"Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected." ....William Plomer.

Commentary of the Day - December 20, 2012. Creativity in the Classroom - Beware.  Guest commentary by Diane Rosen.

Let's get down to brass tacks.  (Why brass?  Why tacks?  Uh, no time for off-topic questions.)  Creativity is generally defined as something that is both novel and useful or task-appropriate.  Unpacking this definition begins to reveal the fundamentally oxymoronic nature of 'creativity-in-the-classroom:' core-content is not new, nor is imagination useful for standardized tests.  Instead of promoting steady and efficient re-production of existing knowledge, creativity instigates knowledge-production, i.e. generating original ideas or new ways of seeing things -- a messy can of worms best left unopened.  (Why worms?  Why in a can?  Can it, no time).

Supporting the laissez-faire approach, research shows that humans have a strong preference for all things familiar.  Though most people claim to value creativity, novel ideas primarily evoke dislike, disdain, distrust and discomfort.  The more original an idea is the greater the potential for that discomfort.  Since originality necessarily deviates from norms, it breeds: fear of the unknown; fear of risk-taking and loss; fear of making mistakes; fear of failure.  We have a duty to protect students from these anxieties of uncertainty and disorderly thinking.

As you might expect, creativity entails non-methodical methods that share the dubious quality of deploying attention in less focused, more diffuse ways.  Proponents seek to advance creative thinking on the pretext that it 'complements' logical, rational, linear thought; forewarned is forearmed.  Following are several creativity-boosting strategies, offered here to assist you in avoiding or, better still, subverting them.

1.  BE CURIOUS. Creativity begins with questions and experimentation, thrives on ambiguity, contradiction, approximations and the 'failure value' of mistakes (Amabile, 'How to Kill Creativity,' Harvard Business Review 1998).  It is a dynamic, open-ended process -- not a fixed quantity of innate talent.  Creating anything new de-stabilizes what is already known, puts us off balance and onto uncertain ground.  Focusing on process, not just results, promotes curiosity, exploration and opportunities to build on unpredictable turns. 

[Note: Answer keys and test reply-bubbles for this do not exist.]


2.  WANDER. Zen masters use puzzles/riddles to demonstrate inadequacies of logical reasoning, heighten other means of knowing.  Similarly, neuroscience indicates that ‘mindless’ activities like doodling promote creative ideation.  Mind Wandering, a shift or drift of attention to the pursuit of more remote ideas or problems, interrupts stale thinking and reboots imagination, and is related to creative incubation and insight ('Aha' moments).  Studies of  'incubation effect' show that mindless 'not-knowing' significantly improves many types of problem solving.  To foster this capacity, companies like Google expect employees to spend a percentage of every workday on any non-work related activity that interests them.

[Note: Students already resist paying attention to tasks at hand.  Encouraging non-task specific or 'mindless' activity totally undermines classroom management.]


3.  INVESTIGATE MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES.  Habit produces mental blocks and blind spots that inhibit problem solving (e.g. the 'Representativeness assumption,' a tendency to judge the likelihood something is true by how typical it seems; and 'Functional fixedness,' a tendency to think of objects only in terms of their usual function.)  Challenging assumptions and looking at problems from diverse angles helps clear blocks, spurs creative thinking through exploration of new approaches rather than narrow exploitation of familiar ones.  For example, reversing the main elements of a problem, or how it is defined, opens up new perspectives and fresh solutions: "What is the opposite, how can I use it?" 

     Janusian thinking, the ability to conceive of conflicting ideas or contradictory opposites existing simultaneously, stimulates creative ideas by disrupting habitual thought patterns. Albert Rothenberg coined the term from the Roman deity Janus, whose two faces look simultaneously backward and forward. A classic example is Einstein’s paradoxical formulation of being in motion and at rest at the same time. Both-and rather than either-or thinking pulls information from multiple contexts/ realms, thereby generating more combinatorial possibilities.


     Conditional statements also leverage multiplicity, leaving information more available later as creative fuel when contexts change.  In one study of 'Creative Uncertainty' and probability statements, Psychologist Ellen Langer presented an unfamiliar-looking piece of clean rubber to one group as "This is a dog chew-toy;" to another as, "This could be a dog’s chew toy."  Asked to correct some penciled forms, only subjects introduced to the object conditionally thought of using it in a non-obvious way, as an eraser.  Merely shifting from absolute to conditional mode encouraged more flexible thinking.


     [Note: The world is enough in flux; we shouldn't compound our students'   confusion.]


4.  MAKE THE FAMILIAR STRANGE. Domain-knowledge provides raw material, but originality relies on heuristics -- the way knowledge is combined to make the familiar seem strange, as if seen for the first time.  In fact, any 'novel' idea just recombines, rearranges or modifies existing ones.  Imagining impossibilities, ambiguous 'what-ifs' or counterfactuals, shatters conventional understandings and obvious scenarios, and creates new ones.  Similarly, nonsense juxtaposition of apparently unrelated elements sparks creativity precisely because it violates logical expectations and familiar associations.  Such playful, non-rational exploration of tasks or problems accommodates surprise, and primes us to see novel connections.

[Note: Allowing time to 'play around' with ideas is simply unjustifiable.  Our goal is to deliver historical constants and traditional explanatory concepts, in order to elicit correct answers.]


5.  IMPROVISE. All-knowing experts are obsolete in today’s highly contingent, rapidly changing world.  Improvising and role-playing varied capacities in various contexts encourages flexibility, originality.  As composer Igor Stravinsky wrote on creative process, what shocks and stimulates creativity into being is the amplified uncertainty of improvisation -- seeking and stumbling against unknown obstacles.

     [Note: Promoting an atmosphere of uncertainty, e.g. by structuring tasks only    enough to give clues/ direction or asking open-ended provocative questions beyond the obvious, disastrously undermines a teacher's authority and control.]


6. REFRAME. Reframing is a form of cognitive reappraisal that alters context or message around specific stimuli to modify emotional response.  As a valuable creative strategy, it strengthens flexible thinking and enables imaginative repurposing: transcending ‘standard’ meanings or functions, breaking chains of familiar associations and re-conceptualizing them in different contexts for different uses to facilitate creative imagination.  As Dadaist Marcel Duchamp said, “Everything can be something else…” 

[Note: The educator's sole purpose is to pass along standard content and replicable ideas.  Have you ever needed to use a stick fifty different ways?]

In conclusion: Consider the German term for 'mid-life crisis' - Torschlusspanik, lit. 'shut-door-panic,' fear of being on the wrong side of a closing door.  Creativity has no wrong side and no single right side, and therefore inevitably devolves any classroom into an intolerable crisis of unpredictability.  What's more, it's very difficult to evaluate such rummaging about for non-obvious 'creative' ways to re-organize perfectly serviceable, familiar information. When budgets and time are already too short for covering neatly-scripted syllabi
, real learning and assessment necessarily preclude the disruptive effects of creativity.  It must be confined to the art classroom (and there only if we wish to be indulgently generous), lest 'creative thinking' overtake us all.

 © 2012, Diane Rosen.
Diane Rosen is an artist know for her work with pastels, which can be seen at www.rosenart.net She also teaches English at the college level.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP hopes that his readers have caught on to the satirical nature of this piece by Ms. Rosen.  The article, itself, raises some interesting questions.  The most basic of which is what should be the balance in K-12 between time spent on teaching the basics and time spent helping students develop their creative instincts?  The headlong rush towards basing the evaluation of students and their teachers on the results of standardized tests seems to have marginalized activities that give students an opportunity to develop those creative instincts.  It's also important to recognize that imagination frequently is in short supply among those charged with developing curriculum, so there often is a natural bias against encouraging students to develop their creative instincts.  The IP thinks that should be resisted.

The writer makes one point that the IP would quibble with; namely, that developing creativity complements "rational, logical, linear" thinking.  This suggests that logical thinking is not a part of the creative process.  But, in mathematics and the sciences rational, logical thinking is integral to the enterprise, while creativity often involves seeing connections that have been overlooked even though they are logically related to previous knowledge.


The Irascible Professor invites your  .

© 2012 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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