The Creative Power of Pairs in Education

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Author Joshua Wolf Shenk knows something about the significance of creative partnerships from collaborating with his editor to chronicling historic examples — including Lennon and McCartney and the Van Gogh brothers — for his 2014 book Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity. I spoke with Shenk to learn how his findings can benefit educators and students.

Ari Pinkus: In your book, you argue that the pair is the primary creative unit for several reasons: “One, we’re set up to interact with a single person more openly and deeply than with any group, given that our psyches take shape through one-on-one exchanges with caregivers. The dyad is also the most fluid and flexible of relationships, and pairs naturally arouse engagement, intensity… nobody can hide in a pair.” How can all of this apply to education?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Education seems to focus on two kinds of work experience: purely solitary (test-taking, paper-writing, etc.) and work in groups. But the significance of the pair may be underplayed, as it often is in the culture at large. Most radical creative advance tends to happen in pairs. Work we ascribe to the “lone genius” is usually activated by relationships. These are not necessarily traditional collaborations in which two people are equally responsible for the work; the key term is not collaboration as such but “creative intimacy,” when two people inspire, complement, push each other to something bigger than they could do alone.

The classroom could be a site to apply this lesson and make it work for students and teachers. I know that, in my schooling, I always did my best stuff when I had chemistry with a teacher and with fellow students.

And it’s worth adding that these relationships, while often harmonious, were also sometimes competitive. Having a partner who sets a high bar that you’re trying to clear can be really powerful.

Pinkus: The book is filled with examples of successful pairings in various fields: the Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon; artist Vincent Van Gogh and his art dealer brother, Theo; co-discoverers of DNA’s structure James Watson and Francis Crick; and others. What individual characteristics did they have that made their pairings thrive? What lessons can educators apply from understanding their dynamics?

Shenk: The core quality supporting what we call chemistry or synergy is what I call “complementarity.” Complementarity is this weird coexistence of really deep similarities in two people to the point that it’s uncanny how much they are alike. At the same time, they have surprisingly radical differences, too. Of course, any two people will be alike in some ways and unalike in others. But what I found in these epic duos were these really extreme traits at both ends.

We tend not to think about pairings that way. For example, if a kid is struggling, we think he should be with another kid who’s struggling — and hope they can help each other. But we might think the opposite: Put the kid who’s struggling with the kid who’s high-achieving, and hope that the more advanced kid benefits from explaining and the kid who’s a bit behind benefits from the other’s knowledge. What I’m suggesting is that teachers should think about putting kids together who have something to offer each other because of their differences and their enormous rapport. This is where the magic happens.

To some extent, you can think about it rationally, but teachers also need to trust their intuition —watching for the kids who really click.

One method of finding complementarity is the creative first date. I did this not long ago at a performing arts high school in Houston, and it was a lot of fun. I gave the students a small exercise and had them do it with five people in quick succession, and then I had them reflect on their experience. With whom were they feeling a little slowed down? With whom were feeling a little sharper, smarter? All of us have these different experiences with people constantly, and a lot of what I’m trying to do in the book is help people become aware of them and pay attention to them.

Pinkus: You delve into the concept of dialectics, writing that it “describes the process by which something singular emerges out of an interaction or duality,” and that dialogue forms a significant part of this process. How can educators harness the power of dialectics in and out of the classroom? 

Shenk: When you look at great creative lives — people who have made meaningful work that’s reached its appropriate audience and has been received by the field as important — there is always an important story of relationships underneath.

It’s much easier to tell the story of an individual and present whomever he or she interacts with as supporting players. We like telling the story of the solo success in part because it is dramatically effective. For instance, every state in the country has a Martin Luther King, Jr. street or avenue or road — as a way to honor King’s great work in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. But far fewer people know of Ralph Abernathy who essentially was King’s creative partner in the movement. It was, in fact, the relationship between those two men that created the civil rights movement. Everyone close to them knew it, but no one close to them really understood just how or why. There’s an element of mystery in it. In the end, it proved to be very convenient to just excise Abernathy from the story, no matter the injustice of it.

The story of relational influence is very common. In education, we always hear about teacher-student ratios, the implicit assumption being that exchange between the teacher and the student is the critical one, or the only one of value. But no matter what, you’re going to have a community of peers that is going to way outnumber the teacher. So how do you make that an engine for advancement rather than a hindrance? There really needs to be a consideration about how people work together and activate each other, inspire each other, vex each other, egg each other on.

Relationships are part of the engine of creative growth. And they’re often critical to creative growth. Alongside that are all kinds of challenges. Relationships are not easy. There is conflict; there is misunderstanding.

In pair relationships, you have two individuals and a social reality simultaneously. We need to think about how to support both — encourage individuality and idiosyncrasy and responsibility alongside empathy and awareness and so on.

Pinkus: In your book, you say that when it comes to creativity, “the heroic work, our teachers enjoin us, is to stay with the discomfort.” Why is discomfort necessary for creativity, and how can teachers best enjoin their students to remain there?

Shenk: Things are easy for us when we go down a path that’s already marked off, that is well-trodden. You’re less likely to get lost. We spend our days moving through these paths, hewing to established forms. We’re biologically driven to do that, to follow patterns and models and to not shake things up.

One reason speaking in front of a group can be so terrifying is that we were created in evolutionary time with this physical awareness that being exiled from the group would be like death. When you’re up in front of a group, you’re feeling that ancient fear.

So the natural forces are pushing us toward convention. I don’t say that with distain; I say that with a lot of respect. We have to learn in life how to follow these conventions; how to drive on the right side of the road; do the dishes soon after we eat. But that’s not creative. The creative act is one that involves stepping outside of something that we already know and doing something new and different. “Disruption” is a cliché right now, but creative people often naturally think in unusually different ways. Think about how many creative people were misfits and losers in high school, and who were their teachers’ worst enemy.

Some kind of movement out of the ordinary is essential to creativity. At its essence, the process is uncomfortable because it takes us out of these predicted and prescribed pathways and subjects us to all kinds of new and potentially scary and shameful things.

So letting people know that discomfort is OK, that it’s part of the process is critical. We hear these stories that the creative act follows this mythic structure. You have to charge into the wilderness and get lost in order to find the golden challis that you’ll bring back to a cheering crowd. It’s scary in those woods. If you set off down that path, and say, “Oh my god, it’s scary in there,” and then you race back out, then you’ll never get anything that’s meaningful to you, and you’ll never help the world.

This resistance is core to the creative process. That’s why writers and other creative people have rituals and daily routines. They have all kinds of restrictions they put on themselves. The moment you sit down to write, the first thing you want to do is get up and get coffee or check email or do any of a thousand things. But doing those things will keep you in the small think of everyday life, and keep you from being able to come to that new and scary and delightful place.

Pinkus: Thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been really fascinating. 

Shenk: I hope it’s helpful. Education is near and dear to me because the most important relationships in my life were in school. And I’m a writer in the first place because of a high school English teacher named Cindy Briggs, who I’m still in touch with. She came to Cincinnati when I gave my reading for this book. There’s a college teacher of mine named Pat Hoy, who taught me how to write essays. And I wrote this book in large part because I felt I was learning something that I wish I knew when I was younger.

To read more about the creative genius of pairs, check out the following:

· “The Power of Two” by Joshua Wolf Shenk

· “Creative Pairs, in Their Own Words” by Joshua Wolf Shenk

· “The Genius of Difference” by John Chubb

Ari Pinkus is the digital editor and producer at NAIS.

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