Is creativity teachable?

There has recently been another debate in the media about whether or not schools are teaching the creativity out of our children. It has got me thinking about what exactly creativity is, whether we all have it or not and if we do then how we get the best out of people in order that they can be their most creative. When it comes to creativity, is it possible to teach creativity or is it simply about teaching people how to express the creativity they already have?

What is creativity?

To understand this debate fully I think it is necessary for us to understand what we mean by ‘creativity’. The dictionary definition of it is;

Creativity Noun

The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness. “Firms are keen to encourage creativity”.

Whilst this gives us a good start point, for me this doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter. When we use the term ‘creative’ when talking about someone we are making a statement about them. We are saying that they stand apart from others as having that extra something. The implication, or assumption, is that they are a safe pair of hands to produce something that we believe will be better than we, or others around us, could do. If this is the case, then what we are implying is that this person has some intangible quality, some gift or ability, that we do not. So how did they end up with this? And is this creativity?

If that is the case, what do we mean then when we talk about creativity? What is creativity? Is it a skill, or is it flair? Is it understanding how to achieve a standard by meeting a set of quality ‘rules’, or is it about being able to create top quality work without consciously thinking about the ‘rules’ that make it a ‘masterpiece’? In short, is it something conscious or is it something innate?

From my perspective, we need to draw a distinction between the process of being creative and a ‘creative individual’. The former can be achieved with anyone. We’ve all attended brainstorms, for example, where we, as a group, are challenged to come up with innovative ideas – to ‘think outside of the box’. This is the process of being creative and getting a group of people to generate ideas. It is getting people to utilise the right hemisphere of their brain – the creative side. Maybe they are being creative, by their own standards, but it doesn’t mean they are necessarily creative people. At every brainstorm there are invariably people, or a person, who stands out – that person who has all the good ideas. The ideas we wish we’d thought of. They are likely the more creative people.

Let me give another example. I can design, I enjoy designing and I think that I can come up with some pretty good designs. But I can guarantee that if I went head to head with other people I know who are really good designers then my designs would probably not be as good as theirs. This is not because mine fail to meet all the conventions of ‘good design’. It is just that they have an additional spark in the way they approach things that means they produce something that just feels better. It feels more creative. If you talk to these people about how they came up with it the process they describe is no different from the one I followed. It might include sketching, brainstorming, trying a few things, researching, going with your gut. So it isn’t process and it isn’t understanding of the conventions that has got them to where they are. It is something deeper.

Similarly, if you talk to the clients – the people choosing which design they prefer, they cannot quite put their finger on why they prefer it either. Often they will try and rationalise it with non-specifics like “it is cleaner” or “it is sharper” or that perennial favourite “it just feels sexy!” There is no doubt that what is ‘good’ is subjective. But it is also true that  anyone honest and knowledgeable, with an objective mind, will admit that something that may not be to their tastes is still a ‘good’ piece of work. Inevitably the clients will admit that all the designs are ‘good’ but the one they have chosen is better.

So what is the difference between me and that other designer who produces these amazing pieces of work? I didn’t start off as a designer, even though I’ve always dabbled in it. My career path has always centred more around the organiser, the ‘Director’ if you like, than the ‘creator’. I’ve gone down the project management route to where I am now and arguably that shows my ‘logical’ mind – the left hand side of my brain. And I have taught myself all the ‘rules’ for what makes design good. I study other designs to understand why they are good. And I can apply all this to my own work. But somehow, whilst technically it hits the mark, it isn’t as good as the work of some others. And that, I believe, is creativity. It is the spark they have and can bring to bear on their work, which I simply don’t have when it comes to design.

When following the rules doesn’t work

So if I follow the ‘rules’ and my designs are still not as good as another designers, what does that say for the rules? Asserting ‘rules’ for what is creative or ‘good’ is undoubtedly a problem. But at the same time I can’t say that the other designers work was better than mine because he broke rules, his designs are technically just as good. So what ‘rule’ has he broken to make his work better than mine? Often it is simply because they have done something slightly differently, thought outside of that proverbial box if you will, and broken a subtle ‘convention’ or pushed an almost imperceptible boundary that I wouldn’t have thought of. It simply didn’t occur to me. Is creativity that precise ability to push boundaries but in a way that doesn’t seem to break any ‘rules’?

If creativity is about pushing boundaries then suggesting that moving outside of the ‘norms’ is a bad thing is a problem we need to face. It would certainly be a way that we stifle creativity and progress and it is something that happens a lot in our early years. Take the child who is marked down for drawing her people with square heads instead of round ones – something which happened in the eighties to someone I know – her parents were actually called into school about it! She was told that it was wrong to have people with square heads. And yet now a huge proportion of children spend most of their waking social hours immersed in a game called Minecraft, where everything is based on squares. She was being imaginative. She didn’t draw them with square heads because she actually thought people had square heads, she was interpreting the world through her imagination and channelling that into a piece of artwork. She was being creative. And yet a teacher said it was incorrect!

And it isn’t just in schools that we apply ‘rules’ and correct children when they make mistakes. We do it at home. If a child uses a word incorrectly for example, then we’ll immediately correct them and tell them the ‘correct’ usage. But is this stifling that creativity – after all in that moment all they are doing is trying to be creative and use words that are unfamiliar to them. I recently heard on Radio 4’s language programme ‘Word of Mouth’, that doing this isn’t necessarily the best course of action. Rather than scalding a child for making little errors, let them discover for themselves and then they learn without being held to a reinforced ‘rule’. But there is another advantage to not correcting these sorts of mistakes. It can lead to ‘family words’ which are a lot more creative and fun. Nanma (nan-mar) and Mumoo are two in our family, simply stemming from not correcting young children when they couldn’t say Grandma and Mummy – instead it was embraced and we still use those words today despite the children being ten years old. This has lead to a word that is specific to us and has tremendous emotional and idiosyncratic value. This is exactly how regional language evolves its own words. In the south we use the word ‘dinny’ to refer to someone who lacks common sense and is maybe a bit foolish. These words come about because we don’t assert the established ‘rules’ and instead embrace the creativity of young minds.

Of course changing things isn’t that easy. Standardised testing in schools builds us up to spend our lives following rules rather than trying to break through them. There is a right answer and the rest is wrong ( But is this an entirely bad thing? Gerard Puccio at Buffalo State College in New York, who chairs the International Center for Studies in Creativity, (the world’s first university department of its type) says “you can’t think outside of the box until you fully understand what’s inside the box”.

So we need structure, not least because it gives us standards. Otherwise things would be chaotic and we wouldn’t know what to aim for. But at the same time we need to make sure creativity is stifled by teaching children that one thing is right and the rest are wrong. After all, established norms are broken and evolved all the time. What we thought was great yesterday will be thought of as dated and old fashioned tomorrow.

Nature or nurture?

So the big question then is can creativity be taught? Is it possible for me to move from my place as a decent designer to become an outstanding one? Or do I have to accept that some designers will simply have that edge, no matter what?

A reality of life is that the people who excel, and by this I mean those who become household names rather than just successful, tend to be the ones who break out of the box; Steve Jobs, James Dyson, Picasso (coming back to square heads!), to name but three. All are examples of people who have set new standards, but when they were first around were ridiculed for what they were doing. Their creative approach set them apart. You could suggest that it comes down to luck and that someone else would have done it if they didn’t. And that maybe the case, but the most important thing about these people is not that they got there but that they remained there. Steve Jobs didn’t make it to the top of the industry, change our perception of what was ‘good’ in technology and then stop. He continued to innovate and continued to break the ‘rules’. He continued to be creative. And there is no doubt that Apple has suffered significantly in their ‘creativity’ since Steve Jobs left us. A sign that there was something about him and his approach that added that extra ‘je ne sais quoi’.

I think this is the key thing. If you take a group of people, whether they are children or adults, you see people rise to the top and others fall behind. And depending on what the subject is, or the challenge, or the discipline, different people will rise and others will fade away. I might not be the most naturally creative when it comes to designing, but when it comes to video or writing then I believe that I will be up there. Is creativity teachable? I think we can teach the process of being creative, we can create environments that allow it to better take place, and we can teach in a way that might help people realise how they are creative and in what context, but I do not think we can teach that ‘spark’ – that is innate.

What does this mean?

For us, in places of work, what does this mean? It means we have to encourage creativity in whatever form and discipline it takes. And we also need to encourage thinking outside of the box rather than than conforming to the rules. This isn’t an excuse to be ridiculous but it is licence to ask ‘why are we conforming?’ and ‘can we do something different here that will be better?’

I was once in a job as a project manager and a colleague and I had an opportunity to bid for some video work. We were told by one of the directors that he thought we shouldn’t do this, because my colleague was a business analyst and I was a project manager and that was that. But we persisted, because we both had the skills from previous jobs and education and, more importantly, we both had the drive to do it. So we pitched anyway, we won the work, we delivered the work and it won global awards. We thought outside the box, we followed our drive and we were creative.

And perhaps this is what it means to be creative? It isn’t the ability to create something that makes you creative, it is being driven to create something – whatever that is – and being able to be ‘in the zone’ without being consciously aware. That ability to not only meet the quality that is required for the work to be considered ‘good’ but to then go further and produce something that stands apart without consciously realising or knowing that you are doing that.

We have creativity in what suits us – visual creativity is not the same as logical creativity – but both are creativity. We shouldn’t put people too tightly into a box because if we do we may never discover what their true creativity is and the value that can bring. One of our project managers has a huge amount of creativity and flair in developing. So much so that we are now looking at how he can do more of that and less project management so that we can embrace that ability.

Creativity is what drives us. We have an imagination; it is what makes us uniquely human and the ability to be creative is what our imagination allows us to do. So let’s not try and be too prescriptive in what we do and who does it, because if we want to be at our best then we want to all be as creative as we can be.

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