Building a Foundation for Making Sense of Creativity: Breaking Free from Old Ideas of Teaching and Learning Creativity


Creativity is important in many areas of life, whether personal, professional or artistic. Because it is not a primarily rational skill, as well as because it has usually been seen as inseparable from mastery of a particular craft (and inseparable from the arts), it has been thought not to be teachable or has been ignored. In this post, I will lay the foundation for showing how people can discover and develop their own creative capacities. Briefly, to give an idea of how this is possible, the focus will be on the broadening ways of perception and abilities of expression of self so as to allow for more creative possibilities instead of focusing solely on the abstract idea of creativity as it has been previously framed (though we will talk a lot about creativity as well).

There are possible dangers of making huge mistakes when attempting to teach creativity. The easiest one of these to make is imposing oneself and one’s own limitations on others; pounding one’s own philosophy into the heads of others and thereby imposing new barriers and limitations instead of freeing up another’s creative possibility hurts not helps creativity because other people have their own unique backgrounds that makeup who they are, where possibilities exist outside of the imposed upon philosophy. The other major danger is teaching in a way that presupposes knowing creative possibilities that are not known or cannot be known—and there will always be these unknown possibilities: there are some people who think they “know it all” but there are many more well intentioned people who simply have a problem embracing the fact that there are unknowns; it is never possible to know all possibilities of what may or may not be creatively possible in general or for another person (including oneself).

What is important is to emphasize is that everyone is creative in their own way, a way that should never be assumed to be fully known or fully knowable, and it is also important to continually highlight the fact that there is no right way to be creative. So, every attempt will be made here to not impose “right ways” of being creative but rather allow for people to uncover their own natural ability in whatever way is best for each as individuals. With this in mind, and the brief outline of approach just given, it will be the goal here to break down barriers that block possible creative capacities—so that people will work towards developing greater degrees of creative self awareness and creative ability without imposition of other biases. More simply put, teaching and learning creativity is about breaking through barriers on an individual level to open up to greater possibility. Or, to say it another way, teaching and learning creativity, is to unite (or reunite) people with creative potential through expansions of what is possible, which is done through expanding one’s relationship with the world as a whole, including oneself.

I believe everyone has the innate ability to be creative and to recognize creativity. If you don’t feel like you are creative, try to be open to the idea that you already are creative in ways you might not have thought about yet. So if you are thinking “I am not creative,” consider the possibility that everyone is creative in some way. Consider all that you do that requires some kind of creative thinking or expression, there is likely many areas for every person. If you are already a parent, you definitely have to be creative on multiple levels. Other examples of creative areas could be ways of communicating both in how you think about communication as well as how you express yourself when communicating—or things like what you wear, how you play a game or sport, and how you arrange your furniture.

Let’s give a definition of creativity that we can work with to further build a foundation of awareness of creativity. My definition of creativity is rather simple, different than most others—it is: any thinking or expression that is not wholly pre-prescribed. The reason I write it this way is to have it be inclusive to the wide diversity of what might be creative. I think it makes sense because of this inclusiveness, and because of highlighting the aspect of doing or thinking in a way that isn’t formulaic. In highlighting these aspects in this way, creativity can be either an internal process or an external process. And by simply saying not pre-prescribed, this leaves open a multitude of diverse possibilities. Some might say this definition is too open, but I will show how and why this definition is the one that is more fair and accurate than most others as well as allows for the discussion of learning and teaching creativity in the first place, whereas other definitions cut this off, taking it away as an option.

To give a better idea of what creativity is in this view and how this view is different from those of other people thinking and writing on the subject of creativity, as well as why I think this is the right way to approach creativity, I will compare my definition of creativity to Sir Ken Robinson’s definition from his book “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.” Robinson is a brilliant thinker, and if I hadn’t read his work I doubt I would have put the ideas that I have been able to put together in any way that makes sense for at least a few more years. I actually agree with him on most everything and highly recommend this book; it is full of sharp insights on the nature of creativity, as well as the obstacles to creativity. However, one of the things I don’t agree with him about is his definition of creativity itself—a rather major point of disagreement, yet I still agree with him most of the time.

Robinson gives the definition through a process of adding parts, starting out with a partial definition and then adding to it in a couple steps; but here I will give it all at once—he says that creativity is an: “Imaginational processes with outcomes that are original and of value.” His use of the term “outcomes” shows how he differentiates between imagination and creativity by only including creativity as a form of production. He says: “It would be odd to describe someone as creative who just lay around and never did anything. Whatever the task, creativity is not just an internal mental process: it involves action. In a sense, it is applied imagination. To call somebody creative suggests they are actively producing something in a deliberate way.” This definition makes a lot of sense at first glance—perhaps even at the fifteenth or nineteenth glance too. But there is a major problem with it, and the problem is how it frames creativity in relation to self. And it is by refocusing this that we are able to construct our foundation here.

First, I want to say it is unusual for Robinson to appeal to what other people find as odd to make the point at all. When he did this about someone not being creative if they “never did anything,” it didn’t make sense to me compared to rest of his extremely well thought out ideas. Just because people would not generally say it—or even because it sounds very strange—doesn’t mean it is false. It is actually quite astonishing the variety of different definitions there are of creativity and the lack of agreement on what exactly it is (which I will address more in the future) in books and articles on the subject. So, in good books on creativity, it is not uncommon for the definition to be the weakest part of the book. The reason for this is the abstract and intangible nature of creativity at least in how it has been previously represented as well as (though not really with Robinson but with others) the linkage to ideas of creativity to ideas of genius (another topic I will discuss in a future post)—which is fine in and of itself—but not when it is instead of a linkage to people in general.

The other major problem with his definition is when he says that what is creative has to be of some “value” because this puts someone in the position of determining what is valuable and what isn’t, which falls into one of the dangers of creativity discussed before by imposing values onto others, thereby limiting their creative possibilities.

What are left of his definition (saving a discussion on what the difference between imagination and creativity is for another post) are original imaginational processes, which is essentially very similar to the definition I put forth.

To show how and why the more open definition that I put forth is important, so as to be able to build the foundation here in approaching creativity with the goal of continuing to build on it, I want to discuss further the internal nature of creativity and how overlooking it overlooks the fundamental nature of creativity itself. When creativity is understood as more than an external production, we can see that there is an internal creativity. This internal creativity may or may not have impact on the on the world in a measurable way. But what is for sure is that internal creativity has an impact on who you are and how you interact with the world, so there is always a high likelihood that it has some impact in some way, even if these ways are not clear. So, if we see creativity as internal as well as external, we can understand creativity to sometimes be the creating of self, or the creating of one’s internal world. In this way there is a “product” of sorts but not a tangible or measureable product in the usual sense. And this is important because in many ways, though of course outside barriers are still real obstacles, this kind of creativity plays a major role (along with external creativity) in creating possibilities for people’s future. And really—to revisit the idea of value—this is rather objectively a valuable thing. So perhaps Sir Ken Robinson and I don’t disagree as much as see things somewhat differently.

This internal creativity relates to our approach of teaching and learning creativity through the methodology of how to go about it. When someone says there is no way to teach creativity, what they usually mean (whether they are aware of it or not) is that there is not direct way to teach creativity given the kind of definition given by Robinson (though he absolutely does think creativity can be taught). Trying to teach creativity directly with that kind of definition is difficult because of what I said at the very beginning of this post about creativity being seen as inseparable from mastery of a particular craft (and inseparable from the arts). This kind of thinking has been a major obstacle to teaching creativity because if defined and approached in this way, there are really major limitations on what can be taught outside of the unbreakable link to mastery of the given craft of that specific discipline. This means approaching creativity in this way is to define and orientate oneself into a shackled cell. We need to break free from this approach. We need to start to see all the places creativity is present in our lives and how an awareness of this can help build confidence in our own creativity. And we need to start to develop ways to learn to be more creative now that we are free from being locked down by these old ways of thinking. The significance of this is the endless possibilities that looking at creativity in this way open up. In building a framework in the next posts, we will focus more on breaking down barriers within oneself to creativity and allowing for many more possibilities.

All this leaves a more open definition and a more indirect versus direct method of teaching as the foundation of approaching creativity. To me, figuring out how to teach creativity has largely been a struggle to synthesize ideas and to put them into a pragmatic framework. In the next post, I will start to build this framework.


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