Can creativity be taught? And why should it be?

First published on November 2011.

Creativity is today’s ultimate black box, or perhaps a Rorschach blot onto which there are projected innumerable meanings. When academic Richard Green reviewed the literature recently, he found so much variation that he concluded the field was ‘so attenuated, extenuated, or misunderstood that operationalising of the key concepts is missing or impossible’. He tried to order the field and constructed a profile of 42 models of creativity which, when combined with assorted variations and typologies, totted up 303 variables.

Some order. The concept of creativity needs to be simplified. Why not say that creativity is problem solving? This allows us to focus on what Erica McWilliam (in The Creative Workforce: How to launch young people into high-flying careers) calls first- and second-generation creativity. First-generation thinking treats creativity as a mysterious property that is serendipitous, an attribute of a class of exceptional individuals that arises from within. A fragile flower that withers under the harsh environment of normalising classroom surveillance and assessment. According to Paul Johnson, in his book Creators: from Chaucer to Walt Disney, this notion of creativity is a ‘painful and often terrifying experience to be endured rather than relished and preferable only to not being a creator at all’.

But second-generation creativity focuses on optimising the capacity and potential of potentially everyone. It is seen as an observable and necessary component of all social and economic activity and is focused on reworking and remaking rather then than creation ex nihilo. The social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says it is ‘no longer a luxury for the few, but…a necessity for all’. It is, at least in principle, learnable, teachable and assessable, and its key is the ability to work interdependently to address problems.

This accords with the contemporary perspective on innovation. For example, in the 2008 Australian Review of the National Innovation System (Venturous Australia, chaired by Terry Cutler), innovation is understood as ‘a virtuous and open-ended cycle of learning and responsiveness to new challenges and possible solutions’ and starts with creativity as problem solving. This account of creativity takes us beyond the ‘soft skills’ approach to what graduates need which we have seen in much high-profile business advocacy for a better matching of curriculum to career. Such advocacy has been very important and soft skills are very important. But now we can see that critical thinking, communication skills, and the ability to work effectively in teams which bring varying knowledge bases to bear, are all to do with the practical business challenges of transdisciplinarity.

The understanding of creativity is being transformed from first to second generation – in the words of evolutionary economist Carsten Herrmann-Pillath, it is ‘an irreducible property of a collective, the network’. At the same time, the requirements to work collectively across disciplinary knowledge boundaries are being impressed upon us. The contemporary understanding of creativity is about the network effects of transdisciplinarity.

If we can say that creativity can and should be taught, how can it be taught? As the then President of the Council for Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Australia, I was zealous in advocacy of our 2007 research report Collaborating Across The Sectors. Based on extensive qualitative examination of the barriers to transdisciplinarity, especially as they occur between the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) and science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) sectors, it recommended some iconic moves: a national summit on the problem; the funding bodies to make collaboration across disciplines and sectors one of their priorities; and the creation of new panels at all funding bodies, specifically to deal with transdisciplinarity and that recognises the real (usually higher) cost of doing collaborative work; and the formation of an Institute for Collaboration. We drew some inspiration for this from the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts and the degree of collaboration established among its research-funding bodies.

It is critical to delay hyperspecialisation in the upper years of secondary school and lower years of undergraduate education, not simply by enforcing a broad range of subject choice but by creating prestigious space for problem-based transdisciplinary approaches. At the postgraduate and research training end, the capacity to bring specialisations together in dynamic transdisciplinary formation is equally critical, reconnecting the different knowledge modes.

This is not a matter of dissolving disciplinary specificity into a mélange of fashionable themes and problems (although at the cutting edge of knowledge we expect to find multiple emergent new disciplines), but a pedagogical and research funding focus encouraging and enabling transdisciplinary teams to work effectively on the big issues facing us. Many, if not most, of a country’s highest priority issues require multiple disciplinary inputs due to their complexity and scale – and a contemporary approach to creativity.

Creative Commons LicenceCreativity Money Love: Learning for the 21st Century by Creative & Cultural Skills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Illustrations by Paul Davis -