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.

The Neuroscience of Creativity

I just returned from speaking at a workshop hosted by the National Science Foundation headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. I know everyone loves to bash government bureaucracy, but the NSF is a quality organization and I’m always impressed with everything they do. This workshop was no different, with the title “Art, Creativity, and Learning”. The mission our group of experts faced: to prepare a list of important research questions for the future, and to advise the NSF on what types of research should be funded in the next few years.

The event was organized by Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Institute in San Francisco, and neuroscience research was a constant theme–what does the brain look like when it’s being creative?  Or when it’s listening to music?  Or looking at a painting?  The other constant theme was, when we participate in the arts or in creative pursuits, do we learn things that can make us smarter in general?  For example, everyone seems to believe that playing music makes you better at math.  But, surprisingly, there’s no solid evidence that’s true.  We proposed several research projects that could help us to understand what’s uniquely valuable about the arts.

For me, the high points of the conference were presentations by Ellen WInner of Boston College, perhaps the leading scholar asking questions about the arts, development, and learning; and Dan Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of the best seller This is Your Brain on Music.

I wish I could report some surprising new answers, but our goal was to ask the big unanswered questions, and we did a good job of that: Does participating in the arts give you any increase in general mental ability that transfers to others domains?  If you use dance, music, or painting in math or science class, does it help people learn math or science better?  (This is a common belief that has no solid research support.)  I personally love the arts and I want them to remain in the curriculum.  But, as a scientist, I want to be able to argue for the arts using solid data and research findings, not just wishful thinking.