The Creativity Gap
Maria Montessori: guru for a new generation of business innovators
JAMES MARTIN * Special to Globe and Mail Update * Published Wednesday, Apr. 11, 2012 6:01AM EDT
Earlier this month, Google announced a new “multitask mode” for its Chrome browser, allowing people to increase productivity by using a mouse in each hand, at the same time. It was, of course, just one of the Internet giant’s many April Fool’s Day jokes. But the germ of the gag – “While browsing, you’re only using 50 per cent of your hands,” deadpanned a designer in a video tutorial – is just a hair away from being a viable idea and, as such, it gets at the heart of Google’s philosophy of innovation: Constantly question everything.
From the outside, Google seems like a study in contradiction: Playful inquisitiveness and a $205-billion market cap don’t go together. Except, for Google, they do. In fact, the one may actually drive the other.
“You can’t understand Google,” Marissa Mayer, now Google’s vice-president of location and local services, told Newsweek, “unless you know that both Larry and Sergey were Montessori kids.”
“Larry and Sergey” are Mr. Page and Mr. Brin, the co-founders of Google, and Montessori refers to the unconventional education system that the Italian physician Dr. Maria Montessori developed in the early 1900s.
Dr. Montessori believed that children have an inherent, “spontaneous” interest in learning (and self-discipline), and that this spirit should be cultivated, rather than stifled through rote instruction of what she called mere “mechanical skill.” The key to this development: Freedom. In her classrooms, children were encouraged to freely explore their learning environments. Teachers were more supervisors than lecturers, offering gentle guidance as children chose what they wanted to work on, for how long, and even where.
Stationary desks were, in Dr. Montessori’s words, proof that “the principle of slavery still pervades pedagogy.” What started in 1907 with a classroom of 50 kids in a low-income Rome neighbourhood has grown into thousands of certified schools worldwide.
When Google went public in 2004, Mr. Page told Barbara Walters that he credited his Montessori training “of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated and questioning what’s going on in the world” with his ability to do “things a little bit different.” But what’s good for the Googleplex (not to mention Amazon or Wikipedia – founders Jeff Bezos and Jimmy Wales are also Montessori grads) may be beneficial to any business looking to think creatively and drive innovation.
“Questioning tradition and always asking ‘Why?’ are essential aspects of who I am and what I do, at all levels,” says Doug Hrvoic, the president and technology director of Marine Magnetics Corp., a 40-person Ontario business that designs and builds sensitive magnetic sensors for resource exploration and other underwater activities. He attended the Toronto Montessori Schools from age 3 through to the end of Grade Two.
Mr. Hrvoic, who holds a BASc in Engineering from the University of Toronto, founded his company in 1998 because he saw “a standstill in innovation” in the design of instruments built for use at-sea. One example was the area of pressure housing failure, which, when undetected, causes water to enter – and destroy – sensitive internal electronics. “I didn’t like that it was so easy to catastrophically lose your tool like that,” recalls Mr. Hrvoic. So he came up with a printed circuit board and a simple on-off circuit. The tiniest bit of water causes a short circuit, which sends an early warning signal to the operator. “It costs next to nothing to implement, but it’s amazing how many people it’s saved from going down at sea—including myself on one occasion when I was doing some work with a customer.”
He says, “One could say that Montessori laid the foundation for encouraging that kind of thought.”
Computer scientist, and fellow Montessori alumni, Carlo Consoli also believes his education has helps him think creatively in the workplace. Until the age of 10, Mr. Consoli attended Rome’s Montessori Viale Spartaco, led by Flaminia Guidi, one of Maria Montessori’s own protégés. Today, the 42-year-old Mr. Consoli is a senior consultant at IBM Global Business Services in Rome, where he’s won a slew of awards for his innovative work – successes that he readily credits to Montessori.
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