At some point this week or next most of our schools will close for “Winter Break.” Why? Perhaps the most obvious reason for this school vacation is Christmas and Chanukah and the Judeo-Christian cultural norm to take an extended break during this time to celebrate and visit family. As educators, the vacation provides much needed time to recharge and relax while also planning for the second half of the school year. If you, like me, have to justify your extended vacation to family and friends – or current parents who want more school day bang for their tuition buck, you can add creativity to the list of reasons for winter vacation. Yes, time away from school, our work, can improve creativity.
For the same reason that ideas often unexpectedly flow in the shower, vacation can often unleash new ideas and connections. School asks students and teachers alike to focus. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is called on throughout the school day – and during the after school faculty meeting or basketball practice in which you are trying to teach a new play – to help maintain the requisite attention. The prefrontal cortex is the conductor of the brain’s symphony and, at school, it is busy getting the brass to be on the beat, the woodwinds to be a bit louder, and the percussion section to start playing the right piece. Such an active prefrontal cortex reduces the brain’s ability to make unexpected connections, to be creative – because the second violin is listening to the conductor, he is not improvising with the oboe player.
When we go on vacation, we give the prefrontal cortex a break. With the conductor on vacation, the violin-oboe (and other!) improvisations commence. Because we are not asking for specific ideas – remember, no conductor – new ideas pop up. Many of us experience this in the shower. With no task at hand other than soap and shampoo and no screens to distract us, disparate parts of the brain that we don’t regularly allow to communicate, make new connections and we have creative “aha!” moments out of the blue. Another reason that showers inspire creativity is that we are often warm and comfortable in the shower, releasing dopamine, further inspiring creativity. Vacation can do the same thing. While delayed flights do not release dopamine, evenings in front of a warm fire and great smells from the kitchen do get the dopamine centers activated and thus creativity flows.
It is not just at school that the prefrontal cortex hinders creativity. Most (maybe all?) workplaces demand an active prefrontal cortex. With a greater emphasis placed on innovation in today’s workplace, many companies are looking for ways to provide the creative release that vacation – and showers – inspire. Walking meetings, off-sites, and the famed “20% time” of early Google, are just a few ways that corporate America is attempting to provide the “organizational slack” needed for innovation.
While researching organizational slack for this piece, I found a number of academic papers that suggest that innovation and creativity needs some down time, slack, but not too much. So fitting for school as well. As educators will greatly benefit from vacation. We will be ready, though, to come back and re-engage the prefrontal cortex come early 2018. With enough vacation and showers 2018 will prove to be our most creative year yet.
Andrew Davis is the Head of School at Mt. Tamalpais School in Mill Valley. He served as a Head of Middle School and Director of Admissions at Crystal Springs Uplands School before assuming his present responsibilities. His teaching career includes three years as a middle school history teacher at the Hamlin School.