Professor Robert Root-Bernstein believes that creativity is not an inherent personality trait, but a process that can be taught. In order for educators to help nurture and spark that creativity in students, one first has to understand: What exactly is creativity and how can one truly be creative? This article is based on his keynote address at the Redesigning Pedagogy International Conference 2017.
Problems: The Start of Creativity
Albert Einstein once said that if he were given an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes making sure that he understood its ins and outs, and only 5 minutes actually trying to solve it.
Most curricula, however, focus on the opposite – training students to solve the problem rather than understand the intricacies of a problem and its formulation. If we seek to nurture creativity in our students, we have to shift away from fact-based learning that primarily teaches answers and move towards a problem-directed education that centers on equipping students to understand the nature of problems and challenges.
So what is creativity? Creativity is the invention, recognition or reformulation of a problem or challenge in a manner that makes it amenable to resolution in more effective ways.
Thinking Inside, not Outside the Box
Many of us have heard that creativity is about “thinking outside the box”, “breaking boundaries” or “blue-sky thinking” – these are actually misconceptions about creativity and miss the point about the nature of a problem.
We know that we can solve mathematical problems only if we use the right methods. Likewise, we have to apply an appropriate solution to any other problem to bring about resolution.
A problem presents a set of constraints that determines what knowledge, skills, methods and practices are required to solve it. Looking at the problem as a box, we have to think inside – not outside – the box, working within the constraints of this problem to devise solutions. It is about getting into the box and thinking what you can bring or fit inside this box – creativity from constraints. That is the essence of creating.
Before embarking on the problem-solving process, we must grasp the problem and the better we understand the constraints associated with it, the closer we will be to finding the solution to it or at the very least, the area where the solution lies.
“Many of us have heard that creativity is about “thinking outside the box”, “breaking boundaries” or “blue-sky thinking”. These are actually misconceptions about creativity and miss the point about the nature of a problem.”
– Professor Robert Root-Bernstein, Professor of Physiology at Michigan State University
Expanding the Box
Creating is about thinking from inside our boxes yet some individuals are more innovative than others are. This is because they think from larger boxes, which enable them to conceptualize more ideas and possibilities.
We can expand our boxes and thus strengthen our creative capacity through polymathy – the extensive understanding of multiple disciplines.
Being a polymath is not simply about knowing a lot, but about being deeply involved in our interests. An analysis of the profiles of Nobel Laureates reveals that they are three times more likely to have avocations such as art, craft, music and poetry, which they actively pursue outside their respective core professions compared with the general public.
Similarly, engineers who have the most number of patents are highly likely to also be artists or craftsmen.
These exemplifications of polymathy show that being actively involved in a mix of interests can help us foster a deep understanding of a range of disciplines. As a result, we would also be equipped to think about problems from multiple angles and identify more constraints. This would then enable us to develop more ideas and possibilities that can present as effective solutions to problems.
Synthesizing: The Basis of Creating
While polymathy is about mastering multiple disciplines to build our creative capacity, synthesis is the start of the actual creative process and involves the integration of knowledge and skills associated with different fields to develop new ideas and possibilities.
American poet-cum-painter E. E. Cummings, who is known for experimenting with poetic form, once remarked in an imaginary interview, “Tell me, doesn’t your painting interfere with your writing? / Quite the contrary: They love each other dearly”. On close examination of his poetry, many of which are word forms of artworks by Cézanne and Picasso, one would realize that his painting skills indeed complement his poetic prowess.
Just as we can combine our knowledge and skills of similar disciplines such as poetry and painting, we can also connect the dots between seemingly disparate fields.
For instance, Einstein mentioned that the theory of relativity resulted from musical perception. Similarly, Alexis Carrel figured out how to make organ transplants possible by stitching organs and blood vessels together because he had brought the stitching skills that he acquired from his prior training as a lace maker to the operating theatre – this discovery won him the 1912 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.
Apart from proving that even seemingly unrelated disciplines can complement one another, the discoveries that Einstein and Carrel made also demonstrate that the more knowledge and skills we can bring to the table, the more ideas and possibilities we can generate and the more problems we can solve.
Curiosity: The Key Driver
“Efforts to nurture the creative potential of students can only take off if students are filled with curiosity.”
– Professor Robert Root-Bernstein on the importance of cultivating the desire to learn new things
Efforts to nurture the creative potential of students can only take off if students are filled with curiosity.
Walt Disney once remarked, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”. The desire to learn and do new things is thus key to enabling us to develop new ideas and possibilities. After all, as Sir Ken Robinson said, “curiosity is the engine of achievement”.
Ultimately, if we can foster curiosity and wonder in our students, we will also be able to nurture them to be effective problem-solvers who will contribute to a culture of creativity and innovation.