Saying Yes: Joi Ito’s 9 Principles

Recently, Dan gave a TEDx talk based on the blog post 5 Principles of Extraordinary Math Teaching. In the conversations we had with each other and with other educators in the run up to the talk, one principle came up repeatedly as the most nuanced of the five: Say Yes to Your Students’ Ideas. Perhaps the most challenging principle to implement but also the most rewarding, we’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately.

The ultimate outcomes of deciding to say yes to your students are rooted in the principles of creativity. We are living in a world of increasing complexity and innovation, the best of which requires us to offer our most dynamic and creative selves, and the worst of which hazards alienation and isolation. I recently encountered some work from Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s Media Lab, in which he offered nine variables of innovation and creativity (and, frankly, survival), principles which I thought perfectly captured the spirit of what excellent education can offer.


Joi Ito’s Nine Principles of Creativity

  1. resilience over strength
  2. pull over push
  3. risk over safety
  4. systems over objects
  5. compass over maps
  6. practice over theory
  7. disobedience over compliance
  8. emergence over authority
  9. learning over education

In education we can think of these as follows:

  1. We want students who can adapt their understanding to new contexts. Resilience is adaptive; strength is resistant.
  2. We want students to find their own motivation to engage in work. The question should be designed to pull them in. Work should mostly come from inner drive (pull) rather than external coercion (push).
  3. Staying in safety stifles intellectual curiosity. We want students to take creative risks. They will practice leaping, failing, and leaping again.
  4. Objects exist in isolation; systems are objects in relationship. With the proliferation of objects in the world, the future likely belongs to those who understand the web of relationships, ie those with a systems perspective. This means developing an understanding of context: the reasons why something is true, and why it makes sense with everything else you know.
  5. A map is a fixed picture of a landscape, but it becomes useless if the landscape is shifting under your feet. A map is difficult to use in a rapidly changing world. A compass gives direction even as the landscape is altered. It can be used to find the way through an uncharted (unmapped, unexplored) territory. It is the intuition of intellect, evolved through repeated exposure to rich, novel, changing contexts. It grows through mistakes, surprises, and direct experience with complexity. We want students to develop the abilities of intellectual intuition, this ‘compass’, so that whatever map they step on to, they are prepared to start navigating.
  6. When a student has series of facts out of context and divorced from motivating reason, a student has theory. Theory tends to be tidy. Practice is messy because the work of learning is about breaking an accumulated body knowledge. The facts are associated, stress tested, fail, and the process is repeated with a yet stronger configuration. To stay in the realm of theory is to build a structure, adding yet more layers and stories, without ever testing it. It becomes precarious indeed. Better to build, test, break off the weak parts, rebuild, iterate. The best versions of practice aren’t necessarily ‘real world’ problems, but they are complex ones.
  7. Disobedience breaks into the new. Compliance sustains the old. Disobedience explores the possible, which lies outside the known. Students who are intellectually disobedient are prepared to discover what we may not have imagined yet.
  8. What emerges from a group of students working together is a reflection of what they are ready to know, what they are curious to know, and what they already know. This is the perfect medium of learning. If they are driven by the authority of the teacher, this ideal medium is trampled and it’s potential gains are lost. Teachers can meld their agendas with the students’ emergent understanding.
  9. Learning is student-centered. Education is system-centered. Actually, in education, we want a blend of the two. As above, the position of greatest leverage brings together both the student and the system, a learning-education blend that meets the student’s own innate curiosities and interests with the goals of the education system at large. This is the domain of the principle of Saying Yes: by saying yes, we engineer this meeting of the student and the system, of the individual learning and the larger interests of education.

Saying Yes is a kind of guidance that uses the student’s inner world, their own mind and curiosities, to bring them through the educational goals we desire for them. It lies in the most productive intersection of child-centered learning and teacher-driven education. It takes the best of the Unschooling movement, the recognition that a student’s desires and interests are the best motivators for their learning, and the best of traditional education, which acknowledges that the outcomes of education prepare students for the future world that they (and we) may not have anticipated yet.

Saying Yes means teaching that the world of knowledge is rich, complex, unknown, and constantly changing. Saying Yes means teaching resilience (that the material can adapt to the student and the student can adapt to the material); it means working with the student’s internal motivation, constructing problems that pull them in and using where they are already pulled to direct teaching; it means practicing failure, courage, and risk-taking; it encourages a system’s perspective by taking advantage of the human impulse to make connections, to ask why, to look for meaning and make sense of things; it develops intellectual intuition, the compass of learning,  by making exploration of the unknown a primary goal of the classroom; it emphasizes practice because getting our knowledge is inevitable when we follow our impulses; it means valuing intellectual disobedience; it makes use of the emergent knowledge of the classroom; it strikes the perfect balance between learning and education, between the individual and the system.

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