Home I Disagree With Myself! Creativity and Learning Together

I Disagree With Myself! Creativity and Learning Together

written by Kathryn Britton November 7, 2009

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.


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.



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.


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.