The Missing Alphabet: A Parents' Guide to Developing Creative Thinking in Kids

The Missing Alphabet: A Parents' Guide to Developing Creative Thinking in Kids


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The future will belong to children with innovative minds. Which is why this team of education experts have drawn on their decades of applied research in creativity, individuality, play, and media to craft an engaging guide for parents who understand that creative thinking skills are no longer a luxury, but a necessity for success in the new, grown-up world of work.

The book introduces the Sensory Alphabet, basic building blocks that are as powerful for building twenty-first-century literacies as the ABCs are for reading—and that are lacking in schools today. The Missing Alphabet also offers foundational knowledge, current research and a pragmatic path for parents to understand the individual strengths and creative potential that will help their own children learn productively in the future. To turn these ideas into action, there is a Field Guide full of resources and activities for parents and kids to explore together at home, in museums, and around the neighborhood.

This tried-and-true approach engages children with the creative thinking process, the capacity to invent with many media, the ability to think across disciplines, and the reliance on (and joy in) the imagination. Over the past forty years, the authors have developed highly successful programs for both in and out-of-school settings based on these concepts. Now, they offer parents a comprehensive guide for building the confidence and creative thinking skills for their own children—and now urgently needed for our collective future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608323784
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
Publication date: 10/23/2012
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Susan Marcus, Susie Monday and Cynthia Herbert, PhD, are deeply experienced researchers, program designers, educators, trainers and authors. They were co-founders of the Learning About Learning Educational Foundation, a future-oriented organization in San Antonio, Texas (1971–1985).

Cynthia, a developmental psychologist, led LAL’s Lab School, recognized as a national model for learning through the arts. She is also the former Director of the Texas Alliance for Education and the Arts and a specialist in Differentiated Education, providing educators with strategies and support to help diverse children learn, create and thrive.

Susie has also worked as a journalist, children’s museum designer and educational consultant. She maintains a Texas Hill Country studio as a textile artist and is an adjunct faculty member of the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio.

Susan has also worked as a consultant to museums and children’s program designer. She is the co-author (with Herbert) of Everychild’s Everyday (Doubleday) and When I Was Just Your Age (University of North Texas Press), and (with Monday) New World Kids (FoundryMedia).

Responding to the educational imperatives of the 21st century, they have once again collaborated, forming The Foundry in Austin to produce programs in creative thinking for children, parents, and professional development for educators.

Read an Excerpt

The Missing Alphabet

A Parents' Guide to Developing Creative Thinking in Kids
By Susan Marcus Susie Monday Cynthia Herbert

Greenleaf Book Group Press

Copyright © 2013 Susan Marcus, Susie Monday, and Cynthia Herbert
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60832-378-4

Chapter One

Part 1

The "WHAT" and the "WHY" of Creative Thinking

"The new conditions demand a new way of thinking. The new thinking demands new forms of expression. The new expression generates new conditions." —Bruce Mau

There's a big disconnect between how our kids need to be equipped to deal with the future and how we're preparing them now. The standards we use now were developed a century and a half ago to cope with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. It's where children learned the basic literacies of our culture related to words and numbers. The standards were fitting for that era, just what was needed then to give young people the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic they would need to enter the workplace. It was also a time when the whole idea of public school was new and its institutional design reflected the "new" factory models of the time. Children were seen as empty cups to be filled with knowledge.

But, unfortunately, this approach is still the standard today, in both form and content. For the most part, we still use that same factory model in the educational system today—moving children along lock-step, all the same, like the proverbial cups to get filled up with knowledge. Our focus is still set on filling those "cups" with the same three Rs and an ever-growing accumulation of facts. Our standardized tests reflect this.

The thinking skills that are taught and applied generally fall under the umbrella of what are now called "critical thinking skills," associated with analyzing and weighing information. These skills and literacies are very important to learn, but they are no longer enough. The institution of education hasn't yet caught up with what children need to learn now to prepare them for the future where change is the only constant. It is one of the very few things that we can project about the future with some certainty. The problems that will need to be solved will undoubtedly be big, complicated, and systemic. They will clearly need solutions that call on diverse creative ideas. These are complex issues, not faced ever before on the planet. They will require systems thinking and collaboration. They will be approached by teams of diverse individuals, each bringing their individual strengths, creativity, know-how, and experience to the table—along with an agile mind that can jump the fences between categories and fields of study, over old and now bankrupt templates. We believe the most important education we can give children for the workplace of tomorrow is an understanding of, and confidence in, their individual creative potentials. This is the way we see it.

Kids today naturally gravitate into the daily world of sounds, layered images, and simultaneous events. This sensory world is up close, technological, connected, visually rich, emotional, and immediate. It's about friends, fun, computers, games, movies, stories, animals, cell phones, TV, wonders, worries, playing, communicating, family, music, and sports. It's where pop culture lives. It's also where the senses and the imagination live—and it's where creative thinking begins.

What we teach children has always been a blend of what parents think is important and what our culture deems necessary. We're now at a time when the institution of education has been doing "business as usual" in the face of the enormous changes that have taken place in the recent years of the digital revolution. This whole new cultural landscape is literally reshaping basic communication. Children need "new basics" in learning, a revised skill set that responds to these changes.

We believe that parents can lead the way. Now is the time for parents to take back their side of the equation by teaching relevant "new literacies" at home, in the context of the everyday—first and foremost, for their own children, and also by asking unequivocally for it to happen in educational settings now—at school, in after school programs, and in other learning environments like museum summer camps and children's museums. (This book will give you what you need to know.)

Our culture is ready for a change. Wrenching documentary films like Waiting for "Superman" and white papers like the Gates Foundation study "The Silent Epidemic" (2006) regarding high dropout rates give ample and dramatic indications of the need for a kind of education that responds to the basic needs for new understandings, greater personal meaning and significance, and more and deeper connections with the world we live in—a dramatic world of contrasting landscapes, both natural and digital, beckoning with both huge problems to solve, and, at the same time, breathtaking opportunities.

But first a quick review. How did we get here?

Thinking Historically

It's useful to take a big step back and remember one important thing: Educating the next generation has always been done by parents who want the best for their children. Parents in every epoch have decided what skills children needed to grow up and be successful. These choices have changed and morphed over generations, responding to the cultural differences and needs of the time. Although our current system has roots in the Industrial Age, there were other models of learning that preceded it.

In many cultures, to be literate—to have the abilities to interpret, manipulate, communicate, and create with symbols—is not necessarily attached to the symbols of words and numbers as it is in our culture. Today over 80 percent of the people on the planet can actually read and write, but all have developed abilities to use other kinds of symbols to communicate their ideas.

Deep in the past, other literacies held sway. The animal drawings on the cave walls made 15,000 years ago speak volumes about the people's reverence and awe for the animals they saw and hunted. A crucial visual literacy was then embedded in how they tracked game, read the clouds, studied the patterns in the stars, and learned from the mathematical elegance of the plants and the seasons. This literacy was expressed in their exquisite drawings, in the patterns we see in baskets, weavings, and pottery, and in the ways they lived in accord with nature.

Likewise, the oral traditions of the indigenous world were grounded in the stories told around the fire that held the mythological and metaphorical symbols that imparted the meanings and values that children needed to grow up successfully. The listening, remembering, telling, and retelling of those important stories embodied a kind of aural literacy we can only imagine. It is lost to most of us now, not because the capacity isn't there, but because it is no longer valued.

Along the way, the invention of the various alphabets and writing forms gave people new means of symbolizing and recording information, events, stories, and ideas. These records and messages could then be saved and transported over distances. Numbers symbolized and streamlined calculations and transactions. Over time, the symbol systems we use today—the alphabet and numbers—came to be chosen as the ones to teach and pass on.

By the nineteenth century, when public school was invented, it was clear that the thinking skills that had turned these symbol systems into powerful literacies were the most valued, and so they were selected as the skills the children should acquire to ensure success as adults in their commerce with the world. The three Rs were born. In the context of education, visual and aural knowing (i.e., sensory literacy) was neglected. These choices are still with us today. Literacy (verbal skills) and numerancy (number skills) continue to be the basis of our schooling.

The Digital Tsunami

Although our approach to schooling has remained the same over the past century, diverse forces have appeared that have dramatically changed the landscape of our culture and how we interact with it. The digital media of today had roots in older technologies. Film—embodying sound, motion, image, and storytelling—is known to powerfully influence the culture; likewise, television. More sophisticated color printing technologies, combined with the economic success of the advertising industries, have spawned a growing deluge of images on almost every surface and screen.

When digital media first came on the scene, it was mostly geared to computation. But as the computing power continued to rise, the size and cost of computers continued to shrink. The larger byte budget needed for imaging could be accommodated, and the smaller footprints of the machines made them fitting for home use. In time, they were adopted by our culture, a little at first, a lot as the interfaces became simpler and more "friendly"—more human. Computers, now fast and powerful tools for working with words, numbers, images, video, and sound, have been universally adopted by the population for an ever-growing cascade of possibilities. Computers have become indispensable partners at work and at home.

Cell phones, tiny computers themselves, have also had global adoption. Almost every mobile device now contains still and video cameras and the means to send and receive images, as well as video, audio, text, and numerical data. GPS (Global Positioning Systems), with the ability to locate the precise position of a mobile device via satellite, unfolds the spatial dimension for mapping, locating friends, and referencing places—another myriad of possibilities. Anyone with a cell phone holds in their hand the possibility of being a communicator, a photographer, a videographer, a writer, a geographer, a publisher, a mathematician, and countless other choices.

The newest mass-market digital media is the tablet, now being massively adopted. When paired with "the cloud," which can put much of the functionality of computing onto the Internet, all this can be had at a very modest price. The explosion of the "app" world extends the possibilities even further. And the near ubiquity of wireless environments makes it all even more immediate.

The planet is going digital. The pervasive Internet, providing global interconnectivity, has launched a universal rethinking of our relationship to how we get and give information and ideas across all platforms—business, mass media, education, politics, the arts, our sense of community—everything.

When you look at it from our 30,000-foot perspective, the past few decades of change seem cataclysmic, and yet technology savants say we're still at the beginning of this digital tsunami. In relationship to the discussion of "new literacies," several important factors in our brief digital survey stand out:

1. Images and sound, in all their forms, are just as important (if not more so) than words and numbers in their power to capture attention, communicate information and ideas, and change behavior.

2. Using, creating, and sharing images, words, video, and sounds (both talk and music) via digital media is now mainstream among young people. They've adopted the media and the mindset and are collectively aware that this is the future. This genie is way out of the bottle.

3. It's a global phenomenon.

What this means for today's children is that they are truly living in a new world. We've come a long way from the few short decades ago when computers were the provenance of science, industries, and governments—used exclusively for computational purposes. And we've also traveled a long way from the time when the desktop computer made its way into the home and taught us all to type on keyboards and play Pacman.

As the Internet has become available to all and introduced digital communication, e-mail eclipsed "snail mail," and now mobiles offer the ubiquitous texting. All of this is to say digital technology is now a digital landscape, and we are living in "digital soup." The new world our children are living in is animated as much by technology as the Industrial Age was by machines.

And while the Industrial Age drove our literacy choices for schooling, the sweeping and ongoing changes of our Digital Age are driving our need for innovation. And the need for innovation education is beginning to be felt.

The Business of Business Is Now Innovation

Today's business world has been coping with the climate of drastic change for decades, driven by the rolling waves of new technologies, the new discoveries, and then the shifting perspectives that inevitably follow. For business, innovation is a matter of survival. The best thinking of business leaders has shown them that teaching creative thinking skills will provide the most valuable tools for their employees. Dozens of "creativity colleges" now help adults in the business sector master these qualities of thinking.

Creativity has also been found to be key not only to an effective workforce but also to effective leadership. Recently, IBM asked 1,500 corporate heads and public sector leaders from sixty nations and thirty-three industries what they felt was now the most important leadership quality for success in business today. At the top of the list was creativity. Even in the context of appalling economic conditions, CEOs found creativity more valuable than management discipline, existing best practices, rigor, or operations (Carr, 2010).

Daniel Pink's groundbreaking 2005 book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, also spotlights innovation by presenting the coming new era as the "Conceptual Age," predicting that it will be characterized as both high-concept and high-touch. His recommendation, for those who want to survive and thrive in the future: Educate the right-brain capacities of "inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness, and meaning" that have been largely ignored in favor of our lopsided focus on the left-brain abilities of critical thinking, reasoning, and judging.

Another striking recommendation for inventiveness, meaning, and downright fun is from Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future at Stanford, who tells us to rethink our beliefs about what video games have to offer. The digital game industry is a behemoth, where we currently and collectively spend over three billion hours a week, despite the current general consensus that games are just games, an empty pastime. In contrast to this assumption, McGonigal makes an eloquent case that when we (and that includes many, many young people) are in a game world, we are motivated to do something that matters, inspired to collaborate and cooperate, likely to help at a moment's notice, driven to stick with a problem as long as it takes, and feel empowered after failure to get up and try again. In games, she suggests, we are the best version of ourselves (TED talk, 2010).

Not only that, but in the game world we can have the heightened experience called fiero. The Italian word for "pride," it's what happens when we triumph over adversity. We typically throw our arms over our head and yell. Neuroscientists have documented fiero as one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience. And that's not surprising, since it happens in the part of the brain associated with reward and addiction. In short, games call on our creativity, invite us to challenges that test our abilities, and reward our daring. In games we have hard fun (Reality Is Broken, 2011). No wonder so many of our young people spend so much time there.

Where Innovation Begins

For business, "innovation" is often understood as bringing new methods, products, or ideas into a field or industry that has already been established. It assumes a familiarity with the information and processes that exist. It's a new step forward—it might be a baby step or a giant leap. But it's a grown-up idea.

The child's counterpart to the business world's concept of innovation is creative thinking. Practicing creative thinking can hone the natural tendencies for invention that we see so often in children's play into a firm foundation of thinking skills that will serve them (and us) in the future.


Excerpted from The Missing Alphabet by Susan Marcus Susie Monday Cynthia Herbert Copyright © 2013 by Susan Marcus, Susie Monday, and Cynthia Herbert. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1 The "What" and the "Why" of Creative Thinking 7

Thinking Historically 10

The Digital Tsunami 11

The Business of Business Is Now Innovation 13

Where Innovation Begins 14

Something about Education 15

This Is Where Parents Come In 16

Digital Parents 18

Creativity: The Bigger Picture 19

Thinking and Learning Are Creative Processes 19

Creativity Is Inescapably Entwined with Individuality 21

Creativity Is a Way of Thinking and a Method of Working 23

Creativity Can Be a literacy 24

Goals for Creative Kids 26

Part 2 The Missing Pieces: Two Key Ingredients for a Literacy of creativity 29

1 The Missing Alphabet 30

A Pattern Language 33

The Sensory Alphabet 35

The Language of Form 40

2 The Missing Person 40

How We See a Child 41

The Sensory Filter 43

Individual Differences 45

Preparing for the Future Workplace 47

Finding the Missing Pieces 48

Part 3 The "How": Engaging Creativity in the Context of the Everyday 51

Exploring the Creative Process 52

The Imagination 52

Creative Thinking: The Process 55

A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents through the Creative Process 66

Exploring the Sensory Alphabet: A Field Guide 73

Line 75

Rhythm 81

Space 87

Movement 93

Texture 99

Color 105

Shape 111

Light 119

Sound 127

Exploring Your Child's Creative Strengths 135

Seeing Imaginations at Work 136

Adding It All Up 145

Assessing Your Child's Strengths 145

What Next? 150

Managing For Creativity in the Context of the Everyday 155

Modeling Creative Thinking 156

Building Routines from Individual Strengths 157

Home: A Place for Ideas 160

Going Pro 163

Going the Extra Mile with Everyday Routines 164

What Next? 165

FUNdamental Tips for Parents 165

Reflections 171

Booklist for Parents 175

Bibliography 178

Acknowledgments 180

About the Authors 181


Austin, TX

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