Exploring, Developing, and Teaching Creativity

February 7, 2020

This article is a look at the value and nature of creativity, including potential methods to learn, develop and teach creativity and creative thinking techniques.

Icebreaker – Thinking outside the box

When discussing the topic of creativity, especially with a group, it can be good to start with a simple icebreaker exercise called ‘thinking outside the box’.

Here members of the group need a pencil or pen and paper and start by drawing 9 dots like so.

Thinking outside the box exercise

The goal is to join the dots with four straight lines or ‘strokes’ without taking the pen or pencil off the page.

To be honest I didn’t arrive at the most straightforward solution to this problem myself and in my experience most people in the group won’t and will most likely get a bit frustrated by it. There is often at least one person in the group that already knows the answer and I have found that sometimes there are individuals who feel that they are able to impress and help the group by quickly finding the answer online. 

I think it is good to let the group know that there is actually a very simple straight-forward solution to this problem that does not involve some sort of major trick, and that the key to arriving at the solution is to actually think outside the box, literally, as well as figuratively.

At some point it can be useful to give the group the significant clue of not just looking at connecting the dots with lines but extending the lines outside the box of circles.

Here the idea of thinking outside the box is to not feel restricted to working within what one might consider the normal boundaries of the problem.

Apart from the main typical solution to this problem there are actually a range of solutions that are equally valid if not better because they demonstrate valid solutions with 3 or even 1 straight line.

So you may say that the solution to this problem, for most people, involves looking at the problem differently. Trying to shift the mind in order to make a new or different connection. And to appraise the problem as not necessarily having only one solution. 

And this is what this article is about. Is this something that we can train ourselves to do and or do better / more effectively? And what are some of the potential benefits of doing this?

Before I forget here is a link to an article on Wikipedia about the 9 dot problem.

The value of creativity

Creativity can be defined as the act of creating something new, or say applying imagination to invent something original. Creativity is often defined as the act of ‘creating something original that has value’.

Obviously it is just about impossible to measure the value of human inventions and innovation, and even to imagine a world without them. You can start by thinking about some of the earliest mechanical inventions of things like pulleys, wedges, screws and wheels, moving on to more present day mechanical inventions like the internet, smart-phones, and drones. And of course there are invaluable inventions of a less mechanical nature such as agriculture and language etc. So many of our inventions have become fundamental components of our lives. And of course, handled well and with the right timing the products that are born of creative processes can have immense monetary value.

And beyond all this type of invention and cleverness stuff, creativity also has a role in just about every aspect of our lives on some sort of level. Creativity can be applied to how we interactive with people and to how approach just about every system in our lives.

And the act of simply being creative or being engaged in a creative process makes people feel happy. For some people it also brings them a profound sense of meaning and purpose.

The story of Archimedes

I think it’s worth reading up a bit on Archimedes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archimedes). Without going into too much detail Archimedes is regarded as a great inventor of his time and the story about his discovery for measuring the mass of irregularly shaped objects is widely discussed in relation to creativity. 

In terms of creativity there are some interesting points about this particular story that are often referred to. For example creative solutions are usually born from an initial problem, and when posed with a problem the period immediately afterwards, when one is trying to come up with a solution is often referred to as the ‘incubation period’. In the story the solution comes to Archimedes when he is not thinking about the problem directly, but when he is having a bath, possibly because he is getting too stressed and overwhelmed with the problem. And just as it is described in this story the moment when the solution materialises is often referred to as the ‘eureka’ moment.

Many great inventors say that their best ideas come to them when they are in the shower or taking a walk. There are a lot of theories about how changing the state of the mind, and changing one’s perspective can help induce more creative ideas. Indeed it seems that a creative solution to a given problem often materialises from a relatively unexpected and or unrelated source.

Shifting perspective

It is also documented that people’s brains behave differently when they are immersed in a natural setting, and that many artists have used things like drugs or forms of meditation to help promote their own creative responses.

Leonardo Da Vinci and Salvadore Dali apparently used ‘hypnagogia‘ or the transition from sleep to wakefulness as a source of creative inspiration. It is a commonly held notion that the brain functions more creatively either early in the morning or very late at night.

Certainly dreams are a very interesting phenomena in terms of creativity and sourcing new ideas and this is extremely well documented throughout history. Personally I have a very active dream life and have always had a very strong ability to recall my dreams. In some of my favourite types of dreams I am hanging out with artists and viewing amazing art in exhibitions etc. When I wake up I almost feel like I am plagiarising the ideas that I have witnessed in my dreams because on some level they seemed to be brought to me rather than coming from myself.

Some people say that distractions can actually be useful for stimulating creative responses whilst others find they are more able to focus and be creative when they are less distracted.

I think it is interesting how solutions to problems and connections can be formed between things that one would normally not consider in their usual day to day state of mind.

Creative responses to problems

If by chance you were giving students any sort of project to help develop creativity, it is most straightforward if it starts with a problem.

In my experience at first students can seem hard pressed to come up with ideas for problems that need solving but I have found that if you really push them to think about it, they will realise that there a plenty of problems that they regularly face in their day to day life that annoy them. And in some cases they have already come up with creative solutions to these problems.

For example it could be something as simple as putting a rubber band around a mixer tap that won’t stay on.

There are of course many great problems that we face that have plenty of room for potential solutions. Some that come to mind are things like school shootings, climate change, and pollution. Surely there would be plenty of potential solutions to these sort of problems that we haven’t considered yet.

New technology solving old problems

In Kirby Ferguson’s Everything is Remix series there is one point where describes how ‘we are all working with the same building blocks’. This helps explain the occurrence of multiply discovery, that is when new inventions are forged simultaneously by different people around the globe.

The way I see it is that every day there are new technologies and new building blocks to work with and these always inspire new potential solutions to old problems.

I think a great example of this is the drone and how this technology has inspired many new ideas. A fantastic example of this is the use of drones in life-saving ocean rescue as a means of quickly dropping floatation devices to people in trouble out in the surf.

Non-material inventions

I think it is worth mentioning that new inventions aren’t limited to those that have a material form, but can also include new concepts and ways of doing things. Some recent great examples of this include things like Uber and AirBnB. I guess that sometimes these inventions still need to have new building blocks or types infrastructure in place ready for them to take hold.

Examples of cool inventions

A few relatively recent inventions and solutions to problems that I think are really cool, include:

We are born creative, but tend to loose it

Ken Robison’s – Changing Education Paradigms has a great section where he discusses creativity in children.

Anyone who has spent any time around children will know that children are naturally creative. However as Ken Robinson outlines in his talk, our creative abilities tend to decrease as we get older and progress through the educational system. One theory is that this happens because our educational system is built on a paradigm that teaches us that there is most commonly only one ‘correct’ solution to a problem. – That is the one that we need to put down in the test or exam etc.

The importance of keeping an open mind

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.

Albert Einstein

Recently I became fascinated with the concept of ‘earned dogmatism’. Earned dogmatism is when someone, usually an expert in some sort of field locks in answers or explanations for things that may eventually be proved to be incorrect. Here is a link to a great radio show article about this – Why smart people do stupid things.

Indeed it can be like a truer or even a higher level of intelligence that remains open to looking at things differently. There is a lot of information online about the value of challenging assumptions.

A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.

Frank Zappa

Not being afraid to break the rules or take risks

I often tell my design students that I think it is good to never have absolutes, like theories about anything that are set in stone. It could be something like ‘never use the font Comic Sans’, or when I was at Uni I remember being told to never use a horizontally centred symmetrical layout (which actually seems to work quite well in some cases).

Obviously there is a good reason and methodology behind a lot of the rules and theory that we work with, however I think that after considering the theory it is always good to consider whether it can in fact be broken for whatever reason.

Many great inventions or great successes were first canned by people that assumed that they would never work, and taking the risk to try something different has led to many great successes. Indeed it can be said that progress itself is actually the direct result of a new, fresh, deviation from what already exists.

Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible

Frank Zappa

Maintaining and developing creativity

So how do we maintain, develop, and cultivate creativity and creative thinking skills?

Some people say that creativity starts with curiosity and maybe that kind of ‘passion’ to explore and try new things.

My children go to Steiner school and I know that in Steiner education there is an idea that as parents we could try to avoid providing definitive answers to our children to the questions that they ask. This is because answering everything in a matter of fact manner can lead to the questions becoming closed and no longer ‘alive’ to the child. – It takes away the sense of mystery and wonder about how things work. The goal here is to keep the children engaged in questioning things and immersed in a sense of wonder.

Another idea is to simply give children plenty of space and encouragement to express and develop their natural creative impulses. Given that children are naturally creative, it strikes me that a good place to start for our children is to try to avoid them losing their natural creativity in the first place.

For older students it can be good to practice processes that encourage changing perspectives and thinking about things differently. These can include things like divergent thinking exercises, brainstorming and mind-mapping sessions, asking questions differently, challenging assumptions, synectics, and using Edward Debono’s thinking hats, as examples.

One micro technique I sometimes suggest to my design students, particularly if they are feeling stuck, is to say ‘well how do you think … would approach it’, and suggest a different artist or designer that they know. I think this is interesting because it is a relatively simple method that takes a person out of themselves and their own regular way of approaching things. Similarly sometimes I think it can be useful to assume a different highly critical persona to critique your own work.

Otherwise this article is still a work in progress and I am hoping to add and elaborate on more specific methods to develop creativity here in the future.

In the meantime if you might want to start with Creativity Techniques on wikipedia.