I recently participated in a conversation stemming from the question, “Do Schools Kill Students’ Creativity?” I wondered if perhaps the first question should be “what is creativity” then followed by “how do we teach creativity or provide an environment that facilitates creativity“?

First, I want to say that I believe that fundamental skills are critical for all students and that higher learning and achievement can only take place when we have mastered those fundamental skills. Creative learning cannot take the place of learning skills and fundamentals, but it should not be ignored, either, because without it, we will forego future innovation.

So, what is creativity?

Is it just about creating things? Is it the opposite of memorization, which many articles often imply? According to Wikipedia, ancient cultures (Greek, Chinese, Indian) did not have a concept of creativity, postulating that it was originated from Western Christianity in the terms of “divine intervention”. That seems to add to the meaning, since we often think of creativity as the opposite of organized thought. Creative thought follows no definite path, as if it comes from pure inspiration. I would argue, however, that scientific thought is not really so “organized” either. Perhaps, thinking is never truly organized; we think like we surf the Internet. We are more easily distracted than focused, and creativity can be a great distractor.

How do we think?

When we read, our minds wander. We relate the information on hand to information in our mental archives. This happens spontaneously, and it takes a certain amount of control and concentration to focus our thinking and stop our minds from flying away on too many tangents. Distraction is inherent in the way our minds work. In this Age of Social Media, we can easily see how easy is it to get distracted. Sometimes, we like to lift our chests and call it “multitasking”, because that implies that it is a positive thing. In fact, it can be positive, but without guidance and experience, multitasking is merely distraction and distraction is not productive.

Yes, multitasking is usually not productive, but at the same time, some people have truly mastered it. People who multitask productively and follow mental tangents when reading or surfing have learned how to channel this into a positive force, and this positive force is the kind of creativity that we like.

Am I saying that creativity is just multitasking?

No, not really, but I believe that positive creativity involves allowing the mind to wander off on tangents and then return to a main idea. And when the mind is inundated with related tangents that intertwine with the main idea over time, the result is positive creativity, which can lead to innovation.

Obsession and creativity go hand in hand.

I find that the best creativity comes from obsessing about an idea, which allows the brain to follow multiple tangents as experimental paths. Eventually, the paths overlap and become intertwined. For me, this idea web tends to create focus, and I find the details become clearer and more obvious. But having time to cultivate the creative processes is critical or the idea will fade and never develop.

What about negative creativity?

Negative creativity is just a part of the process. We cannot expect to allow end up with positive creativity but, just like many things in life, if we do not accept failure and learn to move on, we will not achieve as many great results. Failure here means creativity that does not result in the best outcome, but it is still part of the path to positive creativity and success.

How do we effectively teach creativity?

I believe teaching creativity means providing students with an environment where they have the feeling of freedom to follow an idea, even if it’s not conventional, without incurring negative repercussions. There has to be a component to teaching that encourages going off on potentially wild tangents. This means that failure is not counted against the students, which means grade averaging will not work. A teacher needs to be able to assess a student based on progress and the combination of all paths followed by the student in the class. In addition, to make the creative tangents valuable, a good teacher should be able to get the students to evaluate the bursts of creativity and find ways to make them “productive”. Einstein’s creative thoughts were only valuable because he had an amazing ability to build out his ideas into something substantial.

Where does creativity happen best? Is it in a classroom, online, out in the real world? Technology can be useful, but creativity can happen everywhere. It’s more about teaching techniques than about location. Flipping the classroom has the potential to free up a teacher to provide the right environment for creative learning.

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