Creativity: Assumptions and Materials

This post all revolves around a few very debatable assumptions, so I am certainly open to being challenged on these. The explicit assumptions are as follows, although I expect there are a few tacit ones that I am not mentioning (as I am not intelligent enough to even be aware of them):

  1. Education is evolving from one output-oriented structure to something else (or another output-oriented structure)
  2. Creativity is a good thing (both personally and for society)
  3. Education should attempt to respect, or at least encourage, creativity
  4. Creativity isn’t an output as much as a process

So make of those what you will, challenge them if you feel the need to, but they will more or less form the basis of the rest of this post. I have become less and less interested in recent years in the role that certain groups have in the process of education, however defined, particularly those groups whose allegiances are not specifically towards the quality or progression of education, learning theory, etc. I recognize everyone in society as a stakeholder in education as it is one of the few socially encompassing fields (everyone, we hope, does it). But some of us are more focused on the prize itself, rather than the fatty, profitable underbelly of the educational behemoth as it moves from A to B. The prize being advancement in the way we understand learning (psychologically, socially, culturally, physiologically, economically), how that learning is applied (pedagogically, informally/formally, independently, etc.) and what the effect of that learning is (on self-efficacy, on social structures and social justice, on economic development, etc.). I fully respect capital as an enabling agent in this process, but it isn’t inherently beholden to these structures and processes. We need to recognize it fully as an agent, or tool, in a larger process. It can take us where we want it to go, but it can also make us overshoot our exit by miles and miles. I am not inherently against the concept of business involvement in education (they are a stakeholder one way or the other); I just retain a healthy skepticism towards it working (towards improving education).

And then there is creativity. It is more or less universally lauded as a positive, but we aren’t always fully sure why. Some see it as a potential boon for the economy (and it does have that effect, to some degree); some see it is a good unto its own (an art for art’s sake sort of approach). Besides being false dichotomies, neither approach seems particularly believable to me. Creativity is a good, yes, but mostly because it assists the individual in manning the course of their own life (through projections of creativity); it essentially enables self-realization, which in turn, presumably generates some return that is beneficial to society (perhaps even economically). So we all believe, at least many of us do, that creativity is a good that should be respected, and cultivated whenever possible. My teaching revolves around a variation of this belief: creativity is a tool for problem solving, problem solving and resilience are the tools most necessary for persistent learning, persistent learning can lead to social development (however defined). I work under these assumptions, but I am openly reflecting on whether or not they are true (as I just did).

Enough with the preamble. First, the materials:

The latter article was brought to my attention by George Siemens in the following tweet:

Creativity: Traits and Autoethnography

I am more concerned with the first piece, although it directly leads into the second op-ed. So Andreasen has conducted several long-term studies (ongoing) on the relationship between creativity and mental instability (or illness). It is an excellent and highly accessible post and well worth a look, but the bits I want to splice out of are the traits being observed in creative people (read the article to see how that is defined). Again, I am appropriating this as an educator who believes that creativity is a good unto itself (as it will presumably lead to greater goods in society) and that creativity can be cultivated in some way (taught or learned). Again, I want to be clear that I am boiling down a long article into exactly what I want to glean from it, so please do read it. It is quite good and a good primer on how the brain works (at the very least).

  • Many creative people are autodidacts.
  • Many creative people are polymaths.
  • Creative people tend to be very persistent, even when confronted with skepticism or rejection.

I would agree with all of that (in my personal and professional experience) as long as we see creativity as a continuum of activity and not a yes/no checkbox (creative people don’t always self-identity as creative; in particular, my Korean students rarely would feel they are or want to be perceived as being ‘creative’ despite exhibiting astounding powers of self-organization and expression). Most people are somewhere along a continuum of creativity (we all generate some notion of creativity at least in our problem solving abilities).

In the interests of auto-ethnography, I should also start by confessing that I do see myself as a creative person, but not inherently ‘talented’. I can hold my own, I know my value, but I also I feel I know when I run into someone radically ‘smarter’ than myself. Mine is a sort of tenacious intelligence (and that is the narrative I craft for myself), one nurtured and fortified by persistent setbacks and obstacles overcome. Some of that is myth but all origin stories are to some degree. More importantly, I have some inclination towards all three of these. I consider myself an autodidact, especially so now at this stage of my life, but I always read a lot on my own. In a creative fit of self-confidence, I am going to be subbing in self-learning for auto-didacticism (as it sounds nicer); you can argue against that, but I am resilient in the face of adversity. I am a limited polymath as I actively read outside my disciplines, but struggle to comprehend certain subjects, let alone practice them. Perhaps a polymath in spirit. I am also persistent. Like I said, tenacious is the word I use to describe myself (as it is my narrative). If I do decide there is some objective to be had, then I will achieve it, given a long enough timeline. I rarely let things go altogether (obsessive/stubborn as negative manifestations of this trait?).

I also believe all three of these (self-learning, polymath, and resilience) can be cultivated through teaching. Again assuming that all these assumptions are true, I believe that it should be taught. But the objectives are slightly different here than a more traditional output or skill orientation of teaching. When ‘teaching’ creativity, we are emphasizing an acute consciousness (being aware and reflecting on what we are doing), an insatiable curiosity (and a tacit understanding that curiosity can never be fully satiated), a desire or need (as a means of understanding) for articulation, and a resilience to see it all through. All of those, to some degree or another, are ‘teachable’, in that they can be actualized, or at least encouraged, through activity or objective.

We need to encourage students to self-learn across as wide variety of fields as possible and to do so with great determination. Andreasen (who is herself both a scientist and a PhD in Literature) says so herself with the following:

The arts and the sciences are seen as separate tracks, and students are encouraged to specialize in one or the other. If we wish to nurture creative students, this may be a serious error.

It most certainly is (again, if creativity is your ultimate learning objective). Teaching, with this focus, becomes an act of encouraging self-cultivation. I try to do this (within a formalized, output-oriented educational structure) in my own courses. To see this more practically, let me try an example. I do a lot of mobile learning field workshops and things (surprise, surprise) where I have participants define their own goals, research questions, processes, activities, data to be collected, and compositions to be made. I only ask that they do so transparently, i.e. in a way that I can monitor their progress. Students are forced to identify points of curiosity or knowledge gaps, forced to identify the questions or activities that need to be addressed to acquire this knowledge, forced to navigate their taken-for-granted daily environments spatially and technologically, forced to collect data (and understand how the data will contribute to a larger concept map), and, in the articulation phase, forced to assemble that data into a composition. Then there is the social negotiation involved in presenting that composition to a greater audience. Throughout all of this there is reflection (to a blog in the form of field notes or through an audio application). In this process, I am attempting to activate all three of the areas mentioned in the article (self-learning, polymath-ism, and resilience).

I don’t give extra points for particularly ambitious projects. I encourage and contribute and model (if needed). Mostly I am available for the technological (tools to use, limitations, etc.), informational (research and resources), and disciplinary (how this discipline answers questions) parts. I do the projects myself as well because I enjoy them more or less and that act encourages even the least motivated of students. I would like to think this project is beneficial for my students, making them a bit more active in their approaches to their own learning.

Focus and the Global Economy

It is also where I think the second piece comes in and where our focus has gone off the rails a bit. We are loosing a bit of focus amidst all the noise (which the author identifies but misdiagnoses, in my take). I don’t agree with all (or even most or perhaps any) the points made in the article, but overall I believe that a more systematic focus on a particular set of learning objectives (I have outlined mine in the above bits on creativity) is a good way forward. If you have a core set of objectives clearly identified, it is much harder to go off the rails (or to be seduced by private enterprise and promises of transformation). So I disagree with the article not in terms of the problem (I want to discard much of what passes for educational practice myself), but with the remedy. Greater accountability and performance orientation leads to greater standardized testing (invariably); that is educational regression in terms of expanding the ability of the individual to perform in “the global economy” or some such trope.

By all means provide the tools to participate in this global economy (I don’t mind if math or science or literacy and grammar are all taught uniformly; in fact, they need to be systematically approached in the beginning), but avoid assuming that adherence to these foundational processes become the prescription for everything else (i.e., problem-solving activities where outputs are dictated by a universally accepted process). In the global economy I live in (where I have worked multiple positions across a multiple range of fields across multiple geographies for many years now), those foundational elements are merely the gateway. Creative application of knowledge, resilience, and consistent self-learning across a range of fields (mostly without any clear applicable objective) takes over from there. In these spaces (which I can only assume will increase over time as structures such as monolithic organizations continue to disaggregate), the process is invented along with the output. We use our learning, our knowledge, our past experience to inform that participation, but we must creatively assemble the bits into coherency (and on the fly as well). It isn’t for the weak of heart (and it is fatiguing). But it is the global economy that I know of, the one I reside in. I am honestly not sure where standardized testing (or other output models of accountability) fall into this. They certainly didn’t help me as I was poor at standardized testing. But I am successful now in spite of that. I am not explicitly drawing on things I learned in school; I am drawing on things I have learned. Full stop.

Wente and I are focusing on different parts of the educational spectrum, so this is really an apples and oranges comparison, but creativity itself is my implicit goal in teaching. If we want to link that to a historical approach, then consider it an attempt to activate the Renaissance Man/Woman in all of us. I suppose that is a “formerly fashionable notion”  of education, but I wouldn’t venture so far as to say it is discredited. I think participation in the global economy will require drawing from as many sources, from our own curiosity and perseverence as creatively (and as often) as possible. I just want to know where that fits in a system of greater accountability. Perhaps I exist in a different global economy, but I don’t see too many rewards offered to those who did well on standardized tests and performance orientation (which is measured by tests). I do see them open to those with a creative orientation.


By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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