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iCreaNet - Creativity Research

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Asger Harlung
24 March 2011

This is where we will gather resources and debate on the subject of "creativity".

What exactly is creativity, scientifically speaking?

What can help us specify the educational traits and needs for enhancing development of creative skills? Or for including assessment of creative skills in students?

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Derek Jones
10:03pm 31 March 2011 (Edited 10:15pm 31 March 2011)


That's a big question, Asger :)

I am looking into this just now with a view to trying to formalise (or at the very least allow more accurate) discussion of creativity and it's not easy for two main reasons. 

In the first instance, there is no single definition of creativity - at least that would allow a meaningful extraction of 'objects' that could be used practically or measured without resorting to (very) subjective methods.

Secondly, there is certainly no list of creative attributes - either objectively or subjectively - that is commonly agreed. We even tend to use different words to mean the same things, sometimes.

For example, we may wish to develop creativity in education and we may even adopt a generalised definition, such as 'the intentional creation of value' (my personal favourite). But from this phrase we have no tangible way of understanding how we might go about this with repsect to actually teaching such a thing.

So, we then might decide to add a bit of lateral thinking, blue sky thinking, or 'thinking outside the box' would be a good thing because we know from experience or from others that these are creative things to do.

But what do we actually mean by this?

What we really need is a better understanding of the actual 'things' we are talking about. Or, at the very least, we need to agree to be slightly more accurate with our own discussions. The three phrases above are prime examples of 'sort of' knowing what is meant by a paticular type of thinking.

Going back to our lateral thinking example :

The closest cognitive process is probably Divergent Thinking (DT), and there is some evidence to suggest that this is an observable neurological event - i.e. it is actually a cognitive process. (refs added to links).

DT may be mediated by the front of your brain (where your 'you' is) and it lets your brain think in diffeent ways.

For example, the Nine Dot Problem is a classic DT problem. To solve it you have to abandon all of the thoughts that are created when you are presented with the dots. You (quite literally) have to think outside of the box in order to solve it.

So, there we may have a starter for ten - we may be able to identify certain Cognitive Processes that we could associate with Creativity. (to the list I might add Connecting, Intelligence, Specialist Knowledge, [after HEILMAN, K.M., NADEAU, S.E. and BEVERSDORF, D.O.])

But Cognitive Processes are difficult to 'teach'. (Never mind the moral discussion about education as a form of mental alteration....).

In addition to Cognitive Processes I would strongly suggest that there are practical skills that can be taught and learned that could also be associated with creativity - e.g. Making, Recording, Communicating, Imagining.

Again, these are tangible enough to be able to discuss, turn into learning activities, and (dare I say it) almost measure. At the very least we can partially assess with a view to encouraging self-assessment.

Then I would perhaps also add two more big categories: Attitudes and Behaviours. These are a bit more intangible but they do mop up a lot of creative elements that fall between what we do in our minds and what we do with our bodies (to put it roughly).

Attitude development is really important but for often esoteric or intangible reasons. For example, extrinsic rewards in children stifle creativity - intrinsic rewards don't. How we approach creative activities has a huge influence on how we perform them and something as small as a facial gesture at the wrong time can have a massive impact. Any teacher of creativity needs to know about this and devlop attitudes (environments) to allow it to develop. (please, please read [LEPPER, M.R., GREENE, D. and NISBETT, ] - I know there is still debate about this, but if it is even possibly true....).

In the Attitudes category, we might include Optimism, Caring, Trying, Relaxing. Some of these terms may seem strange, but they mean a bit more than the single words alone and I am already conscious of the fact that I am well over my word count (sorry).

Behaviours, lastly, are a bit of fudge between what we do physically and what we do with our minds, particularly habits we develop. For example, we might include Observing, Acting, Playing, Sharing as behaviours we might wish to develop for creativity. Again, the words have much more content behind them (and learning activities, too!).

So that would be my pitch - We need to be able to start to talk about creativity in a much more accurate way. At the very least, we need to take those elements that we are reasonably confident are tangible and place them in a framework that lets educators, designers and students understand how the pedagogy can be deployed.

For an easier on the eye version of this.

But it is great to see this being discussed and I really hope something brilliant comes out of it. 

Teacher: "And what are you drawing?"

Student: " It's a picture of God!"

Teacher: "Don't be silly, no one knows what God loks like."

Student: "They will in a minute."

Barry Sponder
2:36pm 4 April 2011 (Edited 5:24am 5 April 2011)


I enjoyed the discourse Derek. Your response reminded me of the portrayal of Quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Are you familiar with that book? The more we discuss creativity the more connection I see between creativity and quality as human characteristics.

I am also thinking of a line in the song Job's Tears by the Incredible String Band (good Irish musicians), "Whatever you think it's more than that, more than that."

How does that help? Dunno, except perhaps we might look to throw sheets over the furniture rather than describing the furniture iteslf. Looking over the homeland there is a neverending living room and new pieces being added in there all the time.

Gráinne Conole
3:23pm 4 April 2011


Love that book Barry! Interesting the idea of linking creativity and quality - could be particularily important in terms of effective use of new media.

Antony Coombs
4:03pm 4 April 2011


Really interesting to see your thoughts, Derek, and your approaching of the problem from different angles (cognitive, practical) to find a way to get a hook into how we might teach. The god picture story, did you hear that from Ken Robinson? I'm quite convinced by his line of creativity being itself more of a practical manifestation of imaginative capabilities (applied imagination, I suppose) - but then that doesn't necessarily move us on, as maybe we're aso thinking about how we might recognise/research/develop(?) imagination...

Derek Jones
11:25pm 4 April 2011


@Barry - That book has been on my 'to read' list for about 15 years! Maybe it's time to get round to it, because, now you mention it, quality and creativity perhpas have a natural underlying link in terms of value (in a sort of 'how we humans value things (especially things of the mind)' kind of way). If you extend it to Grainne's comment, do we seek better engagment through use of new media that shares this meta-value?  Does that even make sense?!? Need to think about that.

I'm a bit worried about the sheets, though. If furniture is a metaphor for creativity, then I might be tempted to suggest that putting sheets over it is one of the main reasons why we have difficulty in teaching creativity in schools. When we put the sheet on, we imply 'what is underneath is hidden/secret/special/untouchable'. In many creative realms, this mysetery is actively encouraged to develop the mystique of design. But this (imho) is nothing but smoke and mirrors, generated to add apparent value - and very often, because the mysterious practitioner of design is not always entirely certain how they have generated the creativity in the first place.

But, if we take a peek beneath the sheets (or even if we are allowed a good feel of the shapes), we can learn quite a lot. It doesn't take away the magic because there is a lot of interesting furntiure under there. The OU module U101 is a powerful demonstration of how practical teaching can develop creative thinking. It really does work (and, yes, it was a surprise to me as well). 

@ Antony - yes indeed, the story is from Sir Ken (his first Ted talk). Moving it on requires the next step which, once you have a bit of a framework, is easier to do (but harder to prove).

If we take your example, imagination, then we first have to understand what this is (this is a tough example, and the possibility of inaccuracy is great). Imagination can 'occur' in many different ways. We are all used to using this word so much that we take it for granted and that means that the definition of it diverges from the actual processes we need to understand before we can use them in LD.

So what type of imagination are we wishing to develop? 

This is where I have to admit that I am only on page 17 of the Psychology for Dummies book, but - let's take the example of De-Focused Attention from Dietrich (in refs). This is the process (potentially) of thinking that occurs 'between' other thought processes. It does not happen in your consciousness (PFC), it happens at a much deeper level and can only occur under certain circumstances.

You will know what this means when I give the example of the 3 B's - Bed, Bath, Bus. When we are in these objects, our minds relax. When our minds relax, different types of thoughts occur and sometimes these make it back to the consciousness. Have you ever stared out of bus window, eyes unfocused and a 'sudden' thought comes to you? This is the result of de-focused attention - it isn't sudden, it is (almost) recongnisable as a neurological process and (this is the good bit) it is replicable in a teaching environment.

One activity I use for this is the Circles activity, which asks students to fill in as many circles as they can with whatever they can think of. You can run this activity several times for a number of different learning outcomes and one of these is a dramatic demonstraion of the de-focused attention effect. I fact, it is a demonstration of the effect of arousal on creativity (stress = short connections, relaxation = deep connections - both lead to very different types of creativity).

So, if you run the circles excericse with a big red timer counting down from 60s, walk around the class in a quick and impatient manner, use phrases like 'you've only got X seconds left', keep on reminding them that they need to fill in circles you will get a certain result.

If, however, you do this excercise without reference to time, result, outcomes, targets, and pace about as if you are relaxed, you will get yet another result.

Can you guess which is more 'creative'?

This activity explicitly demonstrates the difference that arousal has on the creative processes. That's the LO.

The next LO is how to engage in this type of thinking and there are lots of activities for this as well (the Weet Weet game, several doodling excercises and even conscious de-focusing ones).

Anyway, we start wth a vague term, understand what it is actually made of, work out how we can use those bits in learning and then try to evaluate it (feedback, rinse, recycle).

I think what I might be trying to say is that we already have a whole range of LDs, activities and other resources that are 'known' to develop creativity - it's just that we are not sure about that and are ceratinly not able to evaluate it effectively. Having a framework and at least partially accurate terms allows us to at least try to sort the mess out a bit. What I am trying to do just now is gather some of these up and turn them into 'proper' LD's (using Compendium LD, of course) to see if there is any merit in it.

Sorry! Just realised how much I have just written. Didn't mean to... 

Barry Sponder
4:03am 5 April 2011 (Edited 10:34am 5 April 2011)


@Gráinne - I was thinking back to our first dinner together in Arhus, full of energy and camaraderie. When we were finished Gila remarked that it was something and we all laughed. However, maybe there is something there that bears looking at—and that is that creativity is an energy that fuels almost everything else we associate with it. Like Quality (as theorized by Pirsig) it is there before an activity. Still thinking this through.

@Derek  - Glad you were worried about the sheets! That leads to your example about teaching creativity in a course of which you have first hand knowledge. The OU module U101 has an interesting curriculum that I'd like to learn more about. I also wonder if—and how—that defined design thinking impulse is transferrable to other endeavors? Is it akin to a Chess Grandmaster's expertise being primarily vertical in that one area (Chess) or is it a more generalized effect, similar to the way learning ballet or karate can improve an athlete's performance?

I view furniture as a metaphor for the different activities and projects undertaken everyday and the sheets being analogous to the creative energy that we bring to our efforts, both intentional and serindipidiously. Throwing sheets over the furniture reveals different shapes for the different things we do—from small projects (foot stools) to large group activities (the family room at Buckingham Palace)—but we have to look under the sheets to get the full picture. We can see the creativity in what people do, but when we try to observe what creativity is from one area to the other it becomes harder to pin down abstractly unless we know something about the specific 5Ws (and one h) for each. However, I don't want to carry the furniture description much further, heeding Umberto Eco's caution about using and misusing analogies that he writes about brilliantly in Fouacult's Pendulum. I believe we can teach people how to use their creativity (creative energy) across disciplines and in different areas of interest. Add technology to the mix and you have a subject to write about and follow down the rabbit hole.

I remember seeing the late performer Doug Henning on TV in the 1970s discussing his smash hit  Broadway show featuring stage magic and illusion. He was asked the usual questions about this or that impossible trick or mind-bending illusion but he took it all in good humor. At one point he responded to a question with a question—had the interviewer ever read "Lateral Thinking" by Edward DeBono?

"No," the interviewer replied.

Henning went on to describe the book and suggested that it takes that type of sideways, non-judgemental thinking to really do "magic."  Consequently,  illusions are made possible by the audience's hardened perceptions of reality, much like the teacher in your story who declared to a creative student, "Don't be silly, no one knows what God looks like." Of course, I went right out and bought DeBono book.

Note: I appreciate the way we can write to find out what we think as well as thinking before we write. Putting a digital pen to hyperpaper can be a process of editing, revision and more editing until the words say what we want them to say. Using a dictionary or thesaurus helps us achieve "perfection." If that is creative then we can teach it. Then again, I may come back and edit this after additional thought.

Eco, U. (1988). Foucault's Pendulum.
Pirsig, R. (1975). Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: An inquiry into values.

Asger Harlung
3:56pm 7 April 2011


Mostly @ Derek

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and I like your input. I completely agree that the "What is creativity" question is a big one, and centainly it invites a debate of definitions which is exactly my point.

Unfortunately, the creativity researchers are not in agreement. It may well be that the only common denominator is 'novelty of ideas', facilitated by divergent thinking.

I know this is too broad to serve as a definition to work from, but recent research testing whether measurements of divergent thinking could help predict actual creative behavior, strongly indicates that this is indeed the case. In this research the question of creative behavior was measured from an expert panel evaulating actual student products or outputs, so in order to observe creativity we need something tangible; something that can be shared and tested in a social context.

But on the other hand, the connection seemingly established from this research means, if we facilitate divergent thinking modes, creativity is (more) likely to occur.

So I think facilitating divergent thinking through diversity of inputs, work or learning styles, flexibiity, and other factors known to promote DT, and emphasizing value of original thoughts and ideas, are key to support creative skill development in a broad sense.

I have a notion that that 'broad sense' is also kay. If we try to support "one specific kind of creativity" - wouldn't "true creativity" be characterized by breaching the more specific understanding?

Derek Jones
9:40pm 10 April 2011


Superb link, Barry - like it a lot.

I also totally agree with what you say about writing to think - an idea in your head is absolutely nothing until it is communicated (by whatever means). I know that's why I find myself spending more time replying to things than writing them :)

@Asger - I think that the difficulty with 'true creativity' is that it is such a generic term - the actual processes that make it up are incredibly diverse (there are potentially several types of divergent thinking (!),  for example).

My gut feeling is that, rather than focus on teaching single aspects of creativity, it is perhaps better to consider teaching activities and work out which aspects of creatvity they can develop. It is very rare that we use single dimensions of creativity and even divergent thinking is usually accompanied by a whole host of other creative aspects.

If we are able to discuss aspects of creativity more accurately it at least allows us to slot them in to learning designs more accurately. More importantly, it allows us to be aware of some of the big mistakes that can stop creativity dead in a learning environment. 

Good discussion :)

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