Thinking out of the box… but how did we get in it?


Commodore VIC 20

This can’t break its programming. You can.

Society has such an outmoded view of creativity. At best it’s a necessary evil, at worst it’s a waste of time.

If you don’t believe me, go and have a look at your primary national curriculum for schools and do a text search for creative thinking and see what comes up.

It’s a rhetorical question: why do we hold back from our creative potential? Because we were trained to. We were programmed to think we were good or bad at this or that and we’ve been running those programmes ever since.

Here’s proof. If someone asked you to do a drawing today, would your first reaction be, ‘whoopee!’? Or would it be one of fear and embarrassment? Ok, maybe you’re the exception, but most people would react in fear. Let’s remind ourselves why.

Let’s go back to being age 6, 7, 8 or 9. The teacher says we’re going to do a drawing. Can you think of anything more exciting? A drawing! It’s pure joy. We’re going to draw… an elephant. So we get going. Mine’s looking ok. But I’m not sure, so I look over at someone else’s which prompts a line of executable programming code from the teacher:

“Don’t copy!” the teacher barks.

So we’re programmed not to look at other people’s ideas. We don’t look to see what other people are up to. We don’t know what our competitors are up to so we can’t do better than them. We fear our ideas will be stolen so we hide them and never improve them. But paradoxically we fear that everyone else is better than us which undermines our confidence, but we can never look to see the truth because our programme stops us from finding out.

John turns to me to ask me something. This prompts the second line of code:

“Stop taking! Do your own work!” .

So we’re programmed not to discuss our ideas to brainstorm them with others. From now on we work in isolation and waste time re-inventing the wheel. We waste time making the same mistakes that others could have helped us with. We get stuck and don’t ask for help. We think that originality is better than collaboration and elaboration and never fully develop our ideas. We begin to doubt ourselves and what we’re capable of. We turn into perfectionists who never finish anything.

Then the teacher comes over and looks at my drawing. “That’s pretty good” she says.

Suddenly I’m programmed with a positive mind virus. It takes over my subroutine, re-calibrating my system with this logical argument.

Teacher is correct.
Teacher says I am good at drawing.
I am good at drawing.

Because she’s the authority figure, what she says must be true. Fast forward from that moment, a year, a decade, thirty years, and the programme is still running. Here I am. I can draw and I know it.

Then she looks at John’s. “Ha ha! What’s that supposed to be? It hasn’t even got a trunk.” She shows it to the class and they all laugh.

Teacher is correct.
Teacher says I am no good at drawing.
I am no good at drawing.

“She’s right. I can’t draw.” thinks John and he runs the further algorithm:

I cannot draw.
Drawing results in embarrassment.
Do not draw.

If we fast forward thirty years, not only does John actively avoid drawing, to avoid further embarrassment, he’s re-calibrated it as frivolous and irrelevant. Just to be safe, he’s lumped in all creativity with it, his software now labelling himself as ‘not a creative person.’

When I was seven I won a painting competition. The best in the village. I won £4.50. I bought a toy telescope with it. But was my painting really that great? If I showed it to you now would it really be that good today? Was it noticeably better than the 2nd place painting? Probably not much better. It probably wasn’t that much better than the worst painting. The painting is of course irrelevant. It’s the fact that I was programmed as a painter that counts.

Can we take credit for what we’re good at (or think we’re good at) today? We can certainly take credit for what we’re not good at.

Did we have talent that was encouraged and developed? Or were were programmed, sometimes randomly, sometimes arbitrarily? Have those programmes stuck, making us think we’re good at (or not good at) something?

The reason so many of us can’t ‘think outside the box’ is because we were forced into that air-tight box all those years ago and we’ve remained there ever since. That’s not really  ood enough. We need to do better. We need to break that programming.

I dare you to do it.

Make a list of the ordinary things you’re not good at. My guess is it will include some of the following: drawing, writing essays, maths, mental arithmetic, memory, sport, geography, finance, cooking, DIY, public speaking, selling…

These are all base-level skills that require little or no talent. They just require confidence and practice.

Pick one, and practice it. Seek the extra bit of training if needed to crack it, and break your programming.

You are not a color home computer loaded with a Beginners All Symbolic Instruction Code operating system and a flashing cursor awaiting instruction on what to do. You are a self-determining creative being. You need to start acting like one. We all do.

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

The end of a friendship


Sherburn Village Infants and Juniors 1977

If there ever was a golden age, it was here, 1977, Sherburn Village Infants. That’s me, seated front row in the middle in an orange polo neck. That’s Sean, front row far right on the mat.

He was my best friend from that time when you actually named your best friend as number one, as if friendship was the pop charts with various friends jostling for that coveted top position.

We’d met when we were both five at the very first day of school. We’d had some great adventures. We’d discovered Star Wars and Superman and The Incredible Hulk together. We’d discovered the secrets of Sherburn Hill together, explored the country lane, the slag heaps and the rubbish dumps together. We’d learnt to read, write, draw and collect Action Jacks together. We’d created magic potions, travelled back in time, been bounty hunters, saved the world from a Dalek invasion (many times) together. We’d learnt how to burn our shoelaces with a magnifying glass, sing the Beatles songs from Help!, programme our Commodore VIC20 computers (and reach level ten in Arcadia.) We’d made recordings on a tape recorder that were so funny we laughed until tears streamed from our eyes and we lay on the floor holding our aching sides.

We’d always sit together in class until Mr Hall banned it and said we had to sit at opposite sides of the room. We were also told that boys weren’t allowed to put their arms around each other in the playground (but girls were). The dinner ladies had reported it to the teachers who’d sent letters home and we were told that the only physical contact boys could make with each other was to punch each other, otherwise you were a ‘puff’, whatever that was. (Turns out, neither of us were).

How is it that you can get really close, so tight in a friendship and then… something happens? This is what happened.

It was a hot afternoon, early summer. I got my bike out of the hut in my back garden and wheeled it down the grass and out of the gate. I rode up to the end of the cul-de-sac and up the curb to ride past Sean’s house and looked in the window to see if there was any sign of life. There wasn’t so I rode up the hill to the tarmaced area called ‘Play Area One’. Everything on the estate had a name. Behind my house was a hidden pavement that was secret until the houses behind were lived in. We called it ‘the secret passage’ ever since.

On the play area was Sean and Sid with their bikes. Sid was a year older than Sean and I who were 12. Sean used to live next door to him when he lived further up the estate, before he moved opposite me. Sean and I had Commodore VIC20s and Sid had a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. We had a software writing corporation called MISARM-SOFT. The initials were the first letters of our names; Michael, Instone, Sean, Adrian, Robert, Murphy. The A and S also stood for Andrew (Sid) Smith.

Sean and Sid had collected a few bricks and a wide plank. They’d made a ramp and were jumping off it with their bikes. I watched for a while then had a few goes too, it was too hot to just stand around. Someone decided to change the arrangement of the bricks to make a higher ramp. I picked up a brick to help with an idea of how I could make it higher but more stable. I was about to put it in place when I dropped it. It broke.

I tried to conceal the broken brick by hiding it under another and I look around to see if there was another brick to replace it. There wasn’t. Sean noticed.

“What have you done that for man?” he said.

“You’d better get another brick.” snapped Sid.

“All right, all right, I’ll get one.” I wondered where I could get another brick from.

“He’s got loads of bricks in his back garden” Sean said to Sid. He turned to me, “haven’t you?”

“But my dad needs them for a wall” I said.

“Go home and get one” said Sid. I got on my bike to ride off when Sean said, “Hey, he can get away. We’ll go with him!”. Sid grabbed my back wheel.

“I said I’ll get one” I said.

Sid dropped my back wheel. I raced off, not looking back. When I got home I thought about it all and came to the conclusion they didn’t deserve a new brick. I sat down and watched The Dukes of Hazard with my brother. I looked out of the window and saw faces peering through the fence at the back from the secret passage.

A year earlier, during the last few weeks of junior school I had been very ill with some sort of fever. Before the illness it had been just an ordinary June, just like all those that had gone before, stretching back into our pre-history. There had been no sense of endings then. If there had been a feeling of occasion in those final weeks of school, I’d had missed out on it. Mr Jackson the headmaster retired that summer and there’d been event to commemorate. I’d missed that too. I’d never said goodbye to any of my classmates who I’d grown up with since that September day six years ago when we were all five. And except for the few that lived on my estate I’d never saw any of them ever again. Barry said that Mr Jackson had died not long after.

So after that summer had passed we’d all moved up to a bigger school. But I’d gone to a different comprehensive school to my infants and junior compatriots. They all went, I assume, to Gilesgate, the rough, tough inner city ‘Grange Hill’ type school. I went to Belmont, which seemed more refined, almost like grammar school. When the new term began at our separate schools I’d slowly started to lose that regular contact with Sean, even though he lived opposite. Presumably he’d made new acquaintances, new alliances, new friends and a whole year of new school had passed.

That first year had ended and it was the start of another summer holiday and I was feeling I needed to keep clear of Sean because of the brick incident that week. Barry lived at the other side of the village. I told him about Sean and the brick. He and Sean had never got on. At school, when I’d played with Barry, Sean would always resent it. Barry mentioned that he’d seen Sean riding around the village with a small gang. I’d been reading The Lord of the Rings and jokingly referred to Sean as ‘Sauron’ and his gang as ‘the Nazgul’, ‘the black riders’.

Barry and I were round at Graham Stead’s house, drawing maps of fictional islands and continents we’d made up on rolls of anaglypta wallpaper. We saw Sean’s gang coming round the corner on their bikes. Barry and I leapt on our bikes and rode off. Graham went back inside his house.

There’s an adrenaline that comes from being chased. Especially if you know you’ll always get away. We seemed to have shaken them off and got to Play Area One and found my brother there. He joined our gang and so did his friend Neil. So there are now four of us. I was in the middle of explaining the situation to my troops when some retard called Nigel came up.

“I’m going to tell them where you are.” he said.

“You thick head.” I said “You think we’re going to stay here?” Nigel shut up and started throwing a tennis ball off someone’s house.

It was getting late so we all headed home. I was pleased that I had at least got four members recruited to my own entourage. I looked out of my brother’s window and saw something disturbing in the street beyond the back garden, between the garages. In the dim light, Barry was stood near Sean. Then Neil went up to him. I opened the window so I could hear. Neil had said, “Can I join your gang?”.

The next day I rode around the village on my own. I turned into a narrow path only to see it blocked by Sean and his black riders. I knew I couldn’t get away this time. They stopped me and Talley grabbed my front wheel.

“Why don’t you give Sean a brick?” he said. Before I could answer, Renny came up from behind and crashed into my back wheel.

“Sorry, my brakes don’t work.” Renny said grinning.

I was frustrated, worried and wanted to get away. I hit at Talley, trying to get him to release his grip on my bike.

“Right, you asked for it.” he said and jumped on me and I fell off my bike. I lashed out at him again which gave me the chance to jump back on my bike and get away. My bike made a grinding noise, the mudguard on the back was buckled and scraped against the tyre.

A day or two later, Barry and I had been up the moors. On the way back we headed to ‘the Bash’, a huge and thrillingly dangerous slag heap, a remnant of the village’s coal mining past. After collecting a few fossils, we walked back to the village and there, just in front of the entrance to the secret passage behind my house was Sean and his riders. They cut us off. They used their bikes to block up the entrance to the passage and crowded around us. But Barry had slithered out towards the back and when I looked around he was standing well behind them all.

I looked around for a means of escape but there wasn’t any. To the left of me was the barricaded passage entrance. Behind me to the right and left were rows of garages for the flats and behind me was a fence. Stood around were Sean, Sid, Cheeky, Daz and Renny. This lot had all been my mates, for years, just less than a year ago. Sid had with him his tiny brother Steven with dirt around his face. He must have been just two years old.

“Why did you call me Spud?” said Sean from the back.

“I didn’t” I said.

“Yes you did” said Barry.

“No I didn’t” I repeated.

“Yes, you said you’d used names out of the book you were reading” said Barry.

“I don’t recall ‘Spud’ being in Lord of the Rings” I replied.

Daz picked up little Steven.

“Steven, kick him, go on, kick him!” he said. The little toddler did just that. Perhaps they wanted me to go for the poor kid but I just moved out of the way.

“Ha! Look, he’s scared!” said Daz.

I was getting anxious. I wanted to go in for my tea. Then everything seemed like slow motion. I ran and leaped over the barricade of bikes, giving them a kick behind with my right foot, knocking them all over. Then Renny rushed at me and jumped on my back. He was a small potato-like shirtless lump. I threw him off and heard him go splat on the ground. Cheeky came next. He ran at me and I grabbed the scruff of his neck and picked him up. Oddly, he laughed out in surprise. I threw him to the floor. Then Daz tried it and I knocked him to the floor too.

Then it happened. The others had retreated and Sean moved towards me with fire in his eyes. I lashed out. He hit me in the stomach. But with the next blow, our fists collided, like some sort of stalemate. Our knuckles cracked. Everyone else just looked on.

Further down the passage our gate opened and my brother came out. He shouted back through the gate to the house and my Mum came out and I backed off. Sean’s face was red and I was shaking.

Later I told my Mum the whole story and after tea she took a brick over to Sean’s house. We didn’t see each other again after that, and at the end of the year my family moved far, far away from the village where we all grew up.

Three years later my Dad had some business in the North East and because it was in the holidays I went up with him. It was early evening when he dropped me off in the village and I walked round to Sean’s house as the light faded. We were now both fifteen. His mum answered the door and I went in and up to his room. Sean was there with two boys I didn’t know, playing computer games on a Sinclair Spectrum. I wondered what had happened to Sean’s VIC20 and we talked about nothing as if nothing had ever happened ever. It was as if he could only just remember who I was. The only thing he mentioned related to the past was that there was another boy now living in my old house. After a while I said, ‘see you later’ and left them to it and walked out into the night to the spot where my Dad was due to pick me up.

Even that is now 26 years ago. This isn’t even a story to be proud of. But somehow I knew it was important as I wrote it down at the time. I’ve developed longer and deeper friendships since. But there something different about those early years, the foundation for who we are and what we’ll become.

The threads of our life’s tapestry is laid down in those times, and although so short, sometimes they do feel like the most important threads of all.

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

My headmaster still owes me £50

Why do we remember what we remember?

Everyone remembers a good teacher

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

Ayd works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

Children are not sophisticated


It was a phrase I first heard in the late 1980s that ‘children are more sophisticated today’.

It was used as a deceitful excuse for removing budgets from children’s television by canceling many programmes that had run for years, including the pre-school programme Play School, which had run for 24 years, Play Away, Crackajack and others to fund breakfast television. What was cut from the schedule were the quaint, gentle and silly programmes for young children.

The it was used to justify lowering the certificate rating on films and video releases.

It’s used to today to justify fast moving, complex, sophisticated themed children’s programming, use of computers and computer gaming.

I’ve been experimenting on some unwitting children. I found an episode of Andy Pandy on YouTube. It was an example of one of the very first British children’s television programmes (when CBeebies was called Watch with Mother). The episode was from 16th September 1952.

I sat down with my own children (aged 6, 4 and 18 months) watch it. A programme from 60 years ago. The target demographic for that episode when it was made would now be 63 to 67 years old. The makers of that programme are most probably no longer with us.

It was 15 minutes long, in black and white, low definition and in 4:3 ratio. But my children loved it. They laughed at the funny bits. They warmed to the characters straight away. Here they were, in the unimaginably distant future watching and enjoying a programme made for their grandparents.

How could modern, sophisticated 21st century children possibly stomach such a basic, simplistic, primordial out-of-date piece of television?

Because children are the same as they’ve ever been.

My children are very familiar with the current pre-school television programme, In the Night Garden. It was made by Ragdoll productions, the same company that made Telletubbies for late 90s children and Rosie and Jim for early 90s children. To an adult the programme seems like the most bizarre convoluted jungle of nonsense, “Iggle Piggle rides the Ninky Nonk with his friend Upsy Daisy to visit the Tombliboos as Macka Paka polishes his stones”

It was carefully designed as a bedtime hour programme to tell simple stories set in a garden for very young children before their bedtime.

Let’s compare Andy Pandy and In the Night Garden. They both have the same running length and are narrated by an unseen narrator. They are both set in a garden in an undisclosed location. They both feature toy-like creatures who come to life.

But hang on they’re not just similar, they’re almost EXACTLY the same. Iggle Piggle IS Andy Pandy. Upsy Daisy is Loopy Loo. Macka Paka IS Teddy. When a character appears they each sing and dance their own signature tune.

In the Night Garden IS Andy Pandy. It’s the same. The only difference is the technology of their production and that’s not relevant to their enjoyment unless we as adults have made it so.

Children of any age respond to the same stuff because children have not, and do not, change. They want fun. They want play. They think falling over is funny.

Children are not ‘more sophisticated’, they’re children. They don’t expect or demand more sophisticated entertainment because they are children, they don’t expect anything. They don’t compare anything to anything unless adults do that for them.

If parents and teachers ‘condition’ children, through action or inaction, then children will become to expect certain things. Children create their world view from the environment they’re in. They have no control over that environment. Only parents and teachers do, so any change in children is not some mysterious evolution, but trackable changes made by particular people on particular children.

For many children as soon as they are able to walk and talk, there is an emphasis begin to remove what is considered babyish entertainment.

It’s as if we want out children to grow up fast by forcing adult themed entertainment on them as soon as possible.

Moving images affect people. They affect mood and outlook. They can modify and change behaviour. Violent imagery can and does begat violent behaviour.

Barry Norman, the one time film expert and presenter once said that it was nonsense that people were affected by violence in films. He made the classic mistake. What he should have said that he wasn’t affected by violence in films. Clearly some people are and it’s usually vulnerable people and it’s certainly true for children.

Some children are labeled as ‘sensitive’ as if its some kind of flaw that a frightening adult themed piece of ‘entertainment’ gave them nightmares or caused them to wet the bed. It’s somehow braver and worthy of merit that a child can stomach violence, killing, brutality and cruelty without being affected.

In 1982 I was sickened to know some of my friends were playing a computer game where the object was to run over cats in the road (I was 11). That game used less than 48k of computer memory, it wasn’t any more sophisticated than the joke in a Christmas cracker. But todays computer games are photorealistic. You can kill, torture and rape people and it all looks very real.

In a report from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference this year, teachers have reported that children have increased aggression and more violent as they are being left unsupervised by their parents to play inappropriate computer games.

You can read the original report here.

“Pupils as young as four are acting out “graphic scenes” from games in class and in the playground… there are fears youngsters cannot separate fantasy worlds from reality.”

“…I watched my class out on the playground throwing themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion and acting out blood spurting from their bodies,”

“Out of 27, four or five-year-olds, most have TVs and laptops in their bedrooms, most have sight of or actually own Nintendos, playstation, Xboxes and Wii and many said they watched older brothers, sisters and cousins playing games.”

“… and there is a lot more hitting, hurting, thumping etc in the classroom for no particular reason.”

The myth that children are tech-savvy future-focused intellectually advanced gadget geniuses is nonsense. It’s placing our prejudices and failings onto them and making excuses or simply not noticing that age inappropriate material is so easily accessed by young children..

They are children. They just want to play. And they’ll play, learn and develop along the lines of whatever we give them.

And that’s the secret to their success, if we don’t kill off their creative play before they get to learn from it.
Douglas Adams (philosopher and author of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy) said there are rules to how we view and relate to ‘technology’:

“Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal; anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it; anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really. Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.”

Technology is unimportant to pre-school and early years children. The adult themed worlds of fast moving action, violence, anti-heroes and realistic graphic representations of the world are not required and are damaging to a developing imagination.

We need to take better care of our children to provide better suited entertainment and education that helps them grow in a positive way that will give them (and us) a better society in the very near future. If we end up with a society in 60 years time that is cruel, uncomfortable, impersonable and violent, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

(We’ve also watched Button Moon, perhaps the most unsophisticated of children’s programmes every made. And they loved that too…)

Ayd works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

Questions are better when there are no answers


The original Rubik's CubeI heard about someone recently who said they refuse to do crosswords because they ‘didn’t want to waste time solving a problem for which the answer is already known by someone else.’

It’s an interesting viewpoint.

When we attempt to solve a puzzle set by someone else, we are really attempting to re-modeling our thought processes into the same setup as the author of the puzzle.

This is nowhere more true than in exam situations. The candidate is trying to get inside the head of the examiner to deliver the answer they are looking for.

This is why, when we understand how a particular problem works, such as a computer adventure game or lateral thinking puzzle, we know the formulae and get complete the tasks quite quickly.

I’m quite proud that I can complete the Rubik’s Cube. I shouldn’t be though. I could only figure out how to complete one side on my own. Then someone showed me the moves to complete it. At one point I could complete the cube, from any position, in 30 seconds. It’s a great party trick and a wonderful boast, but am I really being that clever? Does learning a set number of moves, i.e. having a standard set ways of solving a problem, make me remarkable or creative? I think you’ll agree that it does not. Anyone can learn those moves and anyone can then solve the Rubik’s Cube in no time.

The point is this: having learnt the moves to solve the cube allows me to solve the cube. It does not allow me to solve any other puzzle.

The Rubik’s Cube is a good example as unlike most puzzles it has no set way of solving it. There are as many ways are there are moves, which is 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 moves (i.e. 43 quintillion).

Had I worked out the inter-spacial relationships of the elements of the cube and how they moved as the sides were turned, I would have had to engage my brain in a totally different way than I did by following someone else’s instruction. I would have, hopefully, worked out my own method of solving the puzzle. The difference between the two methods would have been that my brain would have been uniquely stretched by the experience of figuring it out from first principles.

What if it’s the same for exams? What if the subject is taught as a set number of moves to get to the required answer which is then used in the exam to complete the cube in the set, required way?

You might well say that it’s a waste of time, figuring out everything for yourself when you can take the short cut by asking for help. What’s wrong with learning the quick way to do things? After all, it’ll take a long time for students to figure out how to get there themselves, we can give them much more data by handing them the answer which they can easily memorise.

That’s true, but it’s also a curse. With somethings it’s right to just hand the student the tool and say, ‘use it like this’. After all, if you were to get a job with the council emptying the town’s bins, they don’t want you having to figure out the most efficient route, they don’t want you to organise the methods of collection and they don’t want you to innovate the machinery. They just want you to do as you’re told and empty the bins.

I’ve nothing against binmen. It’s an honourable job in my eyes. The problem is that we might well be training all our people to be binmen. The fact that they don’t all empty bins is irrelevant; they’re being trained to do a particular pre-arranged task in a set way using predetermined tools.

And just like me and the Rubik’s Cube, we all think we’re being clever but in fact we’re just maintaining the status quo and working in an environment where innovation is non-existent.

Don’t get me wrong, this is often a very good thing. Somebody has to empty the bins. And sometimes the system is so good that innovation is not needed. Look at bees; they haven’t changed how they operate their hives in millions of years, they’ve got such a great system.  But what if something changes in the environment? What if a new disease spreads through the hives or human intervention changes the flora surrounding the hives or even moves the hives on lorries around the country? What resources do the bees have to cope with such change? The answer is that they have none. All they can do is rely on the natural selection process of the survival of the fittest in a vain unconscious hope that by some random chance some mutation in their genes might just give them an advantage.

Humans don’t (and can’t) operate in that way. The survival of our species, our civilisation and culture, (not to mention your life and business), relies on cerebral innovation: of thinking our way out of problems.

Just being able to empty the bins and solve the Rubik’s Cube because someone else showed us how is not going to cut it.

Of course we don’t have time in our education (or our lives) to work everything out from first principles. That’s not what I’m saying.

In the television series Doctor Who, the executive producer and award winning writer, Russell T. Davies said that they made the decision in 2005 to give back the character of the Doctor his ‘sonic screwdriver’. Decades earlier, a previous producer had taken the magical device away from the Doctor claiming that it made solving the problems in the stories all too easy. All the Doctor would have to do would be use the sonic screwdriver and escape. Russell T. Davies disagreed saying that we didn’t want the Doctor constantly being locked up and the story stalled while he tried to escape. He wanted the Doctor to be able to solve those simple problems quickly so we could all get on to having a more exciting story with bigger problems to solve than just a locked door.

Doctor Who never uses the sonic screwdriver to solve the main dilemma of the story. He never uses his Tardis to go back in time and make it easy for himself. He has to use his wits. He has to use his problem solving abilities. He has to use his creativity.

We all need to be able to do the same. We need to be taught the basics, how to hold a pen or brush, the rules of grammar and arithmetic, how to kick a ball or hold the violin.

We may be interested to know that Hitler came to power in 1933. But we need to know how Hitler came to power in 1933 to have something useful and important.

We might learn that E=mc^2 but we need to know how Einstein came to that conclusion to understand its meaning and significance.

Traditional education and training in most disciplines purports right and wrong answers as that’s the simplest way to test someone: ask them a question and mark them on whether the answer is right or wrong.

The problem with this, if it becomes the standard way of learning is that it programmes the mind that there is a right or wrong answer, that there is a set way of doing something and that getting the answer right is more important than how you got the answer right.

This is why I detest multiple choice tests (see my rant on that here) because it frames up the universe into right and wrong, when in fact most of the universe falls into a third category that is neither right or wrong, or both states exist at the same time depending on context. This means that a better answer to many questions may be ‘it depends’. When answering a multiple choice question we cannot say ‘it depends’ even though it so often does.

In most cases in life, there is no answer. There is no right answer, there is no wrong answer. When people think they have the answer and force it on someone else, they are often deluded, wrong or only have the so-called ‘right answer’ correct under certain circumstances.

On a breakfast television programme Good Morning in 1994, former Doctor Who actor Jon Pertwee was asked to pull out from a hat the winning answer to a question that viewers had sent their entries in to, in order to win a prize. The question was ‘who created the Daleks?’

A simple enough question, but what’s the answer? Jon Pertwee pulled an entry out of the hat. On it, a ten year old boy had written ‘Davros’. “Wrong!” said Pertwee and fished out another entry, that too said Davros, ‘wrong again’ he said. Nearly all the entries in the hat said Davros. Davros was of course the evil scientist who was revealed in the fictional world of the programme to have created the Daleks. But the answer the breakfast tv show was looking for was Terry Nation, the writer who in the real world created the Daleks in his 1963 script.

But even that’s not the definitive answer because what we recognise as a Dalek was designed by the BBC in-house designer, Raymond Cusick. Even that’s not the complete story as the actual props used on television were built for the BBC by a company called Shawcraft. There are also stories that it was comic actor Tony Hancock (who nation wrote for) who came up with the idea that Nation used.

If you want to annoy a Doctor Who fan ask them another simple question: how many actors have played the role of the Doctor? Again, the casual viewer might remember that the chap on telly at the moment is described as the 11th Doctor, therefore the answer is 11. But it isn’t. What about Peter Cushing, who played the part in two films? What about Richard Hundall who played the first Doctor in the 20th anniversary special? What about the many actors who have played the role onstage (including yours truly!) in official productions? What about the number of stunt doubles employed in the series? What about the alien impostors in various stories? There’s more than 11.

So if you want the ‘right’ answer, you have to qualify the question, then it becomes easier to answer. If you qualify the answer too much it becomes way to easy to answer and it becomes not a real-world question. Real, tough, pressing questions about our lives and our world are not pre-qualified and not laid out as multiple choice. We can’t use the sonic screwdriver or any other prescribed tool to solve them.

We don’t learn anything much by learning answers. It’s the same as the old parable, ‘if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. But if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for life’.

Let’s reword that: ‘If we give someone an answer, they can solve one question. If we teach them how to find answers, they can solve any question.’

Simply being told the world is round, the sky is blue and the law is the law is really just handing us empty dogma that is really no different to the worst dogmas of old. We need to know how we know the world is round, why the sky is blue and how and why we need to behave as we do.

Because if we learn how the universe works, instead of how an examiner works, if we learn how to think for ourselves, rather than become blind faith disciples of accepted wisdom, if we figure out how to figure out and think how to think,we might just find the answers that no-one else has ever answered before.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


Why Creative Writing is important – especially for children


I visited a particular school to give a talk on creativity to the teachers. An English teacher remarked afterwards that she ‘had tried creative writing’, but had given up on it and returned to what she was ‘doing before’. I didn’t have the opportunity to explore with her this odd statement. I don’t have the data to know if such seemingly bizarre views are widespread or not.

What did she think ‘creative writing’ was?

Perhaps she thought it was something outside English teaching. Is it possible that some educators focus on the mechanics of a subject, in this case how to read and write, rules of grammar, use of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns and nouns and sentence comprehension without the context of a use for the mechanics?

I’ve seen it in my education, in the sciences, where formulae were taught in isolation from the experiments that founded them and the people in history who thought up those experiments in the first place. It was as if science education had to strip away the ‘unclean’ of the human stories of discovery to leave the holy perfection of mathematical proofs, physical laws and formula. I found this boring throughout mathematics, physics, chemistry and even biology.

The missing ingredient in each case was human creativity. The importance of it had been stripped out, the story of it had been stripped out and the value of it had been shunned and ridiculed: if you studied science you were not creative. Creativity was something nampy pamby artists did.

Is ‘creativity’ in the national curriculum? You could argue for and against. It certainly isn’t an easy question to answer because creativity has become such a difficult thing to define. It’s not a subject. It can’t easily be tested and measured. It’s come to be something that must float around the curriculum like a feeling, something that should be encouraged, but with few guidelines as to how. But it shouldn’t be pandered to because it doesn’t get grades.

I get the feeling it’s been sidelined when it should be the focus. Subjects should be: Creativity PhysicsCreative ChemistryCreativity and Biology and…. Creative Reading and Writing.

We shouldn’t even have English lessons except for those that can’t speak English and those that explore English Literature specifically.

We need to teach the mechanics, yes: how to hold a pen, how to read, how words work just as in science we need to show how to hold a test tube, how to light a bunsen burner and how to use mathematics as a tool.

But we should not confuse use of a tool with understanding. All tool training does is produce technicians. It’s great that you know how to hold a test tube but it doesn’t make you a scientist, and without being a scientist, which is the marriage of experiment and imagination, you are just above useless.

So, you know how to spell? You can answer questions on grammar? You can repeat someone else’s literary criticism of a text? You’re a technician. You can fix my text as a garage mechanic can fix my car. The garage mechanic can’t design a car. They can’t improve a car. They can’t build one from scratch. They can only ever work on someone else’s.

This is why we need Creative Writing. So that our children don’t only work on other people’s texts, they create and build their own. They don’t read a text looking for the prescribed analysis, the expected reaction in the test tube in the lab – they are out there in the field, experimenting with new texts, questioning old texts and long held beliefs if only for the reason that they can.

We need to teach our children to be out there adding to the pantheon of human creation and endeavor, not dissecting dead men’s words on a slab.

And that’s why Creative Writing is important.

Here’s info on a Creative Writing Programme for schools: www.outofyourhead.co.uk

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


Why our children need to write Science Fiction


4th Doctor Tom Baker and black Dalek SecThe starting point didn’t ever bother me. The teacher may have told us to write a story about our families, the supermarket, the past, a walk in the woods or to finish a story from his opening paragraph or anything…

Whatever it was, I’d write just two paragraphs before incorporating a brightly lit saucer landing in the woods, a visitor from the future, a portal into the past, people revealed as aliens, or robots, a curse from ancient Egypt, a primordial evil hiding in a dark lake, a creature in a zoo that turns out to be sentient, an alien invasion is really an intergalactic game of tiddlywinks…

Me aged 13: “He strained his eyes to fix on a unusual shape which was slowly lowering. It was a large saucer shaped object with a gleaming metal hull, reflecting the snow and trees.”

Teachers response: “You are a cunning devil! You managed to introduce what is obviously an interest of yours into”

I always turned the premise into Science Fiction.

And I was criticised and marked down for doing so.

I was driven by a ‘search for interesting’ (to me, a definition of creativity) and a desire to twist the mundane by a turn of the screw to see the ordinary afresh, from a different perspective, to explore the unexpected and to find rationale in the unexplained.

But my teachers didn’t agree. They felt it was childish and unsophisticated.

I think this is a shame. More than a shame. A crisis.

To an outsider, Science Fiction as a genre is still misunderstood and the tendency with poor writing (in some books, some television and films) to rely on clichéd concepts such as unimaginative spaceships, mad robots and generic aliens makes many people overlook the main purpose of Science Fiction (also referred to as SF by purists, but never Sci-Fi). This bias and misunderstanding has in the past alienated many, especially young girls from the genre. It’s interesting to note that the new production of Doctor Who set out with re-dressing this balance and have achieved it with the ratio of girls and boys watching the programme almost equal.

Science Fiction has the unique capabilities to allow a child to explore themselves and their world in non-literal ways.

Science Fiction’s alternative title is ‘Speculative Fiction’. It is stories that are driven by a ‘what if?’ question. The answer to this question is answered by the story using real-world science to extrapolate it and to drive the characters and the plot. Science Fiction keeps most things constant and has one or a few variables that can then be explored.

This is the essential difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, although the lines are often blurred.

Star Trek, the television and film series is Science Fiction. It has a number of plot devices that are beyond our current technology including teleportation and faster-than-light travel. But within the story framework these technologies are explained in scientific, believable ways with their own rules and limitations that are kept constant within the story. In fact, those two technologies are plot device conceits and not the driving force for the story, they are story enablers. In reality it would take centuries to travel to the stars, the distance between them is so great and it is a complicated and long-winded process to safely travel from orbit to land on a planet. The ‘Warp Drive’ and ‘Transporter’ fictional technologies remove the mundane to tell a much more interesting story. The story of Star Trek, the speculative ‘what if?’ is: ‘what would it be like to travel to strange new worlds and visit new civilisations?’

Harry Potter is not Science Fiction. It too has unrealistic devices, and they are consistent within the world of the story, but these are not explained in any other way other than ‘magic’ and cannot be extrapolated from our understanding of real-world technology. This makes Harry Potter Fantasy.

When it comes to examining the film series Star Wars as a genre, people tend to make an interesting mistake. They often think it is ‘futuristic’ because it features robots and spaceships and yet the opening phrase that begins the film is ‘a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’. This is the same as the well know start to many a story, ‘once upon a time’ and frames Star Wars, like Cinderella, as a fairy tale and not Science Fiction. No serious attempt is made in Star Wars to rationalise space travel, how light sabres work, how the robots appear to be conscious and what The Force is. Star Wars is fantasy disguised as Science Fiction.

Doctor Who is yet more complicated. The premise is Science Fiction: ‘an alien who looks like a man, travels through time and space in a time machine made by a lost civilisation that resembles a 1960s Police Box that is bigger on the inside.’ But unlike other franchises, Doctor Who changes genre from story to story, some stories are straight Science Fiction, some are fantasy, some thriller or historical drama, comedy, tragedy and even romance. Doctor Who is better described as ‘Science Fantasy’.

When teaching children storytelling, I believe it is important for them to realise which overall genre their story is fitting into if it is to include what appear to be Science Fiction elements: are they creating a whole new world with its own rules and physical laws where literally anything can happen? Is so, that’s fantasy (the most solid example in Literature may well be Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings). Or are they keeping most of the rules of the known world and for dramatic effect or as a speculative story driver, choosing to twist, re-invent or magnify one or more real-world rules. If so, they are writing Science Fiction.

This is why Science Fiction is so enthralling, so exciting to read and to write, and so useful to us as a civilisation. It allows us to look at an aspect of ourselves from a different perspective. The stories explored in Star Trek are not really about space travel, aliens and the future, they are all about fragments of ourselves, now. In one story, Captain Kirk and his crew are bemused by a race of people who have one side of their faces black and the other white and yet are fighting each other. When asked why, a man retorts, “Isn’t it obvious! He has the white side on the left and black on the right and we have it the other way round!”. (Let That Be Your Last Battlefield). This Science Fiction allows the story to explore racism.

Children’s relationship to Science Fiction is usually based on the magical attraction of the fantastical otherness of outer space, aliens and the excitement of adventure. But it can also be the appeal of a relationship with a creature such as a robot or alien with whom the child can connect in their own way on their own terms without the trappings of their own weaknesses.

This is why Star Wars worked in the first place: children identified with the cute robots in a way that adults couldn’t and would not. (There’s more on this here). This is why children, especially boys, still love steam engines, cars and other machines which they can easily bestow consciousness into. It also connects to the most primordial of children’s secret fantasies: the imaginary friend. The mobile dustbin-like robot, R2D2, in Star Wars is really a modern variation of the teddy bear.

When children desire to use Science Fiction techniques and motifs they may already be using their writing to explore themselves and their world, without any need for guidance and literally knowledge.

On the surface they may conjure up spaceships and monsters but don’t let these fool us. They may already be using these devices in the same way as the greatest Science Fiction authors, H.G Wells, Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, John Wyndham or Ray Bradbury, did, as cloaked methods of exploring and explaining their own inner worlds in a way that straightforward ‘literal’ fiction cannot.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?


Snow on Sherburn Hill

Sherburn Hill

I suppose she was the first authority figure we knew, outside our family. Mrs Hailes was headmistress of Sherburn Village Infants. A warm jovial older lady, and although she never took us in class, she taught me the difference between ‘a’ and ‘an’, just while we were waiting to do something else. I would now always know it was ‘an elephant’.

Perhaps ‘being good’ or ‘being naughty’ have little to do with right and wrong or good and evil. I was ‘good’ because I didn’t want to disappoint Mrs Hailes.

My friend Martin ‘lifted’ a Matchbox car from the hall where a jumble sale was being set up. He showed me it in the playground. It was a little second-hand, bashed, paint scratched combine harvester. He held it under the soapy foam that came out of a waste pipe from the sinks in the dinner hall, which was a separate building from the school. The flow of foam made the little combine spin round. It was brilliant, but wrong. I couldn’t believe he’d done it. I knew he shouldn’t have it. I knew we couldn’t put it back. I told him so. Then I dropped it into the drain. I don’t know how Mrs Hailes found out, but she did. We explained everything. She listened. We left. She knew that we knew and that was enough punishment: the shame of letting her down.

We only knew Mrs Hailes for those three first years of school. In 1978, we moved up to the junior side, and Mr Jackson was our headmaster. She retired and went to live on Sherburn Hill. We had a celebration in the hall and she got presents, given by Mrs Reed who would now take her place. She looked happy. But I felt it was sad. I often wanted to go up Sherburn Hill and thank her for the elephants.

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

My headmaster still owes me £50

Why do we remember what we remember?

Everyone remembers a good teacher

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


My headmaster still owes me £50


(What inspires children may not be what we think…)

He was The Headmaster of the junior side of the school. The title alone held us in awe.

He had an office, way, way down the far end of the dark corridor. You didn’t even want to peek in, through the haze of stale tobacco smoke. That room held far too much power. It was also home to the cane. I saw it once, but thankfully never felt its sting.

Mr Jackson carried the potent aroma of his tobacco smoke around with him. At 63 he was probably the oldest man we knew and reminded me of the first Doctor Who, appearing sometimes friendly, sometimes crotchety, sometimes god-like and sometimes fun.

He lived in a terraced house at the entrance of our modern estate. His authority didn’t require wealth to back it up. He’d often entertain us with stories in assembly like the one of his birthday when his son had bought him a new Jaguar car. He’d been told it was parked outside and had ventured out to find a 1:36 scale Corgi toy car in the middle of the drive with a ribbon round it. We all enjoyed the joke, although I wondered why he hadn’t told us if it was an XJ6 or XJS.

When Mr Jackson did get a new car it was a brand new cream coloured Austin Mini Metro. We all crowded round, amazed at the W reg which he pointed out was the first to be delivered in the county. It was the first new model of car that I was aware of. We’d all seen the adverts on TV and in the papers. The Metro just looked so futuristic and how cool that our headmaster was the first person to get one.

Mr Jackson was also a councillor and there was an election around the same time as the general election. The North East of England was always going to be a left-wing Labour stronghold, even with the impending Conservative landslide victory of Mrs Thatcher that year. But Mr Jackson stood as an Independent Labour candidate. I never knew why. Perhaps he felt official Labour was out of step with what the country needed under Michael Foot, but still held onto his socialist ideals. But whatever it was, Sean and I thought he needed some support. After all, he was our headmaster. So we made banners and strode around the village proclaiming ‘Vote Jackson’. We didn’t tell him that’s what we were doing, we wouldn’t have dared. But he found out and thanked us in assembly. I don’t know if our canvasing had any effect, but he did win.

One day he heard me talking to some kids at lunchtime about the Space Shuttle Columbia which was about to launch for the first time. He called me over and asked me to explain it to him. I told him all about it, how the boosters worked, how it would take off like a rocket, the duration of the mission, how it would land like an aeroplane, protected by the heat-resistance tiles and how it opened a new age in space exploration. He listened and then thanked me and went back to his office.

It was early summer, 1982 when we all went as a class for a nature walk up Sherburn Hill. Not the road lined with houses, but the wild, overgrown woodland and heath-like hill, that it was said, was partly an overgrown Victorian rubbish dump. It was certainly mysterious. Mr Jackson came with us and pointed out with a stick the trickle of water that carved its way down the hill, forging the dirt path that we were walking on.

“Look at that,” he said, “water always flows down, always makes its way downwards.”

I thought about this for a moment. He was right, it did. Then he turned to me.

“I’ll give £50 to anyone who shows me where water runs uphill!”

Then he turned and carried on the trek up the path.

I paused and thought. Water does flow downhill. Is there any an occasion that it goes the other way? £50? I had to find a way. Then it came to me. Of course! I’d seen water go uphill… when we put the car through the carwash, the blower blows the water droplets up the windscreen. I quickened my step to catch up with Mr Jackson. Hang on, I thought, what about, what-do-you-call-it, ‘capillary action’, if you put a tissue in a beaker of water and hang it over the edge, the water will rise up out of the beaker. Then I remembered making wine with my Dad too. We had the wine in large demijohns and when we wanted to get it out we’d put in a clear tube and my Dad sucked on it until the wine poured all the way through the tube and into the bottle: the wine had gone up hill. Then I thought about the Space Shuttle. I’d seen water, floating about in big blobs in the zero gravity of space. I’d thought of four ways that water flowed up hill! But I couldn’t catch up with Mr Jackson and most of the rest of the walk we were in single file.

Over the following week I looked for the opportunity to tell him what I knew and claim my £50 but the chance wasn’t forthcoming. Going up to his office wasn’t an option, I had to wait for a opportune meeting.

It was early summer and nearly the end of school. I would have to be quick. But for the last two weeks of term I was quite ill. I missed the celebrations of leaving junior school and, in the autumn we went to different secondary schools so I never saw my old chums again, except for Sean and Barry. I missed Mr Jackson’s retirement party too in that last week. Mr Hall presented him with a gift as he was due to take over, Barry said. The children had all been presented with a gift, an ‘Observers Book of…’ something. Weeks earlier we were asked what we all wanted. I’d chosen the Observer’s Book of Cars. Barry had picked up my book for me. They’d got me the Observer’s Book of Cats.

I never saw Mr Jackson again. Not long after his retirement I heard he had died, suddenly, from a heart attack. I never got that chance to thank him for the riddle, to give him my ideas and to claim the £50.

Perhaps to inspire children we don’t need to be magnificent. Perhaps we don’t need to be momentous. Perhaps all we need to be, is to engage with them and to be there with them, for them. Thank you Mr Jackson.

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

Why do we remember what we remember?

Everyone remembers a good teacher

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


The power of stories and how to create creators


Rapunzel cake

Mabel's fairytale cake - with Rapunzel

I’ve become fascinated by the concept of the change from story consumer to story creator (just as I have previously written about the change from music listener to music composer).

Most people would consider themselves a reader, but how many consider themselves a writer? Everyone should, because everyone is (or was, as we’ll see).

Storytelling is not just the most important activity in our lives, storytelling IS our lives.

This is no more noticeable than with my eldest daughter who has just turned 4. Stories are her certainly her life. She wants to be read stories all the time, always wanting to squeeze one more before school or before bedtime. (I found it interesting that she doesn’t use the noun ‘book’, hence her brother, when he did something wrong was “in the bad stories”.)

But now something has changed. She is creating her own stories:

“One day there was a princess in a high castle and she had short hair. And one day a prince rode by and she let down her hair and she fell down because her hair was short and the prince kissed her and she woke up, the end.”

This is obviously a variation on Rapunzel, but what is interesting in that Mabel was aware of what the hair meant and chose to modify the length, negating the original premise and causing a new drama of its own.

This was followed by another variation:

“There was another story with a princess with short hair in a castle which was lower so she could reach the prince. The end.”

This version is a further modification, removing the obstacle to the princess’s desires.

Princesses are the main feature of Mabel’s story worlds but unlike in the real world they are not the female offspring of reigning monarchs but creatures of the same genus as fairies, angels, pixies, witches and girls. They inhabit worlds of magic, are beautiful, wear beautiful dresses, sometimes have wings and sometimes are on the look out for a prince. Sometimes cats have been added to the pantheon giving us the curious creature of a cat fairy princess which Mabel wanted to be dressed up as for a fancy dress party.

But what is a story? Is it an account of past events of a related plot, that link together to create meaning to inform, to entertain or educate? Like any whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, as story is more than the facts, events and characters that inhabit it. This ‘extra’ something is the emotion that the story invokes, the questions it raises (or answers), the connection it makes to our lives by which – and this is the most important bit – we measure and create our own lives.

We must never, ever underestimate the power or stories in our lives, especially with children. Stories provide snatches of narrative and context by which we build our own life biography.

Our constant task in life is to make sense of the seemingly random events that happen to us. Deep down we know there can never really be any coincidences or purposeless randomness. Everything that happens to us MUST happen for a reason. That ability to put facts into context (which is what a story is) is hard wired into our very being.

If, when we can’t weave the story, when we can’t find the meaning, we enter that condition we call depression. In that rehabilitating, powerless state we are not depressed at all, we have lost the thread of the story, we have lost significance of ourselves within our life story and we have lost our meaning.

A life with its meaning and significance is never a depressed one, no matter what seemingly sad and shocking events happen in it.

The loss of a loved one, death, illness, failure – these are the things that can make us depressed if we loose the thread of the story. This is why, when times are at their toughest, that humanity conjures up the next chapter of the story, the reason for the sudden unexpected event, the meaning behind the seemingly unfair or random change. We invent serendipity, we invent superstition, magic, divine and demonic forces. We breath life into the gods.

As adults we consume stories in the forms of news, gossip, cinema, television and radio as well as in novels. Few of us perhaps create those type of stories but we are all still storytellers everyday in our work; communicating our ideas to others, recounting recent events to friends and family. Perhaps we’re not aware that we are not just readers and consumers of these stories. We weave their meaning with the transcript of our own lives and position ourselves in relation to them.

This could be from aligning ourselves with the views of a newspaper columnist, politician, rock star or even a standup comedian, buying into their beliefs and stories and allowing them to run along side our own, giving us a particular framework, political, moral or spiritual with which to run the events of our lives.

Sometimes a particular story, or version of a story, is so potent that it becomes so interwoven with our lives that it defines the direction our life story takes and modifies behavior.

One of the worlds most influential stories in history that has inspired lives for over two thousand years has to be that of the carpenters son who turned out to be God’s son who was rejected by his people, put to death but came back to life. Within that particular tale there are stories that are re-told and relived over and over again: the Last Supper is retold every Sunday in every Church as the service of Communion. The Passion of Christ, his trial, suffering and death is relived every Easter as is his birth in the nativity every Christmas.

But more recent, or more humble stories can and do have transformational effects too.

I’ve known teenagers who changed the direction of their lives to become teachers after seeing the film, The Dead Poets Society. That same story inspired Steve Jobs of Apple in his promotion of the Apple Mac computer as a creative tool in the Think Different campaign.

Star Wars figures C£Po, R2D2, Darth Vader, Princess LeiaTo my generation of children, the story of Star Wars, which was in effect a re-telling of ancient fairy stories, was so potent in its splendor as an exciting alien tale, that it entered our consciousness. It provided what all fairy stories provide; a moral template for good and evil, the concept of the hero’s journey, the quest, where obstacles must be overcome and sacrifices made. The characters are archetypal, but still colourful. Some adults at the time found it hard to see the depth in it and even with the mania that surrounded it’s original release where people queued around the block to get into cinemas, would not have predicted its longevity. Even its creator George Lucas didn’t know the secret of the success of the original film (and the two subsequent films that formed the original trilogy). The prequels that followed twenty years later lacked something. Even though they were more spectacular and exotic that the originals there was perhaps a lack of depth or mystery and less room for the imagination to weave within the story. This isn’t surprising or unusual. It’s not the artists job to understand their art. It is the job of the audience.

In 1977, a colleague of my Dad’s was round at our house. He’d been to see the original ilm, as had nearly everyone, to ‘see what al the fuss was about’. The opening scene, as you may remember features no human characters. For the first ten minutes we are expected to engage with a gold metal man and a walking, twerping dustbin on wheels in the white corridors of a spaceship that has been swallowed by a giant spaceship. Baddies appear in the form of white plastic-clad soldiers, their faces hidden by helmets, led by a black cloaked pantomime villain compete with black skull-like mask. No wonder Frank walked out after 10 minutes after seeing this rubbish.

But that’s not what we children saw. As a six and a half year old I saw the fear and trepidation of the gold robot. I saw the determination of the small domed headed clever robot. I saw that they were the characters we were engaging with and that they were carrying the story and that the humans and stormtroopers fighting in the background were incidental their story, the goodies, our friends. After 10 minutes we knew that C3PO had reluctantly agreed to take part in an important mission he didn’t understand. We knew that R2D2 carried secrets that must be kept from the baddies. Children have the ability to see a story, to see the elements of characterisation, emotion and motivation in what to the adults were inanimate objects. In short, children’s imaginations are less literal, more hungry for meaning, more powerful. Adults want it all on plate, often too bored and in need of instant gratification and explanation to actually fire up their long unused imagination.

So many modern stories, designed for children, fail to engage in the way a fairy tale can because they lack the depth of meaning that the child can find for themselves and use the story, as it was intended, as a tool to find answers to their own problems.

Boring, literal, obvious stories are at risk of quenching the fire of a child’s imagination. If they haven’t found the tools to engage with objects and people to begin creating their own stories early enough, they may switch off their creativity and become uninterested vessels for easy stories, flashes, bangs and the oh-so-quick quick editing of fast-food dull television, just like so many tedious adults.

This is why stories for children should not be too safe, too sanitised or too obvious. We, as parents and teachers must try not to explain the meaning of such tales but encourage the child to search for and find their own meaning, which may change with subsequent readings and at different points in their lives. This is the creative process of the transition from reader to writer, from consumer to creator.

Our job is to help facilitate these new creators. By reading a good story, a child’s mind becomes co-creator with the original author. This is the first stage to a fulfilling, meaningful, self-directed life of significance.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


Why do we remember what we remember?


Snow in SherburnSometimes I feel as if every point in my life is all happening right now, all at once and it’s just the bit I chose to focus on that defines the present.

Why do I remember such detail of one ordinary day 30 years ago but can’t recall cleaning my teeth last night? Why do the years pass by, blur and overlap? For some seemingly important events, we struggle to pin them down within a three year margin.

Yet other memories, when we step back into them, we find ourselves right back there, fitting snugly back into our younger skin, our smaller, more agile bones, with perhaps a more inquisitive or sharper mind, living that so-called past it as if it was the here and now, living a life with more time yet to come than time that has passed by.

As I write this it is not January 2012 but January 1982. I’ve woken up to the glaring bright light of the sunshine at the front of the house, through my window, where it is reflected off the blinding snow. There is darkness at the back of the house where the drifts have blown up to cover the downstairs widows. We can’t open the patio doors.

Round at Sean’s house, the drifts are so deep that he wants to jump out of his bedroom window into the snow, just a few feet below. His dad shouts for him not to, “the car’s under there!” he yells. It was true, although there was no sign of their burgundy Vauxhall Cavalier mk1 now. Just the white. For the rest of the day, and the next few weeks, Sean and I explore a new arctic wilderness. Everything has changed. There is no boundary between path and road, field and street. Just pure, untouched white. We build caves and igloos and navigate new uncharted territory until new snowfall and blizzards drive us back.

Sherburn Village, three miles out from Durham in the North East of England, resides on a hill, making it prone to being cut off in the winter by deep snow drifts that blow off the fields around, covering the sleepy village in a snug blanket of pure white. It is a great winter this year. One to remember.

The snow stays until March. Even now there are giant mounds or balls of dirty ice, taller than us, at the end of every road and in the playground for us to climb on.

Winter turns to spring and it’s not until after Easter before my class go on our long anticipated nature trip to look for tadpoles. Although I know it’s far to late to hope to find any. The walk has been delayed for various reasons, the latest being that have to see the school dentist. She’s given us small red sweets that when you chew them your mouth goes all red but it shows up the plaque on your teeth. I don’t see any plaque but we all look like vampires for the day. Then, after this annoying postponement the day has finally come when we can all march off down the country lane to look for our pond life.

The country lane is a black tarmaced road running through open fields and hills. The road is very long and strangely, you always feel warm riding or walking down it.

It starts at the top of our estate and runs a long way leaving our village behind and eventually leads onto the next. The road is lined with bushes. At certain periods there are gaps where you can get into the fields. About a third of the way down, a big steep hill drops down and after another hundred metres past that a smaller hill drops down. It had been impassible with the snow earlier in the year. Then, on a corner to the right is a grass verge, a metre wide by a fence. If you climb over this fence you can get down into a tunnel which goes under the road like a subway. Through the tunnel runs the red stream, the beck after which the village was named. Sherburn means ‘clear stream’. But the water is orange because of some kind of clay so not clear at all. The village should really be called Dirtybrownburn. On the left of the tunnel and steam and a little way above is a path leading to a farm. Another farm is on the right. Beyond is the enormous slag heap from the disused pits which looks like a terrifying mountain in the shape of a giant slug. It has many names like ‘Death Hill’ and ‘Danger Mount’. The hill has very steep sides and no grass grows on its grey shingly sides except at the very top. On the top it’s always very windy and thousands of grasshoppers live there, all different colours. You can try, but you can never catch them. Also on the top is an iron air-raid shelter from the Second World War, full of rubbish, rags and a broken vacuum cleaner. We had had a plan once, to clear it out and turn it into some sort of den, a secret base or an attraction like a cinema or ghost tour. We’re warned not to go there by my next door neighbour who tells us about a similar old air-raid shelter. It also had the same sort of roof made of corrugated iron which had collapsed, cutting in half the bodies of all the children playing in it. We don’t go there again after hearing that.

I love waking down the country lane and now we were off at last on what will be our last nature trip with the school. It isn’t long before we march single file off the road and over a field to where the beck splits and has created loads of tributaries and marsh areas. This is where we will find our exotic animals. We have little jars to catch stuff in. Our teacher, Mrs Begato, has larger containers to carry back the best of what we could find. As expected there are no tadpoles. They’d all have grown legs and leaped off to safety by now. Someone shouts and we rush over to look at the sodden marshy grass at our feet where there is a small but perfectly formed great crested newt. The first and last I’d ever see. I try to catch it but it knows this mud better than us and quickly disappears. We soon return back to school with our prized jars of dirty water, some with a few pondskaters, waterboatmen, mud and algae in them, and keep it all in an aquarium at the back of the classroom.

Then it’s the next day. We’re making plaster casts of Paddington Bear from rubber moulds. When the plaster is dry we pull the moulds off revealing our white bears. Mine looks pretty good, not too many bubbles. As soon as it’s dry I paint his coat blue and his hat black. The paint dries instantly so then I varnish it. Our bears are left to dry over dinner.

At dinner times people were not allowed in doors except to go to the toilet. I come out of the toilet. Sean’s here too. There’s no-one else about. Fueled by the energy of naughtiness, knowing we shouldn’t linger, we dare each other to see how far we can slink down the corridor, perhaps have a look at our Paddingtons. We head off down the narrow dark wooden corridor, towards our class. Then, a door opens and a teacher appears. We dive into our classroom, unseen. There’s our aquarium. The pond skaters happily skating and the water boatmen rowing around the algae. We hear footsteps in the corridor, the click-clack of teacher shoes. We crawl underneath the tables to hide. Under the table was a magazine. We have a flick through this, proud of our victory and then, when the coast is clear, we slink out again.

After dinner, Mrs Begato has some shocking news. During the dinner time somebody had come into the classroom and poured the oil used to lubricate the paster cast moulds into the aquarium and stirred it around. All our animals are dead. I can’t understand how it could have happened. Who would want to kill our pond life?

“I don’t understand how anyone got in, or even dared to” says Mrs Begato. I try not to look at Sean. I wanted to say that we knew the crime must have been committed just before the class had started as we had been here. But of course I couldn’t say that without becoming a prime suspect. It was an odd feeling, knowing that one of our compatriots had done it. One of us. And the perpetrator, the killer, is here, in this room. Mrs Begato knows that too. But since there is no evidence, no witnesses, and no confession, the crime remains unsolved.

MemoryI think about these things now, 30 years later. These events appear to have no consequence, no relevance or reference to today. Since it was the last term of junior school, we were all aged 11, I haven’t seen any of the players since back then. If I did track any of them down, few would remember such details of those particular days. Perhaps if we collected everyone together, they would remember the day before or the day after in incredible detail but they may have no memory of the country lane marsh trip or the Paddington plaster casts just as I have no memory of the following Friday or the proceeding Tuesday. I have, possibly like you, only scant scraps of other stories from 1982 as I have from 1992 and 2002 and all the other years in between and the ones before and since.

This story is important because we are the sum of our memories. We ARE the stories and the experiences. If we remember nothing, we are nothing.

I don’t know why I remember some things but not others. Perhaps I remember the snow because it was unusual and so exciting. We remember things that are outside the routine. Perhaps the puzzle of who killed the pond life is the key to why I remember those other events, the unresolved nature of it all. Does it matter who actually did it? Perhaps there was a conspiracy of silence and everyone but me knew who did the deed so for them the day falls into the deep well of forgetfulness.

Fo me I do keep on pondering. And I wonder: how accurate is my own memory of what really went on? Who WAS in the classroom that dinnertime other than Sean and me?

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

My headmaster still owes me £50

Everyone remembers a good teacher

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

www.aydinstone.com