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I Disagree With Myself! Creativity and Learning Together

By on November 7, 2009 – 3:51 pm  21 Comments

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.



We tend to typecast people: Some are creative, some are not. Taking a closer look, there are different kinds of creativity. Some are unusual, some are all around us. We can take action to increase both our own creative abilities and those of the people around us.

Different Kinds of Creativity

Extraordinary big-C creativity is what we associate with the big names – Shakespeare, Mozart, Michelangelo, Newton, Einstein, Gandhi, and so on.

According to neuroscientist, Nancy Andreasen, people with such extraordinary creativity tend to have the following traits: Openness to experience, adventurousness, rebelliousness, sensitivity, playfulness, persistence, curiosity, and simplicity.

Andreason describes extraordinary creativity in these terms.

“They begin with a process during which the associative links run wild, creating new connections, many of which might seem strange or implausible. This disorganized mental state may persist for many hours, while words, images, and ideas collide. Eventually order emerges and with it the creative product.”

Her description indicates that creativity is not a step-by-step rational process, but starts with an openness to uncertainty, living on the edge of chaos. Perhaps that’s why people often think they get more creative ideas in the shower than at their desks. Creativity involves letting go of control, at least at the beginning.

Ordinary, little-c creativity happens all around us. We all generate novel speech on the fly. We deal with new situations. We may have different ideas jostling in our heads that come together to create something new.

Mental Exercise

Andreason advises people to do mental exercises to build better brains, just as we do physical exercises to build better bodies. She recommends setting aside time daily to do one or more of the following actions:

  • Choose a new and unfamiliar area of knowledge to explore. Bridge across disciplines that are normally considered separate. Take up something new and do it with vigor and effort.
     
    I read non-fiction out loud to my husband. In the last two years, we have read more than 20 books exploring plate techtonics, the neuroscience of memory, cosmology including dark matter and dark energy, genetics and development, the evolution of windmill technology, and so on. It’s particularly fun to do together, since we make different connections and have different blind spots. (Here’s a link to our latest list of books.
     
  • Spend some time each day meditating or just thinking – opening up your mind to what comes. She talks about Random Episodic Silent Thought (REST), letting the mind wander so that ideas can arise from unconscious sources.
     
  • Practice observing and describing. Pay close attention to something you normally walk past, and describe it in detail, preferably in a written form that you can come back to later.
     
  • Practice imagining. Use your brain to get outside of your relatively limited personal perspective. Learn about other times, other human experiences.

Creativity as a Social Process

In addition to big-C and little-c creativity, Beghetto and Kaufman talk about mini-c creativity, that is, the creativity internal to people as they make novel and personally meaningful interpretations of experiences. Then a social process can occur in a classroom or workplace where mini-C interpretations from different individuals are combined and may form either little-c or big-C creativity. People juxtapose their personal interpretations against the perspectives of others and against the conventions and standards of a particular domain.

I am enchanted by their descriptions of exploratory talk in the classroom, where students listen to each other’s points of view and call out “I disagree with myself” as their interpretations are altered by what they hear. Thus part of what students learn in a classroom with an exploratory orientation is to change their minds in response to good arguments.

In the view of Beghetto and Kaufman, creativity and learning are not distinct activities. They view creativity and learning forming an intellectual estuary in which separate streams of ideas flow in and meet with the vastness of ideas found in a given academic discipline.

Beghetto and Kaufman describe the contributions that teachers can make in this process as

  • taking the time to hear and attempt to understand learners’ mini-c interpretations
  • cueing learners when their contributions are not making sense given the domain constraints, conventions, and standards of the particular academic task or activity
  • providing multiple opportunities for learners to practice moving between mini-c and little-c creativity.

This description reminded me of the pearl-diving exercises that Jocelyn Davis and I use in the course we teach at the University of Maryland. Students take the concepts presented in class each week and write short essays (usually under 1 page) to show how they apply in their own workplaces. We call the ones that startle us with their creativity, “shiny pearls.”

My favorite pearl-diving assignment so far was the one we used to start this semester:

Have you had a manager that you thought was truly excellent? If so, describe his or her management style and explain why you found it so good.

Out of this question came many mini-c interpretations that were sharp descriptions of good management practices, priming students to see things that they perhaps took for granted. We meet each of Beghetto and Kaufman’s enabling actions, responding to each pearl, pointing out where thinking goes astray, and conducting classroom discussions to give students a chance to contribute their mini-c creations to a collective concept.

Conclusion

We tend to value creativity because we know we need novel approaches to the challenges in our day. Let’s recognize that there is creativity all around us, exercise our minds to increase our creativity capacity, and encourage the contribution of individual perspectives to collective creativity.
 


 

References:

Andreasen, N. (2005). The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius. New York: Plume Books.

Beghetto, R. & Kaufman, J. (2009). Intellectual estuaries: Connecting learning and creativity in programs of advanced academics. Journal of Advanced Academics, 20(2), 296–324.

Root-Bernstein, M. & Root-Bernstein, R. (2001). Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People. New York: Mariner Books.

Images:

Gates of Paradise, Florence courtesy of Jay8085. Michelangelo referred to these doors by Ghiberti as The Gates of Paradise.
Snow White Culture Pearl Sterling Silver Wire-wrapped ring courtesy of Natalia PHOTOs
Isfahan/ Chehel Sotun Palace/ Ceiling courtesy of HORIZON. My husband and I recently read an article in Saudi Aram World titled The Tiles of Infinity by Sebastian R. Prange:

When Peter J. Lu visited Uzbekistan… The intricate tilework on that building (in Bukhara) inspired him …. eventually to prove that a number of medieval Islamic designs had at their heart patterns that modern mathematicians have only recently been able to describe. … the very geometric forms identified by British mathematician Sir Roger Penrose as the foundation elements for elaborate non-repeathing patterns. ”

Ribble Estuary courtesy of Manky Maxblack.

21 Comments »

  • WJ says:

    Kathryn – from what I have read not everyone has the capacity to be creative. Which is not such a big issue given that it has fairly low correlations with life satisfaction.

  • Sable Watson says:

    Kathryn,

    I love this article! I am always so fascinated by what makes big C extraordinaries who they are. I am an avid Shakespeare nut and I am always wondering: “How did this man become so amazing? It takes a certain type of genius to write something like this.” You have given me a great insight and I plan to buy the books that you referenced.

    The recommendations made by the author about exploring one’s own creativity are great. I was wondering, though, if you had any more that you personally have tried out? Aside from reading books on unfamiliar topics (which is another great technique, I imagine), are there other things you do to enhance your creative flow? If not, have you at least heard of anything else to do?

    This is definitely something that I am interested in learning about and doing- not only for myself but in the future if I ever have kids.

    Thanks for a great article!

    Sable

  • Wayne,
    You are probably right about big-C creativity. I’m not saying that anybody can make himself or herself Shakespeare just by working hard. But all people have little-c creativity of some sort, even people who can’t speak can react in new ways to new situations. As far as correlations with life satisfaction, is that the only yardstick for evaluating the importance of creativity? We recently finished Ross King’s book, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. I don’t think Michelangelo was high on life satisfaction. But he has contributed to more pleasure and interest in other people than I ever will.

    (Maybe this conversation will go on until one of says, “I disagree with myself” !)

    Kathryn

  • Sable,
    What comes to mind are various personal ways to loosen the grips of rational thought to make space for new ideas to come in — Walking around, changing scene, being aware that creative thoughts are a grace and not something that comes from grinding on and on, putting out strawmen for others to react to – with the full awareness that the resulting product may be unrecognizable. I found some articles about group creativity and brainstorming, but I was running out of space. Maybe next month.

    Kathryn

  • WJ says:

    Kathryn – perhaps you are talking more about curiosity than creativity when you are talking small c. And curiosity does have a big impact on life satisfaction.

    So why is it important to bring it back to life satisfaction. There has to be some reference point where you measure an intervention.

  • Amanda says:

    Hi Kathryn

    Creativity is an interesting area. You write “We tend to typecast people”. I agree, and would suggest that this typecasting sometimes also comes with judgement e.g. ‘he’s so creative’ [said favourably], compared with ‘he’s not very creative’ [with judgement, perhaps sometimes even critical]. It can stifle creativity! There’s also an increasing expectation in some workplaces for all people to be creative and innovative, without actually defining what that is, and whether it’s within the competence level of the workers.

    Amanda

  • Amanda,
    Absolutely agree about the implied judgment, and I used the word typecast advisedly because it’s a judgment that people find hard to change. If we decide someone is ‘not very creative’, then we often become blind to the creativity they do exhibit — or in the workplace, blind to the contributions they make to collective creativity. When I was growing up, my youngest brother was considered the creative one. He drew and acted and made stage dioramas and produced lots of interesting things in his free time. It took me years to see that I could be quite creative, just in different ways.

    Kathryn

  • Wayne,
    I don’t think I’m talking about curiosity — which I think of more as a spur to action than the production of anything.

    Life satisfaction is one important measure of life, but not the only one. I’m reminded of Todd Kashdan’s words in Curiosity, “when we focus on it [happiness], we lose out on the complexity of being human.”

    Kathryn

  • WJ says:

    Kathryn – then how is PP different from self help? If it’s a science then it has to have some measures of effectiveness.

    As you said we could go on until I “disagree with myself”

  • Wayne,
    Of course there need to be measures.

    It just didn’t make sense to me to conclude that creativity is unimportant because the character strength called Creativity is not as highly correlated with life satisfaction as other character strengths.
    K

  • Senia says:

    Kathryn,

    Andreasan’s book “The Creative Brain” sounds like a great book.
    I really like the REST – Random Episodic Silent Thought – and will try to apply it. I’ve started meditating one minute per day, so perhaps this is a natural addition!

    Thanks,
    Senia

  • Marlena Wilson says:

    Hi Ms. Britton,

    I loved this article! It’s nice to see that someone can look at creativity creatively and not just from a one-sided point of view. I will say that when most people think of creativity they think of really amazing painters or writers or inventors. I would like to think of myself as creative, but I have a hard time pinpointing what I am good at. How can I show my creativity to the world? I love fiction writing, but writing is such a subjective field and I have no idea if I have what it takes. Should creativity be someothing you share with others? If others don’t think of your creativity as important does it still matter? Great article!

    Thank you,

    Marlena Wilson

  • Marlena,
    Yes, we all do picture big-C creativity first, but what if you started observing yourself handling new situations, making up new sentences, coming up with new interpretations of things you see — what if you viewed all of these as creative acts?

    I was debating the point with friends recently. Was Van Gogh creative? He was recognized widely only after his death. Nancy Andreasen dedicated her book to “all those lost geniuses of the past, in the hope that it will help more thrive in the future.”

    As you can tell, I’m not crazy about typecasting some people as creative and others as not. I think it leads to a ‘fixed mindset’ about creativity — you either are or you aren’t, and all you can do is discover whether you are or aren’t. What would a growth mindset about creativity be like? (fixed versus growth mindset -> Carol Dweck).

    Kathryn

  • Jarrod Gadd says:

    Kathryn,
    I wish that I would have seen this article one week earlier. I just created an experiment for a class which attempted to measure the amount of creativity within individuals. It stated just as your article does that creativity is innate within everyone just that the amount of which varies from person to person. I had a hard time finding supporting research to validate why creativity would vary from person to person and now having read your article I have a better idea.

    What I took from this and please correct me if I am wrong is that creativity can be found in everyone and that we as people should take time out of our lives to exercise our creative “muscle”. If we take the time to do this we make more connections within our thinking thus allowing ourselves to become more creative.

    Thank you for this article

  • Jesse Walker says:

    Hello Mrs. Britton!

    I enjoyed reading your article, and I agree that creativity happens in the smallest ways, even in people who tend to argue that they are not creative at all. I also appreciate the pointers in new ways to exercise creativity. With these tips that you provided, I was wondering what differences in your life you were noticing by exercising your creativity. Are you a more inventive thinker, or maybe you get a more frequent urge to do something different? I was curious as to what ways you felt that your life was improved by working your creativity. I know I feel more satisfied with the world after I have done something creative, such as painting or reading, and I like to think of creativity as one of my more defining character traits.

    Thanks for the article!
    Jesse

  • Jarrod,
    I would say it slightly differently. It is not that creativity CAN BE found — it’s that creativity IS found in everybody. I think sometimes we have too exalted a notion of creativity, one that intimidates people. But if you start out thinking, “Since I learned how to talk, I’ve created a huge number of sentences that I had never heard before,” then it’s easier to see the creative capability in yourself and the people around you.

    I also think the metaphor of creativity being like a muscle is helpful — that it can become stronger with training and practice. I’m not going to become Shakespeare with exercise any more than I am going to become Michael Jordan. But exercise makes a difference to the quality of my muscles.

    I hope to write more about creativity in December.
    Kathryn

  • Jesse,
    I’ve found that I am most inventive when I can start something without knowing how it will turn out but have faith that it will emerge as I go. Somehow, realizing that I don’t have to be in control at the beginning — that ideas emerge on their own — helps me relax and let them bubble up.

    See also Marie-Josee’s comment about ways to encourage right-brain thinking.

    Interesting question!
    Kathryn

  • Amanda Lingle says:

    Kathryn,

    I was drawn to this article originally due to my own recent spark of creativity. Off and on in my life I seem to have “waves” of creativity. Recently I have started jewelry making (particularly earrings). I seem to obtain a simple pleasure out of not just coming up for new ways of creating the jewelry but also from being able to use the phrase “I made this”. Although your article seems to focus more on creative thinking and less on being creative in a physical way (painting, crafts, scupltures etc), I am curious if the same concepts would apply. Can someone perhaps engage in a Mini-C discussion with his or her peers at maybe a craft club? I guess I am trying to apply the concepts to alternate forms of creativity other than coming up with creative thoughts or ideas. Thanks!

  • Amanda Lingle says:

    P.S.- One last question I promise! Has there been any research done on those who seem to be more creative during different portions of the day? I seem to be at my most creative at night. Thanks!

  • Amanda,
    An important constituent of being creative is not just having the idea but also carrying it through. Michelangelo spent years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. One form of execution is handwork. Creative ideas go a lot further with craftsmanship.

    I guess I don’t separate creative ideas from creative products. After all, don’t you have to have ideas about what would be beautiful when you make your jewelry? Don’t you see them in your mind’s eye first? The idea may be modified along the way, but it starts somewhere.

    I created a rya rug with materials that my mother had. She had had them for years, and had lost the pattern that matched the yarn she bought. When I got started, I asked my husband — a true Internet wizard — to find me a pattern. He looked at hundreds … before giving up. Then we thought perhaps we could use an abstract painting as a model. He looked at hundreds… Finally he had the brilliant idea of using my business logo as a model. He spent hours working on the design and color layouts to match the materials at hand. I think of this as the macro-creativity. Then I spent hundreds of hours making the knots — and making all kinds of little decisions as I went along. I think of that as the micro-creativity. (There’s a picture of the rug here if you scroll down: http://theano-coaching.com/id1.html)

    My point is that creativity is often not just generating one idea — or just generating ideas period. It also takes execution…

    Thanks for commenting.
    Kathryn

  • Amanda,

    I don’t know about research and different times of the day. I’ll keep my eyes open.

    Anybody else out there?

    Kathryn

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