An alarming proposition

I’ve been doing an online course on Creative Thinking through the Uni of Minnesota. One of the resource articles caused a sensation back in 2010, and continues to resonate. Published in Newsweek,  titled ‘The Creativity Crisis’, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman report on the undisputed need for creativity. As an example they cite an IBM study of 1500 CEO’s who identified creativity as the no. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. The authors note, however, that what is needed is not what is actually happening – creativity is statistically falling in the US.

Creativity, in the research literature from business, science, psychology and engineering, has become synonymous with problem solving, or as it is referred to – creative thinking. Once especially regarded the territory of the arts, though not exclusively so, the creativity of artists of every stripe has provided a leading edge to cultural development and change. Now, nations, such as China, understand the epic nature of looming problems and are making creativity a national priority. Apparently, there was no concerted effort, policy-wise, to nurture creativity in the US, while the opposite was happening in China and Europe. It doesn’t look so good for Australia.

Bronson and Merryman proceed to quote a most shocking suggestion – ‘Researchers say creativity should be taken out of the art room and into the home room’. A number of points emerge from this ‘solution’ which demonstrates a belief in an implied unworthy and exclusive ownership of creativity by the ‘art room’, and a lack of researchers’ creative thinking. A thoughtful unpacking of the idea is worthwhile.

Firstly, creativity is not an entity that is in or able to be removed from the classroom. A mercurial human experience, creativity is a way of being and doing in the world that creates objects, ideas and solutions, through us. The oft-quoted EP Torrance, of Torrance Creativity Test fame (1966), wrote that creativity ‘defies precise definition…Creativity is almost infinite. It involves every sense – sight, smell, hearing, feeling, taste and even perhaps the extrasensory. Much of it is unseen, nonverbal, and unconscious.’ However, current scientific theory asserts that creativity is a skill. This disturbing assertion seems akin to the Cartesian split – take the skill, leave the ineffable.

As an artist, educator and researcher, I can say, as would all my colleagues, creativity is not a skill, per se, rather creativity employs skills, depending on the task at hand. Creativity is inclusive of much more than skill as Csikszenmihalyi considers at length in his comprehensive text – Creativity (1996). Creativity, in its embrace of seemingly paradoxical traits, is linked with genius. Of course it is desirable, and sought after, and most people have far more potential to be creative than they will ever know.

Learning of skills help with the skill-base, as specificity of learning has shown. A focus of online courses on creativity is the DSD – ‘do something different’. The DSD is about demonstrating non-compliance, a feature of creativity noted by Torrance in the 60’s. However, there is much more. To start with, creativity also needs to be allowed.

Allowing might seem terribly simple, but it’s not always. Limiting beliefs, doubt, cynicism and control issues can be hobbling. Allowing creativity sometimes depends on dismantling inner barriers. See, creativity is seamlessly integrated with intention, inspiration, imagination, wonder, curiosity, desire, seeking, authenticity, openness, willingness, supported processes of learning, making, failure, flow, resistance, freedom to change direction, interruptions, being flexible, inventiveness, exploration of raw materials, persisting…There is a problem with all this – these human qualities cannot be reliably measured.

Subjecting creativity to empiricism is tricky. Some scientists say – if ‘it’ can’t be measured ‘it’ doesn’t exist. Black-and-white attitudes have caused our world a lot of problems, and ruthlessness undermines the very nature of humanitarian solutions sought. Lets move on. In the search for answers about creativity, artists have been observed, questioned and tested like interesting pinned creatures, however, their wisdom about facilitating creativity is not sought. Don’t you think that’s odd? A great athlete tells of her training regime – what helps and hinders her… There is a history to this strange state of affairs. The first is the dominance of rationalism – and creative people have been labelled as irrational, if not mad. Possibly a second reason is the opinion of famous writers on creativity. Just one opinion in his book Six Thinking Hats, Edward de Bono, on wearing the green hat of creativity, dismisses artists as not necessarily being able to teach about creativity. For the most part, de Bono does not cite research.

There is evidence, however, that the great artistic geniuses had at least one teacher who was a creatively active person. Artists who teach, and this is how many of us make a living, impart much about creative practice to students. This is well known, but uncharted, un-funded territory.

Let’s return to the art room for a more helpful solution… Alternative solution 1: Ask ‘what were the conditions in the art room that allowed creativity to flourish?’

Answer: Freedom to have ideas, a framework to give direction, a range of available materials to experiment with, and some unhurried time to devote to making.

Might it be possible to allow this freedom, the encouragement to do something authentically different, not just for the sake of practicing non-compliance, but also for the sake of making something beautiful, grotesque, something useful perhaps, fired by inspiration and enthusiasm and nourished by enjoyment? This is living. Does not anyone care about feeling like they are alive?

With regard to designated ‘free’ time, in her talk titled ‘Nine Lessons Learned about Creativity at Google’ – Marissa Mayer discusses their 80:20 rule where Google employees have 1 day per week to spend on whatever project they like. Mayer reports the finding that 50% of overall productivity happened in that 20% of ‘free’ time. It is possible for disciplines interested in innovation and creativity to engage with the arts and find out more about what remarkable things artists are doing despite the odds, despite the marginalisation by the over-culture of rationalism and associated superstition of science being able to fix everything, as noted by Wendell Berry.

Artists solve a myriad of problems every day. They are old hands at dealing with failure. They can teach a thing or two about creativity. And so I propose alternative solution 2 – Why not make the art room the home room? Consider the great polymaths and how there was no separation between the arts and sciences for them. Regardless of whether Leonardo da Vinci was looking at eddies of water, the wings of a bird or the composition of a painting, his mind was inquiring. There were no walls in his far-ranging inquiry. While painting he may have found the solution to an anatomical problem; while dissecting, an answer to a question about a painted figure’s posture. As an artist and a science major, I drew and painted my dissections, noticing the direction of muscle fibres and later ‘saw’ them in my mind’s eye as I palpated an injury, and then as I drew the figure…

The most obvious way the arts might offer approaches to enhance creativity and problem solving for science, engineering and business is through providing hands-on sensorial, explorative experiences of both problem solving and failure through making.

Irrelevance is actually important, given that the greater the range of experience, the more vast is the information from which to make neural connections with. Use of the body and senses provides billions of bits more information than thinking alone to add to ‘the pot’ – the brain’s raw material. This is very much supported by the famous Secrets of the Creative Brain research of Prof. Nancy Andreasen. Visual art students generally develop a high level of visual literacy. Visual thinking, requiring visual literacy, is a highly effective method of problem solving. There is a visual thinking revolution currently happening – see the work of Sunni Brown, founder of Doodle Revolution.

Doing sensorily rewarding activities beyond ‘nutting out a problem’ is important. The brain likes ‘changing channel’, chugging along gently making unprecedented neural connections in a state of REST – Random Episodic Silent Thought – when epiphanies can occur. As a case in point, Einstein said he had his best ideas while in the shower.

The wisdom of the body can contribute enormously to problem solving – human hands were designed to make things. Children, and learners of all ages, benefit from opportunities to physically develop and materially explore, re-wiring the brain and facilitating new connections for the possibility of extraordinary innovation. Using our hands is imperative, in the view of the great leader of the crafts movement in Japan, Sōetsu Yanagi:

Fundamentally, human beings, whether Eastern or Western, need belief, free play of imagination and intuition in their homes and workshops or they become starved. All the cog-wheels and electronic brains cannot assuage these human needs in the long run. It is for lack of such essentials that we turn to….destructiveness. Basically this is not so much a revolution against science and the machine as a seeking of a means of counterbalance by employing man’s first tools, his own hands, for the expression of his inner nature.’

Sōetsu Yanagi, ‘The Unknown Craftsman – a Japanese Insight into Beauty’. New York: Kodansha, 2013, p.90-91

In summary, my suggestions for increasing creativity at work –

– ALLOW: address what ideas stand in the way of being creative through education and coaching.

– FOSTER: allocate time and a pleasant place with materials to make things; to do things that are not just different, but enjoyable, calming, and without attachment to outcome. This really takes the pressure off, reducing stress rather than demanding staff to ‘be more creative’.

– EDUCATE: Education and coaching can assist greatly with allowing and nurturing creativity.

Coming soon….free talk and ’10 ways to nurture your creativity’ postcard! 🙂

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