What Criminals Can Teach Us About Creativity

A few weeks ago, I posed the question “Is Creativity Research Elitist?”. I pointed out that creativity researchers have studied high-class Western European creativity, but they’ve neglected working class creativity–like custom motorcycle mechanics, or small-town preachers writing sermons.

Right on cue, a new book’s just been published making basically the same point. The Misfit Economy argues that criminals can teach us a lot about creativity: pirates, hackers, gangsters, and prisoners. Here’s what their web site says:

What do pirates, terrorists, computer hackers and inner city gangs have in common with Silicon Valley? Innovation. Across the globe, diverse innovators operating in the black and gray economies are developing solutions to a myriad of challenges. Far from being “deviant entrepreneurs” that pose threats to our social and economic stability, these innovators display remarkable ingenuity, pioneering original methods and best practices that we can learn from and apply in our own worlds. The Misfit Economy seeks to unveil and leverage this new well-spring of ingenuity. Join us in exploring the dark side of innovation.

The book describes the creativity of Somali pirates, Amish camel-milkers (?), and moonshine bootleggers. But you won’t find studies of them in the creativity academic journals. I think it’s the same reason we don’t study small-town ministers–they aren’t elite enough. (I’m guilty, too–right now I’m studying fine art painters and elite designers.)

Most creativity researchers have defined creativity as a new product that’s both novel and also valued by society. In the latest issue of the Creativity Research Journal, Robert Weisberg argues that researchers should define creativity without requiring that the product be valued by society.* If creativity researchers take this to heart, then we should start studying working class creativity and criminal creativity. Otherwise, we risk publishing findings and developing theories that only apply to upper-middle class people. Speaking as a psychologist, I think it’s obvious that all these forms of creativity are based in creative mental processes and behaviors. So as a scholarly community, we need to do additional research to confirm that our research claims aren’t limited to educated elites.

*My own definition of individual creativity, unlike most of my colleagues, doesn’t include “value,” and for some of the same reasons that Weisberg uses (see my book Explaining Creativity).

How to Foster Creativity in the Primary Curriculum

For the fifth and final talk of my European lecture tour, I gave the keynote at a meeting of primary school educators, the Association for the Study of Primary Education (ASPE):

Creativity in the Primary Curriculum. Planned in collaboration with the Open University, the University of Exeter, and the BERA Creativity SIG, the seminar seeks to explore cutting-edge research which considers both teaching creatively and teaching for creativity in the primary phase both within and beyond the classroom.

I talked about the need for creativity in today’s society, and the importance of innovation to the society and the economy. And then, I drew on creativity research, and learning sciences research, to give some practical advice for how to design classrooms that foster creative learning. It was great to be in front of a group of early childhood educators, because in my first research project, I studied creativity in children’s pretend play.

It was an exhausting trip! But it was so stimulating to meet others who believe in the power of collaboration and creativity to drive learning.

Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology (CREET)

On the fourth stop of my European tour 2015, I gave the annual CREET lecture at the Open University. The room was full of brilliant colleagues that I very much respect. So I used the opportunity to report on a very new analysis I’m now doing, using a new data set, on creativity and learning. I was hoping for suggestions and feedback–I believe in the power of collaboration! So I was delighted that we had a great discussion afterwards.

In the afternoon, I did a smaller workshop on the methodology I use to study group creativity; it’s called “interaction analysis.” It’s a way to analyze large data sets of transcribed talk, and that’s exactly what I have from this new project: about 75 hours of transcribed interviews and classroom observations. In a two-hour workshop, I only had time to show about ten minutes of videotape; we spent the whole two hours talking about those ten minutes. (That’s what happens when you get a group of researchers together!) So you can see that 75 hours is a massive amount of conversational data. Making sense of it has taken me a few years already, and probably will require a couple more years to finish.

Creativity Research at University of Plymouth, UK

On the third stop of my European tour, I was invited to give a talk to the CogNovo research group at the University of Plymouth. I was impressed to find one of the top research groups in the world, studying creativity with an interdisciplinary approach.

CogNovo brings together over 40 participating scholars and artists to study creativity and innovation. The group includes cognitive neuroscientists, developmental psychologists, and practicing artists, dancers, and musicians. In addition, they have EU funding for 25 doctoral students, who have moved here from all over the world to study creativity. The University of Plymouth is a great place for this interdisciplinary work, because it has a medical school, an art school, and a strong psychology unit. It was cool that during a break, I got to visit the final degree exhibits of the Media Arts and Design, and the Photography programs, in the building next door to CogNovo.

The EU funding is part of the Creative Europe initiative, with a budget of 1.46 BILLION Euros through 2020 (yes, that’s “billion” with a “b” and not an “m”!). As a creativity researcher in the United States, I’m envious. We don’t have anything like that kind of support for creativity research, even though our political, business, and corporate leadership all agree that creativity is the driver of our future global competitiveness, and that our culture and creative industries are one of our biggest international successes.

The Improvisation of Teaching

I just spent three wonderful days at the conference “The Art and Science of Improvisation in Teaching.” My visit to the University of Stord, Norway, was sponsored by a project funded by the Norwegian Research Council, “Improvisation in Teacher Education.” I was honored to be invited to give the keynote talk, because the project was inspired by my 2011 book Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching. Creative Teaching

I published this book to argue that good teaching is always creative and improvisational. That it’s impossible to “script” teachers. That if policy makers try to overly control teaching, then students won’t learn much. I’m a learning scientist, so I grounded my argument in scientific studies, and in well-proven recommendations for effective teaching.

What’s really exciting about the book is that it shows how we can prepare teachers for this kind of teaching. Each chapter is written by a different teacher educator, who is using improvisation in their teacher education classes. These chapters are important because it’s really hard to teach students to learn in a creative way. You need a high level of professional expertise and improvisational ability. What makes it even harder is that teacher improvisations are always guided by structures that are important to effective teaching–curricular sequences, research-grounded learning trajectories, and government-mandated learning outcomes and assessments.

The Norwegian research project is driven by music educators, who are studying new ways to teach improvisational music performance. Then, they’re going to use this research to enhance teacher education in all subjects. It’s a brilliant group of scholars, and I look forward to the results of their research.

The Invisible Creativity You See Every Day

Typeface design: Decades ago, it was a little-known part of the printing industry. Then starting with the Apple Macintosh in 1984, we’re all now intimate with typefaces like Palatino, Verdano, and Times New Roman. We all know what serifs are; we know the difference between a typeface and a font.

On June 9, 2015, The New York Times reported that the most influential type designer has died: Hermann Zapf. He designed over 200 typefaces, including Palatino (used in the corporate logo of Abercrombie and Fitch), Optima (the letters used in the names on Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial), Mellor, and Dingbats. He created typefaces in Latin, Cyrillic and Arabic. From the Times obituary:

Mr. Zapf’s genius lay in his solutions to the central problem that type designers, like industrial designers, face: expressing creativity while being circumscribed by practicality.

Art critic Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times, “It doesn’t take long to realize that his career demonstrates the combination of natural (probably prodigious) talent, early achievement and continued growth and innovation that we demand of major artists.”

Creating with constraints, that’s true genius. I realize I need to pay more attention, as I go through every day, to the invisible creativity all around me.


Europe Tour 2015, First city: Gothenburg, Sweden

Gothenburg is a charming city in the South of Sweden, and to me it’s famous because it has the University of Gothenburg. I was last here to give an invited lecture in Fall 2009. Now I’m back for one of the big annual learning sciences conferences: Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL).

I’m giving a three-hour workshop, tomorrow morning, titled “The learning sciences and CSCL: Past, present, and future.” In the workshop, I’ll be building on what I learned while editing The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (2nd Edition), to lead the group in a discussion about what the learning sciences is, how it came to be, how it relates to CSCL research, and challenges and opportunities we might face in the future. I’ll also draw on a second book that I’ve co-edited (with Michael Evans and Martin Packer) called Reflections on the learning sciences. That book should be published within the year; the chapters are all finished, and that gives me a chance to give a bit of a sneak preview about what the leaders in the field are thinking.

It took me 24 hours and three flights to get here, with multiple travel problems at each step of the way…for example I still don’t have my checked bag from my New York to London flight, although it’s been located and is promised to appear at my hotel here within 24 hours–long after my workshop ends. So I had to re-print all of my workshop materials for tomorrow, besides running to the store for razors and toothpaste (I learned my lesson: Never assume you’ll get your checked bag and keep critical items with you on board).

I’ll keep posting about my next stops, beginning with a really cool music improvisation conference in Stord, Norway, that I’ll fly to on Tuesday.