By Charles James, Director of the D!Lab

Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to believe that students suffer learning loss, disengagement, and a lack of motivation. We hear that learning atrophies. But can creativity actually thrive during COVID times?

In 1665, while quarantining from the plague in his home in Lincolnshire, England, Isaac Newton calculated the area under a hyperbola to fifty-five decimal places. His calculations became the basis for the development of calculus. As we know, Isaac Newton was no ordinary thinker. As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said in 1819, “A person of talent hits a target that no one else can hit, a genius hits a target that no one else can see” (1) Like Isaac Newton, can we make the best of a bad situation and encourage students to play, practice passion for learning, and enjoy the condition of childhood?

Time allows for play. Charles Baudelaire observed in 1863 that intelligence is “childhood recovered at will.” (2) In 1994, I had the distinct pleasure of introducing the famed Harvard University evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould at a lecture event. Prior to the event, Stephen and I planned and staged a game in the crowded reception area outside a lecture hall. Before guests arrived, I sprinkled hundreds of colored toothpicks cut into different lengths on the brightly colored and patterned carpet. Would observant guests preferentially pick up only certain colors and leave others untouched?

The experiment was a gamble used to set up Gould’s lecture on evolution. Sure enough, of the more than two thirds recovered were those that were long and brightly contrasted against the carpet. As I started to reveal the purpose of our game, I noticed Stephen at the periphery of the carpet, intently staring at the floor. As if in a trance, Stephen was still playing the game! He was still trying to locate the camouflaged toothpicks and mentally calculate the percentage chance for each colored toothpick to “survive” the guest predators. The ability to play and, while doing so, concentrate, observe and link myriad ideas is the essence of thinking deeply. More time to play may produce more imaginative learners and in the process more creative thinkers.

During this pandemic, we were all challenged to learn new ideas, paradigms, processes, and platforms, but did we locate our passion for learning? Albert Einstein is believed to have once said, “Education is all that remains once one has forgotten everything one has learned in school.” He believed that self-education is the best kind of education that there is.

Leonardo da Vinci was a self-taught observer, artist and inventor. It took four centuries for science to actually formally describe the vortices of blood that caused the closing of the aortic valve in the heart that Leonardo da Vinci wrote about in his journals. (3) To many, Leonardo da Vinci’s 100,000 sketches feel daunting to produce, but like the passion that drove his observations and inventions, passion produces largely ignored pain. In fact, the Latin root of the word passion is passio which means “suffering”.

During the passion of intense learning and exploration, the “suffering” goes unnoticed. It is recorded that throughout her investigations of radioactive elements, Marie Curie hauled, moved, and processed over eight tons of ore. This is extraordinary when you realize that she was pushing through the debilitating pain from illnesses caused by radiation exposure. That required a deep reservoir of passion to learn. When a student or child finds a purpose worthy of passion, the result is transformational.

Pablo Picasso once wrote that, “It takes a very long time to become young” (4). Picasso understood that to be the expert he first needed to be a willing novice. True learners are not trapped by the cage of expertise. Rather, true learners create in spite of ignorance. They approach new topics with an openness of the beginner’s mind combined with the practiced skills of an expert. Lin-Manuel Miranda practices his craft incessantly, but admits, “I have lots of apps open in my brain right now.” He understands that practiced talent and a pluralist’s mind are a powerful combination that produces what Nikola Tesla termed “the boldness of ignorance.” (4) Instead of viewing COVID-19 as simply a loss, we should encourage students to embrace the pause from normalcy to explore the possibility of new ideas.

Of all the great tragedy and loss that this global pandemic produces, COVID-19 neither cancels innovation nor does it prevent students from playing creatively, practicing passion, and enjoying the condition of childhood. Years from now, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, composers, or inventors will reveal that in spite of the incredible pain this pandemic produced, it also presented the catalyst to create. This is a message worth spreading.


  2. Charles Baudelaire, Le Peintre de la vie Modern, 2014.
  3. J.B. and F.H. Bellhouse, “Mechanisms of Closure of the Aortic Valve,” Nature 217 (1968)
  4. Francoise Gilot, Life With Picasso. New York: Mc Graw-Hill, 1990.
  5. Ashley Vance, Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (New York) Harper Collins, 2015.