The following article, “Can Creativity Be Taught?” first appeared in Professional Artist Magazine, Aug/Sept 2015. I’m particularly fond of this one because I get to mention ArtCore, an integrated arts program for middle schools. I helped to write the initial grant for ArtCore. Maybe this should’ve been titled, “Art Teachers Will Save the World.” Next time.
Can Creativity Be Taught?
From the classroom to the boardroom, artists help others cultivate a creative mind
- Is human intelligence uniquely creative? Yes
- Is intelligence the same thing as creativity? No
- Does our current education system encourage creative thinking? No
- Can creativity be taught? YES!
There is a movement afoot. Thought leaders want to bring about the deliberate cultural development of creativity and innovation. In his book, Out of Our Minds, Learning to be Creative, Sir Ken Robinson calls for an updated education system, one that places creativity on the same level of importance as literacy. He emphasizes, “The more complex our world becomes, the more creative we need to be to meet its challenges.”
Creativity does not just apply to the arts. In fact, the crossover between the professions that study applied creativity tells the larger story. Neuroscientists, education researchers, psychologists, environmentalists, government leaders, mathematicians, industrial designers, computer and mechanical engineers all want to foster more creativity in their fields. Maybe the time has come for creativity to claim the status it deserves.
Employers emphasize creativity and adept thinking in their search for new team members. An organization’s adaptation and survival can depend on finding creative people. Who will teach those job skills? Who will teach the company leaders how to foster a creative work environment? Who will step forward to teach creative thinking strategies to children? Who will teach the teachers?
Artists have a vital role to play in this forward-thinking movement and are well suited to teach creativity. We quite naturally use creative thinking strategies in our work and daily lives, even without analyzing how or why we think the way we do. If you’re an artist who keeps an eye on cultural change, gets excited by sharing ideas, charting new territory, contributing to the greater good and challenging yourself to innovate, this burgeoning new field of cultivating creativity may be in your future.
“Creativity is part of human nature. It can only be untaught.” –Ai Weiwei
Creativity is the opposite of linearity, standardization and conformity – the concepts that form the 3-legged stool of schooling for most of us. So, it’s no wonder many artists feel out of place. Some people never come to recognize their talents before their creativity is trained out of them.
Research on how to teach creativity is experimental and difficult to measure. There is no step-by-step curriculum. However, much has been discovered about the conditions essential to creative development. Understanding these important conditions helps us to understand the nature of creativity itself.
Let’s take a look at some of the conditions, or mental permissions, that help creative thinking take hold and thrive
Find a new perspective.
“You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.” –Albert Einstein
Typically, we think of a problem and try to solve it based on what we already know. Our brains try to remember what we’ve been taught and apply that knowledge to the problem in front of us. Our thinking revolves around similar problems and how those were solved in the past. And if we can’t remember anything useful, what happens then? We give up. That is the definition of uncreative thinking.
Creative thinkers examine a problem from as many angles as possible. This is called “generative thinking.” Michael Milchalko, in his book, Cracking Creativity, advises, “Abandon the initial approach that stems from past experience. Find a new perspective. Restructure the problem.”
- Make new combinations. Connect the unconnected.
“I’m interested in the moment when two objects collide and generate a third. The third object is where the interesting work is.” – Bruce Mau
Artists use juxtaposition as a tool to shake up our own mindsets. We are more comfortable than the typical thinker with deliberately forcing connections, because we know the results can be stimulating and surprising. Radically different combinations thrill us. Leonardo da Vinci discovered that sound travels in waves; he connected the previously unconnected: a stone hitting water and the sound of a bell ringing. Novel combinations lift the wings of creativity.
- Open your perceptions to see what you were NOT looking for.
“It’s a bizarre but wonderful feeling, to arrive dead center of a target you didn’t even know you were aiming for.” – Lois McMaster Bujold
Science has categorized brain function in terms of sections and regions. But as brain research advances, we realize how the brain is more about connections than separate parts – vast, unimaginably complex networks of interacting nerve cells. Thoughts and memories are associative; one thought triggers the next because that’s how our brains work. So remember, if you shake the tree trying to capture that one piece of mental fruit, a whole forest canopy of connected debris will reign down on your head. Sometimes there is treasure in what you weren’t expecting. Pay attention to what presents itself.
- Sleep and Relax.
“It takes a heap of loafing to write a book.”
– Gertrude Stein
Recent brain science informs us that a good night’s sleep greatly increases the likelihood that you’ll solve a problem requiring insight. Night dreaming and daydreaming appear to have a profoundly positive effect on creativity. We need time for the deep reflection of daydreaming and the deep processing of sleep, both of which are in jeopardy in this modern age of interruption.
“Anyone who has experienced flow knows that the deep enjoyment it provides requires an equal degree of disciplined concentration.”
Maybe you’ve heard of the term “flow state.” Most certainly you’ve experienced it. Flow is defined as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” It’s a state of consciousness where concentration becomes hyper-focused and enjoyable. Time seems to disappear, and so does our ego. The neurochemistry of flow state is very exciting to psychology, and achieving flow state is exciting to everyone who wants to heighten creative performance.
- Collaborate face-to-face
“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” – Steve Jobs
Human beings are hard wired for face-to-face communication. Think of how an infant gazes at her mother and begins to recognize her very first pattern – the human face. We send and receive all sorts of subtle signals with our gestures, voices, eyes and full sensory awareness. This is holistic communication. Creative teams can be dynamic and stimulating when they’re functioning well. It’s important to connect in-person when we want to co-create and generate ideas.
Creative people need the inward focus for “flow” state, blocking out all distraction. But we also need the social exchange of ideas and the spark of collaboration. A huge amount of production is required to achieve a truly significant idea, product or work of art; we must crank out work, work, work without the harsh inner voice that stops the process. This is balanced by a period of careful evaluation as we select the best ideas. We must get comfortable with failure but recognize when we’ve achieved success, even when it comes in unexpected forms. We need to allow ourselves time to relax and daydream and not push ourselves, balanced with times of productive time management.
How can we put these conditions into place in our culture, so that we stop wasting the enormous creative potential all around us?
According to ceramic artist Betsy Wolfston, “It’s a social movement.” When she’s not working in her own studio, Wolfston teaches in a middle school classroom as part of ArtCore, a four-year research initiative in Oregon to develop integrated arts-based learning.
“I want to be a teaching artist because it’s the way I can feel optimistic about the future,” Wolfston said. She believes there’s power in simply presenting herself as an artist, accessible and real, to students. “In the classroom, I model how I think and work. I ask students to practice the same things I do in my studio, things like perseverance, resilience, being comfortable with being uncomfortable, making choices and grounding,” she said.
There’s also power in demonstrating an atmosphere where creative thought is safe, where students can jump the fences of right/wrong thinking.
A student told Wolfston, “I love ArtCore because when I come through the door, I feel I’m walking into a world where I can do anything.”
Creative achievement involves knowledge of mediums, which begins by simply making different mediums available to students. Wolfston describes a day when the class studied the style of Van Gogh, and she asked them to use a five-color palette. “I could tell the students had never painted with such a limited palette and with a sense of one-directional movement. This was all new to them. One student came to me feeling a little frustrated and lost. I praised him for jumping in, getting comfortable with uncomfortable. ‘Yay, you made a mistake!’ I said. A student sitting next to him said, ‘That’s a weird thing for a teacher to say.’ So I explained, ‘This is what creativity looks like. When you take chances, you develop grit and curiosity. It’s OK not to be great at everything when you first try it. Over time you’ll learn to teach yourself what you need to get back into your own state of flow and creativity.’”
Imagine the number of adults who would benefit from hearing those words!
Creativity is not a single skill, and cannot be taught with well-tested models. The teaching of creativity must be a creative act in itself: reframing the problem, asking new questions, and making novel combinations. This is why artists are the prime candidates for becoming teachers of creativity. By advancing our collective creative abilities, we advance culture. Artists can do a world of good.
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