Cultivating Creativity

I’m in Washington DC, at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Education. This morning’s final session brought together four famous scholars to discuss a critical question: How to cultivate creativity?

The first to speak was Shirley Brice Heath (Stanford) who is famous for her 30-year study tracking several working class white and black families in a rural region. When she started the study, her subjects were children; now they’re all grown. She talked about those people who’d done creative things in life, and what those same people had been like way back in childhood. The most important trait was courage, the decision to take an action and not worry about the risks. Yes, some of the children took unwise risks and got in trouble; but the ones who thrived looked at their community and looked for what needed to be done. Their creativity was rarely about making a product; instead, they created nonprofit and volunteer organizations and websites.

Robert J. Sternberg (Oklahoma State) spoke next, and told a personal story about various decisions he’d made during his career– decisions that were difficult, decisions that his mentors told him were not wise. He described the problems that arose from each; for example, when he chose to shift from studying intelligence to studying romantic relationships, his colleagues thought he was no longer a serious scholar, no longer a “real” cognitive psychologist; funding agencies didn’t fund his work. Again, it seemed the key theme was courage.

Ellen Winner (Boston College) talked about her study of high school art classes, and the eight “habits of mind” that the teachers try to foster in their students. The one she focused on was “stretch/expand,” when teachers asked students things like “How could you do this differently?” or “Why don’t you try it with this other material?” What I love about this research is that it suggests we might try doing the same things in non-art classes–even in math, science, or engineering.

Howard Gardner presented his own guiding framework for creativity: arguing that it involves not only the individual who generates a new product, but also the domain of existing knowledge and practice, and the field of experts, gatekeepers, and teachers. (He gave a shout out to Mike Csikszentmihalyi, who first proposed this “systems model” in the 1980s.) I was delighted when he suggested updating the model to reflect how creativity has changed: first, it’s not only individuals that generate products; nowadays it’s often collaborative teams. Second, the mediating role of the field is becoming more complex, as Web 2.0 and the Internet result in “disintermediation” and a reduction in the power held by traditional gatekeepers.

The ensuing discussion was insightful and, in many ways, surprisingly personal. Many of these luminaries spoke about their own childhoods and their own careers; most were critical of traditional schools and of standardized tests. Sternberg, who is perhaps the most widely published psych0logist in the world, and a past president of the American Psychological Association, reported that he did badly on an IQ test in first grade, and for the next three years his teachers thought he wasn’t that smart. In college, he got a C in his Introduction to Psychology course. His phenomenal success as a psychologist make it clear that the problem was with the school, not with Sternberg.

The panel ended, unfortunately, without solving all of the world’s problems 🙂 but for me personally, this auditorium at George Washington University was the place to be on Saturday, October 29, 2011.

4 thoughts on “Cultivating Creativity

  1. Nice entry..

    My PhD research is following ideas into practice, focusing on art projects in Manchester, UK. In particular, I am considering the contrast between Manchester Day Parade, a community based collaborative art project and Manchester International Festival, a highly curated ‘high art’ series of events.

    In both place, I have also found that courage drives the success of these projects and also a willingness to be vulnerable, to bare oneself. Here creativity combines both courage to dare but also courage to be bare.

  2. If creativity grows off of courage, or is a necessary ingredient of courage, what helps grow Courage, especially of the positive sort (such as causes the students mentioned by the first speaker to look helpfully back at their own community)?

    1. That’s a great question! I’m not aware of any research that studies courage. There is related research, on self confidence, self esteem, and resilience, I wonder how those traits relate to creativity?

  3. Very interesting post and I agree 100%, and if i may, i’ll just add this amazing quote by by Paul Heyman which I try to live after:
    “You can not achieve success,
    Without the risk of failure,
    and I learned along time ago
    you can not achieve success
    if you fear failure.
    If you’re not afraid to fail
    Man you have a chance to succeed
    but you never gonna get there unless you risk it all the way
    I was a failure.
    Sometimes half the fun is failing.
    Learning form your mistakes, waking up the next morning and say: “okay, watch out, here I come again. A little bit smarter, licking my wounds, and really not looking forward to get my ass kicked the way I just did yesterday, so now I’m just a little more dangerous. “

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