Does it matter what we apply our creativity to? I think it does.
The UK educationalist Professor Anna Craft tells us that creativity is not value free. For example, creativity can be used to advance the human condition through the visual arts, music and education; and it can be used for less useful purposes, such as technological advances that support terrorism and war.
As Craft says, we are better off applying our creativity with wisdom, using our creativity to bring about change that is positive and life affirming. If, for example, we apply our creative energies into generating consumer goods that cannot be recycled or adequately disposed of or repurposed, we ignore the effect that the creation of those goods has on the environment. Inevitably consequences flow from the choices we make.
I was thinking about the question of creativity with wisdom as I watched the TV series on the Great Barrier Reef narrated by Sir David Attenborough. I was reminded of how critical it is that we devise creative solutions for the complex problems presented to us by climate change. Climate change now affects the finely balanced ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef. This is the largest living structure on the planet. It extends 2,300kms along the northeastern coast of Australia, and is currently suffering severe environmental stress.
In the third episode of the series, Attenborough visited the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) near Townsville. Biologists at the centre are researching methods to counter the detrimental effects of ocean warming and acidification on the corals. They’re aiming to develop new coral species that are more resilient to changing climatic conditions. These new varieties may survive where older corals now struggle.
In thinking about the work of these scientists I am constantly amazed at how creative they can be. I’m also grateful that there is funding to support these valuable endeavours. In a small way each project works to keep our planet viable. These researchers engage in what Craft calls possibility thinking, asking the ‘what if’ questions, continuing to look at how things are now, and how they might be in the future.
Creative teachers are passionate. This mathematician, Dr James Grime, is a great example. You can see he loves his numbers so much that he has to share that excitement. Checkout his passion for numbers in this episode of Numberfile. 82,000 is a particularly interesting number, apparently.
Another mark of excellent and creative teachers is their ability to explain concepts clearly. In the second video Dr Grime explains the mathematical problem that is key to the action in the film Good Will Hunting. Grime reckons you can solve this problem at home. Supposedly this problem took the MIT professors in the film two years to solve, but Grime says no, it’s not that difficult. Well, it depends who’s tackling the problem of course and how clear thinking they are and how much persistence and patience they have.
It’s interesting to watch Grime talk through the problem solving process which involves lines and dots. He gets so much fun out of it. I’m sure he and Sherlock Holmes would have enjoyed problem solving together.
Reflection and dialogue are important for creativity, and making time for reflection pays dividends. As the educationalist, Paulo Freire (2005, p.3) argues:
‘There is a dynamic movement between thought, language and reality that, if well understood, results in a greater creative capacity.’
Feed your creativity with reflection. Find creative spaces where you can reflect.
Take a few moments to think about one thing you learnt today. Why did it make an impact on you? Have a constructive conversation with yourself about it. No, you are not going mad, you are being creative.
Reference: Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare teach (D. Macedo, D. Koike & A. Oliveira, Trans.). Boulder, Colo: Westview Press.
A scientific perspective on getting through creatively from A to B to C
It is so good to hear a scientist like Uri Alon talking about the difficulties of getting from A to B to C when you are researching – finding out about stuff. It’s not a straight forward thing. It’s not linear. It’s not only about being analytical and having all your information in place.
There are points where you get stuck and depressed and don’t know how to get out of the deep deep hole you seem to have dug for yourself. You’ve plummeted down down down the rabbit hole. It’s all gone pear shaped and you can’t find the key to get out of that place you’re so stuck in. (Is that enough metaphors do you think?)
Anyway, Uri Alon, physicist, researcher, academic and improv theatre devotee has some answers about process. He calls the fuzzy, messy space that’s the stuck point, the ‘cloud’. Somehow it’s a bit different to Steve Job’s cloud, but it’s a cloud. More like your everyday, up in the sky on a grey day, misty cloud. It’s a bit foggy and vision is poor. But if you can stick with the uncertainty and get through that cloud – there’s an ‘aha’ moment waiting for you at the end.
Now I know what to do with my boredom, when I get sick of what used to amuse me musically. Do what the composer Mark Applebaum does – play. This composer has stopped asking the question, ‘Is it music?’ and asks instead, ‘Is it interesting?’. Much more fun.
Humour, making unusual connections, seeing the world in a different way, using multiple media – lots of creative elements connected and combined.
“Not possible,” you cry! Well, how are you going to value creativity? Is it worth doing or should we just ignore it altogether and leave it in the too hard basket? I too shudder at this point, but my research tells me that creativity can be measured, though as you know, there are many minefields to be traversed before the problem is solved. So we’ll continue on bravely, knowing that creativity is all about allowing for risk and preparing for hazards.
One thing you can do to reduce the hazards of measuring creativity, is to be clear about what we are measuring, the context in which it is to be measured (put some boundaries around the creative process and product – yes boundaries, it’s not all about freedom), explain how and why it is valued in a particular way, and what measuring stick you propose for that purpose.
An excellent strategy is to talk with those who are about to be judged and tease out what they think creativity means as applied to the task at hand. Clarify expectations. Don’t assume anything. My conception of creativity is different to yours. The baggage, knowledge and skills I bring with me will colour my take on what creativity. What is novel to you may not be novel to me, and vice versa. And novelty and originality are only one dimnension of creativity.
More food for thought – three rubrics for comparison and discussion – keeping in mind the comment made by one of my interviewees : “Assessment is a real killer when it comes to creativity”. Wield that creativity measuring stick with care.
Australian Assuring Graduate Capabilities website criteria for assessing creative thinking, judged from beginner to expert: acquiring competencies; taking risks; solving problems; embracing contradictions; innovative thinking; novelty or uniqueness; connecting, synthesizing, transforming; ending with exemplars of creativity in this context.
Image: Stefan Krause, Germany (Own work) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of the year 2013, Incandescent lightbulb with the tungsten filament smoking and burning with a flame due to the presence of oxygen.
Now this is a good reason to encourage creative teaching and scholarship: to reduce the prevalence of academic boredom in seminars. We are all guilty of it and/or well acquainted with it. Seminars that go on and on forever, and ever and ever . . .
But Amir Baghdadchi has studied this phenomenon in great detail. He argues that by making heaps and heaps of rigorous arguments in your presentation and boring the pants off everyone, you reduce the risk of anyone in the audience ever asking awkward, challenging questions for which you have no answer. Great paper. A must read. (See my page for a sample, or go to the publisher for the paper – you’ll need library access to get it for free.)