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Creativity in a Russian Elementary School (An Interview with Tatiana Vassilevna Zakharov and Her Director)

| On 05, Feb 1998

by

Ruth Atkins*, Interviewer for The TRIZ Journal
*Director, New Product Development, RLI
(916) 692-1944 ~ E-mail: headguru@oro.net

(Editor’s note: Ms. Atkins conducted this interview while stationed in St. Petersburg. She speaks, reads and translates Russian fluently. Ms. Zakharov and her husband are now living in the United States. In Part 2 of this article, scheduled for a future issue of The TRIZ Journal, Ms. Atkins interviews James Kowalick, who has been teaching these same creativity techniques to grade school and high school students in a small private school located in the Sierra Mountain foothills of northern California. An article by Dr. Kowalick also appears in this month’s issue of The TRIZ Journal.)

PART 1

Zakarov Welcome to our school. Private schools are still a rarity in Russia, and their relationships with the state are primitive and unsystematized.

Atkins We also have a private school that is new (in the Sierras of northern California). We are developing new methods, where TRIZ is being taught to teenagers. It would be interesting to know how TRIZ is being taught here, to younger children.

Zakarov There is a book by Shustermann – Adventures of a Loaf. In this book, on the basis of a fairy tale, he acquaints children with the basic fundamentals of TRIZ. This is the way we begin too. We have a preparatory (pre-school) department, where we train children before school, using this book, and other fairy tales.

We have a very detailed outline of the school’s curriculum, and I have developed the first year’s program in TRIZ, at different levels.

Director Our educational program has three stages: developmental, basic and aesthetic. “Developmental” is general for all subjects and includes, besides TRIZ, mnemotechnics – the development of different kinds of memory; development of creative imagination; and the development of intellectual potential – which includes the development of attention, spatial conceptualization, and logical thinking. These (developmental, basic and aesthetic) are the three main constituents in the preparatory cycle.

Atkins Do you have a methodology for the course?

Director Each of our teachers has his own course, and we share information. But next year we are planning to publish teaching manuals and course materials for our school. Such documentation doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Zakarov I would like to make contact with American schools using TRIZ methods.

Atkins There are really very few schools using TRIZ – even if universities are counted. We have in fact only one teacher in the United States, who is working with junior and senior high school students in a small private school. Other than him, there are a couple teaching TRIZ in universities.

Director The TRIZ system as taught by Tatiana is unique. In other schools, TRIZ is taught simply like an educational game. They treat TRIZ like a crossword puzzle, and they treat solutions just like the solutions to a crossword puzzle. And then, of course, those associated with these other schools ask, “What is this ‘TRIZ’??” and “Who needs TRIZ?”

Zakarov I have worked out a program for small children in great detail, with explanatory notes. If you’re interested, I can give a seminar. Moreover, this methodology can be used for teaching specific subjects. I’m now teaching fourth grade history. I’m not a historian – I’m merely like any other educated person. This is my textbook on history (she unfolds a schematic diagram).

Zakarov (pointing) This is a systematic operator. We consider the “state” as system, and we look at (historical) changes in the state as changes in a system. We examine the connections between these changes. In general, any system consists of parts – elements or “sub-systems” – and any system is itself a part of the system that is one level above, which we call a “super-system.”

(She picks up and illustrates a pen and its parts.)

Atkins So if the pen is the system, then you are the super-system?

Zakarov No, each system has several super-systems. The super-system for the pen includes chalk, pencils, other pens – everything which makes a mark.

By the way, our school is housed in the Palace of Culture (in St. Petersburg), where many other artistic activities take place in the evenings and after school. These include music, theatre, dance and painting. The children seem to like the fact that it seems less formal here, for that reason.

(We went into a classroom where about a dozen children were sitting at desks in pairs).

Zakarov Today we will be using the numbers axis principle of TRIZ, to create stories. Imagine that an object can be changed in any direction, in any quantity. Take hair for example. Imagine that it can grow infinitely. How will you comb your hair, over what balcony? And who will hold the brush when you can’t reach any farther? Or, imagine what would happen if your hair grew inward. Or, through your ears?

Or take, as a subject, memory. What is memory? It is the ability to store information. And what is, for example, the inverse of information? The ability to store information about the future – or perhaps storing misinformation.

In one story, for instance, part of a man’s memory was separated from him, hidden in the form of crystals, and buried. Where it was buried a house was built, and all the inhabitants began to have similar dreams – about war. Then it became apparent that it was somebody’s memory that had been buried there. These are the kinds of stories that our children are able to create with the methods we use in this school. It is simply one exercise – where we imagine many plots for science fiction. Mr. Simon Litvin observed that so many plots (i.e., using our creativity system) are not conceivable in all of science fiction.

Zakarov Going back to the numbers axis, it contains the following eight techniques:
Increasing and decreasing the quantities of something (objects, dimensions, etc.)

  1. Speeding up and slowing down times and durations.
  2. Animating and in-animating objects.
  3. Universalizing and delimiting.
  4. Inverting.
  5. Splitting up and unifying.
  6. Quantifiability and continuity.
  7. Shifting in time.

(For the first hour, the class proceeded to put the story of Little Red Riding Hood through the eight methods. They increased the numbers of children, so that the wolf got sick and developed an allergy to eating people. They decreased Little Red Riding Hood’s size, so that the wolf couldn’t notice her at all. Then they slowed down her pace ad infinitum so that the wolf waited in vain. Then they changed her pace to that of a bullet flying past his ear.

Then they decided to take on another tale, “The Tale of the Billy Goat’s Gruff,” and they ran it through the eight methods in a like manner. They did the same with “Cinderella,” “The Round Loaf,” and other tales.

The second hour was dedicated to a study of the principle of the system operator (see above discussion), in the context of Russian and USA history. Various historical, political and economic contradictions were examined from the point of view of their causes and resolutions, and their influences on sub-systems and super-systems.)

Zakarov The “system” of the democratic state (e.g., the USA) begins to form by piecing together certain elements (sub-systems) to create this new system. The system is also described by the relations between these elements. But the social and economic relations in the country (USA) did not correspond to the conditions that formed the new nation, because they (the social and economic relations) were based upon slavery. What was to be done? Any system tends towards self-preservation, and a conflict arose. One “element” conflicted with another, and they strove to eliminate each other. The “sub-system” of the North turned out to be the stronger.

Atkins But there are cases where former elements return to the system later, like the King and Queen of England.

Zakarov Yes, but they returned on another level, lower this time. The system operator can be applied in chemistry, in biology, and even in music. For instance, in music, which is a system, all the elements can be changed.

Atkins. This is very interesting.

Zakarov Besides developing thinking, this method develops creative imagination. As examples, we consider the system “planet.” Its smallest elements are atoms, for which the class substituted live cells. Then the planets became “alive,” and an entirely new solar system was created. There were men planets, children planets and women planets with different characteristics – some were very chic, others were pessimists, and still others were misers, etc. This alone is enough material for composing an entire story.

On the other hand, if you simply ask someone to “invent” a new solar system, he would not know where or how to begin. But here, we used a system operator and there you have it – a new solar system. And by the way, there was a small planet that escaped from her system . . . one that, like a runaway child, didn’t like his home . . .

Atkins System operators have behind them powerful creative potential. What is being done in California is somewhat similar to what you are doing. That instructor (Dr. James Kowalick) has developed course materials for teaching teachers who instruct gifted and talented students. However, I had never sat through an entire class there, so this experience is all very illuminating.

Zakarov Yes, as you say, TRIZ is very powerful. Did you notice that, after today’s class was over, the children were so excited that they wanted to stay and talk about what they invented? They were also conversing about how stupid it is that the bell had to ring so soon – which is, of course, a very pleasant sound to some teachers.

But even adults sitting in on these classes are fascinated. I also give TRIZ classes to students in the university, studying to become teachers. We also use the TRIZ-based system operator there. I explain to them how to apply it to different subjects.

But it is more difficult to teach this to degreed, experienced teachers. Their thinking habits are hard to change. For example, they have developed the habit of (only) delivering information, and they don’t know how to effectively apply the information in the classroom to promote real learning. I myself have only been using the system operator – as applied to the subject of history – for two years. Prior to that, I had been applying it to Russian language and to mathematics.

By the way, a “word” is also a system which comprises different elements. A word is also an element of some larger system (super-system).

Atkins When you studied in Vyborg University, did they teach this material there?

Zakarov No, they taught only the basic principles of TRIZ. In general, adults are difficult to teach. Children are so much easier to teach in a new way; they quickly learn to apply new methods and to put them into practice.

Atkins Innate creativity appears to occur at a much higher speed than ordinary intellectual processes – which are painfully slow. Is it true that, in time, these new methods of thinking – first quite slow – pass to a subconscious level and then occur much more rapidly?

Zakarov Of course. Quality passes to quantity. First we study, and then, as if it were natural, we begin to think in this new way. For example, if you ask a centipede what leg he’s using, he will stumble if he has to stop and think about it. The children are already working on this “intuitive” level – rapidly applying creative principles. They no longer have to wrack their brains when it’s necessary to invent something new. They just take, for example, the “method of focal object” and there you have 14 new designs of pens!

Atkins Do you consider it useless for adults to study TRIZ?

Zakarov No. It is entirely possible. But it is more difficult for adults to overcome “psychological inertia.” These methods we are employing are successful in shattering psychological inertia pretty well. You should be in the room when my husband Alexei and his colleagues are attempting to teach adults! For most of these adults, thinking in a new way is relatively easy – after they have been exposed to TRIZ – but not always! They have more difficulties, in comparison with children, whose minds are more open.

Atkins Does this form of thinking come more naturally to some people than to others?

Zakarov Yes, but TRIZ is a universal theory. It can be applied, even strictly mechanically – without much creative thinking – and it still works. Anyone who uses it will profit, and will know what to do when a problem arises – even without creative thinking.

Atkins In the United States, besides teaching junior and senior high-schoolers, and some elementary students, Dr. Kowalick also teaches TRIZ to the most talented technical professionals from corporations. They already have a high level of creativity, but when they add the TRIZ approach to it, the results are amazing. They conceive next-generation product designs in just a few days. He says that TRIZ is the greatest breakthrough to come along since Leonardo da Vinci.

That reminds me: I am curious about something quite specific. You are probably familiar with the “golden mean” and the “golden section” discussed by Leonardo da Vinci. Does TRIZ use this as one of its principles?

Zakarov In general, TRIZ uses all the achievements of human thought. The main thing is that it excludes trial and error, choosing immediately the best of a multiplicity of possible solutions.

All this required extensive preparatory work by many people who “came before.” My husband Alexei is one of those people. He has been downloading a huge card index database of inventive problems and solutions into his computer. This information is a part of the TRIZ approach. Rhetorically speaking, “TRIZ helps children to live in a changing world.” It is important for anyone to know how to rapidly and creatively respond to a changing world. After all, the dinosaurs became extinct because they failed to adapt to new conditions.

One form of preparatory work involved selective reading. For a quarter of a year, the children studied Altschuller’s How to Become a Genius. The part of that book they liked the most was the chapter on “how to resist blows.” This is something which anyone who introduces something better to society has to learn. Society has not always been pleasant with someone who discovers something new or radical.

Atkins What are your plans for the future?

Zakarov Next year we will study more extensively the laws of development of systems. It’s good to know that there are actually laws that describe the improvement of all systems. It’s also good to be able to apply the laws. This is what we will do.

In school, we used to use Robert Sheckly’s materials for creative imagination – but he didn’t have such a system. His form of “thinking” is – relatively speaking – chaotic. But TRIZ is the systematization of thought! When things are on a shelf, they are easy to find, but when they’re scattered around, somewhat randomly, in a pile . . . .

(Tatiana Vassilevna Zakharov moved her eyes slightly upwards while completing this thought, as if for emphasis).

Atkins Thank you, Tatiana, for your time, and for your kind invitation to sit in on your extraordinary class. I invite you to come to our TRIZ classes as well, when you visit the USA.

Zakarov Thank you.