Creativity in Life, Learning & Teaching

November 2015

Recently I read this very good British Council paper on creativity and I recommend it as a practical document with a great number of ideas. However, out of the 18 papers selected, none of them went deep in defining creativity or in emphasising the role of play in developing a creative mind. Although the concept of play was acknowledged and nodded to at various points, it was still viewed as something to be organised and kept within boundaries. In contrast, I see genuine, undirected, informal play as absolutely vital. And so in this post I want to theorise a bit in this area and conclude with an industry-wide suggestion.

Creativity is a form of intelligence and the reality is, there are millions of intelligent people in the world. There are not, however, millions of creative people. Creatives are the ones who challenge existing norms and that is not an easy road to take, especially if it involves not following others and inviting ridicule. Beyond social factors though, creativity is also hard to synthesise or teach because it involves:

  1. Making connections between two or more things are that are not usually associated with each other. Often an elegant way of doing this is in combining the past with the present to make something new.
  2. Overcoming restrictions or limitations to make something new.

Doing this ultimately involves thinking without guidance, and not everyone feels comfortable doing that — not in real depth for extended periods without distraction or interference. Not when the outcome is so unclear and in doubt. Creativity is thus something so unique and personal, requiring vast amounts of time, I believe it can only really be learnt, rather than taught.

To do this and to be creative reflects the highest form of intelligence. Though the irony in an educational context is that school is the place where intelligence gets noticed and rewarded, while for creative individuals often the opposite is true: it gets ignored or admonished. As a society, we need school, yet most of the great minds and great benefactors to society did not excel in this environment. This is because creativity is a function of play. So as a rule, school is never going to be the place to foster creativity. Play requires independence of thought unbound by constraints, particularly institutional ones, and school has never been a place where that is prioritised.

This is the same reason you don’t get much creativity in large companies. Corporations and organized institutions are places where there is a right and wrong way to do things and where rules exist to entrench this. Institutions only function when they are formal and based around systematic work. Large organisations are places where everyone absorbs the same dogma and everyone works towards producing a commodity. Because of the scale, there’s an inevitable regression to the mean and everyone ends up trudging along at the same pace.

How creative and interesting can you expect to be if you are stuck in a nondescript office all day, looking at a computer, and working to deadlines, while earning a flat salary.

As a result, institutions, quite unintentionally, go against everything individualistic in the human mind. They have to to function. And to a degree, it has to be this way otherwise ‘creativity’ would be the norm and that, by definition, would be neither creative nor new.

Institutions are necessary in a civilised world. They can be supportive, but they also encourage conformity and drain the humanity of the individual. They play to a lowest common denominator which feeds on stability as opposed to change. Institutions are not a place for play.

Creativity is not easily recognised or measured and means taking the hard road which people in schools and companies are not incentivised to do.

This is how modern society has determined to organise itself. But at the same time we lose something in this. Innovation and creativity aren’t born out of the incremental change we see in institutions. World-changing developments are by contrast explosive and unexpected. And while cities and modernity have been great for human progress, they have for many dulled the raw creative drive we have needed through history to solve immediate problems. Mass society has instead rendered us a passive majority of consumers and followers.

If you don't control your mind, someone else will. Usually that means government or big business.

Of course this is partly a natural transition. In the natural world, mammals are the most intelligent forms of life and it is no coincidence that mammals are the only forms of life that engage in play. They are the only life forms that demonstrate curiosity, which in turn gives rise to risk taking and intuition. As we grow up, however, we lose the instinct to play in favour of a more mundane and conservative life. As we age, we tend to lose our creative drive.

The developed world of prosperity and higher living standards has likewise made people slaves to time and conformity. We feel guilty about explicitly giving ourselves time and space: to shut ourselves away for long periods in order to lose ourselves in complex situations and untangle problems. It takes discipline to get away from people, noise, and technology. But the paradox is that those who do this; who play, get more rest, and reflect more, are usually more productive and healthier people.

Growth comes from taking the less-trodden, contemplative and creative path in life. It’s not easy and was never meant to be. So how do we light the creative flame in learners? We do it by giving them space and freedom to play without time constraints, and to think without prescribed dogma. But at the same time, this means people have to think for themselves. That’s the hard part of all this. It is in challenging learners and not making life easy for them, where we get them to grow. Our ancestors might have been poor, but they had that freedom and they had greater challenges to overcome. That’s why they were arguably more creative, bigger risk takers, and better learners than we are today.

But more practically as teachers, we harness creativity by freeing ourselves from institutional constraints. By providing better service and more satisfying work as independent teachers than as commoditised labour teaching commoditised materials. Good teaching and good content creation is not the esoteric preserve of some elite band of educators holed up in offices away from the classroom. Instead, we can challenge ourselves by eschewing the standardised products of the giant publishing firms in favour of our own personally inspired materials that we ourselves have crafted with care and creativity.

Further references:

John Cleese on Creativity

Stuart Brown on Play