Creativity and Conformity, The Science of Learning

Science of Learning: What is Creativity

I wrote earlier about creativity as being the polar opposite of conformity. Now I am going to be publishing a series of articles about creativity as a higher order thinking skill. Much of what I am going to be writing on here relies on the work of Carl Newman and his work in the area of creativity in science.

The highest forms of both academic creativity and artistic creativity have a critical commonality. In order for either to be fully expressed, creativity must become a higher order thinking skill.

Creativity is a process, central to thinking that involves the conception of a novel idea. A simple explanation for a phenomenon which has defied precise definitions and measurement. Creativity is not like the hypothetical construct of intelligence that measures some ability that is related to successfully understanding and maneuvering through our complex society. Psychologists, over the years, have developed measuring instruments that are fairly precise at measuring whatever this elusive construct is. However, there has been no such measurement tool developed for creativity.

The hallmark of artistic creativity, usually associated with fine art and literature, is the production of a new, novel creation. However, in other fields of endeavor, creativity involves more than simply having a novel creation, the creation must also have appropriateness. The novel idea needs to make an original contribution to the field that moves the field forward.

There are variables that define a creative individual that are both within the individual (dispositional) and come from the environment that the individual finds themselves in. We have no control over the internal makeup of a person, however, we can create an environment that fosters creativity and allows every person to achieve whatever creative potential they might possess.

As I wrote in my earlier article about the choice between conformity and creativity – you can have one or the other but not both. Currently, we work in institutions that value conformity. The elite in our society (business and political leaders) expect that higher education institutions produce conforming (and therefore non-creative) individuals.

Sadly (at least for me), the leaders in higher education have both acquiesced and welcomed society’s demands for conforming graduates. It is easier to run a system of mass education on a factory model turning out identical graduates than to run an institution that encourages and fosters individual creativity. The biggest travesty is the sizeable majority of teachers/lecturers/professors, whatever they call themselves, who also want and support conformity in education because it better suits their purposes.

This was driven home to me while in a university-wide teaching and learning committee meeting where a discussion about a university-wide standardized penalty that would be imposed for writing beyond a word limit. This penalty would be imposed across the institution for every student in every class with a further requirement that every written assessment have a clearly stated word limit for the students to follow. One of the professors present disparagingly stated that he had no intention of reading “War and Peace” every time he picked up a piece of written work. I simply asked, “What is one of our students actually produced a new ‘War and Peace’ in their writing?” The room erupted in laughter and one of those present disgustingly remarked, “You think any of our students even capable of that?” I replied, “Not with the constraints that this University puts on them”. The motion passed with a big majority with only about three of us (out of about 25) voting against it.

This is not the type of institution that fosters creativity.

Over the next week, I will go over some of what we know about the dispositional aspects of creativity as well as the environmental influences that foster or crush creativity, along with some of the other aspects of creativity that I find interesting.

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