Catherine Martinez: To be creative, learn 'How to Fly a Horse'

Kevin Ashton’s book How to Fly a Horse, the Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery is a readable collection of anecdotes illustrating to his thesis that creation does not come in a moment of inspiration but is the result of hard work.

Ashton’s claim to fame is that he coined the term “the internet of things” which refers to the current tendency to build connectivity into everyday products like refrigerators, cars and televisions. When he worked for Proctor and Gamble, he created a microchip that could be inserted into products like lipstick and enabled stores to track how much of each item was sold and then reorder at the optimum time. He insists that “creativity is not magic but work.”

The title comes from his analysis of why the Wright brothers were successful in flying the first airplane when so many people before had failed. He suggests that it was no accident that they worked as bicycle mechanics. They referred to their model of the airplane as a “bicycle with wings.” They studied birds in flight and compared the problem of managing the equilibrium of their airplane to controlling an untrained horse. He shows how the development of the airplane was the result of slow and methodical experimentation rather than one moment of blinding revelation.

Some of the terrain has been heavily trodden by previous writers, such as the sad story of Dr. Semmelweis in Vienna, Austria, who instituted the practice of hand washing in his hospital in the 1840s before germ theory was widely understood and was subsequently hounded into an insane asylum by his outraged colleagues. Sad to say that deaths from child bed fever at his hospital rose by 600 percent after he was forced out.

Other stories are less well known, such as the work of Judah Folkman, who found a way to cut tumors off from their blood supply but had to buck skepticism of the medical profession and his scientific colleagues in the 1960s and 1970s before he was able to prove that his system worked in clinical practice. His treatment has now become an accepted medical practice.

The book is a must read for an educator confronted with the modern dilemmas and ironies of educational reform. Ashton discusses the concept of IQ tests and shows that many studies “proving” their validity and reliability are tainted by a lack of true scientific method, specifically an on-going study called Genetic Studies of Genius begun by Louis Terman in 1921. He shows how the researcher’s own bias colored how he managed and explained his data.

He discusses the “hidden curriculum,” a term coined by Phillip Jackson in 1966, and accuses our current educational system of destroying creativity in children. He cites studies that show kindergarteners trump high school and college students when asked for creative solutions to problems. Ashton agrees with Jackson that “teachers do not like creative students” and suggests that our current school system as well as corporate culture is designed to stamp out creativity.

As a teacher for 40 years, I am sorry to admit we are guilty as charged. Over the last 12 years since the introduction of No Child Left Behind and the increase in standardized tests, as well as the increase in their importance, I have seen a steady decline in my students’ willingness to take risks and “think outside the box.” They want me to tell them the “right’ answer, which they assume can only be one out of a selection of three to five choices. They see knowledge as black and white, as discreet packets that must be consumed and regurgitated. They are uncomfortable with ambiguity. They throw a half-done project in the trash rather than treating it as a “happy accident” and adapting their inner vision to what actually comes out on the paper.

As an art teacher, I constantly struggle with the importance of learning the rules in contrast to finding creative solutions to artistic problems. I hope I would have the perception to recognize the next Picasso, Van Gogh or Kandinsky. I am haunted by stories from my colleagues that they were turned off to art because they could not color inside the lines or wanted to paint their skies red instead of blue. I evaluate my students’ projects by a rubric but I find one or two who completely ignore the rubric, break all the rules and still create pictures with visual impact. After reading Ashton’s book, I find him whispering in my ear to give my creative students the freedom to experiment and the space to explore alternative solutions. I hope I can be “part of the solution not the problem” and help the next generation keep natural creativity alive.Martinez

Catherine Shore Martinez is a National Board Certified teacher at Pahokee Middle Senior High School in Palm Beach County. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Guest Author


Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Drew Dixon, Roseanne Dunkelberger, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Cole Pepper, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Drew Wilson, and Mike Wright.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704