Long before becoming one of the nation’s leading experts on the science of creativity, Keith Sawyer was a video game designer.
Remember the venerable 1980s arcade hit “Ms. Pac-Man”? A company Sawyer once worked for designed the game. And Sawyer himself designed the Atari cartridge adaptation of the game “Food Fight.”
He might never have taken that job, which ultimately led him to study the finer points of creativity, conversation and business innovation, if not for a chance meeting on an airplane.
Born in Newport News, Va., Sawyer, Ph.D., associate professor of education and of psychology, both in Arts & Sciences, earned an undergraduate degree in computer science in 1982 from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
He didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with his life but started interviewing with large computer companies like Hewlett-Packard and Bell Labs. Flying to a job interview with Hewlett-Packard in California, Sawyer noticed a man sitting in front of him wearing an MIT class ring.
The two struck up a conversation in which Sawyer learned the man had dropped out of MIT to start a company designing cartridge adaptations of video arcade games for Atari.
“He said when I got back to Boston I should come in for an interview,” Sawyer says. “But I said I wanted to leave Boston. I was tired of the cold and was looking forward to living in California.”
Though he got an offer from Hewlett-Packard, he ended up taking the video game design job, staying in Boston, which “I never thought I’d do,” he says.
Sawyer said working for General Computer Corp. was “an awesome job.”
After working on several Atari cartridge adaptations of arcade games, two original arcade game projects and working on the Atari 7800 gaming console, Sawyer left in 1984 for a job with a consulting firm.
It was great timing. The video game market tanked shortly thereafter, due to oversaturation, just as Atari was about to release the 7800.
Though he studied computer science in school, Sawyer has long had another passion: music.
Taking classical piano lessons since he was 10 years old, Sawyer discovered jazz music in high school, a discovery that would greatly influence his life and career.
“I’ve always been drawn to music,” he says. “In high school, I was shy and introverted, and music was a way for me to have easy access to people. People always needed a pianist, so it really became a social as well as creative outlet for me.”
Back to school
After working for the consulting firm Kenan Systems Corp. for six years, Sawyer decided to go to graduate school in 1990, hoping to fulfill a dream of becoming a professor.
He earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of Chicago in 1994. His doctoral thesis was on children’s pretend play, and it became his first book, “Pretend Play as Improvisation,” which came out in 1997. He spent one year in a preschool classroom with 24 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children, recording their imaginary play scenarios to gain an understanding of the mechanisms and processes of effective collaboration in conversation.
While in Chicago, Sawyer discovered another passion: improvised theatre.
“While I was at the University of Chicago, a friend introduced me to improvisational theatre, which is very popular there,” he says. “I started to get excited about it because it was conversation, but it was like jazz. It was like the missing link between my interest in jazz and my interest in collaborative conversation.”
He found that a local improv group called Off Off Campus needed a pianist. He auditioned and played with them for two years, taking the opportunity to videotape practices and performances. He also taped many other groups during that time.
“I spent about 10 years analyzing those tapes,” he says. “There was more than 50 hours of performance data, and I was fascinated by the collaborative verbal creativity that improvising actors use to generate unscripted dialogue.”
The study resulted in a book called “Improvised Dialogues,” published in 2003. It was the first social-scientific study of Chicago improvisational theatre.
After getting a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Sawyer came to WUSTL in 1996 as an assistant professor of education and of psychology. He began studying collaboration in classrooms and how collaborative conversation can contribute to learning.
“Using the same analytical methods I used with theater and children’s play, I would videotape a group of students having conversations in a learning situation,” Sawyer says. “I tried to figure out what made their conversations effective for learning or what made them not effective.”
Title: Associate professor of education and of psychology, both in Arts & Sciences
Education: B.A., computer science, 1982, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Ph.D., psychology, 1994, University of Chicago
Hobbies: Playing piano, mountain biking, hiking, camping, canoeing and cooking
Family: Wife, Barbara; stepdaughter, Nina Valdez, 17; and son, Graham, 5
The study resulted in a book Sawyer edited called “The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.”
He has written or edited 10 books and numerous journal articles during his career, including “Creating Conversations,” “Creativity in Performance,” “Group Creativity” and “Explaining Creativity.”
His most recent book is “Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration,” a trade press book published in 2007.
“That book came out of some research I did for a textbook for a course I teach called ‘Psychology of Creativity,'” Sawyer says. “I realized I enjoy writing for a more general audience. ‘Group Genius’ focuses on the fact that the psychology of creativity shows creativity to be based in everyday brain processes that all of us use all the time. Collaboration provides a lot of power for those seeking to be more creative.”
It’s the book that cemented his place on the national stage for his expertise in creativity, garnering a large amount of media attention.
Sawyer uses his expertise in creativity to give presentations to businesses aimed at jump-starting their potential for innovation and creativity in the workplace. Two years ago, he was invited to join the faculty of the Olin Business School and is working in the executive MBA program, teaching classes about leading innovative teams.
His latest project is a book about the schools of the future.
“I’m trying to mesh my creative research with research in the learning sciences to identify what schools should look like if we want to produce more creative graduates in an innovation-type economy,” he says.
He also is working on a National Science Foundation grant-funded study with Regina Frey, Ph.D., senior lecturer in chemistry in Arts & Sciences and director of the Teaching Center, on peer-led learning.
“We have videotaped a peer-led team learning study group in which an upperclassman leads a study group of freshmen,” Sawyer says. “We are trying to determine which peer leaders are doing a good job and specifically what they are doing to help students learn more effectively.”
Sawyer also has been working with the computer science program in the School of Engineering to transform the undergraduate computer science program to make it more collaborative and hands-on.
Sawyer says WUSTL has been very supportive of serious scholarly work. “I think that’s one reason professors enjoy it so much here and tend to stay here a long time. Faculty members value the space to do their scholarly and academic work. We also value the synergy between teaching and research,” says Sawyer, who adds that WUSTL students are “top-notch.”
Sawyer is in his second year as chair of the Arts & Sciences Curriculum Committee.
“Keith has made a great contribution to the undergraduate experience at the University with his close attention to the curriculum,” says James E. McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “Keith’s background in creativity and innovation have helped him bring fresh and interesting ideas to our committee.”
When Sawyer isn’t teaching and writing, he still finds time to play piano. He also enjoys mountain biking, camping, hiking and canoeing.
Sawyer and his wife, Barbara, enjoy cooking and are members of a wine club. Sawyer has a son, Graham, 5, and a stepdaughter, Nina Valdez, 17.
“Keith is a great colleague, always ready to help out in any way,” says Henry L. “Roddy” Roediger III, Ph.D., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences.
“I have greatly enjoyed talking to him and working with him over my years at Washington University,” Roediger says. “His presence here is a real boon to the education department but also to many others on campus because of Keith’s knack for collaboration. He studies the topic, but he also lives it.”