Thursday, March 24, 2011

Creativity: Identification, stimulation and the place of knowledge

What is Creativity?

I write regularly about developing the creativity of children on this blog. Creativity is one of the most important of human attributes. The great educational psychologist Jean Piaget said of creativity:

“The principal goal of education is to create [people] who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done – [people] who are creative, inventive and discoverers."
I define creativity as the ability to show originality and imaginative skill resulting in something new or different. Its products include novel solutions, methods, use of language, performance, devices and varied artistic objects or forms.

Above: Rebecca & Elsie create a beach boat to take them on a journey

Creativity is fundamental to human advancement and is a quality to be valued and nurtured. And yet, it is so easy to constrain and conform our children with a resultant loss of originality, innovation and discovery. The devaluing of these things can lead to a loss of enjoyment, motivation and creativity. As John Holt expresses it:

What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out. (John Holt, 1981)

How can we stimulate creativity?

a) The preschool child - Parents, carers and preschool teachers need to:

  • Provide time for children to explore their world.
  • Offer opportunities for structured and unstructured play.
  • Encourage experimentation with language and story.
  • Create an environment that encourages the child to invent novel solutions in play.
  • Ensure that children are not placed under too many restraints and structures.
  • Try to enhance opportunities for children to attempt to solve problems or explore new things. 
  • Encourage deep learning of things that interest the child
  • Offer new experiences and situations that challenge them to find out, seek solutions and solve problems.
  • Make good use of technology without allowing it to dominate children's lives.
b) School-age children - The teacher or parent needs to:
  • Encourage learning, expression and exploration in situations that emphasise the generation of ideas, solutions and forms of expression that are divergent as well as convergent.
  • Ensure that the desire to evaluate learning and encourage excellence does not limit creativity.
  • Ensure that rewards do not simply privilege single answers or solutions, or pathways to reaching the single right answer (because of course there are correct answers to some things).
  • Integrate opportunities to learn as much as possible cutting across the traditional subject disciplines.
  • Provide time for children to explore, express and reflect on their learning.
  • Encourage self-discovery, inquiry learning and varied modes to expressing ideas.
  • Encourage children to ask good questions of themselves and others.
  • Encourage depth of knowledge in areas that fascinate the learner.
  • Encourage exploration of the arts and humanities as well as the sciences.

How do I know a child is creative?

While children can be tested to see if they demonstrate high levels of creativity, most teachers can tell quickly if a child seems more creative than other children. Parents sometimes find it harder to be objective, as they view constant progress in learning from birth to age 5. This normal (and quite remarkable development) can easily give all parents a sense that their child is highly intelligent and creative. Here are some questions that you might ask to determine if your child shows extra creativity:

Do they tend to come up with lots of ideas in response to verbal or visual cues?
Are their ideas different, quirky, 'outside the square'?
Do they look at things from different perspectives (e.g. draw an object from above rather than giving a side elevation)?
Do they suggest solutions to problems that surprise you because they are different or unusual?
Do they express themselves metaphorically or abstractly in play situations or in use of language and storytelling (e.g. "I'm a laser force that's knocking you over")?
Do they find it easy to elaborate on the ideas of others (e.g. can progress shared oral storytelling in unusual directions)?
Do they show an attention to fine detail in drawing and language?

Above: Jacob's drawing of a Blue Tongue lizard is drawn from the unusual perspective of "a predator flying above it"

How observation and knowledge can fuel creativity

Sometimes I think that when we use the term creativity some people imagine that it comes from being a dreamer who empties their mind of ideas and distractions so that they can imagine amazing things. This isn't where creativity comes from (though contemplation can help idea generation). If you think of some of the most creative people of all time you will realise that they were also very knowledgeable. Leonardo da Vinci was arguably the most creative person of all time, but in his age, he was also one of the most knowledgeable people who understood more about science, art, anatomy, mathematics, cartography and engineering than most people of his day.

If we want our children to be creative we should encourage them to learn, observe their world, acquire deep knowledge of things, ask many questions. The drawing above that one of my grandchildren created when he was six would be identified by many as creative for many reasons. The vantage point alone is novel and unusual for a six year-old. The artist has drawn the scene from above, taking the perspective of an eagle hunting its prey. But note also that Jacob displays great knowledge in this drawing. He has great anatomical awareness of the Blue Tongue lizard, shows knowledge of animals and insects and demonstrates advanced ability in spelling. The drawing below that followed a trip to the Aquarium was done as a four year-old and is a picture of me drawn from the perspective of the fish in the aquarium looking at me through the glass. Again it displays knowledge of many species of marine life (which he could name and describe) as well as novelty.

My point is that the seedbed of creativity is knowledge, and the ability to use knowledge in novel ways. While the teaching of facts for facts sake will do little for creativity, knowledge acquired in response to an intense interest and desire to learn in response to the learner's questions, is a great stimulus for creativity.  From knowledge the child can see connections, anomalies, novelty, unanswered questions and can ask themselves (and others) "Why is it so?" "What would happen if?" "How can I find out?" And so on.

Even the familiar can lead us to wonder, reflect, puzzle, and ask questions. Here is a practical example. My eldest grandson (the same grandson who drew the Blue Tongue lizard) loves to visit a river near my home (the 'Cooks River'). This is a not a spectacular river (as Australian rivers go). When it was discovered by Captain Cook in 1770 it was no doubt pristine and its mangrove lined banks and waters would have been teeming with great biodiversity. Today, it is polluted, large sections of the mangrove  (but not all) banks have been degraded and the biodiversity (although improving), and it is a just a 'shadow' of what it once was. But just about every time he visits we spend an hour or so exploring the river.

My wife said recently, "What do you do down there?" My response was "Talk, look, ask questions of each other, sharpen our observation skills. I think I learn as much as Jacob". Every visit has a highlight. On recent trips the annual mullet run up river saw thousands of fish swarming and feeding. Each visit we observe variations in tides, signs of mangrove regeneration, and life amongst the mangrove roots (e.g. small mud crabs, insects, fish). We listen for new and familiar birdcalls, and hope for new species of birds and animals. Sightings of familiar wildlife are just as important, including a pair of White-faced herons, pelicans, Wattlebirds, two escaped domestic ducks, native mice. We look for signs of human impact, pick up seed capsules, and look at blossoms and fruit on native trees. We scan for insects of all types. Every new or old sighting is exciting; each is recounted as we go home. Discussions are had about favourite reptiles, birds, insects, even cryptids, and the ongoing efforts to fix up the river. We share knowledge, question each other, puzzle over things we don't understand, and go home to look up species of bird and habitats in reference books as well as on the Internet to find answers to our many questions.  This is how knowledge and creativity feed on one another.

Alice laughed. There's no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” ('Through the Looking Glass', Lewis Carroll)

“The creative person is willing to live with ambiguity. He doesn’t need problems solved immediately and can afford to wait for the right ideas.” (Abe Tannenbaum)

Some posts on this blog that offer practical ideas to stimulate creativity

'The Role of Adults in Children's Play' (HERE)
'The Dangerous Book for Boys' (HERE)
'Understanding and Developing Creativity' (HERE)
'Stifling Creativity: The School as Factory' (HERE)
'The Power of Simple Play' (HERE)
'Nurturing Creativity in Children' (HERE)
'Stories in a Box: Stimulating language, writing & imagination' (HERE)
'Choosing Great Educational Toys for Children' (HERE)
'English, the inventive language' (HERE)
'Firsthand Experience, Literacy & Learning' (HERE)
'The Language Experience Approach (LEA)' (HERE)
The Worrying Preoccupation with Weighing the 'Sheep' (HERE)


PlanningQueen said...

Excellent post Trevor. Would you agree that sometimes formal education actually stifles creativity in youngsters?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Nicole,

Yes, I do think formal education can stifle creativity for some children when it allows little freedom for children to explore their own interests and goals. One of the posts in the links at the bottom of the post says a bit about this.

Nice to hear from you.


jeannezoo said...

Just found your blog! Thank you for your thought-provoking post today. I am a project-based teacher of young children and college instructor for new teachers in the early learning field (as well as an artist and "out of the square" thinker). I will be spending time today touring through your previous posts...thank you!

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for dropping by Jeannezoo and for following this blog. I look forward to hearing from you again. Trevor