Vygotsky on Collective Creativity

I just re-read a classic article about creativity, written almost 100 years ago by the legendary Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s theory–that innovations emerge from social networks and collaborative groups–has been supported by decades of research. Here are a few choice quotations:

Our everyday understanding of creativity does not fully conform to the scientific understanding of this word. In our everyday understanding, creativity is the realm of a few select individuals, geniuses, talented people. This view is incorrect. Creativity is present whenever a person imagines and creates something new, no matter how small a drop in the bucket this new thing appears. Collective creativity combines all these drops of individual creativity that are insignificant in themselves. This is why an enormous percentage of what has been created by humanity is a product of the anonymous collective creative work of unknown inventors. (pp. 10-11)

Everything the imagination creates is always based on elements taken from reality, from a person’s previous experience. The most fantastic creations are nothing other than a new combination of elements that have ultimately been extracted from reality. (p. 13)

The first law of creativity: The act of imagination depends directly on the richness and variety of a person’s previous experience because this experience provides the material from which the products of creativity are constructed. The richer a person’s experience, the richer is the material his imagination has access to. Great works and discoveries are always the result of an enormous amount of previously accumulated experience. The implication of this for education is that, if we want to build a relatively strong foundation for a child’s creativity, what we must do is broaden the experiences we provide him with. (pp. 14-15)

Every inventor, even a genius, is a product of his time and his environment. His creations arise from needs that were created before him. No invention can occur before the material and psychological conditions necessary for it to occur have appeared. Creation is a historical, cumulative process where every succeeding manifestation was determined by the preceding one. (p. 30)

The right kind of education involves awakening in the child what already exists within him, helping him to develop it and directing this development in a particular direction. (p. 51)

In conclusion, I emphasize the importance of cultivating creativity in school. The entire future of humanity will be attained through creativity. Because the main objective of school is to prepare them for the future, the development and practice of creativity should be one of the main goals of education.

Vygotsky’s view is exactly what contemporary research on innovation and creativity has found, as captured in my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. (And, more recently, in Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators.)

* Vygotsky, “Imagination and creativity in childhood.” Journal of Russian and East European Psychology Vol. 42 No. 1.

Child’s Play

My first book was about children’s pretend play, and was called Pretend Play as Improvisation. It was based on my Ph.D. research at the University of Chicago, where I spent one year in a preschool classroom with 3, 4, and 5-year-olds. I was studying how unstructured social pretend play helped children learn conversational skills and social skills. At the same time, I was playing piano with an improv theater group, and I couldn’t help but notice that the children’s play was strikingly similar to my theater troupe’s performances. The children collaboratively created a fantasy play scenario, and it emerged improvisationally from their conversations.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine* (Sep 27, 2009) has an article about a new preschool program called “Tools of the Mind”. The exciting thing about this program is that it coaches children to help them create more elaborate and sophisticated play scenarios: complex, extended scenarios that involve multiple children and last for hours. And the surprising thing about this program is that the researchers who created it, Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova, argue that this kind of play leads to better self-regulation. And there’s a ton of research showing that increased self regulation is associated with better learning and stronger academic outcomes in primary school.

There are some pressures in some preschools to play less and to focus on academic content more. Tools of the Mind rejects that approach, and says that if you want better academic outcomes the best thing for children to do is engage in play. Why? Here’s where the creative improvisational nature of play is important: it’s simply not the case that “anything goes,” that children just do whatever they want. When a child pretends to be a daddy, he has to follow all of the rules associated with what “being a daddy” means. Of course, the children are still learning things like “how to enact a spaceman” and “how to enact a fireman,” and they often have different ideas about how to do it. So they end up negotiating with each other about how to play. And this negotiation gets them thinking about how to act and why.

Ultimately, group improvisation is an incredibly valuable learning experience for children.

*The Make-Believe Solution. By Paul Tough, pp. 31-35