Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Creative Thinking

Lately, I've been thinking more about the nature of "creativity" or what it means to "be creative"--probably because there's been an increasing amount of conversation about education and creativity, relating these things to the development of solutions to pressing social, economic and ethical problems.

One of the reasons I find it hard to imagine "teaching creativity" is that I've never not been "creative" myself. I've always been one of those people who was labelled as such fairly early in life, and in some ways that's made it harder for me to form an impression of creativity beyond the ways in which people tend to apply the term to me. I think the labelling also highlights the way that some talents (such as my ability to draw and paint) are associated with creativity, while others (a gift for numbers) might not be.

Another reason I find it hard to think about teaching creativity is that I still haven't seen a convincing working definition of the term. My own definition, as far as I can think of one, would involve primarily three things:

Critical questions: It's hard to be creative if you just accept what is already "there", without thinking. Being critical is not just about identifying problems (for example), it's also a process of questioning the assumptions underlying the problems and assessing the worth of various potential solutions.

Imagination: Criticism turns to nihilism or stagnation when one cannot "imagine" a solution. We need to be able to see the possibility of another way of doing things, beyond what's immediately evident.

Knowledge and understanding: You cannot do something new and inventive and helpful, or imagine a possibility and bring it to fruition, or make reasonable judgments, when you don't have a good knowledge base and an understanding of the tools available. This is the case whether you're a ceramicist trying to determine the appropriate kiln temperature for a glaze firing or a policy-maker analysing the various options available for financing social services.

It matters how these terms are used, how words like "creativity" are defined, because of the salience of the concept in current political and economic discourse--in particular its perceived relevance to the much-theorised "knowledge economy". What kind of policy proposals will be put forth in an effort to increase "creativity"? On what assumptions will these suggestions be based?

Much of the time "creativity" being slotted into a kind of ideal trajectory of (economic) development, one that involves innovation, entrepreneurialism, economic efficiency and productivity, and national competitiveness (a good example of this is the analysis from Richard Florida, who has popularised the term "creative class" and whose work focusses on the economic benefits of creative work).

This means that there's likely to be a preferred definition of creativity, one that fits with the trajectory--an ideal "creativity" that produces economic competitiveness as its ultimate outcome. In this case, what comes first?--policy or the definition of "creativity"?

All this is important for education policy because creativity is often linked to the public discussion about the "failure" of schools. Education, which has so often been treated as social engineering, is imagined as the best way to retool the workforce (human capital) for an "innovative" economy.

A useful example of this approach is that of Sir Ken Robinson, a prominent lecturer and consultant whose well-known talk for TED is a celebration of the inherent creativity of small children and an analysis of how the school system destroys said innate creativity.

In another video, Robinson argues that creativity can be assessed. How? By assuming a particular definition. Creativity is "not an abstraction--to be creative you have to be doing something." So Robinson defines creativity as "a practical process of making something", the "process of having original ideas that have value." Originality points to the emphasis on newness and innovation, while value assumes the possibility of assessment; creativity can be assessed through determining the field and employing clear criteria that are relevant to that field. Robinson also stresses that assessment is both a description and a comparison of creative work.

I wrote out my own definition before listening to Robinson's talk. I think it's interesting that while he describes creativity as a "process", he seems to be concerned primarily with the outcome of the process ("ideas that have value"). He also doesn't delve into the ways in which different kinds of knowledge are valued differently, and how even within fields, ideas do not exist within a kind of meritocratic marketplace. Comparison and assessment are fundamental to the market as a mechanism of governance, so one could argue that Robinson's emphasis reflects an economic basis for the concern with what children "produce" at school. It also feeds into a decades-old discourse of criticism of public school systems, one that has been notoriously unhelpful in producing better schools.

In coming up with a definition for "creativity", I think we need to ask within what system of valuation "creativity" exists--and the ways that system affects how creativity is thought about and defined. What kinds of "creativity" are seen as appropriate, productive? And what does it mean for education when a constant public discourse of critique takes up such nebulous, catchy/catchall terms, which are in turn mobilised and reified in specific forms through policy debates (such as those occurring currently in the United States)?


  1. I think you're right, Melonie, in pointing out that Robinson's measurable notion of creativity plays into the notion of the "homo economicus". If one just looks at the word "create" it means simply "produce", going back to its Latin roots.

    We like to tack on the meaning "new" today, but even there we must remember that we are not setting a very high bar on human activity if we require it to be creative. Evolutionary processes are creative, and they are expressions of the interaction with some information structure with random change.

    Creativity itself is only useful to us, once we've passed the other minimal bar of being able to feed ourselves and live commodiously, if it serves higher and nobler goals, like beauty and goodness. Since we do have to meet that first condition of keeping body and soul together, creativity is important to foster and, in the end, it probably has more to do with having a good meal at the end of the day than it does with the appreciation of (or even the "production" of) Keat's Ode on a Grecian Urn.

  2. I think it's hard to get away from two of the aspects of the definition of creativity--newness, and usefulness--and I have those elements in my own "definition" as well. I guess then we have to break it down even further and ask what kinds of newness and usefulness are being sought after most avidly, and why. That's where the point about obsession with the economy comes in...when a policy paper contains the term "innovation" I don't assume the term includes all kinds of newness, just the ones considered valuable in terms of developing a certain kind of economy (predictably enough). Not sure the difference between "innovation" and "novelty" though in that context.

  3. I was mulling on this during a seven hour car ride. And I asked myself this question: which of the two Simpson's children is the most creative, Lisa or Bart? In terms of possible contribution to society, it would be Lisa. She gets the good grades, plays the sax, has ambition, and tenacity. Bart disregards authority, doesn't care about school, aspires to virtually nothing, and reads comic books. But it is usually Bart who comes up with plans. He is the one who you could consider to be really the innovator as he is continually questioning and upsetting the status quo in truly original ways. But his plans never quite work unless his sister is involved. And vice-versa. Lisa does indeed want to change the world, but it requires he brother's expertise in mayhem for her to be truly able to make her voice heard.

    So, if we want to look that them as a model of creativity, we need knowledge and tenacity, imagination and the confidence to put your imagination into action. And it completely has to remove economics from the equation. Too many students are doing things only because it will look good on a C.V. It is when we let go of all that that we can get where we want or need to be. IMHO.

  4. I like this distinction between what's considered valuable to society, and what isn't (at one time or another). That's the key for me--asking "whose value, what value?" rather than just assuming that the valuation is somehow natural, or alternately that it can be apolitical and technical/objective.