy in 2010). My big takeaway? Not only does the process of making heal (as elaborated upon in my first TEDx talk), but that taking a risk and sharing one’s work with a larger (even global) community is so worth it. If you can affect even one person in a positive way it’s worth it. Never mind the critics or nitpickers. Focus on that one person who perceived value from your endeavor.

At this juncture I brought up a Greek term,


It describes putting something of yourself – your soul – into your work…creating with love and soul and that amazing feeling you get from making. My favourite illustration of this is a video created by one of my former students, Johann Freeburg. I use the video to also point out intrinsic motivation, autodidactic learning, and a sense of bricolage in the learning experience (he researches on the Internet / YouTube but also apprentices with a local carpenter).

(it should be noted that he archived his process and made this video on his own- it was not an assignment)

I also referenced the “Ikea Effect” and the “add an egg” story from the 1950’s, which illustrate the power of feeling you have contributed at least a little bit to the making of something.

I framed the talk, as I always do, with THE WHY.

Not to get all Simon Sinek on the situation, but one should always begin with the why. As a 25 year veteran History teacher, I’m in the habit of trying to “sell” the idea that we should learn about something seemingly irrelevant. And no, you don’t convince a kid studying the past is “good for you” “because I said so” or because you need to have cultural literacy to get references and such or because the government thinks you should know these things in order to be a fully invested citizen.  What really entices teens (and I’d argue most of us) is a direct connection to their lives and passions. When teaching History, I integrated both pop culture and current events to show how everything going on now has a legacy from the past. This could be an entirely separate post and I don’t care to digress here, but I tried to tie the WHY of Creativity to this audience in the following ways:

Creativity is more than just “the Arts” – it is present and imperative in any domain

Creativity is not limited to “being talented” (although talented folks are often creative) – it is more about a way of being and thinking

We live in an unpredictable, exponentially changing world – Fostering creative thinking skills is a collective responsibility. Cognitive flexibility / agile thinking is the new black

We live in an age of what media theorist Henry Jenkins dubs “Participatory Culture” – never before has the ability to create (very professional works) been so democratized, and the ability to distribute creative work so far-reaching

Imagination is the root of Empathy – and goodness knows we all need more of that

The World Economic Forum’s “top skills” for 2020 list Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, and Creativity as the top 3 – I make the point that Creativity is integral to the former two.

Creativity is our Human Edge in an age of escalating automation. We make the tech – we design the algorithms…and we need to consider the ethical implications of what we create. Moreover, McKinsey reports that the types of jobs escaping automation are ones involving creativity – the essence of our humanness. Curiosity and imagination are not something machines possess. They can make and even judge art, but I suggest that it is the very human “backstory” they lack that we will be increasingly drawn to (as evident in the growing trends towards the artisanal).

Creativity can be considered a Technology – if we agree with Marshall McLuhan that tech is an extension of the self and that the original Greek etymology of “tekhne” is “art or craft”.

I then progressed to exploring what Creativity actual is. It’s important to investigate its nature, since people cannot accept an ephemeral butterfly – they need to pin it down and dissect it. Understanding what it is and how it works at a meta level can prove useful – especially as it informs as to what practical strategies may enhance creativity in life and work.

“Whoa” is sort of a stretch for “wonder and curiosity”, but forgive me, I felt compelled to rhyme.

In this section I suggested Creativity was like the Chinese concept of “Tao” – a way of being and approaching life and the world around us. Some of that involves noticing things (finding the marvelous in the mundane) and identifying juxtapositions that others might fail to see. I emphasized my personal definition of creativity  – not necessarily inventing something “new” and “of value” but rather “connecting dots” and remixing existing elements to develop a new idea with a rich creative lineage. Those metaphorical dots are the bits of knowledge and experience we accumulate over time that become a rich bank from which to draw. That is why creativity is intrinsically tied to knowledge (via formal and informal learning experiences), and that is why those who adhere to some dichotomy of thinking on this are in the wrong.

Collecting one’s dots means being an expert curator, because, as author/artist Austin Kleon proposes:

“You are a mashup of what you let into your life”.

Jonah Lehrer’s trailer for Imagine (yes I know there were issues with his methods but I wholeheartedly agree with what is in this film clip) alludes to combinatorial nature of creativity:

Finally, the ability to “live in the question” and be OK with ambiguity (what Keats called “negative capability”) is essential.

Chasing solutions and answers is not always preferable to chasing problems and questions.

Practical tips in this section include creating a “wonder wall” (which could be in your notebook a la Da Vinci and Richard Feynman), maintain a notebook or several variations of journals (Feynman kept one entitled “Things I Don’t Know About”), take wonderwalks and use your camera phone to capture the “wow in the now” and things you would habitually overlook, be playful with mundane objects, take inspiration from the environment (try the #lookup movement or my version, #lookdown), use questioning strategies like the “5 Whys” and “yes, and..?”, do Question Storms in teams rather than traditional brainstorms, and practice bisociative thinking.

I asked participants to do a quick pair/share about what they were Learning, Loving, and Listening to (for example, an intriguing podcast they follow or an idea from a current book).

This section started with a challenge to cultivate a “Beginner’s Mind”…to hold ideas askew….to have a sense of “vuja de”. For example, you could completely re-imagine what a conference could be:

I emphasized the importance of context, and of trying to see things from different perspectives, playing with tone for different audiences, or riffing on a dichotomous visual metaphor.

For the interactive part, we looked at how a “droodle” could be used to explore perspectives and we tried some of our own with a partner.

At this juncture I had to skip a large section of my slide deck due to time constraints (but no worry, as attendees would receive the entire deck in PDF form).

The missing parts included looking into how important Remix and Mashup are to creative work…how we can imitate to innovate. All creativity is derivative – we build on what has come before, which is why curation and learning are integral to the process, and why a playful mindset is key.

I offered several strategies in the deck (which I had to skip over), such as Bob Eberle’s famous SCAMPER technique and my “Think Like a…Kindergartener/ Entrepreneur / Designer/ DJ”  and “Human magnetic poetry” games.

Unfortunately, I had to also omit something very dear to my heart – my section on Purposeful Play. Playful Thinking, or that odd portmanteau I learned from a participant at one of my workshops – “Plearning” – is, I feel one of the most needed elements to learning experiences from the kindergarten room to the C Suite.

Play helps to develop our amygdala (emotional center) as well as our pre-frontal cortex (that decision-making part), and is inherently tied to trust-building. I often talk about “whimsy”, which is derived from the Norse word “Hvima” – to “explore with wandering eyes”. So many trainings could be better if we privileged a sense of playfulness and light-heartedness…not in a goofy contrived way (as an introvert I shy away from most “organized fun”), but with an emphasis of tinkering, collaborating, failing and iterating.

Play makes us flexible thinkers with a sense of purpose – exactly what we need if we want to innovate.

This section continued with something I could host an entire workshop on (and have!) – the power of metaphorical thinking. For me metaphor is crucial to both the understanding and communication of a complex idea. I have many practical strategies to offer here, as I do an entire workshop on visual thinking which deals primarily with visual metaphor. One is is an “Analogy Slam” (explaining something in your domain using the constraint of, say, a fairy tale or household appliance). Another is “Imagiphor”, where I ask folks to find a visual metaphor for a given abstract word (such as “change”) on their phone’s camera roll and justify their reasoning to a friend.

Conferences would be much more appealing and “sticky” if the presenters carefully chose poignant metaphorical images to illustrate their points rather than cluttered bullet pointed lists and overwhelmingly intelligible charts and graphs.

This section was really about making it happen, so I focused on where ideas come from and specific ideation strategies as well as creative “constraints” attendees could use as prompts in their work with teams. (It’s the part I had to skip to after the Droodle exercise).

Although there is such a phenomenon as “Rastrophiliopustrocity” (a spontaneous creative “spark” that compels one to act to bring an idea into existence), much creativity comes from hard work and even in the midst of doing something mundane, like taking a walk or a shower. At other times, things are helped along by the loosening of the conscious, such as in the German “Schnapsidee” (idea that happens whilst drinking alcohol) or upon waking from a dream (a famous Surrealist method).

I tend to agree with “scheduling” creativity…that is, getting to work (even on a schedule), and having the “inspiration” follow (artists Picasso and Chuck Close seem to agree).

A practical strategy I shared here was Thomas Edison’s “word lists” which involve generating a word bank of randomly associated words, then forcing connections to form new ideas.

Much of my book, Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom (which, btw is totally applicable for any age), revolves around the notion that

creativity craves constraints.

It’s very difficult to make something when one is faced with total freedom – that’s why framing things in prompts with conditions is helpful. I think of them as little recipes for idea that can be tweaked as needed to fit any context.

A main theme here is what I call “distillustration” (distilling into a simple visual) and “getting to the  – ness” (based on Picasso’s famous bull abstraction). It takes a lot of thought to be able to simplify a concept and drill down to its essence.

Some go-to exercises in this section were pareidolia (creating meaning from random objects on your desk), cut-up method (great for unblocking), 6 word stories, 1 phrase campaign, explaining a process in 3 images, using Lego bricks, Oreo cookies, clay, and paint chips to build metaphors, creating equations, and crowdsourcing visual vocabulary.

This section is titled thusly because I wanted to share some tips, based on  my research and experience, on fostering a creative CULTURE in one’s community. I boil this down to “Time, Trust, and Tools”. A respectful environment is key, as John Cleese describes here:

I had some Welsh folk in the audience, so I thought I’d bring attention to one of my favourite Welsh expressions, “CWTCH”, which is like a “hug” but can mean a “safe place”.

As important as the psychological space is, I like to think of the physical space as sort of a muse unto itself. Designing inspiring spaces (blue stimulates creativity) and having tools at the ready (try a crowdsourced curation wall or binary voting) will integrate creative thinking so that it becomes part of the culture rather than a separate event.

The Japanese have a term for “shedding worldliness”, or breaking from routine – “datsuzoku”.  When seeking inspiration, meet up with people from different departments, try standing or walking during the “incubation” period of your creative work,  travel in order to be exposed to different sights and ways of doing things, or hibernating “in the zone” of the white space you create according to your own tastes.

Other tips include doing a little bit of something on a daily basis (it adds up), re-inventing your approach a la Bowie or Madonna, breaking your bubble (especially as dictated by social media algorithms) and communing with people outside your domain, de-siloing disciplines and departments, ensuring that a team is diverse (include more women and people of colour), and perhaps design co-creative experiences like studio meetings (why not have everyone cook together?).

My talk wrapped up with some ideas for combatting barriers to creativity. The biggest obstruction to “creative courage” is fear of failure (and subsequent ridicule).

I referenced the “creative stereotype” research and the notion that sometimes just imagining ourselves as “creative” will result in actual enhanced creativity. But that is harder than it sounds. I like John Cage’s advice:

“Consider everything an experiment”,

which is something Leonardo da Vinci probably did when he created the oil paint-based fresco The Last Supperan utter technical failure that despite it all is one of the most revered works of art in human history.

If we remember that we are always still learning (“Ancora Imparo”), that the only entity we should be competing with is our own previous work, and that we LEARN from failure and gain “after wisdom”, as the Norwegians put it, that should help us in our apprehensiveness in pursuing creative endeavors.

Eventually, with persistence and resilience you will get there, as Ira Glass explains:

We ended sharing our “epic fails” on a “failure wall” outside (which ironically ended up failing itself since the sticky notes wouldn’t adhere).

I have two regrets: One, that I had to skip over some of my favourite bits due to time (but that is the nature of risking an interactive keynote with multiple breakout moments for audience participation). The second is that I didn’t have a chance to follow up with a hands-on workshop, which would have brought even more practicality to the keynote.

I hope I provided a clear sense of what creativity “is” (since several people seem to scoff at anyone talking about such an abstract albeit fundamental concept). It is, of course, so much more than what can ever be addressed in a 50 min presentation, which is why I always like to provide the audience with links to explore further (my G+ community linked at the end of this post offers 5 years of curated resources). I also hope that the attendees came away with some new insights and a few really practical, low barrier to entry strategies they can use in their personal lives or at work.

sketchnotes by Krystyna Gadd

After the talk I was interviewed (video will be posted here later), as well as had the opportunity to participate in a wonderfully playful session hosted by Kenny Temowo and Nick Shackleton-Jones. I spent a few days visiting friends and taking hundreds of photos in London, Didcot, Oxford (where I got to see Elvis Costello in concert) and the Cotswolds. Since I’ve been home, I was able to compile the requested list of sources, which I prefer to call a “creative lineage. It corresponds to the PDF of the slide deck given to attendees (not open to the public at this time) and is organized both chronologically and by theme (Ideas, Quotes, Videos).

I’d love to work with some of the people and/or teams I met or who attended #LTSF18. As a freelancing consultant I can travel anywhere and enjoy developing bespoke experiences for my clients.

Here’s the interview:

I’m also planning to do an online workshop based on my 8 hour workshop:

For more of my thoughts on Creativity, here are some quick links:

TEDxHonolulu 2011:

TEDXWestVancouverED 2017:

Creativity Tips Vlogs:



BLOG posts:

Link to #creativity:

Link to #learning:

Link to #technology:

G+ Community of Curated Resources:

Make du Jour (on Creativity)

Interview, Learning Now TV (with Nigel Paine)

#London #corporate #creativity #SummerForum #DonTaylor #keynote #landd #LearningTechnologies #resources #conference #amyburvall #learninganddevelopment

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