The Challenge of Fostering Creativity

About a week ago I read a blog entry entitled “Are Schools Inspiring Creativity?” by Dr. Michael D. Tebbano, one of my high school music teachers who later went on to become an educational administrator. The blog advocated placing more focus on fostering creativity in public schools, which are largely relegated to following “19th Century, assembly-line, factory-driven instructional formats” (Tebbano’s description, but one that largely seems fitting in this context).

As a songwriter, I often hear “normal people” (yes, I admit we songwriters tend to be a bit strange) say things like, “oh, you’re so creative!” or, “I’m just not creative!” I think many people particularly associate creativity with the arts, crafts, and other areas where aesthetic tastes, as opposed to “simply” filling some functional need, come into play. However, creativity is not just something that comes into play in the arts.

Creativity is required in most all disciplines whenever employing conventional techniques alone lead to an impasse. Whether you are writing a song or writing software, trying to solve a societal problem or trying to close a business deal, odds are strong that creativity will be needed for success. That is particularly true when there are gaps to be bridged, be they technological gaps or communications gaps. One might go so far as to say that all true progress requires creativity.

Getting back to the consideration of creativity and schools, though, one question is whether creativity can be taught. I believe it can be fostered, but that is different from actually teaching it.

When I was in high school, my mother asked me to teach one of her more advanced piano students how to improvise. I tried, though I’m not sure I got anywhere. I know I probably focused on learning scales and chords, and connecting the two, but good improvisation is really more about hearing a melody in your head and making the head to hands connection. How do you get that melody into your head in the first place, and how do you make the connection quickly enough to play it? I’m not sure what the answer to the former is, but the latter probably comes down to practice, practice, and more practice.

In songwriting, there is some fairly common wisdom that songwriters who advance to truly professional caliber levels, go through three stages. The first is where they express whatever they are feeling, but the songs generally suffer from poor craft. In the second stage they start learning their craft, and the technical quality of the songs improve. However, the soul often gets sucked out of the songs in the process of making better rhymes, clever wordplay, fewer errors in the flow of semantics, and so on. Finally, once the writers’ craft has advanced enough to become more or less second nature, they again start writing about things they care about and want to express. At this stage, the craft serves them in getting something meaningful across, and songs that actually move people start to emerge.

This may be a good parallel for creativity in general. When we are young, we are ultra-creative, expressing whatever is on our minds with little or no discipline. Between parents and schools, most of this freedom gets sucked out of us with things you “just don’t do” and learning rigorous, approved methods for doing other things. Unfortunately, this is where formal schooling often ends, especially as subject matter gets more specialized and even more rigorous methods are learned.

Those who go beyond this stage to create, using the benefits of the formal learning, often spend a lot of time alone, pursuing some specific passion into which the techniques they’ve learned can be applied. Quite often a key missing link is connecting multiple areas to forge some new territory. For example, something learned in a language class might bring cultural insights that could help better understand something in a history class, or techniques used in an art class might help in creating an illustration to explain a mathematical concept (or mathematics might help improve art’s realism).

One technique I have heard about, which is primarily used in elementary schools (at least around here), is to erase some of the boundaries between subjects. For example, a class may have a monthly theme, which could involve, say, a historical subject. Their reading for that month may pick materials that treat something related to that subject. Their art lessons for the month may illustrate something about the subject. Even math problems can be constructed that somehow relate to the subject (e.g. if the subject is Abraham Lincoln, multiplication and division problems might relate to figuring out how many logs would be needed to build a log cabin of certain dimensions). The idea is to get students crossing boundaries between subject areas, applying techniques from one area in another, and making mental connections between related concepts from different areas (e.g. something in a history lesson may provide the context to help make sense out of a historical novel, and the historical novel may lend more insight into historical facts).

That technique is much more difficult to employ within the confines of coursework at the high school level, though. Students move between classes, and the material gets more specialized. Where do students get the potential to apply multiple disciplines? Most frequently it will be either on their own (do modern students even have time for self-directed study between homework, any extra-curricular activities, and all the distractions of modern life?) or in formal extra-curricular activities. Recalling my own high school and college experiences, musical theater comes to mind as a particularly good example involving many disciplines such as set design and construction, makeup, lighting, costuming, acting, singing, and musical accompaniment — history might also come into play in period pieces. However, such activities don’t need to be related to the arts. My daughter, who is currently a junior civil engineering major at UC Berkeley, has been involved in the Steel Bridge Competition (as of this writing her team made the Nationals). Students in this competition design, fabricate, erect, and test a bridge made of steel. When my daughter first told me about her involvement in this she mentioned learning to use various power tools and how to weld. You can bet that students involved in projects like this gain some useful insights that go far beyond what sitting in an engineering class lecture could provide.

Perhaps the key to fostering creativity is providing ample opportunities for applying learned knowledge from multiple areas, alongside learning new areas, to create something or solve some problem where there is no stock answer or solution. There has to be room for trial and error, because often it is the abundance of errors en route to arriving at a working solution that helps provide the needed insights to make progress in both solving the short-term problem and developing experience to better prepare for addressing future problems.

Creativity is not so much something we have or don’t have, but more of an attitude or discipline. Another way of putting it might be that creativity is something we use or don’t use. That attitude or discipline frequently involves sticking with something far beyond the point when many would have given up because everything they’d been trained to try had failed. It also frequently involves being willing to try even things that might initially seem “stupid” or “off-the-wall”, perhaps just based on a hunch or some notion that they might somehow relate to the problem at hand, but with no clear expectation of success. It usually involves a quest for knowledge that goes deeper than the minimum that might seem necessary to solve the problem, as the process of attaining deeper insights is often where new ideas will be spawned. It also involves being observant, because you ultimately need to recognize when you’re on track to a practical solution.

It seems to me that fostering creativity in the academic world would involve less focus on test scores, which are only momentary measures, and more focus on building a love of learning and experimentation. That isn’t to say that learning techniques isn’t important. The techniques are the raw materials to be combined and embellished as needed in any given application. You don’t get comfortable with techniques without practice, so some degree of drilling and testing to ensure the techniques are learned is important. Perhaps there might be less focus on grades, and more focus on finding areas in which individual students become passionate enough to become self-motivated in learning and advancing their capabilities.

This individual-specific element is perhaps the biggest challenge to fostering creativity within public schools geared toward making all students meet a set of uniform testing standards. There have been successful experiments where teaching a subject becomes more individualized by shifting the role of teacher from primarily being a lecturer to primarily being a coach or tutor, with the role of lecturer being played by educational software. Such programs help students proceed at their own pace, while using the teacher to help students get past individual roadblocks and to encourage the students to go deeper in their learning. Perhaps this concept could be expanded to cross subject area boundaries?

Imagine for example, two students, one with an intense interest in video games and another with a similarly intense interest in the theatre. Each needs a well-rounded education, but they have different passions. There are aspects of each of their passions that will involve story plots, art, music, mathematics, logical thinking, and more. Could there be ways to develop similar skills in the individual subject areas needed, but in contexts which take advantage of each student’s individual passion? That would be a far stretch from standardized curricula. It even seems like significant leap over teaching a specific subject with the “teacher as coach/tutor” model. Perhaps, though, it may not be a total pipe dream at some point as educational methods evolve? Can you imagine, though, the creative challenges that would face the students in such a scenario, and the motivation to learn that would likely be present?

When I started out writing this blog entry, I honestly had no intention of writing a blog entry at all. I was simply going to reply to a Facebook post by my former teacher, requesting thoughts on his blog entry. As my answer started getting longer and longer, I decided it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to write such a long Facebook comment. However, the subject interests me greatly, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the topic. And now I have.