I recently shared with college creative thinking students a short RSA Animate video by Ken Robinson titled "Changing Education Paradigms." In the talk, Robinson argues that our current education system stifles and anesthetizes creativity. Because half of this particular classroom of engineering students will graduate at the end of the term, I asked them to talk about the impact of the last sixteen years of education on their own creative thinking.
The resulting discussion was eye-opening. As much as they realize the need to have honed their convergent thinking and executive functioning skills as they look toward entering a competitive workforce, they also spoke of a deep loss of something integral to who they are, and a few wondered if that capacity for creativity they remembered from their youth would or could ever return.
Rather than disheartened by their comments, I am excited to show them over the next ten weeks a few ways that they can begin to reclaim their creativity and that parents and teachers can encourage creative thinking at home and school.
Aim for Quantity Over Quality
In his RSA talk, Robinson is careful to point out that divergent thinking is "not the same thing as creative thinking" but that it is an "essential capacity for creativity." Robinson refers to a study in the book Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, by George Land and Beth Jarman, that followed this creative capacity throughout childhood. When tested as kindergarteners, 98 percent of the study's subjects scored at the genius level in divergent thinking. When they were ten, 32 percent of the same group scored as high, and by age fiften, only 10 percent made the cut. When 200,000 adults were given the same test, only two percent tested at the genius level.
We can help children to practice skills of divergent thinking as they grow by helping them at least some of the time to aim for quantity over quality, without pre-emptive judgment. This can be done in ways that are more applicable to their daily lives than asking how many uses they can think of for a paper clip. What are all the meals we can make for dinner with the ingredients in the refrigerator, even (and especially) combinations that are new or strange? While they answer, we can be alert for the "yes, but" voices in our own heads that want to butt in and stop the divergent flow of ideas. Where are all the places we can go for vacation, beyond the ones we can afford or can get to easily? How about the moon? Or the past or future? Once the divergent exercise has run its course, we can then (and only then) think about practical vacations that would provide a similar experience.
Children will have plenty of opportunities to practice convergent skills of analyzing and narrowing for quality, but we often have to plan consciously for the skills that allow them to practice divergent fluency.
Just as a lateral pass in football mixes things up by defying expectations, lateral thinking, a phrase coined by Edward de Bono, can spur creativity by introducing the unexpected. De Bono explains that being able to think laterally is important because, most of the time, when we are stuck on a problem, we simply try harder in the same direction. Lateral thinking is not about trying harder but trying differently, changing directions, sometimes in ways that seem illogical or impractical.
For example, one of de Bono's lateral thinking techniques is the practice of "wishful thinking," in which we allow ourselves to imagine what the ideal solution would be, regardless of financial, physical, or even ethical constraints. During this process, we do not censor our thoughts or in any way think of why the solution might not work. What is the point of this exercise? Very often, such "what if" thinking contains ideas that can lead to and inspire practical possibilities. However, we often censor our own thoughts before such ideas ever bubble to the surface, as we begin too early the process of convergent criticism.
Refuse to Pigeonhole Personality
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, creator of the theory of flow, studied the lives of over 90 eminent creative producers and thinkers to learn what they had in common. What he found is that the creative personality has no template. Being adaptable is key to using our creativity effectively, so we cannot expect even our own personality to be the same from one creative venture to the next. He summed up his findings by presenting ten pairs of what we usually think of as antithetical traits that highly creative people "experience both with equal intensity and without inner conflict," pairs he referred to as "dimensions of complexity."
Our temptation to label and pigeonhole others is often for reasons of our own comfort and efficiency. If we know Johnny is an extrovert, we know, or we think we know, what to expect from him and what his needs are. However, to encourage children to give themselves more options for how to feel, think, and act, we can refrain from typecasting them as either/or and, instead, give them permission to be both/and: Both extroverted and introverted, both playful and disciplined, both feminine and masculine.
For example, we may think Johnny is an extrovert because he likes to talk through ideas, laughs easily, and has a lot of friends. For this reason, we might mistakenly think that he doesn't need much alone time and be tempted to over-schedule his afterschool hours and weekends, rather than giving him needed space to create and to hone his introverted skills. We can also be particularly careful not to talk about children's traits within their hearing, even with comments such as "Angela always is the self-disciplined one and never goofs off," which we intend as praise. Angela may come to believe that being self-disciplined is what she is valued for and be reluctant to be silly or to play, for fear of disappointing adults.
Encourage Boundary Crossing
Dan Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, describes boundary crossers as follows:
"What's the most prevalent, and perhaps the most important, prefix of our times? Multi. Our jobs require multitasking. Our communities are multicultural. Our entertainment is multimedia. While detailed knowledge of a single area once guaranteed success, today the top rewards go to those who can operate with equal aplomb in starkly different realms. I call these people 'boundary crossers.' They develop expertise in multiple spheres, they speak different languages, and they find joy in the rich variety of human experience. They live multilives-because that's more interesting and, nowadays, more effective." (p. 134)
Larry Livingston argues in his article "Teaching Creativity in Higher Education" that today's generation of college students shows up in our classrooms already expert boundary crossers. They have grown up in a world where research is done not in limited, discipline-specific journals but through multi-disciplinary Google searches and collaborative social media. He writes, "Our students investigate all manner of diverse topics without being trapped by discipline-based limitations. They do so because no one has told them otherwise."
What adults can do is to recognize the value of such boundary crossing and encourage students to use the best of what is online through multi-discipinary text, images, and video, rather than relegate it to the periphery of learning because we are afraid of its potential for abuse or because we haven't taken the time or effort to understand it as well as we should.
Finally, we all need to prioritize play in our lives, especially as children move into the busy high school years. In his TED Talk on creativity and play, Tim Brown from IDEO tells us that one way to play is to "think with our hands," which can mean everything from playing with LEGOs or clay to using found materials to build prototypes as a way to solve problems.
This kind of hands-on play, however, often requires that we give ourselves and our children permission to engage in activities that can look like a waste of time. For a sixteen year old who has a full schedule of AP classes, sports practice, and orchestra rehearsal, half an hour spent building a snowman in the backyard with younger siblings can seem a luxury, but parents can help to shape good life-time habits by encouraging their children and teenagers to build in time for just such free play, and by setting a good example by turning off their cell phones and joining in.
While individually we cannot always do much in the short term to change our educational system or paradigms, we each have the power to change our approach to creativity right now in our homes and classrooms so that more of our children retain their creative genius into adulthood. In the process, we may just recapture some of our own creativity at the same time.