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September 19, 2018

Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi says we can be creative or Creative. Small ‘c’ creativity he describes as that which does not lead to a change in the symbolic domain of the culture; so small scale, personal acts of indulging in a playful, intuitive process would be creative. But when creative acts are accepted by the culture and lead to a transformation of the symbolic domain they become Creative. Creativity with a capital ‘C’ therefore is; ‘to bring into existence something genuinely new that is valued enough to be added into the culture’.
A lone genius might produce incredible creative acts, but unless they are accepted by the wider culture they will remain creative not Creative. Also, if a Creative act falls out of cultural acceptance then its creative influence is lost. So creativity can be viewed as both personal and original to oneself, whilst at the same time it can also be a more significant act when it leads to change or influence in wider culture. This implies that creativity is both intrinsic and extrinsic. It is systematic as well as being an individual phenomenon.
This is not to undermine the value of small c creativity to the individual. Almost all creative acts will never lead to wider change in the culture, but their importance is in what they bring to the emotional well-being of the person doing them. Engaging in creative pursuits has been shown to have considerable impact on well-being. And in addition, they may be valued as Creative at a later date, just as Van Gogh’s or Mendel’s work was.
Factual knowledge is one of the four pillars of knowledge; factual, procedural, conceptual and metacognition. Each of the four domains are important, but you might argue that some subjects are weighted more toward factual knowledge, others towards skills and others towards conceptual. (I think all subjects require metacognition.)
In education, it isn’t enough to simply label lessons as creative activities and hope a creative person will come out of it. Teaching science in a brightly coloured suit with lots of bangs and explosions won’t lead to any increased creative ability. What we need to do is to determine what we mean by creativity within our own domain and understand the factors and approaches that can lead to it. (In mathematics I'm reliably informed, innovation occurs at a paradox or areas of uncertainty.)
A strong factual knowledge base and an ability to communicate that knowledge to peers is vital to Creativity. In the rigid domains of maths and science it is virtually impossible to make a Creative contribution without internalising the fundamental knowledge of the domain. That said, having a wide knowledge base on its own isn’t enough because Critical Thinking & problem solving are also important. This is an area where information outside of pure knowledge, logic and reasoning is often important because problems aren't only solved in linear ways but in abstract, conceptual ways too and this where creative thinking becomes important.
Creativity doesn’t just spring from a person when more and more knowledge is added. If it did then the most knowledgeable people would be the most creative and that just isn’t true. In fact the reverse is often true. Naive people coming to a profession with a fresh mind and new insight, who challenge the status quo are often the ones who make a significant breakthrough. Sometimes belligerence and sheer dogged determination lead to Creativity. Often it’s good fortune, sometimes it’s playfulness and sometimes its a collaborative effort.
Of course some researchers such as Sweller have argued that certain skills such as creativity have ‘evolved’ in our species over time and that we tend to find them easier as a result. But surely our species have developed varying degrees of creativity and is dependent on the individual. Yes we have utilised some skills over a longer period of time and constructed complex knowledge domains as a result of discovery, invention and innovation which are difficult to master, but again, this is individual. Some find learning academic subjects much easier than being creative. I can say that in my twenty years of teaching both Art and Maths I found that very often, students who were bright in academic subjects struggled to be creative and imaginative in art and vice-versa. In generalising our abilities we are on thin ice with the 'creativity is easy' argument and miss the point. Acts of creativity, invention and discovery are clearly extremely difficult or we wouldn’t struggle so much to make them.
The domain is vital to determining creativity
Some domains are by their nature, aligned more naturally with little c creativity. Domains such as the arts, sports, areas of languages and some humanities involve greater modes of expression, earlier creative use of their knowledge base and can be employed at a more successful level (in terms of acceptance by the culture) with less expertise. (Think popular music.) The expert knowledge threshold is lower because the demand for new, innovative product is centred on style, fashion and taste. This must irk classically trained musicians who earn a pittance compared to a millionaire pop star who can only play three chords.
In academia, domains that have more quantifiable measurement usually take precedence over ones that do not. There is a greater factual knowledge base to assimilate before innovation can be made. Academia values things that effect real change or where change can be seen, over one’s that are more ambiguous and harder to measure. Not necessarily because they add more value, but because they can be verified more easily. You might argue that knowledge domains that bring medical technological innovation and the like are more important, but then others might argue that more intrinsic things such as morality, purpose and quality of life are. We tend to accept the benefits of some change more easily than others. We can see the benefits of building a new motorway much more readily than we see its costs to air quality and environment. We tend to value the striker much more than the defender; the public installation sculptor much more than the embroiderer. This does not mean that more rigidly organised domains do not require creativity or that less-rigid domains don’t need a firm knowledge base. It is impossible to understand creativity within a domain without understanding the structure of that domain and how it operates with regard to new ideas.
This notion is supported by influential psychologist Daniel Willingham who states that the processes of thinking are entwined with domain knowledge and nested in subject matter. Trying to teach critical thinking skills as a separate entity or leaving thinking processes to chance by not teaching them at all is flawed.
Further considerations to creativity
The single most important factor to developing creative people is to instill a sense of curiosity, motivation, awe and wonder about their subject. If that is present then anything is possible. When we are motivated we’ll build bridges; when we aren’t we’ll give up and sit on the bank wondering how to get to the other side. Of course, it helps if you know what bridges are and how to make them and that is why a strong, factual knowledge base is vital, but the desire to connect two remote areas of land is what leads us to invent bridges in the first place.
Creativity is also dependent on environment. In ‘reactive’ conservative domains, only a few items are accepted and novelty is usually rejected. In proactive domains novelty is encouraged and stimulated. The environment of the extrinsic creativity must also support the development of ideas and in this way funding and an open, flexible atmosphere to change is necessary.
What all of this means is that creativity isn’t restricted to the acts of an individual. Creativity (big C) does not act in isolation. It is a collection of variables; some of which are; creating the right environment for it to happen, stimulating innovative thinking, understanding the market forces or audience, identifying the correct problems, asking the right questions, serendipity, building teams, leadership and understanding the content of the domain to name a few.
If we are to be Creative then people need to understand creative processes in relation to our subject. Rather than using the generic term creativity, we can employ the key creative processes than drive it. Scientist Robert Root Bernstein and others have identified thirteen creative thinking tools that are generic to all or most subject domains to a greater or lesser degree. Many of these have strong foundations in academic research. I’ve identified these:
Alternative viewpoints,
Trial and error
But there are more. These processes have led to many of the most innovative, ground-breaking discoveries and inventions of humankind. They crop up time and time again as the central process by which Creativity occurs. But do we ever teach these processes in schools or colleges? I think we do, but only indirectly and even then we could teach them much more effectively if we valued them more.
"Understanding that critical thinking is not a skill is vital,” Daniel Willingham writes. “It tells us that teaching students to think critically probably lies in small part in showing them new ways of thinking, and in large part in enabling them to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time.”
Critical thinking, the ability to critically analyse an argument depends on logic and reasoning, but also, according to Kerry Walters in his book Re-thinking & Reason, it requires more flexible approaches such as imagination and intuition.
Visualisation, an imagination dependent cognitive process, is a profoundly important tool for mathematicians, scientists and artists alike. In maths we use it to help us make predictions, in science to understand an organism and in art to invent and imagine. But do we teach it as an important thinking tool that should be learned? Do students know how and why visualisation is so important in this field? Do they know how can they become better at it? The same can be said for adaptation, observation and all of the other processes I’ve mentioned. They have been identified as crucial to helping us be more creative; much academic research has been done on many of them, yet we don’t directly teach them.
Why is that?
Creativity: flow & the psychology of invention and discovery, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Sparks of Genius; the 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people, Robert & Michele Root-Bernstein
Springs of creativity, Rutherford Aris, H. Ted Davis, Roger H. Stewer.
Discovering, inventing & problem solving on the frontiers of science, Robert Root-Bernstein.
Kerry S. Walters, Re-thinking Reason
Critical Thinking Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” by Daniel Willingham

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