On Creativity.

I recently wrote a short piece for a podcast, to answer the question ‘what is creativity?’.

Easy, I thought. It’s making things, thinking outside the box, being artistic. Job done!

If only it was that simple. The debate around defining creativity and its importance has raged for decades and numerous definitions have been put forward. One that I think offers a sensible starting point was given by Kaufman and Sternberg in their Cambridge Handbook of Creativity (2010), which suggests that something creative needs to be ‘novel, of high quality and appropriate’. Considering these criteria has led me to some thoughts on creativity in education:

  1. Creativity needs context, on its own its meaningless.
  2. Creativity is valuable, but maybe not for our purposes.
  3. Creativity is all around us, every day, even if we don’t notice it.

Let’s take them in turn.

First, Creativity needs context

Sometimes we might hear the argument that creativity is about bending or breaking the rules. Finding new ways to express ourselves. Let’s consider that idea. If we were to take a walk around our school, what would we see that could be called creative? We might find a child drawing or painting; we might hear someone reading a poem or watch as a group in the playground choreograph a new routine to their favourite song. I’m sure we would all agree that each of these instances would involve creativity.

But what if we were to hear that same child shouting their poem at the top of their lungs over the dancer’s song? What if the artist took to decorating the carpet? Would we still see these activities as creative or just breaking the rules? Kaufman and Sternberg’s definition might help us unpick why the ‘rule breaker’ explanation isn’t very helpful. Those latter scenarios may involve the creation of something ‘novel’, meeting the first criteria, but the effects are unlikely be ‘appropriate’ for their purpose or the context of school. The poet’s work can’t be appreciated and paint on the carpet just leads to decidedly miffed site staff!

For something to truly be considered creative, we need to take the context into account. We need to know something about the medium being used to judge whether the act or creation are ‘novel’ or simply an act of mimicry. We need to know something about the social context to judge whether the act or creation is appropriate and will have the desired effect.

So, what is appropriate for the context of school? Can we just advocate for allowing children creative freedom or should we refine our definition of creativity?

This brings us on to the second idea: creativity is valuable, but maybe not for our purposes.

To revisit out poet, does it make a difference to our judgement of creativity if their rhyme is produced in an English lesson or during Maths when they should be learning about the mysteries of triangles? The time and place have little effect on the steps the child uses to create their poem. The writing could be identical and achieve the same effect. Yet, instinctively we might feel that their sudden flair for alliteration is inappropriate and our reaction may not be to view their creation as valuable. Again, this speaks to Kaufman and Sternberg’s criteria of ‘appropriateness’: poetry is probably not the best medium through which to learn about geometry.

If we agree with Kaufman and Sternberg, then we need to make sure that the opportunities we provide for our students to be ‘creative’ produce effects in line with the objectives of our lesson, so they meet the criteria of being ‘quality’ and ‘appropriate’ to our purpose. Creativity doesn’t mean throwing out the rules, neither does it mean giving students carte blanche to respond in any way they see fit – after all, their intended purpose may not align with our own.

So what about the last point: Creativity is all around us, every day, even if we don’t notice it?

The great advantage of Kaufman and Sternberg’s definition is that it doesn’t limit the contexts where creativity can be found. To take a linguistic example, great effort was expended in the early part of the 20th Century by the Russian Formalists to try and prove that creative and artistic merit belong to great literary works alone in a way that the language of everyday life can never hope to replicate. Since then, we’ve come to know that even in the shortest exchanges, human beings are immensely creative. We mould materials, manipulate contexts and manufacture effects all the time, mostly without even knowing we’re doing it.

We are naturally creative creatures. We are so prolifically creative in the way we express ourselves that it’s become a fundamental part of the way we perform our identities and interact with the world around us. Next time you have a conversation, try and spot creativity at work, the metaphors being shaped, the meaning being constructed collectively between a whole group of people.

That said, using creativity effectively takes skill, knowledge and practice. The argument that schools kill creativity is a common one but it’s simply not true: rather schools help us tame creativity and allow it to be channelled in a way that is novel, of quality and appropriate for its purpose. Sometimes, we just don’t notice the creativity when it’s not explicit.

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